What It’s Like to Live in a Non-Place

November 6, 2014

The contrast was stark, the transition unsettling. We entered the subway on West 86th, near where it meets Central Park West, with the sounds of horns, children’s screams and sirens ringing in our ears. We could see the local grocer, and the homeless man who had staked out his piece of sidewalk. It smelled like pretzels and sewers and fresh coffee. A whole world existed within a couple of blocks, colliding, shattering, unfolding all around us. When we finally emerged from the city’s depths, four (delayed) trains and three hours later, we were in the stark white arena of the airport terminal. Staff wore uniforms. The walls were white. It smelled faintly of citrus floor cleaner. It was hard to tell it was New York City at all. There was no hyper-local culture here, only the dehumanizing experience of being trapped in a tunnel with numerous angry strangers while being shuttled between one drab and unfamiliar station to the next, followed by being made to feel less valuable than my luggage by the vast majority of the airport staff.

If you have ever been to an international airport, you probably know how we felt. This is a non-specific experience for a non-specific age. Travel is dehumanizing precisely because it is efficient, and often takes place as a transitional stage between places, not as a destination in itself. In fact, we experience this a number of ways as the world copies and pastes bits of itself over and over in different countries.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tal Bright

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tal Bright

And yet we crave uniqueness and belonging. This is why many of us travel for pleasure in the first place, to experience new ways of living. It’s also the reason neighbourhood restaurants still survive in an era of chain restaurants’ economies of scale, and why Cheers makes people sigh with nostalgia. Online, we carefully cultivate very specific and personalized networks of imagined communities in the virtual world, circles of people who share our interests or backgrounds. We celebrate the nooks and crannies of places.

A few posts ago, I wrote about what makes cities great, in the form of a Hierarchy of Urban Needs, and suggested that at the top level (the “self-actualization” stage), a city becomes a beacon that represents ideals. Through a virtuous process, as a city of the imagination, it attracts others who identify with what it represents and who work to build networks within it and help it achieve its potential. It becomes a place.

And the opposite…

Just as it is said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, the opposite of places that draw people in and foster their passions must be a generic, interchangeable non-place, a freeway, perhaps, or an airport or suburban shopping mall. This concept of the non-place, or non-lieu in the language of its birth, was initially put forward by Marc Augé, a French anthropologist. Augé has defined non-lieux as “spaces in which no lasting social relations are established.”  These are generic anyplaces that are unknown but somehow familiar, in the sense that instead of this particular grocery store you could be at any grocery store, in any town in North America (or, with a few tweaks in language and symbols, the world).

Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniele Frediani

Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniele Frediani

Non-lieux are notable for producing unanimity, and also for their ability to dehumanize. If people are just passing through, there is obviously a benefit to utilitarianism and ease of use, both of which often come at the expense of beauty or uniqueness. (Think: bus stations, highways, or airports.) And there is little incentive for those doing the passing to improve the spaces, or individualize them, rendering them anonymous. [1]

I have been grappling in my everyday life with the sense of being in a non-lieu for a while, and wondering if (ironically) it is the place I’m in that lends itself to such unspecificity. I stumbled across a description of where I live recently that seems to sum this idea up perfectly, and it’s worth quoting at length (particularly for lovers of Burt Bacharach tunes):

Reflecting on the tune, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” [Dionne] Warwick was quoted as saying: “It’s a beautiful little city. I was made an honorary citizen. I’m accused of putting it on the map and overpopulating it.”

I contemplated that statement for a long, long time. She was accused of putting the city on the map. Not thanked, not congratulated, not applauded, but accused. For me, it put everything into perspective, since now, 40 years later, it often seems like many people in San Jose still don’t want to city the be known for anything. They live here because they don’t want it to be an interesting place.

In my opinion, the San Jose condition will always involve the conflict between urban and suburban, small town and big town, or what constitutes a “major city” and what doesn’t.

A-ha! A veritable non-place in my midst, and one I’ve written about before as feeling transitional, and slightly unrooted. It’s ironic, really, because that song is about how San Jose is an anchor that provides a home and peace of mind in contrast to the “great big freeway” that is L.A. (another non-place!).

But I have started to wonder about the distinction between somewhere being a non-place generally, and a non-place to me. As Augé says, in non-lieux one finds “a total absence of symbolic ties, and evident social deficits.” This sounds a lot like the experience of being an immigrant, doesn’t it?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Emerson

Image courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Emerson

Moving to a new city can feel like entering a “non-place.” As a newcomer, you are unfamiliar with its norms. You move inefficiently through it because you aren’t aware of traffic patterns or even the geography. You have yet to demarcate what will become the familiar signposts of your life (the coffee shop on your way to work with the friendly staff; the quirky graffiti on the brick wall near your apartment; the alley you cut through as a shortcut that erupts into a riot of flowers and stray saplings each spring).

