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The inimitable Rhodri Marsden has some uplifting thoughts for the day, the day being, of course, the 14th of February:
I was 14 when someone first said to me: "You're not my type". It felt like a sophisticated comeback for a 14-year-old girl. She evidently knew what she wanted from a 14-year-old boy – mainly that he had to be older than 14. My dissimilarity to the socio-economic profile she'd carefully constructed meant that I had to change, quickly, to try and tick some more boxes, but in this particular case it seemed to involve joining Spandau Ballet, which was going to be tricky. Then a friend told me that it was shorthand for: "I'll never go out with you no matter what you do," which was demoralising, but also something of a relief because Spandau Ballet weren't keen.
But then you meet someone and you fall in love and out of love and then in love with someone else and before long you realise that you have a "type", too, which becomes reinforced by every subsequent romantic liaison. And then someone comes along who's not your type, but they like you and you remember the burning injustice you felt when you were 14, so you try to explain, as best you can, that it's not going to happen. But of course it doesn't go down well, because there's no excuse yet devised that's able to cushion that kind of blow. And then you drift on, with an uneasy feeling that your "type" has now become so scarce that there's probably only one example left on the planet and it's already been shot, stuffed and exhibited in some museum somewhere, with a label that simply reads: "Sorry."In a similar (though less melancholic) vein, Rhodri also has a very entertaining book out consisting of dating catastrophies recounted through the medium of Twitter. (I attended a reading of this book last week; it was the best comedy show I have seen this year so far.)
For those more inclined to action, Occupy Valentine's Day (subtitle: "Down with couple-talism!"), a call to arms against the romance-industrial complex. Or something like that.
Meanwhile, here's Savage Chickens:
And one from Gemma Correll, a London-based illustrator specialising in all things twee:
Over the past decade or two, a wave of Britons had moved to Australia, tempted by made-for-export Australian soaps, whose English-speaking, lager-drinking inhabitants seemed happier, healthier and less beaten down by life than those on Eastenders, and facilitated by the Australian government's Anglo-friendly immigration policies. Now, it looks like a lot of them are moving back; for some, the Australian reality is not the idyll of beachside barbecues, but something more alienating, and even in the age of Skype and Facebook, the distance from friends and family is great:
"If they live in a bungalow in the suburbs of Adelaide, it gets lonely. There isn't a culture of going for a drink after work and the TV is terrible."
"It's not about living by the coast in the sun - it's about living in a dull flat in suburbs that don't have any real infrastructure."One complaint is lack of cultural amenities and history, especially from those who ended up in the sticks:
Some British people complain about a lack of culture and history, he says, but that depends where you live."Sydney and Melbourne are world-class cities with plenty of great things to see and do, but outside the big urban areas life is definitely less colourful and probably more of an acquired taste."Some Poms, however, are staying behind and making do with the lack of real ale, quality newspapers and/or cheap flights to Spain.
Tetsuya Ishida was a Japanese painter who, until his death in 2005, painted surrealistic scenes, which tended to involve images of himself transformed into various unhappy-looking automatons or inanimate objects. Beautiful, in a somewhat disturbing, vaguely Kafkaesque way:
There are more paintings here (note: text is in Japanese).
(via Boing Boing)
The Ten Stupidest Utopias is not a Cracked-style list of wacky stuff, but a fairly insightful rundown of various utopian ideals, from Plato's Republic, through Thomas More's original Utopia, and then onwards through various permutations of utopian ideals (the American Calvinist city on a hill, racial-supremacist and feminist-separatist enclaves, heavy-handedly didactic Libertarian scifi utopias, the pipe dreams of cyberpunks, and the diametrically opposite yet oddly similar quasi-totalitarian visions of Le Corbusier and the Situationists):
The violence of More's historical period is never far from the surface of More's island Utopia, where a single act of adultery is punishable by slavery and serial adulterers are punished with death. If More's narrator had looked past the happy smiling faces of Utopia, what fear and violence might he have seen?
