State of the Union

Why Facebook Wants You to Be Happy

People see Facebook as a neutral platform, which they can use to have conversations. But in reality, it’s a company, and thus it has motivations and strategies and interests involved in the ways its users utilize the network. Facebook has commercial reasons behind its desire to curate specific experiences, happy or otherwise—and as of late, it’s been working rather hard to curate a positive, uplifting (or “Upworthy”) experience for its users, as Casey Johnston reports in an ArsTechnica post:

As the protests in Ferguson, Missouri over police fatally shooting 19-year-old Mike Brown have raged through the past several nights, more than a few people have noticed how relatively quiet Facebook news feeds have been on the matter. While #Ferguson is a trending hashtag, Zeynep Tufekci pointed out at Medium that news about the violence was, as best, slow to percolate through her own feed, despite people posting liberally about it.

While I’ve been seeing the same political trending tags, my feed is mundane as usual: a couple is expecting a baby. A recreational softball team won a league championship. A few broader feel-good posts about actor Chris Pratt’s ice-bucket challenge to raise awareness and money for ALS, another friend’s ice-bucket challenge, another friend’s ice-bucket challenge… in fact, way more about ice bucket challenges than Ferguson or any other news-making event. In my news feed organized by top stories over the last day, I get one post about Ferguson. If I set it to organize by “most recent,” there are five posts in the last five hours.

This harkens back to Facebook’s recently released news feed manipulation study, which tracked users’ responses to positive vs. negative content. Facebook manipulated its algorithm to give a different experience to different users, and documented the effect these disparate algorithms had on their emotional wellbeing. All of this was in order—they purport—to curate a better user experience. Johnston adds,

One of the things Facebook thrives on is users posting and discussing viral content from other third-party sites, especially from sources like BuzzFeed, Elite Daily, Upworthy, and their ilk. There is a reason that the content users see tends to be agreeable to a general audience: sites like those above are constantly honing their ability to surface stuff with universal appeal. Content that causes dissension and tension can provide short-term rewards to Facebook in the form of heated debates, but content that creates accord and harmony is what keeps people coming back.

Facebook is not the only company that curates a given experience for commercial gain. Most online tools use algorithms for similar curation—Google, for instance, doesn’t show you all potential search items for the keyword you give it: it shows you specific search items it thinks you will like, ones that accord with its idea of your personality or character. And while this can be a useful service, it also has it drawbacks. All of these tools have a way of perpetuating specific traits or bents (virtuous or otherwise) in users: if you used to search Google for pornography, it’s likely to continue offering you pornography, even if you are trying to avoid it. If you looking at an old ex’s photo album on Facebook, perhaps in a moment of jealousy or curiosity, their postings will continue showing up in your news feed for days or weeks to come. Outside of the personal, we should pay attention to the effect these sites have on our perception of the outside world: as Eli Pariser noted in a March 2011 TED Talk, two users could Google the word “Egypt” and get completely different results—one would get news of protests and the Arab Spring and Morsi, while the other would only see tourism information and pictures. Pariser noted that Facebook does the same: Read More…

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Unschooling: the Future of Education?

Ben Hewitt doesn’t send his boys to school—he doesn’t even own a curriculum. He’s an “unschooling” parent. Though the method has grown in popularity since educator John Holt introduced it in his books and theory, many Americans are still largely unaware of the term’s meaning or methodology. Hewitt explains and introduces the concept at Outside magazine:

It is already obvious that unschooling is radically different from institutionalized classroom learning, but how does it differ from more common homeschooling? Perhaps the best way to explain it is that all unschooling is homeschooling, but not all homeschooling is unschooling. While most homeschooled children follow a structured curriculum, unschoolers like Fin and Rye have almost total autonomy over their days. At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education. Not two hours per day or even per week. Two hours per month.

But perhaps to abate the shock and alarm of thousands of parents, Hewitt adds,

Our sons are not entirely self-taught; we understand the limits of the young mind and its still-developing capacity for judgment. … I can report that Fin and Rye both learned to read and write with essentially zero instruction, albeit when they were about eight years old, a year or so later than is expected. They can add and subtract and multiply and divide. I can report that they do indeed have friends, some who attend school and some who don’t, and their social skills are on par with their peers. In fact, Penny and I often hear from other adults that our sons seem better socialized than like-aged schoolchildren.

