Objects of Affection

May 26, 2010

I moved last week and am finding myself unpacking endless boxes of what is now considered “old media:” CDs, DVDs, and above all books. Boxes and boxes of books, fiction and non-fiction and poetry and even spiral-bound collections of notes. (Never know when you’re going to need those old grade 10 Canadian History notes!) Sorting through them all brings me a kind of contentment that I’m sure is akin to how others feel when purchasing new shoes or clothes or gadgets. My books tell a story about the things I’ve studied, and the papers I’ve written, and the dusty used book shops I’ve visited throughout the years. They are a visual reminder of how my thinking has expanded.

I’ve written before about the sad demise of the bookshelf in the age of Wikipedia and e-readers, but moving has caused me to think about my particular clutter more broadly, particularly given how difficult it is for me to get rid of it (much to the chagrin of my ever-growing moving fraternity). There is comfort in stuff, especially in one’s own stuff. My grand theory is that everyone has a “clutter threshold,” beyond which things start to seem untidy. (I fall somewhere between Ikea-Chic and Victorian-Living-Room on the continuum, but more toward the latter.) And while my clutter tolerance level has remained relatively static, I’m always happy to put something else on the shelf that I’ve loved reading.

Is this just simple materialism? No; I suspect it runs much deeper. Things – particularly branded things, but also things in and of themselves – are what project our image out into the world. What we own and use defines us. Many psychologists believe that an obsession with objects is part of feeling secure, or included, in that having the same things as others gives one a certain identity as part of their group, however remote the connection. Advertising, of course, capitalizes upon this need for security and belonging by selling emotions, with the promise of happiness, comfort, or popularity inherent in owning or using their products.

My sagging bookshelves define me in ways I’m quite happy with, which is likely why I find it so difficult to give books away. Other people feel similarly about clothing, or teacups. But at what point does our love of things start to have negative effects? In Das Kapital, Marx wrote of commodity fetishism, the result of a capitalist system in which people’s labour is viewed as a commodity in and of itself, something to be bought and sold. Commodity fetishism alters social relations so people can only see their relationships with objects, instead of each other, i.e. producer with what she produces, consumer with what he consumes. Have we got to a point where we care about things more than the people whose stories are wrapped up in making, marketing, and selling them?

I read an article last August in the Globe & Mail about objectum sexuals: a movement of those who form romantic/intimate relationships with things. One such individual the article profiled had recently married the Eiffel Tower; another was at the time “dating two soundboards” (apparently objectum sexuals are no more likely to be monogamous than those who are attracted to humans). Is this just capitalism to its farcical extreme? Did Marx foresee this? Is our preoccupation – and in some cases obsession – with material objects a sign of the decadence and decay of Western society?

I wonder if this kind of thing occurs in the developing world, where there are generally fewer things, or if extreme materialism is only found among those who have the luxury of having many things. It makes some kind of sense (perhaps from watching too many 80s movies) that those who aren’t used to thinking of objects as having what Marx referred to as exchange-value instead of merely use-value would find the materialism Westerners exhibit absurd. In part, I suspect it is because those who live in less highly developed monetary exchange societies don’t imbue objects with significance in and of themselves to the same extent, as representations of communities. In the West we use objects to send subtle messages about what we value, what we think, and who we are at a fundamental level. In our world of extreme marketing and extreme materialism, buying (or not buying) things is our way of acting, instead of protesting or voting, which in many developing societies can be highly political even in the action itself. In my conceptual model detailing a national hierarchy of needs (perhaps more appropriately titled a hierarchy of national development), materialism would likely rest in the second-highest tier, that of a “thriving public sphere” with imagined communities. Consumer communities are a large part of the significance behind the idea of “taste,” because taste is, essentially, a quality that is comparative or shared.

I suspect that this is why iPods and e-readers and such – though certainly useful, and popular – will take a while to replace actual CDs and books entirely. Having electronic objects that store many different albums or books in one place ingratiates one into only a narrow kind of community, that of electronic gadget aficionados, whereas every book is a choice that can open up commonalities with whoever happens upon a bookcase. E-readers are not common enough yet to overcome their form and be judged by function alone, as paper is for books.

So would a way to escape from extreme materialism be to seek out others who feel the same way through action, instead of consumerism? To stop buying things and turn to protesting instead? Perhaps. But society has evolved to a state that is so commercialized, such actions are by default seen as economic ones, a kind of self-identification through one’s refusal to consume. In a world of too many things, materialism is no longer a difference of kind, but of degree. The amount and make-up of my clutter thus says a lot about me. Alas, back to boxes.

Changing Landscapes: A New Kind of Public Space

May 13, 2010

There’s a lot of talk about public space, especially in urban centres.  In Toronto there are whole movements dedicated to using it, preserving it and creating more of it – more parks, sidewalks, markets, waterfronts, and civic centres. Many see public space as a fundamental pillar of democracy, particularly at the local level where grassroots community organization can impact politics to a greater degree than at the national level.

