Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Extreme Commodification

When philosophers talk about the extensions of markets into new domains like surrogacy and sex work, one of the concepts they use is "commodification." The idea is that by subjecting things like reproduction and sexuality to market norms, we are "commodifying" them: valuing them in the wrong sort of way.

I don't know if that's the right way to think about these issues, but this post isn't about that. This post is about commodities themselves, and about whether it's possible to commodify them. More broadly: can you apply market norms inappropriately even to things to that are normally subject to market forces?

I think the answer is yes. In fact, the last time I was reading about commodification as a concept, I got to thinking that in some ways it's because of the way we've gotten so extreme about commodification itself that to "commodify" something feels like such an utter disaster. 

When we talk about "market norms" in the context of commodification, it's something like the following: you think about how to get the best thing for yourself at the least cost to yourself; you think about what exact qualities you want instead of taking an open-ended and unconditional approach; you think "instrumentally" in terms of using the commodity just for purposes of your own.

But with respect to these norms, there's commodifying and there's commodifying. Because it depends on how far you take it -- that is, it depends on whether you also value in other ways or whether you see commodities purely in the conditional and instrumental way. Increasingly, with commodities, I think we're taking it all the way -- and everything else goes out the window.

Take labor as an example. Sure, from one point of view, any capitalist system will inappropriately "commodify" labor -- but setting that to one side, you can see the different ways that the labor-wage situations appeal to market norms.

Paying someone to do something doesn't require you to take up a purely commodified view of them. You could pay them to do something, but also regard them as a fellow citizen with needs and interests of their own. You could think about an appropriate wage in terms of fairness and not just cost-benefit-analysis. You could think of making exchanges of mutual benefit.

But it feels like our rhetoric and practice around labor has gotten so far away from this, to a place where labor isn't just commodified, it's completely and utterly commodified. For example, the increasingly common "just-in-time" scheduling in service jobs means you never know from week to week when you're working, or how many hours. You can't arrange child care, you can't go to school, and you can't keep a second job. It destroys your life.

And it's not just poor people. This article reports on doctors who were trying to negotiate for quality of  life issues, to avoid burn-out, and couldn't even communicate with their managers, who thought that the only question on the table was "How much are you asking for?" The doctors could not even communicate that there was something else at stake other than dollar amounts.

Similarly, employers don't want to hire normal people with general good attributes then train them -- they want workers who already have the exact specific skills they are looking for. As this Washington Post piece says, this means no one can get the relevant experience: it's not a "skills gap" as much as a refusal to do any of the giving in the give-and take.

Maybe it's not all that surprising that labor is increasingly commodified, but I think there's actually something weirdly similar happening at the level of literal commodities -- the objects we buy as part of the consumer culture saturation society we're all part of.

Because of the way everything has become temporary and disposable, it's no longer necessary to relate to an object by getting attached to it, caring for it, or taking the bad with the good. The commodification of commodities means that any object is just seen for its potential to suit just the specific ends we have -- until it doesn't. I remember last time I went to get eyeglasses, and there was something about the frames that didn't seem perfect, and my friend said, "Don't worry about it. Just get these, and then next year you can get some new ones." And that's what I did.

It's really very speculative, but I got to wondering: is it possible that the fear of "commodification" in debates over surrogacy and sex work has something to do with the specific way that commodification has become such a crazy all or nothing thing in our society?

Because if a "commodity" is a thing or person you'll squeeze everything out of and then throw away at the first sign of dissatisfaction --- well, yeah, for heaven's sake, don't commodify.

But doesn't it seem possible that it doesn't have to be that way? That you could have a market that co-exists with normal human emotions like care and respect? That you could pay someone to do something and also, at the same time, care about them as a person? 

I don't know when it happened -- and I don't think blaming individuals makes any sense -- but somehow we seem to have systematically made this less extreme state of affairs an impossibility for ourselves.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Do I Like Trouble?