Changing places

And thus a non-place might be a matter of time, not of the place itself. Usually a sense of place is built with repeated exposure. Little parts of a space become “yours” and you build community through enjoying them with others. Eventually you begin to share your discoveries, recommending restaurants, giving directions, and encouraging others to join you there. You might even join a community group to improve it in some way, to give back what you gain.

Non-places may also just be another word for loneliness. I read recently that space “has been viewed as container of populations with particular demographic characteristics, and as stage on which networks of social interaction take place. The boundaries of spatial experience are seen to coincide with a social world rather than with a particular area.”[2] In this way places hold different meanings for different people at different times. Perhaps they are only non-places insofar as they are lacking in connection, not anything inherent to the spaces themselves. Airline employees feel differently about an airport that they see every day than passengers who are just visiting once. Those who feel more rooted contribute more to platemaking, and this can be to the detriment of the diversity of the place since newcomers don’t often feel this way.

A place in time?

A place, in time? [3]

It seems that the strength of a place is in its social bonds. [4] In order for places not to feel like the hotel rooms, supermarkets, and airports Augé talks about, we need to invest in them. So in order to feel rooted, I’ve learned I had to give something of myself away. Even in generic suburbs, which Augé wrote were (merely) areas of “circulation, communication, and consumption,” people eventually develop an affinity or sense of rootedness based on having grown up or lived there, and known others there. They become … places.

So here’s hoping for a place, in time, for everyone passing through a non-place time, whether airport or grocery store or city. Explore. Connect. Make it count.

Some Notes

1 It should be said that some airports have tried to overcome this sense of placelessness. I saw one excellent exhibit on Louis Comfort Tiffany and another on old and new doors from around the world while waiting for a late-night flight out of San Francisco Airport recently.

2 This is from a lovely 1976 essay by Anne Buttimer titled Grasping the Dynamism of the Lifeworld.

3 There are roughy five thousand photos on flickr of signs to SJ, riffing on the song. This is one of them, courtesy of user John ‘K’.

4  I’ve just realized that a suitable one-line summary of this post/blog, and my life, may be: Social capital is the answer; I don’t care about the question! Thank you, Robert Putnam.


7 Things I’ve Learned About History Since Moving to the Land of the Future

April 25, 2014

“Why on earth did you study history?” I was asked last night, and on many days since I arrived in what is perhaps the world’s most future-oriented place. What answer can I give to an engineer or venture capitalist who can’t rotate his perspective enough to look backward, or see the importance of doing so? I usually say that I love to explore the rich context of our modern world, so much of which was influenced by the past. Or that history, like all the humanities, is a mirror that shows us a different version of ourselves.

But such answers will not satisfy many people here, and in wondering why, I realize I’ve learned a few things about history and its uses since learning the way (to San José):

1. America ≠ California and American History Californian History.

I write a lot about nationalism, because it is one of the ways we identify as part of a group, with shared history. I feel very Canadian, and not very Ontarian at all because I don’t see Ontario’s history as disconnected from that of the Canadian historical narrative. So I assumed it would be very “American” here, like places I’ve been on the East Coast and Midwest.

I was wrong.

The United States, though a young country, seems to be very aware of (certain parts of) its history. After all, how many other countries refer so frequently to and preserve so faithfully the intentions of their founding documents? America has an acute sense of its founding myths, and the historical reenactment culture here is an ongoing source of fascination and delight. (Who wants to be that Union solider who gets shot the first moment of battle and lies on the field the rest of the day in period costume? Is there a hierarchy, and does one get promoted each successive year based on seniority until eventually he is General Lee, or is it merit-based and depends on how well you keel over in your fleeting moment of glory? Such pressing questions.)

California Republic

California is not, however, America. It is, as the t-shirts say, “California Republic,” with its “Governator” and strange direct democracy and fiercely independent, contrarian streak. Very few people here identify as “American” so much as “Californian,” and they don’t seem to share the same historical touch points. More common are nods to the Spanish and Mexican roots of the region, through the missions and street names, or a focus on the history of global trade and cosmopolitan capitalism.

2. People have a different definition of “history” in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is a whole other animal altogether (a shark, perhaps?).

In a place where the next iOS release, must-have gadget or earnings report is breathlessly anticipated, “history” becomes something that matters mostly in your browser. “Legacies” and “artifacts” are usually bad things to Valley dwellers, being outmoded or standing in the way of progress. The tech industry does not look kindly on the past – or rather, doesn’t think much of it at all, an indifference which is, as we all know, much more the opposite of love than dislike.

San José then…

Silicon Valley isn’t kind to its physical history either. The historic orchards and cherry trees that once ringed San José have been paved to make way for sprawling, two-story rental accommodations and carefully landscaped corporate lawns. Giant redwoods are regularly felled to allow for a better view of the advertisements on the side of buildings (seen from the freeway, of course). Dome-shaped Space Age cinemas one frequented by Steven Spielberg are in danger of being torn down, likely so newer, bigger malls can rise up in their places.

Even churches, those bastions of beautiful architecture, look like something out of an IKEA catalogue, all light wood and glass – nary a flying buttress in sight. It’s a full-on assault of the past by the present, in the name of the future.