Hewitt believes that unschooling makes his boys happier, healthier, and more exuberant learners. He’s part of a growing group of parents who thinking homeschooling—whether applied via a more structured format, or via the more self-directed unschooling methodology—presents a better environment for children to grow and learn.

The greatest contrast to unschooling, perhaps, is the helicopter parenting method, in which children adhere to a very strict curricular and extra-curricular regimen. This sort of learning can take place in public or private school, or even occasionally in homeschooling households. Such families usually have at least the outline of a college plan in mind for their children, and their academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits will align with this overarching trajectory. Many parents encourage this “track” in hopes that their children will be successful in their future adult lives. However, these “guaranteed” methods for career success have fallen into disarray as of late. With crippling student loans and shaky job prospects confronting college graduates at every turn, many are reconsidering their demanding trajectories, wondering whether the work is truly worth it.

On the opposite end of the educative spectrum, we have more libertarian, loose methods, in which children are given a vast array of freedom over their education. This can either be intentionally or passively developed: some children in public school may receive little to no adult supervision. The system is very flexible, giving parents the opportunity to lean in or opt out of their children’s education.

But then there’s unschooling: a very intentional sort of negligence (though the word “negligence” is perhaps a bit too dysphemistic). Parents choose to let their children choose, sculpt, direct, and orchestrate their own education (or lack thereof). This method seems to have two common motivations that separate it from the more popular method of “homeschooling”: first, there are unschooling parents who acknowledge that children will learn what they truly want to learn, and that forcing them down a given path can have deleterious consequences. They see that their children are highly motivated when they are free to pursue their own aspirations, ambitions, and projects, and want to foster this sort of driven passion in their children’s learning. Thus, the reasoning goes, what better than to give them control of their own education? Read More…

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In Ferguson, Peace and Order First

“America is on trial,” said Rev. Al Sharpton from the pulpit of Greater St. Mark’s Family Church in Ferguson, Missouri. At issue, the shooting death of Michael Brown, Saturday a week ago, on the main street of that city of 22,000, a neighbor community to Jennings, where this writer lived in the mid-1960s.

Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, was shot multiple times by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer with an unblemished record in six years on the force in Jennings and Ferguson. From his patrol car, Wilson ordered Brown out of the street where he was walking and blocking traffic. A fight followed. Wilson appears to have been punched in the face. One police report says that there was a struggle for the officer’s gun. According to Brown’s companion, however, after he was first shot, he threw up his hands and yelled, “Don’t shoot. I surrender.” Then Wilson gunned him down. According to one of three autopsies, Brown was shot six times, once in the top of the head, which may suggest he was charging the officer when gunned down. A second St. Louis County autopsy found marijuana in Brown’s body.

What we are witnessing in Ferguson today, and nationally, is not only a collision of reported facts, but also a clash of visions about America. In Sharpton’s vision, America is a country where white racist cops harass, assault, and gun down young black males, and Brown’s execution is the latest outrage. Many media echo his indictment and accent the facts that support this preconceived narrative. Disrupting this portrait and particularly outrageous to Sharpton was the release by the Ferguson police chief of a videotape of Brown stealing a $44 box of cigars, 15 minutes before he was shot dead, and manhandling and menacing the store clerk trying to stop him. Brown was 6’4″ and 292 pounds.

Sharpton contends that officer Wilson did not know of the “shoplifting” that was irrelevant to the shooting, and that release of the tape was a moral atrocity to smear the character of the dead teenager. But while that tape may be unrelated to the shooting, it does testify to the mindset of Michael Brown that morning and to his respect for the rule of law. Ought we not know that?

Then there is the rival vision of America rooted in a separate reality. It is that in America today, police, like Darren Wilson, are the first responders and last line of defense, willing to risk their lives battling the criminal elements that threaten us and our free society. Read More…

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Why Does Beauty Matter?

Our lives are often happier when they are surrounded by beautiful things, according to a Friday article by Cody C. Delistraty in The Atlantic. He references to a paper written by Abraham Goldberg, professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, in which Goldberg analyzed the tendencies and environments which tend to foster happiness:

The usual markers of happiness are colloquially known as the “Big Seven”: wealth (especially compared to those around you), family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values, as outlined by London School of Economics professor Richard Layard in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. According to the Goldberg study, however, what makes people happiest isn’t even in the Big Seven. Instead, happiness is most easily attained by living in an aesthetically beautiful city. The things people were constantly surrounded by—lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets—had the greatest effect on their happiness. The cumulative positive effects of daily beauty worked subtly but strongly.

