Tag Archives: technology

Technologically Close But Still So Far Away

Small World

Photo by Steve Ransom via flickr.com

It seems a no-brainer that the internet, social media, and cellphones have made homesickness for migrants a thing of the past. But as historian Susan J. Matt reveals in a recent New York Times op-ed, previous generations have found technology no substitute for home sweet home, and today’s immigrants are no different.

More than a century ago, the technology of the day was seen as the solution to the problem. In 1898, American commentators claimed that serious cases of homesickness had “grown less common in these days of quick communication, of rapid transmission of news and of a widespread knowledge of geography.”

But such pronouncements were overly optimistic, for homesickness continued to plague many who migrated.

Today’s technologies have also failed to defeat homesickness even though studies by the Carnegie Corporation of New York show that immigrants are in closer touch with their families than before. In 2002, only 28 percent of immigrants called home at least once a week; in 2009, 66 percent did. Yet this level of contact is not enough to conquer the melancholy that frequently accompanies migration. A 2011 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that Mexican immigrants in the United States had rates of depression and anxiety 40 percent higher than nonmigrant relatives remaining in Mexico. A wealth of studies have documented that other newcomers to America also suffer from high rates of depression and “acculturative stress.”

Then why does the idea that technology can overcome homesickness persist? Matt cites a pervasive belief about mobility that many hold despite its disappointments.

The global desire to leave home arises from poverty and necessity, but it also grows out of a conviction that such mobility is possible. People who embrace this cosmopolitan outlook assume that individuals can and should be at home anywhere in the world, that they need not be tied to any particular place. This outlook was once a strange and threatening product of the Enlightenment but is now accepted as central to a globalized economy.

Technology plays a role in supporting this outlook.

 The comforting illusion of connection offered by technology makes moving seem less consequential, since one is always just a mouse click or a phone call away.

Further, Matt argues that this illusion of connection may amplify homesickness rather than cure it.

The immediacy that phone calls and the Internet provide means that those away from home can know exactly what they are missing and when it is happening. They give the illusion that one can be in two places at once but also highlight the impossibility of that proposition.

The persistence of homesickness points to the limitations of the cosmopolitan philosophy that undergirds so much of our market and society. The idea that we can and should feel at home anyplace on the globe is based on a worldview that celebrates the solitary, mobile individual and envisions men and women as easily separated from family, from home and from the past. But this vision doesn’t square with our emotions, for our ties to home, although often underestimated, are strong and enduring.

 

Georg Simmel: The Talk of the Town!

It’d be easy to think that Georg Simmel hasn’t been the talk of the town since he took on Kant, but there he is, resplendent in the New Yorker’s front section in its December 5, 2011 issue.

The topic at hand is actually the naming of personal wireless networks in reporter Lauren Collins’s “Brave New World: The Tao of Wifi.” In the article, readers are introduced to Alexandra Janelli, an environmental consultant with an accidental interest in the names of the wifi networks she encounters as she and her iPhone wander New York City. Janelli’s website, wtfwifi.com, catalogs and considers the names, which Collins says range from “passive aggressive messages to neighbors (Stop Cooking Indian!!!)” to “names [that] are poetry (Dumpling Manor, More Cowbell).”

To get a little more background on this unique form of self-expression, the New Yorker’s author sought out Elihu Rubin, a professor of urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture. It was Rubin who brought Simmel into the discussion:

He wrote [in "The Metropolis and Mental Life," 1903] about the difficulty in asserting individual personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life. One solution was to adopt “tendentious peculiarities,” mannerisms (of dress, speech, etc.) or other extravagances to attract attention and thus bolster self-esteem.

Rubin muses that “the wireless network name is one such peculiarity,” and comments on how such names give anonymous writers “an open, uncensored forum for personal mantras and other compact philosophies.” It’s nice to see that, nearly a century later, Simmel is still helping everyone ask “What is Society?”

Creating Children

Duck DNA N°2

Last fall, 27-year-old Ohad Ben-Yaakov was injured in an accident at his part-time job, and he died after two weeks in a coma. Ben-Yaakov wasn’t married, nor was he in a relationship. No woman was pregnant with his child. Nevertheless, his devastated parents believe it’s not too late for them to become the grandparents of his offspring. And because they live in Israel, the world capital of in-vitro fertilization and a country that regularly pushes the envelope on reproductive technologies, they might get their wish.

No, this isn’t science fiction.  It’s reality in Israeli, and  Tablet recently explored an Israeli court’s consideration of whether parents have the right to use their dead son’s frozen sperm to create a grandchild.