Exactly how stupid is Plato's Republic, and who am I to call one of history's greatest philosophers "stupid"? Is Plato's time simply too different from our own for us to pass judgment? I don't think so, for The Republic lives on in the rhetoric of contemporary political movements of both right and left—every elitist and technocratic fantasy of our time has grown from the seed of The Republic. Plato would not have understood the term "dehumanization" as we understand it—he'd never, of course, seen a factory floor or a gas chamber—but when his ideas have been enacted in places like the Soviet Union, Mussolini's Italy, or modern state-capitalist China, they have proven brutally dehumanizing, his apparat of "guardians" thoroughly corrupted by power.A more mundane utopia in the list is that of post-war American Suburbia:
Historian Robert Fishman calls American suburbia a "bourgeois utopia," whose hopes for community stability were founded "on the shifting sands of land speculation," backed up by racially discriminatory covenants and lending standards. The postwar American suburb, each a Nueva Germania of the soul, organized men's life around commutes and women's life around the home: the result was absent fathers, isolated mothers, and alienated children, who seldom knew anyone of a different race. In providing for the material needs of the growing middle class, the suburb created social and spiritual cavities that numerous social movements—from the 1960s New Left to today's Christian fundamentalism—have tried to fill.
A Californian videogamer is suing the makers of World of Warcraft for having alienated him from the real world, and has subpoenaed Winona Ryder and Depeche Mode's Martin Gore to testify on the nature of alienation and melancholy.
According to the San Jose, California resident, World of Warcraft is a "harmful virtual environment" and its developers follow "sneaky and deceitful practices". Despite this, Estavillo admits he "relies on videogames heavily for the little ongoing happiness he can achieve in this life". He just wants World of Warcraft to cost less money. And to stop making him so sad.
Estavillo's court filings put forward multi-instrumentalist songwriter Martin Gore as an expert witness on melancholy. Gore should be called to Santa Clara county superior court, Estavillio suggests, "since he himself has been known to be sad, lonely, and alienated, as can be seen in the songs he writes".Winona Ryder, meanwhile, is included because of her publicised love of J.D. Salinger's Catcher In The Rye.
A review of a new book on changing patterns of recreational drug use in the USA:
...according to several metrics, acid use was at "an historic low: 3.5 percent." By 2003, it was down to 1.9 percent. Why? It wasn't just that LSD had gone out of style, although it had, somewhat. Grim found evidence of a perfect storm of causes for the decline. In 2000, the DEA had arrested a man named William Pickard, thought to be the manufacturer of as much as 95 percent of the available acid in the U.S. The Grateful Dead, whose concerts provided an opportunity for suppliers and users to connect and network, had stopped touring after the 1995 death of Jerry Garcia, and Phish, a jam band that had stepped in to fill the gap, also stopped touring by the end of 2000. The rave scene began to fade away under pressure from authorities who threatened to arrest organizers for drug offenses committed at their events.And then this depressing picture of an atomised, asocial society, which ties in with the bowling-alone mass-alienation idea:
Today's kids aren't smoking much pot because pot is a "social" drug, shared among peers who gather in parking lots and other hangouts; teens have less unstructured time now and tend to socialize online. They still get high, only on prescription drugs pilfered from adults or ordered off the Internet. "There's no social ritual involved," he observes, "just a glass of water and a pill," which "fits well into a solitary afternoon."The rest of the review looks pretty interesting, including the theory that recreational drugs have cycles, in which they become popular, then become lame, and then come back sometime later to a generation who have never witnessed their effects, illustrated by an anecdote about kids regarding Ecstasy as "too hard on your body" and cocaine as "not that bad".
Of all 3,141 counties in the United States, New York County is the unrivaled leader in single-individual households, at 50.6 percent. More than three-quarters of the people in them are below the age of 65. Fifty-seven percent are female. In Brooklyn, the overall number is considerably lower, at 29.5 percent, and Queens is 26.1. But on the whole, in New York City, one in three homes contains a single dweller, just one lone man or woman who flips on the coffeemaker in the morning and switches off the lights at night.
These numbers should tell an unambiguous story. They should confirm the common belief about our city, which is that New York is an isolating, coldhearted sort of place. Mark Twain called it “a splendid desert—a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race.” (This from a man who settled in Hartford, Connecticut.) In J. D. Salinger’s 1952 short story “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” the main character observes that wishing to be alone “is the one New York prayer that rarely gets lost or delayed in channels, and in no time at all, everything I touched turned to solid loneliness.” Modern movies and art are filled with lonesome New York characters, some so familiar they’ve become their own shorthand: Travis Bickle (in Taxi Driver, calling himself “God’s lonely man”); the forlorn patrons in Nighthawks (inspired, Edward Hopper said, “by a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue”); Ratso Rizzo (“I gotta get outta here, gotta get outta here,” he kept muttering in Midnight Cowboy … and died before he could).There are several assumptions here: the equation of living alone (outside of a stable nuclear family) with loneliness and psychological toll is one of them. Another one is the great American myth about small-town values, one we see trotted out (often by people on the right of culture-war politics) time and time again.
