The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'consumerism'
The New York Times has a fascinating article about how retail companies use data mining and carefully targeted coupons to analyse and influence the spending habits of consumers, without the consumers getting wise to what's happening and resisting:
Almost every major retailer, from grocery chains to investment banks to the U.S. Postal Service, has a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently market to them. “But Target has always been one of the smartest at this,” says Eric Siegel, a consultant and the chairman of a conference called Predictive Analytics World. “We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”A specific case the article describes is that of finding new parents-to-be, who will soon be in a position of having to form new spending habits, and doing so before the competition can identify them from public information; which is to say, inferring from statistical information whether a customer is likely to be pregnant, and at which stage, and then subtly manipulating her spending through the various milestones of her child's development:
The only problem is that identifying pregnant customers is harder than it sounds. Target has a baby-shower registry, and Pole started there, observing how shopping habits changed as a woman approached her due date, which women on the registry had willingly disclosed. He ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole’s colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.
One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August. What’s more, because of the data attached to her Guest ID number, Target knows how to trigger Jenny’s habits. They know that if she receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store. And they know that if they reward her with a printed receipt that entitles her to a free cup of Starbucks coffee, she’ll use it when she comes back again.The uncanny accuracy of the algorithm is demonstrated by an anecdote about an angry father storming into a Target store demanding why they had sent his teenaged daughter coupons for nappies and prams, and then, some time later, returning to apologise, having discovered that she had, in fact, become pregnant.
Of course, there is the small issue of how to use this wealth of information in a plausibly deniable sense, without being obviously creepy. People, after all, tend to react badly to being surreptitiously watched and manipulated, especially so when deeply personal matters are involved:
“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,” the executive said. “Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”
The BBC has a piece on how university fees have changed academic culture in Britain, streamlining the fusty old halls of academe into a model of efficient free-market service delivery, with none of the fuss and waste that came before:
Frank Furedi, social commentator and academic at the University of Kent, says that the campus culture is "unrecognisable" from a generation ago. Students now ring lecturers at home at the weekend, he says, seeing this as being part of the service they are buying with their fees.
"The relationship with the student is no longer academic, it's a service provider and customer. The academic relationship is an endangered species."
Students are more careers-focused than ever before, the accumulation of large debts putting pressure on them to get a degree that will help them in the jobs market.
At present, he says, the current level of student debt means that many more students have to take part-time jobs to pay their way.
The Times' Giles Coren (who's sort of like a more highbrow Jeremy Clarkson or something) has a terrific rant against the whole notion that, in times of economic hardship, what we need is low-brow escapism:
Escapism is an illusion. Escapism is what has got us into this mess. Buying on credit, from the tiddliest MasterCard lunch you couldn't really afford to billion-dollar leveraged buyouts, is, when you boil it down, just escapism - avoiding any sort of engagement with objective reality and doing something just because it feels good at the time. Like a child might do. Or a monkey.
If you had at least read a bit of Tolstoy, you might have expanded your mind a little. If, instead of watching all those reality shows, you had learnt Japanese, you would be in a better position to remain in work. And if, rather than calling radio phone-ins to say that Len Goodman is a spoilsport, you had learnt the French horn, you would, if nothing else, be able to play your children a bit of Mozart while they sit shivering round the last candle in the house.
I cannot tell you how furious I am with these people who seem to think they should be given back the money they spent on voting for John Sergeant. Anyone to whom a single pound represents a significant, useful quantity of money, and who spent it on a celebrity game show vote, should have his or her assets frozen immediately - under the counter-terrorism laws if need be. Their children should be taken into care. And they should have their credit cards melted and moulded into a stick with which they should be flogged until they bleed.
