ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Category Archives: Consumers

Only Connect

I walked through one of our city’s urban wild spaces several weeks ago instead of participating in something quaintly referred to as an active shooter drill. The phrase reminds me of playing army in our backyard when I was a boy. (Bang! You’re dead: now fall down.) That used to be a thing children did innocently when such a thing was possible.

20160427_093104I felt the need to disconnect from the alienating hive mentality we seem to live in increasingly these days. In an attempt to find myself, I had to lose myself high above the madding, maddening, crowd. I walked across a bridge and up a hill in one of Pittsburgh’s historic districts a mile or so from downtown and found a path. I followed it – drawn to greenness and space.

While my colleagues practiced hiding under their desks in the new workplace normal, I came upon a community garden waiting for the first shovel of earth to turned over for planting. My schedule is too fraught with change and busyness to take on a new project, but I thought I could stop by later in the season and offer to weed and hoe someone’s plot in exchange for a few tomatoes.

20160427_101444I helped in our garden as a kid. There’s something about turning over fresh soil, kneeling down and feeling the clots of dirt and clay crumble in our fingers that recalls some essential part of us.

We spend our time lately connected with people virtually near and far. Our conversations, if I can dignify these  stunted exchanges with that word, are severely attenuated. We decipher the texts and e-mails, codes of our existence, like entrails for portents of hope and meaning, anger and desire, interest or indifference. 19th-Century correspondents sent telegrams shorn of definite articles and prepositions to save money.  (Arriving 8 AM train. Hope see you. Stop. ) We do it today because we’re impatient or lazy. (LOL CU L8R.) We shout our urgencies and frustrations standing in vacant lobbies or on crowded buses among strangers over medical tests, jail sentences, kids to pick up and dogs to walk. More often, we settle for garbled, aphasic voice messages left over a bad connection.

On my sojourn I encountered a young woman walking a large shepherd -mix dog. We exchanged greetings and walked on – having observed the social niceties. I guess I didn’t look too threatening: a skinny guy on the downward slope of my fifties with gray in my beard. It was a refreshing change from days with colleagues in cubes barely acknowledging each other. At the start of work I encountered a colleague I think of as a friend. She has a small dog, a husband who recently had his hip replaced, and a singing voice that could make angels weep. She also has a chronic illness she’s afraid to tell her employer about. Her reply when I wished her a brief good morning was ‘I don’t have time to talk.

20160427_093018At the top of the hill I turned looked out over a view once obscured by smoke and flame from Satanic steel mills. The mills provided the blessings of livelihood to the people who worked in them.

The smoke and flame are long gone, banished by the demise of the steel industry and the ‘Burgh’s urban gentrification. Instead, further on, I came upon a small crab apple tree  starting to bloom pink and white.

20160427_095831Apples trees carry a Medieval symbolism related to the Fall and the gift of redemption. I saw a source of beauty and shade this summer that will allow me to sit in quiet and peace (not silence – that would be too much) away from cell phones and conference calls and a thousand voices calling out our urgencies and hopes together.

When I first encountered Tony Judt’s phrase connected Isolation1, I took it as a judgement of the many ways we have to communicate, share, like and stay in touch contrasted with the emptiness of the messages  transmitted and received. In our search for comfort and assurance, we seek to distract ourselves from the triviality, vanity and chaos around us. The messages we receive from corporate, governmental and media sources around us usually emphasize a lack within ourselves to be fixed, improved or soothed by being a better consumer – as though all can be made well by purchasing the right service, product, therapy or medication. When these fail, as they always seem to, we buy more, or different or turn up the volume. And still we still live in fear and confusion, hiding under our desks.

Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately and transact some private business. That business was himself. For someone so antisocial, Thoreau wrote a lot about society. Walden2 contains references to traveling on the Fitchburg Railway, of going into town and meeting with friends and family. Contrary to his popular role (I will not say brand) as a prophet of bucolic solitude,3 Thoreau advocated for a human and collective relationship with nature. For him nature was not something to be walled off and kept segregated from human beings and the civilized world, but a place we could retreat to and connect with a wild part of ourselves. Today Thoreau might text from his cabin, keep a Walden blog and tweet about hoeing beans in his garden. Some folks argue that he was a poseur. I think he was human. Although Life Without Principle contains snarky comments about someone in town hiring a laborer to move a stone from one location to another, throughout Thoreau’s work is a craving for company; whether of birds and squirrels or his human neighbors.