In American lore, the small town is the archetypal community, a state of grace from which city dwellers have fallen (thus capitulating to all sorts of political ills like, say, socialism). Even among die-hard New Yorkers, those who could hardly imagine a life anywhere else, you’ll find people who secretly harbor nostalgia for the small village they’ve never known.One problem with "small-town values" is that the word is often a dog whistle for a certain brand of reactionary intolerance; a strong in-group-vs.-out-group distinction, knee-jerk traditionalism, bigotry and petty authoritarianism, only painted in folksy Thomas Kincaid colours. One example of this that came around not so long ago was failed US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin approvingly quoting a fascist newspaper columnist's praise of "small-town America". If small towns stand as a symbol of intolerance and conformism, all things urban could be said to represent the opposite, cosmopolitanism and liberalism.
Cities, in other words, are the ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves (which may explain why half the planet’s population currently lives in them). And in their present American incarnations—safe, family-friendly, pulsing with life on the street—they’re working at their optimum peak. In Cacioppo’s data, today’s city dwellers consistently rate as less lonely than their country cousins. “There’s a new sense of community in cities, an increase in social capital, an increase in trust,” he says. “It all leads to less alienation.”
Cacioppo and Patrick cite a range of studies showing that students in classes with the best rapport imitate each other’s body language; same goes for athletes on winning teams. The presence of other human beings puts a natural limit on how freakily we can behave. And where better to find them than in cities, where we have more ties? (Think about the sociopathic kids who shot other kids in Red Lake, Minnesota; at Northern Illinois University; at Virginia Tech—what do they have in common? They were living in isolated places.) Robert Sampson, paraphrasing Durkheim, puts it this way: “The tie itself provides health benefits. That’s where I started with my work on crime.”
In any case, recent research has revealed that the equation of living alone and loneliness does not follow; for one, what sociologists call "weak ties" are at least as important to psychological wellbeing as more intimate connections, and cities full of singletons are swarming with potential weak ties (and often stronger ones as well):
“In our data,” adds Lisa Berkman, the Harvard epidemiologist who discovered the importance of social networks to heart patients, “friends substitute perfectly well for family.” This finding is important. It may be true that marriage prolongs life. But so, in Berkman’s view, does friendship—and considering how important friendship is to New Yorkers (home of Friends, after all), where so many of us live on our own, this finding is blissfully reassuring. In fact, Berkman has consistently found that living alone poses no health risk, whether she’s looking at 20,000 gas and electricity workers in France or a random sample of almost 7,000 men and women in Alameda, California, so long as her subjects have intimate ties of some kind as well as a variety of weaker ones. Those who are married but don’t have any civic ties or close friends or relatives, for instance, face greater health risks than those who live alone but have lots of friends and regularly volunteer at the local soup kitchen. “Any one connection doesn’t really protect you,” she says. “You need relationships that provide love and intimacy and you need relationships that help you feel like you’re participating in society in some way.”
In fact, many Internet and city behaviors we consider antisocial have social consequences. Think of people who lug their laptops into public settings. In 2004, Hampton and his colleagues looked at just those people—at Starbucks, in fact, in Seattle and Boston—and concluded that a full third of them were basically using their laptops and interacting at the same time. (Cafés, in other words, were like dog runs, and laptops were like pugs, encouraging interaction among solitaries.) Hampton did a similar study of laptop users in Bryant Park, and the same proportion, or one-third, reported meeting someone they hadn’t before. Fifteen percent of them kept in touch with that person over time (meaning that about 5 percent made lasting ties out of a trip to Bryant Park with a laptop).