It was the fat years that made us lazy, dumbed us down, replaced great television with a series of reality shows and killed literature to make room for celebrity whingeing and kiddy books repackaged for adults. It is no coincidence that the publication cycle of Harry Potter, from the first book to the seventh, marked almost exactly the years of economic growth. It is a fat, lazy race that turns its brain off as a prelude to cultural engagement.The original article was a response to a "scandal" to do with the voting on a BBC celebrity dancing programme, which came a few weeks after the BBC was involved in another scandal, to do with Russell Brand (a supposed comedian whose shtick seems to be "I'm a wild and crazy guy who thinks with his balls") leaving obscene messages on Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs' answering machine. Which does bring to mind the question of why is the BBC spending licence-payers' funds on putting out such drivel. Has the commercial media somehow failed at providing viewers with lowbrow junk food for the eyes, a failure which requires the intervention of an institution such as the BBC? Are its lofty Reithian principles of broadcasting as something to educate and elevate seen as too stodgy or snobbish or out of touch with the new democracy of the lowest common denominator? Has neo-Thatcherite everything-is-a-market fundamentalism and New Labour's image-driven culture redefined the BBC's mission in terms of competing for eyeballs with the Murdochs and lad mags in an orgy of sensationalism? Is there a secret compact between New Labour and News Corp. to let the public down gently, transforming a cherished and lofty institution through gradual neglect into just another peddler of celebrity scandal, so that the formerly unthinkable step of selling it off comes, the public, voting with their pocketbooks, will be all for it?
In the 1990s, Two Russian-born, US-based conceptual artists calling themselves Komar and Melamid created what they intend to be the world's most unlikeable song. The 22-minute opus is assembled from a palette of elements determined (through a poll) to be the least desirable aspects of songs, and includes things like an operatic soprano rapping about cowboys over a tuba-backed bassline and bagpipe breaks, a children's choir singing inane holiday ditties and advertising Wal-Mart, and someone shouts political slogans over elevator music. It is, in its own way, awesome:
The most unwanted music is over 25 minutes long, veers wildly between loud and quiet sections, between fast and slow tempos, and features timbres of extremely high and low pitch, with each dichotomy presented in abrupt transition. The most unwanted orchestra was determined to be large, and features the accordion and bagpipe (which tie at 13% as the most unwanted instrument), banjo, flute, tuba, harp, organ, synthesizer (the only instrument that appears in both the most wanted and most unwanted ensembles). An operatic soprano raps and sings atonal music, advertising jingles, political slogans, and "elevator" music, and a children's choir sings jingles and holiday songs. The most unwanted subjects for lyrics are cowboys and holidays, and the most unwanted listening circumstances are involuntary exposure to commercials and elevator music. Therefore, it can be shown that if there is no covariance—someone who dislikes bagpipes is as likely to hate elevator music as someone who despises the organ, for example—fewer than 200 individuals of the world's total population would enjoy this piece.Komar and Melamid also produced what their research pointed to as America's most wanted song; it's somewhat less interesting, being a schmaltzy assemblage of Kenny G-esque sax, FM electric piano, R&B female vocals and husky male vocals, not to mention the obligatory guitar solo and not one but two truck driver's gear changes. It is, quite literally, a statistical average of early-1990s commercial radio music; if you're morbidly curious, there's a MP3 here. They also did a survey of what the American public liked to see most in paintings, and produced the resulting work of art, an autumnal landscape with wild animals, a family enjoying the outdoors—and, standing in the middle of it, George Washington.
From the artists' own website:
In an age where opinion polls and market research invade almost every aspect of our "democratic/consumer" society (with the notable exception of art), Komar and Melamid's project poses relevant questions that an art-interested public, and society in general often fail to ask: What would art look like if it were to please the greatest number of people? Or conversely: What kind of culture is produced by a society that lives and governs itself by opinion polls?
(via Boing Boing)
A study in Singapore has shown that the sight or smell of appetising food can compel people to make impulse purchases, or else compromise their ability to judge risks and payoffs:
Similarly, another experiment used a cookie-scented candle to further gauge whether appetitive stimulus affects consumer behavior. Female study participants in a room with a hidden chocolate-chip cookie scented candle were much more likely to make an unplanned purchase of a new sweater -- even when told they were on a tight budget -- than those randomly assigned to a room with a hidden unscented candle (67 percent vs. 17 percent).The researchers make the further claim that "the presence of an attractive woman in the trading room might propel an investor to choose the investment option providing smaller but sooner rewards".