20160427_100308My solitary walk connected me to myself and the earth: the leaves on the trees, the insects on the ground – even the trash or leaves bagged up. The detritus we leave behind is not bad, but part of who we are. We live on this earth, all six billion-plus of us. We occupy space and affect the ground we walk on. How can we presume to stop global warming, reduce our carbon footprint and save the planet when we can’t save what some of us call our souls? For that we have to let go of our urge to control the world and connect periodically with that part of ourselves not for sale – talked about, squawked about, tweeted, branded, scrutinized weighed and displayed in the marketplace like melons in a grocery store.

20160427_100725Doing so requires practicing a radicalism that is actually not so radical, but part of our DNA as humans. It requires us to withstand all the slings and arrows that our society, despite our claims to embrace diversity and individual liberty, throws at its members who dare to step to their own drummer and dance to their own beat. It requires us to risk being called egocentric, self-centered and antisocial. But when we are alone with ourselves away from the noise, we can connect with who we are and decide where to put our time, energy and talent toward being part of something more. — CDL

‘Only Connect’ is a quote from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

2 Life Without Principle is Thoreau’s strident argument against, among other things, his fellow-citizen’s complicity in the war against Mexico

3And proto-environmentalist and naturalist, according to author Stephen Railton

 

 

 

Advertisements

Replace or Exchange?

Each of us is replaceable; none of us is interchangeable. – DA

Cost-Benefit

I have mentioned David Noble’s book The Religion of Technology1 previously. Recent films like The Martian celebrate human ingenuity and our ability to prevail as individuals and as a species.

On the other hand, if we need any more ways to put our brains on hold and excuse ourselves from the burden of thinking and interacting with others, Google, Facebook and other companies are pouring enormous amounts of money and talent into helping us do just that. IBM is working to debut Sherlock (modeled after a fictitious high-functioning sociopath2 and cocaine addict). Google will try to anticipate your destination, even if you have no clue. Mark Zuckerberg announced that he charged his minions in 2016 with developing an AI-based personal digital assistant to help him navigate the complex rules of human interaction. As the December 31 NYT article about a wearable device called MyMe put it —

‘One of the most interesting potential applications will be MyMe’s ability to generate a “word cloud” from a conversation without actually recording the conversation itself. The idea is that you would be able to later gather insights to your interactions with people in a less invasive and more useful manner.’3

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, India is struggling to distribute functional toilets to its population, and in Equador, Fundacion in Terris has developed dry composting toilets. To give them credit, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting the latter. Engineers without Borders (EWB), which I have just recently been introduced to in Pittsburgh, is building water systems in Ecuador.

EWB Pittsburgh Curingue Water Treatment

EWB Pittsburgh Members Discuss Water Supply Project with Residents in Curingue, Ecuador

 

Which of these are more important? We are all confronted in our lives and work with opportunities and constraints on our time, money, and attention. Every one of us has talent and ability to contribute.”4 Where do you want to put yours? Or, to paraphrase Bill, where do we want to go today? — CDL

1David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology, the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.

2Though this label has been convincingly disputed.

3An example of emotional deskilling, not to mention the notion that our uniquely human selves are commodities that can simply be reduced to an algorithm.

4Which unfortunately can be wasted in vain pursuits or taken for granted by individuals and institutions who don’t value them.

Keeping the D(issent) in Digital

How many of our numbered days do we spend filling out online forms, updating our Linked-in Profile and Facebook page, dutifully presenting our online presence and maintaining our omnipresent brand? We measure out our lives in tweets and Keurig cups, following rules dictated by others supposedly to make our lives happier and more productive. 

How much human time and energy is spent remembering and changing passwords, securing our data, fearing for our privacy? This algorithm becomes the rhythm of our lives, a dithyramb of distraction. The technology designed to liberate us risks becoming our prison. We are our own willing jailers, watched over by those who claim it is their right and responsibility in a dangerous world. But who watches the watchers?