Charlottesville, downtown.
I was recently visiting a Nice Place in America -- in this case Charlottesville, VA. Charlottesville is nice. It's pretty, and quiet, and prosperous, and the day I visited the sun was shining brightly.

To be honest the niceness of Charlottesville gave me kind of a funny feeling, a feeling I've had in other nice places. Kind of a disturbed feeling, a feeling that the niceness of the place was somehow a problem. What is that?

For me, part of that feeling might have to do with the quietness. I know myself well enough to know that the activity and life of a big city are life-giving to me: riding crowded subway trains, stumbling on surprise protests, checking out the fashion trends of other humans, seeing groups of people celebrating holidays I didn't even know existed -- these all give me The Life Force. By comparison, a place like Charlottesville seems a little like quiet prosperous streets with a few quiet prosperous cars and a few quiet prosperous people in them.

But I think the feeling goes beyond busy versus quiet, and this is where things get confusing. There's something about the niceness itself -- about the lack of trouble -- that gives me pause. What's the deal with all these shiny happy people? What's with everything being clean and tidy? What's with all this gentle sunshine?

What does it mean about me that I'm even asking these questions? Do I like trouble? If I do, is that some kind of problem? I mean, what kind of person likes unhappiness, ramshackleness, dirt, and inclement weather?

There is, I think, one sense in which it's not really "liking trouble" but rather knowing trouble is out there and thinking it's being sneakily hidden. If you spend time thinking about the awful situation of most people in the world and most people the US, the niceness of a place can feel like a lie: like you're just seeing some veneer of niceness over some reality of decay. Of course anyone is going to feel creepy and weird about that.

But honestly compels me to say that I think for me there is somewhat more to it, to say that that yes, there is a sense in which I just like trouble. Because when I picture an entire world of clean and peaceful streets, and freshly washed storefronts, and prosperous people with on their way to yoga class followed by organic salad -- well, the picture makes me a little tense. Maybe it's just the non-urban quality of that mental picture that gets me. But maybe it's not: when I picture a gleaming city with teleporters and no smoking and 70-degree weather and endless pleasant recreation -- that also makes me feel weird.

I think that for me, part of the weirdness of those mental pictures has to do with the frictionlessness quality they evoke -- because I think there is some sense in which the struggles and frictions of life are good for me. The struggles and frictions of life -- you have to gear up for them, confront them, make your way through them. They press up against you. And while I'm doing those things, I have a moment of respite from the existential drama -- or existential annoyingness -- of being human, living in my own skin, and thinking "hm, what is the point of all this anyway?"

If, like me, you have the problem of tending toward too much inner reflection, and if that inner reflection can be dangerous to your well-being -- then yes, maybe you're going to like a little trouble.

I have occasionally wondered if a liking for trouble is a moral problem. If you're saying the world would be better with trouble in it than without -- wouldn't that be a bad and wrong thing to say?

But I'm not too concerned about it. For one thing, a liking of of a bit of trouble probably helps me do some good things, like take the bus. But more importantly, it's not like we're in danger of creating a world with too little trouble. Actually it's the opposite: the real problem is that we're making a world in which rich people can push trouble away and out of sight, where they don't have to deal with it. In that context? A liking for trouble is probably an OK thing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ego Depletion Theory And Its Cultural Context

When I first learned about it, I really liked the theory of ego depletion. You know this theory, right? The idea is that you only have a certain amount of willpower. If you use a lot of willpower keeping yourself away from cookies, you'll run out, and you won't have enough left over to make yourself do other things you don't want to do or refrain from things you want to stop doing. In one classic study, people who had to ignore cookies to eat radishes then spent less time later working on math puzzles.

I liked the theory for two reasons. First, it corresponds loosely to my experience as a human. If I have to do something difficult, I know to do it in the morning, or at least when I'm rested and well-fed. Too many difficult decisions and I get bad at making difficult decisions. Self-control really does feel like something you move around from thing to thing: quit smoking, and your drinking goes up; grade more papers and you eat more cookies; go to the gym more and you spend more on cute gym clothes.

