Monday, February 25, 2013

What Happened To Our Work-Free Utopia?

Happy Arcadia, by Konstantin Yegorovich Makovsky, via Wikimedia Commons
Remember the idea that technology was going to lead us to a work-free utopia?  What happened?

The idea sounded good.  With machines more and more able to do crap like washing clothes and planting food and whatever, we'd all be able to sit back and relax. I guess everyone has a different mental picture of what "sit back and relax" means, but whatever:  you could pretty much do what you wanted to do when you wanted to do it -- whether that would be lazing around, participating in Mixed Martial Arts, making art, or reading Proust.

It's not a crazy thought.  I mean, it has logic.  If work is doing boring repetitive stuff, and technology does that stuff for you, why can't you spend the technology dividend however you like?

But obviously, it isn't happening.  People are working and working and working and working.  So, WTF? 

Complex problem, obvs.  Here are a few guesses.

1.  The work-free utopia idea seriously underestimates what it takes for people to be satisfied. 

It's easy to think there's some finite bit of stuff that has to get done for your "needs" to be satisfied and then after that you're basically good to go.  In my experience, though, that's not what people are like at all.  Their dissatisfactions are endless.  If you think once they have three nutritious meals and a nice room they're going to sit quietly, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.

2.  The work-free utopia idea seriously underestimates people's needs. 

It's not just that people have an infinite capacity for dissatisfaction.  If that were all, presumably we could find some way of altering ourselves, some SOMA-like drug that would make us more able to enjoy a quiet evening of wholesome activities.  But in fact, just treating illness and injury so that everyone can live to a reasonable age has turned out to be fantastically expensive. 

Often you read about a new drug that helps with some terrible illness and costs an unbelievable sum.  It's nice to think that if could just quiet the dissatisfactions, then in the utopia you'd just need some robust crops to be able to get along.  But no:  the preventable deaths of young people are among the worst things going.  They can't be part of any utopia.  And yet, preventing those deaths requires massive investment.

3.  "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone."

That's a quote from Pascal, who knew what he was talking about.  It's an uncomfortable thought, but maybe we like this absurd way of life and even being forced into it.  I remember reading once a book for new parents --  I've never had kids myself, so I was reading as an outsider -- and being quite surprised by the passion with which some parents described intentionally staying late at work, taking the long way home, and dawdling in the car, all to delay the time at which they would arrive home. 

Even if working isn't utopia, maybe not working isn't utopia either.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bertie Wooster, Unsung Hero Of Our Modern Times

It's a matter of some embarrassment to me that in my past I was not a fan of P. G. Wodehouse.  But it's true.  You might go so far as to say I was an anti-fan.   I found the books silly, misogynist, even a little mean-spirited. 

But I was wrong.  As I've discussed before, once I heard Jonathan Cecil read the books with his quiet but omnipresent ironic detachment I was able to see the light.  I've never looked back.

In the Wodehouse canon, my special love is for Bertie Wooster. 

Now it is going to be my assertion in this post that Bertie, poor lamb, has gotten a bad rap and is massively under-appreciated as a kind of hero of our times. 

Even if you've never read the books you've probably heard many negative character descriptions.   Bertie is a "foppish" aristocrat who can't manage the simplest tasks without assistance (usually from the famous Jeeves, his genius valet), a silly young man who refuses to settle down or take anything seriously (which enrages his aunt Agatha), and a layabout who favors smoking, drinking and gambling.

But look beyond the surface, and Bertie exemplifies, with no effort at all, certain ideals many of us strive to attain.

1.  Bertie is happy with the simplest of pleasures.

Give Bertie Wooster a cocktail on the lawn, a nicely fried egg, a friend with whom to hash over old times, and Bertie is a contented man.  Bertie does not need the latest technology and gadgets; he does not need to feel he is achieving things and being better than other people and getting noticed; he is not bored sitting around doing nothing.  Bertie is made happy by what he has, and is not endlessly seeking novelty.

He is off the hedonic treadmill. 

2.  Bertie truly lives in the moment.

People think mindfulness and they think meditation and eastern philosophy and effortful practice aimed at the reduction of worry and the appreciation for what is happening right now.  But Bertie has mindfulness naturally and effortlessly. 

Bertie having his morning tea is a man thinking about tea.  He actually has to be reminded to worry about things.

3.  Bertie doesn't have annoying masculinity issues.

Although it is true that true that he can be harsh in his feeling toward women, whom he often suspects of being out to control him and force him to do thing he does not want to do, Bertie is not competitive or athletic and he does not mind being made a fool of. 

He is a bit ruffled when Jeeves refers to him as "mentally negligible," but only for a moment (see #2, above).  In virtually every story he agrees to do something unpleasant (be thought insane, go briefly to jail, etc.) in order to spare his friends some hardship.  Being thought to be a nice guy pleases Bertie, and he doesn't worry about being seen as a chump. 