In Europe, which has experienced totalitarianism, fascism, communism (and others which may slip my mind), they have learned to be properly skeptical of the uses information is put to by the state – however ostensibly well-intentioned. But in the U.S. government and corporations claim to act in the best interests of constituents and consumers while mining our digital browser droppings against our wishes and without our consent. Perhaps it’s time to accept the roles of citizen and consumer are now interchangeable. We accept a certain conformity, a certain go-along to get along in the interest of of having our cake and eating it. There’s a tradeoff between convenience and liability:  instant shopping, news from everywhere and nowhere, having our identity follow us across devices and locations, convenient phonecalls so that we are never out of reach of being reached out to.

A phrase from the old days of IBM punchcards declared ‘Do not fold,spindle or mutilate’. A recent Slate essay proposes bringing dissent into the digital age. The author suggests people assert their agency by subversively throwing a spanner of civil disobedience into the virtual paradise of the web through such techniques as:

  • Obfuscation (through frequenting random sites)
  • Misinforming
  • Misdirecting
  • Creating False Identities

Good luck to them. This behavior adds a new spin to the notion of creative destruction that economists blithely use to describe the process of continual obsolescence that superannuates products, people and skills. Whether you might be subject to penalties or arrest for this sort of thing is an interesting question.  The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us.

Other words to inspire you include:

  • Dangerous
  • Deviant
  • Desperate
  • Defiant
  • Daring
  • Dogged

 

America has given the world a noble line of dissenters from Thomas Paine and Thoreau to Joseph Heller’s Yossarian in Catch-22. Our willingness to give up our birthright  for a mess of pottage (to cite both Thoreau’s Life without Principle and the Bible) is ironic to say the least. How easily we click the pressbar to reveal our purchasing habits, sexual proclivities, income and location to persons and institutions whose trustworthiness is unknown, in order to receive the simulacrum of individual attention: daily reminders of what we might like to buy, pontifications matching our presumed political affiliations, amusing tweets and cat videos. This tailoring of content to our personal brand is seductive and insidious. It reassures us that our every quirk, opinion, and desire is okay — and more to the point worth something. Thus the commodification of the self is nearly complete.

This automated individuation has a homogenizing effect — lulling us into conformity. Despite our celebration of Thoreau, backhanded respect for Paine and admiration for Heller’s Rabelaisian character, the dirty little secret of democracy (and perhaps all human nature) is we want to go with the crowd. Inside every non-conformist is a man (or woman) in a gray-flannel suit trying to get out. It’s exhausting (if it’s even possible) to get up every day to create and sustain your own unique brand. It’s scary as hell to chart your own course through the dark forest of capitalism with creatures red in tooth and claw.    

Immersed in our connected isolation, we become less like Thoreau than T.S. Eliot’s  J. Alfred Prufrock. (Don’t forget that Eliot was American). Rather than celebrating our own individual expression and possibility as human beings, we become afraid to wear our trousers rolled — unless trouser rolling is trending.

get-attachment-1.aspxHere’s my manifesto for today:  Step away from the social network. Take a break from attending breathlessly to crowdsourced opinion polls, received wisdom and tweets calling each to each in the virtual echo chamber. Dare to eat a peach grown in the garden of your own autonomy. – D.A.

David Abramoff Ph.D. is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies

Karmic Reading 2

I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as the first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all. — Alexis De Tocqueville

I don’t know how to get anything done anymore. But they still pay me for not doing it.  – Recent coworker comment forwarded by a colleague

Coincidentally:  Rethinking Work, Barry Schwartz, August 28th  New York Times

— DA

 

‘The Smart Machine’ Twenty-five Years Later

In this time of year to reflect on the past and look forward to our future, we often display a curious amnesia when it comes to events that predicate the present. Twenty five years ago Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power appeared. We proposed a retrospective to several publications. Those we approached were not interested or did not have room. Even while citing her work, many people in industry and academia have no notion or appreciation of its prescient nature or profound insights.

Zuboff’s contribution (besides having great hair) was to capture the thoughts and voices of people in the midst of change — in their jobs, in the way they thought, in the way work was defined. In a synthesis of history, psychology, anthropology and oral history, her book anticipated the impact of computer technology in the workplace and in our daily lives today.

In clear, articulate prose, Zuboff captures the voices of those confronting new technology in paper mills, insurance agencies and other industries. She explores the laboring body vs. the laboring mind; the skill in acting on materials vs. with people and ones and zeros; the abstraction of labor and making decisions based on ephemeral data and working with people one never sees.