3. Transience produces ambivalence and a lack of investment in the past.

Many people are new here, as the region’s explosive growth in the last 30 years can attest. Others are “just passing through.” So a lot of people feel disconnected from anything greater than their jobs or family/friend networks here, and there is a pervasive sense of rootlessness.

So why bother to invest in their communities? Or care what they used to look like? So goes the logic and thus the “San José Historic District” encompasses a single square block, with fewer than ten historic monuments. These are mainly just buildings that have survived – earthquakes, vacancy and neglect. This website catalogs the “boneyard of unwanted San José monuments” that are slowly crumbling away near the freeway and very shiny corporate HQ of Adobe.

Santa Clara County Courthouse

The courthouse, crumbling in disrepair. San José is falling down, falling down, falling down…

It’s not all that surprising though when you consider that…

4. …it is personal history that fosters pride and connection.

Perhaps I and others feel disconnected from the history here because so much of historical connection depends on identifying with who made the history in the first place. Several recent studies from the British Commonwealth (Britain itself, Canada, and Australia) and the US indicate that museum attendance increases where a greater percentage of the population identifies with the ancestry of the area. That is, if you are of Scottish origin in Toronto, you are more likely to be interested in a museum about Canadian history, which was largely architected by Scots, than if you are a Native Canadian whose world was essentially trampled on by those same Scots. You’re likely still less interested if you are a recent immigrant to Toronto from Bangladesh. Feeling as though a part of you helped to make a place what it is makes it more real and more interesting. Rightly or wrongly, you feel as if you have more of a stake in the future because “your people” had more of a stake in the past.

Even people that grew up here can barely recognize it, so feel as though a part of their past has been taken from them. Wherefore the cherry blossoms and apple orchards that used to dot the landscape of the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight”? One woman told me her family used to live bordering a fruit farm, and moved six times as the farms were paved over by housing divisions, until “we lived backing on to the mountain, and there were no farms left.”

…and San José now.

And yet, I can only feel that history is critical, from my experiences in Toronto where historical consciousness, like love and Christmas, is all around.

Thus:

5. History is often the most beautiful part.

I used to love walking through downtown Toronto because every so often a beautiful Art Deco or neo-Gothic gem would emerge amid the drab tower blocks of the 1960s and 1970s. Variations in architectural style provide interest and colour in an otherwise monotonous world of glassy office towers and utilitarian apartment buildings. Grand plazas, churches and monuments make statements about what is important to a place, and what it values.

What do these people value? It is worth cherishing and celebrating the few beautiful examples of history that exist here.

Like this one!

 

6. Historical traditions provide comfort.

This surprised me. History, of course, is about customs passed down as much as it is about actual events or physical buildings. Traditions ground us and give us some consistency in a world that changes rapidly. This is part of the reason weddings, funerals, and general church-going still exist. We need traditions to mark the big events in life.

We also need traditions to mark out who we are and how we should behave. To take a small but non-trivial example I wrote about recently: our clothing sends out signals about who we are and what we expect from life. There are no standards of dress here, at work or at play. Twenty-five-year-old men dictate the business ambiance, so beards, flip flops and holey t-shirts abound, and you can’t find a restaurant in California fancy enough that you can’t wear jeans.

It is utterly unconventional, which is perhaps just a bit the point. Wearing jeans to a meeting with someone in a suit will instantly destabilize them. It’s the same idea with non-standard working hours, perfected by the tech industry, and turning work into play (both the work itself and the space in which it is done). Even the critical and traditional accent in “José” has all but disappeared, which leads me to wonder if people in future will think this city was pronounced as something that rhymes with “banjos.”

It is groundbreaking to blow up established norms, but also somewhat unsettling. And history is necessary, if only to have something to conscientiously reject.

7. Culture clusters around history.

Life without history would not only be ignorant and untethered, but very boring.

People often view San José and its surrounds as soulless, and it’s easy to see why. One need only look at the cultural draw San Francisco has on the region to appreciate why places with deep roots are attractive. Most of San Francisco’s biggest tourist attractions are historical landmarks. What would the City be without the bridge, cable cars, Alcatraz, Haight-Ashbury, the Ferry Building, or Pier 39? Just a bunch of expensive apartments and hills, really.

History infuses places with meaning, and communities gather to add more layers. So next time someone asks me why on earth I would bother to study history, I think I will tell him that it’s because I care about beauty and culture and connection to the people and places around me — and that if he wants to live in somewhere even half-decent, he should too.

History, paved over

History, paved over


Tasting Notes: A Scientific Justification for Hating Kale

April 17, 2014

There is a new East-West arms race, and it is full of bitterness. Literally.

Since moving to the West Coast, I have been struck by the preponderance of bitter foods and beverages. The coffee, beer and lettuce producers here appear to be locked in a bitterness arms race with each other to see who can make the least palatable product, with no clear victor. It seems that the West Coast version of all of these products (think: dark-roast Starbucks, exceedingly hoppy pale ales, and kale) are significantly more bitter than their east coast counterparts (think: more traditional lighter roast coffees, lagers, and Boston Bibb).