(via Boing Boing)
BBC Newsnight's Ethical Man, Justin Rowlatt, claims that the Christmas tradition of gift-giving, in its present consumeristic incarnation, is exacting a ruinous ecological cost in carbon emissions:
The real problem is that giving presents is an inherently inefficient activity. It means guessing what someone else may want or need. Every now and then you'll buy the perfect shirt but more often than not the ornament or tie or garden thermometer will end up in the attic or more likely in a landfill site and all the carbon that went into making it is completely wasted.
A few decades ago you probably needed the socks that your mum gave you or the saucepan she was given by her Aunt. These days it is different. Consumer goods are so cheap and plentiful that even people on very low incomes have no shortage of stuff.
Indeed, if you need proof of how corrupt our present giving culture has become look no further than the "gift" shops that have colonised every high street. You know the ones; they sell things no-one wants like scented candles, little vases and foot massage kits.Perhaps it's time for a carbon-correct rewriting of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which starts off with Scrooge as a profligate consumerist, loading his SUV up with loads of chintzy, useless plastic tat, with the intention of wrapping it up and giving it copiously to everyone he knows, as if in the throes of some seasonal lunacy. He then would be visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who would show him the ecological and ethical consequences of his entry into the "Christmas spirit" (child slaves making toys in some hellish sweatshop in Asia, last year's presents all discarded and crushed under landfill, leaching toxins into the water table, and the ecological consequences for the world in a few decades if people keep doing this). Chastened, Scrooge mends his ways, and from now on, each of his nearest and dearest gets a £5 note and an Oxfam goat for a village in Africa.
Rowlatt points out that giving cash would be much more efficient and less likely to result in carbon emissions being generated for no good use, though cash is considered somewhat crass; in fact, anything efficient or utilitarian is considered improper (take, for example, how socks (something people all wear) have become a byword for lousy Christmas presents):
I've never understood why giving money is considered bad form. Wasn't that five pound note folded into Granny's card the very best present of all? You could use it to buy something you actually wanted. Not only that, cash is completely carbon free (until you buy something, of course).Perhaps, if we want to make the giving of efficient gifts (i.e., cash) acceptable, we need a special ceremonial form of cash which is not used in day-to-day transactions. This would be legal tender, much like normal cash, though would look different, and people would be socially discouraged from using it for mundane uses such as buying groceries. (A parallel, ceremonial form of legal tender isn't as far-fetched as it sounds; Britain already has one, though one that's used in giving alms to the poor.)
Remember the Cat And Girl "Indie Rock Is A Dead Language" T-shirt that was on sale a while ago, and then disappeared without a trace? Well, it has been reprinted, though is available only for a short time, so if you want one, you'll have to hurry.
British psychologist Oliver James (the author of Affluenza, a critique of the effects of materialism and consumerism on happiness) travelled to Australia for research, and found that Sydney was particularly badly affected by soul-deadening hypercompetitive materialism:
Adelaide and Melbourne had a "different vibe" and did not strike James as being as materialistic as Sydney. He had not been to Sydney before and expected a "philistine nation" of "jolly, uncomplicated fun-seekers". Instead, he found a city in thrall to American values and a puritan work ethic that robbed life of joy and meaning. Middle-class Sydney, he writes, is "packed with career-obsessed workaholics". When they are not working the longest hours in the developed world, they pursue perfect bodies through joyless fitness regimes, or obsess about property prices. Always, they are looking around anxiously, in the hope that others aren't doing better than them.
"They (Sydneysiders) were like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz. They had no idea of the point of their lives, other than to get rich." James noted Bureau of Statistics figures highlighting a rise in depression that coincided with a bullish property market, which caused stress and anxiety -- particularly among young Australians.You'd think that, being from Britain, he wouldn't be one to talk; after all, if any place is soullessly materialistic and aggressively hypercompetitive, it would be London, right? Well, not quite, according to James; Britain's class system, you see, insulates it from the excesses of affluenza that grip America and Sydney:
"The British, compared to the US or Aussies, are less easily convinced that money will get you further. The British elite have been around for an awfully long time and there is not the crassness of the Australian rich."
