robertogreco + jiatolentino   8

How TikTok Holds Our Attention | The New Yorker
“I found it both freeing and disturbing to spend time on a platform that didn’t ask me to pretend that I was on the Internet for a good reason. I was not giving TikTok my attention because I wanted to keep up with the news, or because I was trying to soothe and irritate myself by looking at photos of my friends on vacation. I was giving TikTok my attention because it was serving me what would retain my attention, and it could do that because it had been designed to perform algorithmic pyrotechnics that were capable of making a half hour pass before I remembered to look away.

We have been inadvertently preparing for this experience for years. On YouTube and Twitter and Instagram, recommendation algorithms have been making us feel individually catered to while bending our selfhood into profitable shapes. TikTok favors whatever will hold people’s eyeballs, and it provides the incentives and the tools for people to copy that content with ease. The platform then adjusts its predilections based on the closed loop of data that it has created. This pattern seems relatively trivial when the underlying material concerns shaving cream and Crocs, but it could determine much of our cultural future. The algorithm gives us whatever pleases us, and we, in turn, give the algorithm whatever pleases it. As the circle tightens, we become less and less able to separate algorithmic interests from our own.”



“In China, daily life has become even more tech-driven than it is in the U.S. People can pay for things by letting cameras scan their faces; last year, a high school in Hangzhou installed scanners that recorded classrooms every thirty seconds and classified students’ facial expressions as neutral, happy, sad, angry, upset, or surprised. The Chinese government has been assembling what it calls the Social Credit System, a network of overlapping assessments of citizen trustworthiness, with opaque calculations that integrate information from public records and private databases. The government has also set benchmarks for progress in artificial-intelligence development at five-year intervals. Last year, Tianjin announced plans to put sixteen billion dollars toward A.I. funding; Shanghai announced a plan to raise fifteen billion.”



“I had stopped impulsively checking TikTok after a month—I already have enough digital tools to insure that I never need to sit alone with the simple fact of being alive. But I could understand being thirteen and feeling like the world would be better if as many people as possible could be seen by as many people as possible all the time. I could imagine experiencing a social platform as a vast, warm ocean of affection and excitement, even if that ocean needed money that it could generate only by persuading you not to leave. I wondered how many baby siblings of these TikTok fanatics were at home, sitting in front of iPads, adrift in an endless stream of YouTube videos. Perhaps the time had come to let the algorithm treat the rest of us like babies, too. Maybe it knows more about what we like than we do. Maybe it knows that if it can capture our attention for long enough it won’t have to ask us what we like anymore. It will have already decided.”
tiktok  jiatolentino  2019  attention  algorithms  china  artificialintelligence  ai 
9 weeks ago by robertogreco
“The Westing Game,” a Tribute to Labor That Became a Dark Comedy of American Capitalism | The New Yorker
"As for Westing, he was inspired not only by Kohler but also by Howard Hughes, who died in April, 1976. Three weeks after his death, a handwritten will purportedly belonging to Hughes appeared on the desk of an official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The “Mormon Will” divided Hughes’s $2.5-billion estate into sixteen pieces, one of them allocated to a Utah gas-station owner named Melvin Dummar, who claimed to have once rescued Hughes in the desert. Two years later, a Nevada court found that Dummar had forged the will. In this slow-swirling maelstrom of American kitsch and allegiance and fate and reversal, Raskin concocted her mystery, a game of capitalism and inheritance, which frames America as both a land of obscure and marvellous possibility and also a hollow farce.

Beneath the game that gives the novel its plot, Raskin built a narrative substructure that consists of the intersecting identity crises experienced by the sixteen—sixteen! For a children’s book!—protagonists. (The best children’s books, I have found, are often better than adult fiction at inculcating and rewarding patience.) With the inheritance contest as pretext, they study one another closely. They try to figure out what everyone else has been given: they want to know who got lucky, who plays dirty, who knows how to convert a roll of the dice into gold. There are wild-goose chases, setbacks, secrets, bombings. All of this slowly converts Sunset Towers into an oddly salutary hothouse environment. Samuel Westing’s game is a puzzle designed to make people treat one another as puzzles—as creations worth sustained attention and interpretation. In analyzing one another’s motivations and assets, the characters feel their own buried ones come to life. The atmosphere gets loose; desire leads to surprises. Under the light of one another’s often hapless scrutiny, all sixteen characters start to grow.