There has been a lot of discussion since then of the virtual office, the global economy and social networking. The Internet is now a fait accompli. E-mail is old hat. The world wide web gave rise to Facebook, which begat Twitter,which begat instagram. But at the time the book appeared the IBM PC had only recently debuted. The Macintosh was a revolutionary machine with a graphical interface. WindowsTM(version 2.0) was barely beyond a gleam in Bill Gates’ eye. Technology for the world wide web (TC/IP protocol and hypertext linked database) was a work in progress at CERN1. Online networking was the domain of dedicated services such as Compuserve and Prodigy.

In an argument as old as the 19th-century factory system and early 20th century Taylorism2, Zuboff quotes managers and technologists who extol the virtues of separating people from the skills and experience that give their work value in the interest of efficiency and predictability.

Zuboff illustrates the cost as well as the benefits of this dynamic and the human side of the equation. At the time of her research in the 1980s most efforts focused on automating repetitious or dangerous physical tasks (e.g., mixing toxic chemicals in a paper mill) and clerical skills involving data entry.

Since then computer algorithms have invaded functions previously thought the exclusive cognitive domain of humans. Examples include data modeling, pattern recognition and predictive analysis used in engineering, medicine and the financial industries. Some of these result in calculations so complex that those who created them don’t understand their meaning and limitations. Trading instruments created by the human mentats3  of Wall Street (aka quants) to calculate derivatives helped precipitate the 2008 financial crises.

In 1988 there was still reason to feel that the benign aspects of computer automation would prevail – relieving us from tedium and danger of the workplace and opening up unlimited vistas for human beings to collaborate, share knowledge and solve problems.

You can lead people to knowledge, but you can’t make them think. The dream of finding universal laws and finding ways to create a better world (or at least workplace) and ‘improve’ human existence is as old as civilization – beginning with simple machines, followed by water power, steam, electricity and nuclear energy. Zuboff’s genius was to recognize and record a time in history when the power to do this seemed suddenly (and again) within reach. Her findings anticipate — and also warn –against the world we live in today.

Before the NSA and YouTube, she anticipates issues of privacy, autonomy and deskilling. The workers Zuboff interviews take pride in doing their jobs with a degree of autonomy — rather than simply dancing to the computer’s tune. This is no different than workers we have interviewed in the new millennium who demonstrate value and problem-solving in working around system’s limitations or to fulfill unexpected demands — even at risk of censure. In one vivid example Zuboff cites, workers in the paper mill impatient with waiting force open the Star-Trek-like doors designed to protect them from the toxic fumes.

The issues of human deskilling and the abstraction of labor (not just in performing labor, but of emotional and social interaction) from its meaning and value, still loom before us. Unchecked, the Utopian impulse may not just reform, but divorce us from our own humanity. Led by visionaries such as Steve Jobs and Ray Kurzweil, technology insinuates itself our lives more and more each day – with the goal replacing the human frailty and idiosyncracies with supposedly more efficient algorithms. Zuboff’s mindful approach to exploring technology and change has been overtaken by ever more creative ways to monetize the web and offer deals to consumers that seem increasingly Faustian. We take videos of ourselves, tweet our most innocuous and profound beliefs. Others follow us without knowing a thing about our lives. Our buying habits and selections follow us as well – whispering new product suggestions in our ear based on our lifestyle.

Fitbit Wireless Sleep & Activity Monitor

Some of these now allow us to monitor and share our sleep, our weight, and our exercise routine minute-by-minute, under the assumption that data provides connection and meaning. As writer and essayist Mathew Crawford e-mailed one of us, ‘We are coming to know ourselves too well, I fear.’ Too often technology simply enables us to clothe our old behaviors in shiny new raiment, rather than providing useful insight to understand or change them. 

After Age of the Smart Machine, Zuboff wrote The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism with her husband James Maxmin. She lectured at Harvard and wrote articles for Scientific American, Business Week and Fast Company Magazine. Most of these focus on the need for businesses to empower workers and consumers through technology, rather than exploiting them. Along with her work at Harvard, Zuboff, now just in her early 60s, founded the executive education program “ODYSSEY: School for the Second Half of Life”. A discussion board at Fast Company carries her entries through 2005 and 2006. After that they cease. One gets the impression that, having fought the good fight, Zuboff leaves it up to the rest of us to carry the banner now.

