Friday, January 4, 2013

Social Aesthetics

The concept of an aesthetic is, by definition, exclusionary. If one wants to determine whether a piece of music, clothing style, or logo is appealing and effective necessitates drawing a line between good and bad, or at least placing each on a spectrum between good and bad.

The determination of an aesthetic good has been in debate since at least Plato, who would have argued that beauty is something innate in a beautiful object (platonic beauty). On the other hand, we have aphorisms like: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," which assumes that aesthetic appreciation is dependent upon the observer. We can then separate the two into basic camps into innate and observational.beauty.

Interestingly, we can invoke the well known (and thoroughly studied) psychological idea that people are more likely to attribute good things to themselves and bad things to their environment. For example, if I walk down the street and yell at a cabbie for honking at me, I blame it on my bad day causing my bad mood. The cabbie, on the other hand, thinks that I'm just a jerk who should learn to use the crosswalk properly.

In aesthetics, a person can attribute her own fashionable choices to good taste, but where she lacks a well honed aesthetic may be attributed to circumstance. As an example, a musician may have a discerning ear for classical music, but while training his musical ear, he has neglected his clothing and lives in outdated, dirty fashion.

Unfortunately, our aesthetics, while being multifaceted (musical, grammatical, fashion, artistic, videographic, political, etc.) are inseparable from ourselves as a singular entity. Take the example of our musician above. While his ear may be unparalleled in the opera hall, the rather more dapper audience members may not be inclined to take his criticisms seriously without greater prestige to the character through which he represents himself with his clothing.

Hence, because we are unable to split our outward appearance from our inward thought, it becomes necessary to properly represent ourselves outwardly that we may be accommodated in discussion of our inward thoughts. This idea extends to any sub-culture. The guy in a well-pressed oxford won't fit in at the punk show, despite his vast knowledge of the music. A woman in furs will not be accepted at a PETA meeting no matter how much time she puts in at the animal shelter.

While on the one hand, we can be mindful of the self/circumstance divide between the self and the other, when dealing with others, we must also be mindful when crafting out own projection to the world in order to harmonize our personal aesthetics.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Defense of Print Journalism

There's been a lot of talk over the past few years as print journalism has been in decline, being replaced by online outlets for news and information. In many respects, this depiction is accurate, though somewhat sensationalistic. Newspapers across the country have been shuttered as the competition from essentially free internet sources highlighted the age and lethargy of a traditional press.

However, death of print neglects the many differences between print and displayed word, which are less apparent than the mere words or even stories covered. Given a concretely physical form, print media is able to deliver content (forgive the media jargon) in a more thorough an contextualized way that current internet outlets at large.

Firstly, print media is highly curated. Editors may wield incredible power over their publications from phrasing to content to choosing accompanying graphics. By curating the content of a publication, the bar is raised from a simple blog post (e.g. your humble narrator), freely published and accessible, to a reviewed article with a stamp of approval. Of course, the stamp is contingent upon the prestige of stamping institution, but an institutional, professional collective stamp will generally be of significantly higher acclaim than an individual's voice in the cacophony of the internet.

For example, if this blog were reposted in the New York Times, it would gain significant credibility, esteem, and audience. The letterhead itself represents a tradition of journalistic integrity such that the reader has a baseline degree of quality that he can expect from such an article. As it stands, this blog post has the inherent clout of a high school student named Sara a.k.a. Boobs blogging at boobs dot blogspot dot com. While a reader should be able to discern some differences in the relevancy and content of these two blogs, the curation of an institutional publisher accomplishes this filter professionally.

Of course, there are many curated, well edited online publications, like Slate or the NYT. These publications both take the traditional ideal of print journalism and simply change media from print to browser. In making this switch, they leave the traditional article-based format, journalist authorship, and section editors in place. The biggest differences are cosmetic only.

However, those cosmetic differences are not trivial. Were a reader to come across a print copy of Slate magazine, she would find articles in physical space rather than cyberspace. This forces the reader to create a conversation between the pieces. No longer do articles exist as independent entities with hyperlinked references, but instead they form physical connections as the eye scans and the fingers thumb through the pages. An article on US foreign policy is no longer separate and removed from an editorial authored by an occupied Palestinian. Reports on federal interest rates are not distinct from foreclosures and bankruptcies. And most importantly, US foreign policy is no longer separate from federal interest rates.

By moving toward online journalism for the majority of news, we have effectively decontextualized that news. A reader may have strong interest in world news, but since he neglects his own elections, he fails to make connections between the domestic and foreign. The bifurcation is false and the compartmentalization is false. But the form limitation is true. Creating virtual bins into which we can place our news encourages hypocrisy as we fail to let our information intermingle, our opinions ferment, and our knowledge be challenged to grow.

