Archive for February, 2009

The Plight of the Unfriended

February 26, 2009

I have a random acquaintance who, apparently having decided that the “random” part of the equation now significantly outweighs the “acquaintance” part, revoked our claim to facebook friendship.

I’ve seen this kind of thing happen before, and I have no problem with it in principle. Friendship on facebook, as in real life, is a relationship based on feelings — an arrangement that depends on mutual esteem or fellow feeling. Of course the surreal nature of facebook allows one to accumulate “friends” without actually *being* friends, and this is generally harmless. But when the feeling of friendship is completely absent, its only visible remnant a fake facebook connection lodged somewhere in the digital void, then yeah, sure, unfriending makes sense.

But here’s the rub: every time I log on to facebook, the little “friend suggestions” tab features this person’s face along with the innocent declaration that “You and _____ went to Wesleyan.” Yes, facebook. I know this. What are you trying to imply? Frankly, I find your “suggestion” a little tasteless.

When you’re not friends with someone anymore, you don’t want to be constantly reminded of that fact. It’s awkward. But I think there’s additional weirdness here that comes from another source: the obvious disconnect between real life and facebook. In real life, there’s (usually) no decisive, permanent moment of “un”friendship — you just lose touch, you “stop speaking” as it were. On facebook, however, you are privy to a permanent, written notice, and in this case a near constant reminder, of mutual apathy. This taps into the coolest aspect of online communication from an English major’s perspective, which is that digital “speech” strikes a middle ground between the verbal and the written. And when the permanence of online stuff runs up against social convention of casual verbal communication, it produces dissonance. This is particularly true because facebook has become key to the way I interact with others — it’s part of how I socialize.

Of course I’m taking this insight straight out of the ethnographic work of the incomparable Jenny Ryan, so I’ll just go ahead and quote a paragraph from her amazing MA thesis:

“While many of my informants condemned social networking sites for contributing to a perceived decline in face-to-face interaction, by and large these sites serve simply as extensions of preexisting communication practices. The ubiquity of social Internet use among younger generations has given rise to the use of online social networks for expressing friendship bonds and group affiliations, lending an explicit affirmation of belonging in the world. In one of my interviews, a student related to me that before she came to college, her older sister informed her that “you don’t exist if you’re not on Facebook.” It is precisely this mentality that may lead some to depend on these visual articulations of their social worlds, especially in times of loneliness and depression. Online social networks enable the virtual expression of longstanding offline obsessions with effectively performing one’s identity, demonstrating one’s popularity,and acquiring information about romantic interests.”

The performance of identity is a key theme of current anthropology and cultural/ethnic studies — and Jenny points out that it applies perfectly to online social networking. People are very concerned with how they present themselves, crafting a digital persona or self to perform in the online arena, just as they do in everyday life. When being “friends” with someone no longer really fits with the self you see yourself as, then you shelve the friendship. It’s perfectly natural. I just wish facebook wasn’t in my face about it all the time!


Disruptive Civil Technologies

February 25, 2009

So I was rummaging around for topics for an upcoming “IR of East Asia” presentation and I found this website where you can look over declassified National Intelligence Estimates. NIEs are like studies that the 3-letter intelligence agencies use to present information to the rest of 3-letter intelligence agencies…so you get the low down on what the State is worrying about.

The funniest one here is “Disruptive Civil Technologies: Six Technologies With Potential Impacts on US Interests Out to 2025“. (PDF)

Said six technologies are:

  • “biogerontechnology” — i.e. technology for slowing aging and extending the human lifespan
  • energy storage materials — batteries and whatnot
  • biofuels and bio-based chemicals
  • clean coal technologies
  • service robotics (!)
  • “the internet of things” (IoT) — i.e. household items being perpetually connected to the internet

They proceed to go through and break down all the ways that each one could impact the world with respect to US dominance. Who knows if any of this will come to pass — I’m particularly skeptical about “clean coal” — but I think the whole idea of the report is intriguing, like they’re setting the scene for some kind of pulp science fiction novel.

The annual Global Trends report is also worth looking at, though it’s less goofy and it gets usually some press when it comes out, so you probably know about the findings already.