Conversely, married people—women especially—have smaller friendship-based social networks than they did as single people, according to Claude Fischer. In a recent phone conversation with the sociologist, I mentioned a related curiosity I came across in a paper about the elderly and social isolation in New York City: The neighborhoods where people were at the greatest risk, it seemed, were in neighborhoods where people seemed very married—family neighborhoods, in fact, like Borough Park and Ridgewood. “That’s not strange at all,” he says. “They’re the prime category of people to be isolated.” He explains that these people “aged in place,” as sociologists like to say, staying in the homes where they raised their own families. Then their spouses died, and so did their cohort (or it moved to a retirement community), and they’re suddenly surrounded by strange families, often of different classes or ethnic backgrounds, with whom they’re likely to have far less in common. “Unless they have children living nearby,” he says, “they’re likely to be quite isolated.”The article concludes with the notion that the internet—another thing often pooh-poohed as alienating and antisocial—functions, in terms of facilitating weak ties, much like a city; in fact, like the ultimate city:
Think about it: Serendipitous encounters between people who know each other well, sort of well, and not at all. People of every type, and with every type of agenda, trying to meet up with others who share that same agenda. An environment that’s alive at all hours, populated by all types, and is, most of the time, pretty safe. What he was saying, really, was that New York had become the Web. Or perhaps more, even: that New York was the Web before the Web was the Web, characterized by the same free-flowing interaction, 24/7 rhythms, subgroups, and demimondes.
(via Mind Hacks)
In his WIRED column, Bruce Schneier puts forward a new model for understanding why people become terrorists. The conventional model, that they do it to achieve political aims or address grievances, doesn't adequately describe the real world, in which terrorist groups have vague or changing goals and eschew actions more likely to actually achieve those goals, and the actual terrorists often adopt and change ideologies and targets at the drop of a hat. Instead, being a terrorist is not about changing the world, but rather about being part of a community:
The evidence supports this. Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group's political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can't describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren't working prior to joining. These things are true for members of terrorist groups as diverse as the IRA and al-Qaida.
For example, several of the 9/11 hijackers planned to fight in Chechnya, but they didn't have the right paperwork so they attacked America instead. The mujahedeen had no idea whom they would attack after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, so they sat around until they came up with a new enemy: America. Pakistani terrorists regularly defect to another terrorist group with a totally different political platform. Many new al-Qaida members say, unconvincingly, that they decided to become a jihadist after reading an extreme, anti-American blog, or after converting to Islam, sometimes just a few weeks before. These people know little about politics or Islam, and they frankly don't even seem to care much about learning more. The blogs they turn to don't have a lot of substance in these areas, even though more informative blogs do exist.
All of this explains the seven habits. It's not that they're ineffective; it's that they have a different goal. They might not be effective politically, but they are effective socially: They all help preserve the group's existence and cohesion.The implications of this theory are that terrorist groups are the emergent product of mass social alienation; which suggests a solution to terrorism: give everyone internet access and multiplayer online games. Which would mean that those drawn to malignant, tightly-knit social groups would merely become trolls and griefers rather than actual real-world terrorists.
A graduate arts student named Drew Burrows has created a holographic virtual sleeping partner. Titled "Inbed", the installation consists of a bed with an infrared camera and projector positioned above it, and a computer which recognises the sleeper's position and projects one of several images of a sleeping woman onto the bed, so as to interact with the sleeper. Burrows says that the piece aims to "speak on the feelings of loneliness, affection, and intimacy", a point lost on the New York Magazine article which beat this up as "weirdo student builds a virtual girlfriend because he's `too busy' to find a real one".
(via Boing Boing)
Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat has a beautifully poetic and thought-provoking article about the death of a recluse, found in his Helsinki apartment some three years after his death:
The odd invoice arrived, followed by their reminders, and then not even them.
Direct debit arrangements handled most of the bills, including the maintenance charge on the apartment.
The guy who comes to read the electricity meter didn’t ring the doorbell, because he didn’t need to: the meter is in the basement.
The man lay in the bathroom doorway.
At some point the bathroom lamp gave up the ghost, as they do, and he was left in the dark.
The Times has the poignant story of the death of a 42-year-old loner, whose body was not found until, two months after his death, a neighbour (who did not know him) noticed an odd smell coming from his north London council flat:
For some, the decision to disappear is gradual. It begins with an impulse, a desire to disconnect. It could mean turning the phone off and retreating under the duvet. For most people, it’s a fleeting escape. Family and friends are what keep them tethered. But what happens to those who become untethered? Or let go on purpose? Days, months, even years can pass. They have slipped through the cracks. Despite the presence of CCTV cameras and telecoms technology, which make most of us feel we are constantly monitored, it has become easier for those who live alone to avoid human contact altogether.
The pharmacist said he was always dressed neatly. He described him as “shy and pleasant – nothing mentally ill about him”, and admitted that when he didn’t see him for a while, he just assumed that Smith had moved away.
