Posts Tagged ‘culture’

An interesting opinion piece by Elizabeth Farrelly in the National Times, reflecting on the results in politics and life at large of ignorance, dumbness and the pursuit of happiness.
 

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Illustration: Edd Aragon

 
It may be, as one correspondent wrote last week, that advertising works on the “80/80 principle”, the assumption that 80 per cent of Australians have an IQ average of 80. Now I’m fine with stupidity in advertising. Indeed, I expect nothing less – isn’t that why God gave us the mute button? But what makes the 80/80 thought especially gripping – as in, by the throat – is how much it explains that branch of advertising we call politics.

This is all about scale, or if you like, dosage – a thing whose implications we perpetually refuse to grasp, although they are increasingly hard to ignore.

We’re used to the idea of economies of scale, the savings in time or money reaped by producing something – from attack helicopters to graduate dentists – en masse. We’re not as good at getting our heads around the costs of scale, how a small personal indulgence blows out, when repeated over time and space, into planetary destruction.

Everything is dose related. Whether it’s arsenic in your diet or radioactivity in the sea, small amounts now and then are OK, even beneficial, but large amounts, repeatedly, are bad and even terminal. It’s the same with almost everything else – cars, houses, chocolate, holidays, even happiness.

For one person to live in an acre of grass and trees is perfectly harmless, even lovable. But for the numberless hordes to do it means an end to wilderness, clean air and polar bears. This must be obvious to everyone who has ever sat in the daily Sydney-to-Richmond traffic jam, yet we do not see it. Which is why premiers repeatedly stake their careers on building more roads, which just means more congestion. We don’t have to be dumb. It’s enough that our leaders think we are, and pander accordingly.

All of which bears out the 80/80 principle, and is why we may find ourselves forced to choose between democracy and survival.

Democracy is very close to our hearts. So close that we go to war in order to impose it on those too weak or benighted to grab it for themselves. But democracy, the tyranny of the majority, may yet prove an own goal for humanity, mainly because of the weird trick it does with scale; allowing us all to pursue our own happiness as if we were the only ones on the planet. Allowing us to act like a vast family of solipsistic only children, steadfastly voting for lower taxes and higher services.

Democracy and happiness have been buddies ever since Thomas Jefferson wrote “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence. In the 250 years since, this has become one of the most influential phrases of all time, and not necessarily in a good way.

Happiness has become not just a universal entitlement but almost an obligation, replacing such ideals as goodness or enlightenment as Life’s True Purpose. It’s not that, as a society, we’re especially happy. More than we feel we ought to be. We feel that, under the circumstances, and given the vast quanta of food, pleasure, leisure, wealth and freedom at our disposal, there’s no reason not to be.

Perhaps this in itself is just another illustration of that 80/80 thing. There are two compelling proofs of the stupidity of the pursuit of happiness. One is small scale, private and relatively benign; the other large scale, public and a serious threat to survival.

The first proof is that pursuing happiness doesn’t work. Whether breatharianism or extreme underwater yoga is your bent, happiness is an elusive creature that exists only when you’re looking neither for nor at it. Even Martin Seligman, positive psychology’s founding father, admits that the most reliable path to happiness is not to pursue it, but to commit to some greater, connective cause (be it housing the homeless or writing metaphysical sonnets).

The second proof is more serious because it engages questions of scale and dose. En masse, when all of our small, personal happiness pursuits coagulate into one big, ongoing, democratic res publica, the result is an increasingly cowed and cowardly leadership with no higher goal than this; to service an increasingly petulant public by telling it precisely what it wishes to hear.

Of course you can have both cheap petrol and clean air, my darlings. Yes, yes. Big houses and swift individual transport, perfect health for free and forever, new toys all round, all the time – these things are everybody’s right. There there. Back to sleep with you.

Are we stupid? Or are they? Often it’s hard to tell. But there is, I suggest, little or no evidence that democracies can take hard decisions, even when their own long-term interests are at stake. To wit, America’s reluctance to impose a GST despite the embarrassing talk of a credit rating drop and the fact that most of its states are bankrupt. To wit, Australia’s ludicrous dithering on a pollution tax.

Whether non-democracies such as China will negotiate the rapids of the coming century more adroitly remains to be seen. Certainly, freed from any need to pander to the 80/80 rule, they have at least one freedom Western-style democracies do not have – the freedom to act decisively.

This, of course, can be bad, very bad. But it can also be good, facilitating just the kind of purposive decision making needed to change habits quickly and cater to excellence rather than popularity.

Maybe it’s too soon to dump democracy, but I’d make voting a privilege; not a right, and certainly not an obligation. If they can’t be bothered to vote, the last thing you want is their help in running the country. Rather, we’d earn our voting rights by demonstrating at least some intelligent grasp of the issues and so force, or perhaps allow, our leaders to raise their eye-cues.

Elitist? Perhaps. But we don’t have a problem choosing runners for the Olympics. So how is that different from putting the smartest in charge of the ship? It’s that dose thing. A small increment in IQ, repeated daily, would make all the difference.