Central Park

Central Park, A Classic Example of Physical Public Space

A lot of these campaigns are led by the young and largely propertyless, often leftists, renters or students. Case in point: the authors of the Project for Public Spaces website ranked the 20 best neighbourhoods in North America in their “Great Public Spaces” section. Of course, I looked for Toronto and wasn’t surprised to find Kensington Market – somewhere I personally find not “one of the most vibrant places in Toronto” but a sketchy and slightly smelly collection of ramshackle shops – coming in at 8th place. Hardly Rockefeller Plaza. And the local counsellors who support the cause are on the political left too, even considering municipal politics in Toronto slants quite heavily that way to in general.

I wonder if the leftist slant of public space advocacy is because the availability of public space is more important to those who don’t have/want private spaces of their own.  With the opportunity to own a tiny condo or one-room loft, concern for public space for general use seems to decline. It’s more appealing, perhaps, to be able to control one’s environment, despite the costs. And the clamouring for public space grows ever quieter as the students move from starter lofts to semi-detached homes with lawns, commutes, and bigger environmental footprints.

There is definitely, therefore, a generational aspect to the use of, and maybe even need for, public space.  Private space is increasingly necessary in raising a family or seeking financial security. And the kinds of activities that occur in public spaces – socializing, meeting new people, and acting on common interests – move further into the realm of private space as we grow older and tend to seek out the same friends, colleagues, or associations we’ve had for years. More private space makes our worlds more insular.

In part this trend is due to the decline of public-private spaces that in the past would encourage intergenerational socializing. Consider that in the Victorian era, a huge amount of time was spent at semi-private dances, in gentlemen’s clubs, or in church, all of which are areas that have fewer and fewer members each year. Like never before, space has been divided up into “privatopias,” whether owned by individuals or corporations, and access to these tightly controlled by invitation only.

It is also increasingly commercialized, something urban studies scholars have been writing about for ages. Whereas 200+ years ago town squares, public parks, and fairs abounded, today the majority of “public space” has a commercial bent, such as restaurants, arenas, nightclubs, and shops. Starbucks, renowned for its marketing campaign to make its cafes the “third space,” in the end really only wants you to buy their lattes and frou-frou yogurt cups. And the best example of the commercialized space, and one of the most popular “public” spaces for youth, is the mall. What is more likely to incite consumerism than a collection of stores, kiosks and food courts? There is much more of an incentive to do something (usually buy something) within public spaces today, whereas in the past the only thing one was expected to do was socialize.

The New Public Space

The New Public Space

It is perhaps not surprising then, given the generational divide in the use of public space and how increasingly partitioned it is into commercial zones, that young advocates of public space have turned to a generally no-cost option for interaction: the Internet. The most abundant public space today is the virtual kind. Spaces like chat rooms in the early days, and later Facebook, MySpace and YouTube were revolutionary because they allowed large groups to get together to exchange news, form communities, and interact in real time.  And they’ve since gone one better and added the advantage of collaboration outside of real time that allows group affiliations without having to all be present in the same place at the same time, through “walls,” posts and message boards visible to everyone. The Internet seems to be the solution to the ever-declining amount of physical public space: no governments need to be lobbied or protests staged; no corporations need to be fought for land; and the degree of commercialization is smaller, with relatively unobtrusive ads (so far).

But what is lost without physical space? True, there will be no “guerrilla gardening” online (except, perhaps, in other people’s FarmVilles). And it is easy to argue that virtual space is less accessible – to the underprivileged and those who can’t easily navigate the Internet – than its physical equivalent. It is also vulnerable to the same kinds of privatization that threaten space in the outside world, through access controls or commercialization.

But the potential for grassroots activism is surely greater, since the Internet is vast and largely unpoliced, unlike physical spaces. I wonder, will declining physical public space affect the quality of democracy for good or ill? It is perhaps a truism after even the short time facebook has been around that people are more likely to support a cause by joining a group than leaving the house to protest something. And joining facebook groups is no doubt less effective than voting for a local politician who can actually effect change. But the far-flung and ever-present nature of virtual public space carries advantages here too: people are perhaps even more likely to find out about something because the exchange of information is even more rapid than before, and isn’t immediately lost the way it would be in a physical gathering.

The challenge, then, is bringing the activism and accessibility of the physical public space into the virtual world. Ideally, of course, the public space of the future will be a hybrid of the virtual and physical kind. Perhaps the use of each will inspire support for the other. But in the short term, I nominate facebook as one of the “great public spaces” of our time. I wonder what Habermas and the public space committee would say to that.