A few doors down from his flat, at No 168, Andrew’s neighbour, a postman, described Andrew as quiet, tall and thin. They lived near each other for 13 years but had only spoken to say hello when they passed each other coming and going on the stairs. In all the years he lived there, he said, he had seen no friends, ever. Andrew kept to himself.
Apparently there is a study which claims that we lose 1.2 friends each year between the ages of 20 and 40.
Confirming the central thrust of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, a study (pdf) released in the American sociological review today shows that Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than they did 20 years ago. In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them. In 2004, it dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all.Apparently this is due to a number of factors: car-centric post-war urban design and the disappearance of public space where people can meet contribute, though a major factor is the ever-increasing working hours in America, a nation that's increasingly time-poor; making and maintaining friendships, after all, takes time, of which there is less and less. Perhaps someone in America will invent a way of making friends more efficiently? (I suspect that this approach, whilst inventive, may not be entirely satisfactory.) Of course, where America goes, others often follow.
And the readers' comments contain some gems, like this one:
Along with the world hating Americans, we now get told Americans can't stand each other either. Sounds like more Guardian hatred of America to me. Ever been to our churches, Mr Younge? There you'll find how we Amercians not only have the friendship and love of others, but that the Lord loves our company as well. We leave the solitary cheese-eating to others.Oddly enough, this is posted by someone in "Birmingham/gbr", so it could be some Brit taking the piss.
The New York Times has a long and interesting article on the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori, or of young Japanese dropping out of society and shutting themselves in their rooms for months at a time, emerging only to go to convenience stores at night or not at all:
A leading psychiatrist claims that one million Japanese are hikikomori, which, if true, translates into roughly 1 percent of the population. Even other experts' more conservative estimates, ranging between 100,000 and 320,000 sufferers, are alarming, given how dire the consequences may be. As a hikikomori ages, the odds that he'll re-enter the world decline. Indeed, some experts predict that most hikikomori who are withdrawn for a year or more may never fully recover. That means that even if they emerge from their rooms, they either won't get a full-time job or won't be involved in a long-term relationship. And some will never leave home. In many cases, their parents are now approaching retirement, and once they die, the fate of the shut-ins - whose social and work skills, if they ever existed, will have atrophied - is an open question.
In other societies the response from many youths would be different. If they didn't fit into the mainstream, they might join a gang or become a Goth or be part of some other subculture. But in Japan, where uniformity is still prized and reputations and outward appearances are paramount, rebellion comes in muted forms, like hikikomori. Any urge a hikikomori might have to venture into the world to have a romantic relationship or sex, for instance, is overridden by his self-loathing and the need to shut his door so that his failures, real or perceived, will be cloaked from the world.
By Japanese standards, his room was enormous, with a wall of delicate shoji screens leading to a rock garden. But it was hard to imagine what he did there all day. There were no stacks of manga, the popular Japanese comic books, no DVD's, no computer games, all things found in the rooms of most hikikomori. The TV was broken, and the hard drive was missing from his computer. There were a few papers on his desk, including a newsletter from New Start that Kawakami brought on her last visit. Otherwise, the only evidence that this was a hikikomori's room were three holes in the wall - the size of fists. Shut-ins often describe punching their walls in a fit of anger or frustration at their parents or at their own lives. The holes were suggestive too of the practice of "cutting" among American adolescent girls. Both acts seemed to be attempts to infuse feeling into a numb life.
By the time parents seek help, often their child has been shut in for a year or more. "When they call," Dr. Saito said, "I offer them three choices: 1) Come to me for counseling; 2) Kick your child out; 3) Accept your child's state and be prepared to take care of him for the rest of your life. They choose Option 1." He also offers poignantly simple parenting tips, like not leaving dinner at a child's doorstep. "You make dinner and call him to the table, and if he doesn't come then let him fend for himself." In addition to meals, parents often provide monetary allowances for their adult child, and in rare cases, if a child has become verbally or physically abusive, parents move out, leaving their home to the shut-in.Parents of hikikomori now have support programmes to turn to, including volunteers known as "rental sisters", who try to befriend their children and coax them out of their rooms and into support centres, often over months or years.
There are multiple theories trying to explain the hikikomori phenomenon, but several frame it as a conscious rejection of the high pressure to conform and succeed placed on individuals in Japanese society; a conscious, if not particularly sustainable, decision to drop out of the traditional school-university-work career path.
On a similar note, Momus' latest piece in Wired News celebrates Japan's aging population and embrace of the "slow life".