The 24 hour news channel creates a great distance between the news and the opinion. Certain channels have indicated that their news and editorials fill different time slots on their stations, which makes sense in an abstract way. Since there are not 24 hours-worth of legitimate news on any given day, to create editorial programs to assess and create conversation about the news that is present is a worthwhile endeavor for a journalistic institution.

However, when separated temporally instead of simply spatially, a broadcast journalist (television or radio) creates an unbreachable gap between actual news and editorialization. In a print (or online) publication, the reader can easily move to fact check an editorial and to read dissenting opinion. In broadcast journalism, these conversations are lost due to the unilateral nature of the broadcast and to the time-sensitive nature of the presentation.

Print journalism is not without its own faults, but having centuries more experience and evolution in the perfection of the medium, it makes sense that much of today's most thorough, important journalism is still taking place in print. From Foreign Affairs and the New Yorker to the Paris Review and the Economist, thorough pieces of journalism take space, time, and nuance. Online and broadcast outlets certainly have their appeal, but until they have the finesse and nuance of the written word, print will not die.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Political Polarization of Smaller Families

Everyone is a communist to some extent in the liberal sense of the word. Specifically, people behave more or less communistically depending on the other's proximity to the self. For example, on one end of the spectrum, a person treats no one but themselves with any distinction, and their parents, relatives, and friends are on equal footing with total strangers in other countries. At the opposite end, total strangers may receive total accommodation without the capitalistic expectation of an equal trade.

Most people fall within these two extremes. Parents and siblings will receive preferential treatment of some kind over friends over acquaintances over community members over strangers. This can be seen in examples ranging from organ donation to picking up the bill at the restaurant to racism.

In a purely capitalist exchange, we assume that there is equality in any exchange. In the extreme case, we have objectivism, which seeks to put every entity in dollar terms such that any deed or misdeed goes rewarded or punished accordingly. By having a ubiquitous market of this kind, an objectivist seeks to create a currency in which any trade is equitable to the most exacting accounting standard.

On the other hand, we can imagine an anarchist utopian view under which all needs are addressed before the merest of wants. Exchanges are not equitable, but purely charitable. Good deeds are unaccounted because it is a meaningless term in such a society. This is again, a fringe ideal which hasn't arisen as a popular standard under which to rally.

Therefore, a philosophical balance must be struck between the solipsistic capitalist and the selfless anarchist. An unconscious gradation is created by which people judge another by terms of closeness. I.e. where from immediate family to total stranger does this person fall? Each gradation receives its own amount of charity in the sense of ignorance of equality of exchange. (Note that the gradations are abstracted, and individual cases will become a more important feature as the judge becomes closer to the judged.)

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As societies develop, families tend to shrink. When there is work to be done in the home and business, it may be easier to use your own children for that labor than to hire strangers in less developed nations. Further, each child has only a slim chance of success (both survival and economic) in less developed society. Thus, a hedged bet is to increase the number of chances for success by having more children.

As development occurs, the parents themselves are able to use the developments as levers to create larger successes for themselves. This creates strong desires for personal success rather than procreative success. This can occur in materialistic terms, self-transcendental terms, etc. When a potential parent regards themselves as their means rather than their children, the children play less of a role in survival and are as such, less necessary.

Similarly a child in a developed country has a higher success rate (again survival and economic) than his counterpart in an undeveloped area. Therefore, a wealthy parent may choose to devote more resources to ensure the success of a smaller number of children (e.g. school tuition) instead of spread the resources thin over many. Additionally, the child can use many of the same developed levers as the parent to be more helpful in the house and business, negating that necessity of poorer areas.

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(For clairty, I will assume developed society produces only children, but the argument holds on a scale from one to many WOLOG.)

When a developed society creates smaller family units who devote significant resources fewer children, those children may develop several tendencies not present in less well developed areas. The children have an attachment to their parents that is not present in any other relationship. Their immediate family (i.e. those with whom they share ~50% of genetics) is only two people, and those people are framed as caretakers, not equals.

Any other that this only child meets in society is significantly separated from the child, and the gradient from family to any other is significantly steeper because they lack any intermediate step of family into society at large. A child from a large family can make the leap from parents to siblings to friends. Parents and siblings all live under the same household and are responsible for each other in some aspect. Siblings and friends are both individuals with whom the child can play and interact on an equal basis. The disappearance of a sibling from this function widens the interpersonal abstraction so that a friend is closer to a stranger than to a parent.

Thus, in a developed society, a child may be more tempted to employ polarized political philosophies with respect to communist gradations. The individual, lacking the nuanced characteristic within the sibling can choose to limit themselves to an egocentric view, to the exclusion of any others. He fails to develop an affinity for others by never making the jump from parental care to friendly care.

Otherwise, the child could employ the opposite characteristic, and fail to significantly distinguish between closer friends, acquaintances, and community members. Their gradation becomes flattened, such that extending a hand to a close friend is less distinguishable from the same extension to a stranger.

By creating a missing step in the communistic gradation present in all political philosophies, developed societies are polarizing generations of young children.