Monday, December 27, 2010

Quote of the week

The New York Times reporting on the post-Christmas blizzard that just ravaged the North-East United States:

Everywhere, the winds whispered and moaned in their secret Ice Age language.

Monday, December 20, 2010

My contribution to the Google Ngrams show

Google released its Ngrams tool two weeks ago and everyone seems to have tried something or the other with it.  (Some folks also pointed out wisely that we need to make sure that the data this visualizations rely upon is accurate -- or at least we need to find a way to estimate its accuracy.)

But anyway, back to my point.  In our Social Theory class this semester, we read David Harvey's "The Condition of Postmodernity."  Harvey's thesis in this book is that what we call postmodernity is a specific cultural manifestation of the changes in the economic framework.  The structure of capitalism, he thinks (like a good Marxist), changed in the 1970s and went from a regime of Fordism combined with Keynesianism to a regime of flexible accumulation (looser labor laws, easier capital flows, etc.).  Postmodernism is a specific cultural outshoot -- the superstructure -- of these changes in the base.

So.  I put in "productivity" and "efficiency" into the Ngram and this is the graph that came up: (click on the figure to see a bigger version)

Interesting, isn't?  I consider "efficiency" perhaps to be the word associated with Fordism.  "Productivity," used so much in corporations today, seems to me more of an instance of the new post-1970s economy of flexible accumulation (at least according to Harvey). 

The number of instances of "efficiency," peaks around 1920 and then falls (although it rebounds and keeps fairly steady).  The 1970s are the period when flexible accumulation starts to replace Fordism.

On the other hand, "productivity" is pretty non-existent, starts to increase around 1960 and peaks a little after 1980 and then drops down again.  Again, this seems to vaguely conform to the Fordism to flexible accumulation shift.

I am not really going anywhere with this and I suspect I may be getting something wrong as well.  Still, it's suggestive though, isn't it?  Worth investigating.

Anyone have any suggestions, ideas, explanations?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cultural relativism

May I just say that I agree with, pretty much, every word of this?

I'm very interested in the humanities, particularly archaeology, which is my profession. But I have no interest in TV game shows, even though I know that they're extremely popular. Why is that?

A cultural idealist will reply that it's because I have good taste: historical humanities are inherently and objectively more interesting and worthwhile than TV game shows. But I'm no cultural idealist. I'm a cultural and aesthetic relativist. This means that I acknowledge no objective standards for the evaluation of works of art. There are no definitive aesthetic judgements, there is only reception history. There is no objective way of deciding whether Elvis Presley is better than Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm. It is possible, and in fact rather common, to prefer Lady Gaga to Johann Sebastian Bach. De gustibus non est disputandum.

This means that I can't say that it would be better if everyone who likes football took up historical humanities instead. Both football and historical humanities are fun and of no practical use. Which one we choose is a matter of individual character and subcultural background.

This is important. We do a lot of what we do because of our subcultural background, which is largely composed of class background. I am a second-generation academic from the middle class. I do middle class things such as reading novels, skiing on the golf course in the winters, writing essays like this and studying historical humanities. If my parents had been workers, then I would most likely have been doing quite different things. And that would have been fine too. One thing is as good as another provided that it is fun.


There are those who claim that the historical humanities fill an important purpose in reinforcing democracy. Sometimes their rhetoric suggests that the main task of the humanities is indeed to keep people from becoming Nazis and repeating the Holocaust. To those who claim this ability for our disciplines, I can only say "Show me the evidence". There is in fact nothing about the humanities that automatically makes its results politically palatable. The non-humanities people I know are equally good liberals as the humanities majors. Actually, the most brown-shirted individual I have ever spoken to was an archaeology post-grad for a while in the 90s.

In the invitation to the seminar, we were warned about "heritage populism without reflection or depth". But in my experience, many of the taxpayers who fund us actually really want to enjoy the cultural heritage in a populist manner without any great reflection or depth. They understand that Late Medieval murals painter Albertus Pictor and Conan the Barbarian are not the same kind of character. But they consume stories about both for the same reason: for enjoyment's sake. This means that it's our job to make humanistic knowledge available on all levels and to meet every member of the audience where they stand. Our task, unlike that of historical novelists, is to tell true stories - that also have to be exciting and fun. Because there really is no practical use to the humanities. And an activity that is neither useful nor fun has no value whatsoever.