Second, I appreciate the goofy metaphor associated with the theory, that "the active self is a limited resource." I don't think my "will" is "me," but this is a mildly amusing thing to say. "Uh-oh! I made myself tidy up, and now -- I'm going to run out of myself."

But I also had immediate doubts about the whole framework for the theory. It's never seemed right to me to say that "willpower" is the central issue. Why not just say that making yourself do things you don't want to do makes you feel harassed and annoyed, and when you're harassed and annoyed you're like, "Fuck it, who cares?" Why not talk about moods? Why not talk about the life force? The whole "willpower" part of it -- why did that have to be in there at all?

I also have to question the intuitive plausibility of the part of the theory that says that willpower, like a muscle, can be strengthened through practice. The idea here is that if you use your willpower to make yourself do things, you get better at using your willpower to make yourself do things.

In one sense, I get how this seems true: there's a way in which getting your life together and developing regular habits makes you more able to get your life together and develop regular habits. But there's a deeper sense in which this seems wildly false. Whether you continue getting your life together or whether it all comes crashing down in a nightmare of chaos seems to have nothing to do with built up willpower and everything to do with your immediate environment and the other things going on in your life.

Just as the theory of ego depletion was on the verge of becoming firmly entrenched in psychology, doubts have arisen. According to this recent article in Slate, other scientists have had trouble replicating the results of the original experiments. Various kinds of problems and difficulties have been pointed out, including the possibility that someone's "beliefs and mindset" could affect their willpower.

The Slate article puts the whole episode in the context of the "reproducibility crisis" happening in psychology. I don't know a lot about this crisis, but I have to say that would not be surprising to me to learn that many of the basic ideas in psychology are unstable or off the mark in other ways. I mean, people are complicated, and the way we experience and talk about things is highly influenced by complex social and cultural factors. These factors are embedded in a way of seeing the world. It's hardly surprising to think that the effects we see in experiments are produced by complex things working together, and that we only have the loosest grasp of what is going on, so that tiny changes in the set up bring about large changes in results.

I mean, from the philosophical point of view, even the concept of willpower is contested. Sure, you can say that a person who judges X best and does Y had a failure of willpower. Or you can say, neo-Socratically, that the person who does Y must have regarded Y as the thing to do, and so they were mistaken in thinking X best -- then "willpower" wouldn't refer to anything. You could describe any of the experiments this second way. Maybe the person who eats more cookies sees the cookies in a different light, and so eats them. Maybe the person who works less hard on the math puzzles sees the puzzles as more pointless and dull than they did before.

Then it wouldn't be a failure of willpower, but rather a halo cookie effect, or a this-is-boring effect. If the relevant behavior can be described using a range of different concepts that don't even appeal to "willpower," it's not surprising that when you tweak the study design things get complicated.

Where all of this matters most, of course, is in the way that laying our conceptual understanding onto a set of behaviors, seeing a pattern, and thinking we've got hold of "reality" leads into very dangerous territory. As the Slate article explains, the ego depletion theory supports all kinds of ideas about "grit" and building "resilience" that support very specific ideologies -- the kind of ideologies that get you a million dollars in funding from the Templeton Foundation.

If you think about it for even a minute, you can see how alternative frameworks for the behavior pattern in question lead in different directions. If it's all about how hard it is to do things when you're harassed and annoyed, and not about willpower -- well, there's nothing more harassing and annoying than poverty, and there's nothing that building up resilience and grit is going to do about that.

Nothing drives me crazy like seeing comfortable middle class people criticize poor people for choosing to eat fast food or buy expensive sneakers or whatever. In addition to the obvious fact that everyone has their pleasures, so please fuck off, there's also the fact that if you haven't been poor, you don't know how constantly harassing and annoying it is. Sometimes, it's so harassing and annoying you can't make yourself do anything. Yes, it might be the same mechanisms that make it hard to do math puzzles after not eating cookies. But it also might have nothing to do with willpower at all.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

My Midlife Music Crisis

I love music. There are ways in which music is one of my favorite things, maybe my most favorite thing. And yet, at this point in my life, I seldom listen to music. So: WTF?

