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A new study in the US has found a positive correlation between the number of big-box retail stores in an area and the number of hate groups in that area; the study used Wal-Mart as a proxy for big-box retailers:
The amount of Wal-Mart stores in a county was more statistically significant than other factors commonly regarded as important to hate group participation, such as the unemployment rate, high crime rates and low education, the research found.
"Wal-Mart has clearly done good things in these communities, especially in terms of lowering prices," said Stephan Goetz, a Penn State University professor who also serves as the director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. "But there may be indirect costs that are not as obvious as other effects."It is speculated that the correlation may be due to the fraying of the social ties that exist in areas with smaller, less impersonal, shops. Whether Wal-Mart's owners' politics (generally well on the right of the Republican party) have anything to do with the correlation is unclear.
According to sociologist Eric Klinenberg, we are witnessing an unprecedented rise in people choosing to live alone; and while this has been happening over a century, it is now becoming a stable state for large numbers of people, rather than being a temporary state between childhood, youthful house-sharing and nuclear parenthood:
You’d think that the United States, with its cult of individualism, would be the world leader in living alone, but it’s not. Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, among others, come in ahead of us. That’s because they’re advanced welfare states that combine their own emphasis on the individual with extensive social safety nets.
In the absence of such safety nets, terrible things can happen, especially to those who grow old in isolation. Klinenberg, who is not yet 40, won a reputation as a leading figure in his field with his much-discussed first book, “Heat Wave: The Social Autopsy of a Disaster in Chicago,’’ which analyzed the deaths of over 700 people in Chicago during a weeklong period in July of 1995. Most of them were senior citizens who died at home and alone. Klinenberg showed how they were victims not just of the weather but of a social order that left them without the support of family, community, or government.Klinenberg also rejects the usual clichés about living alone being a symptom of alienation and social atomisation (i.e., "bowling alone") and a pathological state, raising the claim that people who live alone often have richer social lives than those in traditional nuclear family arrangements:
“One reason so many people live alone today is that they can do it while being extremely social,’’ Klinenberg told me in an email. “You needn’t live a traditional lifestyle to have a community. In fact, people who live alone are more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors than are married people.’’
Big changes in the structure of everyday life have converged to enable us to live alone: the greater freedom and economic power of women, the communications revolution, longer life spans. Klinenberg sees living alone as a choice, not a form of exile, and it’s a choice we value because it’s infused with principles that are important to us: individual freedom, personal control, self-realization.In other words, living with other people is not so much as the ideal state, or the most psychologically beneficial, as the least-worst state in societies where individuals don't have the means of living richly social lives from autonomous bases; and, indeed, the continuous stream of compromises resulting from sharing quarters with others can confine one to the lower rungs of the Maslow hierarchy of needs. (Of course, some traditionalists would contend that lack of self-actualisation is just another word for character-building, and that the self-actualised (or self-actualising; it's not clear whether self-actualisation is a state one can ever actually reach) character is a woefully underbuilt one, but that's another discussion.) Or, in other words, what common sense tells us is the natural order of things is the system of compromises we have become familiar with, to the point of assuming that that's the way things are meant to be. (Aside: if human neurologies have evolved to form stable social orders, then it's likely that humans have a innate bias towards classifying long-standing circumstances as natural rules, if not divine commandments, and not questioning them.)
The latest Japanese innovation for keeping its growing elderly population company: a robotic seal. Named "Paro", the therapeutic robot responds to touches and adapts its personality to its owner's; the human mind's tendency to see the illusion of agency does the rest.
I'm not sure why they chose a seal rather than a more conventional companion animal, though perhaps because, due to the unfamiliarity of seals as domestic pets, an apparently living plush toy would be less likely to fall into Mori's uncanny valley than, say, a fake dog or cat.
Paro is being tested in hospitals and nursing homes in Japan, where it has reportedly had positive results.
The next big thing in today's socially atomised, time-stressed world could be friend rental services, allowing people who don't have the time or social connections to make friends the traditional way to pay people to hang out with them:
While it is free to become a friend and advertise your social services on the site, anyone wanting to rent a friend must pay $24.95 a month (about £17 in the UK) or $69.95 a year (£47) to become a member. Some friends offer their services for free, while others charge anything from $10 to $50 an hour, plus all expenses incurred on the friend "date".
"I guess some people who use the site are losers and maybe disconnected from a regular social life, but most people I've met seem normal. In a big city like New York it's not always easy to meet people," she says.
"If it feels like work to hang out with someone or like I'm their shrink then I'd definitely need to get well paid. But I haven't met anyone that boring yet."Of course, whether the person whom you're buying dinner in return for company can be considered to be a friend is debatable, to say the least; perhaps "rent a companion" sounded too sleazily euphemistic?
The latest use of offshore personal outsourcing: cutting the drudgery out of online dating:
Anyway, last weekend I was talking to an acquaintance about his use of such services. He has his assistant seducing women for him. His assistant, who is female and lives in India, logs onto his account on a popular dating site, browses profiles and (pretending to be him) makes connections with women on the site. She has e-mail conversations and arranges first dates. Then her employer reads the e-mail conversation and goes to the date. (Perhaps he also does a quick vet before arranging a date to be sure the assistant has chosen well, but I did not confirm that.)Currently, this seems anomalous and a bit sleazy, but perhaps there'll come a time when a variant of this (minus the sketchy subterfuge of it) becomes the norm. After all, the pace of life continues to accelerate and people have less unstructured time. (This is so across the spectrum, from high-powered executives to overworked students holding down two jobs to keep their heads above water.) Spare time is a declining luxury these days. Meanwhile, online dating, at least in its early stages is a labour-intensive activity: reading dozens of profiles and crafting charming responses tailored to the individual strangers, who will most probably not reply. This is a tedious and unrewarding activity, and, clearly, not the sort of thing today's time-stressed professional has time to spare on.
Perhaps the offshore-dating-assistant position will evolve into a sort of dating agent: half recruitment consultant, half marketing professional, with a touch of seduction guru thrown in (depending on how much of a bro the client sees themself as). There will be differently priced tiers of service. Those with the means looking for a partner (or a hook-up) will hire them, getting generally the level of service (in finding and wooing suitable partners, and selling them) they paid for. Those who don't will either do the job themselves, cutting into sleeping time or whatever, or go bowling alone.
A Facebook intern and PhD student in human-computer interaction has used Facebook to measure the relationship between sharing and wellbeing. Moira Burke's findings, gained by measuring the interactions between Facebook users who filled in surveys, has found, unsurprisingly, that active sharing (such as posting content and sending messages) is more correlated with wellbeing than passive consumption.
The BBC looks at the sociological phenomena behind the rising popularity of cupcakes:
The humble cupcake has even been linked to political culture. Ms Twilley sees cupcakes both democratic - one each - and libertarian - there is no imperative to share and everyone chooses a flavour - in marked contrast to the communal cake.
Dr Smith believes there could be something behind this theory. "There are more diverse kinds of families now," he says. "These social changes could have an impact upon the type of baking we're producing. Quantity could have changed - it might be that we prefer lots of little cakes to one huge one now."Cupcakes as a symptom of social atomisation/the bowling-alone phenomenon/the decline of collective institutions?
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)
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.
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