February 18, 2009

So I couldn’t figure out why my enthusiasm for blogging had been on the wane — then I remembered one possible excuse, which is that I’ve been donating a good chunk of my time every week to being an intern at

The site is kind of a grassroots effort at showcasing under-reported humanitarian and environmental crises around the world, which unfortunately do not make the front page of the NYTimes, and making them more accessible to US readers. My work is basically to check a bunch of NGO sites and other alternative international news sources, choose some compelling tidbit, look for quotable background information and eye-popping pictures about it, and then write up a blurb. Then repeat. Most of the stuff I write ends up being ferociously edited, largely because I don’t have a lot of experience pretending to be a journalist. (Evidently journalism calls for a different tone from that of dense academic papers or pithy blog posts.)

But the work is kind of fun, it’s certainly very informative, and I encourage you to check out the site. It seems to satisfy whatever mysterious urge causes me to blog.

Of course if that were true I wouldn’t be blogging right now…

Actually my current excuse is I’m trying to avoid writing a short paper due tomorrow on “Civil Society in China”. This is a tricky topic since most activities that American political scientists would associate with “civil society” are expressly frowned upon by the CCP. Of course there are fascinating exceptions to this rule (environmental NGO’s, local chambers of commerce, homeowners associations, etc.) that I’ve been doing a lot of reading about. There’s a growing body of research on the subject since people are looking for indications that China might either collapse due to social unrest or spontaneously transform itself into a democracy. Either possibility would be of huge global importance and both are well nigh impossible to predict. “Civil society” on the ground is supposed to be a good indicator to watch since it might coalesce into an opposition political party — in which case, it’s presence would be very significant — or it could serve as a “pressure valve” to allow malcontents to blow off the accumulated steam of post-reform society — in which case it’s absence would be significant!

Generally folks have “read the literature” and so they have this in the back of their heads, they proceed to do a whole lot of really focused, locally oriented research, and then they try make an intriguing (tenure-achieving) argument about “civil society” in general. But I can’t buy into the allure of these arguments since the definition of “civil society” is fuzzy, the evidence surrounding it is usually based on idiosyncratic local variables, and hence the stuff may or may not be applicable. That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, or that Joe Bloggs PhD doesn’t deserve tenure, it just makes it hard to write a coherent short paper about the topic.

The Chevy Volt

February 10, 2009

So random circumstance brought me to the Washington Auto Show over the past weekend, where I saw the famous Chevy Volt. It turns out that the car I saw is literally *THE* Chevy Volt. It’s custom-made — a prototype that gets shipped back and forth to auto shows around the country. The great white hope of the American auto industry isn’t even in production.

I guess I like the idea that I saw the one and only Volt, the same physical car that has been photographed a million times to create the Volt as a symbol of American ingenuity. And I like also the fact that the definite article expresses both of these ideas.

The Fiscal Problem of Being Washington, DC

February 3, 2009

“Washington, DC: America’s visible, invisible city. Actually two cities; one rich, one poor. One with power, another relatively powerless. It’s white, it’s black, it’s there…but it’s not.”
— Anthony Bordain (from a particularly good episode of No Reservations)

Public policy matters!

I sometimes find myself in the curious position of having to defend this idea from those who would dismiss government as a sham and policy as, “some kind of dodge, or hussle.” Of course I do have sympathy for these folks, because the State tends to be violent and oppressive and there is a good body of evidence to suggest that government is not particularly good at solving social problems. However, there *are* real gains in human happiness that can be achieved by tweaking bad policy into good.

Dr. Alice M. Rivlin from The Brookings Institution has provided a poignant example. (it’s a PDF)

The gist of the chapter is that DC can’t collect taxes for income earned within its borders by non-residents, creating a kind of tax haven for the federal government and those who provide goods and services to said government. These people are the rich (and white) who tend to work within DC but for the most part live outside of it. The District then finds itself cash strapped and unable to provide basic services to its largely poor, black population.

Why is DC so messed up? Rivlin estimates that it misses out on 2/3rds of its revenue base! That might have something to do with it!

The pecuniary problems of the District have been apparent to me at least since I started middle school. I would carpool in from the outskirts to go to a Catholic school in Northeast and every day I would see the obvious signs of poverty as we went eastward. You just don’t expect to see urban decay and de facto segregation in the capitol of the richest country in the world. Indeed the whole reason I was making this trek was to avoid the notorious DC public education system — which is only one aspect of the District’s creaking infrastructure.

It’s snowing as I write this. I like winter’s haunting beauty as much as the next guy, but it is annoying to know that the DC side of Western Avenue will not be plowed for days while the Montgomery County side gets the royal treatment…