"... culture and heritage suffer under a utilitarian economical mode of thought that focuses on which museums, heritages [this probably refers to archaeological sites], interpretations and blogs can attract the most visitors. Such a bestsellerism can give rise to trivialised and unreflected messages." (from the invitation)

"Does the heritage sector flatten perspectives by presenting the heritage in a simple, measurable and manageable package?" (from the invitation)

This suggests a kind of punk-rock attitude where a defiant humanities scholar says "I'm not gonna provide anything measurable or manageable or trivial or popular!" And sure, that is up to the individual. But if we are to expect a monthly salary from the taxpayers, then I think we will have to accept that they want to be able to measure and manage our product. How else are they supposed to know if it's worth it to continue paying our salaries? And they want us to produce stuff that, within the realm of solid real-world humanities scholarship, is at least as much fun as a TV game show or Conan the Barbarian.

That said, I also like this part of Clifford James' post on the Greater Humanities:

The Greater Humanities are 1) interpretive 2) realist 3) historical 4) ethico-political.
  1. Interpretive. (read textual and philological, in broad, more than just literary, senses) Interpretive, not positivist. Interested in rigorous, but always provisional and perspectival, explanations, not replicable causes.
  2. Realist. (not “objective”) Realism in the Greater Humanities is concerned with the narrative, figural, and empirical construction of textured, non-reductive, multi-scaled representations of social, cultural, and psychological phenomena. These are serious representations that are necessarily partial and contestable…
  3. Historical. (not evolutionist, at least not in a teleological sense) The knowledge is historical because it recognizes the simultaneously temporal and spatial (the chronotopic) specificity of…well… everything. It’s evolutionist perhaps in a Darwinian sense: a rigorous grappling with developing temporalities, everything constantly made and unmade in determinate, material situations, but developing without any guaranteed direction.
  4. Ethico-political. (never stopping with an instrumental or technical bottom line…) It’s never enough to say that something must be true because it works or because people want or need it. Where does it work? For whom? At whose expense? Contextualizing always involves constitutive “outsides” that come back to haunt us– effects of power.
Of course, there's always a tension between being interpretative and not prone to explanations with "replicable causes" with being able to get funding.  But that's another topic for another day.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Master Switch: What will become of the internet?

David Leonhardt has a nice review of Tim Wu's new book "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires", which made me want to run out and buy it.  Here's the main graf: 
AT&T is the star of Wu’s book, an intellectually ambitious history of modern communications. The organizing principle — only rarely overdrawn — is what Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, calls “the cycle.” “History shows a typical progression of information technologies,” he writes, “from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel — from open to closed system.” Eventually, entrepreneurs or regulators smash apart the closed system, and the cycle begins anew.

The story covers the history of phones, radio, television, movies and, finally, the Internet. All of these businesses are susceptible to the cycle because all depend on networks, whether they’re composed of cables in the ground or movie theaters around the country. Once a company starts building such a network or gaining control over one, it begins slouching toward monopoly. If the government is not already deeply involved in the business by then (and it usually is), it soon will be.
What, then, of the internet?   Well, the answer is that it's up to us, as consumers and interested parties to make sure that the features of the internet that we love, its openness, ease of access and its culture of linking and transparency, survive the changes in its structure that are sure to come by.

Wu recently got into a tiff with other theorists over the meaning of the word "monopoly."  To know more, click here, here and here (and there are plenty of other links on the pages themselves).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tax cuts for the rich

I mostly don't write about politics (for a lot of reasons, but mostly because most people have already said it better!) but this paragraph in David Leonhardt's "Economic Scene" column struck me as interesting:
Mr. Obama effectively traded tax cuts for the affluent, which Republicans were demanding, for a second stimulus bill that seemed improbable a few weeks ago. Mr. Obama yielded to Republicans on extending the high-end Bush tax cuts and on cutting the estate tax below its scheduled level. In exchange, Republicans agreed to extend unemployment benefits, cut payroll taxes and business taxes, and extend a grab bag of tax credits for college tuition and other items.
Now consider this: Leonhardt is a reporter for the Times.  As such, when he writes an op-ed type piece, it is mostly in the restrained way that the "Analysis" sections for the paper are written (see here, for example).   He doesn't -- and I would think, can't -- write in the way the Times op-ed writers write.  (For instance, see Paul Krugman's latest, which has a decidedly -- and probably justifiably -- apocalyptic tone.)

