Archive for the ‘ Sociology Lens ’ Category

Occupy’s Mic Check: A Tactic to Disrupt Power, Not Free Speech

President Obama recieves the script from his recent Mic Checking

This text was posted to Sociology Lens on December 10th. On December 13th, the piece was temporarily removed and I was asked to make revisions to make more explicit the conventional sociological themes in this piece. This request was made as the result of pressure from a senior professor who deemed this piece too “polemical” and not “sociological.” While I and many others in the discipline have epistemological objections to very concept of value-free social science, and thus view with suspicion any implication that sociology can be separated from politics, I agreed to make revisions, because I think that argument in this piece important and can only be strengthened by further reference to the social theory canon. The new version is now on Sociology Lens and archived on my personal blog.

A recent news piece for Inside Higher Ed reports on several instances where students have disrupted public presentations by conservative academics, activists, or politicians. The students used “the human microphone”—i.e., a practice of amplifying a speaker’s voice by having many people repeat the speaker’s words in unison—to offer counterpoints to the arguments being made by the presenter. The article’s author, Allie Grasgreen, asserts that the mic checking the conservative presenters is tantamount to “censorship.” This assertion shares the logic of what Karl Rove demanded when he was mic checked at John Hopkins:

If you believe in free speech and you have a chance to show it… if you believe in the right of the First Amendment to free speech… then you demonstrate it by shutting up and waiting until the Q&A session… line up behind the mic…

But Grasgreen and Rove both miss the point. Occupiers are trying to demonstrate—through the very performance of this act—that “free speech” is not evenly distributed. The point is that only the 1% ever find themselves at the podium. The 99% are left to fill the seats in the audience, and, if they are lucky, they may have the chance to do as Rove commands and line up behind the mic for a few brief seconds in the spotlight. This is, of course, because the opportunity to speak and to be heard is inextricable from issues of wealth and power. The few who hold these assets in abundance have more purchasing power in the attention economy. K Street is nothing if not an industrialized machine for converting money and power into speech that will be heard. Even more concerning is the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision that makes the linkage between access to money and access to speech de jure and not merely de facto. Sure, we all may have “free speech,” but as George Orwell quipped in Animal Farm “some animals are more equal than others.” Continue reading

The Medical Marijuana Hype: It’s Not As Easy As THC

Let’s get it out there up front: I’m not a medical doctor or a medical researcher, so this is not going to be a discussion of the physiological effects of THC. Instead, I want to step back for a moment and engage in a cultural critique of the hype surrounding medical marijuana. Put simply, I’m not concerned here with what marijuana actually does; rather, I’m concern with the place that marijuana (particularly, when used for therapeutic purposes) holds in our culture.

Marijuana, in its current, largely unregulated form (“unregulated” because it is, in most cases, illegal), represents one of the few remaining vestiges of a history of mystic and shamanic practices that span millennia. This, in a world where science and bureaucratic organization have seemingly stamped out every last bit of mystery and uncertainty in our lives. Over the course of the last century, every aspect of our lives has been subject to increasing efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control (see: George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society). The result is that the activities comprising our daily lives have become increasingly mechanical. We feel as though forces external to us determine our every action. In the bleakest terms (those of Max Weber), we come to feel as though we are trapped in a great iron cage. And, when aspects of life are so limited and predictable, they become disenchanted (see: George Ritzer, Enchanting a Disenchanted World).

Because a century of legal restrictions have made marijuana extremely difficult to study and efficiently distribute, it has long represented an escape from the rationalization and disenchantment that characterizes modern medical practice, and, in particular, the pharmaceutical industry. The effects of various marijuana crops on the humans who consume them have varied widely and dosages have tended to be imprecise. Moreover, users tend to have a very personal connection to the particular dose they are consuming, because they have had to undergo some sort of trial to obtain it (e.g., an encounter with a dealer or the long, invested process of cultivation). Even the experience of going to a licensed medical marijuana dispensary is likely to be far more idiosyncratic than a trip to a conventional pharmacy. As a result, the experience of marijuana use has retained an unpredictable, “magical” quality.