An elderly woman passed away whilst watching TV; two years later, her body was found, perfectly mummified thanks to her constantly-running air conditioner. In fact, it wasn't until the air conditioner broke down that either family members living downstairs or passersby noticed a funny smell and called the police.
This could start a new trend; I wonder how long until some rich eccentric decides to, upon their death, have their body placed to mummify in a crisply air-conditioned tomb, seated in front of their beloved plasma-screen TV.
(via bOING bOING)
From Japan, the latest technological solutions to the problem of endemic loneliness and alienation: the Boyfriend's Arm Pillow, designed to give Japan's Bridget Joneses some "manly comfort" while they sleep. And for the otaku-boys, there's the Girlfriend's Lap Pillow, complete with tight red miniskirt, which would not look out of place in the Korova Milk Bar. (via bOING bOING)
The latest fad in an alienated world: cuddle parties, which are exactly what they sound like. Get enough needy, desperate losers together in a room and everyone can expect to get some human contact (except possibly for the severely hygienically-challenged trolls, who, one would assume, would be over-represented in any self-selected group of people for whom the need to embrace strangers overrides the aversion to doing so); and the organisers pocket a decent fee. Which all sounds slightly less pathetic than a Furries' plushie-humping party. I think I'll stay at home with my Smiths records, thank you very much. (via MeFi)
A 14-year-old boy in Manchester used internet chatrooms to arrange his own murder; masquerading as, among others, a 16-year-old girl, her step-brother, and a secret service agent named Janet, he managed to talk a 16-year-old boy he had never met into stabbing him. The other boy was told that it was an initiation into the secret services, and that the target was dying of cancer, which made him expendable; if successful, he was told he would get £500,000, a gun and a meeting with the Prime Minister. It apparently did not occur to him that there was anything unusual about this arrangement (persumably that's standard MI5 procedure for recruiting teenagers in chat rooms).
Update: more details have emerged, and it turns out that the stabbee had a hopeless crush on the boy who stabbed him, and instructed him (in secret-agent guise) to say the "codeword" "I love you, bro" as he did the deed. This is sounding more and more like a Smiths song.
A NYTimes piece about the social impact of mobile phones: (via FmH)
In Malaysia, mobile phones are so widespread that Muslim leaders send out S.M.S. reminders to call the faithful to prayer, five times a day. Muslims in other countries -- like Britain -- have begun using a service that tells them the prayer times in Mecca, which means they essentially live in two time zones at once: local time for their professional lives and Saudi time for their spiritual lives. ''They're existing in two countries simultaneously,'' Bell notes.
Of course, living in two places -- even virtually -- means being spread thin. Rich Ling, a sociologist working for Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunications company, has interviewed thousands of mobile-phone texters, and he has noticed that they actually feel more disconnected from the world around them. Consider it the mobile-age version of Bowling Alone: text-messagers are connected more tightly than ever to their core friends and family but are less likely to engage the civic life around them. ''When you're waiting for the bus and it's late, you could talk to the person next to you. But if you're texting to someone, you won't talk to that stranger,'' he says.
Salon asks whether "geek chic" will kill off innovation; the thesis is that now that "nerds" are no longer persecuted and ostracised, they won't have impetus (or time, between all the parties and dates in their social PalmPilots) to invent, create or otherwise contribute to society. Or, to put it in other words, that innovation required two components: individuals with technical intelligence or other skills (these would include artists and musicians), and the ostracism/persecution of said individuals. Which is an interesting theory. (via TechDirt)
(If one wants to get Freudian, one could argue that said individuals' lack of a sex life resulted in them sublimating their libidos into creative enterprises. If that holds true then, given the rise of "nerverts", Heinleinian polyamorists, netsex, webcams and the like, we're, well, fucked. Though hasn't polymorphous perversity been a feature of the fringes of society since the 1960s at least, if not the days of the Hellfire Club?)
Another criticism of the theory is that the "nerd" stereotype doesn't hold for most IT people, and hasn't done so for much of the 1990s. From what I remember, many of the people who did computer science when I went to university were well-rounded individuals, with social lives, girlfriends (they were predominantly male; computer science is almost a monastic environment, but that's another post) and non-computer interests. Many played sports in their spare time; and many were quite good programmers. Whether these people fall into the "nerd" category is debatable.
But yes; if innovation depends on talented outsiders, the "nerd" bar will just be raised higher, and there always will be some who don't want to go to the numerous parties they keep getting invited to but would rather sequester themselves and follow some intellectual passion. And if that fails, there are always autistic savants.