Hops: beer’s bittering agent, liberally applied on the liberal left coast

What’s going on here? Are people’s taste buds addled from years of sipping California’s notoriously strong Cabernets? Is our future all about green smoothies and kale chips? And what are picky eaters (like, ahem, this blogger) to do?

It turns out I am not alone in opposing such bitterness, and the evolution of taste is on my side. And, moreover, the future may be friendly.

A taste of history

Humans can taste five distinct flavours: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (otherwise known as “savoury,” the flavour of cooked meat, among other things). And each of our taste buds contains receptors for each of these  flavours, so taste sensation is not concentrated in certain regions of the tongue as previously thought but dispersed throughout. For example, we probably lick ice cream cones because they are too cold to eat with our teeth, not because sweet receptors are located at the front of our tongues.

We can also taste all five flavours simultaneously yet distinctly; if you were to eat something that contained all of the flavour elements, you would taste each in turn (and probably not enjoy it very much – I can’t imagine what such a food would taste like). Tasting is a multi-sensory experience, in fact. As any aspiring sommelier will know, flavour is produced both by the five taste sensations and the olfactory receptors in our nose, which give foods and drinks a much more complex and multi-layered profile. Temperature, texture, and auditory inputs such as crunch also influence our experience of “taste.” No wonder we love to eat.

Humans have such developed tasting abilities because we are omnivores with varied diets, and require a plethora of nutrients found in many foods to survive. Other animals do not require such diversity of nutrients, so cannot taste such variety. Pandas, who have evolved to eat almost exclusively bamboo, cannot taste umami. Cats and chickens “lost” the ability to taste sweetness at some point in their history.

How sweet it is

It is thought that our fondness for sweet foods was among the first tastes to be developed, because we need simple sugars as a fundamental building block of nutrition. Today healthy sugars and sweet tastes come from fruits and breads. Salty food indicates the presence of sodium (or lithium, or potassium), and a certain amount of sodium is necessary for our bodies to function, since humans lose salt through sweat.

Sour foods, such as lemons, are typically acidic (in the chemical sense) and a sour taste can signify that food is rancid. Sour is also good, however: humans need a certain amount of Vitamin C, found in sour foods, to survive, so our taste buds developed to seek this flavour out. An emerging theory is that our sweet and sour tastes evolved simultaneously from exposure to fruit, which contains both tastes. Both flavours are also present in fermented foods and cooked meat, the former being important in providing good bacteria to aid digestion and the latter in being more easily digested than raw meat.

Bitterness is the most complex receptor, and it is thought that humans can perceive 25 different kinds of bitterness. Bitter foods are frequently basic (again, in the chemical sense), and bitterness is an innately aversive taste. Babies will turn away from bitter foods – such as leafy green vegetables – just as they will naturally gravitate toward sweet ones. As one article I read succinctly put it:

“Many people do not like to eat vegetables—and the feeling is mutual.”

Bitter melon. Shudder.

Evolutionarily, our aversion makes sense. Plants secrete pesticides and toxins to protect themselves from being eaten. Even now, if we taste a strong bitter food, our bodies behave as though they are preparing to ingest a toxin, activating nausea and vomiting reflexes to protect us. Pregnant women are particularly sensitive to bitterness because their bodies are hypersensitive to the baby’s health. It is also now thought that small children have some justification for hating brussels sprouts and other green, leafy vegetables in that their younger taste buds are particularly sensitive, and averse, to bitter flavours. Picky eaters vindicated!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Supertaster?

A relatively recent theory that has the tasting world abuzz (ataste?) is the discovery of so-called “supertasters,” individuals with a greater number of taste receptors (the typical number of taste buds in humans can range from about 3 000 to over 10 000). Some experts also theorize that supertasters may have normal receptors, but more efficient neural pathways to process the tastes. They are more likely to be female, and of African or Asian descent, and some estimates put them at 25% of the population.

Supertasters are particularly sensitive to bitter flavours present in such foods and drinks as grapefruit, coffee, wine, cabbage and dark chocolate. They are also thought to be more sensitive to sour and fatty foods, which means they are usually slim, but their aversion to vegetables makes them more susceptible to various cancers. And they are most certainly susceptible to the ire of their parents, friends at dinner parties, and anyone else who tries to feed them.

Like an evil mutant flower.

Leaving a bitter taste in our mouths

So why would anyone, supertaster or no, desire to eat foods that humans have convinced ourselves over millennia are toxic and therefore to be avoided?

In fact, many scientists theorize that we only learn to like bitter foods after seeing the other positive effects they can have on us, often pharmacological ones. Consider coffee, which makes us more alert, and wine, which makes us more relaxed. This can be the only reason anybody with taste receptors eats spinach or kale, right?

A fondness for bitterness seems, in my entirely unscientific analysis, to centre on warmer regions, where these foods are traditionally grown, such as coffee, olives, grapefruit, and bitter melon. See, for example, a traditional Mediterranean diet pyramid, which contains several bitter foods.