Even setting aside the interesting interpretation in which Bertie and Jeeves are actually lovers, it is easy to imagine Bertie as gay.  And when Bertie asks, in a moment of crisis, "What do ties matter, Jeeves, at at time like this?"  Jeeves replies, "There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter."  Bertie takes the point.

4.  Bertie is always full of the life force.

I don't know how he does it, but Bertie is always seeing the comic side, making a joke, trying to lighten the mood.  Bertie doesn't have serious problems like being unable to pay the grocery bill, but like a lot of people, he has a lot of other, small problems. 

Sometimes people expect things of him he does not want to do.  Sometimes his friends are in a jam.  Sometimes his friends are -- justly or not -- angry with him.  Bertie, you'll notice, is never angry with them.  And he is never in a bad mood.  Extraordinary.   

Faced with the pompous, bossy, annoying people of life, Bertie typically tries to make light conversation.  When that fails he is philosophical.  No matter what the difficulties, at the end of the day a cocktail and a cigar and some chit chat restores Bertie's good cheer and faith in humanity. 

Given my fondness and even admiration, it amused me to learn on Wikipedia that
"Bertie's foppish foolishness was not popular with everyone. Papers released by the Public Record Office have disclosed that when Wodehouse was recommended for a Companion of Honour in 1967, Sir Patrick Dean, British ambassador in Washington, argued that it 'would also give currency to a Bertie Wooster image of the British character, which we are doing our best to eradicate'."
Silly Sir Patrick Dean.

So, next time life gets you down, just ask yourself, What Would Bertie Do? 

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Internet: Telling Me More About People Than I Really Wanted To Know

Dear Internet,

Maybe you didn't realize this -- but you don't actually have to say all the things that come into your mind. 

It's not the TMI I'm objecting to -- though I know a lot of other people have been on you about that.  They don't want to hear about your miscarriage, your one-night stand, your kid's poop, or what happened the day you went to get a Brazilian and the stylist found crabs. 

But TMI isn't my concern.  Actually, in some ways that stuff suits you very well:  you bring the magic when you connect up people who've each had some obscure and troubling experience.  The internet:  putting the "over" in "overshare" since 1995.

And it's not the abundance of cats/babies/nature pictures I'm upset about either. 

Again, I know you've been in for some criticism on this score.  There's some eye-rolling about the fact that people want to use the internet for Cuteness instead of Important Matters Like Politics.  There are also people who seem to find the posting of babies offensive -- like babies are some kind of implicit boast about how together and wonderful someone's life is. 

That's a view I don't get.  I mean, cats are the star of the internet because they're awesome.  As for babies -- who doesn't like to gaze upon a baby they don't have to actually take care of?  Babies are adorable.  What's not to like?  Do these critics somehow have lives so stuffed with cuteness and nice things that they're overfull, overstuffed?  If yes, they live in a different world from the one I do. 

So.  What's getting me isn't the TMI and it isn't Niceness and Cuteness.  What's getting me is the nonstop personalized complaining, indignation, know-it-allness ... often mixed with racism and sexism just for good measure.  I feel like about half the time I'm on the internet, I'm like "Would you just shut up?" or "Is this really worth arguing about?" or "Even if that's true, do you realize that saying it now shows you to be an insensitive jerk?"

Everyone singles out YouTube comments, but the amount of ass-hattery even on regular news sites like The Toronto Star, the Huffington Post, or The New York Times is unreal as well.  At The Star, the comments are like a glimpse into the dark schitzy heart of Canadian racism, homophobia, and snobbery -- everything Canadians are not on the surface. 

The New York Times is a bit better because it's moderated.  But even with moderation, most of the comments really boil down to, "You are dumb and brought your problems on yourself; I am smart and know things you don't; Yay for Me."  

Like last Saturday, there was a New York Times article about the recent big snowstorm:  some areas without power; some people stranded in cars; some communities with closures and so on.  
Honestly, over half the comments were people saying "GEEZ it's just a SNOWSTORM, what's your PROBLEM getting all EXCITED, we had snow like this ALL THE TIME when I was a kid with no goddamn NEWS MEDIA getting us all WHIPPED up.

That just seems to me a ridiculous thing to put in a comment about story about a snowstorm.  It's especially ridiculous to say it for the 271st time after 270 people have already said it.  Even if it's true that the news media gets overexcited about weather events, do you really need to say so in a context where people are trading stories about being stranded or left without power or unable to get out the front door?  What, do they think we're all going to bow down and say "Thanks, Smart Guy, For Putting It All Into Perspective!  You're The Man!"

