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Archive for January, 2011

On Naming: Social Investment in Minor Details

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

“Names by themselves may be empty, but the act of naming…” – from Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

What’s in a name? Does the foundation for identity rest in the name our parents provide us? Freakonomics has a chapter that looks at names and traces the lives of two siblings, a  Loser Lane and a Winner Lane. The boys lead very different lives and, perhaps to no surprise, Loser Lane became a more respectable member of society likely due to his daily challenge of living down his name. Winner Lane is said to be a career criminal and a tragic mix of irony and sarcasm to his name.

At the most basic level, our names are foundational data points for human relations. “What’s his name?” when asked of us, seeks a reference point of discussion. In knowing our name a speaker can direct his or her words to us and plot an interaction. This is the purely objective level of a name: it exists solely as a reference point to distinguish us from others. “Hey look, there’s bill down in the front row!” our friend can offer to a neighbor when he spies us in a crowd.” Our name distinguishes us from others.

Subjectivity enters the picture when we consider the meaning behind the name. Arranged in a specific order, the sounds that compose our name are loaded with subjective details. We have notions of the types of names that leaders have, the names of common criminals or of celebrities from culture. We understand names in context of relations. Who else has our name? Has anyone with our name done something horrible or great? What type of people commonly have our name?

We are often victim to our names. A name that has poor connotative connections may lead strangers to unfairly judge us. If tasked with this unfortunate situation we must work harder to prove our independent value. In some sense we strive to move beyond our names, to expand beyond the basic level of our names and establish the details of our personality.

As Pynchon’s great novel suggests, the name itself may be absent of meaning but the act of naming is significant. A parent with the power to create life assigns a wealth of details by which a new individual interacts with the world. Poorly chosen names can drastically alter a child’s formative years and cull forth needless bouts of stress.

Names are an example of the minor things in life that have significant influence on life. Though minor and limited in scope, society invests an incredible amount of meaning in names. Likewise we pull out copious amounts of data from names and plot our initial reactions with strangers on the basis of names.

 

 

Know Your Knife: Picking the Right Tool for the Moment

January 28, 2011 Leave a comment

One curious contemporary situation is the work-from home form of employment. In these situations an individual interacts with fellow employees through technology. Variable rates exist with some employees working from home a few days to week to some jobs where all work takes place from home. How is corporate culture established in these situations where technology forms the conduit to the experiences and relationships with other employees?

Much of what we feel about our jobs comes from the daily experiences and relationships. Despite being employed to produce a certain item or complete a certain task, these essential activities are actually secondary points of reference when considering if we actually like our jobs. Many workers create things they do not care about or complete tasks that they admittedly know to be useless or destructive to the common good.

It is not the products of employment that define the employee’s corporate culture. The only connection points between the individual and the employer are the daily experiences and relationships.

Working from home invariably involves isolation. Face-to-face interactions are replaced with a collection of technological devices. These devices a hierarchical relationship on terms of personality transfer. A telephone call creates a transaction of human voices while an e-mail, far lower in the “hierarchy of personality transfer” only offers a textual transfer of information.

Knowledge of this hierarchy is essential when working from home. Key to success in a situation where human interaction is at a distance, a worker’s ability to choose the correct tool for the moment is critical. In moments of crisis an employee is best to use the telephone so as to judge tone. Minor situations or daily procedures are best for e-mail where a simple transaction of information is best.

Image Issues: The Struggles of Varied Bases

January 27, 2011 1 comment

In an interview on Fresh Air today there was a discussion on the NRA’s evolution through history. Though largely geared towards recent events and records of activism, there was a brief mention of an “image crisis” that came up near the end of the interview. Gross posed a question of Spitzer that considered the NRA’s member base and its varied directions of activism. Spitzer reflected on the varied demographics of NRA membership and the wealth of concerns that comes from such a varied base of support. Unlike some groups which form on the basis of a common goal, the NRA is formed on the basis of a common interest and draws in members from the multitude of niches in society.