In an attempt to measure this daily happiness, George MacKerron, now a lecturer at the University of Sussex, created an iPhone application called Mappiness when he was a graduate student at the London School of Economics. More than 45,000 people now use it, and the concept is simple: The app beeps twice a day and asks a series of questions, such as: How happy are you feeling? How awake do you feel? How relaxed are you? Then it asks another set of questions question to contextualize your situation: Who are you with? Are you inside or outside? As you’re answering these questions, the app tags your location via GPS, and the whole process only takes about 20 seconds. Deceptively simple, the answers to these questions provide a lot of information on happiness. The times that people recorded the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction were during sexually intimate moments (on a date, kissing, or having sex) and during exercise (when endorphins are being released).

But the next three types of moments where people recorded the highest levels of happiness were all related to beauty: when at the theater, ballet, or a concert; at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity (e.g. painting, fiction writing, sewing).

The results of these studies present a few different, interesting components worth considering. First, they continue to affirm what New Urbanists have been saying (both here at TAC, and elsewhere): that the places in which we live matter, and that the cultivation of beautiful spaces has a very immediate impact on the happiness and flourishing of human beings. All the beautiful, place-related things listed in Goldberg’s study—”lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets”—are things that New Urbanists emphasize. Sadly, these sorts of spaces are currently limited to small portions of America. We have some cities that cultivate such an ethos—but living in these beautiful spaces is often egregiously expensive (Alexandria, Virginia is perhaps one of the best examples of this: it is a “super zip” city, according to the definition presented by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart). The very environment that contributes most to the peace and happiness of human beings is only available to those who already have at least two other common attributes of happiness: wealth and career. And those who are not so well-established are often cut off, resigned to an ugliness that infiltrates and undermines their overall happiness.

It’s true, however, that there are other more important components to happiness—as noted by MacKerron, romantic and healthful components of life also have something to do with overall happiness. Interestingly, though, both things can be seen as part of cultivating a “beautiful” life. They fits with Roger Scruton’s definition of natural beauty, which he says is an item of intrinsic interest or value—something we can appreciate for its own sake. Cobblestone streets, for interest, are of little utilitarian value. They slow down and impede traffic, they’re less efficient and expedient. Yet, for some reason, we enjoy them. They have a value that transcends the immediate and pragmatic: they’re beautiful.

Similarly, romantic and healthful pursuits, though they often involve selfish motivations, are also usually sought and maintained for a greater good, out of a combined reverence and love that transcend the self. In his book on beauty, Scruton argues that pornography represents the “profanation” of the sexual bond, as it removes it entirely from the realm of intrinsic values, thus turning something inherently good into something inherently self-serving. But sexuality and romance that are sought as goods in and of themselves, to be cultivated and maintained with respect and reverence, can be seen as beautiful objects.

Thirdly, these findings on beauty’s connection to human happiness interestingly parallel modern literature, specifically the study’s emphasis on artistic pursuits. Two of the most popular books published in the past couple years, The Goldfinch and The Fault in Our Stars, revolve around this premise. Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch tells the story of Theodore Decker, a boy whose mother dies in a terrorist bombing at a New York City museum. Theo survives the catastrophe, but carries emotional and psychological scars away from the ruins—as well as a small, priceless painting. The rest of Theo’s life, in all of its twists and turns, centers around this secret: that he carries a museum masterpiece with him wherever he goes, burdened yet blessed by it. As I wrote for Acculturated, the book is about beauty, despair, and our desperate search for meaning amidst the chaos of life. Tartt suggests that the only things that last are “beautiful things,” pulled from the wreckage and the fire of life. The Fault in Our Stars presents a similar dark nihilism and obsession with art (though in TFiOS‘s case, the artistic object is a book). Both point to art as our key to happiness in an ugly world.

It’s an interesting concept, especially in a world that so often feels frayed and grotesque. But while beauty may be a necessary part of happiness, it is not sufficient for it. Though one of the first and most important ingredients in human flourishing, other important values must follow in its footsteps—namely, goodness and truth.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn explained this in his 1970 Nobel lecture. In his youth, he read Dostoevsky’s words, “Beauty will save the world,” and was skeptical. But with time, he realized that beauty plays an essential role in cultivating our understanding of goodness and truth:

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.

Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition – and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such things are both trusted and mistrusted.

In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.

But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force – they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?

In Solzhenitsyn’s conception, ideas that are not true or good will be ugly when we try to represent them artistically—and thus, their real force shines through. We see this very practically in our towns and cities, our art museums, our plays and films: there are many ugly, incongruent ideas in today’s culture. Their effect on the human person is not one of flourishing, but one of decay.

Solzhenitsyn believed our yearning for beauty is more than a mere aesthetic itch: it’s a siren call of the true and good, the other two trees we have decimated and ignored in modern society. Beauty is pointing us to them, and beckoning us onward. Our desire for New Urbanist cities, with their beauty and community, are part of a larger desire for the goods of community, love, fellowship, rootedness. Our desire for romantic and sexual love reflects a deeper yearning for companionship, camaraderie, unity, love, belonging. Our love of art reflects a deeper attraction to order, loveliness, and—as Delistraty puts it in his article, “surprisingly, hope.” Hope is what emerges out of art: which is why Donna Tartt and John Green (the author of The Fault in Our Stars) vest so much in it.

Beauty is a multi-faceted, mysterious thing that somehow brings happiness to humanity. Yet if we merely absorb its aesthetic pleasures without considering why we enjoy it, we  only receive bestial satiation from its presence. A deeper, more fulfilling realm of inquiry awaits us. We must plunge deeper into our understanding of the beautiful: to ask why it is necessary to human happiness, yet not sufficient. We must consider why beauty calls us “further up, and further in.”

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Wi-Fi Invades the Wilderness

Jason Mark’s article for The Atlantic, “Wifi in the Woods,” points to an alarming trend: Wi-Fi connectivity brought into national parks—or at least, for the time being, their visitor centers. Parks Canada was the first to begin the push, spurring the National Park Service and National Park Hospitality Association into action.

This prompted a popular outcry. Mark sums it up nicely when he writes that “if we ever succeed in knitting all (or even most) of the physical world into the Internet, we could end up abolishing the sense of the Away. When we’re all able to connect from anywhere—well, then, there’ll be no place left to hide.”

Parks Canada issued a statement guaranteeing that Wi-Fi connectivity will remain unavailable in most areas, adding that “You will have to wait to be back from your hike to update your Facebook page or add a squirrel selfie.” A similar conciliatory tone is maintained by the NPS and NPHA. An article on the project states that the “backcountry and wilderness areas in general would not become Wi-Fi hubs—at least, not through this pilot project.”

Not through this project, but perhaps through another? Google is more ambitious than the park services in its efforts to affirm the ubiquity of Internet connectivity. A fleet of 180 mini satellites is being launched at the price of an estimated $1 to $3 billion. Google’s first avowed goal is simply to enhance their mapping capabilities, but that by no means precludes the later addition of Internet connectivity.

Alistair Barr and Andy Pasztor wrote on the project for the Wall Street Journal in June, highlighting Internet access as the primary economic motive: “Google’s project is the latest effort by a Silicon Valley company to extend Internet coverage from the sky to help its business on the ground.” And this latest effort is extensive. Google is launching balloons and drones in addition to its satellites. (Facebook has a drone project of its own.)

Anxiety at the apparent inexorability of Internet connectivity is justified: the American imagination has long been fascinated with the notional purity of nature. At the time Thoreau penned Waldenhe was witnessing the earliest cultural precursors of the Industrial Revolution: cities were growing at unprecedented rates, families were being uprooted, individuals were becoming increasingly isolated from one another in the rush to gain employment and wealth—the Gilded Age was coming. Thoreau retreated into the woods to find truth, saying “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

We are now facing the effects of the Information Revolution. iPhones, laptops, and social media are its hallmarks; compulsive data aggregation and exchange its symptoms. Cities and industries are shifting rapidly again and, once more, we face another wave of technological advancement to which we must become accustomed.

We may yet see Wi-Fi at Walden Pond.

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Place and the Politics of Slacktivism

Americans have come to stand at quite a distance from their government. The interests of government, as well as those of politics, are a point of indifference to many citizens. A Pew Research Center study conducted before the 2012 election cycle designated 43 percent of the voting-age population in its entirety as “non-voters.”