Scientists have found the brain centre connected to social rejection. when a person suffers some form of social exclusion (is excluded from a group, ostracised by the cool kids at school, divorced, rejected by a date, &c), their anterior cingulate cortex is stimulated; this is the same part of the brain that responds to physical pain.
This suggests that the need to be accepted as part of a social group is as important to humans as avoiding other types of pain, she said. Just as an infant may learn to avoid fire by first being burned, humans may learn to stick together because rejection causes distress in the pain center of the brain, said Eisenberger.
I wonder whether the pain of social exclusion is not related to withdrawal symptoms from substances such as nicotine or heroin; that is, whether or not social interaction triggers neurochemicals that are addictive. People have been addicted to all sorts of activities, from risk-taking to sex; could it be that we're all social-interaction junkies from birth?
Another question this raises is that of substitutes for social inclusion that keep the same happy chemicals flowing without needing to actually have a social life; for example, internet chat rooms, multi-user roleplaying games (in which people have experienced serious attachment to virtual characters), even long-distance "romances", could be a way of "masturbating" the social-inclusion parts of the brain without the need for real social interaction. Perhaps that's one of the end goals of AI: to produce software that can pass the Turing test and provide simulated social interaction for instant-gratification-dependent cube-hermits without enough time in their high-speed, information-overloaded lives to develop real relationships with other people.
Read: Why nerds are unpopular, an interesting essay which starts by asking the question of why intelligent kids are so unpopular in schools, and going from that to the malaise of living in a world detached from any real meaning:
And the active persecution is, if anything, the less painful half of the popularity equation. As well as gaining points by distancing oneself from unpopular kids, one loses points by being close to them. A woman I know says that in high school she liked nerds, but was afraid to be seen talking to them because the other girls would make fun of her. Unpopularity is a communicable disease; kids too nice to pick on nerds will still ostracize them in self-defense.
The author posits that the culture of sadism and cruelty is an emergent property of human nature in an unnatural environment (both schools and the wastelands of suburbia), and that in a world without meaning or purpose, kids find their own meaning in popularity and create their own arbitrarily vicious society. (I.e., the Lord of the Flies Effect.)
I think the important thing about the real world is not that it's populated by adults, but that it's very large, and the things you do have real effects. That's what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.
If I could go back and give my thirteen year old self some advice, the main thing I'd tell him would be to stick his head up and look around. I didn't really grasp it at the time, but the whole world we lived in was as fake as a twinkie. Not just school, but the entire town. Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.
As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don't think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they're made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.
A thought-provoking article: who will notice when you die?
Three weeks before Christmas 1993, Wolfgang Dircks died while watching television. Neighbors in his Berlin apartment complex hardly noticed the absence of the 43-year-old. His rent continued to be paid automatically out of his bank account. Five years later, the money ran out, and the landlord entered Dircks's apartment to inquire. He found Dircks's remains still in front of the tube. The TV guide on his lap was open to December 3, the presumed day of his death. Although the television set had burnt out, the lights on Dircks's Christmas tree were still twinkling away.
Which brings me to something I was speculating about: the possibility of developing new methods of fulfilling fundamental human needs, which evolved in tightly-knit hunter-gatherer societies, in a way that works more economically in a post-communitarian age. Perhaps like the robots that are being developed in Japan to take care of the aging population. Perhaps someone will develop devices (machines, software, or even drugs) to satisfy psychological need such as affection, belonging and social status by entirely synthetic means, allowing people to remain in their cubicles, fitter, happier and more productive.
The Onion: Family of Five Found Alive in Suburbs:
Upon discovery, the family was rushed back to civilization. Attempts to reassimilate the Holsapples into metropolitan living with a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago and dinner at a nice Peruvian restaurant were met with resistance. "When we got to the museum, the family became quite agitated," psychologist Dr. Allan Green said. "Jay kept calling all the modern art 'weird' and Meredith said, 'If we wanted to look at art, we could just go to Deck The Walls at the mall.'"
Upon arriving in Buffalo Grove in 1993, the Holsapples befriended the locals, called "suburbanites," and soon adopted their ways entirely, from the mode of dress to the food they eat. Meredith Holsapple described in great detail the suburban settlements called "sub-divisions" where great emphasis is placed on maintaining lawns, watching televised sports, birthing children, listening to Top 40 music, and collecting stuffed animals.
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