A recent paper, A Corpus-based Approach to Finding Happiness (PDF) attempts to find a recipe for happiness, through the analysis of words in mood-tagged LiveJournal posts:
Our study is based on a collection of blogposts from LiveJournal.com, annotated with happy and sad moods. Every blog community practices a different genre of writingâ from our experience, LiveJournal.com blogs more closely recount the goings-on and happenstance of everyday life than any other blog communityThe study looked at both words and posting times, and used Bayesian techniques to find patterns, and compared the findings against a similar word ranking named ANEW, based on clinical studies, coming up with some interesting (and sometimes surprising) conclusions:
For instance, a topic that is often talked about in relation to happiness is love. In fact, looking up the ANEW list of words, love ranks the third out of 1034 words, with a high 87.2 pleasure factor. Instead, the word love in our list is neutral, with a happiness factor of only 48.7. Moreover, a morphological variation of the same word, loved, is ranked similarly high in the ANEW list (86.4), but it is marked as a sad word in our list (28.1). The only happy variation of this word is lovely, which has a happiness factor of 77.3 (this word does not appear in the ANEW list). What these rankings suggest is that the stereotypical view of love (the public view) is that of a happy word (the ANEW ranking), but the more private view of this word is neutral, due to a balanced distribution of this concept in both happy and sad moments.
There are also several examples of words in our list that have a high happiness factor, and yet they are not even listed in the ANEW list of words. For instance, shopping (79.5) and bought (69.9), are two of the highly ranked words in our list. Similarly, food related events (lunch (73.1), dinner (72.1) food (65.0), drink (64.4), etc.) have a high happiness factor, with only two of these concepts (dinner and food) being mentioned in the ANEW list. Another interesting example that has a positive happiness load in our list is drunk (59.1), which is most likely not one of the most widely publicly admitted states of happiness.The study also charted the occurrence of happiness by time of day and week (finding that happiness is at a low at around 8am, as people are wrenched from their blissful sleep to face the drudgery of the world), and peaks at 2-4am (presumably because of the nocturnal habits of LiveJournallers); on a weekly chart, happiness peaks on Saturday and then dives, reaching a low on Wednesday before climbing back for the weekend. Which shows that anticipation plays a big part in one's immediate happiness.
Other observations in the paper: sad posts include more actions (presumably because of a tendency to write about bad things that happened) and "human-centred" words (the latter presumably because depression involves thinking about one's woeful lot in life, whereas happiness doesn't), whereas happy posts include more descriptions of things and "social" words. Also, the study answers Jens Lekman's question about birthdays in the affirmative, with the word "birthday" having a high happiness score. And whilst loving a person is likely to make one sad, loving a thing makes one happy, because we've all got a little bit of Gollum inside:
A large fraction of the bigrams with low happiness factor are centered around humans, i.e. miss you, I hate, I wish, for him, you were, etc. An observation in the same vein can be drawn from the ranking of three-grams, where facts revolving around love are related to humans in the top sad three-grams, I love him (37.33), I love you (37.09), but refer to objects in the three-grams with high happiness factor: I love it (85.00), I love the (82.85), I love that (68.62). This reinforces the findings from the previous section, which showed that expressions of sad feelings are more often human-centered than the happy feelings.The authors conclude with a recipe for happiness, based on their findings:
Go shop for something new — something cool, make sure that you love it. Then have lots of food, for dinner preferably, as the times of breakfast and lunch are to be avoided. Consider also including a new, hot taste, and one of your favorite drinks. Then go to an interesting place, it could be a movie, a concert, a party, or any other social place. Having fun, and optionally getting drunk, is also part of the recipe. Note that you should avoid any unnecessary actions, as they can occasionally trigger feelings of unhappiness. Ideally the recipe should be served on a Saturday, for maximum happiness effect. If all this happens on your birthday, even better.