The interesting website “You Are Not So Smart” published a couple of days ago a post on the hivemind: the one leading to deindividuation in groups. Deindividuation makes people shout at someones standing on top of a building to jump and then filming the death fall or tweeting the action. Three ingredients lead to deindividuation: anonymity, group size and arousal (being aroused by the environment and feeling aroused).

The Misconception: People who riot and loot are scum who were just looking for an excuse to steal and be violent.

The Truth: You are are prone to losing your individuality and becoming absorbed into a hivemind under the right conditions.

Source: Improv Everywhere

When a crowd gathers near a suicidal jumper something terrible is unleashed.

In Seattle in 2001, a 26-year-old woman who had recently ended a relationship held up traffic for a little too long as she considered the implications of leaping to her death. As motorists began to back-up on the bridge and become irate, they started yelling “Jump, bitch, jump!” until she did.

Cases like this aren’t unusual. …

Psychologists call this phenomenon deindividuation …. In certain situations, you can expect to be de-individualized. Unlike conformity, in which you adopt the ideas and behaviors of others for acceptance and inclusion, deindividuation is mostly unconscious and more likely to lead to mischief. As psychologist David G. Myers said, it is “doing together what you would not do alone.”

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There is a wide-spread perception that in our bit-size world deep reflections have fallen out of favour. Clive Thompson in a Wired post begs to disagree:

By Clive Thompson Email Author – December 27, 2010  | 12:00 pm  | Wired January 2010

 Illustration: Thomas Ng

Illustration: Thomas Ng

We’re often told that the Internet has destroyed people’s patience for long, well-thought-out arguments. After all, the ascendant discussions of our day are text messages, tweets, and status updates. The popularity of this endless fire hose of teensy utterances means we’ve lost our appetite for consuming—and creating—slower, reasoned contemplation. Right?

I’m not so sure. In fact, I think something much more complex and interesting is happening: The torrent of short-form thinking is actually a catalyst for more long-form meditation.

When something newsworthy happens today—Brett Favre losing to the Jets, news of a new iPhone, a Brazilian election runoff—you get a sudden blizzard of status updates. These are just short takes, and they’re often half-baked or gossipy and may not even be entirely true. But that’s OK; they’re not intended to be carefully constructed. Society is just chewing over what happened, forming a quick impression of What It All Means.

The long take is the opposite: It’s a deeply considered report and analysis, and it often takes weeks, months, or years to produce. It used to be that only traditional media, like magazines or documentaries or books, delivered the long take. But now, some of the most in-depth stuff I read comes from academics or businesspeople penning big blog essays, Dexter fans writing 5,000-word exegeses of the show, and nonprofits like the Pew Charitable Trusts producing exhaustively researched reports on American life.

The long take also thrives on the long tail. Whereas a tweet becomes dated within minutes, a really smart long take holds value for years. Back in the ’90s, my magazine articles vanished after the issue left the newsstand. But now that the pieces are online, readers email me every week saying they’ve stumbled upon something years old.

The real loser here is the middle take. This is what the weeklies like Time and Newsweek have historically offered: reportage and essays produced a few days after major events, with a bit of analysis sprinkled on top. They’re neither fast enough to be conversational nor slow enough to be truly deep. The Internet has essentially demonstrated how unsatisfying that sort of thinking can be.

This trend has already changed blogging. Ten years ago, my favorite bloggers wrote middle takes—a link with a couple of sentences of commentary—and they’d update a few times a day. Once Twitter arrived, they began blogging less often but with much longer, more-in-depth essays. Why?

“I save the little stuff for Twitter and blog only when I have something big to say,” as blogger Anil Dash put it. It turns out readers prefer this: One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.

Even our reading tools are morphing to accommodate the rise of long takes. The design firm Arc90 released Readability, an app that renders website text as one clean, ad-free column down the center of your screen—perfect for distraction-free long-form reading—and it got so popular that Apple baked it into the current version of Safari. Or consider the iPad: It’s been criticized as “only” a consumption device, but that’s the whole point; it’s superb for consuming long takes. Instapaper, an app created by Marco Arment to time-shift online material for later reading, has racked up nearly a million users with hardly any advertising. “It’s for reading,” Arment says, “when you’re ready to be attentive.”

Which, despite reports to the contrary, we are. We talk a lot, then we dive deep.

It’s hard to draw a line on where to stop publishing more graphs from Information is Beautiful 😉 – I will do it here nevertheless even though there are many more to marvel at. The first one chosen is very congruent with many of my own experiences in the digital world ;), while the second provides an interesting perspective on where the US spends money on (like such useless endeavours as wars) – even in a year as challenging as that of the GFC. [Click on images for better readability or go to the original webpages for image 1 and image 2]

Check out too the video below the next image to get an enhanced perspectives on US spending waste.