And yet, just read that opening paragraph I quoted above.  Even a simple, diplomatic, faux-objective rendering of the recent tax-cuts deal makes it very clear: what the Republicans wanted was for richer people (or to be more technical, those making more than 250,000 a year.  And the estate tax cut will only benefit multi-millionaires.).  How on earth will the Republicans spin this?  One would think that the Democrats can make hay with this with some good old-fashioned rabble-rousing against-the-fat-cats type of populism.  But no.  Listen to this missive from Kevin Drum, about how the deal is spun in Virginia:
I hate to say this but I do have my ear to the ground with a lot of "regular" folks and the way this impending "deal" is being described by most of them is that Republicans are pushing to keep the tax cuts which create jobs and the Democrats are pushing to extend unemployment benefits so lazy people can sit on their asses a while longer and live off those of us who work hard.
In other words, it is not Republicans who will end up being defensive about the deal but Democrats!  Even when the concessions that the Democrats fought for will benefit more people -- and more importantly, people in need -- as well as give the economy a much-needed stimulus.  Here is a graphic that shows the number of people who will benefit because of the concessions the Democrats fought for (link):

I have no stake in this battle, really.  But it strikes me that something interesting is going on here.  Republican voters in the US routinely list the deficit as their main concern.  Making the Bush tax cuts permanent, the Republicans' main priority, will increase the deficit anyway.  (And to be fair, Democrats are fine with making the tax cuts that apply to family incomes less than 250k permanent as well).  So how does the perception that the tax cuts are good even if they increase the much-cared for deficit come about?

One theory could be the Marxist notion of "false consciousness," that voters are in the grip of an ideology (in the Marxist sense).  I find these explanations unsatisfying. 

My guess is that the deficit -- a technocratic concept if there was one -- has fused into the notions of responsibility that constitute these voters' identities.  So these voters tolerate higher deficits if it is for "responsible" reasons but not so much if the deficit expands in response to an extension of unemployment benefits (even if they see unemployment all around them). I think this is an issue where some qualitative research -- in the form of extensive, unstructured interviews with Republican voters -- might help.  How has the deficit seeped into their very selves?  How do they understand themselves in terms of this deficit?  Anyone know of any research on this? 

Postscript: I began to think of George Lakoff's may be on to something after all -- even if Lakoff's theory is too much like the false consciousness in the guise of cognitive science.  Lakoff says voters typically think of the state in terms of the family metaphor: the nation-as-family metaphor.  A state with a deficit therefore corresponds to a family living beyond its means, a classic sign of irresponsibility.  That explains the deficit but what about support for the tax cuts?  Anyone know of any other possible explanations?  Any theories of political identity-formation that can be applied here?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Libraries, Google and the Internet

Robert Darnton has an excellent piece in the New York Review of Books on the future of academic presses and libraries and whether the democratic accessibility promised by the internet will ever come to pass:
Google represents the ultimate in business plans. By controlling access to information, it has made billions, which it is now investing in the control of the information itself. What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. Like all commercial enterprises, Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Libraries exist to get books to readers—books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment, provided for free. The fundamental incompatibility of purpose between libraries and Google Book Search might be mitigated if Google could offer libraries access to its digitized database of books on reasonable terms. But the terms are embodied in a 368-page document known as the “settlement,” which is meant to resolve another conflict: the suit brought against Google by authors and publishers for alleged infringement of their copyrights.

Despite its enormous complexity, the settlement comes down to an agreement about how to divide a pie—the profits to be produced by Google Book Search: 37 percent will go to Google, 63 percent to the authors and publishers. And the libraries? They are not partners to the agreement, but many of them have provided, free of charge, the books that Google has digitized. They are being asked to buy back access to those books along with those of their sister libraries, in digitized form, for an “institutional subscription” price, which could escalate as disastrously as the price of journals. The subscription price will be set by a Book Rights Registry, which will represent the authors and publishers who have an interest in price increases. Libraries therefore fear what they call “cocaine pricing”—a strategy of beginning at a low rate and then, when customers are hooked, ratcheting up the price as high as it will go.

To become effective, the settlement must be approved by the district court in the Southern Federal District of New York. The Department of Justice has filed two memoranda with the court that raise the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that the settlement could give Google such an advantage over potential competitors as to violate antitrust laws. But the most important issue looming over the legal debate is one of public policy. Do we want to settle copyright questions by private litigation? And do we want to commercialize access to knowledge?

I hope that the answer to those questions will lead to my happy ending: a National Digital Library—or a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), as some prefer to call it. Google demonstrated the possibility of transforming the intellectual riches of our libraries, books lying inert and underused on shelves, into an electronic database that could be tapped by anyone anywhere at any time. Why not adapt its formula for success to the public good—a digital library composed of virtually all the books in our greatest research libraries available free of charge to the entire citizenry, in fact, to everyone in the world?