The Fermi Paradox is the observation that it is highly probable that, somewhere else in the universe, intelligent life would have arisen and made its presence known by now, and yet Earth seems to be alone in the universe. Since the paradox was first posed in the 1940s, a number of solutions have been proposed, many of them not cheering, and many reflected the Cold War era they originated in: perhaps any species that reaches a certain technical level inevitably develops the means to destroy itself, and does so. Perhaps in a universe of aliens competing for resources and having little means of achieving agreement, any species that broadcasts its presence is doomed to be preemptively annihilated by others, lest it develop the means to do so. Which means that all those broadcasts of Malcolm In The Middle we're carelessly sending out to space could be responded to by a barrage of planet-killing projectiles travelling at close to light speed.
Now evolutionary psychology has suggested a new possible solution to Fermi's Paradox: perhaps it's not so much a case of sentient species wiping themselves out upon attaining the means to do so, as of turning inwards and devoting all their energy to video games and virtual reality, things much more immediately gratifying than doing battle with the real universe:
Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain's ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels...ever so good.
The result is that we don't seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that have tended to promote survival, and luscious mates who have tended to produce bright, healthy babies. The modern result? Fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote real biological fitness, but it's even better at delivering fake fitness--subjective cues of survival and reproduction without the real-world effects. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity. The business of humanity has become entertainment, and entertainment is the business of feeding fake fitness cues to our brains.This comes down to the reward mechanisms that served our ancient ancestors' genes well being far too slow to adapt to technological hacks that short-circuit these reward mechanisms:
Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. With the invention of the printing press, people read more and have fewer kids. (Only a few curmudgeons lament this.) With the invention of Xbox 360, people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson's King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: iPods, DVDs, TiVo, Sirius Satellite Radio, Motorola cellphones, the Spice channel, EverQuest, instant messaging, MDMA, BC bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental and social development--athletics, homework, dating--are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute. Take, for example, the MIT graduates who apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.The author posits the idea that all intelligent species that develop the technology to create computer simulations of this sort go through the "Great Temptation", and subsequently die out, and that this is happening to humanity, with our only hope of survival as a species would be to develop a puritanical opposition to virtual reality, a sort of biological fundamentalism:
Some individuals and families may start with an "irrational" Luddite abhorrence of entertainment technology, and they may evolve ever more self-control, conscientiousness and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratifica tion, child-rearing and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the religious right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace left.
This, too, may be happening already. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and anti-consumerism activists already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our creative-class dreamworlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the Earth as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox.
If this article is to be believed, the young people who grew up in John Howard's Australia have taken the Tory government's values wholly to heart:
The language of the Howard Government on religious minorities and refugees has resulted in a generation desensitised to the very human realities and manifestations of global inequity and ethnic difference. When Howard talks of "queue jumpers" and "illegals" to describe refugees, there is a knee-jerk tendency among young people to apportion blame rather than feel empathy. This is a state of affairs that Howard has personally overseen, a significant paradigm shift that entrenches a deep and pernicious ethos of social hierarchy and privilege.
Simultaneously, there is a tendency of young people to flock to evangelical religious movements in the past five years, particularly in the outer suburbs of our capital cities. Without wishing to speak disparagingly about young people seeking spiritual depth, we can say that within these new popular religious movements disengagement with mainstream political reality is fostered. To many of these groups, "family values" becomes a code for being anti-gay, anti-euthanasia and anti-abortion. It is alarming to hear how frequently young people today embrace this kind of neo-conservatism, almost like a race to see who can be more right-wing.
Moreover, with Howard's constant talk of a very white-bread brand of traditional family values being paramount to a good society, we have seen a sudden rush of young people to get married early, get a home loan and shift to the suburbs at the first opportunity. This obsession has even extended into the gay community, which after fighting for 30 years to keep the government out of the bedroom, now appears to be fighting for the approval of Howard for their relationships.
