Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Culture / Society (page 1 of 67)

How “weak parties and strong partisanship” brought us 2016

Political scientist Julia Azari has an essay on Vox explaining the rise of Trump in terms of “weak parties and strong partisanship:”

The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong…. it is a particularly dangerous combination [because] parties can’t control whom they nominate. But their adherents — elites and ordinary voters alike — are prepared to support them.

Why is this a very bad combination? It encourages polarization between parties, and a heightened sense that people who belong to other parties, and the candidates they support, are evil. It creates an environment in which partisan voters can be mobilized to vote against the opposition even if they have strong reservations about their own candidate. It means that the apparatus of a political party can more easily fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t believe in the party’s major principles, but succeeds in appealing to its rank and file.

And it also makes moderation much less likely in governing. Compromise with the other party seen as weakness, but each side is less likely to have things that the other wants or needs. As ideological purity becomes more important, it becomes more dangerous for politicians to engage in bipartisan deals, or to be seen as wavering or uncertain in their ideological commitment. And partisanship undermines institutions. As Azari puts it, “It’s hard for institutions — elected ones like Congress, the presidency, or state governments,” or for “courts and, as we’ve seen most recently, law enforcement agencies” to be seen as trustworthy when citizens are inclined to “view much of what these institutions do through a partisan lens.”

And of course the bad news here is that the structural forces that gave rise to Trump are either not going to go away if he loses, or will overwhelm to GOP and Washington if he wins. One is hard pressed to imagine a cabinet consisting of his most ardent supporters and apologists serving as a balance against his authoritarian tendencies; and Capitol Hill hasn’t exactly been Profiles in Courage so far either.

Keep Me Posted

I recently got a message about the new Web comedy Keep Me Posted:

Keep Me Posted Teaser from Hillary Nussbaum on Vimeo.

As the Seed And Spark fundraiser explains:

We spend an embarrassing amount of time analyzing the nuances of that text from our latest Tinder match, or the meaning behind that random “like” on our last Facebook post, but what about the particulars of the way we communicate with our closest friends? 
 
Are we mistaking constant communication for true connection? 
 
Keep Me Posted is a 3×20 comedic web series that raises those questions and more. It follows the lives of three childhood friends stumbling towards adulthood, three friends who are constantly in touch, but still find themselves growing apart. As their lives diverge in significant, challenging ways for the first time, they hide their respective struggles behind a constant flurry of chipper texts and insincere status updates to project the impression that everything is just awesome.

Incidentally, I have that copy of Stephen King’s On Writing that they show at 1:26. It’s great. (It’s where he talks about writing as “creative sleep”.)

A thought on Jonah Lehrer’s new book, redemption, and writing

So Jonah Lehrer has a new book coming out, and there’s some snark around it. Lehrer has admitted that he cut corners, self-plagiarized, and made stuff up, but lots of people don’t feel so forgiving:

The clearest expression of this “not convinced” view is Gawker, who explains that “Notorious Fabulist Jonah Lehrer Wants to Apologize (So You’ll Buy His Book).” Given Gawker’s recent legal troubles, I would say that they’re maybe not the best publication to be criticizing others for being fabulists; but I think that they’re being way too cynical. But even if Gawker were (a little) correct, I have to wonder: this is really wrong?

It seems to me that a system that allows people to admit their mistakes, explain how they’re making amends, and submit to greater degrees of public scrutiny in exchange for an opportunity to recover their reputations and livelihoods, is… pretty fucking just. Isn’t this the way things are supposed to work?

Lehrer isn’t seeking PR by any means necessary, or trying to turn his notoriety into a calling-card. I don’t think he’s playing by the Kardashian (or Farrah Abraham) playbook: he calculates that it’s better for him to talk about his previous misdeeds because for the time being at least they’re unavoidable, and at this stage in order to rebuild his credibility it’s necessary to be clear about the steps he’s taking to assure that he’s not making stuff up. Nor did he go the Boris Johnson route, playing the charming self-deprecating buffoon as he slides away from charges. I get the sense that he wants to put this phase behind him, not use it to sell more t-shirts.

We need avenues for rehabilitation, because people make mistakes that shouldn’t necessarily cost them their lives;  otherwise we have no incentive to do anything other than double down, or pull a Trump-like Ponzi scheme with the truth. With Donald Trump, there’s an eternal danger that his latest outrage will make you forget the last 20 terrible things he’s said— and Trump knows that and is counting on you to do exactly that. Unless he’s playing some serious eleven-dimensional chess, it doesn’t seem to me that Lehrer is trying to distract your from future misdeeds by addressing his previous ones, nor is he one of those psychopaths who feels the need to cheat people to prove his own intelligence.