Computer technology is always waiting for a new paradigm around the corner to fully realize its potential: From ‘scientific management’ to knowledge-management; from crowd-sourcing and the wisdom of crowds to social networking. But in the workplace or on the web, in government or industry, for the most the technology is still used almost exclusively to improve efficiency by automating tasks and reducing the expertise and skill required to perform them to the lowest common denominator – often by eliminating the human element or forcing individuals to adapt to misconceived business goals and processes.

The machines may be smarter, but the human beings who create them demonstrate the same hubris and flawed thinking they have throughout history. — DA & CDL

# # #

David Abramoff Ph.D. is director emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies.  For Chuck Lanigan, director of events and outreach, a previous career developing Lotus Notes workflow applications means never having to say he’s sorry.  He  writes and consults on workflow and collaborative computing and holds an M.A. in educational communication with a focus on literacy, critical thinking and computer-mediated work.  His creative work includes spoken-word presentations and live events.

1Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research)

2 Also known as scientific management, and characterized by time-motion studies applied to find ‘the one best way’ of performing physical labor and tasks. This approach is still used today in many workplaces.

3 From Frank Herbert’s Dune: A human specially trained to mimic the cognitive and analytical ability of a computer. (Wikipedia)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Related:

Thinking & Computers, by David Auerbach in Nautilus 

Saving Conversation, by Megan Garber in The Atlantic

Hard Work and Leisure, by Steven Poole in the New Statesman

The Religion of Technology, Geoff Shullenberger in Dissent

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies is embarking on an oral history project on technology in literature, popular culture and the creative arts.  Starting the first quarter of 2014, we will schedule interviews to gather peoples’ reminiscences  and first-hand stories on the  role  technology has played in their work, leisure and daily life.  For questions or if you are interested in participating,  please e-mail outreach@alcstudies.org or call  (412) 353-3756. You can also use our handy contact form.

A Purpose-Riven Life

David Abramoff Ph.D.

As an émigré to these shores, I am familiar with the ambivalent place America holds in the hearts of those from other countries. An the one hand America represents a beacon of hope, a city on a hill to those from war-torn areas, victims of oppression and suppression or economic hardship, whose lives are less than hopeful. To these America represents the exuberant opportunity to remake one’s life and reap the reward of hard work, industry and luck.

But one person’s success is another’s excess. As consumers of 25 – 30 percent of the world’s resources, Americans have provoked the resentment and envy of others as the image of consumerism run amuck (a wonderfully evocative English word implying a pig rooting happily as well as someone gone insane).

Getting and spending precedes the Founding Fathers, of course. Entrepreneurs and settlers from the old world brought that notion with them to the new. But here it  flourished extravagantly among the purple mountain’s majesty and the amber waves of grain, becoming commingled with a religious, if not evangelical, impulse toward self-improvement.

A few years ago a colleague was going through a rough patch in life. Someone gave him Rick Warren’s book A Purpose-Driven Life. For several weeks my colleague read through the book with a group of men confronting their mid-life crises (and increasingly imminent mortality) and wondering what on earth it had all been for.

Th Greatest Showman on Earth

America is a nation which has always encouraged, if not compelled, people arriving on its shores to seek their purpose. The wretched refuse flock to its teeming shore fleeing atrocities, persecution or personal tragedy. And someone is waiting to sell them the means to making money, finding spiritual redemption or self-improvement. The great story of America is of prevailing against all odds to achieve success. It’s no accident that figures from P.T. Barnum to Andrew Carnegie are heroes. Everyone loves a winner, and to be assured by others achieving their goals that they can do the same.

And if not? Failure is not an option. For Americans not achieving one’s fifteen minutes of fame is a fate worse than death. Better to fade into the shadows like Andrew Carnegie’s father, a weaver from Scotland displaced by the relentless march of the industrial revolution. He brought his family to America in 1848 to seek a better life. By luck and pluck (combined with ruthless business practices and an indomitable will), his son succeeded. Carnegie père became an embarrassment. Since he did not fit the Horatio Alger version of the story, he was all but disowned by his own family and eldest son. Who now remembers William Carnegie’s name? He faded from the story for his failure to adhere to the proper narrative.