The magic of Samuel Westing’s game is, like America itself, marked by capriciousness and contradiction. Competition and coöperation seem mutually exclusive until they don’t. At the end of the game, none of the characters has inherited the two hundred million dollars, but the idea that they might have done so—the sudden consciousness that life can change wildly in an instant—has proved to be something that can pass for enough. The book seems to suggest that the real American inheritance is transformation, and that American transformation is a mercurial thing. In her Newbery speech, Raskin said, wryly, that, as she wrote the novel, her “tribute to American labor history ended up a comedy in praise of capitalism.” But, for me, the book lands a little differently. “The Westing Game” is a comedy in praise of the messes people make when they’re allowed to access a sense of possibility. Money drives that, of course, and Westing’s fortune is a racy prospect. But Westing himself, the capitalist king, is a dark, strange, even pathetic Wizard of Oz figure: an old man playing a series of tricks to multiply his presence into the illusion of something more.

The only one who figures this out about Westing—the only one who understands that seeing through the game is how you win—is stubborn, independent Turtle. The sun eventually sets on Westing’s final deception, which you could also call his final reinvention; he’s stretched this country’s possibilities as far as they can go. It rises on Turtle, who has become heir not to the tycoon’s fortune but to his secrets and his ambitions, and, seemingly, in the future, to his Westing Company-board seat. She is an adult by the end of the novel, poised and deliberate. As a kid, reading this book again and again and again, I felt a quiet flare of ambiguous promise when I considered Turtle’s trajectory. She’d been shaped by old Westing, and then she’d outlasted him. At the end of the novel, she goes back to her mansion to spend the afternoon with her niece Alice, who wears a long braid down her back. In the book’s last line, Turtle asks, “Ready for a game of chess?”"
jiatolentino  thewestinggame  books  2019  us  walterkohler  ellenraskin  history  howardhughes 
october 2019 by robertogreco
Jia Tolentino Wants You to Read Children’s Books - The New York Times
““A really good middle-grade novel,” says the New Yorker essayist, whose debut collection is “Trick Mirror,” “will supersede a lot of contemporary fiction in terms of economy, lucidity and grace.”

What books are on your nightstand?

When I like a book, I carry it around everywhere until I finish it, like a subway rat dragging a slice of pizza down the stairs. So usually if a book is living on my nightstand, it’s not my thing. Right now, though, I’ve got a galley of Anna Wiener’s “Uncanny Valley” keeping me company — it’s so deft and stunning that I started rereading chunks of it as soon as I was done.

What’s the last book that really excited you?

“Death’s End,” the final installment of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, in which the narrative and conceptual momentum of the series takes off at a scale and velocity I couldn’t possibly have imagined before reading. The Three-Body trilogy makes insignificance and unknowability and futility seem so spiritually exciting that I felt breathless. I’d join a book club that just discusses it every month for a year.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Rebecca Stead’s “When You Reach Me” won the Newbery Medal, so it’s certainly not unheralded, but everyone tunes me out when I recommend it, since it was written for kids. Their mistake! A really good middle-grade novel — and this book, a “Wrinkle in Time”-esque mystery set on the Upper West Side in the late 1970s, is a phenomenal one — will supersede a lot of contemporary fiction in terms of economy, lucidity and grace.

What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

“Random Family,” by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. It’s so spicy, so riveting, so empathetic and devoted, so alive in the world as it actually is. No shots to Chaucer and “A Separate Peace” and all that, but I think a lot of people might be far more interested in reading (and possibly more interested in other lives in general) if they got to read books like this in high school.

What book would you recommend to people over 40?

“Kids These Days,” by Malcolm Harris. Most writing about millennials has tended to focus on effects rather than causes: After all, it’s easier to make a spectacle of the ways instability manifests itself in young people than it is to really reckon with the fact that capitalism has reached a stage of inexorable acceleration that has broken our country’s institutions and (arguably) my generation’s soul. “Kids These Days,” thankfully, goes straight for the point.

[ Tolentino’s new book, “Trick Mirror,” was one of our most anticipated titles of August. See the full list. ]

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Ocean Vuong, Jenny Odell, Doreen St. Félix, Vinson Cunningham, Bryan Washington, Tommy Orange, Jenny Zhang, Ross Gay, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Emily Nussbaum, Rebecca Traister, Brit Bennett, Caity Weaver, Rachel Aviv, Kathryn Schulz, Pamela Colloff, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Patrick Radden Keefe, Patricia Lockwood, Samantha Irby, Leslie Jamison, Lauren Groff, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Wesley Morris, Meg Wolitzer, Marlon James, Ted Chiang, Eula Biss.

You once described yourself as “an obsessive and catholic reader.” What moves you most in a work of literature?

