Tag Archives: science/technology

What’s Causing the Rise in Obesity? Everything.

We all know — because we are being constantly reminded — that we are, collectively, getting fat.  Americans are at the forefront of the trend, but it is a transnational one. Apparently, it is also transspecies: pets, wild animals, and laboratory animals are also gaining weight.  Here’s some country-level data from the New York Times:

Screenshot_1In an excellent review of the existing literature, David Berreby at Aeon skewers the idea that a simple, victim-blaming “calories in, calories out” model can explain this extraordinary transnational, transspecies rise in overweight and obese individuals.  I won’t summarize his argument here, except to simply list the casual contenders for which there is good evidence:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Stress
  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Heavy metals
  • Electric lights
  • Air conditioning
  • Famine in previous generations

If you ever want to have an opinion on fat again, read Berreby now.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Whimsical Branding Obscures Apple’s Troubled Supply Chain

The Trouble with Apple

Suicide at Foxconn. Poisoned workers. Colluding to inflate the price of e-books. Tax evasion (albeit, legal). Shady suppliers who can’t toe the line of labor or environmental laws in China. Apple’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years. Or, so it seems it should have. But, despite the fact that news reports on the company’s behavior and supplier relationships have been more negative than positive since 2012, Apple’s revenue has continued to climb and break records.

In fact, while the press has illuminated terrible labor conditions in the supply chains for iPhones and iPads (with the most recent revelations coming via China Labor Watch’s report on Pegatron sites where the “cheap iPhone” is in the works), sales of these products in particular have soared, and now account for the majority of the company’s revenue. Apple has jockeyed with ExxonMobil for the world’s most valuable company over the last few years, and currently stands second to the oil giant with $413.9 billion. Remarkably, Apple amassed $156 billion in revenue in 2012 without being the industry leader in any of its product sectors (in terms of unit sales), due to the very high profit margins on iPhones and iPads.

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How does Apple maintain this economic dominance in light of negative press that should be bad for its bottom line? How do we, the highly educated consumer base of the company, remain invested in Apple products when work conditions in China and the clever skirting of tax liability grate against our progressive sensibilities? As a sociologist who focuses on consumer culture, I suspect that it is Apple’s brand power that keeps us eating its fruit, and the company afloat. With its iconic logo, sleek aesthetic, and promise of creativity, excitement, and greatness embedded in its products and message, Apple successfully obscures its bad behavior with its powerful brand.

“Emotional Branding”

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Marketing and branding experts describe a brand as a vision, a vocabulary, a story, and most importantly, a promise. A brand is infused throughout all facets of a corporation, its products, and services, and is the ethos upon which corporate culture, language, and communication are crafted. A brand connects the corporation to the outside world and the consumer, yet it’s intangible: it exists only in our minds, and results from experiences with ads and products.

To understand Apple’s brand and its significance in our contemporary world, I have embarked on a study of the company’s marketing campaigns. I started with a content analysis of television commercials, and with the help of Gabriela Hybel have analyzed over 200 unique television spots that have aired in the U.S. between 1984 and the present. One of the key findings to emerge is that Apple, and the ad firms it contracts with, are exceptionally talented at what the marketing industry calls emotional branding.

In his book named for this approach, Marc Gobé argues that understanding emotional needs and desires, particularly the desire for emotional fulfillment, is imperative for corporate success in today’s world. After studying Apple commercials, one thing that jumps out about them is their overwhelmingly positive nature. They inspire feelings of happiness and excitement with playful and whimsical depictions of products and their users. This trend can be traced to the early days of the iMac, as seen in this commercial from 1998.

An iPod Nano commercial that aired in 2008 takes a similar approach to combining playful imagery and song:

In a more recent commercial, actor and singer Zooey Deschanel, known for her “quirky” demeanor, performs a playful spin on the utility of Siri, the voice activated assistant that was introduced with the iPhone 4S in 2011.

Commercials like these — playful, whimsical, and backed by upbeat music — associate these same feelings with Apple products. They suggest that Apple products are connected to happiness, enjoyment, and a carefree approach to life. To tip the sociological hat to George Ritzer, one could say that these commercials “enchant a disenchanted world.” While Ritzer coined this phrase to refer to sites of consumption like theme parks and shopping malls, I see a similar form of enchantment offered by these ads. They open up a happy, carefree, playful world for us, removed from the troubles of our lives and the implications of our consumer choices.

Importantly, for Apple, the enchanting nature of these ads and the brand image cultivated by them act as a Marxian fetish: they obscure the social and economic relations, and the conditions of production that bring consumer goods to us. Now more than ever, Apple depends on the strength of its brand power to eclipse the mistreatment and exploitation of workers in its supply chain, and the injustice it has done to the American public by skirting the majority of its corporate taxes.

Next: Sentimental Consumerism, the Apple Way.

Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. is a lecturer in sociology at Pomona College. She studies the connections between consumer culture, labor, and environmental issues in global supply chains. You can follwer her at 21 Century Nomad, visit her website, and learn more about her research into Apple here.

Star Trek is Scaring the Ladies: Why Women Don’t Major in Computer Science

New research is discovering that the “ambient environment,” the passive context in which activities and decisions occur, can have a big impact.  In a paper by psychologist Sapna Cheryan and three colleagues, they recount how the ambient environment affected men’s and women’s interest in majoring in computer science and their sense that they were capable of doing so.

To test this, they invited some of the respondents into a neutral room, while others entered a room covered in “computer geeky” things: a Star Trek poster, comic books, video game boxes, empty soda cans and junk food, technical magazines, and computer software and hardware.   (Don’t kill the messenger; these were items that other college students had agreed were typical of a “computer science geek.”)

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Photo credit: Sapna Cheryan, via Lisa Grossman at Like a Radio Telescope.

Cheryan and colleagues found that men (the dark bars in the graph below) were unfazed by the geekery (they were slightly more likely to be interested if the environment was stereotypical, but the difference is within the margin of error). Women who encountered the geeked up room, however, were much less likely to say that they were considering a computer science major (the light bars).

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This research is a great example of the ubiquitousness of the cues that tell us what types of interests, careers, hobbies, and activities are appropriate to us.  Our ambient environment is rich with information about whether we belong.  And that stuff matters.

Source: Cheryan, Sapna, Victoria Plaut, Paul Davies, and Claude Steele. 2009. Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97, 6: 1045-1060.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Do High Prices Make America the Global Leader in Broadband?

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

According to an op-ed in the Times, America is the global leader in broadband, with high speeds and great service. And it’s all because the government restrained “onerous” regulation and let companies like Verizon do what they want and charge what they want.

It was written by the CEO of Verizon, Lowell McAdam.

I pay Mr. McAdam’s company about $115 each month for my land line, wi-fi, and cable (all FIOS).  Mr. McAdam compares the U.S. favorably with Europe, “where innovation and investment in advanced networks have stagnated under an onerous regulatory regime.”  I asked a friend who lives in Paris what he pays for his FIOS phone, wi-fi, and cable.  The monthly bill:  39.90€ ($52) or half of what I pay Verizon.  Maybe there’s an upside to stagnant and onerous.

There’s nothing wrong with getting what you can afford, and it occurred to me that U.S. broadband is the best because we can afford more.  Onerous regulations or no, most other countries are not as rich as the U.S.  What if you looked at broadband and per capita GDP?

The OECD did just that with data from June 2012 (their several spreadsheets on this are here). The purple bars are broadband penetration and the bumpy red line is GDP per capita. Do you see a correlation?

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Consider France: As of a year ago, the country had greater broadband penetration despite a lower per capita GDP than the U.S. ($35,133 vs. $46,588); that’s 25% more broadband on 33% less income and at half the cost to consumers.

If you re-rank the OECD countries factoring in per capita GDP, the line-up changes.  Notably, the U.S. and Luxembourg drop well below the OECD average, despite being among the wealthiest countries.

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Of course, not all broadbands are equally broad.  Verizon sold me on fiber-optic with their assurance that it was dazzlingly faster than their DSL that I had been clunking along on. This graph breaks down broadband into its various incarnations.

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The U.S. is slightly above average on all broadband, but when it comes to a high fibre diet, we are ahead of several other countries that have greater total penetration.  On the other hand, the Scandinavian countries are ahead of us, as are, impressively, the Asian countries.

This is not to deny U.S. advances.  TechCrunch summarizes more recent data from Akamai on these changes:

the U.S. is currently second in the price of broadband for entry-level users. The nation is also third in network-based competition, second in the fiber-optic installation rate, first in the adoption of next-generation LTE, ahead of Europe in broadband adoption, and doing quite well in Internet-based services.

Still, the U.S. lags behind other, less wealthy countries.  InnovationFiles, using Akamai data for different variables, has a less congratulatory view.

  • The U. S. has picked up one place in the “Average Peak Connection Speed” that’s the best measurement of network capacity, rising from 14th to 13th as the measured peak connection speed increased from 29.6 Mbps to 31.5 Mbps.
  • In terms of the “Average Connection Speed,” widely cited by analysts who don’t know what it means, the U. S. remains in 8th place world-wide. but we’re no longer tied for it as we were in the previous quarter; Sweden is right behind us on this one.
  • In terms of “High Speed Broadband Adoption”, the proportion of IP addresses with an Average Connection Speed greater than 10 Mbps, we remain in 7th place, but now we’re tied with  Sweden.