Power and the Technological Sublime

May 5, 2010

How important to humans is control over nature? It is certainly a very modern preoccupation, and the need for control seems to be directly proportionate to the rate at which technology advances.  What does this control do for us, and what happens when we lose it?

It would seem that some of us are quite content. In an article about the response to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull, a columnist for The Economist argued that it is necessary every once in a while for humans to feel displacement (physical or otherwise). It gives us a chance to reflect on which elements of nature we can control, and which we can merely respond to. This insignificant volcano, it seems, made us feel temporarily powerless, unable to get our planes in the air, stocks on the shelves, and foreign flowers in their bouquets. According to the article, it is a sublime experience, this feeling of “overpowering nature, as seen from a place of safety.” In part, the article concluded, the pleasure of the sublime is in denying how much we as humans can do – and need to do:

When people talk about the charms of powerlessness in the face of nature, part of what they are saying is that they don’t want to be bothered with facing up to what humans can do, and to what they might have at risk. The business of looking after a planet requires being bothered in advance—and not just about little matters like volcanoes.

The Alps

The Natural Sublime

I knew, as soon as I read the word “sublime,” that this one was just too good to let pass me by. One of the underlying themes of my master’s thesis was the idea of the sublime, and how it contributed to the exact same contemplation of powerfulness/powerlessness that characterizes our reaction to Eyjafjallajokull. In contrast to the article referenced above, however, I would argue that the only thing better than experiencing the sublime from a position of powerlessness (i.e. the natural sublime) is to experience the sublime knowing that it was created by man. (And I say “man” with full awareness of the implications on gender. In fact, the majority of writing about the sublime – especially when writing about it was at its height, in the nineteenth century – assumes that it is a feeling that can’t even be experienced by women, let alone created by them. Women are far more interested in the picturesque, of course, quaint juxtapositions with contrast and variety. The sheer terror and awe of the sublime is just too much. And only men, of course, would have the necessary combination of scientific and artistic knowledge to really appreciate the sublime. A little gendered twist for you, there. Always fun.)

Empire State Building

The Technological Sublime

My MA thesis was largely about tourism, and the unique way in which tourists experience landscapes. Tourists’ ability to see places from an outsider’s perspective makes them unusually well-positioned to experience the sublime, since the sublime is generally considered to be something unexpected, and even unsettling. This is exactly the displacement of which the article speaks, and it is a powerful experience all on its own.

Of course, I was writing in my thesis about physical tourism (the transcontinental railway kind, to be specific), but it occurs to me that there are other kinds of tourists, if we characterize “tourism” as an escape from routine, a separation between work and leisure, between the everyday and the exceptional. One does not need to venture out of one’s physical space in order to feel separated in this way. What else, apart from physical dislocation, has the power to make us feel unsettled, awed, even left behind, like a tourist who doesn’t understand the ways of the locals?

Technological change.

A “sublime” contrast can be effected in time and space by rapid, visual progress. I might even argue that much of the enjoyment of technology is in the fear or excitement associated with the new and unknown. Consider all the fear about railways when they were first built. People worried that going at speeds of over five miles per hour might kill them. Just the speed itself, let alone the whir of passing landscapes, contributed to an awed terror. Fear is central to the idea of the sublime, and we are certainly afraid of many technologically-driven things today, from climate change to too many video games.

High-Speed Rail

Sublime Dislocation in Time and Space

My theory is underscored by the best book I read in 2008, The American Technological Sublime, by David Nye, a professor of American History. Nye argues that how we experience the sublime changes as technology progresses, and new societal expectations need different stimuli to produce the terror, awe, and wonder associated with the “sublime.” The particular bent toward technology also has an American flavour, in line with the American exceptionalist idea that impressive public architecture was a distinctly American thing.

As the argument goes, it is not enough anymore to behold the view from a mountain; now we have to canyon swing from it. And it’s even better to bungee jump from a landmark like the Golden Gate Bridge, because that allows us to appreciate the added marvel of human engineering. A large part of the appeal is in knowing that chaotic nature has been tamed and made orderly, even more able to be understood, by technology.

The rapid rate of change that we see today is sublime because it is in effect a double defeat of nature. Things like the Internet and air travel allow us to alter the relationship between time and distance, while the rate of change produces a feeling of time itself speeding up, with progress outstripping what we have come to expect as “natural.” Anyone who awoke from a 200-year slumber into 2010 would no doubt find the world radically altered, both in present capability and in the pace of change.

It makes me wonder at what point we cede control over the sublime, especially when it is a sensation of our own making. The feelings of displacement and of being a tourist in one’s own time that I mentioned earlier are the side effects of rapid progress, and leave many feeling out of control. And it isn’t really charming, like “powerlessness in the face of nature,” because it isn’t natural, unless we consider the gradual and ever-increasing domination over nature by humans an inevitability.

The irony is that there is a point at which our love of control turns into a lack of control, and our displacement felt in multiple ways. Perhaps this is Nature reminding us of the folly of our own desires. Sublime indeed.