We are all immigrants from the existential beyond, strangers in a strange land lured by consumer culture promoting streets paved with gold and I-Phones with the latest apps and bling. We wonder what our mission-statement and goal are supposed to be. But our purposes can divide as much as unite us –from gun control to vegetarianism and global warming. Some of our causes take us to the dark side. John Brown believed it was allowable to kill in the name of abolishing slavery. Thoreau sympathized with him. What is the line between prophet and provocateur? Jesus came bringing not peace but a sword. Reverend Warren’s book describes Christ using explosives to blow open the doors of our resistance to God’s love for us.*

With A Terrible Swift Sword

My colleague called disturbed. He had seen the mayhem and death at the Boston Marathon interposed on his Smartphone between twitter feeds of celebrity gossip and Groupons for the latest products meeting his shopping profile. But there was more.

“The younger of the two alleged perpetrators is a dead ringer for my son.”

“Ah,” I said. “The young men from the family with a Chechen background.”

“Yes. Michael is in his late twenties now. When I saw the photo, I thought ‘My God, if I hadn’t just seen him, it could have been him in Boston, with dark eyes and hair, that smile.

“A good looking young man.”

“– Who with his brother did a terrible thing to innocent people.”

Who are the innocent? Thoreau might ask. Or Marx or Che. School children in Connecticut. People shot going to the movie theater for the evening. Or the mall. Too many.

I said, “They were promising young men. The older was a skilled boxer, a fighter who was contender for the golden gloves. The younger especially was talented, well-liked by his friends, winner of a scholarship.”

“The older brother said he would never understand Americans.”

“I don’t understand Americans. They don’t understand themselves.

“Their uncle called them losers.”

The worst epithet in America.

“The police caught him in that boat; the evil-doer wounded and bloodied. Everyone is cheering.” Why don’t I?”

“Perhaps they are cheering so loudly to avoid the anger and disappointment that are part of their lives and ours, and the violent feelings we all have.”

“That doesn’t make me want to blow people up.”

“The resemblance to your son disturbs you?” I said.

“Yes!”

“It’s not your son.”

“He is somebody’s son! What would drive him to do such a thing?”

Young men are impressionable. The seek a way to belong, a cause to prove themselves worthy. It’s why they join gangs. Or the army. American society does not do a good job of helping people grow up and find a purpose. How much more difficult if you are a stranger?

Dzhokar’s brother’s heart of darkness apparently influenced him. Together they found one.

David Abramoff is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies

*Rick Warren’s son Mathew committed suicide in April 2013 at the age of 27 after years of struggling with depression.

Is It Live, Memorex or Youtube?

Excellent article in the Irish Times about digital replication (streaming) of music and art vs. live performance and presentation.[1]

Woody Guthrie, troubadour of the American dustbowl in the 30s (who had a thing or two to say about labor, exploitation and music) observed “… electric fonagrafts an’ radeos an’ talkies has fixed it where you put a nickle in an’ one or two musicians entertains hundreds or thousends of people, an’ hole armies of well talented folks goes beggin.” [sic]

His complaint preceded Facebook and Youtube. The dilemma now as then is how to reward and support those who honor their artistic muse when the prevailing commercial and consumer trend is to turn her solely into a commodity, if not a whore. Our organization (ALCStudies.org) promotes live spoken-word and musical events (e.g., live radio and lectures). We believe the Web can digitize and duplicate the simulacra[2], but never replace the immanence (and sacredness) of connecting human beings through the gift of live art, including music, dance and the spoken-word. People hunger for that experience still, which is as old as civilization. The Gaelic and Celtic cultures gave us some of the greatest examples. Just ask Ossian (or at least James Macpherson) ; – ).

Speaking of exploitation, see an article on emotional labor at FastCompany.com

— DA


[1] *Memorex, orginator of a famous casette tape television commercial featuring singer Ella Fitzgerald, filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

 [2] Thanks to artist Chris McGinnis for introducing this term: …The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true. – Jean Baudrillard

Our Institutions, Ourselves

Here at Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies we examine the received wisdom of crowds and other presumed or self-appointed sources of authority. The news so far in the first month of this year reassures us that our mission is not wasted.