Bravery and surrender, which can manifest in so many forms.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a purely emotional or purely intellectual reaction to anything, let alone to anything I was reading. Systems and concepts are always inextricable from the way they shape our hearts, and I love books that demonstrate this, like Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted,” or George Saunders’s “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.”

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

From Casey Cep’s “Furious Hours,” that Harper Lee was once neighbors with Daryl Hall and John Oates. What?!

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I’ll read almost anything, though I don’t love reading about history and science as much as I love whatever I learn. The only books I actively avoid are the “how X explains all of human civilization” books — the type seemingly written for men who love a counterintuitive idea but find complex thought disturbing — as well as those “how to be a perfectly imperfect goddess who doesn’t give a f**k” books. I don’t like anything with a sales pitch that’s like, “Hey, you’re a woman!” These books feel like dolls of Frida Kahlo dressed as Rosie the Riveter or something, like display objects that chirp the word “badass” when you press their hand.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

My boyfriend got me a first edition of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” — one of my favorite books of all time — about seven years ago, and this past year, he gave me a copy of “Eve’s Hollywood” with a note in it for me from Eve Babitz herself. I almost keeled over on the spot.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

Turtle Wexler from “The Westing Game” and Undine Spragg from “The Custom of the Country.”

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I would read while Rollerblading around my neighborhood, read while eating, read in the car, read in the bathtub — my books were stained, swollen, ripped to shreds. I was always just desperate to be constantly reading. I’d memorize the copy on the Herbal Essences bottle in the shower; I read “Gone With the Wind” about 20 times in fourth grade. I remember things from kids’ books much more clearly than I remember anything about my life even a few years ago. I’ve got a mental encyclopedia of useless sensory details: the lavender-and-black bathroom in “Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself,” the tin peddler’s wares in “Farmer Boy,” the meals that Francie Nolan helped her mother make from stale bread.

You’re a digital native, and your publisher describes you as “what Susan Sontag would have been like if she had brain damage from the internet.” Do you find it difficult to tune out distractions and sink into a book?

In part because I am very aware of what the internet is doing to my sense of scale and reason, I spend a good amount of my life seeking out states of being — like reading — that are so consuming and pleasurable that I won’t grab my phone and interrupt. It also helps that for most of my life I’ve read a paper book for an hour or two every night before falling asleep: It was always a way of managing my insomnia, which I’ve had since I was little, and is now a regular reminder of how much more like myself I feel when I’m not shattering my attention to bits.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

There are plenty of beloved books I don’t like at all — the most demographically fine-tuned version of this for me is probably Chris Kraus’s “I Love Dick.” But I have a hard time accessing a sense of “supposed to” with pop culture. I read whatever I feel like reading, and if neither the book nor my reaction to it interests me, I put it down without another thought. I’m a big believer, anyway, that reading is like eating: The most fun lies in finding a match for your mood. If I read 20 pages of something people love and I can’t get into it, then I welcome the possibility that a few years from now it could be the perfect thing.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

Nearly everything about being alive feels embarrassing, but the enormous gap between what I’d like to have read and what I have actually read does not. As it is, I read a hundred books a year and it doesn’t seem to matter — there will always be so many books I haven’t read yet, and I will always be kind of stupid no matter how much I read. For example, I only recently realized that when people turn 30 they are completing their 30th year of life rather than beginning it. It’s possible that I’d have grasped that basic fact and many others much earlier if my head weren’t so stuffed with so much minutiae about the Shackleton expedition, so many descriptions of light from James Salter short stories, all these invisible psychosocial landscapes from all these books.

What do you plan to read next?

I’ve got to read the Lydia Davis translation of “Madame Bovary.” I’m having physical cravings for it. If I could stop time right now I’d lie down in the grass somewhere and go straight through from beginning to end.”
jiatolentino  howweread  reading  books  2019  internet  susansontag  web  online  digitalnatives  attention  yafiction  genre  malcolmharris  adriannicoleleblanc  tebeccastead  liucixin  oceanvuong  jennyodell  doreenstfélix  vinsoncunningham  bryanwashington  tommyorange  jennyzhang  rossgay  zadiesmith  rebeccasolnit  emilynussbaum  rebeccatraister  britbennett  caityweaver  rachelaviv  kathrynschulz  pamelacolloff  gideonlewis-kraus  patrickraddenkeefe  patricialockwood  smanthairby  lesliejamison  laurengoff  johnjeremiahsullivan  wesleymorris  megwolitzer  marlonjames  tedchiang  eulabiss  bythebook  georgesaunders  matthewdesmond  caseycep  sherwoodanderson  thewestinggame  chriskraus  lydiadavis  madamebovary 
august 2019 by robertogreco
What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away | The New Yorker
"During the first few days of my Internet decluttering, I found myself compulsively checking my unchanged in-box and already-read text messages, and scanning the same headlines over and over—attempting, as if bewitched, to see new information there. I took my dog out for longer walks, initially trying to use them for some productive purpose: spying on neighbors, planning my week. Soon I acquiesced to a dull, pleasant blankness. One afternoon, I draped myself on my couch and felt an influx of mental silence that was both disturbing and hallucinatorily pleasurable. I didn’t want to learn how to fix or build anything, or start a book club. I wanted to experience myself as soft and loose and purposeless, three qualities that, in my adulthood, have always seemed economically risky.

