That feeling of instantaneous discontentment, not instant gratification

By James E. Addicott, 2016 ©

People keep talking about “instant gratification” as the big problem of the new media age. This blog will argue that people that say this are partially right, but also slightly wrong. The “instantaneous” part is correct, but the real problem is not gratitude but discontentment. People of advanced societies are instantaneously discontent with media, commodities, their bodies, other people and our general way of life. This is due to increases in engineering and economic efficiencies, within which societies are embedded.

Why is this the case? For thousands upon thousands of years, businesses have considered that the means to success is increased efficiency: producing more products with fewer resources. It is not only businesses that have though this, but it feeds into the general logic of engineering efficiencies. For example, you can drive further with a more efficient car that you can with an older, less efficient or inefficient car. That does not necessarily mean your will drive your car less. Increasing economic efficiencies means more products with less effort invested. Simple stuff.

Following this logic, then, long-standing relationships are less valuable than quickly formed relationship. Why? Because long-standing relationship require much more effort invested over longer periods of time. Marriages, families, office relationships are inefficient in both in terms of fully optimised economic and engineering efficiencies. These systems are designed so that it is more beneficial for you to invest all of your efforts into “quick burst” relationships than endure longer-term, more enduring relationship with people that simply tie you down. Using dating apps as a means of finding true love, then you will encounter hundreds of people attempting to catch your eye in your quest for long-term love and commitment. Likewise, you will make every effort to stand out from the crowd to attract these people. You will need to do more to stand out in such circumstances because the system is so efficient in generating new, non-committal leads or newer contacts. The people you come into contact often lack depth or substance because these are shallow systems where emotional depth decreases the systems levels of efficiencies – people with express real emotions are needy and weak, so keep it moving!

Try applying this logic to the media we consume these days. Much of the media we consume these days is quickly churned out. Whether you like his music or not, it is noticeable that it took Richard Wagner nine months to compose Das Rheingold (from March to December, 1852). Celebrity rappers in the US are capable of turning out two of three hit songs a day with fewer resources. Computing technologies in particular have helped speed up the production process. It is not only production that has sped up, Adel’s hit song Hello was downloaded 635,000 times in a two-week period in the US. Essentially, audiences are consuming more and more media. Producers are producing more and more music. For a good song to break into charts, it already has to compete with vaster amounts of music produced for music markets.

The oddest things to emerge as a result of this drive for efficiency are brand-new pre-worn clothes. High street shops stock clothing that has been designed to look as if it has already been worn in, over a long period of time. The dusty old baseball caps, or wrinkly, time-honored leather jackets, worn by celebrities in movies can be picked up and worn in a day. Rustic or antique-style furniture can be newly purchased without waiting for it to mature or age. Waiting for furniture of clothes to age clogs up the production and consumption cycle, buying newly manufactured old stuff keeps the economic cycle turning quicker and more efficiently.

Yes, you may get all these commodities home and set them up and feel quickly gratified. But this is not the last impulse you should feel. What then is required is a feeling of instant discontentment and a subsequent urge, need or desire to consume more. How is such a desire cultivated? This craving for more is embedded within the products you quickly consume. They have been produced using minimum resources, very little human labour, and you come into contact with very few people in the act of shopping or paying for them. Why? This is the most efficient way of producing and consuming commodities.

img_2581

This is not a new argument. Jean-François Lyotard argued this in his famous book The Postmodern Condition. Whilst Lyotard has been torn apart for using the “post-” prefix, we cannot deny he had an incredibly good point.

Advertisements

Social Science, Big Data and Gut Instincts: The General Election 2015 in review

Reflections on the 2015 General Election
by James Addicott, 2015© 

During the 2015 elections in the UK, what I found quite baffling was that, even as a PhD student (without blowing my own trumpet), I really did not feel that I had enough knowledge or facts to make an educated decision about who to vote for. I don’t think anyone did. The peculiar thing here is that we are constantly being told that we live in an age of “big data”; an age of metrics and digital solutions; an age of “transparency”. If this is the case, then why did I feel that I was going on sheer gut instinct when ticking the boxes to elect our future government?

Screen-Shot-2015-02-06-at-14.17.07
Although I can read now – in hindsight – about the statistics of which parts of the population or general demographic voted for which parties, the stastistical facts prior to the election were simply not to hand. So many unanswered questions: which party invested the most into the military efforts in the Middle East, Conservatives or Labour? Which party made the most cutbacks on public expenditure overall? Which party reduced unemployment the most? What exactly were the statistics on immigration? Did gross domestic produce increase or decrease while Labour was in office or during the Conservative’s run?

The obvious answer is that all these facts are infinitely complex. They are therefore open to interpretation – and, perhaps it’s a cliché of our time to say “the facts are open to interpretation”?