A Mediterranean traditional diet pyramid

Perhaps more significantly, though, scientists have discovered a link between eating bitter foods and socioeconomic status. One study in France found that men who ate a greater variety of bitter foods were more likely to be well-educated and have a lower body mass index (BMI). Women who ate a greater variety of bitter foods also had lower BMIs and were less likely to have diabetes.

It would seem that bitter foods today pose less of a threat of toxicity and yield great health benefits (well, perhaps kale more than IPAs). Likely this rational reasoning is behind the West Coast health food craze, and indeed why bitter foods are more commonly consumed for their health benefits where populations are more educated and wealthier, as a whole.

Science will continue to play a factor as well. We may know in our heads that Brussels sprouts are good for us but still dislike the taste. Food producers will likely try to engineer foods to keep the benefits without the drawbacks. In fact, many foods are already “debittered” by the food industry, from oil to chocolate to orange juice.

So good news for West Coast dwellers, supertasters, children and those averse to toxins everywhere: one day you may be able to have your kale chips and eat them too — happily.

Kale: the world’s ugliest vegetable?  It’s coming for you!

 


How people we hardly know cause us to have more serendipitous, lonelier, busier lives 

April 11, 2014

Imagine you live in a small town, circa 1750. Your daily life is spent working – maybe farming, or maybe you make shoes or are a teacher. You eat, drink, sleep, look after children, and socialize. Your social circle consists of others in the same class and gender, for the most part, and you will most likely spend your whole life living with, farming with, marrying into, reproducing with, and dying with the other families that live in your village.  You know these people really, really well.

Perhaps someone in your family emigrates – to London, or to one of the settlement colonies, say – and so you spend a bit of time every month writing letters to them, but know that it’s a bit pointless, because anyone who had moved more than a few hundred miles away would likely never come back. Every so often a traveller or vagrants will come by, and sometimes people will move in or away, but for the most part social circles are set. There is no networking to change your lot in life, or make new friends, just living.

Now imagine the richness and diversity of your current social circle. It is probably more like a multi-national organization than a village. It probably includes people living in several countries, from different backgrounds. It is probably quite large. You probably don’t know many of them very well, but may spend a lot of time, like I do, writing emails, talking on the phone, or communicating in other ways with them. I spend much of what time I have leftover in my day feeling guilty that I haven’t spent more time writing more emails or making more phone calls. When I lived in Toronto, I must have had 25 people at any given time that I had honestly been meaning to “catch up” with for about six months. Now I live further away, it is even more important (and time-consuming) to keep up links with everyone back “home.” (I am that immigrant mentioned above! Doubly so. So many letters.)

Of course, this doesn’t even include time spent on the more common definition of “networking” – the kind that makes me want to take a shower – which is to purposefully make connections with the hope of them being useful at some point hence, in a search for a new job or piece of advice.

Network Proliferation

The abundance of methods of communication and social networking technologies has made all kinds of networking almost unconscious, but quite time-consuming. Modern networks are kept alive by either the acceptance of an inferior means of communication (email, letters, FaceTime) as satisfactory grounds to sustain them, or the faint hope of a better way of interacting occurring again in the future. But it appears that quality decreases even as time spent increases, and we are left accepting many more threads of connection without time to forge many into lasting companions.

If we are being honest, it is highly impractical to spend so much time maintaining friendships with friends of friends, those who live outside of our immediate geography, or people who were major players in our lives years ago but no longer cross our minds very often. So why do we do it? What is so inherently appealing about having far-flung networks of others who share our interests and experiences?

I see the main points of the cost-benefit analysis as follows:

  • The social inclusion high. With the breakdown of actual barriers of geography through telecommunications and easier global travel, and imagined barriers of social class, we are much more likely to find others who share commonalities with us. And most of us are willing to spend time and energy building a social circle of like-minded peers, over and above the time and energy required to simply exist in the world with those who may not necessarily (e.g. colleagues, extended family members, baristas at the coffee shop, the mailman, etc.).
  • Imagined future benefits. Slightly more self-serving, but no doubt also a factor is the potential usefulness of knowing an old travel companion who lives in Auckland, NZ in case you ever need a place to stay, or a contact in the federal government in case of a future career change. This is, basically, the only reason LinkedIn exists.
  • Guilt. It’s harder to terminate a relationship than keep it vaguely open-ended. It is much easier to have friends from elementary school connected by a thin thread on a Facebook feed than acknowledge that there is no real reason to be part of each other’s lives. In this case the cost may be low (provided they don’t constantly spam us with game requests or multiple smarmy medical school acceptance status updates), but it also makes me wonder if our village-dwelling ancestors were more comfortable with saying goodbye and just letting go of outdated relationships.

Dunbar redux

There are very real advantages to having large, loose networks of connections, but the cost of all of this network upkeep is time and anxiety. According to a well-known study by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the optimal size of a human’s social network is about 150. This number refers to how many people we can cognitively sustain stable relationships with, and is directly related to the size (and thus functionality) of our neocortex. (For a fantastic and hilarious illustration of Dunbar’s number, see this piece.)

