Less progress than Grandma experienced.

MY grandmother, who was born in 1905, spoke often about the immense changes she had seen, including the widespread adoption of electricity, the automobile, flush toilets, antibiotics and convenient household appliances. Since my birth in 1962, it seems to me, there have not been comparable improvements.

Of course, the personal computer and its cousin, the smartphone, have brought about some big changes. And many goods and services are now more plentiful and of better quality. But compared with what my grandmother witnessed, the basic accouterments of life have remained broadly the same.

That’s the opening of a recent Tyler Cowen column, and it surprised me. Read the rest here. Whether you agree with his points about economics, innovation and income, I think the underlying point about progress and the pace of change (and how it feels) is pretty provocative and very much worth pondering. Dedicated readers may remember this perhaps-related post on this site from 2007: “Totally Wildly Uprecedented Change, and Its Precedents.”

Brands in the News: Harley

Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who threatened to burn Korans, rocking a Harley Davidson T-shirt at LaGuardia this weekend.

It’s an iconic American brand, y’all.

WikiLeaks impact update

I’ve seen tons of stories about the implications of the WikiLeaks stuff on media and informationflow and secrecy — but I haven’t seen much evaluating actual impact on public dialogue about the war in Afghanistan. I would like to see someone compare to the impact of the Pentagon Papers in terms of public opinion, etc. Maybe that’s been done and I’ve missed it?

The Times has a story today: “In Midterm Elections, War Barely Surfaces.” It sort of gets at this side of the story, but it’s pretty anecdotal, and doesn’t have much in the way of historical context. This guy makes a good point about one thing that’s changed since the Vietnam era:

“Unfortunately, most Americans aren’t paying attention,” said Representative Patrick J. Murphy, Democrat of Pennsylvania. “Which I think is a testament to the fact that 1 percent of us are fighting these wars.”

What do we know and when do we care about it?

There is nothing that has been raised that will be a surprise to someone who reads the newspaper every day.

Pentagon spokesman reacting to the flood of documents released by Wikileaks

This is probably pretty close to true.

But it could also be restated like so: “Much of what has been raised will be a significant surprise to most of the American public.”

If you see what I’m saying.

The question would be how much of the American public is even really paying attention to the coverage of the Wikileaks material. I was interested to read that Wikileaks decided to essentially team up with mainstream media outlets to distribute this information because the Wikileaks head honcho “is frustrated that some of the site’s other disclosures, such as a database of military procurements in Iraq and Afghanistan, didn’t garner more attention.” (According to “people familiar with the matter,” anyway.) His thinking is sound: As I’ve noted before, in a more frivolous context, mainstream media coverage is the new media’s seldom-acknowledged secret weapon.

Even so, it remains the case that today’s media culture is vastly more fragmented than in the time of, say, the Pentagon Papers. So while it’s easier to distribute information, I think it’s a lot harder to get the majority of the public to pay attention, let alone care, for very long. So I’ll be curious to see what the effects of this incident really turn out to be.

But in the short term, it does seem to have minimized the Shirley Sherrod non-incident as a topic of conversation and pundit-blather, and I’d count that as a big plus.

In The New York Times Magazine: Taking ROFL (Sort of) Seriously

No Consumed today, but I have a feature on ROFLCulture, here.

[Big] thinkers [are] engaged in the popular debate over whether the Internet makes us smarter or dumber. And that question is interesting, but let’s face it: it’s not awesome. What Tim Hwang and his cohorts basically hit upon was the conclusion that, while that debate drags on, funny cat pictures and so on are really, really popular. And maybe another question to consider is what that means — to consider the Web not in terms of how it might affect who we become but rather in terms of how it reflects who we are. ROFL, after all, is not a seductive theory about what enlightened things democratized culture may one day produce; it is a pervasive fact on the ground. This is how sizable chunks of our cognitive resources are actually being deployed, so it’s worth trying to figure out why that is, what functions this stuff serves and how it differs from or falls in line with more familiar forms of entertainment. Perhaps, in other words, it’s worth taking ROFL seriously. Or at least sort of seriously.

What the Internet can’t do

I finally watched the Digital Nation episode of Frontline that I anticipated here earlier. It was okay. The thing I wanted to comment on was a very brief segment involving Feed Me, Bubbe, which is an online show that came about when a young guy basically decided to get his grandmother to be the star of this amusing little Web-based cooking program, on which they collaborate.

“I worked until I was 73. I worked for a bank,” Bubbe says, the point being that once she retired she didn’t have to do anything — but she also didn’t have much to do. “And then all of a sudden this kid walked in, and now I’m too busy!” The delight at this turn of events is evident in her voice.

The young guy then says:  “The Internet, I have to say, added years to Bubbe’s life.”

No, sweetheart. You added years to Bubbe’s life. Listen to her version of things: “this kid walked in.” That’s you. Here again is the medium/message problem. The Internet is just something that came in handy, and that you made cunning use of.  I suppose it’s possible that if the Internet hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have come up with anything. But I know for a fact that the Internet is there in millions of scenarios just like this, and nothing changes; bubbes everywhere remain under-appreciated, ignored, left lonely, and maybe even snickered at for not being tech-savvy. The Internet has no agency; individuals have agency. I don’t usually use the word “inspiration,” because it means so little these days, but there is a genuine one here, and it’s not the Internet. It’s you.

In the news

Where, Larry King asks, is the real flying saucer?

I think that’s the phrase he uses, “flying saucer.” His guest is that guy Richard Heene, the guy at the center of the “balloon boy” thing. I first heard about that “story” by way of some report that it was all a hoax. All America was transfixed by this event, and it was a hoax! That’s what the story said. I had no idea what it was referring to. “Balloon boy”? I guess I was busy at the time.

Anyway so that was weeks ago. And now there’s this Larry King rerun, and I’m not really watching because I’m doing some tedious computer work, and if I understand correctly, this guy, Heene, is on his way to prison. But first he’s stopping by Larry King, to more or less imply that it wasn’t really a hoax; it was a misunderstanding. Or something.

Now he and Larry King are standing in front of what has just been described as replica of the “flying saucer” that this guy claimed his kid got into, and floated off into the ether. Only that didn’t rally happen. And so now he’s going to prison.

So: The police have it. That’s Heene’s answer to the question of where the real flying saucer is. King nods. When is the last time Larry King actually gave a shit about the people he talks to, the stories they tell?

The guy, Heene, is very animated, describing the object that he and King are standing in front of. This is a replica of an object that was briefly believed to be involved in a bizarre incident that in fact did not occur.

For a minute I look at the television set, stop what I’m doing. I’ve not laid eyes on Heene before. He has a very strange haircut. Larry King’s posture isn’t so great. But I guess he’s pretty old.

I have no idea what Heene is talking about. He says he didn’t do anything wrong. He looks wounded.

I should describe the “flying saucer.” It’s a big, silver…. Um…

…. Um, who fucking cares? What difference does it make what it looks like? Is there a prop department at CNN? I guess there must be. What does that suggest about the nature of information distribution, of news, today? What is like to build a prop … for the news? Who is in charge of making sure that the simulacrum of the thing that was at the center of a hoax – of a non-event – is, you know, up to snuff?

Where, Larry King asks, is the real flying saucer?

The answer, obviously, is that there is no real flying saucer.

And, somehow, that fact, that nonfact, is why we are here.

The lonely crowd?

The most-emailed story on Yahoo right now is headlined “Loneliness Spreads Like a Virus.

Okay, silly research, and fatuous deployments of the “virus” metaphor, are nothing new. But really, is this “finding” a prank?

The upshot: A lonely person is likely to lose touch with another person, who in turn gets cut off from others, and both end up on the fringes of a social group.

Well, then, uh, problem solved, am I right?

Really, even if there’s some sort of truth in the idea that loneliness spreads from person to person in the manner of the flu — wouldn’t that problem, by definition, pretty much take care of itself? How are the lonely contagion-carriers going to be spreading their awful loneliness among their non-existing social networks? What do when we identify them? Isolate them? I thought the were already isolated.

Am I really supposed to be worried about spending too much time with people who have been “cut off from others”? Is that the cure to this supposed epidemic? Are we to save ourselves from the ailment of people-avoidance by … avoiding people?


A person’s loneliness depended not just on his friend’s loneliness but also on his friend’s friend and his friend’s friend’s friend.

How did they find these lonely people with such robust social networks, anyway? Reading this makes feel like lonely people have more friends than I do. In fact it makes me kind of lone–

Oh my god.

I’ve caught it.

Slave-labor-made DVD player would be “a real good thing, if I can buy it for $35”?

James Ledbetter of  The Big Money posts about a recent appearance he made on CNBC, debating with a professor about the claim that Wal*Mart, by lowering prices, is a benevolent force in the American economy, and American life in general. The prof says yes. Ledbetter says, basically, that if one takes a broader view, not everything that lowers prices is necessarily an unalloyed good.

I cringe to provide a link to the segment, but here it is. My fellow guest was a business professor from the University of Michigan, who has advocated that Wal-Mart should be given the Nobel Peace Prize. I tried to argue that it’s strange to say that anything that lowers prices is intrinsically good. [CNBC co-anchor Dennis] Kneale interrupted me with the comment “It is!”

Well, if unemployment is good, then slave labor is better, right? If Wal-Mart could lower its labor costs to zero, imagine how rock-bottom its prices could be. I asked Kneale: “If [a $35] DVD player is produced by slave labor in China, is that a good thing?” His reply: “Yeah, it’s a real good thing, if I can buy it for $35.”

It seemed hard to believe that someone would actually say this on television.

Agreed! In fact I had to watch the segment because I found it hard to believe! The exchange Ledbetter highlights comes at about the 3:40 mark.

I guess the explanation for Kneale’s callous statement is that he wasn’t actually listening to anything Ledbetter said. Which is the real problem with the entire segment. In some ways what’s most startling about it (I haven’t watched CNBC in years) is that both CNBC anchors completely sided with the professor from the beginning, and basically the whole thing consisted of all of them berating Ledbetter for daring to say anything that challenge pure-free-market doctrines, or that might make somebody, oh, I don’t know, actually think. In this bit they pivoted to demanding to know what proof Ledbetter had to back up his hypothetical — a tired rhetorical sleight-of-hand tactic designed to divert the conversation in an irrelevant direction (it was a hypothetical, not an allegation, that the CNBC guy responded to).

The prof has a point, early in the segment, when he says it’s not Wal*Mart that drives mom and pops out of business — it’s consumers, who choose to shop at Wal*Mart because its prices are (or generally seem) lower. Which is why it would be a good thing if more people were more thoughtful about more of the consumption decisions. That’s essentially the direction Ledbetter might have pushed a viewer or two … if he’d been allowed to express his views.

Web-based pawnshop

I offer you this without comment (and certainly without endorsement):

Dear Rob –

Based on your May 14 “Consumed” column – “Brother, Can You Spare a Loan?” – we thought you might be interested in the following:

As of this morning, Internet Pawn (www.internetpawn.com) has officially launched the first Web-based pawnshop in the United States. The new company provides consumers with a unique opportunity to discreetly leverage the equity they have in their own personal valuables to solve immediate cash flow needs from the privacy of their home or office. Recently, the Consumer Federation of America found that more than 50 percent of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and with today’s tough economy, that percentage is sure to increase. As you well know, now more than ever, a large segment of the population is unable to access credit – and for those people – InternetPawn.com can be a smart, consumer-friendly solution.

The related press release is pasted below. I will follow up with you in the coming days to see if you would like more information. You can also learn more about Internet Pawn through our online press room: http://www.internetpawn.com/about/press_room.

Thanks for your time and consideration.


Technology, information, and people shouting down their enemies

The various new communication technologies that have come into our lives in the last 10 or 15 years are amazing: It’s never been easier to access information, to hook up with whatever sources you choose, from international media outlets to informed citizens in your very community.

What then are we to make of the recent rise of a rather retro form of communication: Shouting down ideological opponents. I mean literally shouting, drowning out out others’ ability to express views by way of sheer volume. I’ve watched some of these clips of health-care “town halls” — not to mention the gatherings where some person stands up and screams about Barack Obama being “a citizen of Kenya” or whatever — and I really wonder how close we are to hurling rocks and bottles as a manner of dispute settlement.

So are wondrous technology and shout-em-down tactics at odds? Is there a tension there?

I just mentioned having seen “the clips,” but of course I just saw snippets. Sometimes I saw them on television. For years and years people have complained about sound/video bites dominating news cycles at the expense of more considered coverage. Newer technology has not arrested that trend; it has accelerated it. There are more clips to choose from; the competition to air them asap is ever more intense; the overall pace of broadcast media continues to quicken; etc. But all that aside, some I did not see on television, and I didn’t have to see any of them that way, since all are online.

If a crowd shouts down a politician, the broader context matters very little in the media ecosystem. The story is: Crowd shouts down politician. And here’s the clip, edited as tightly as possible for maximum impact. It’s shown over and over, and at some point maybe Jon Stewart will show it again, and make a joke about it. If it’s shown often enough, it starts resemble something real — “The people are outraged!” Ten shouters are multiplied into an imaginary movement of some sort. Pundits and commentators can then say with a straight face that “a lot of American are very angry about this.” It affects the polls, and the change in the polls becomes news. And so on.

A lot of this is very run of the mill, I guess. It’s a variation on the way the media cycle has worked for my entire adult life, and the kind of pseudo-event discourse Daniel Boorstin was writing about in The Image, well before I was born.

The exception is the degree to which actual shouting is a serious factor in this process. That, I’m sorry to say, strikes me as a new development.

UPDATE 8/12: Some examples from today’s papers: AP: “‘One day God will stand before you and judge you!’ shouted a man before security guards approached and he left the room.” NYT: “‘This is about the dismantling of this country,’ Katy Abram, 35, shouted at Mr. Specter, drawing one of the most prolonged rounds of applause.” WSJ: “Outside, the gathering verged on a street brawl. The opposing forces lined up like screaming armies on either side of the street, about 1,000 people a side.”

Advertising, entertainment, and what’s for dinner tonight

If you missed it, I really recommend Michael Pollan’s cover story from the Times Mag this weekend, on food preparation as something we watch on television, rather than something we do. It’s really well done. Here’s one side note that’s particularly relevant to this site:

It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television — or educational television, as it used to be called. On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else. The ads on the Food Network, at least in prime time, strongly suggest its viewers do no such thing: the food-related ads hardly ever hawk kitchen appliances or ingredients (unless you count A.1. steak sauce) but rather push the usual supermarket cart of edible foodlike substances, including Manwich sloppy joe in a can, Special K protein shakes and Ore-Ida frozen French fries, along with fast-casual eateries like Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

Yes. And of course those advertisers know exactly what they are doing: Associating their processed or prepared-for-you foodstuffs and meals with the vague idea of hands-on cooking. Maybe watching someone expertly prepare a meal from scratch is something that makes you feel good, and if a can of Manwhich can associate itself with that good feeling, nonconsciously of course, perhaps that association will still lurk in your brain somewhere as you wheel through Kroger.

The whole piece is actually full of great stuff about consumer behavior, advertising, and entertainment, filtered through the lens of food. Great stuff.

Food stamps: Is there an app for that?

Over on the Consumed Facebook page, I floated my interest in the line in the interesting story in this weekend’s Times Magazine about “free agent” types fallen on hard times in this downturn — the line in which the strugging yoga instructor informs the reporter that she’s in line for food stamps, by way of a message sent from her iPhone.

Thoughtful responses from readers on the FB page, and I’m still pondering the weird dissonance of food stamps and an iPhone.

But meanwhile, it occurs to me that maybe here is an opportunity: An iPhone app that allows you to somehow download your food stamps.

Perfect for depression 2.0, no?

The “Best Painting Ever”

This is via BB and that makes it “old,” but I can’t take the chance that you may have missed it. Please enjoy, from the auction of Michael Jackson’s … stuff … this painting.

It is, really, some kind of achievement. It is the bad painting to end all bad paintings — and I want it. Thus it is one of the most American things I have ever seen. It is beyond description. It should be turned into a poster and given for free to every household. It speaks for itself.

More MJ acution items, many of which are almost this sublime, here.

A word on behalf of free will

I have very belatedly become aware of a critique of my various comments and writing about the downturny zeitgeist. The details aren’t important, but the upshot of the critique is that my resistance to statements like “cheap is the new sexy” or “frugal is the new cool,” somehow adds up to me being in denial about the economy.

I am most certainly not in denial about the economy. I do think some of the trend stories suggesting an overnight change in “values” are extremely suspect. But my real problem is that many of these sweeping statements about the zeitgeist suggest consumer behavior — and thus, by extension, human behavior — is solely a function of larger economic and cultural forces.

I think such assessments give short shrift to free will itself. Let me put it this way:

Is your behavior merely a reflection of cultural change?

Or does your behavior cause cultural change?

I know what I think the right answer ought to be. It’s the answer that motivated me to write Buying In and, more recently, to launch the newest iterations of the Unconsumption project. And it’s the answer that makes me resist the blithe pronouncements of the trend industry. What they have to say may well be useful to their clients (I guess), and that’s totally fine. But it is not, in my view, very useful to the rest of us.

I don’t really even have a problem with the endless musing about whether Americans will continue to be “thrifty” after this downturn ends. I don’t love those stories, but I know they have to be written. However, my point of view is that the mystery of what happens next isn’t, or shouldn’t be, determined by way of reacting to the uncontrollable. It should be determined by individuals making decisions. Exercising free will.

So my view is that ulitmately the answer to those questions I posed above about whether individual decisions reflect or cause cultural change, is … well, that’s up to you, isn’t it?