Of course, you can question whether Lehrer’s success is deserved. Fame is weird and fickle and profoundly un-meritocratic. There are tons of great, thoughtful books that never find an audience, and plenty of wise people who get crowded out by louder or more telegenic figures.

And ultimately, my instinct is that Lehrer is a serious writer, and wants to be a serious person. He certainly can write with flair and style; he seems to me to take the craft seriously. You don’t write as much as he has without being driven, and that’s an impulse that should be channeled for good, not disparaged.

Personally, from what I’ve heard about the latest book, I’m not sure it’s that compelling a project, but that’s not such a bad thing, necessarily: after he got out of jail, Robert Downey Jr. did a stint on television, rebuilding his reputation before going on to Iron Man. Maybe that’ll happen with Lehrer. Just so long as he doesn’t compete with me.

On Stephen Curry and racial assumptions

When I root for [Stephen] Curry’s success, I am not interested in affirming the supposed superiority of the light complexioned. I reject the notion that identifying with Steph more than LeBron constitutes aligning one’s self with whiteness. Instead, I relish Curry’s rise because of its potential to illustrate that blackness contains multitudes. He has fallen into a strange place in the American racial cosmos. Too easily accepted by white people to be fully embraced by black people, Curry also represents a rare case of white folks being wrong about a black guy in ways that exalt rather than diminish him.

That LeBron James was able to overcome the odds and become the best basketball player of his generation is an objectively tremendous feat, but his story is also a familiar one. In many ways, he’s a composite of black stereotypes: born to a teenage mother, raised without a father in the inner city, surpassingly strong and fast with surreal hops. The reality is that his success is as much a consequence of his legendary work ethic and shrewd decision-making as his unprecedented mix of skill, size, and agility. Nevertheless, he’s seen as a passive beneficiary of a genetic lottery, a once-in-a-generation physical specimen who merely had to lace up shoes to actualize his predestined dominance….

[T]he durable misconception that Steph’s all-world handle and historic shooting ability come solely from tireless toil in the gym is refreshing, as tall tales go. It’s a rare instance of black athletic excellence being appreciated as a reward for diligence, sacrifice, and commitment rather than the abundance of fast-twitch muscles. It’s a step in the right direction for American culture that a black superstar can be celebrated as a super striver and not just a happy accident.

Source: Stephen Curry is challenging the worst, most durable stereotypes about black athletes.

“We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority”

We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority. We should instead begin shaping our economy, our schools, even our culture with an eye to the abilities and needs of the majority, and to the full range of human capacity. The government could, for example, provide incentives to companies that resist automation, thereby preserving jobs for the less brainy. It could also discourage hiring practices that arbitrarily and counterproductively weed out the less-well-IQ’ed. This might even redound to employers’ benefit: Whatever advantages high intelligence confers on employees, it doesn’t necessarily make for more effective, better employees. Among other things, the less brainy are, according to studies and some business experts, less likely to be oblivious of their own biases and flaws, to mistakenly assume that recent trends will continue into the future, to be anxiety-ridden, and to be arrogant.

When Michael Young, a British sociologist, coined the term meritocracy in 1958, it was in a dystopian satire. At the time, the world he imagined, in which intelligence fully determined who thrived and who languished, was understood to be predatory, pathological, far-fetched. Today, however, we’ve almost finished installing such a system, and we have embraced the idea of a meritocracy with few reservations, even treating it as virtuous. That can’t be right. Smart people should feel entitled to make the most of their gift. But they should not be permitted to reshape society so as to instate giftedness as a universal yardstick of human worth.

Source: The Disadvantages of Being Stupid – The Atlantic

Tim Wu on the “sofalarity”

I missed this in when it first came out in 2014:

In his book “What Technology Wants,” Kelly writes: “Technology wants what life wants: Increasing efficiency; Increasing opportunity; Increasing emergence; Increasing complexity; Increasing diversity; Increasing specialization; Increasing ubiquity; Increasing freedom; Increasing mutualism; Increasing beauty; Increasing sentience; Increasing structure; Increasing evolvability.”

We can test the “Increasing” theory by taking a quick trip up north, to an isolated area south of the Hudson Bay. Here live the Oji-Cree, a people, numbering about thirty thousand, who inhabit a cold and desolate land roughly the size of Germany. For much of the twentieth century, the Oji-Cree lived at a technological level that can be described as relatively simple. As nomads, they lived in tents during the summer, and in cabins during the winter. Snowshoes, dog sleds, and canoes were the main modes of transportation, used to track and kill fish, rabbits, and moose for food. A doctor who worked with the Oji-Cree in the nineteen-forties has noted the absence of mental breakdowns or substance abuse within the population, observing that “the people lived a rugged, rigorous life with plenty of exercise.” The Oji-Cree invariably impressed foreigners with their vigor and strength. Another visitor, in the nineteen-fifties, wrote of their “ingenuity, courage, and self-sacrifice,” noting that, in the North, “only those prepared to face hardship and make sacrifices could survive.”