How Gen Y Can Reinvent Work-Life Balance

May 4, 2010

It’s May again, that exciting time of year when newly-minted college graduates venture out into the world and attempt to find a job. Or perhaps go to Europe and attempt to find themselves instead until the hiring freezes are lifted.  What will increase their chances of success?

It seems as though it’s getting harder and harder just getting onto the bottom rung of the “career ladder” (a term which, as someone who works in HR, I can tell you is on its way out as an inappropriate metaphor for the working world – think less in terms of defined rungs and more in terms of the moving staircases in the Harry Potter movies – you never know where you’ll end up). What happened to slogging through a terrible entry-level job booking meeting rooms and fetching coffee, paying one’s dues in order to move up to a better job in a year or two? Is that still necessary, or have things changed?

Well, as it turns out, a lot of things of changed. Many articles have been written about them: an economic slump which has meant declining hire rates and more people being let go; a majority of baby boomers who were supposed to be leaving the workforce in order to live out their golden years on pensions we’re paying for who are not; a glut of “over-qualified” university graduates with little practical experience (which, as we all know, entry-level coffee-making jobs require) who are driving up competition for the few full-time jobs that are out there; and organization structures that are getting flatter, with fewer roles at the top. So the situation now is that one can work making coffee and booking meeting rooms for three or four years and perhaps find there’s no promotional pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow, or find that it’s still a few years out.

So where does that leave new graduates? If “paying your dues” was the baby boomer way to climb the corporate ladder (which actually existed then), what happens now? As my favourite career blogger, Penelope Trunk, once wrote: paying dues is out; that kind of lifestyle doesn’t allow for real growth or balance at work, because it forces new recruits to work ridiculous hours doing menial tasks. (It also sets a precedent that’s hard to follow once you have commitments outside of work.)

What’s better? In theory, doing many different things to acquire enough experiences to figure out what we really want to do over the long term. One of the advantages new grads have is the freedom to move around and go where the jobs are. But the trouble with this theory is that the way the job market is structured now, we need to be very sure of what jobs we want, specialize early, and be prepared to slog it out for several years gaining “relevant experience” in our field. There is little room now for dilettantism, or having jobs “on the side.” Everything is a career choice.

Take the classic “job on the side” for everything from aspiring writers to rock stars: teaching. Teaching used to be the kind of thing that anybody could do (and there were, accordingly, great teachers and some not-so-great teachers in the mix). Now students are fighting tooth and nail to get a place at teacher’s college, often resorting to attending a school in a different country. And once they graduate, the job market looks terrible – there is a two-stage application process even to be considered for a supply teaching job.  And don’t even get me started on academia as a career.

So despite the fact that it’s better to do different things, we’re now seeing a kind of apprenticeship model reborn, with high entrance requirements to every guild. Career experts say that Gen Yers will have something like 10 different careers in their lives – but in order to do so, we’ll need to have transferable skills, and know very well how to market them. In practical terms, this means that job-hopping, or even industry-hopping, is key, to prove all the different places in which one’s skills have been useful. It’s a kind of paradox where focus and diversity of experience are battling for dominance.

One solution might be to have multiple income streams, or to get experience with various combinations of paid and unpaid work. (Or maybe to start a blog and wind up with a movie or book deal out of it.) Like the realization that your romantic partner can’t be everything to you, we’re now seeing the idea that your main job can’t be everything either, from a remunerative or skills-building perspective. (Forget the idea that a job by itself can’t make you happy in life; we exposed that fallacy several years ago.) This trend is called having a “portfolio career,” that is, using a functional skill to diversify revenue streams.

We’re used to seeing this with careers in things like music, where a conductor will (for example) have a community choir, a church gig, some wedding performances on the go, and a few students all at the same time. When one revenue stream dries up, he or she will pick up another. But it’s new for accountants, or those who might want to mix traditional employment (at a major corporation, say) with self-employment. They key is diversity within a specialization, having skills that people will pay for and capitalizing on them in several different ways.

It also means that members of this generation will have to live with more uncertainty about their careers. Perhaps this is the price we’ll pay for more control over the skills we use and how we spend our time day-to-day. Does this signify a shift back to a pre-industrial time where people could choose how much they worked? Not fully, I’m sure, but it may be the beginning of a new, hybrid system where workers can control their output and work to their real interests more. Maybe this is the new “work-life balance.”

If, that is, all these new grads ever manage to get hired into that first job.

What do you think? Will you try to mix paid and unpaid work? Do you plan on job-hopping or industry-hopping? Do you anticipate that many members of Gen Y will choose to have multiple/multifaceted careers? Or is this a trend that will only affect a small subset of the population? Is it better to work a terrible (paying) job for three years or to get lots of volunteer experience instead?