Dunbar’s number has obvious applicability to real-world organizations, but has more recently also been found to apply to our online social networks, in the number of people we frequently interact with online. But with ever-larger networks to maintain, something has to give: the quality of the relationship, the amount of time humans are willing to spend communicating with others, or a shift in our physiology so that we are able to cognitively adjust to a greater size of stable connections.

It seems that quality is the first thing to go. A 2007 study showed that Facebook has many positive social attributes, in that it enables us to “keep tabs” on others very easily, thus “convert[ing] latent ties into weak ties,” increasing the serendipity factor in our lives. As is already widely known, however, it also carries costs. The constant identity curation necessitated by Facebook and similar social networks is exhausting. We want to project an image of ourselves as (relatively) happy, successful and social. It’s stressful, and it also makes us lonely.

I pick on Facebook, but we use the same techniques to keep up appearances across networks with all of our weak ties, and this is facilitated by not being near people for sustained periods of time in person. And it isn’t just in our personal lives. Image production has become an increasingly useful skill for knowledge workers who have to justify the value of their work through self-promotion or “personal branding,” either within an organization to get that excellent performance review, or to win more business as a sole proprietor. Such conscious displays of our better sides (I won’t go so far as to say artifice) would have been impossible to keep up in the village with so many strong ties and so few weak ones.

Back to the village…

Perhaps it is a symptom of our modern greed that we expect to have so much capital interpersonally and intellectually, as well as physically. Since we have “progressed” beyond the village, we can now create and maintain more opportunities: opportunities for more knowledge about the world, more interesting friends, better social activities, and better jobs. This is good news if you don’t want to be a shoemaker who sees the same 50 people every year for the rest of your life, but bad news if you want to have an empty inbox and be ulcer-free.

I see it as a social manifestation of the “paradox of choice” (a book I highly recommend for anyone feeling swamped by choice). Having more options actually makes us less happy, because the stress inherent in choosing between them, and the time it takes to do so, often outweighs the potential benefits of a better choice (if there even is a better choice). More weak ties naturally means more choice, and more stress.

So maybe those who withdraw from frequent socializing are (intentionally or not) limiting their options, and maybe they are happier for it. They moved back to a slightly bigger village, and they’re enjoying the lifestyle.


25 Reasons Today Is a Great Time to Be Alive

June 22, 2011

Amid all the morose and maudlin whinging about how we are losing our sense of self, our ability to self-moderate, or more generally our minds, merit, and money, today I offer up a list of things to get excited about in 2011.

Here are 25 reasons life (and mine specifically) is better today than it would have been…

250 Years Ago

25. I can reasonably expect to live longer than 33 years.

24. In my life, I’ve visited over 10 countries on 3 continents. And among my friends, I’m not well travelled. In 1761, people rarely left their hometown, let alone the country.

23. Last night I heard superb music by 10 different composers, played by a world-class orchestra, for under $30. (And I waved a Union Flag while doing it! “And did those feet, in ancient time…”) In 1761, only a fraction of the population could hear such music – and not cheaply.

22. Indoor plumbing! Sewers! Need I say more?

21. I can buy a great book for under $5; in 1761 it would have cost the equivalent of about $1000.

100 Years Ago

Hunger Strikes Among Suffragettes

20.  As a woman, I can choose who runs my country/province/ city (at least in theory). And I didn’t have to be jailed and force-fed by a tube in order to have the right to do it – all I had to do was reach majority.

 19. I didn’t die of chickenpox, infection, or the flu when I was a child, as many children did in 1911.

18.  I do laundry by putting a bunch of clothes into a machine, pouring in some liquid, and pressing a few buttons, instead of spending two days with the household staff, soaking it, wringing it out repeatedly, and stirring it around in crazy chemicals with washing bats. It’s like magic.

17. Electricity — in my home! Amazing.

16. In one of my history classes we watched 1900 House, a documentary in which a family of six lived as they would have in 1900 for three months. A memorable take-away? Modern shampoo is a hell of a lot more effective than egg yolk and citrus. “I just smell really, sort of, omlette-y.”

50 Years Ago

15. I did not have to promise to obey my husband when we got married.  In fact, I didn’t even have to get married to get all the legal benefits of a long-term committed relationship.

14. I can wear pants! and shorts! And neither is prohibited by law.

Katharine Hepburn, a pants-blazer and personal heroine

13. I can eat any kind of food I want to, and could probably find somebody from its country of origin to talk to about it. Every day just walking down the street I see a greater degree of diversity than at any other time in history, all in once place, living (relatively) harmoniously together.

12. I can choose whether or not to spawn, with near-certainty that my wishes will be protected by law and the wisdom of modern medicine.

11. A century old saying has it that “horses sweat, men perspire — ladies merely glisten.” But when I go to the gym, I can sweat all I like, and feel healthy doing it. Moreover, certain terrifying Amazonian female athletes step it up a notch by adding a soundtrack.