It’s not surprising that Israel, a society that is at once rooted in ancient faith and deeply invested in cutting-edge technology, has pioneered futuristic forms of procreation. The biblical emphasis on fruitfulness, when compounded by the legacy of the Holocaust and the demographic issues shaping the Middle East, have made Israeli society and public policy exceptionally pro-natalist. The country is aggressive in pushing the boundaries of reproductive technology.

Some scholars worry about how these boundaries are being pushed, though.

“It used to be, God forbid you were infertile, it was sad and terrible and tragic, but you came to terms with it,” says Susan Martha Kahn, a Harvard anthropologist and author of Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. “Now you can never come to terms with it. There’s no resolution. Some of these women go through round after round, 12, 15 rounds of IVF, and it doesn’t work. That is the eclipse of an entire young life spent trying to get pregnant.

Vardit Ravitsky, a professor in the Bioethics Programs at the Université de Montréal Faculty of Medicine, adds:

“Where we are with reproductive technologies is a result of the fact that we have refused to accept infertility as a fact . . . Today, the idea that I have a right to have a genetic child is much more accepted than in the past. To extend that one generation to genetic grandchildren maybe is not that farfetched.”

As the author of the article thoughtfully asks, when should a tragedy be accepted rather than combated with technology? Who gets to decide?  For more questions and discussion, see the full article.

 

 

 

fleshing out the flesh trade

male's eye  (mental masturbation)In February’s issue of Wired (now available online), Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh helps us understand the life of a prostitute in New York City and how the trade has been transformed by advances in technology.

While Venkatesh’s initial goal was to examine how the gentrification of Times Square and other areas of New York City would impact the sex trade, he quickly found himself documenting the rise of a new type of sex worker.

The economies of big cities have been reshaped by a demand for high-end entertainment, cuisine, and “wellness” goods. In the process, “dating,” “massage,” “escort,” and “dancing” have replaced hustling and streetwalking. A luxury brand has been born.

The shift has resulted in an increase in both the price of, and level of respect for, prostitutes. Technology has played a large part in this as it allows clients to find companionship without resorting to driving the streets.

The Internet and the rise of mobile phones have enabled some sex workers to professionalize their trade. Today they can control their image, set their prices, and sidestep some of the pimps, madams, and other intermediaries who once took a share of the revenue.

Most exciting about this short piece was the amount of information conveyed in about ½ a page of writing through the use of a wide array of supplemental graphics. A map is used to show the movement of sex workers to trendier, more upscale districts in Manhattan. And a compilation of images, statistics, and well-chosen quotes demonstrate the divide between types of sex work, as well as the infusion of technology into the escort services. For instance, Facebook is quickly becoming a medium for advertising adult-services and a BlackBerry phone has come to symbolize a professional (and disease-free) status.

stressed students saddened by social sites

fiftyeight/threehundredsixtyfiveAh…to be a college student. Days spent on the college quad, frisbee or text book in hand, and late nights filled with frivolity. It is a time many people look back upon fondly, reminiscing of a simpler time. However, recent studies highlighted by the NY Times and Slate suggest college is not the carefree place it is often made out to be.

Tamar Lewin of the NY Times reports that the emotional health of freshman entering college is at an all time low.

In the survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges, the percentage of students rating themselves as “below average” in emotional health rose. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.

The statistic is seen as confirmation of what college counselors are encountering on a daily basis.

“More students are arriving on campus with problems, needing support, and today’s economic factors are putting a lot of extra stress on college students, as they look at their loans and wonder if there will be a career waiting for them on the other side.” said Brian Van Brunt, director of counseling at Western Kentucky University and president of the American College Counseling Association.

This pressure is in part due to a combination of increased, and internalized, expectations and the devaluing of having ‘just’ a college degree.

While first-year students’ assessments of their emotional health was declining, their ratings of their own drive to achieve, and academic ability, have been going up, and reached a record high in 2010, with about three-quarters saying they were above average.
“These days, students worry that even with a college degree they won’t find a job that pays more than minimum wage, so even at 15 or 16 they’re thinking they’ll need to get into an M.B.A. program or Ph.D. program.” said Jason Ebbeling, director of residential education at Southern Oregon University.

To make matters worse, Lippy Copeland reports in Slate that social networking websites, which have become pervasive on college campuses, only compound the suffering of the unhappy.

Led by Alex Jordan, who at the time was a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s psychology department, the researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends’ reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. “They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life.”