While it is quite possible that this experience of enchantment may improve the well-being of individuals, it is, perhaps, more interesting (at least when we are wearing our sociologist caps) to consider whether marijuana – as a symbolic bulwark against rationalized medicine or, more broadly, the rationalization of all aspects of society – has therapeutic effects for our culture writ large. I contend that this therapeutic effect – this sense that something mysterious and unpredictable remains a very real part of our lives – accounts for our culture’s current obsession with marijuana. One might even say we are addicted to the mystique of marijuana.

No doubt, THC pills derived from the plant will one day be made as efficient, calculated, predictable, and controlled as ever other facet of our culture. Sadly, the great irony is that, as marijuana becomes legalized, it will inevitably become more rationalized, robbing it of what is, perhaps, its most important feature (i.e., its mystique).

Social Media: Have We Built a Society without Closets?

Today, we are all familiar with with what it means to be closeted. In fact, coming out has become among our most widely recognized cultural narratives. No doubt, large swaths of the American landscape still present environments hostile to sexual preferences that deviate from prevailing hetero-patriarchical norms, but progressive circles, and increasingly, society writ large, have embraced the belief that coming out (i.e., rending oneself visible) is the road to empowerment. If this is true, the queer community should be more empowered than ever. Social media allows for unprecedented levels of visibility. Broadcasting your sexual preferences to the world is never more than click away.

I, for one, am dubious as to the promise of ever-greater visibility for the queer community and its political struggles. And, I am not alone. In 1999, Steven Seidman, Chet Meeks, and Francie Transchen wrote and essay entitled, “Beyond the Closet,” in which they argued that the closet is not merely a symbol of oppression, but also serves to create an important space for safe experimentation. Their call for ambivalence toward the closet was simultaneously a critique of the culture of visibility – of “mass exhibitionism.”

Queer youth in the latter several decades of the 20th Century famously fled the pastoral trappings of their hometowns to form accepting urban communities. In doing so, they were able to escape the normalizing gaze of their families, teachers, and other locals. Newfound anonymity (invisibility?), in essence, gave these youth the freedom to establish their own identities and, ultimately, the confidence to assert these identities in the face of others’ opposition.

Social media, however, is a technology that allows for all those people who we know or, even, don’t know, to project their gaze on us, reaching across continents. Because the closet only exists out of sight, social media, as a gaze-enhancing technology, threatens the very existence of the closet itself. For this reason, the queer community may have more at stake in the politics surrounding these newly emerging technologies than other groups, particularly with respect to privacy debates. We must ask ourselves: What can be done to create a queer-friendly Internet?

While these issues might be most salient for the queer community, the metaphor of the closet speaks to us all. We all have our own closets. These closets help us to discover who it is we want to be and give us the freedom undergo the process of change. I do not what to sound overly pessimistic. Social media does also serve as a tool to build and maintain sub-communities, connecting people with similar experiences in ways that might not otherwise be possible. What I take issue with is the notion that greater visibility is always better for individuals and communities. In an age of hyper-visibility, closets might actually be worth fighting for.

OkCupid Grants Special Privileges to Attractive Users

Before you ask: I did not make this picture up. It is a screenshot taken directly from my email. And, yeah, this is probably a bit of inexcusable narcissism.

I, like millions of other Americans (OkCupid has 500,000 active users, eHarmony has had more than 20 million registered users in its history, and Match.com sees more than 20,000 users register each day), have turned to the enigmatic world of online dating. Being a less than affluent Ph.D. student, I naturally turned to the free option: OkCupid.

What has struck me most about online dating is the penchant these sites have for quantifying everything. The latest, and perhaps, creepiest, instance of quantification is OkCupid’s announcement that is has developed an algorithm to determine other users’ subjective experience of your attractiveness. The following is an excerpt from the email I received:

We are very pleased to report that you are in the top half of OkCupid’s most attractive users. The scales recently tipped in your favor, and we thought you’d like to know.

How can we say this with confidence? We’ve tracked click-thrus on your photo and analyzed other people’s reactions to you in QuickMatch and Quiver.

Continue reading

Facebook Fatigue and Privacy Panic: Has the Golden Age of Social Media Ended?