The congress convenes, prosecutors prosecute, politicians pontificate, the media mediate (but not much meditate) on the sublime and the ridiculous: church and state, small and great. Financial institutions gain rewards from damaging the economy. Businesses profit from outsourcing and layoffs, while claiming to engage and value their workers. Organizations of higher learning declare their noble mission and beneficence in educating and building the character of students, while refusing responsibility for paying taxes, raising tuition or their own employees’ depredations.

There is no lack of souls looking for a cause with which to identify themselves. There is no more zealous fanatic than a convert. Lost souls and gifted people alike (who are often the same) seek a cause greater than themselves to belong to. Ideally, this leads to the greater good.

But there’s a fine line between the faithful and the fanatic (from Latin fanaticus “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god,” also “furious, mad”). As we immerse ourselves in the tribal identity of Republican and Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, the right to bear arms or freedom from wanton death and mayhem, we may invoke the darker angels of our nature. The darker side of devotion leads else elsewhere. Soldiers for the cause, whether volunteers or employees, along with the defenseless and the innocent, come to be seen by their leaders merely as expendable resources, along with ethics and accountability.

A colleague grew up in central Pennsylvania where they worship American football. Every fall people there dress in blue and white and drive past the crisp autumn leaves to attend the games in Happy Valley. In America uniquely sport tends to drive institutions of higher learning (and their contracts with cable television). Six-six, two-hundred fifty pound halfbacks and running backs subsidize the study of computer engineering and post-modern cultural deconstruction. The size of the elephant in the room sometimes obscures the cost of its care and feeding, and the sacrifices made for someone’s presumed greater good.

Charitable, governmental, educational, or business institutions can become corrupted when their own perpetuation becomes an end, rather than a means, to fulfilling their mission. Communism culminated in the toppling of the Berlin Wall, after the loss of millions of lives. Fascism led to worse. Its mirror image, McCarthyism, prompted an elected government in a free society to betray ideals of free speech and democracy and destroy lives of its fellow citizens. Even in America, land of liberty and libertarian , there is subtle or not so subtle pressure to wear the right clothes, say the right words and think the right thoughts.

Thomas Paine insisted on promoting an Age of Reason over religious dogma in his later years. This made him the unacknowledged founding father, with little honor in his own nation. John Locke wrote about the social contract that guides relations between the individual and civil society. Thomas Hobbes wrote about the unruly mob’s need to be led by some single unifying leader, whatever the cost to individuals. Between these two orbits we seek the golden mean.

The goal of an institution formed to find homes for the homelessness, end hunger or find a cure cancer should be to eliminate its own raison d’être. But the poor, the unborn, the disenfranchised will always be with us – as will young boys needing protection in the locker room or sacristy, and women from rapists in their community. Where fund raising, administration, marketing and promotion for social and charitable organizations become ends in themselves, effective leadership may lie more in knowing what side their bread is buttered on than feeding it to the hungry. If your livelihood depends on making the case for the need that keeps you in business, you may not be inclined to make it go away or take accountability for flaws in carrying out your mission. Thus the justice of your cause easily becomes justification for a host of ills.

Thoreau, the poster child for the environmental movement, wrote the beloved Walden preaching a transcendent, personal connection with the world. But Life Without Principle, his lesser-known essay contains words that would be considered subversive to the children of any middle class school district today:

  • The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse…
  • Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient

And to those obsessed with the trivia elevated to significance now on Facebook:

  • I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. .. It is so hard to forget what it is worse than useless to remember!

Thoreau was not an advocate of unbridled capitalism, nor for unthinking patriotism, that last refuge of scoundrels. The same man who argued for the love of nature pleaded for the life of a murderer and fanatic, John Brown, following the latter’s brutal murders in Kansas and insurrection at Harpers Ferry in the cause of abolition.

Rescuing puppies or ending global warming or electing a candidate depends on putting your cause in front of the right people and convincing them to ante up. More importantly, it depends on recruiting dedicated people and finding symbols who will support your cause through thick or thin, even at the expense of their own interests. Businesses and nonprofits have a host of ways now to reach out and declare their social conscience and how much they care. E-mail updates, Facebook invites and twitter feeds invite us daily to be part of of their communities and causes. But they don’t hold our hand in the middle of the night at the hospital or listen to us talk about what to do about our lousy jobs. And they quickly abandon us if we do not fit their agenda or prove a liability or embarrassment.