25 Years Ago

10. I live in the charmingly-labelled “Rainbow Village” area of Toronto, where I can watch men walk down the street holding hands, or carrying impossibly tiny dogs wearing designer hats in large purses.

9. I can find out what’s going on in any part of the world in under 10 seconds, at the click of a button.

8. I feel reasonably secure knowing that many heinous crimes are solved using DNA evidence. Bonus: I can watch any of the fascinating procedural dramas stemming from said advancements in forensic science. Bring it on, Grissom!

7. I can listen to “Tarzan Boy” over and over and over again without having to rewind, ever.

6. It’s exciting that people are taking steps to protect the environment more than at any other time in modern history. Or, at least, they’re aware of how to protect it.

10 Years Ago

5. I can press a button on a machine and be talking to my grandmother, 3500 miles away, in under 10 seconds. For free. (And I feel like God every time I do it. Think about it: your computer is calling someone else’s! This is the kind of thing they dreamed about in SciFi movies 50 years ago.)

4. I can access the Internet everywhere I go. Want to know if the restaurant I’m walking by is any good? I can read reviews. If I’m lost? I can get directions. Wondering if it’s going to rain? I can check the weather. Instantaneously.

3. Buying a home during a recession meant we got an insane deal on our mortgage.

2. I can watch things like this all day if I want to:

1. I have a place to share my latest thoughts, pictures, or links to rambling blog posts with my closest friends, and get feedback from any or all of them, immediately. Communication is more frequent than ever before. I can feel like part of  a community without even having to leave my desk. (Or put on the pants I was so excited about earlier.)

What are you excited about in 2011 that you would add to this list?


Minimum Impact, Maximum Time, and the Goodness of Work

February 10, 2011

Is ambling antithetical to success? Is a life of purpose the only path to happiness? And is Gen Y really all that different from previous generations in wanting meaningful work?

On Marx, Meaning, and Materialism

I think often on Marx’s theory of alienation; namely, that under the capitalist system of increasing specialization, workers become alienated from the fruits of their labour, and from their own capacity as workers to work/produce things and grow in doing so. Instead of seeing work as an end in itself, and gaining feelings of fulfilment from seeing the fruit of one’s labour go from raw materials to completed items, according to Marx work had become but a means to an end as workers were increasingly slotted into automated lines of production. Instead of creating the whole shoe, they would nail in a piece of the sole, as it were, with no satisfaction in seeing the “end-to-end process” (as we might say in today’s corporatenewspeak).

Certainly, with the rise of the industrialization, Fordist assembly lines and globalization, the idea of work as a means to an end gained popularity as a way to describe life in the twentieth century. And in some ways, this was acceptable. In the 1930s, one was fortunate to have a job at all – any job. One did not pick and choose. The generation after that (those ubiquitous Boomers) observed their parents’ work ethic and adopted it without thinking, as a means to gain material prosperity. Nice cars, big houses, creature comforts, holidays in Boca Raton, and well-educated children became status symbols, ends worth working for. A life of middle management drudgery and rarely seeing one’s children was, for many, an acceptable trade-off.

But we expect so much more from our work today. Making a living, and a living that will support the lifestyle we’re used to, is mere “table stakes” (more corporatenewspeak). Because, with good education and attentive parenting and the opportunity to develop our skills as children, we have so many options for a career. Consequently, we expect much, much more out of the time we spend at work. (And before someone brings up 40% unemployment among global youth, yes, the recession has, to an extent, made Gen Ys a little less choosy – but only for now.)

The theory of work as an end in itself – and a means to happiness and fulfilment – has important research to back it up. A study out of California a few years ago remarked on the importance of hard work and purpose in achieving happiness in life. The conclusion is worth quoting at length:

A central presumption of the ‘‘American dream’’ is that, through their own efforts and hard work, people may move towards greater happiness and fulfillment in life. This assumption is echoed in the writings of philosophers, both ancient and modern. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (1985) proposed that happiness involves engagement in activities that promote one’s highest potentials. And, in the Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell (1930/1975) argued that the secrets to happiness include enterprise, exploration of one’s interests, and the overcoming of obstacles. …Our data suggest that effort and hard work offer the most promising route to happiness.

Wow. Good work, it seems, is the answer to all our problems. The only thing left to do is find work that contains enough meaty, purposeful, interesting, content – related to our skills, of course, and with excellent “work-life balance” and good benefits – to meet our needs. Simple!

But is this expectation reasonable?

Really, it’s a wonder anybody finds jobs like this, let alone the majority of people. Even Marx’s (clearly idealized) autonomous, cottage industry shoe-makers (or soldiers, or second sons forced into trade…) no doubt achieved very little of this all-encompassing fulfilment through their work. Yet today we pile the expectations on our jobs. While there are certainly those out there who caution that work will not make anybody happy all on its own, the prevailing narrative remains that fulfilling work is the surest route to happiness. Consider: it’s just not socially acceptable for anyone able to participate in the “knowledge economy” to opt out and instead choose to make money solely as a means to an end with no other agenda – let alone anyone under 30. Do you know anyone? And do they want the situation to be permanent?