The title of CEO McAdam’s op-ed is “How the US Got Broadband Right.”  Given the content, I  guess “We’re Number 13!” wouldn’t have been appropriate.  Even “We’re Number Seven (Tied With Socialist Sweden)!” doesn’t quite have that affirmative zing.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

“In Olden Times It Was Different”: Technology and Social Life

In academia, it’s fairly common to hear people bemoan students’ writing skills and the supposed effect that tweeting, texting, and other new communication technologies are having on our use of the written language. I’ve been known to do it myself after receiving an email in text-speak. Generally, humans have a tendency to think that the changes in their own time are unprecedented.

This xkcd comic presents quotes from various sources concerned about the impacts of technology, particularly the dying art of communication. It’s a nice reminder that bemoaning the effect of new technologies is nothing new, nor is the tendency to romanticize some period in the vague past as the “good old days” when things were better.

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Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Modern Social Problems and Vintage Technology: Google’s Project Loon

Screenshot_2As our society becomes increasingly technological, I love stories that remind us of the value of simpler ways to solve problems, like a faux bus stop to catch escapee nursing home residents or dogs that are trained to sniff out cancer (both stories here).

This weekend we were treated to another such story, this time by Google. The company has announced a plan to bring internet to the whole world… with balloons.  The very first launch of a gas balloon was in 1783.  Two hundred and thirty years later, the company aims to deliver what is arguably the defining feature of our age — the internet — with helium-filled balloons.  That technology will then bring almost countless other technologies, such as medical advances and agricultural information, to people who are largely excluded from them now.  A fantastical plan.

Here’s how it’ll work:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Problem with Fembots… Again

1I know this is boring and it should go without saying, but apparently it hasn’t been said enough: this idea that fembots are the perfect women is just wrong.  It suggests that men want someone over which they have perfect control.  And that’s creepy… and boring.

Here’s an example of the phenomenon (via About-Face):

That part where they make eyes at each other, he instructs the GPS to take them home, and she hits the button to heat up her (cold, hard) “seat.”  Just… ew.

Here’s another especially troubling example, sent in by a reader.  It’s some sort of ad for Play Station 3. It features a fembot being assembled and “woken.”  The narration explains that she will ”cook, watch the house, take care of the kids” and be “entirely at your disposal as a sexual partner.”

At some point the fembot realizes she is being sold and expresses shock and disappointment.  The man in charge explains, “Of course you’re merchandise, baby.”  When she says that she’d thought she was alive, he labels her “defective.”  That thought was not “part of the protocol,” he says, “You’re not supposed to think at all.”  He then decides to destroy her, but succumbs to her pleas to let her “live” after all.  Again, a super creepy story about the ideal woman.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Are Smart Phones Emasculating? The Marketing of Google Glass

Fashion designer Vera Wang is known world-wide for her bridal gowns, costing from thousands of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.  She opened her first store — in New York City — in 1990.  In 2011, her gowns started appearing at the discount David’s Bridal, for as little as $600.  Today she has a line at Kohl’s.

Why would someone who can sell a $25,000 wedding dress turn around and sell their name to a low-end department store?  The answer has to do with money, of course, but it also tells a story about class and distinction.  Typically trends start at “the top” with wealthy and high-profile elites.  Elites embrace an expensive new look, designer, or product (e.g., men and high heels) in order to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population.  The rest then imitate the trend-setters, such that the trend diffuses down throughout the population one class strata at a time.  That’s why Wang’s David’s Bridal and Kohl’s collections are called “diffusion lines.”

Vera Wang is hanging in there, but lots of trends die when they diffuse down to the working class.  If the working class can take part in the trend, the rich can’t use it to show that they’re special (which is why they sometimes defend their exclusive rights).  So it gets dropped.  Once the elites move onto something new, the process begins again.

Interestingly, Whitney Erin Boesel, writing for Cyborgology, applies this process to cell phones, or what are better described as “mobile devices.”  It applies, of course, to the never-ending stream of newer, faster, shinier devices, but also to the very idea of a cell phone/mobile device.  As much as we make fun of the clunky cell phones of the 1980s and ’90s, very few people had them, so having one suggested that you were a Very Important Person. She writes:

When you picture someone using one of those cumbersome early cell phones, whom do you picture? Is it a white guy in a suit, maybe wearing a Rolex and 1980s sunglasses? Yeah, I thought so. When they first came out, cell phones — like pretty much every brand new, expensive technology — were status markers. A cell phone said, “I am wealthy, I am powerful, and I am so important that people must be able to reach me even when I am away from my home or office.”

1Today, of course, though certain models do a little to distinguish one user from another, the possession of a mobile device doesn’t signify elite status.  As Boesel points out, more people have cell phones than toilets.

Enter Google glass.

Slate reports that Google co-founder Sergey Brin is arguing that smart phones are “emasculating.”  Using masculinity is a metaphor for power, he is appealing to the elite to move on to the next technology.  A smart phone, in other words, “no longer signifies [that is a person is] a member of the power elite.”  It’s a pretty snappy — and downright Bourdieuian — way of marketing a new technology to the very people who will drive its success.

Brin starts his discussion about this at 4 minutes, 25 seconds:

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.