Sometimes dealing with these remarks feels like peeking inside the subconscious of a family member -- someone you'd suspected had disturbing hopes, dreams, and opinions, but were never sure -- and finding a seething toxic mass of rage, greed, and narcissism.

I wonder sometimes if that's how we'll look back on the early 21st century.  It's like, for thousands of years, people didn't really know what was on other people's minds.  Then suddenly --  they did.  And everybody freaked out.  Because what was on other people's minds -- it was pretty bad.

So, internet, with a hat tip to James Thurber:  You're telling me more about people than I wanted to know. 


Monday, February 4, 2013

Femininity For Everyone

 "A Rally" by Sir John Lavery, Irish artist (1885), via Wikimedia Commons.
I have mixed feelings about femininity.  I guess that's not a bold and wild statement.  Probably most people who've ever thought about it have some kind of ambivalence.

But overall I think femininity gets a worse rap than it deserves.  What I mean is, there's nothing basic and essential to femininity that makes it problematic.  Sure, it's a problem when it's mandatory or compulsory and you can't opt out.  It's a problem when meeting its demands gets in the way of other things.  But outside of those problems, I think instead of always trying to change femininity to suit the world, we might do more to make the world suit femininity. 

One of the main knocks on feminine clothing, physicality, and general style is that they're impractical.  So my first question is, impractical for what?

Sure, they can be impractical for certain kinds of physical work and certain kinds of fun physical activities.  But for other kinds of work and fun they're just fine.  If your job involves mostly using your mind, and reading writing talking and figuring stuff out, feminine clothing, physicality, and general style aren't really a problem.

There's a hilarious Mindy Kaling essay in The New Yorker where she talks about the strangeness of the way women are depicted in movies. One of the things she talks about is how working women are portrayed:
"I regularly work sixteen hours a day. Yet, like most people I know who are similarly busy, I’m a pleasant, pretty normal person. But that’s not how working women are depicted in movies. I’m not always barking orders into my hands-free phone device and yelling, 'I have no time for this!' Often, a script calls for this uptight career woman to 'relearn' how to seduce a man, and she has to do all sorts of crazy degrading crap, like eat a hot dog in a sexy way or something. And since when does holding a job necessitate that a woman pull her hair back in a severe, tight bun? Do screenwriters think that loose hair makes it hard to concentrate?"
Yeah, news flash:  many contemporary jobs are compatible with femininity and even loose hairstyles. 

Yes, you may not have one of those jobs.  If you don't, and you want one -- well, that's what I mean about making the world suit femininity rather than the other way around.  The problem there isn't the femininity, it's the kind of socio-economic world we happen to live in.  If you don't have one of those jobs and you don't want one -- great!  That is what I mean about the importance of femininity not being mandatory or compulsory. 

Closely related to the impracticality thing is the fighting back thing.  Feminine clothing makes it harder to fight physically, and so makes women vulnerable.

This is true, and it's important.  But again, isn't this a case where the world should change, not femininity?  It would obviously be better if no one had to fight physically in order to protect their safety. 

I mean, I get it that there's a problem, that a violence-free world is not in our near future, and that therefore it's a problem that femininity leads to vulnerability.  I just think it's important to remember the real problem is with the way the world is and is not something to do essentially with femininity itself. 

Finally, though it's a real pain that femininity gets put on women the way it does, I think the answer isn't to get rid of it but rather to expand and mix it up a little -- to make it so that men get to experience the pleasures of femininity.

These days masculinity is pretty out of control.  It seems harder than ever for a guy to do what we think of as girly things without the gender police cracking down hard. 

But femininity can be fun.  Most basically, as I wrote about in this previous post on Being Vs. Doing, some of the pleasure of femininity are the pleasures of Being instead of Doing:  pleasures that have to do more with the way others respond to you than to something you're doing or achieving, some effect you're having on the world.  The pleasure of beautiful and delicate clothes:  everyone should have it. 

But I would go further than this, and say that even the vulnerability of femininity is something positive, something men would enjoy, something they ought to get to enjoy once in a while.

We usually think of vulnerability in really negative terms, in contexts in which something or someone poses a threat to you and you could get hurt.  But if no one is posing a threat and you're not going to get hurt, vulnerability is just a kind of openness to things happening to you that you don't have to initiate and control. 

Maybe "vulnerable" isn't the right word for that since it has such negative connotations.  It's more like a "susceptibility."  Having things happen to you, instead of always making them happen.  Whatever you call it, it's an aspect of femininity that, in a hostile world, can be a real problem, but that in itself, can be a delightful and fun thing.  Like femininity itself.

Now that you're done listening to me pontificate, reward yourself by going and reading Mindy Kaling's essay about the movies.  It is funny and great, and it is not behind the New Yorker paywall!