“Nothing is harder to do than nothing,” Jenny Odell writes, in her new book, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” (Melville House). Odell, a multidisciplinary artist who teaches at Stanford, is perhaps best known for a pamphlet called “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch,” which she put together while in residence at the Museum of Capitalism, in Oakland. Odell investigated the origins of a blandly stylish watch that was being offered for free (plus shipping) on Instagram, and found a mirrored fun house of digital storefronts that looked as though they had been generated by algorithm. The retailers advertised themselves as brands that had physical origins in glitzy Miami Beach or hip San Francisco but were, in fact, placeless nodes in a vast web of scammy global wholesalers, behind which a human presence could hardly be discerned.

Like Newport, Odell thinks that we should spend less time on the Internet. Unlike him, she wants readers to question the very idea of productivity. Life is “more than an instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized,” she writes. To find the physical world sufficiently absorbing, to conceive of the self as something that “exceeds algorithmic description”—these are not only “ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.” Odell details, with earnest wonder, moments in her life when she was reoriented toward these values. After the 2016 election, she began feeding peanuts to two crows on her balcony, and found comfort in the fact that “these essentially wild animals recognized me, that I had some place in their universe.” She also developed a fascination, via Google Maps, with the creek behind her old kindergarten, and she went to see it with a friend. She followed the creek bed, which, she learned, runs beneath Cupertino’s shopping centers and Apple’s headquarters. The creek became a reminder that under the “streamlined world of products, results, experiences, reviews” there is a “giant rock whose other lifeforms operate according to an ancient, oozing, almost chthonic logic.”

Odell elegantly aligns the crisis in our natural world and the crisis in our minds: what has happened to the natural world is happening to us, she contends, and it’s happening on the same soon-to-be-irreparable scale. She sees “little difference between habitat restoration in the traditional sense and restoring habitats for human thought”; both are endangered by “the logic of capitalist productivity.” She believes that, by constantly disclosing our needs and desires to tech companies that sift through our selfhood in search of profit opportunities, we are neglecting, even losing, our mysterious, murky depths—the parts of us that don’t serve an ulterior purpose but exist merely to exist. The “best, most alive parts” of ourselves are being “paved over by a ruthless logic of use.”

“Digital Minimalism” and “How to Do Nothing” could both be categorized as highbrow how-to—an artist and a computer scientist, both of them in their thirties, wrestling with the same timely prompt. (At one point, Odell writes, she thought of her book as activism disguised as self-help.) Rather than a philosophy of technology use, Odell offers a philosophy of modern life, which she calls “manifest dismantling,” and which she intends as the opposite of Manifest Destiny. It involves rejecting the sort of progress that centers on isolated striving, and emphasizing, instead, caregiving, maintenance, and the interdependence of things. Odell grew up in the Bay Area, and her work is full of unabashed hippie moments that might provoke cynicism. But, for me—and, I suspect, for others who have come of age alongside the Internet and have coped with the pace and the precariousness of contemporary living with a mixture of ambient fatalism and flares of impetuous tenderness—she struck a hopeful nerve of possibility that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

Odell writes about the first electronic bulletin-board system, which was set up, in Berkeley, in 1972, as a “communal memory bank.” She contrasts it with Nextdoor, a notoriously paranoid neighborhood-based social platform that was recently valued at $1.5 billion, inferring that the profit motive had perverted what can be a healthy civic impulse. Newport, who does not have any social-media accounts of his own, generally treats social media’s current profit model as an unfortunate inevitability. Odell believes that there is another way. She cites, for example, the indie platform Mastodon, which is crowdfunded and decentralized. (It is made up of independently operated nodes, called “instances,” on which users can post short messages, or “toots.”) To make money from something—a forest, a sense of self—is often to destroy it. Odell brings up a famous redwood in Oakland called Old Survivor, which is estimated to be almost five hundred years old. Unlike all the other trees of its kind in the area, it was never cut down, because it was runty and twisted and situated on a rocky slope; it appeared unprofitable to loggers. The tree, she writes, is an image of “resistance-in-place,” of something that has escaped capitalist appropriation. As Odell sees it, the only way forward is to be like Old Survivor. We have to be able to do nothing—to merely bear witness, to stay in place, to create shelter for one another—to endure."