The Oji-Cree… no longer face the threat of winter starvation, which regularly killed people in earlier times…. But, in the main, the Oji-Cree story is not a happy one. Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth.

Technology is not the only cause of these changes, but scientists have made clear that it is a driving factor. In previous times, the Oji-Cree lifestyle required daily workouts that rivalled those of a professional athlete. “In the early 20th century,” writes one researcher, “walking up to 100 km/day was not uncommon.” But those days are over, replaced by modern comforts. Despite the introduction of modern medicine, the health outcomes of the Oji-Cree have declined in ways that will not be easy to reverse. The Oji-Cree are literally being killed by technological advances….

If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity. That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts. (Tim Wu, “As Technology Gets Better, Will Society Get Worse?”)

Indigenous People in Video Games

The Raven and the Light starts with a car crash. It ends with an almost dream-like ascent to a state of transcendence, narrated by the myth the title describes—a Northwest folk tale. Everything in between thrusts the player into a world that for some will be foreign, but for North America’s indigenous population, is and has long been painfully real.

Your character in this horror game (mostly unseen and unheard throughout) explores a fictional residential school called Mother Mary’s Residential School for Indian Students….

Not many video games would dare venture into a subject as touchy as Canada’s dark history of residential schooling and the damage that it inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of indigenous students…. The purpose of The Raven and the Light is to introduce this history. And it does this with a story that is both fictional and not. Its invented details (characters and places) might not be real, but the horror of the experience is. To wit, it uses fictional horror to teach its players about the experience of a real-life terror.

Source: The Difficult History of Indigenous People in Video Games

Nom nom Om: The rise of bite-sized wisdom

“We each have two lives,” a wise person once said, “and the second begins when we realise we have only one.” I can’t tell you which wise person, sadly; the internet attributes it in roughly equal measure to Confucius and Tom Hiddleston. (It’s not a very Confucian sentiment, so I’m going with Hiddleston.)

Source: Want to imbibe wisdom by accident? | Oliver Burkeman | Life and style | The Guardian

“Don’t ask women why they should earn more–demand that managers justify paying them less”

Quartz has an interesting interview with Stanford labor economist Myra Strober.

[Quartz:] Research shows that when women enter traditionally male fields, the pay for that field can sometimes decrease. Why is this?

[Strober:] I’ve studied this topic in detail, looking particularly at elementary school teachers and bank tellers, and I have concluded that what starts an occupation’s change in its gender designation is not that women move in, but that men move out. When some other occupation that requires the same level of education becomes relatively more attractive to men, they move out of the less attractive occupation and into the more attractive one. Men move out of an occupation because its attractiveness in terms of pay, working conditions, and promotion possibilities are declining. Once men move out, women begin to move in, and then the pay and promotion opportunities decline still further.

In the 1930s and 1940s, bank telling was an attractive occupation for high-school graduates. Then came World War II and as men left to serve, women came in as bank tellers. After the war, employers tried to hire men as bank tellers, but men who went to the armed forces now could go to college free of charge. After college, the men no longer were hired as bank tellers. If they went into banking, they went in at a much higher level. Eventually, bank telling was feminized, and by the 1960s and ’70s, working as a bank teller paid less than the average salary for high-school graduates.

Likewise, computer programming initially was women’s work. But as it grew and became attractive, men moved into it and employers began hiring men as computer programmers. Women went elsewhere.

Now, the question is: Why do employers hire men into the more attractive occupations? Why do they essentially give men first choice of occupations?

Source: Don’t ask women why they should earn more–demand that managers justify paying them less — Quartz

Why is scientific sexism so intractably resistant to reform? | Aeon Essays

Science writer Margaret Wertheim writes about sexism in science. One of the many lines that lines struck me:

I think about all the young women now being forced out of science by harassment and ongoing inequities, and part of me begins to explode. Jahren ends her New York Times piece by telling us that ‘adorably dorky’ – the best student she’s ever had – is considering leaving the field. Two of the complainants against Marcy have left astronomy. What priceless treasures of human potential are being lost to science because men in positions of power are unzippering their libidinal urges?

It hadn’t occurred to me before, but one of the reasons this kind of bad behavior can continue is that that we live in an era when lots of “priceless treasures of human potential are being lost to science”– and scholarship of all kinds– for all kinds of reasons. For at least the last generation, thanks to the expansion of undergraduate education and overproduction of Ph.D.s, universities have turned themselves into places where brilliant humans are an infinite, disposable resource, not something to be nurtured and sustained.

Source: Why is scientific sexism so intractably resistant to reform? | Aeon Essays

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