For years, we have been deluged with stories about the dangers of online social media. But in the last several months, a new kind of story has suddenly swept the mainstream media and the blogosphere alike. This new type of story highlights burgeoning discontent amongst the user-base of social media sites and, at least implicitly, questions whether mass exhibitionism on social media is just a faddish blip on the cultural radar.

For example, recent articles discuss how high school students have grown cautious and are adopting pseudonyms to avoid having their profiles examined by college admissions committees. More broadly, social media is being problematized for its infinite capacity to absorb attention, which makes it, at minimum, a potential distraction, and, at worse, an object of obsession. Most prominent, however, is the issue of privacy. We know that Facebook continues to expose more and more details about us, while they have made it increasingly complex to adjust our privacy settings.

What are we to make of the media’s newest infatuation: Does 2010 really mark a major turning point in the history of the Internet? While an answer to this question would be speculative at best, a more manageable, and decidedly more empirical, question lies at its core: Is there a real mass movement afoot to reduce or terminate exhibitionism on social media, or is the media imposing a sort of baseless, top-down narrative on the millions of people who have integrated social media into their everyday lives?

This topic was broached just last week by fellow Sociology Lens blogger, Nathan Jurgenson, who wrote “Facebook users are not leaving the service in large numbers, and other technologies of narcissism -such as Formspring- continue to march along.” Jurgenson is no doubt correct in arguing that these sites continue to grow rather than to diminish in size. However,we still lack solid evidence demonstrating whether or not the way in which people are using social media, and their attitudes toward it, are changing. Do people log in less? Do they refrain from posting certain kinds of content? Do they post false information? Would they prefer to use a site that had a different privacy policy? Continue reading

Social Media: Documentation as Stratification

(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

The new norms of exhibitionism and copious self-documentation have been regular talking points on Sociology Lens over the past year. Consider Nathan Jurgenson’s posts, our digital culture of narcissism and facebook, youtube, twitter: mass exhibitionism online, as well as my own recent post, The Queer Politics of Chatroulette.

It now seems truer than ever for many social media users (particularly, teenagers and young adults) that “If you’re not on MySpace [and/or other social media sites], you don’t exist.” Moreover, the pervasiveness of documentation throughout virtually every aspect of our daily lives has led us to start living for the documents, rather than the documents simply reflecting some aspect of our lives. Today, we must always behave as if our actions will be preserved forever and for all to see (because, most likely, they will). In the world of social media, there is no longer a “back stage” as Goffman once observed. As far as we know, there is always an audience watching our every move with rapt attention, ready to applaud or jeer at any second.

I argue that we should view this “will to document” (as Jurgenson has described it) as a new kind of habitus. Habitus (according to Bourdieu) means simply “dispositions [that are] acquired through experience.” It explains behavior that is neither hard-wired into our biology, nor simply a manifestation of conscious and rational decision-making. Success in this hyper-surveilled, hyper-documented world is wholly dependent on acquiring a set of practices that produce both a highly-visible and favorable image of oneself. Continue reading

The Queer Politics of Chatroulette

(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

Chatroulette has swept the the nation. I say “swept” because, like many things on the Internet, the novelty and hype surrounding chatroulette is proving ephemeral. That’s not to say that chatroulette is going away any time soon. In fact, we should expect Internet culture to continue to produce new opportunities for the random interactions at the heart of the chatroulette experience. Fellow Sociology Lens commentator Nathan Jurgenson not unfairly described chatroulette as a “downright capricious and aleatory experience.”

Perhaps the most contentious and reported aspect of chatroulette is the regular frequency with which one encounters people engaged in sexually explicit activities, particularly men masturbating. Clearly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Casey Neistat, producer of the video embedded here, divides chatroulette users into three categories: “boys,” “girls,” and “perverts.” While I don’t want to directly criticize this wonderfully made mini-documentary, I think it is good launching point for a discussion about the ways in which the norms and values of Internet culture may be transforming human sexuality. Continue reading

Full-Body Scanners: Explosive Violence or Naked Domination

X-ray(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

For the last several months, reports about full-body scanners in airports have been floating in and out of the news cycle. These machines were sexualized long before they were implemented. News stories fantasize about every possible voyeuristic scenario, both to titillate and to trouble us. Then, recently, the media hit gold when “a security worker at London Heathrow Airport [...] ogled a female colleague using a full-body scanner [...] after his colleague mistakenly strayed into the scanner, which can see through clothes to produce an image of the body. The case is believed to be the first of its kind since the full-body scanners were put into service at British airports.”