"My Newport-inspired Internet cleanse happened to coincide with a handful of other events that made me feel raw and unmanageable. It was the end of winter, with its sudden thaws and strange fluctuations—the type of weather where a day of sunshine feels like a stranger being kind to you when you cry. I had just finished writing a book that had involved going through a lot of my past. The hours per day that I had spent converting my experience into something of professional and financial value were now empty, and I was cognizant of how little time I had spent caring for the people and things around me. I began thinking about my selfhood as a meadow of wildflowers that had been paved over by the Internet. I started frantically buying houseplants.

I also found myself feeling more grateful for my phone than ever. I had become more conscious of why I use technology, and how it meets my needs, as Newport recommended. It’s not nothing that I can text my friends whenever I think about them, or get on Viber and talk to my grandmother in the Philippines, or sit on the B54 bus and distract myself from the standstill traffic by looking up the Fermi paradox and listening to any A Tribe Called Quest song that I want to hear. All these capacities still feel like the stuff of science fiction, and none of them involve Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. It occurred to me that two of the most straightforwardly beloved digital technologies—podcasts and group texts—push against the attention economy’s worst characteristics. Podcasts often demand sustained listening, across hours and weeks, to a few human voices. Group texts are effectively the last noncommercialized social spaces on many millennials’ phones.

On the first day of April, I took stock of my digital experiment. I had not become a different, better person. I had not acquired any high-value leisure activities. But I had felt a sort of persistent ache and wonder that pulled me back to a year that I spent in the Peace Corps, wandering in the dust at the foot of sky-high birch trees, terrified and thrilled at the sensation of being unknowable, mysterious to myself, unseen. I watered my plants, and I loosened my StayFocusd settings, back to forty-five daily minutes. I considered my Freedom parameters, which I had already learned to break, and let them be."
jiatolentino  2019  internet  attention  jennyodell  capitalism  work  busyness  resistance  socialmedia  instagram  twitter  facebook  infooverload  performance  web  online  nature  nextdoor  advertising  thoreau  philosophy  care  caring  maintenance  silence  happiness  anxiety  leisurearts  artleisure  commodification  technology  selfhood  identity  sms  texting  viber  podcasts  grouptexts  digitalminimalism  refusal  calnewport  mobile  phones  smartphones  screentime  ralphwaldoemerson  separatism  interdependence 
april 2019 by robertogreco
The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death - The New Yorker
"Last September, a very twenty-first-century type of story appeared on the company blog of the ride-sharing app Lyft. “Long-time Lyft driver and mentor, Mary, was nine months pregnant when she picked up a passenger the night of July 21st,” the post began. “About a week away from her due date, Mary decided to drive for a few hours after a day of mentoring.” You can guess what happened next.

Mary, who was driving in Chicago, picked up a few riders, and then started having contractions. “Since she was still a week away from her due date,” Lyft wrote, “she assumed they were simply a false alarm and continued driving.” As the contractions continued, Mary decided to drive to the hospital. “Since she didn’t believe she was going into labor yet,” Lyft went on, “she stayed in driver mode, and sure enough—ping!— she received a ride request en route to the hospital.”

“Luckily,” as Lyft put it, the passenger requested a short trip. After completing it, Mary went to the hospital, where she was informed that she was in labor. She gave birth to a daughter, whose picture appears in the post. (She’s wearing a “Little Miss Lyft” onesie.) The post concludes with a call for similar stories: “Do you have an exciting Lyft story you’d love to share? Tweet us your story at @lyft_CHI!”

Mary’s story looks different to different people. Within the ghoulishly cheerful Lyft public-relations machinery, Mary is an exemplar of hard work and dedication—the latter being, perhaps, hard to come by in a company that refuses to classify its drivers as employees. Mary’s entrepreneurial spirit—taking ride requests while she was in labor!—is an “exciting” example of how seamless and flexible app-based employment can be. Look at that hustle! You can make a quick buck with Lyft anytime, even when your cervix is dilating.