As a result, our political process has seen the rise of slacktivism, defined by one august Internet institution as “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.” It manifests itself in many ways: hashtag activism (see also: #WeAreN, #YesAllWomen, and #BringBackOurGirls), social media campaigns for “change,” and clicktivism, to name a few. Laura Seay at The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage writes that the logic of slacktivist campaigns “are usually based on the logic that increased awareness of a cause is in and of itself a worthy reason to pursue them.”

Why the emphasis on awareness? Today’s political sphere has been atomized. The public has no voice, no agency unless it somehow finds a way to leverage its power in Washington indirectly. This is where slacktivism is so appealing. A click, a share, and you feel that you have influenced something, somewhere. Seay again:

[Slacktivist campaign] logic assumes that the more attention a cause receives, the more likely public officials are to pay attention to a cause, and thus the more tangible benefits (like legislation, a policy change, or money allocated to help victims of a crisis) there will be.

Of course, this is not merely a political matter. Social media activism is a massive commercial industry, as Vice points out:

With each click, Change.org makes a profit, and increases its clientele base. Clients are often organizations with deep pockets; Amnesty InternationalSierra Club, and even the Democratic Party.

Some of the petitions do indeed go “viral” and cause change—the article points to the “pink sludge” and Gatorade campaigns as success stories, with one caveat.

Both petitions were started by regular people, went viral, and resulted in real change. But therein also lies the problem: As research shows, you’re more likely to click on something short, simple, and easy to understand.

Large-scale petition programs often end up being little more than a means to translate widespread but apathetic goodwill into monetary gain. Micah White, in a piece that ostensibly named the “clicktivism” movement, posed the conflict as “a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change.”

The article is an eloquent jeremiad, declaiming what he sees as a crass by-product of capitalism.

Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal…. Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities.

But in that last sentence, he hits upon the truth of “clicktivism,” “slacktivism,” etc. Local organizations, formerly the “authentic voice” of the community, have been all but eliminated in modern politics. The problem is not capitalism, but the lack of a meaningful way to act and influence others locally—namely, the absence of the intermediary social institutions of town, church, home; in a word, place.


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The Tocquevillian Farmer’s Market

Photo by Yetta Olmstead
Photo by Yetta Olmstead

Every Saturday morning at the crack of dawn, my mother-in-law wakes up and begins her preparations. She gathers garden-fresh vegetables, eggs, and peppers, packs them all into coolers and bins. Her husband and children pile everything into the car, and they set off, bright and early, for the farmer’s market.

It only takes an hour or so for them to set up their tent and homemade blackboard signs, only a few minutes for the smell of cooking sausage and frying apple doughnuts to permeate the air. Once those smells are wafting about, it takes mere seconds for a string of farmer’s market customers to start lining up for their breakfast.

It’s been a pile of sacrifices for Mark, Becky, and their crew—an early-rising, hardworking family, they formerly used their Saturdays to rest. Morning breakfasts were a relaxed, private, at-home affair. But now, the entire crew is up by 5 or 6 a.m. every Saturday, and spends the whole morning selling breakfasts to their small-town community—and then they spend most of the afternoon re-packing and cleaning everything.

But this Saturday morning venture is more than a business for Becky and the family: as I’ve talked to them about their market breakfasts, what they’re most enthusiastic about is the community they have cultivated. Over the course of the last several months, they have garnered an enthusiastic and loyal customer base. The other vendors at the farmer’s market have become their friends: they promote each others’ work, buy each others’ produce. They build camaraderie with customers, watch for them every week, slowly learn their life stories. The Saturday breakfasts have become more than a business: they are a weekend community ritual.

We often consider ourselves (perhaps appropriately) the most isolated generation in American history—a people whose individualism has been significantly perpetuated by technology and urban detachment. But this isn’t necessarily a modern problem—Alexis de Tocqueville, brilliant 19th-century thinker and author of Democracy in America, believed Americans’ isolated and individualistic demeanor was largely cultivated by democracy itself:

Amongst democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken, and the track of generations effaced. … Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king: democracy breaks that chain, and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

What solution did Tocqueville propose to this isolation? “The Americans have combated by free institutions the tendency of equality to keep men asunder, and they have subdued it,” he wrote. It was the free institutions—the “little platoons”—that encouraged people to congregate, serve, and steward. They kept community alive. “…To earn the love and respect of the population which surrounds you, a long succession of little services rendered and of obscure good deeds—a constant habit of kindness, and an established reputation for disinterestedness—will be required,” Tocqueville said. “Local freedom, then, which leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them.”