Another interesting graph from Information is Beautiful. I do like the categorisation of one of the endpoints of monogamy: “empty – one partner for bitter life”; not uncommon, sadly. In this context one could put forward the argument that there’s a lot to be said for non-monogamous relationships ;). [Click on the image for better readability or go to the original website]

Read the original blog post

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Young Germans, longing for life in the former German Democratic Republic

The following article is quite arrogant and condescending and clearly is written with a biased perspective that uncritically favours Germany’s political system of today. Nevertheless, it gives interesting glimpses into some of the advantages the former communist Germany offered its citizens over life in capitalism, like economic security or the absence of poverty and beggars in public places. It also shows a majority of former East Germans questioning the hypocrisy of Western style democracy as well as the judgment that the German Democratic Republic was an illegitimate state. Makes you wonder what Cubans might say some twenty years after their country has been taken over by capitalism …

By Julia Bonstein
Spiegel Online International

Glorification of the German Democratic Republic is on the rise two decades after the Berlin Wall fell. Young people and the better off are among those rebuffing criticism of East Germany as an “illegitimate state.” In a new poll, more than half of former eastern Germans defend the GDR.

The life of Birger, a native of the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania in northeastern Germany, could read as an all-German success story. The Berlin Wall came down when he was 10. After graduating from high school, he studied economics and business administration in Hamburg, lived in India and South Africa, and eventually got a job with a company in the western German city of Duisburg. Today Birger, 30, is planning a sailing trip in the Mediterranean. He isn’t using his real name for this story, because he doesn’t want it to be associated with the former East Germany, which he sees as “a label with negative connotations.”

And yet Birger is sitting in a Hamburg cafe, defending the former communist country. “Most East German citizens had a nice life,” he says. “I certainly don’t think that it’s better here.” By “here,” he means reunified Germany, which he subjects to questionable comparisons. “In the past there was the Stasi, and today (German Interior Minister Wolfgang) Schäuble — or the GEZ (the fee collection center of Germany’s public broadcasting institutions) — are collecting information about us.” In Birger’s opinion, there is no fundamental difference between dictatorship and freedom. “The people who live on the poverty line today also lack the freedom to travel.”

Birger is by no means an uneducated young man. He is aware of the spying and repression that went on in the former East Germany, and, as he says, it was “not a good thing that people couldn’t leave the country and many were oppressed.” He is no fan of what he characterizes as contemptible nostalgia for the former East Germany. “I haven’t erected a shrine to Spreewald pickles in my house,” he says, referring to a snack that was part of a the East German identity. Nevertheless, he is quick to argue with those who would criticize the place his parents called home: “You can’t say that the GDR was an illegitimate state, and that everything is fine today.”

As an apologist for the former East German dictatorship, the young Mecklenburg native shares a majority view of people from eastern Germany. Today, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 57 percent, or an absolute majority, of eastern Germans defend the former East Germany. “The GDR had more good sides than bad sides. There were some problems, but life was good there,” say 49 percent of those polled. Eight percent of eastern Germans flatly oppose all criticism of their former home and agree with the statement: “The GDR had, for the most part, good sides. Life there was happier and better than in reunified Germany today.”

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What East Germany Was Really Like

By Solveig Grothe
Spiegel online International

They wanted to clean up the basement but found a treasure trove of photos instead. After Berlin teacher Manfred Beier died, his sons stumbled across 60,000 pictures. Their father, it turns out, created one of the best documentations of life in East Germany, and the first days of the West.

It’s amazing how little you can know about your own father: After the death of Berlin resident Manfred Beier in 2002, his sons Wolf and Nils began to sort out their inheritance and came across a treasure. They found dozens of wooden boxes stacked on shelves as well as numerous chests of drawers — similar to pharmacist cabinets and apparently custom-made. The drawers contained removable inserts, each of which had staggered rows of small drilled holes about three centimeters in diameter. Each of these holes held a roll of miniature film.

Photo Gallery: A Photographic record of Life in East Germany


Click on a picture to launch the image gallery (38 Photos)

The brothers knew their father had taken a good deal of photographs throughout his life. But this? They could only estimate the number of pictures that their father had left behind: some 60,000, plus a series of home movies — a seemingly unmanageable collection. In his basement, though, they found 38 notebooks that served as the keys to the collection. The orderly, handwritten notes — on roughly 4,000 sheets of paper — helped the brothers keep an overview of all the film rolls as they rummaged through the basement. Manfred Beier had made a chronological list of every photo, complete with an archival numbering system. The notes detailed exactly how each picture came to be — the day, hour, and minute it was taken; the camera, aperture, and shutter speed used to take it; and the exact location of its subject.

It is a photographic diary of the long life of Manfred Beier, who was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1927, grew up at Strausberger Platz square and was drafted as a teenager into part of the last-ditch Volkssturm German army defense at the end of World War II. He worked for decades after the war in the East German school system and always carried at least one camera with him — even on his forays into the West, for as long as he was able to go there and once he was able to go there again. It’s a photographic diary of German history. And it is the most comprehensive and complete documentation of everyday life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, the former East Germany) — unique in its photographic and cultural-historical value, experts say.

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