Lyft does not provide its drivers paid maternity leave or health insurance. (It offers to connect drivers with an insurance broker, and helpfully notes that “the Affordable Care Act offers many choices to make sure you’re covered.”) A third-party platform called SherpaShare, which some drivers use to track their earnings, found, in 2015, that Lyft drivers in Chicago net about eleven dollars per trip. Perhaps, as Lyft suggests, Mary kept accepting riders while experiencing contractions because “she was still a week away from her due date,” or “she didn’t believe she was going into labor yet.” Or maybe Mary kept accepting riders because the gig economy has further normalized the circumstances in which earning an extra eleven dollars can feel more important than seeking out the urgent medical care that these quasi-employers do not sponsor. In the other version of Mary’s story, she’s an unprotected worker in precarious circumstances. “I can’t pretend to know Mary’s economic situation,” Bryan Menegus at Gizmodo wrote, when the story first appeared. “Maybe she’s an heiress who happens to love the freedom of chauffeuring strangers from place to place on her own schedule. But that Lyft, for some reason, thought that this would reflect kindly on them is perhaps the most horrifying part.”

It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news. Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur”—as its name suggests, services advertised on Fiverr can be purchased for as low as five dollars—recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.” One ad, prominently displayed on some New York City subway cars, features a woman staring at the camera with a look of blank determination. “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

Fiverr, which had raised a hundred and ten million dollars in venture capital by November, 2015, has more about the “In Doers We Trust” campaign on its Web site. In one video, a peppy female voice-over urges “doers” to “always be available,” to think about beating “the trust-fund kids,” and to pitch themselves to everyone they see, including their dentist. A Fiverr press release about “In Doers We Trust” states, “The campaign positions Fiverr to seize today’s emerging zeitgeist of entrepreneurial flexibility, rapid experimentation, and doing more with less. It pushes against bureaucratic overthinking, analysis-paralysis, and excessive whiteboarding.” This is the jargon through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic. No one wants to eat coffee for lunch or go on a bender of sleep deprivation—or answer a call from a client while having sex, as recommended in the video. It’s a stretch to feel cheerful at all about the Fiverr marketplace, perusing the thousands of listings of people who will record any song, make any happy-birthday video, or design any book cover for five dollars. I’d guess that plenty of the people who advertise services on Fiverr would accept some “whiteboarding” in exchange for employer-sponsored health insurance.

At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system. The contrast between the gig economy’s rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our thinking especially clear. Human-interest stories about the beauty of some person standing up to the punishments of late capitalism are regular features in the news, too. I’ve come to detest the local-news set piece about the man who walks ten or eleven or twelve miles to work—a story that’s been filed from Oxford, Alabama; from Detroit, Michigan; from Plano, Texas. The story is always written as a tearjerker, with praise for the person’s uncomplaining attitude; a car is usually donated to the subject in the end. Never mentioned or even implied is the shamefulness of a job that doesn’t permit a worker to afford his own commute.

There’s a painful distance between the chipper narratives surrounding labor and success in America and the lived experience of workers. A similar conflict drove Nathanael West, in 1934, to publish the novel “A Cool Million,” which satirized the Horatio Alger bootstrap fables that remained popular into the Great Depression. “Alger is to America what Homer was to the Greeks,” West once wrote. His protagonist in “A Cool Million,” Lemuel Pitkin, is an innocent, energetic striver, tasked with saving his mother’s house from foreclosure. A series of Alger-esque plot twists ensue. But Pitkin, rather than triumphing, ends up losing his teeth, his eye, his leg, his scalp, and finally his thumb. Morris Dickstein, in his book “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” notes, “The novel ends with Lem as a vaudeville clown being beaten nightly until he simply falls apart.” A former President named Shagpoke Whipple gives a speech valorizing Pitkin’s fate, extolling “the right of every American boy to go into the world and . . . make his fortune by industry.” Whipple describes Pitkin’s dismemberment—“lovingly,” Dickstein adds—and tells his audience that, through Pitkin’s hard work and enthusiastic martyrdom, “America became again American.”"
jiatolentino  gigeconomy  freelancing  capitalism  culture  work  labor  exploitation  horatioalger  lemuelpitkin  morrisdickstein  uber  lyft  fiverr  self-reliance  individualism  economics  latecapitalism  neoliberalism  health  healthinsurance  well-being  affordablecareact  sleepdeprivation 
may 2017 by robertogreco
All the Greedy Young Abigail Fishers and Me 
"Years ago, I helped Abigail Fishers get into college in Texas. That was my job: I “tutored” entitled teenagers through the application process. Specifically, and ominously for my later life, I taught them to write a convincing personal essay—a task that generally requires identifying some insight, usually gained over some period of growth. And growth often depends on hardship, a thing that none of these 18-year-olds had experienced in a structural sense over the course of their white young lives. Because of the significant disconnect involved in this premise, I always ended up rewriting their essays in the end.