This issue of “image confusion” that comes from a varied member base made me muse on the reasons why we form groups and the features of our more successful alliances. I came to the conclusion that the key feature of group formation is a common goal. Groups are formulated when a common need exists and the formation of the group appears to be the best remedy. This “common need” varies from group to group, ranging from political to personal but always centering on a common need among the individuals in the group. The individuals come together in order to remedy the common need and formulate the group as a device of intervention.

It should be no surprise that groups created to remedy a simple problem are more popular and more successful. As with all things a clarity of focus creates an environment where individuals can gauge their interests and efficiently provide their services to the group. The fewer goals a group has the easier it is for each member to get involved. Likewise the tendency for success decreases as this focus disappears. In order for a group to accomplish its goal it must have a clear focus of intent.

These areas of focus can range from simple social provisions to political activities. A group like a bowling league has a focused goal and each member gauges interest on the basis of this need. If a potential bowler wants to socialize he or she joins the group. This focused “provision to need” is simple and involves a minor sacrifice. Groups that have these simple needs are popular, just note the number of communities have a weekly bowling league. Seek to trace the rates of animal activism in a community and you will find less interest and a more diverse collection of individuals.

Group success is largely tied to the simplicity of message. Groups that strive for large goals like the NRA and PETA face an increased challenge on the basis of their large, broad goals. When a group strives for major change it faces challenges beyond just the task it sets before itself. A group needs to consider the perspective of the “interested outsider.” What types of considerations will this outsider muse on before joining the group? Often it will be a process of seeking out common points of interest. An individual joins a group on the basis of the “remedy of a need” mentioned above. If a group presents to lofty goals, intentions that are too broad or that demand too much from members will often scare individuals away.

I feel the NRA struggles from this difficulty. Of course the NRA membership remains strong but this is largely a response to concern for second amendment rights. For the NRA the notion of “new member dissonance” mentioned above comes in the form of the outsiders who turn away. These are the non gun owners or the figures in society whose concern for constitutional rights is the stronger motivation than gun control. Many are indifferent to guns but feel incredibly passionate about protecting the constitutional rights we currently possess. I feel that many Americans hold a great fear of figures who aim to trim the Constitution and see our founding document like a bonsai tree that isn’t perfect but a highly crafted work in progress.

The NRA and groups with similarly scaled goals would be better served by recognizing the diversity of their message. A simplification of presentation (key here: not goals or direction) would bring in additional support. Communication is the key. Complicated goals and multiple directions of activism can be successful but a failure to convey a simple message to the outside world alienates would-be supporters. The NRA has a major support base whose only hesitation comes from confusion over image. Too many figures work to define the NRA and it takes just one clash to send a potential supporter away. Image control is critical; its devise is communication clarity.

In order for groups like the NRA to interact successfully with the outside world, there need to be an active consideration of public goals and message. Groups that have focused goals framed on connecting with the common notions of outsiders is critical for gaining support. This isn’t a diluting of message; instead it is a refinement of goals that communicates with the general public of common goals and features. The critical factor when interacting with the public is the clean, friendly face. The public can understand different perspectives and as long as a group’s goals are focused and rationally founded the American public will both tolerate and, in some cases, celebrate the civic activity.

The Conundrum of Choice

January 27, 2011 1 comment

Assume that every morning your employer called you and asked if you wanted to come to work that day. There is no requirement and, if you wanted, you could work zero days in a year. You are only paid for the hours that you work and are open to 365 days of 8-hour shifts. In a sense you are always “on call.”

Would you decide to go to work each day? Would you commonly work a forty-hour work week or choose instead a part-time role?

We often think of choice as being between two positives. Do you want coffee or tea? Brownies or cake? Things change when choices come with variable forms of benefit. In our employment idea above there are two kinds of value: the financial form of money and the abstract concept of time. Convenience is the major player in making our decision and would likely be the single determining factor used to decide if we went to work.

Can I afford to not work today? What do I feel like today? These basic questions deal with the convenience of going to work that day and would be the evaluative means to decide our day.