Today’s traditional private associations are not as strong as they once were. Read More…

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Punk Rock and Poultry With a Kick

punkrocker

Johnny Rotten would probably be horrified to be grouped with the likes of today’s foodie counterculture—and, true to character, the odds are good that he would unabashedly vocalize his distaste—but the fact remains that his sneering anarchy is, in some ways, as much of a political statement as the choice to eat and cook locally.

Punk came about as a form of critique. In the beginning, it managed to create a now-iconic counterculture where (often subversive) political commentary could flourish. The anti-establishment attitude resulted in a remarkably hardy group: early punk rockers largely embraced self-promotion, preferring informal and community-based means of production to systematized or formalized industry structures. (Not to mention hard drugs.)

Today, the genteel locavore movement is forming its own, more subtly subversive, counterculture. The strengths of the punk movement—as with any truly sustainable anti-establishment culture—are to be found within those who choose to grow their own food, eat and cook locally, and focus on re-establishing local communities in the face of an ever-growing industry structure. And the movement is anything but a partisan project.

Joel Salatin, a hero among many who hope to return food production and consumption to its local roots, wrote a book titled “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal,” addressing the difficulties that independent farmers face. He is a champion for local and sustainable agriculture, and a charismatic one at that. Andrea Gabor from The Atlantic wrote about her visit to the “mecca of sustainable agriculture,” Salatin’s Polyface Farms, in 2011. She observed that his appeals to the listener are not only rooted in his trade, but political and moral sentiments as well. Salatin is fulfilling a vocation, creating a counterculture.

As he does frequently during the tour, Salatin digresses to matters more spiritual and political than agricultural: “The pig is not just pork chops and bacon and ham to us. … Our culture doesn’t ask about preserving the essence of pig, it just asks how can we grow them faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper.”

Salatin is far from alone in his rejection of factory farming and industrialized food. Though Salatin’s rhetoric tends to appeal to the Right, John Schwenkler wrote in 2008 of an unexpected ally on the Left: Alice Waters, the leader of what she calls “the Delicious Revolution.” In a 1997 speech, she seems to echo—though in very different vernacular—what Salatin is saying.

[Schoolyard gardens] “teach redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting—for the things that money can’t buy: the very things that matter most of all if we are going to lead sane, healthy, and sustainable lives.

Salatin strives to preserve the existence of what Waters calls “the real, the authentic, and the lasting;” sustainability is, like all sound countercultures (punk included) a principled critique.

But the ethical case is not the only one to be made. The factory farming industry is corrupt in precisely the same way that other sprawling industries are: Schwenkler writes that “Official dietary guidelines inevitably became the product of collaboration between government agencies and representatives of the industries that stand to benefit.” (Sid, are you listening?)

The punk movement, in the end, was not particularly conducive to law and order—or sustainable community of any kind, for that matter. It was the earnest, if misguided, rebellion of disenfranchised youth, rejecting legitimate and illegitimate social obligations without scruple.

The essence of the locavore movement on both Left and Right is its unique anti-authoritarian aims: not anarchy for its own sake, but the rejection of what they see to be a corrupted system. Alice Waters’ rebellion seeks to combat corporate and governmental sprawl by cultivating local community; Salatin’s, by rousing it.

Perhaps there’s a little punk in all of us—even while tending the hens.


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Can Equations Predict Happiness?

Want to be happy? There’s an equation for that, according to British neuroscientists. In a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesthe scientists found an equation that correctly predicted the happiness of more than 18,000 people. The Atlantic‘s Cari Romm reports:

In the first leg of the study, the researchers developed the equation by having a group of volunteers play decision-making games, rewarding certain choices with small amounts of money. Every few rounds, participants were asked to rate their happiness on a sliding scale, while their neurological responses to the rewards were measured with MRI scans.

In the second leg, the team tested the equation on a larger audience by turning the decision-making task into a smartphone game, drawing players by the thousands. The results were as their model had predicted: When players expected a reward, they were less happy to receive it than if they hadn’t expected anything at all.