My students were white, and without exception. Their parents were paying me $450 per session, and this was Houston; of course they were white. The means were the essays, and the end was the assurance that the benefits of whiteness would continue to vest themselves even as Texas demographics and UT admissions practices began to put their lovely families in a bind.

Texas parents—as ability permits, and like parents throughout the country—pay good money to live in good school zones. These schools are “good” in a double and mutually reinforcing sense: they are academically vibrant, supportive, and competitive; they also draw from a wealthy population, which means most of the students are white. As Abigail Fisher’s case, a.k.a. Becky With the Bad Grades v. UT Austin, reminded us: the top 7 percent (formerly 10 percent) at all Texas high schools get admitted to UT’s flagship campus automatically. This means that a second-rate student at a first-rate school, a.k.a. an Abigail Fisher, does not automatically get in. This means that a portion of white kids don’t get the educational success those property taxes were supposed to pay for. The 10 percent policy is implicit discrimination against “good schools,” the party line goes.

Most of the UT student body gets in through the Top 10 rule. The rest—approximately 8 percent, the year Fisher applied—are admitted through a holistic evaluation process, which takes into account things like extracurriculars, leadership, personal essays (thus the $450), and race. This is the part of UT admissions policy that Fisher’s case was challenging. Note that it was easier for her (or the anti-affirmative-action zealot who bankrolled her) to take a margin of UT admissions to the Supreme Court than to envision a version of justice in which she had, along with 92 percent of admitted students, straight-up earned her way in.

Because UT Austin is a terrific place—the rare kind of school that radiates both capaciousness and prestige—it is the top choice for many Texas high school students, and its unique admissions policy carries a lot of weight. It is discussed ad nauseam during application season; however, the reasoning behind this policy—behind the 10 percent rule, behind affirmative action—is not. I figured that part out only after I left the state and saw how much about my previous surroundings had been determined by the fact that rich white people can still game the system simply by living—that they are still reaping the benefits of centuries of preferential access to everything that sets a person up for success.

Today, certain measures have been enacted to level the playing field. But, as the Abigails among us can’t seem to admit, the mere existence of these measures does not mean that the need for them has expired. White people remain uniquely able, in a monetary sense, to game the system. For a summer, at $150 an hour, I was paid to help.

And I did. The kids were sweet, and I knew how to elicit and identify whatever topic would make their voice speed up when they talked about it. We wrote about canoes capsizing at summer camp, about football injuries, about girlfriends freezing us out at youth group. For the most part, they got in where they wanted, and I worked a leisurely three hours a day, helping them cheat.

I’ve had a lot of relatively demeaning jobs in my life. I never thought I deserved better than any of them—first because I didn’t, and second, because a sense of entitlement means nothing without capital to back it up. I’ve waitressed in short shorts and cowboy boots. I’ve street-canvassed for recycling. When I was 16, I was paid minimum wage to participate in a reality TV show in Puerto Rico that included challenges like eating mayonnaise on camera with my hands tied behind my back.

This job—writing college essays for Abigail Fishers—was the only job I have ever been truly ashamed of, and I am so ashamed of it now that it hurts. I did it, too, for a particularly embarrassing reason: because it paid so well that I could keep my earning hours to a minimum, and for four months spend most of my time writing fiction so I could get into an MFA program. Once I did get in, my boyfriend started looking at me reproachfully when he came home from work and saw me sending invoices. “Stop doing this,” he said flatly, in the late afternoon one day."



"It took me until some time later to realize what is so obvious to me now, why my boyfriend hated my job so much, which was that I was the one letting the Abigails get away with everything. That I was feeding and affirming and making possible the entitlement of mediocre white high schoolers, many of whom believed themselves to be facing structural discrimination, and needed to hire a ghostwriter to stay on top. Luckily, they could afford to. Luckily, I liked them when they weren’t talking about affirmative action. Luckily, we all made out just fine in the end.

We were all lucky, weren’t we? In 2005, I applied to college—not in the Philippines or Canada, where my parents had gone, but in America. I was salutatorian at my high school; I had perfect SATs. I was a cheerleader, the editor of our yearbook, cast in every musical, an officer in every club. And still, when I got into colleges, I felt lucky. I never felt like I’d simply gotten what I deserved.

