The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'status'
From an article by Nick Cohen about the current Frieze art fair in London, an observation on the function that huge, tacky-looking artworks fulfil in validating their wealthy purchasers' status; Cohen's argument is that monumental kitsch is a peacock-tail-like mechanism for (expensively and unforgeably) demonstrating that one has status putting one beyond the criticism of one's inferiors:
The justifications from the critics whom galleries always seem able to find to dignify the shallow add to the melancholy spectacle. They talk of challenging our notions of what is art as Duchamp did with his urinal. They forget that Duchamp offered his "fountain" to a New York show in 1917 – almost a century ago, and his once radical ideas are now so established they will soon deserve a telegram from the Queen. "Everything changes except the avant garde," said Paul Valéry. Yet Frieze shows one change, although not a change for the better.
Collectors do not buy Koons because he challenges their definitions of art. The ever-popular explanation that the nouveau riche have no taste strikes me as equally false – there's no reason why the nouveau riche should have better or worse taste than anyone else.
What a buyer of a giant kitten or a gargantuan fried egg says to those who view his purchase is this: "I know you think that I am a stupid rich man who has wasted a fortune on trash. But because I am rich you won't say so and your silence is the best sign I have of my status. I can be wasteful and crass and ridiculous and you dare not confront me, whatever I do."
Idea of the day: the Happy Recession; the idea that the internet, through driving prices and costs down, will permanently deflate both prices and wages; the post-internet world, it seems, jams econo:
The most pernicious aspect of Internet entertainment is that it’s so easy to measure and so easy to mass-produce. So the moment something on the Internet gets fun enough to be competitive with the real-world analogue, it starts getting relentlessly improved until it’s vastly superior. World of Warcraft soaks up upwards of forty hours per week from serious fans, who pay about $15 per month for their subscriptions. Few other hobbies can consume so much time at such a low cost.
The web makes it easier to access non-traditional employees at much lower salaries. As we argued in our Demand Media analysis, the real story here is that a stay-at-home mom with a Masters in Journalism can write content that is good enough compared to a typical Madison Avenue copywriter, especially when the rate is $15 per article instead of six figures per year. This disaggregation of writing skill means that companies no longer have to hire good writers in order to write 5% good copy and 95% mediocre work; they can outsource the mediocre stuff and relegate the high-end work to a short-term freelancer.
The web offers cheap social status: In the long term, this may have a bigger effect than the web merely making digitizable products cheaper. Social status games drive a huge amount of economic activity: people strive to get into high-paying, high prestige career tracks, to win promotions and attendant raises, to live in the best neighborhoods and send their kids to the best schools. Few status games lack some kind of economic output—people who play sports well below the professional level still get some job opportunities out of it.One could probably also add a geographical factor to this: in the age of cheap, ubiquitous opportunity, access to economic and cultural opportunities is less dependant on being located in a buzzing metropolis or creative-class hive; after all, if a copywriter or app developer can work from anywhere with creativity, things like music and art scenes (or whatever replaces the post-punk rock'n'roll era construction of the "music scene" in the cultural ecosystem) are centred around blogs rather than physical venues, and one doesn't even need to move to a different place to find like-minded people, there would be less competition for living in more desirable areas, when the price of not doing so no longer includes disconnection from as many opportunities.
Chinese companies looking to make an impression are now hiring random white guys to put on suits and play the parts of American/European business contacts:
Not long ago I was offered work as a quality-control expert with an American company in China I’d never heard of. No experience necessary—which was good, because I had none. I’d be paid $1,000 for a week, put up in a fancy hotel, and wined and dined in Dongying, an industrial city in Shandong province I’d also never heard of. The only requirements were a fair complexion and a suit.
“I call these things ‘White Guy in a Tie’ events,” a Canadian friend of a friend named Jake told me during the recruitment pitch he gave me in Beijing, where I live. “Basically, you put on a suit, shake some hands, and make some money. We’ll be in ‘quality control,’ but nobody’s gonna be doing any quality control. You in?”
