113 posts tagged culture
Sleeker. Faster. More Intuitive” (The New York Times); “Welcome to a world where speed is everything” (Verizon FiOS); “Speed is God, and time is the devil” (chief of Hitachi’s portable-computer division). In “real” time, life speeds up until time itself seems to disappear—fast is never fast enough, everything has to be done now, instantly. To pause, delay, stop, slow down is to miss an opportunity and to give an edge to a competitor. Speed has become the measure of success—faster chips, faster computers, faster networks, faster connectivity, faster news, faster communications, faster transactions, faster deals, faster delivery, faster product cycles, faster brains, faster kids. Why are we so obsessed with speed, and why can’t we break its spell? The cult of speed is a modern phenomenon. In “The Futurist Manifesto” in 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marionetti declared, “We say that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” The worship of speed reflected and promoted a profound shift in cultural values that occurred with the advent of modernity and modernization. With the emergence of industrial capitalism, the primary values governing life became work, efficiency, utility, productivity, and competition. When Frederick Winslow Taylor took his stopwatch to the factory floor in the early 20th century to increase workers’ efficiency, he began a high-speed culture of surveillance so memorably depicted in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Then, as now, efficiency was measured by the maximization of rapid production through the programming of human behavior.
read of the day:Freedom from food
It takes time to plan a meal, to say nothing of cooking and eating it. What if we could opt out of food altogether?
There are plenty of superpowers that would make a nice addition to my current lifestyle. I would be delighted to wake up one morning with the ability to fly, to become invisible, or even to turn matter into gold, provided my Midas touch came with a reliable on-off switch. But the superpower that I really want – the one I actually daydream about, wasting time that I don’t have – is the ability to create an extra day or two for myself each week. As the clock strikes midnight between Monday and Tuesday, a private portal would open up: an extra day, just for me. While everyone else sleeps, I write, read, send emails, and maybe even clean the oven, before going to bed and waking up on Tuesday, rested and refreshed just like everyone else, but with everything done. The odds are reasonable that you might share this fantasy, in the abstract if not in the details. Each year, Gallup asks people in the US whether they feel pressed for time, and, each year for the past two decades, half of the population says that they generally do not have enough time to do what they want. The results – stress, sleep deprivation, and even obesity – are equally well-documented. What if all of those people could have an extra 90 minutes every day, to use as we see fit? Rob Rhinehart, a 25-year-old engineer and entrepreneur based in Studio City, California, believes that his new product, Soylent, can offer exactly that. ‘According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, people spend about 90 minutes a day on food,’ Rhinehart explained. That figure is an average that includes grocery shopping, food preparation, consumption, and doing the dishes. By opting out of food, and replacing it with Soylent – named after the soy lentil burgers in the sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison, rather than its much better-known film adaptation Soylent Green (1973) which came up with the cannibalistic plotline – Rhinehart told me that he’s saved ‘easily an hour a day, plus’. Rhinehart came up with the idea for a nutritionally complete liquid food substitute in December 2012, spurred by dissatisfaction at his expensive, time-consuming and nutritionally dubious diet of fast food, frozen quesadillas, and pasta. In February 2013, he wrote a blog post entitled ‘How I Stopped Eating Food’, in which he reported feeling like the ‘six-million-dollar man’ after just 30 days of replacing food with a ‘thick, odourless, beige liquid’ made up of ‘every substance the body needs to survive, plus a few extras shown to be beneficial’. (via Would we opt out of food if given the chance? – Nicola Twilley – Aeon)
read of the day: The first cut
Most American boys are circumcised as a matter of course. Now, many of them feel violated. Should the practice be banned?
My first encounter with an ‘intactivist’ was in my freshman speech class. Our assignment was to sway our classmates on a contentious issue, and she opened her speech by asking if any man in the class still had his foreskin. I raised my hand. This being late 1990s America, only one other student joined me. ‘You’re lucky!’ she said, before launching into a polemic on the many advantages of the male prepuce and the barbarism of infant circumcision. I can’t remember all her specific arguments, but I know they roughly matched the intactivist or anti-circumcision talking points that I explored in depth later on. The foreskin has sensitive nerve endings; it provides gliding and natural lubrication that is useful for unprotected sex and masturbation (its main failing, as far as influential 19th-century Americans were concerned) and it acts as a protective layer, shielding the glans from harsh friction that can dull sexual sensation over time. In the opposing corner was circumcision, which destroys all of that for no good reason. More ideologically, by making this irreversible change before the child can consent, circumcision infringes on the autonomy of the individual in a way that can’t be justified in a culture that claims to care about bodily integrity and freedom of choice. This all sounded fantastic to me. I sat back in class, revelling in my uncompromised state. About a year later, for some reason, this wonderfully reassuring speech sprang to mind, and I found myself wondering what a circumcised penis looked like. I went to one of my school’s computer labs and glanced over my shoulder before searching Yahoo! for ‘circumcised penis’. As I clicked through the images of seemingly normal and natural penises, I felt like I was staring at a ‘spot the difference’ puzzle in which the same picture had been printed twice by mistake. It was impossible to say what made these penises circumcised. They all looked just like mine.
Then I had a troubling thought and did a search for ‘uncircumcised penis’. I was 19 years old when I realised I was circumcised.
Image: Foreskin Man to the rescue. Image courtesy Matthew Hess
The Internet’s Original Sin
It’s not too late to ditch the ad-based business model and build a better web.
Ron Carlson’s short story “What We Wanted To Do” takes the form of an apology from a villager who failed to protect his comrades from marauding Visigoths. It begins: What we wanted to do was spill boiling oil onto the heads of our enemies as they attempted to bang down the gates of our village. But as everyone now knows, we had some problems, primarily technical problems, that prevented us from doing what we wanted to do the way we had hoped to do it. What we’re asking for today is another chance. There’s little suspense in the story—the disastrous outcome is obvious from the first paragraph—but it works because of the poignancy of the apology. All of us have screwed up situations in our lives so badly that we’ve been forced to explain our actions by reminding everyone of our good intentions. It’s obvious now that what we did was a fiasco, so let me remind you that what we wanted to do was something brave and noble. The fiasco I want to talk about is the World Wide Web, specifically, the advertising-supported, “free as in beer” constellation of social networks, services, and content that represents so much of the present day web industry. I’ve been thinking of this world, one I’ve worked in for over 20 years, as a fiasco since reading a lecture by Maciej Cegłowski, delivered at the Beyond Tellerrand web design conference. Cegłowski is an important and influential programmer and an enviably talented writer. His talk is a patient explanation of how we’ve ended up with surveillance as the default, if not sole, internet business model. The talk is hilarious and insightful, and poignant precisely for the reasons Carlson’s story is. The internet spies at us at every twist and turn not because Zuckerberg, Brin, and Page are scheming, sinister masterminds, but due to good intentions gone awry. With apologies to Carlson: What we wanted to do was to build a tool that made it easy for everyone, everywhere to share knowledge, opinions, ideas and photos of cute cats. As everyone knows, we had some problems, primarily business model problems, that prevented us from doing what we wanted to do the way we hoped to do it. What we’re asking for today is a conversation about how we could do this better, since we screwed up pretty badly the first time around. (via The Internet’s Original Sin - The Atlantic)
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that as we spend more time communicating via social media, we are disappearing into bubbles. We receive information from the same sources and witness the views of the same people in our personalised newsfeeds every day. But it also seems like living in our bubble is having an effect on our own opinions and how we formulate them. An interesting statistical regularity has been documented about group deliberation. This phenomenon has been called group or attitude polarisation, or just polarisation for short. It’s something that has been intensively studied by Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and former Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein says that deliberation appears to move groups of people of accord opinion “toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own pre-deliberation judgments”.
To Work Better, Work Less
Toiling away for more hours diminishes productivity. Why do so many do it anyway?
Between 1853 and 1870, Baron Haussmann ordered much of Paris to be destroyed. Slums were razed and converted to bourgeois neighborhoods, and the formerly labyrinthine city became a place of order, full of wide boulevards (think Saint-Germain) and angular avenues (the Champs-Élysées). Poor Parisians tried to put up a fight but were eventually forced to flee, their homes knocked down with minimal notice and little or no recompense. The city underwent a full transformation—from working class and medieval to bourgeois and modern—in less than two decades’ time. Every August, Paris now sees another rapid transformation. Tourists rule the picturesque streets. Shops are shuttered. The singsong sounds of English, Italian, and Spanish float down the street in place of the usual French monotone. As French workers are required to take at least 31 days off each year, nearly all of them have chosen this month to flit down to Cannes or over to Italy, Spain, or Greece, where the Mediterranean beckons and life hasn’t stopped like it has here. Some might call it laziness, but what French people are really doing by vacationing for the entirety of August is avoiding the tipping point of overwork. Just as the city transforms overnight, so do French work habits—and this vacation time pays dividends. That’s because, even though the amount of time you work tends to match how productive you are as if on a sliding scale, length of work and quality of work at a certain point become inversely related. At some point, in other words, the more you work, the less productive you become. For example, working long hours often leads to productivity-killing distractions. Such is an instance of the saying known as Parkinson’s law, which states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Work less, and you’ll tend to work better. So too with practicing a skill. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, conducted a study in Berlin and found that the amount of time successful musicians spent practicing each day was surprisingly low—a mere 90 minutes per day. In fact, the most successful musicians not only practiced less, but also took more naps throughout the day and indulged in breaks during practice when they grew tired or stressed. (via To Work Better, Work Less - The Atlantic)
Taller, Fatter, Older: How Humans Have Changed in 100 Years
Humans are getting taller; they’re also fatter than ever and live longer than at any time in history. And all of these changes have occurred in the past 100 years, scientists say. So is evolution via natural selection at play here? Not in the sense of actual genetic changes, as one century is not enough time for such changes to occur, according to researchers. Most of the transformations that occur within such a short time period “are simply the developmental responses of organisms to changed conditions,” such as differences in nutrition, food distribution, health care and hygiene practices, said Stephen Stearns, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University. [10 Things That Make Humans Special] But the origin of these changes may be much deeper and more complex than that, said Stearns, pointing to a study finding that British soldiers have shot up in height in the past century. “Evolution has shaped the developmental program that can respond flexibly to changes in the environment,” Stearns said. “So when you look at that change the British army recruits went through over about a 100-year period, that was shaped by the evolutionary past.” And though it may seem that natural selection does not affect humans the way it did thousands of years ago, such evolutionary mechanisms still play a role in shaping humans as a species, Stearns said. “A big take-home point of all current studies of human evolution is that culture, particularly in the form of medicine, but also in the form of urbanization and technological support, clean air and clean water, is changing selection pressures on humans,” Stearns told Live Science. “When you look at what happens when the Taliban denies the polio vaccination in Pakistan, that is actually exerting a selection pressure that is different in Pakistan than we have in New York City,” he said. Here’s a look at some of the major changes to humans that have occurred in the past century or so. (via Taller, Fatter, Older: How Humans Have Changed in 100 Years)