While the media has its own agenda for promoting this story, we might ask ourselves: Why should we care when the implementation of these devices seems so inevitable anyway? Continue reading

Public Sociology vs the Anger Industry (or Why Lying Makes Michael Savage Richer)

Radio(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

Cast deep in recession and with unprecedented political polarization inside the halls of government, it’s no shock that the American public is angry. Perhaps, this frustration is merely a byproduct of legislative and discursive gridlock. Perhaps, however, this anger is better understood as the cause of such gridlock. But if this anger is the cause and not merely a reaction to the current political situation, we must ask: Where has all this anger come from? Has this recession really made life so miserable, or is something other than the economic well-being of the average American to blame? Does someone stand to gain from all this anger? Perhaps that someone (or, better, that institution) recognizes its own interest in the promotion of generic anger and is attempting to capitalize on it.

Mainstream media has become an anger industry. I’m speaking, primarily, of the cable news revolution as well as the explosion of conservative talk radio in recent decades; however, other media have trended in this direction as well. We’ve all heard the trope “if it bleeds it leads.” Media personalities have realized that anger can be more profitably harnessed if they’re the ones doing the stabbing. The way anger has become rationalized and manipulated by the media is not altogether different from the realization that wrestling was more profitable when it was staged and professionalized. Yet, while professional wrestlers still have to be athletic, contemporary “journalists” no longer need to be well-researched. Pundits only need to be provocative. Each news cycle has become simple and formulaic: select an issue regardless of scope or public significance, arbitrarily take sides, fight, rinse, repeat.

Continue reading

Liquid Charity

Sea of Phones(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

In the ten days following the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Americans used text messaging to donate over $30 million. Text messaging has been prominent in the news as of late. Candidate Obama shocked supporters by announcing his vice presidential pick using this new medium. In 2008, Nielson reported that the average teen sends a whopping 2,272 messages a month. A new term, “sexting,” entered popular usage following several high profile cases of teens being expelled or even charged with distribution of child pornography. The Pew Internet and American Life Center reported in 2009 that 15% of teens ages 12-17 received sexually explicit images of people they know. Texting has proven the most dangerous common distraction to drivers. The first images of the plane that crash-landed in the Hudson were uploaded to the Web from the cell phone of a passenger on a nearby boat. The incident was also Twittered by a survivor. Then, of course, there were the protests to the recent Iranian elections, which used personal mobile communication devices to subvert state-run media.

Each of these incidences share a common theme: traditional practices were supplanted in favor of a new set of behaviors associated with mobile communications. That’s the what, but as a social theorist, I suggest we also ought to consider the why. I think Zymgunt Bauman, a remarkably prolific octogenarian sociologist, has a lot to offer us here. Bauman famously speaks of “liquid modernity” where traditional social structures are melting away and fading ambiguously into one another. He argues that things which are liquid, flowing, and mobile tend to undo things which are rigid, solid, and stable.

Mobile communication networks increasingly provide concrete examples supporting Bauman’s theory and Haiti is only the latest instance. The cell phone has made transferring money more immediate, more flexible, and simpler than even the credit card. People need only reach into their pockets for a device which is already profoundly integrated into their lives and dial a few numbers. Within seconds, the transaction is complete and money has flowed from one node in the network to another. The power of such fluid networks is that, with minimal cost in time and money (most were $10 contributions) to individuals, enormous resources can be mobilized. The political implications of this new fluid and hyper-networked reality should not be lost on us.

Square-eye “Mobile giving to help Haiti exceeds $30 million” by Suzanne Choney

Square-eye “Teaching and Learning Guide for: Social Implications of Mobile Telephony: The Rise of Personal Communication Society” by Scott W. Campbell and Yong Jin Park

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