Coupled with this, we have witnessed in Australia a new kind of hyper-consumerism. The social centre of town on any given evening is now the local shopping centre. Young people are all too eager to get the biggest credit limits possible, and max their Visa cards out with the casualness of a walk in the park. Indeed, the Howard era has brought us closer to US style ultra-materialism, where "retail therapy" is the new buzz word. Feeling bored or depressed? Better get to Chadstone shopping centre. The so-called metrosexual male has become little more than a crass marketing ploy.The lack of empathy, hyperconsumerism and devil-take-the-hindmost mentality could be the same Hobbesian muscular nihilism witnessed in the United States. Though the rise of US-style right-wing evangelical churches and acceptance of conformistic ideas of "family values" is more alarming, especially coupled with the thread of intolerance for difference hinted at. Australia may be changing, on a deep level, into one large Red State, one in which nonconformity is something to be punished and straightened rather than embraced.
The hottest children's toy this Crassmas is the Youniverse ATM Machine, a piggy bank/toy cash machine.
Tweens and beyond can insert the supplied ATM card into the silver machine, punch in their PIN, be greeted by name on the electronic display, peer into the pretend security camera and wait for that seminal capitalistic moment -- when crisp bills miraculously appear, ripe for the plucking.
The marketers have a term for it: KGOY -- "Kids growing older younger." The ATM is a real KGOY toy, says Juliet B. Schor, a Boston University professor who wrote "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture."
The ATM, marked for ages 8 and up, "is symbolically significant and highly valued -- the money machine! It must have a very strong aspirational pull. Using an ATM is one of the things that grown-ups do in full view of kids that the kids have very little access to," says Schor. "It's one part of consuming that kids aren't in on. They are full-fledged consumers, buying clothing, picking groceries, selecting toys. They go to the spa and get their nails done. But they don't have entry into the real ATM."
Well, it's probably less harmful than selling them candy cigarettes. Other than that, opinion seems divided on whether it indoctrinates kids into becoming materialistic consumer zombies or teaches sensible money management habits.
Apparently mobile phones are replacing cars as the dominant means for young people to assert their identities/freedom. Cars are a bit unhip these days, being large, bulky and environmentally unfriendly, whereas phones, with ringtones, custom covers and those pointless bitmapped Eminem/Manchester United/No Fear/whatever logos that go for a few dollars in magazine ads, have taken over both as a fashion item and a symbol of independence and mobility.
That mobile phones are taking on many of the social functions of cars is to be welcomed. While it is a laudable goal that everyone on earth should someday have a mobile phone, cars' ubiquity produces mixed feelings. They are a horribly inefficient mode of transport--why move a ton of metal around in order to transport a few bags of groceries?--and they cause pollution, in the form of particulates and nasty gases. A chirping handset is a much greener form of self-expression than an old banger. It may irritate but it is safe. In the hands of a drunk driver, a car becomes a deadly weapon. That is not true of a phone (though terrorists recently rigged mobile phones to trigger bombs in Madrid). Despite concern that radiation from phones and masts causes health problems, there is no clear evidence of harm, and similar worries about power lines and computer screens proved unfounded. Less pollution, less traffic, fewer alcohol-related deaths and injuries: the switch from cars to phones cannot happen soon enough.
But does this mean we'll see pop songs glorifying the freedom-facilitating power of mobile phones in the near future? What would the 21st-century equivalent of, say, Prefab Sprout's Cars and Girls, be like?
If you can read this, then we're back. A routine machine relocation didn't go quite to plan, but it's all fixed now (hopefully).
And below is the backlog of blog items that didn't get posted to The Null Device over the past few days:
- Your tax dollars at work: A US spy agency as been monitoring webcams at an Islay distillery, just in case they were making chemical weapons instead of whisky. Defense Threat Reduction Agency officials stressed that monitoring Scottish distilleries was not a high priority, but stated that it would take just a "tweak" to modify the whisky-making process to produce chemical weapons. (Hmmm; that suggests some interesting near-future scenarios for potential flashpoints between the United States of America and Britain and a rogue People's Republic of Scotland.)