Part of the problem is pretty basic and really boils down to: what am I going to listen to? Like a lot of white Gen-Xers, I spent my youth listening to things like Iggy Pop, The Clash, The Velvet Underground, Nirvana, with doses of The Cure and Blondie for lighter side.

There's a sense in which I never stopped loving music like that. But it presents a problem, which is, how does it fit into my life? So much of a certain kind of popular music puts me in a certain mood -- a mood almost incompatible with the life I live now. At this point, when is the right moment for getting all wound up with aggressive, sexual, and possibly destructive behavior? Answer: never.

A lot of people my age transition into other things. They develop a new interest in Latin jazz, or classic R&B, or whatever. Abstractly this seems like the ideal solution. But for various reasons it's not happening for me.

One of those reasons has to do with something I think of as "music start-up costs" -- something that is huge for me but that I almost never hear people talking about. The idea of music start-up costs is that for me, listening to new music is hugely different from listening to familiar music. And it's not just different -- it's difficult.

Listening to new music, even when I like it, and actively want to listen to it, often feels to me really, really challenging. It's something I have to make a plan about, something I don't want to do at the end of long day doing other cognitively challenging things, something that uses up active willpower and is not at all a form of relaxation.

Is this something particular about me? That I can't enjoy music without entering into it, that I can't enter into it if I can't understand it, that I can't understand it on the first few listens? Or is this one of those things everyone experiences but just doesn't talk about because it doesn't seem cool?

Right now I have a ton of music on my iPhone that I want to listen to but haven't and maybe won't. Frank Ocean. Kendrick Lamar. The new MIA album Matangi. Watch the Throne. Zebra Katz. An album of old remastered Scott Joplin songs. People told me to listen to Formation -- I want to, but I haven't.

All of this music is probably great, and all of it is music that if I'd heard it a few times without realizing it -- so my subconscious could process it without me -- I'd probably be all into it. It's all music I want to listen to, but because of the start-up costs, it isn't happening.

In one sense, I expect that having this kind of midlife music crisis is a pretty common and universal sort of thing -- I mean, there's a reason that when we picture middle-aged people we picture people driving around playing whatever they danced to in high school.

In another sense, though, I feel like my experience tells us something interesting about life in 2016 North America. Because the obvious thing that's missing, the thing that would solve my problem, is just hearing music without having to go out of my way to listen to it.

And there is something about the modern media landscape, where you can pick and choose exactly what you want and everyone has their own micro-obsession, that seems to decrease this sense of things just being in the atmosphere. Don't get me wrong: I love the modern media landscape. I love the way if your thing is some tiny thing that no one else likes you can get all into it all by yourself. But -- still, I think it does have this negative effect. I mean, it's different from the old days where you'd turn your alarm clock to KROQ and you'd hear whatever everyone else was hearing.

Actually, one of the few music experiences I am still able to get really into is opera. One reason, I think, is that once you're at an opera, not only are you a captive audience, but the structure of the music itself is a clever mix of the familiar and the new. Each bit of music is new, but the underlying themes are always there.

After I saw Verdi's Rigoletto for the first time, I couldn't stop thinking about "La donna è mobile." (Yes, this literally translates as "women are fickle," but if you think that's what it means in context you're missing the whole point of the opera). When I looked it up, I learned that soon after the premier in 1851, "every gondolier in Venice was singing it."

How cool is that? I don't know what the 2016 equivalent of this would be, or even if there is one. For now, the closest I get is when I go to my exercise class, where the geniuses at Les Mills have picked out just the songs I didn't know I wanted to hear, and I fall in love without knowing it, and then I go home and listen to the songs -- songs that are already utterly familiar to me.

I don't love it that my music listening is so highly determined by fitness people. Something about that seems wrong. But what am I going to do?