Archive for the ‘the social’ Category

What if we needed the seams? Thoughts on the portentous Facebook-NSA nexus…

June 20, 2013

It’s not my nature to be paranoid or apocalyptic, but I’m starting to feel an alarming tug in both directions. Consider for a moment, as this NYT article on the Facebook-NSA nexus does, the current array of public and private incentives to monitor and mine our activities. Then combine those incentives with the ever-improving technology allowing both public and private actors to give freer rein to their darkest impulses whilst spurring each other on to greater heights in pursuit of their converging goals.

On the “public” side—if such a reassuring adjective still applies—the government collects and stores our data the better to police and discipline us. If need be, we’ve been told it can even go “back in time” in search of deviant behaviour. Initially, the policing is carried out by algorithms but gradually—”it is not easy to become sane,” as O’Brien tells Winston Smith at the end of 1984—through a combination of fear and the desire to conform, we learn to do this work ourselves before the algorithms even need to flag us. Data mining, as someone has remarked, is not about finding a needle in a haystack, it’s about incrementally moving the haystack.

On the private side, the incentives are obvious: harvest and process our data in the name of monetizing our activities; in a twist on the just-in-time production model, provide us with products before we’ve even become aware we want them.

In both domains—of citizen or consumer—the functioning is seamless: we become equally scrutable, equally benign. But what if we needed the seams? I’m imagining a world like WALL-E where the only things left roaming the earth aren’t genial robots, but algorithms trolling for data, programming Pandora™ stations with no one left to hear the music…


beards, armpits, eyebrows

September 12, 2006


Highly recommended New Yorker article. I’d create a category for it called “the social-anthropology of everyday life” but then that seems a tad long-winded.


‘On January 30, 1937, a letter to the New Statesman and Nation announced that Darwin, Marx, and Freud had a successor—or, more accurately, successors. “Mass-Observation develops out of anthropology, psychology, and the sciences which study man,” the letter read, “but it plans to work with a mass of observers.” The movement already had fifty volunteers, and it aspired to have five thousand, ready to study such aspects of contemporary life as:

Behaviour of people at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Bathroom behaviour.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.
Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.

New Yorker article

Link to the author of the article’s blog with more information and links on Mass-Observation (and further down a great slideshow of Walker Evans’ photos) and a nod to the humble toilings of your very own didactique. First we take Manhattan…


les classes sociales pas mort (homogamy)

September 10, 2006

One of the chief questions that exercise the good social theorists (and which the others, aka apologists for the status quo, would rather see exorcised) is how power relations are reproduced in a given society. Once we dispense with the anodyne notion that we all start life from the identical starting line with identical chances of winning the race, we’re forced to consider what gets passed on from generation to generation, how domination and classes function, how much mobility, permeability, between classes really exists. Certainly money is central here, but it’s not the entire story. There is capital also in a much more diffuse sense; the so-called cultural capital (see Bourdieu) that affords the legatee a kind of unerring sense for how to get ahead, an ability to navigate social situations, an unquestioned feeling of at-homeness in a given milieu (say that of an elite academic institution or a corporate boardroom). This is partly how to account for the stubborn fact that, statistically, people born into a given class are far more likely to stay within that class than, say, ascend into a class above them.

This posting was sparked by my reading of a recently published French sociology journal article,* taking on the third way “flat” world thesis of a social world where class is supposedly becoming an increasingly less salient means of understanding daily life. The author introduced me to a new word – homogamie, or homogamy in English. Selon the OED, it’s a biological term – (a) homogamous condition; fertilization of a flower by its own pollen or by that of another flower on the same plant. As often happens, the biological term migrated to the social sciences (and often such migrations come with unacknowledged costs, i.e. reducing society to a depoliticized “natural” biological mechanism). Homogamy came up as the French author, armed with a battery of stats, demonstrated how class continues to dictate many life choices, perhaps even more so now than before, and that like continues to marry like, people from working class backgrounds tend overwhelmingly to marry other people from similar backgrounds, and people from the liberal and professional classes, for example, tend to an overwhelming degree not to marry people from the working class. To borrow a citation from the OED definition: 1947 Evolution I. 270/2 “The concept of homogamy or associative mating states that within a population the most similar individuals will mate with each other.” The children of such associative mating are then ever more likely to grow up and stay within that association, reproducing the same power relations that contributed, along with cupid bien entendu, to their parents getting married, either not questioning their privileges, or not imagining such privileges to be within their ken.

None of this is a straitjacket of course, but class matters and efforts to suggest it’s an outmoded discourse – bearing in mind, as Tony Judt points out, that the Left itself bears a lot of responsibility for this discrediting – tell us more about the agenda of the person making the argument than the phenomenon itself. Anyone doubting this could consult the most recent staggering numbers on income inequalities in the US and conservative attempts to gloss them, a theme of numerous Paul Krugman columns.

*Chauvel (Louis), « Le retour des classes sociales ? », Revue de l’OFCE, n°79, octobre 2001, Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Economiques/Presses de Sciences Po, p. 315-359.

self-imposed surveillance

September 10, 2006

“Imagine a device that monitors the social marketplace the way a blinking Bloomberg terminal tracks incremental changes in the bond market and you’ll get the idea.

‘That’s all anyone talks about on campus actually,” she said. “My day was totally messed up because of the new Facebook.’ ”