Minimizing Impact: Lowering our expectations? Or relieving the pressure?

While I was vacationing in the vineyards of Mendoza (rewards for a life of corporate drudgery?), I got to thinking meta thoughts about what people tend to expect from life. We use a lot of language today that revolves around impact. We want to “make a splash.” We long to stand out in interviews, on dates, and in applications. People everywhere seek to be famous for something (anything! Jersey Shore, anyone?) or to leave a legacy, something that will let current and future generations know they existed as individuals, and left something behind. Modern society refers to the more noble side of this feeling as the desire to change the world, whether through volunteering, winning a Nobel Prize or raising well-adjusted children. We have, as I have pointed out before, a strong bias to action which makes us want to do good and make things “better.” Most of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves, a vague kind of weight that is associated with the Victorian ideal of the innate goodness of work and the possibility of having a hand in making a better future. The idea of finding work that allows us to, as the above-quoted study notes, “promote [our] highest potentials,” is tied up in this pressure.

At the same time we are acutely aware that life is, as an honourary TED talk I watched recently put it, fragile and vulnerable – and short. (This fact creates a very un-Hobbesian empathy, the talk argued, not only for those with whom we share blood ties, but with other humans, other creatures, and the biosphere generally. Worth watching.) It is little wonder that, with the perception of the sand in the hourglass ever running out, we feel pressed for time, overwhelmed, and run off our feet. We try to make every moment count. We multi-task and are always tied to a communication device of some kind. Most things are done for a purpose: we educate ourselves in order to gain employment, money and “success”; we sleep and eat for our health; we watch our health to extend our lives (so we can keep doing it all longer). It has been often noted with bitter irony that with all the myriad time-saving devices we employ on a daily basis, we find ourselves busier than ever before. Trying to do things in the minimum amount of time has not made us happy.

So I decided to try an experiment in reverse-thinking. What if we sought to – even just for a day – minimize our impact, and maximize the amount of time we spent doing things? What would this look like? What does “counter-urgency” feel like in practice? Would it lessen the pressure?

Experiments in living “Slow

I suspect that it would in many ways resemble the slow movement, which has grown exponentially in popularity recently in response to the speed of life and destruction of the environment and local communities in the name of convenience. It must also be a response to the pressure of the purposeful life. The slow movement includes slow food, which is (in contrast to fast food) grown locally, often organically, and savoured. Slow reading is similar, and involves savouring text instead of skimming or summarizing, or any other kind of speed-reading I learned about in university.

A minimum-impact day would also result in fewer outputs (and here I use a very corporatenewspeak word deliberately). We would do purposeless things: ambling with no direction, daydreaming, journaling, writing poetry, reading fiction. There would be no book club to report to. No destination. Poetry, lyrics and plays could be memorized for the sake of the words themselves, lines savoured like chocolates instead of potential “gobbits” to drop into future conversations or be recalled on trivia nights.

Sadly, my brief experiment in slowly minimizing my impact was a failure: I wanted outputs. I wanted to write about it, to share it on this blog. I wanted to tie it into my life’s work and be fulfilled by it.

I sense I would not be unique in feeling this way. Is our desire for impact innate, or learned? Here we have contradictory evidence. An article in the Economist a few months ago referred to a study that concluded that the desire for good, hard work actually isn’t all that innate, particularly in Britain. But if learned, if part of the Marxist legacy we hold that says that fulfilling work is an end in itself, how do we handle the pressure of finding such fulfilment?

Perhaps the idea of work-as-end is a way to rationalize the short time we have on Earth, and that we spend most of it working. But are we destined not to find all we seek in our jobs? Is it possible to use work only as currency to “buy” time for our true passions? Should we seek to maximize the good in our work (whether employment at all, a means to material comfort and status, or even autonomous shoe-making) — even if we hate it? Do you amble purposelessly?

I’d love to hear your thoughts…


Make Money First: The Trouble With Meritocracies

October 19, 2010

For a while now, I’ve been trying to put together a post about the value of polymaths in modern society. 200 or even 100 years ago, such people would need no defenders. What could be more valuable or intrinsically rewarding than being interested in everything and interesting to others? Yet today, polymaths are often seen as dilettantes, unable to focus enough to be serious about something and get a job. There is work, and then there are hobbies, and one should learn to tell the difference and divide one’s life into segments. Few careers reward diversity of knowledge. Fewer still pay well. My tentative title was going to be, “Great Careers for Polymaths,” but the idea made me queasy. Why, I asked myself, do I need to justify having multiple interests with the language of making money?

Because, I realized, we value wealth first. What I mean by “first” is that the goal is to be “secure” financially before seeking career satisfaction, getting in shape or getting married. Wealth is the elusive gateway to a complete life, but many mistake it for a complete life in and of itself.

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