For many this debate is one of equal sides. The opportunity to decide to work leads to a complicated consideration. For others the debate is far from equal, some are swayed easily by money or the lack of earning money. Financial means rule the day but additional details also play a part. The pleasures of one’s work or the corporate culture one enters into are crucial factors one must consider.

The Current Format

In the current model there is a “work week”, a division of time wherein the hours of our day and week are pre-defined as working hours. We work shifts and psychologically divide our time accordingly. We are “at work” or “getting ready for work,” “leaving work” or “stuck at work.” We have a language of labor and function differently in these roles. We prepare and pack meals for these times away, we dress in an established format of “business formal” or “business casual.” On Fridays we may be blend our personal and professional worlds with “casual Friday” where the clothing of our non-work world are used in the professional setting.

In this format there are limited options for the work week. An employee can “call off” but in doing so utilizes a collection of hours set aside for these emergencies. Likewise “sick time” is a collection of time set aside for times when we are not healthy enough to perform our jobs. These classifications of hours insure an employer receives a full work week even if we are not present. In such a system an employer who never walks into the office all week can still “put in” forty hours by taking forty hours of personal time.

The professional world allows us this dual existence. Employment features a sub set of language, dress and behavior. Time has been divided and redefined on professional terms. If given a choice to engage in this world what would one do? Would one decide to stay away?

The Constitution as Wiki, a thought experiment

January 26, 2011 Leave a comment

As a thought experiment, imagine a situation in which the American constitution has been converted to a Wiki. In this simulation the document is now posted online as an editable document that all citizens can edit. Assume that all citizens have an equal access to the network and a personal terminal to make edits. Just as with Wikipedia, the community can remove edits deemed inappropriate or not reflective of the group’s collective opinion.

In this situation all citizens have access to the country’s governing document. All citizens can create legislation and pursue an active role in the development of the nation’s laws. Simple polls could dictate whether the country goes to war, increases the tax rate or even updates its national symbols. All details of the country would exist online and would be edited 24/7.

What are the benefits of such a system? What are the pitfalls?

Assumed occurences

As part of this simulation one must assume certain behaviors by the public. There are opinion based but crucial to predicting how the system will function. Here are my assumptions:

  • Popularity of the system would be high. A significant portion of the population would engage in editing the document.
  • A security system would exist so that only US citizens could make edits. All changes would be traceable.
  • Changes would be constant and laws would change quickly
  • Interactions occur on the individual level. A citizen edits as a single citizen, not as a corporation. (This directly disregards the Citizens United decision)

Dangers

Of course this system is a dangerous one. Among the many possible dangers is a system where editing is too rapid for public knowledge. Rapid changes might create a system where the community could not keep up. In such a system the enforcement of old laws or a failure to enforce new laws could be common.

Are there others?

Benefits

A major benefit of this system is increased engagement. The population with the ability to function directly with government could inspire unseen levels of civic interest and involvement.

The community as a whole would create laws that represented the collective population. Unlike our current system where power is distributed unequally; usually, on the basis of money, this system would give all citizens one vote. Here we have a connection to the Citizens United decision- there will be no votes for corporations in this wiki system. Only citizens can make edits.

Are there others?

Make it Fake: Artificial Economies

January 23, 2011 1 comment

The essential economic condition of scarcity is the driving force of all economies. Inherent limitations in life create a conflict between desires and pleasure. You want a chocolate bar you can’t afford it or the cocoa crop failed to produce and zero chocolate bars exist. These are just two possibilities in our scarcity model. Such limitations on supply comes in multiple forms: a consequence of our extensive economic network has created a system wherein the delivery of that chocolate bar requires a massive cast of actors. One broken chain in the link and a scarcity can blossom and deny your chocolate dreams.

The fact that we cannot have everything we want whenever we want it leads to economic fluctuation. Rarely is an item completely beyond grasp: there is always a store with chocolate a few miles away or an alternative cocoa grower who can hustle out an extra batch. In such situations our desires can be supplanted but for extra effort comes an expectation of extra compensation. Low supply and high demand means high prices as the efforts and supplies needed to meet demand require extra-effort and extra-work. All remains in balance.