The other odd thing is that I can download an analyse OECD, NATO, EU or UK Gov. statistics for myself. Anyone can.

Russell Brand seems able to commit himself to an acting career in the US while also managing to download statistics to support his own political arguments (which by the way, are crap). But are the facts that he cites actually valid? Who knows? The way that he presents them is as if these statics just simply “tell it all”, but we are never actually sure where he gets his information from, and how this data is being collected, and by whom, and to what end. I know for certain that Brand never cites from actual academic sources such as journal publications; whereas social scientists are forced to.

The point about Brand is that he is an example that demonstrates how it seems like a fore drawn conclusion that whichever party presents whatever “facts of the matter”, there will always be some degree of biasness behind those statistics, the way they have been compiled, or an even greater likelihood that an opposing party will contest that data with another data set, or an even more “credible” sources. It is pointless then to even compile factsheets or databases given this constant tussle between the “to-be-believed” and the “unbelievable”. The only solution seems to be to reside to voting on gut-instincts or blind-faith – or to play the “national lottery game” and close your eyes, tick a box and wish for the best of luck.

The facts are out the windows then? Well, clearly not because not only to scientific facts help to generate energy, make humans live longer, aid plant growth, or inform political policies around the world.

It seems that it is not only the civilians that are having problems with scientific data but the government too. Right until the night of the elections all media networks reported that the parties were literally “neck and neck”. However, the outcome was fairly unanimous. How was that so impossible to predict in this big data age of algorithms, social surveillance? To the conspiracy theorists, this might seem like a ploy to draw people to the voting booths. I am happy to accept that literally no one actually knew; not even the elites at GCHQ.

As part of my PhD I am currently studying and supervising students on the idea of “reflexive modernity”, put forwards by sociologist Antony Giddens and Ulrich Beck. According to these two, this is the current status of modern culture or modern societies of which we Brits are a part. The idea in short is that environmental degradation, media and communication networks, global markets and economic crises, cause modern people and modern societies to reflect upon their actions. Another aspect of their argument is that in this day and age people have become a lot more critical of scientific knowledge or the knowledge of the experts. For example, no-one is absolutely, 100% sure weather on not we are experiencing “climate change” (a natural change in weather conditions) or “global warming” (a change in weather patterns caused by aerosol cans or the burning of fossil fuels), even though the vast majority of sciences around the world confer that changing weather conditions are caused by industrial processes.

This idea of reflexive modernity also ties in quite neatly with what philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1986) suspected and predicted about our contemporary age. For Lyotard “post-modernism” or “post-modern” societies and cultures were distinguishable by a breakdown in trust, or rising skepticism, towards ‘grand narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’. Such grand narratives are the overarching narratives to Life itself. They would include religious narratives (e.g. Christianity), politics (e.g. Marxism) or even scientific or philosophical thought (e.g. the Enlightenment). Again, the idea is that modern societies are loosing faith in scientific knowledge, and our sense of “Truth”, correctness or validity. For some people, that’s a good thing.

The other odd thing is that classical sociologists theorised that modern, scientific knowledge would eventually lead to an end of mythology and spiritualism – Max Weber or The Frankfurt School in particular. This would reduce the feeling of enchantment obtained from Life. This would lead to increased political disenchantment, of the sort expressed by non-voters such as Mr. Brand. Brand’s contempt for politics could therefore be rationalised or explained according to such theories. However, I couldn’t help but feel that the media-spin game; the celebrity-based campaigns, and the gut-feelings or impulses that lead me to tick the boxes I ticked in the general election of 2015, were only marginally informed by socially scientific research. My vote this year was based around a whole game of enchantment, mythology, and lots of new “soon-to-be-broken” promises. In this sense, I would have preferred to make a well-informed decision, but it seemed impossible to do so. It just falls down to a trust game; whom do you trust to lead your country?

_80481656_finaldebatescomposite

I would like to be able to make better decisions about which political parties to vote for. More than likely, this is an age-old observation and an age-old argument put forth by civilians voting in democratic states. We want “The Truth!” Again, the truth is so open to interpretation. Is this feeling of disenchantment, rising skepticism in scientific evidence really that new then? This really calls into question the whole idea of a “Big Data Society”. So what if we have big data? What does it tell us? What use is it to us is it won’t help us to answer the most simple of questions: “red, yellow, green or blue party?”

Lyotard J-F. (1986) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Cambridge University: The Reality and The Fairytale

Not everyone at Cambridge University lives a “fairytale lifestyle”. A recent story published by The Daily Mail focuses on the Instagram pictures posted by one American student who has subsequently gained 300,000 followers by advertising her wonderful life online.