Thoreau died mostly forgotten at forty-five in the bedroom of his parents’ home surrounded by unsold books published at this own expense. Leon Trotsky, communism’s one time true believer and acolyte, was hunted down and murdered. Joseph McCarthy died a shunned alcoholic.

Human beings also aren’t merely icons for a cause, to be replaced by the new icon du jour. They don’t exist to promote brands or as algorithmic functions of their connections on Facebook. No man (or woman, or child) is an island. We are not merely our beliefs and needs devoted or subverted to the needs of institutions that do not mourn our passing or care about our true selves. As Nelson Algren, that troubadour of Chicago’s lower depths in the 1940s and 1950s, wrote in the Man with the Golden Arm, ‘We are all members of each other.’ – DA

David Abramoff, Ph.D., is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies. Copyright 2013. For permissions and reprints please go to our Contact Us page.  We gratefully accept donations made through Fractured Atlas.

The World of Tomorrow, Yesterday & Today

Based on some of the sceptical posts here, you may think we are closet Luddites at Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies. However, if we don’t always embrace the latest technology, many of us use it. For instance I finally upgraded my Jitterbug wannabe to a new Android phone.

Out With the Old

This has not been without cost; not only in spending money for the upgrade, but learning to navigate a new device and interface. In the past two weeks, I’ve figured out how to download e-mail, sync with my online calendar and downloaded an app to track tasks; all coordinated with my laptop running Ubuntu Linux.

As my wife will attest, I’m more of a closet geek than a Luddite. I’ve built several desktop pcs and assembled my own touring bike from parts. In my consulting work, I’ve figured out what makes shiny new computing toys tick and how people can use them to accomplish tasks. Even still (or because of this), I have to make an effort not to get distracted from my own tasks — assuming I remember what they are – by the vast plethora of virtual possibilities. It’s easy to get sucked down one rabbit hole of technological extensions of our psyche and will and emerge somewhere entirely different in cyberspace, if at all. There be dragons.

I am a fan of the mindful use of technology. I resist having it preoccupy my

Separated at Birth?

existence. Thoreau warned. “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Still, I am seduced like most of us by the siren song that technology can lead to a better world. This is not a new tune, and one not the sole domain of the present.

I recently made a presentation on technology in literature and popular culture. This was to a group ranging in age from their seventies to their nineties. Many of them used e-mail to stay in touch with families and friends. One woman had a Facebook page. Another maintained a web site for her church. A professional in his eighties I know has no use for computers, but downloads books like The Three Musketeers on his Kindle to read in his native French.

During my presentation, I talked about the 1939 World’s Fair, which took place in New York during the Depression on the eve of World War II. Ironically, the theme was ‘Building the World of Tomorrow’1. On a whim, I asked if anyone had a relative or parent who had attended Several people raised their hands.

One attentive woman said ‘I was there.”

“How old were you, if you don’t mind sharing.” I asked.

She smiled. “I was fifteen. We visited the GM exhibit and saw Futurama.”

I thought a minute. She had witnessed the first demonstration of television, florescent lighting, fax machines and streamlined design.

PA RR S1 Locomotive Demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair

Earlier when I listed the technology that emerged during World War I, a man with a heavily-accented voice stood up in back.

“You forgot one! My father fought in World War I on the side of the Germans. He said the British tanks scared the hell out of them.”

In a moment I had gone from talking about a subject to being with people who had lived it. This kind of interaction is gold. It’s why I enjoy giving live presentations.

Other members of the group mentioned Nicholas Tesla, who worked for Edison, followed by Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh.

One woman said, “It sounds like a small thing, but when Corningware came out [in the 1950s], it made cooking and fixing meals so much easier.”

So the future arrives accompanied not only by nebulous, overhyped concepts like the cloud or insanely great devices, but by simpler ways to get supper on the table. — CDL

#  #  #

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies is proud to receive fiscal sponsorship through Fractured Atlas. Please see the following fine print:

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the purposes of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies must be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

For more information see our Donate page.

______________

1See my friend and colleague Chris McCinnis’s Progress and the Great Productive Machine for an insightful look at the ’39 World’s Fair and the portrayal of industrialization and technology in America.
%d bloggers like this: