October 2005 Archives

Techno-Sociality: The myth of technology's role in social alienation

| 1 Comment | No TrackBacks | Stumble It! | Delicious Delicious |

Steven Winn in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday reiterated a sentiment that goes increasingly unchallenged as iPods, cell phones and WiFi-enabled laptops proliferate: that all these gadgets produce an increasingly disconnected, atomized public sphere. This is a familiar critique -- as a grad student in Chicago last year, I remember a student in the campus newspaper voicing a similar dissatisfaction with the popularity of iPods and other mp3 players on campus -- he argued that, lost in our private worlds of music, we fail to reach out and connect with one another.

Certainly, I wonder about the social impact of new technology -- particularly, that strange contradiction between identical yet personalizable mass goods. This contrast sometimes spurs me to imagine us iPod users as "customizeable automatons," fooled into a myth of self-determination because we can tailor each assembly-line product to fit our alleged individual needs. But this issue remains a stubbornly complex one of the relationship between technology and society, which rests on a number of assumptions which ought to be considered a little more carefully.

Most broadly, technology does not simply progress in some ineluctable, linear manner according to unbiased scientific advances, as Raymond Williams demonstrated many years ago. Technology is inseparable from culture, and depends on the vested interests of those with power and resources. New technological needs arise according to new social forms, frequently dependent on innovations produced for entirely different purposes (such as military applications -- think of binary code, or the internet). The potential social effects of new technology cannot be considered separately from other kinds of social change, like increasing mobility.

When fearmongering about the effect of new gadgets on the social sphere, writers like Winn seem to assume a simple relationship between social change and technology, where the rise of cell phones and iPods inevitably leads to social alienation. But what's more, this view requires a particular understanding of a public sphere that I just don't find convincing. Before you had an iPod or a cellphone, did you regularly engage in conversations with strangers in the street, on the bus, or walking across campus? If society has become increasingly atomized, I don't think the problem has to do with new tech gadgets that absorb us into our own private worlds, but with a use of social spaces that may not fit our current social needs.

I remember commuting to work before iPods and cellphones were ubiquitous (though Walkmans, of course, came out in the '80s -- why all the hubbub now?). I was always careful to bring a book with me to read on the train from Cambridge to downtown Boston, or a newspaper, and even if I didn't, I rarely spoke with anyone during the walk from my apartment or to my office. Or when I was in college in the late nineties -- walking across campus, you might occasionally nod to a familiar face from class, but the "public sphere" of walkways and lawns didn't really constitute a prime site of social engagement. Getting lunch with friends, socializing in the dorms, working together in the library -- those spaces better allowed for creating social connections, and were necessarily more specialized than some generic "public" space because they allowed you to meet people through an existing connection, like a mutual friend, shared class or communal housing. In fact, both then and more recently, technological wonders like instant messaging and WiFi contributed to social activity. In college, I used used ICQ to chat with my friends across campus or even on other campuses. As a grad student last year, WiFi in the school library allowed for chatting and sharing music while working, because while loud voices were prohibited, typing was not.

Ultimately, I question whether or not mobile communications and media devices really interfere with the public sphere, or simply provide communications and media for increasingly mobile populations. Now I no longer have to sit near the phone in order to talk to my mom back east, and I can bring music with me instead of (or alongside) books and magazines when travelling or commuting. If opportunities for social interaction are dwindling in late modern society, we need to look at how social spaces are produced and sustained. Most communal spaces these days are either private or commercial -- I can invite friends over to my home, or meet up with them in a cafe or a nightclub. Communal public space does not feature prominently in modern urban areas, and to the extent that it does, people still seek out others with whom they already have some kind of friendship or common interest. If building community and social capital is at issue, then we must consider the ways in which community is created in a mobile society. Technology, in fact, can and does facilitate the production of "communities of practice," disseminating information and connecting people according to existing social networks. Our sprawling, mobile, mediated mass society may indeed invite a level of social fragmentation that undermines social capital, but laying the blame on the latest tech toys simply misses the broader picture.

"raunch feminism" and popular culture: uncritical feminists gone wild!

| 2 Comments | No TrackBacks | Stumble It! | Delicious Delicious |

A new book seems to be garnering some attention in the liberal echo chamber lately, a journalistic account by Ariel Levy of New York magazine of the rising prevalence of porn imagery as female empowerment in pop culture. Salon.com's Christine Smallwood reviewed Levy's book, and her concept of "raunch feminism," suggesting that feminism has been co-opted for profit (supposedly because feminism has become too all-inclusive and therefore difficult to define). Smallwood, of course, is mainly recapping the gist of the book, and does offer a brief critique, but both she and Levy largely overlook the shifting role of leisure and consumption in contemporary late-capitalist society, which are integral to any interpretation of style or media content.

According to Levy, stripping is now on par with overt political activism. While Levy is right to identify the problematic ways in which sex-positivism has been embraced -- often reproducing existing gender norms rather than challenging them -- she misses how leisure activities and consumption have become the primary means through which people now express (and experience) identity. Is the problem strip parties instead of fighting for reproductive rights, or is it the focus on parties instead of activism?

Take, for instance, adolescent girls and fashion. Smallwood describes the prevalence of teen girls whose thongs peek out over their super-lowrise jeans, wearing baby tees with various cheeky, sexually suggestive messages. Is this proof that teenaged girls have embraced "raunch culture" and are attempting to assert their female empowerment by flaunting sexist imagery? Or are these girls engaged, instead, in a struggle between articulating their own budding identities (and sexuality), the expectations of their parents and the eager attention of marketers? A look at girls and consumerism in American history, for example, reveals how fashion has long been a site where girls attempt to establish their own independence, while their elders fret over the propriety of their consumer choices. Many in our society still feel strongly about what's "age appropriate" for teen girls, invariably invoking criticism and even moral panic when young women seem to exude excessive sexuality or maturity – whether it's makeup and high heels or visible thongs and Playboy logos.

More than a whiff of moral panic envelopes this whole line of thinking, that girls and young women are becoming too trashy, too sexually explicit, too fond of porn, and are therefore dismissing the hard-won gains of political feminism. "A quick glance at the T-shirts" writes Smallwood, "ought to be enough of a clue that all is not well in American mass culture." Of course, it's not that I disagree that sexism is alive and well, and deeply rooted in our culture. It does little to alter the underlying gender dynamics when women assume masculine roles of gazing and consuming images of other women, viewing them as objects rather than subjects with their own agency. Embracing a typically masculine approach to sex and sexuality certainly does not constitute equality, and feminism is not simply about having "choices." But I can't help but suspect that a simplistic, journalistic account of the prevalence of porn in pop culture is going to fail to grasp the broader context.

Unfortunately, Smallwood's review fails to take any of this into account. She critiques Levy for her blindly inclusive understanding of popular culture, focusing primarily on white, middle class women. Smallwood concludes that Levy offers little in the way of providing a solution to the damage supposedly inflicted by the popularity of porn imagery, but concedes that "Levy has done the good work of documenting raunch culture." I haven't read the book itself yet, so I suppose I should refrain from suggesting that Levy has offered a superficial account that is itself a product of pop culture (with a healthy dose of moral worrying). Instead, I should bite the bullet and read the book, so I can offer my own critique. But when the liberal media takes up and touts these easy-to-digest accounts of the decline of feminism and the dangers of teen culture, it only perpetuates an uncritical approach to the role of popular culture in society.

culture/counterculture: thoughts on burning man and media coverage

| No Comments | No TrackBacks | Stumble It! | Delicious Delicious |

While waiting at the pharmacy today, I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone (with a very aged quartet of the same name on the cover, I might add), and discovered the article the magazine had run on Burning Man, sending a journalist and a photographer to the desert to cover the event. At the risk of being an apologist for something which I think can be legitimately critiqued, this article reminded me of all the reasons I dislike journalistic approaches to human social behavior.

Unfortunately, I can't provide a link because I'm pretty sure the article isn't available online -- just the photos:

So I'll have to try and sum it up first. The author purports to approach the event with an open mind, then proceeds to ridicule the majority of participants for being hairy, naked and benighted. He denigrates a pair of topless passersby as "freaks," and concludes that Burning Man is just about a bunch of middle-class white folks with corporate day jobs blowing off steam one week a year in the desert.

Of course, it's not that I haven't suggested a similar critique myself. I think there are legitimate questions of class and race that should be raised in the face of narratives about the value of temporary community or an uncommodified "gift" economy. Burning Man is only available to those with the resources -- time, money, material goods -- to take off a week (at least) and pack in everything needed for desert survival (food, water, camping gear) not to mention fun and creative expression (costumes, drugs, elaborate art installations). And furthermore, it's worth considering where the social benefit lies in devoting a significant amount of time and resources every year to an escapist festival far removed from everyday society, at least if you embrace the language of social change while doing so.

Burning Man, I would agree, is problematic in light of the stories participants tell about their involvement in it. But the pat, unexamined dismissal penned by this Rolling Stone journalist is just as limited and myopic. The author, for example, is unable to address any questions regarding the value of "symbolic creativity," the act of making meaning through everyday creative acts, from assembling a countercultural outfit to burning a mix cd. Perhaps thousands of people gather in the desert to walk on stilts and drive their art cars precisely because they do not find sufficient meaning in the everyday world, and Burning Man provides a site where this kind of creativity can be expressed, articulated, and realized.

What hampers this article is its complete lack of any kind of underlying method, or familiarity with the significant body of work that has already been devoted to examining youth subcultures and counterculture. There are no simple answers regarding the efficacy of symbolic rebellion. In a world of symbolic meaning and signification, why shouldn't creative acts have real consequences? Or is the symbolic expression of dissidence destined to remain an empty gesture?

Regardless of the value of cultural movements such as Burning Man, this kind of superficial journalistic attention fails to address the complex issues which underlie any form of cultural production. Instead, the article allows Rolling Stone to profit from flaunting the gaudier aspects of the festival -- fire, nudity, weird art -- while safely panning behaviors and attitudes the author (or editor, or readers) may find uncomfortable.

Style over Content Twitter Feed

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from October 2005 listed from newest to oldest.

November 2005 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.