Scarcity is natural and normal. Items like land or other natural resources will always be limited. There is only so much Earth available for out use. Other items are seasonally scarce, for example fruit or flowers. These items exist at certain times of year but then go away for a few months. Herein we see the seeds for economic demand: human psychology tacks onto the pleasures of flowers and fruits but will not accept this issue of scarcity. “Someone has to have flowers,” we’ll say and off a set of feet will move to please our needs at whatever cost is needed. This is the market in action.

Some items are never scarce. For example software or created works of media. Modern technology provides us with the ability to cheaply reproduce a film. In cases of human creation or “intellectual property” we need to create an artificial market, a system of fake scarcity in order to maintain value. If we can get free copies or if access to copies is constant our desire won’t exist. Imagine the cost of the single remaining pencil on American shores. This single device would sky rocket in cost.

Disney is famous for its use of the “Disney Vault,” a term referring to its selective release of its films. In situations were desire wavers the close control of supply can surf the waves of desire and even create demand inside a marketplace. Keen marketeers (working for Disney) can monitor public demand and fan the flames of public interest. All of this makes incredible sense and is the only foundation of safety for companies who primarily create intellectual material.

Artificial markets are tempting to non-intellectual creators, though. Edmund Burke wrote a scathing critique on corn producers who in 1770 were distorting the market to garner high profits. Such behavior has not changed with contemporary society and has in fact expanded. Now the artificial market runs rampant in all economies of human desire and need. We see artificial markets at local gas stations or supermarkets where our needs and desires are used to garner specific responses.

The artificial market is an essential device in the contemporary economy. Though dangerous and unfair, it exists as a common force among all smart businesses functioning today. The repercussions of this behavior is dangerous on multiple fronts: what is value? How is one to understand the true value of an item when so many fake factors weigh upon its cost? What are the dangers of such subjectivity in our economy? The hazards of these behaviors are well-known and widely experienced.

A system of subjectivity in the form of artificial markets is a dangerous one. We can only expect distortion in a system so closely tied to human emotion. Though potential profits are great, the hazards of the artificial market may outweigh the benefits therein.

Avoiding Enemies: The Perfect v. The Good

January 23, 2011 Leave a comment

In La Bégueule. Voltaire reminds us that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Human perfectionism is a dangerous bog of creative quick sand. For many a task is an expression of personal identity, an activity whose completion suggests who we are, what we stand for and what we capable of doing. Profound conclusions can be drawn from the most minor of details but from such striving leaps of judgment we risk more than what we gain.

Human creativity spawns less from perfection and more from absent-minded stumbling. In his TED Talk, Tim Brown urges the audience to utilize “rapid prototyping” when creating. Brown suggests that in order to innovate a creator must step beyond the intellectual procedures of creation and simply let the process take place. Many artists mention to process of “getting out of the way” of the muse or creative drive. I would argue that a creative driving force exists, and though abstract and impossible to truly identify, the real suggestion we can conclude on is that ultimately the human mind creates in a wild form beyond our rational procedures. In short we are better served in creating with our child-like behaviors and greeting the creative act as less a rational act and more as an irrational journey of potential. We’ll never know how far we’ll get but pausing to consider such questions do nothing to assist progress.

Progress is the core concept in Voltaire’s quotation. He is urging his reader to recognize the importance of forward progress. We may crave a perfect work but if such demands eliminate any progress than we are only self-defeating. The craving for perfection is understandable when one considers the great conclusions we draw from our creations. As mentioned earlier we often see creations as expressions of the creator. This is dangerous and lethal for human progress. We must recall our human faults and pitfalls. Create with wild abandon and let whatever comes forward be at very least a draft. If our progress depends on perfection we have little to hope for. Only constant prototyping and pursuit of the “good” will help us reach perfection.

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