The results of both reports are particularly concerning to women. Each study found that women reported higher stress and lower emotional well-being. According to Linda Sax, a professor of education at U.C.L.A. and former director of the freshman study, leisure activity helps us understand the gender gap.

“One aspect of it is how women and men spent their leisure time,” she said. “Men tend to find more time for leisure and activities that relieve stress, like exercise and sports, while women tend to take on more responsibilities, like volunteer work and helping out with their family, that don’t relieve stress.”

Copeland’s article also highlights the significance of leisure time in reporting that women are not only more likely to second guess major life decisions and measure themselves against others success, but they are also more likely to be active on Facebook.

Each article highlights youth confronting a time of increased pressure and uncertainty. While there are few simple answers, Copeland’s article provides a useful reminder when she turns once more to Jordan, now a postdoctoral fellow studying social psychology at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, who suggests

we might do well to consider Facebook profiles as something akin to the airbrushed photos on the covers of women’s magazine. No, you will never have those thighs, because nobody has those thighs. You will never be as consistently happy as your Facebook friends, because nobody is that happy.

living vicariously through virtual me

Using Twitter

The Los Angeles Times reports that there can be a disconnect between our “real life” and virtual personalities:

Just because popular social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, encourage members to use their actual identities doesn’t mean people are presenting themselves online the way they do in real life.

Some psychologists and sociologists who have studied usage habits on Twitter, Facebook and popular dating sites say there’s little correlation between how people act on the Internet and how they are in person.

A sociologist argues that people may polish up their online selves, and she thinks that what happens on the web is likely to have consequences for the real world person:

Online, people tend to exaggerate their personas because they have much more time to revise and calculate the content they present than in spontaneous face-to-face interactions.

“The persona online may be much more fabulous, much more exciting than the everyday life that they’re leading,” said Julie Albright, a digital sociologist at USC, “because they see everybody else doing it.”

Twitter, in many ways, has become a personal broadcast medium.

“It has turned people into mini-broadcasters,” Albright said. “It makes them in a way stars of their own reality shows.”

Albright points out that actions online can, however, influence real-life behavior. A new batch of followers on Twitter could translate into a more positive outlook.

“They can go back to their lives and have a boost of confidence,” she said.

you are what you read

The Irish Times commented on a recent craze among social science bloggers:

When a viral craze spreads across the internet, it usually features cute cats or embarrassingly bad singing, or a combination of the two.

Last month, however, a new idea caught the imagination of a certain corner of the web, and it was as far from feline karaoke as is possible to imagine. Tyler Cowen, the intimidatingly erudite US economist whose blog Marginal Revolution has become massively influential in recent years, started it all when he replied to a reader’s suggestion to list the 10 books that most influenced his view of the world.

This quickly caught on:

Within days, dozens of America’s top blogging economists, political scientists, sociologists and pundits were busy composing lists of the books that influenced their thinking, and the conversation spread and spread.

As an exercise, this was all quite instructive for readers, but it also served as a kind of intellectual arms race, with each blogger establishing their credentials via their chosen books. The competitive element was unmistakable, or in economics’ parlance, there was a lot of signalling going on. Many of the lists were almost comically esoteric, as if to prove the individualism behind the intellectual journey.

One particular sociologist attracted some attention:

One of the most animated conversations followed the list created by Kieran Healy, an Irish sociologist at Duke University who is a member of the academic supergroup blog Crooked Timber. “Everyone else is doing it, at least for ‘American/ white/ politics/ economics/ mostly libertarian type guys’ values of ‘everyone’,” he wrote, and his terrifically diverse list, which features works by Clive James, Pierre Bourdieu and game theorist Thomas Schelling, as well as books on biomechanics, the collective dietary habits of ravens and power dynamics in medieval German society, led to a long and engaging discussion about what it is to be shaped and influenced by books.

Check out Healy’s list here.

looking for love, cyberspace-style

match.com - Make Love Happen

The Herald-Sun picked up on forthcoming research about the popularity of internet dating:

“We estimate that about 18 percent — almost 1 in 5 — of those who are single and have access to the Internet have used Internet dating,” said Rebecca Tippett, a doctoral student at Duke and one of the three authors of “The Social Demography of Internet Dating in the United States.”

Analyzing a national survey of 3,215 adults, the sociologists discuss what contributes to this phenomenon:

Some of those factors are demographic, she [Tippett] said, “like the rising age of first marriage, the increased divorce rate and the fact that people are geographically more mobile.”