26F885C000000578-3010757-image-a-6_1427276473423
The Mail says: “Caroline, seen ‘revising’ on the lawn, became a full-time New York blogger before deciding to further her studies in the UK”

Immediately we can see two sides or perspectives to the story. On the one hand there is a resentful perspective; one that considers this young, affluent, female American as spoilt, pompous, frivolous and naïeve: “born with a silver spoon in her mouth”. However, there are also close to half a million followers online who whish to see more of this traditional, fairytale, “Harry Potter” lifestyle. The reality that The Mail overlooks, and what these Instagram followers do not get to see, is that there are lots of students here working incredibly hard to improve medicine, social and environmental policy, philosophy, economics, politics, etc. to the benefit of wider societies.

In this blog I just want to make it known that not every student shares the same experience of Cambridge University as Calloway – if we accept that her photographs are a valid representation of her everyday reality here. In fact, some students from working class backgrounds, or from economically underprivileged countries, manage to get into Cambridge through sheer academic excellence. The reality of Cambridge University for many students is hard slog, stressful long hours in the library or sat in front of computers, microscopes or telescopes. There is nothing “fairy tale” about this reality. The Mail’s representation of Cambridge University lets students’ efforts down.

Cambridge students have to look formal, which benefits some more than others. Part of the tradition of Cambridge University is wearing strange, medieval gowns and attending formal dinners. Being formally introduced to any college means going through a matriculation ceremony followed by a formal meal. Some students are better prepared and more comfortable in such cultural environments than others. There is a formal etiquette that is deeply engrained, an embodied form of cultural capital. It is almost impossible to learn if you do not come from such a cultural background. Students without these social skills can still get by; having a knockout thesis under your belt, one that will radicalize or change science, will probably get you much further, after all.

There is a kind of division within Cambridge between the privileged elites and those from more humble backgrounds. Instagram followers might want to see this decedent cultural milieu. Nevertheless, is not the case, and The Mail might like to imply, that only the wealthy and prestigious get into the university to continue and develop their aristocratic lifestyles. But don’t we all like to post photos of the more glamorous sides of our everyday lives on social media?

IMG_7789
A Bog in Cambridge: reality? Fairytale?

Nevertheless, I empathise with The Mail’s resentment to an extent. Tradition and class contradictions are deeply entrenched in the architecture of the city. The city has a strange cultural and geographical division between Town and Gown. In the central park there was a piece of graffiti drawn onto a statue in the middle of the park that read: “Welcome to the Real World”. It implied that students venturing out of the academic bubble, outside of the huddle of historical collages, were entering into the side of Cambridge where real, working class people lived in council housing and work everyday the “real world”. The fact that some people are more wealthy and prosperous than others, and that is structurally determined, shouldn’t be overlooked.

And, this traditional and architectural tradition of class division runs deep into cultural divisions. There are also “Town vs. Gown” sports events which encourage integration between students and those real, working class people. The problem with such events is that the only time the unreal students get to meet the real people is in circumstances of extreme competitiveness. It is well known that Cambridge University often looses its boxing competitions when going up against the Townies. Such competitions only seem to further reinforce the divisions between Townies and Gownies. Gownies always have the edge since they generally go on to progress in their career lives. That’s true.

I would prefer more integration. I grew up outside of Bristol City and I went to the University of the West of England (UWE) for my undergraduate and then Bristol University to study my master. With a population of 500,000 compared to Cambridge, which has a population of 100,000, Bristol feels much more integrated, culturally diverse or multicultural. There are tensions between classes and races; this is true. It is not a perfect city. Nevertheless, it is possible to study within Bristol without feeling like, or being made to feel, like “A Student”. Neither are you pressured into feeling as if you must or behave like a “go-getter” or “a toff” to reach the elite ranks. One of the aspects of studying in Bristol, which most students seemed to enjoy, was being made to feel a part of the city, while at the same time participating in the multicultural music scene or attending many of the weekend festivals.

While on the one hand I certain feel that there is an elitist bubble in Cambridge that keeps some students detached from the working-class lifestyles that the majority of people in Britain experience everyday, it is only to their own loss. Part of the “real” British experience is getting to see how diverse and culturally rich this country can be. On the other hand, The University of Cambridge is a global, intellectual epicenter and certainly the graduate peers that I study with come from a variety of backgrounds and all have something exceptional to offer to this knowledge bank – even lifetime experiences or practical knowledge is recognised as strength. This is not to deny that wealth, privilege or prestige is also a Golden Ticket.

I sympathise with some kind of resentment expressed towards the elites that are “divorced from reality”. I also sympathise with people that want to admire the traditions of the intellectual elite, or even English traditionalism. What I would reassure readers of The Mai newspaper, and the general population, is that there is a bedrock of intelligence, knowledge, and understanding here. That factor shouldn’t be overlooked or undermined.

