Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bait and switch

In one study, young children were “allowed” to play with blocks in different conditions. In one condition, the children were rewarded for playing (given candy or ice cream, if I remember right), in another they were simply allowed to play. Later on, the two groups were again presented with the blocks, only this time neither group was rewarded. The kids who were rewarded during the first session played with the blocks for far less time than the ones who did not receive the reward. 

The explanation goes something like this: when engaged in a behavior that is internally motivated, the question of “why am I doing this?” is easily and unconsciously answered. You are doing this because you want to—the activity is enjoyable in itself. When you are being rewarded for something that you would do for pleasure anyway, the question of why is answered twice, once with the initial (and perhaps unconscious) sense of pleasure, and then again with a conscious pairing of the activity with the reward. Since only one explanation is required, the behavior is thus said to be “over-determined,” and the most salient explanation (in this case the reward) sticks and the more subtle explanation (the internal pleasure) fades and eventually loses its motivating power.

I think of college students and reading in this context. Reading for many people is a rewarding activity, but when you have to read in order to pass a test to get a grade, the activity becomes externally motivated and reading for fun disappears for many people. 

Think about the innumerable ways that consumer society takes what would otherwise be intrinsically rewarding behaviors and yokes them to external trappings—the  word “trappings” says it all!

You can’t control someone who is motivated intrinsically. You can’t make a person find something pleasurable. But you can control someone who is acting for an external reward by simply controlling the reward.

Every paycheck calls for a serious gut check.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Gonna see my picture on the cover, gonna buy five copies for my mother

Retail corporations around the country are refusing to sell the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine because the cover includes a flattering picture of an alleged (yet to be convicted) terrorist—reportedly out of “respect for the victims.”

Right. Respecting victims is always on the top of the corporate agenda. 

Wasn’t it just earlier this week that the smug face of a cold blooded killer acquitted of murdering a black teenager was plastered across newspapers around the country? Take that mom and dad!

The real problem with the Rolling Stone cover is that terrorists can’t look cool. And not because looking cool is disrespectful to anyone. 

The biggest gun in the arsenal of the “war on terror” is media propaganda. Rolling Stone violated the prime directive that all terrorists—even suspected terrorists—are evil psychopathic monsters and have to look the part. One of the things that made Osama Bin Laden such a great terrorist to hate was that he was so butt ugly. The Rolling Stone cover makes this Tsarnaev kid look like one of the original Backstreet Boys.

Terrorists have to be presented consistently and convincingly as less than human, otherwise the whole ruse collapses. If terrorists were truly human, then we would have to actually look at “reasons” for terrorism that exist outside of terrorists’ warped and dysfunctional minds.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Another take on the Zimmerman verdict

There's a lot of noise out there about the verdict's obvious racial connotations. An unarmed black kid was killed because he had the audacity to stand his ground and demand his right to be who he was where he was.

I have nothing to add to the clamor that isn’t being spewed in a thousand other places. 

But there is another, less obvious message that this judgment (or lack of judgment) sends that relates to how power is being allocated in the system—and especially in terms of the increasing privatization of law enforcement. 

Private security is big business, an irreplaceable component of the prison industrial complex.  

“Neighborhood Watch” is a low-paying variation of private security. A guilty verdict for Zimmerman would have set a bad precedent, threatening the power and authority—and fungibility—of private security mercenaries and rent-a-cops everywhere.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Paul Shepard on civilized immaturity

From his 1982 book Nature and Madness:

“In the civilized world the roles of authority—family heads and others in power—were filled increasingly with individuals in a sense incomplete, who would in turn select and coach underlings flawed like themselves.”

“In such societies—and I include ours—certain infantile qualities might work better: fear of separation, fantasies of omnipotence, oral preoccupation, tremors of helplessness, and bodily incompetence and dependence.”

“For the small child, a kind of bimodality of cognition is normal, a part of the beginnings of classifying and making categories, an essential step in the adult capacity to make abstractions. The world at first is an either/or place. . . . Getting stuck in the binary view strands the adult in a universe torn by a myriad of oppositions and conflicts.”

“Perhaps society and the individual are more vulnerable to an arrested development fixed on masculinity, rather than on femininity . . . . The physical domination of all societies by men can mislead the immature minded into thinking that patriarchal values and ideas are synonymous with universal power.”

“Thus, the difference between the psychological world of the adult and the child in the villages was not as great as that between adults and children among the ancestral hunters. This is not what one expects from the traditional view of history.  But history itself, an idea accounting for a made world, was invented by villagers as a result of five thousand years of strife and struggle to hold environment and self together. As a simplistic, linear, literal account of events and powers as unpredictable as parental anger, history is a juvenile idea.”

“These anxieties [caused by civilization] would elicit a certain satisfaction in repetitive and exhaustive routines reminiscent of the swayings of an autistic child or the rhythmic to-and-fro of the captive bear or elephant in the zoo.”

“The only society more frightful than one run by children, as in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, might be one run by childish adults.”

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The search for the last adult continues

In 1988, Robert Fulghum published a collection of somewhat hackneyed and sentimental essays entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The basic idea of the title essay is that the adult world would be in much better shape if we all still adhered to the simple rules of social engagement taught to young children.

But Fulghum’s title, read at face value, can be taken in a couple of distinctly different yet not mutually exclusive ways: (1) all that is really necessary to know in order to function in modern society can be—and is—easily learned by very young children, and (2) so-called adults in our society frequently operate at a level of maturity that, when you peer beneath a thin veil of pseudosophistication, is not very far removed from that of five-year-olds.

Now, of course, no one would be able to navigate the complex bureaucratic webs of technoculture with just a kindergarten education. People in the modern world need a protracted period of systematic indoctrination to acquire the skills and habits necessary to accommodate complex society. But a kindergarten level of social-emotional skills is all that is necessary as an adult to get along with other adults working on an assembly line or in a corporate boardroom. That is, the skills “taught” in school are not people skills as much as they are technological skills. And even those skills that look on the surface to be people skills are really people-in-interface-with-bureaucratic-technology skills.

What’s more, social-emotional childishness is actually necessary for bureaucratic technoculture to function. It would be detrimental—perhaps catastrophic—for the system if people regularly achieved a truly adult level of maturity.

Consider differences between the kinds of highly-egalitarian foraging societies that we have evolved to accommodate and our present circumstances. In an egalitarian foraging society, conformity is a matter of social pressure and tradition, employing sometimes very sophisticated leveling mechanisms to maintain equality (and social stability) among participants. Many of these mechanisms demand considerable self-regulation (i.e., psychological maturity) on the part of individuals.

In nonegalitarian societies, childishness, because it involves a high degree of dependency and a minimum level of self-regulation, works to the advantage of the system. Adult levels of independence and self-regulation have the potential to gum up the works. Bureaucratic technoculture demands that individuals pattern their goals after the hierarchical flow of power: individuals are explicitly required not to self-regulate and to allow externally applied forces to do the regulating for them. Conformity in our modern global industrial cluster-fuck is a response to economic coercion, powerful authority, and the perpetual threat of overwhelming violence. I don’t have to self-regulate if an authority is telling me what to do. I don’t have to exercise anything approaching autonomous decision-making if in each case I am offered a Hobson’s choice.

If there is by some fluke a single fully mature adult human being still out there somewhere, he or she is the most dangerous person in the world.