In years past, you’d go to school, then get a permanent job and live in that same town, “and that’s where’d you find a mate,” Tippett said. “But people are moving more now, they’re not getting married at 22 and they are removed from their traditional social networks for mate selection. When those things are changing, it’s more common for the way to find a partner to change as well.”

The paper also attributed part of what it called “phenomenal growth” to social change that has made Internet dating “more acceptable [especially for women].”

Finding a partner through intermediaries, of course, isn’t new, Tippett pointed out, but “technology has made it much easier.”

“For most people, what Internet dating has done is make more information available,” she said. “You can see a picture, you can e-mail, you can instant message. You’re able to interact and pre-screen.”

But,

[The researchers] also pointed out that the growth is uneven, and that a digital divide still exists, hypothesizing that “Internet daters will be disproportionally white, possess high education and income, and live in urban/suburban areas.”

you win some, you lose more

.01/.02 cent tables on full tiltTIME reports that a sociology doctoral student at Cornell University has found that knowing when to fold ‘em is a valuable skill beyond the poker table.

You can learn a lot about gambling if you’re willing to analyze 27 million hands of online poker. Don’t have time for that? No worries; sociology doctoral student Kyle Siler of Cornell University has done it for you. His counterintuitive message: the more hands you win, the more money you’re likely to lose — and this has implications that go well beyond a hand of cards.

Siler, whose work was published in December in the online edition of the Journal of Gambling Studies and will appear later this year in the print edition, was not interested in poker alone but in the larger idea of how humans handle risk, reward and variable payoffs. Few things offer a better way of quantifying that than gambling — and few gambling dens offer a richer pool of data than the Internet, where millions of people can play at once and transactions are easy to observe and record.

Why the more you win, the more you lose?

The reason for the paradoxical results was straightforward enough: the majority of the wins the players tallied were for relatively small stakes. But the longer they played — and the more confident they got — the likelier they were to get blown out on one or a few very big hands. Win a dozen $50 pots and you’re still going to wind up far behind if you lose a single $1,000 one. “People overweigh their frequent small gains vis-à-vis occasional large losses,” Siler says.

According to Siler, these results can be applied to life in general.

Investing, driving, buying a house and merely crossing the street are all acts that involve discernible risks and uncertain rewards. The more small returns you get from your small investments in stocks, the likelier you are to make — and lose — a big investment. The more times you get behind the wheel and speed a little bit, the likelier you are to speed a lot — with deadlier consequences.

“These kinds of calculations are made every day,” says Siler. “Adultery is another good example. People get away with it countless times but they get caught just once and they lose everything.”

The social implications?

And unlike the risks at the poker table, where your losses are just yours, in the larger world, you can take down a lot of other people with you. “Organizational malfeasance in general depends on this kind of risk analysis,” says Siler. “Look at a place like Enron. People took a lot of small chances and won, then took big chances and lost big.” Indeed, Siler points out, during the recent financial crisis, an entire nation — Iceland — went bankrupt in a similar way, trusting high-risk, high-reward investments that quit paying off.

sociologists might be Yahoo’s competitive advantage

Yahoo! Headquarters

The San Francisco Chronicle explains Yahoo Inc.’s new effort to integrate social science into computer science:

In the last year, Yahoo Labs has bolstered its ranks of social scientists, adding highly credentialed cognitive psychologists, economists and ethnographers from top universities around the world. At approximately 25 people, it’s still the smallest group within the research division, but one of the fastest growing.

The recruitment effort reflects a growing realization at Yahoo, the second most popular U.S. online site and search engine, that computer science alone can’t answer all the questions of the modern Web business. As the novelty of the Internet gives way, Yahoo and other 21st century media businesses are discovering they must understand what motivates humans to click and stick on certain features, ads and applications – and dismiss others out of hand.

Yahoo Labs is taking a scientific approach to these questions, leveraging its massive window onto user behavior to set up a series of controlled experiments (identifying information is always masked) and employing classic ethnography techniques like participant observation and interviews.

Some, such as computer scientist John Seely Brown, praise Yahoo’s innovation:

He complimented Yahoo Labs’ efforts, both because increasingly few companies pursue basic research in Silicon Valley – and fewer still are applying a sociologist’s eye to a medium that is increasingly becoming a social phenomenon.

“Today, you really have to take much more seriously what captures attention,” he said. “Yahoo’s next competitive advantage may be taking a different attitude toward this … than Google, which tends to look at what they do as engineering efforts.”

But not all of Silicon Valley is convinced:

However, there are risks when a for-profit company adopts an academic approach, which calls for publishing research regardless of the outcome.