In user interface design, sometimes worse is better, as in the case of the Bloomberg Terminal, a proprietary computer terminal used by financial traders. The Bloomberg Terminal's interface, which hasn't been updated for a decade or so, is generally seen as cluttered and ugly. Proposals for more elegant redesigns have been knocked back, because the existing users like the macho ugliness of the interface and the aura of hardcore expertise it bestows on them:
Simplifying the interface of the terminal would not be accepted by most users because, as ethnographic studies show, they take pride on manipulating Bloomberg's current "complex" interface. The pain inflicted by blatant UI flaws such as black background color and yellow and orange text is strangely transformed into the rewarding experience of feeling and looking like a hard-core professional.In other words, the Bloomberg Terminal is one of a class of items whose bad design is a feature serving a higher-level social function; in this case, the function is that of being a badge of proficiency or status, and an artificial handicap to keep usurpers out. In this way, it functions somewhere between the tail of a peacock (which is expensive to grow and makes one more visible to predators, but having one (and being alive) also acts as proof of fitness) and the regalia and rituals of Freemasonry back when it was a force to be reckoned with. Of course, secrets are inherently leaky and can hold power only for so long, so sooner or later, perhaps someone (possibly Apple or Google?) will come along with a more elegantly-designed system that will demystify what it does and, in doing so, hole Bloomberg's boat below the waterline (unless they do so first).
(via Daring Fireball)
A study of social network website users in the US has shown a class divide between MySpace and Facebook users. Apparently Facebook has more users from wealthier homes and more academic backgrounds, while MySpace has more working-class teenagers, minorities and members of social groups ostracised by the popular kids in high school (this may include music- and fashion-related youth subcultures).
Cheap cocaine is not only killing good music, it could be killing its users; apparently one of the reasons cocaine available on the streets of Britain (the cocaine capital of Europe, undoubtedly due to its status-oriented values compared with the continent) is so cheap is because it's cut with a carcinogenic additive, a banned painkiller which looks like cocaine and is cheap.
I wonder how long until pushers start selling "organic cocaine" to Britain's aspirational classes. (It needn't even be any different than the regular stuff; a 200% markup would give it all the authenticity one could plausibly expect.)
The taller one is, a common belief goes, the better one's career and romantic prospects are. (There is some truth to this; studies (in America, I believe) have quantified the expected increase in income per inch of height to be in the order of thousands of dollars a year.) In China, this belief has reached its logical conclusion, with height-anxious Chinese investing in torture-rack-style stretching machines and Gattaca-style height-enhancement surgery.
Hacker and painter Maciej Ceglowski calls bullshit on Paul Graham's Hackers and Painters, claiming that the two occupations have no more in common than hackers and, say, pastry chefs, and that Graham's essay is basically an attempt to appropriate a sexier and more romantic image by hand-waving and sophistry:
Great paintings, for example, get you laid in a way that great computer programs never do. Even not-so-great paintings - in fact, any slapdash attempt at splashing paint onto a surface - will get you laid more than writing software, especially if you have the slightest hint of being a tortured, brooding soul about you. For evidence of this I would point to my college classmate Henning, who was a Swedish double art/theatre major and on most days could barely walk.
Also remark that in painting, many of the women whose pants you are trying to get into aren't even wearing pants to begin with. Your job as a painter consists of staring at naked women, for as long as you wish, and this day in and day out through the course of a many-decades-long career. Not even rock musicians have been as successful in reducing the process to its fundamental, exhilirating essence.
It's no surprise, then, that a computer programmer would want to bask in some of the peripheral coolness that comes with painting, especially when he has an axe to grind about his own work being 'mere engineering'.
Ceglowski puts the blame for Hackers and Painters, and the whole genre on the obvious suspects:
I blame Eric Raymond and to a lesser extent Dave Winer for bringing this kind of schlock writing onto the Internet. Raymond is the original perpetrator of the "what is a hacker?" essay, in which you quickly begin to understand that a hacker is someone who resembles Eric Raymond. Dave Winer has recently and mercifully moved his essays off to audio, but you can still hear him snorfling cashew nuts and talking at length about what it means to be a blogger . These essays and this writing style are tempting to people outside the subculture at hand because of their engaging personal tone and idiosyncratic, insider's view. But after a while, you begin to notice that all the essays are an elaborate set of mirrors set up to reflect different facets of the author, in a big distributed act of participatory narcissism.
Disclaimer: I'm currently halfway through Hackers and Painters; so far, I've found it interesting in a big-ideas sort of way. Though I am as yet undecided on whether the emperor is actually clothed, and whether Graham is a visionary master, a self-important blowhard or a bit of both. (One could perhaps count it in Graham's defense that Ceglowski admits to being a Perl programmer, but I digress.)
From today's Odd Spot:
A survey in a German car magazine has found that male BMW drivers have sex more often than owners of any other car - 2.2 times a week. Porsche owners have sex the least - 1.4 times.