After compiling their research, the neuroscientists came up with this equation as an accurate predictor of happiness:

 

However, there’s an important catch to this equation that we must consider. As The Atlantic puts it, the neuroscientists’ research “measures only immediate reward, not long-term satisfaction.” The above equation specifically measures your response to expectations and rewards (or disappointments)—not your overall metaphysical state of being. How could one measure and quantify the sort of deep, value-based happiness that truly motivates humans long-term? Maybe there’s an equation for that; but it seems unlikely.

The equation above seems to be describing something a bit different from real “happiness.” It identifies something our society constantly identifies with happiness, but is in actuality quite different: namely, “pleasure.” It can contribute to happiness, but pleasure is neither necessary nor sufficient for real happiness. It’s defined most often as a feeling or sensation of happiness, synonymous with satisfaction, enjoyment, gratification—all the more temporary facets of “happiness.” It describes how you feel in a current moment.

But Aristotle put “pleasure” and “happiness” into very different boxes. Happiness in his conception is the highest good, the end to which we all aspire. But happiness, in his mind, requires ethical living: pursuing the supreme good necessitates that we fulfill our vocation as human beings, with virtue and integrity. Moral virtue is an integral part of happiness—and virtue helps us cultivate a proper response to “pain” and “pleasure” in life. Thus, “pleasure” is not seen as a good in and of itself—it is a facet of life that must be navigated, considered, and rightly responded to, in the larger pursuit of true happiness.

To Aristotle, happiness is an activity: a pursuit, not a passive response to life circumstances or expectations. The word eudaimonia (happiness) carries with it the idea of “flourishing” or “success.” This is something we do, not something we merely feel. In contrast, “pleasure” is exactly that: a feeling. And whereas we may be able to quantify cognitive responses to pleasure and pain, we cannot automatically turn such things into real “happiness.”

Our lost understanding of eudaimonia has turned us into the sort of people who seek out happiness in circumstantial or experiential mediums. And this seeking implies that we have already lost something—something that would enable us to grasp and retain happiness, no matter the pleasures or pains that plague our lives.

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Google Tries to Conquer the Typography of a Non-English Internet

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Noto Sans (English, simplified Chinese, Russian). via Catherine Addington
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Noto Sans (English, simplified Chinese, Russian). via Catherine Addington

The Internet is no longer in English, even if the coding on its back end still largely is. That’s what MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman has concluded as online language diversity has increased over the past decade, from Facebook posts in Afrikaans to tweets in Zulu. But the typographical design world that brings online text to life has lagged behind, producing endless variations on the Latin script used in English (like the documentary-inspiring Helvetica and the font you’re reading right now, Georgia) but far fewer for other languages.

The result is an increasingly bilingual, but visually clunky, Internet that looks like this:

Google is looking to streamline that with its Noto project (so named for its goal, “no tofu,” a reference to the tiny squares that pop up for unsupported scripts). A new, free font family that “aims to support all the world’s languages” for use in web pages and URLs, Noto already supports over 100 scripts (and the 600 written languages they facilitate) from Cherokee to cuneiform. Some of the project’s efforts have been applauded, such as their rejection of Han unification, which detrimentally conflates chunks of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scripts.

Noto’s inclusion of endangered languages like Inuktitut (an indigenous Canadian languages which has under 40,000 speakers) and Tlingit (an Alaska Native language with just about 1,000 speakers) has also won praise. But since Noto has thus far failed to tackle far more widely-used languages, some are questioning Google’s priorities. For instance, Noto cannot yet be used to type in Oriya, an Indian language with over 30 million speakers, or the nastaliq script used by Urdu speakers.

Ali Eteraz, a Pakistani-American writer campaigning for the online inclusion of nastaliq, has summarized concerns with Noto by saying, “Language is the building block of people’s identities all around the world, and Google is basically saying that, ‘We got this.’ …Whether that strikes you as hubris or whether it’s noble depends on whether they pull it off.”

When it comes to hubris, Google can learn from its own past exploits, as Kevin Roose recounts Google’s struggle to design a suitable universal font for its Android products. The main challenge, Roose notes, is that “unlike most innovations in computing, typeface design doesn’t succeed by grabbing your eye.” Writing all the world’s languages in one style is challenging enough, but doing it in a way that looks good across the Internet—no matter what size screen, or with what resolution, it is accessed—compounds the design challenge.

Noto won’t turn the web’s words uniform overnight. But it is a sign of a permanently multilingual Internet, and the challenges of creating a truly global product.

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