In fact I still don’t know what it would be like to feel automatically deserving of something, to have enough of a claim on advantage to give a fuck about giving it up. I have never had a case for any sort of admission, not even when I was a selfish high schooler, not even when it came to the 10 percent rule, because even when I opened my Texas acceptance letter I knew some Abigail Fisher would think that if anyone was coasting on race here, it was me. How the legacy of inequity took hold of me internally even as I clawed through it with a sunny disposition was not obvious to me then, or in college, or after I graduated, on a hot summer where I needed money and I couldn’t ask my parents and I felt lucky—lucky—to be helping Abigail Fishers cheat."
texas  colleges  universities  admissions  gamingthesystem  privilege  jiatolentino  univeristyoftexas  ut  abigailfisher  utaustin  prestige  inequality  affirmativeaction  race  2016  highered  highereducation 
june 2016 by robertogreco
Damn, You're Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That's So Freakin Brave and Cool 
"On its own, the curve away from reading white male authors is extremely rewarding. And, as with pretty much everything that is rewarding in its own right—good sex, thoughtful cooking, giving your money away, spiritual practice (?), fitness (??), children (????)—the nature of the reward skews inherently private, evident only in its natural effects.

In other words, I get why you’d avoid reading 10:04 or what have you; I don’t understand why it’s ever more productive to say so than just to read something else and (omitting the part about your commitment to social justice) talk about that. Justification for obviously rewarding acts is always unnecessary, and in the case of reading “diverse” writers, the reward can be meaningfully deflated by the announcement of the act itself. The people most excited to say, “Uh, I’ve actually been reading a lot of Nigerian writers lately?” tend to be white people; the space taken up by being interested in one’s own Here’s Why I’m Only Reading X Minority Group project is often counterproductive to the point.

It’s easy for good ideas to get blurry, particularly when you factor in the internet, which allows people to huff good ideas over and over while looking in a mirror. So—to the good idea in question. The Year of Non-Supremacist Reading is pinned on true observations. The literary world is dominated by white writers and white voices, and to some degree, it’s a zero-sum game. There is only so much space on a bestseller list. In 2011, as documented by Roxane Gay, 655 out of 742 of the books featured in the New York Times book review section were written by white people; as recently as last summer, the Times released a reading list that was—remarkably—completely white."



"If only it were possible to do something good and rewarding without publicly prioritizing what effect that act has on you.

I think that these pieces, now, at the dawn of 2016, are dead in the water. I have yet to read a single one that does not arrive at and nearly reinforce the same conclusions that prompted it. We know that white male writers take up too much literary attention; the solution is not necessarily jamming everyone else into a bottle of social justice cough syrup, standing on a soap box, and gulping it all down.

Publicly announced diverse reading years seem akin to corporate diversity policies—showy and superficial fixes for deep problems, full of effort and essentialism that tends to only make things worse. Furthermore, the Specialized Reading Year may actually chip away at the promise of the better future we’re looking for—one in which certain writers are no longer seen as inherently special-interest, in which minority/women writers will no longer seen as writing about Identity when white/male writers get to write about Life.

And on that better future: if the Year of Reading Wokely is supposed to model a behavior that should be normalized—reading from a wide range of experiences, valuing what is under-represented—we might do well to understand that it’s already well within our power to normalize that behavior, which would not mean extensively discussing our reading habits or restricting them for self-improvement, but just purchasing, consuming, talking about the work.

We can do that. We already do that. We do not need essays about what reading a certain way taught us about prejudice (“it exists, and is realer than I could have imagined when I started”); we do not need writers who need no qualifications jammed over and over into “20 People of Color You Must Read in 2016.”

In these essays and on these lists, you’ll often find Americanah and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her quote about “the danger of a single story” from that great, now-famous TED Talk. Adichie said:
The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

The “I’m Only Reading No White Men For a Year” proclamations are starting to sound a bit much like this single story: the emphasis on difference, the boundaries reinforced rather than dissolved. If you were a queer writer, or a woman of color writer, would you want someone to read you because they thought they were doing something dutiful about power structures? Or because they gravitated to you, not out of any sense that you would teach them something about diversity that they could then write about in a year-end essay—but that they just read you because you were good?"
socialmedia  reward  posturing  2016  jiatolentino  altruism  charity  philanthropy  socialjustice  privategood  cooking  spirituality  race  gender  dogoodism  publicdisplay  presentationofself 
january 2016 by robertogreco

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