- An interesting paper on the design of the Google File System, a custom file system optimised for storing huge (multi-gigabyte) files on large farms of fault-prone hardware. (via bOING bOING)
- The latest fad in baby naming in the U.S. involved naming your children after your favourite brands of consumer goods. Looks like Max Barry wasn't all that far off: (via Techdirt)
"His daddy insisted on it because Timberlands were the pride of his wardrobe. The alternative was Reebok," said the 32-year-old nurse, who is now divorced. "I wanted Kevin."
This is only the latest chapter in the boom of giving children unique names.
According to the most recent census, at least 10,000 different names are now in use, two-thirds of which were largely unknown before World War II.
- "We're Gonna Get You After School!" Gibson's Law applies to playground mob psychology, with kids setting up websites and blogs to call their classmates names. This way, technology may be said to have democratised bullying, as it's no longer the musclebound alpha-jocks and the popular rich girls who have a monopoly on making others' lives miserable. (via TechDirt)
One 12-year-old blogger, writing on the popular Angelfire Web site, recently announced she would devote her page to "anyone and everyone i hate and why." She minced no words. "erin used to be aka miss perfect. too bad now u r a train face. hahaha. god did that to u since u r such a b -- . ashley stop acting like a slut wannabe. lauren u fat b -- can't even go out at night w/ ur friends. . . . and laurinda u suck u god damn flat, weird voice, skinny as a stick b -- ."
The author of the article calls for the use of "parental control devices" to stamp out "social cruelty", much in the way that filters have been used to stop pornography. Which sounds more like it would strip those kids put upon by the alpha-jocks/princesses of their online support networks of fellow outsiders.
- More on the internet's impact on human interaction: Internet chat addiction can stunt social skills in introverted adolescents, says a researcher in "social administration". Dr. Mubarak Rahamathulla says that research suggests that chat rooms have contributed to some teenagers fearing conventional social interaction, and becoming more dependent on anonymity or pseudonymity. However, he says, webcams may be a safe, healthy way for to explore their sexuality. Perhaps the future belongs to asocial chatroom onanists, who are into anything as long as it doesn't involve actual human contact?
- The AT&T text-to-speech demo site now has two British voices; the male one sounds somewhat deranged, as if having at some time in the past eaten some BSE-contaminated beef. (via kineticfactory)
- A company is now selling licensed arcade ROMs for MAME. StarROMs currently have a few dozen titles, all from Atari, but plan to have more; games cost between US$2 and US$6 per title, and all are unencrypted ROM images suitable for MAME, with no DRM chicanery to be seen. Let's hope this idea catches on.
- Transcosmopolitan, or Spider Jerusalem's stint as features writer for a women's lifestyle magazine. (via Warren Ellis' LiveJournal comments)
Postmodern ironies aplenty here: In the manufacturing countries, manufacturing of fake designer clothing has overtaken the legitimate manufacture of such items. Not only that, but the knockoffs are often of superior quality to the legitimate products; oh, and since they're made in the largest quantities, they are often the cheapest clothing on the market. Somewhere in the third world, a slum-dweller is wearing a pair of Levi's better than the one you forked over $100 for.
She had bought herself jeans in Bolivia which were as good as those she could buy anywhere else. "In fact, they are not replicas at all but originals designed for the local market but with a designer label included because otherwise they would not sell," Dr Laurie said.
She had watched a young man operating a laptop computer from a car battery in a tin shack while he downloaded logos from the internet, traced them, and began manufacturing designer labels for local factories.
All this probably also ties into the perils of commodification which have been eating everybody from SCO to the RIAA alive.
"Won't you ever ask me / who's going to make this night / the loneliest night of the year:" Valentine's Day, that celebration of the essentiality of coupledness to human self-worth and the essentiality of conspicuous consumption to the maintenance of coupledness, is approaching. Already the signs are appearing, just like shop-window Christmas paraphernalia in early November: pink, fluffy ads for romance-related goods and services are hung in shop windows, and spam reading "VALENTINE MUST: VIAGRA ORDERS MADE EASY" is flooding into inboxes.