...meanwhile, low-status individuals who don't own cars have little or no sex. Or perhaps, to quote Alex Torres, "Snazzy cars. Helping losers have sex since 1895."
On a tangent, a professor of creative writing recounts evading the seductive wiles of hordes of young, flirtatious female students, either after a good grade or, allegedly, the coming-of-age ritual of "doing the prof". For some reason, this doesn't seem to happen very much in computer-science institutions.
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?
The Coolsie Paradox: daggy 80s top-40 (like, say, Prince or Cyndi Lauper or whoever did Eye Of The Tiger) is cooler than things like The Cure or The Smiths or the Jesus & Mary Chain; that's because everybody knows that the Smiths were cool, and so being "into" them carries little coolness points; whereas, the more daggy/trashy something is, the bigger cojones (or more highly developed sense of hipster irony) you're showing when you admit being into it.
Many years ago, I first discovered The Cure via a borrowed cassette copy of Standing On A Beach: The Singles. On its B-side, after A Night Like This, it was padded out with Phil Collins songs; a shocking faux pas.
I wonder how long until Phil Collins is officially cooler than The Cure.
An article looking at seven sentiments most people won't admit to having, and feel embarrassed at even thinking about; and these are not any stereotypically Freudian sexual kinks either. They are: feeling uncomfortable around physically disabled people, publicly expressing grief for people one didn't care about in life/"Harolding" at funerals, schadenfreude, playing favourites with one's children, judging people by their wealth, feeling relieved when someone in chronic pain dies, and having sexual fantasies about people other than their partner.
Why jump on the bandwagon, when the bandwagon is a hearse? There are self-serving reasons: Evolutionary psychologists argue that the public expression of grief boosts your reputation as a trustworthy member of the community.
Sudden tragic death can inspire emotional rubbernecking in anyone. (How many of us have boasted about near misses--say, driving through an intersection five minutes before a fatal crash?) A national catastrophe such as September 11 brings this behavior out of the woodwork. That fall, people felt compelled to disclose that they had friends of friends of friends in the World Trade Center. New Yorkers morbidly compared notes: How close were you? What did you see? Who did you know? (In this creepy social gambit, the "winner" is the person most directly affected by the attack.) The same calculus was at work in other states or countries, where the comparison was not what you saw firsthand but who you knew in New York City or Washington, D.C.
One could probably coin a corollary to Gibson's Law ("the street finds its own uses for things") stating that any technology that communicates anything about its users will become primarily a means of asserting social identity. This seems to be happening with shared iTunes playlists, which are becoming an indicator of status and position in the hip-daggy spectrum:
On college campuses, for example, a new form of bigotry called "playlistism" is emerging... Playlistism, Aubrey explained, is discrimination based not on race, sex or religion, but on someone's terrible taste in music, as revealed by their iTunes music library.
Students are starting to realize they must manage their music collections, or at least prune them, to maintain their image, Aubrey said. He confessed to deleting a lot of stuff himself. "I had a lot of show tunes I had to get rid of," he said. "And a lot of punk pop from my earlier days like Green Day and Blink-182."
As well as trimming their music collections, some students are enhancing them, but not always subtly. Aubrey said the campus' resident jazz expert complains that any jazz he talks about instantly shows up on his fellow students' playlists. "He tells them about something he just heard and then all the pseudo jazz kids have it," Aubrey said. "A lot of people try to be cooler than they are through their playlist. I think people are trying to figure out what is trendy and popular by looking at what's on playlists of people who are cool, and then emulate that."
That's not really a new phenomenon; it shows up everywhere, from teenaged mooks professing to be into the Sex Pistols or Sisters of Mercy because it makes them more authentically "punk" or "goth" or whatever, to hipsters getting into a band because of what it signifies, even if the band is mediocre at best (until the backlash starts, and the last one not to have dumped their Licorice Comfits MP3s has egg on their face, even if they did have one or two good songs). In fact, I wonder what proportion of recorded music is "consumed" for the status is signifies rather than its actual quality; I suspect it's a large one.
Taking dressing to success to new extremes: in the US, executives and salesmen are having chin implants. The implants give a stronger, more confident-looking chin, and are very much in demand, partly because, in this age of lay-offs and labor-market flexibility, anything that gives you an advantage over the next guy could make the crucial difference.
"People with weak chins in the media are portrayed as embezzlers or as having weak characters," he said. "So a strong chin is very important. This has spilled over from film to industry with executives and even now salesmen who feel a strong chin would enhance their credibility."
Surely executive codpieces can't be that far off...