In a networked society we can expect more blogs or syndicated photographs of Cambridge University. I would recommend reading Deciphering Cambridge by Rohan Kothari for a great intercultural description of life in Cambridge. Thank you to Stephen Courtney, Emily Wilkinson, Stuart Bolus, Max Wagner and Luke Cash.

My beginners guide studying for a humanities PhD without feeling cut off from humanity

By James Addicott 2014 ©

An article on the Guardian’s website by Michael Perfect entitled “Studying for a humanities PhD can make you feel cut off from humanity” has inspired this blog – also see: ‘There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about’. I am currently in my first year of ‘reading’ for a PhD in sociology, so this is literally a beginner’s guide. So far along my academic career I have encountered such problems of isolation and solitude. In former discussions with academic peers, or through my own observations, speaking from experience, I absolutely agree with Perfect that there are such problems and that ‘we need to talk about how to prevent solitude from slipping into isolation’. What follows is in no way a “winners-guide” to successful PhD research but my contributions to such a discussion on isolation. Your feedback, or your side of the story, would be most welcomed.

During my undergraduate and masters degree I feel that I have suffered with academic-isolation and have subsequently managed to develop my own coping strategies, as a form of self-help if you like. However, I also found some help in the topic of my studies, that is, social and cultural theory.

– It is not my intensions to write a hardcore sociological analysis of this subject, but bare with my while I draw for a bit of theory. –

There are two ideas that I have found that really helped me. Firstly, the mainly Marxist theory of the division between mental labour and manual labour – of which we academics are traditionally mental laborers. The second grounded theory, which I found its practical, “people orientated” methods helped in getting me out of my academic enclosure and that horrible feeling of isolation.

the view from our library
the view from our library

Firstly, as academics we have just got to accept that our main task is, primarily, thinking or mental labour. I think we have just got to accept this is the case, and in many ways academics are privileged to be in such a position if we compare our working day with construction workers, for example. However, I am personally not happy with just doing headwork all day, it literally “does my head in.” Sports and physical manual labour, I find, helps me through. Most universities encourage students to join sport societies, occasional part-time or temp work, or even voluntary work – hey, were interested in helping humanity right? – might begin to get past this “mental/manual” division.

This really leads me to my second point, and that is grounded theory, or the actual methods (the doing parts) of grounded theory. Currently my research topic is agriculture and I have purposely chosen to conduct “participant observations” as part of my research. This ties in really well with grounded theory since I can learn while working with the people I am studying. It is also a theory that supports this Marxian notion of the mental/manual division. Gaining hands on experience and face-to-face qualitative research data gets me out of the library and engaged with the people and industry I am researching. Not only can I draw comparisons between the abstract theories found on the library shelves and what is out there in my research field, in the ‘real world,’ but I can get out of the stuffy confines of the office or bookshelf environment – note that Marx also argued that intellectual work was confined to towns and cities while manual, physical work the stuff of the countryside.

Reading in a cafe helps (But avoid Cafe Nero or Starbucks if your reading the Frankfurt School)
Reading in a cafe helps
(But avoid Cafe Nero or Starbucks if your reading the Frankfurt School)

As for the coping strategies that I have developed myself, these would include: 1) work hard and party hard ethos, 2) understand stress and how it affects people, 3) attending events and 4) watching my diet, and – dare I say it – alcohol consumption, and lastly, 6) understanding yourself and your solitariness.

Getting past isolation involves being in a social environment. Luckily, although they spend lots of time with their heads in books, most sociologists are normally passionate socialites. Organizing events – take it onboard yourself to organize a social night out – helps to break their boundaries that you can find yourself confined with. Actively draw a distinction between when you are working hard and playing hard and remember that parties are not the best places for discussing deconstructionism Hegel’s theory of whatever. If you can, dance your worries away.

There are lots of tips and guides to recognizing stress and I found the most helpful literature is just the simple pamphlets, online or magazine articles. I don’t take these guides as the absolute truth but there are tips to pick up such as noticing tale-tale signs of the symptoms of stress, how to regulate your diet or plan your lifestyle.

Attend events to gain knowledge. In this time so many label as the “information age” it is easy to believe were are actually living in an information age, and the truth is that we are not. Online information, articles and journals are there to help you as much as the books in the library, and of course it is part of our research challenge to download and digest this “information”. But, think outside the box a little. Attending conferences, trade shows, talks, drinks parties, lectures and networking events; get you out of the library and learning in different ways. Being in the library or slumped in font your laptop all the time, I believe, doesn’t necessarily make you any better a student. There are different ways to learn, and we should utilize them.

For God sake steer clear of thinking that fiddling around with social networking media while trying to study might constitute some kind of social life…

Books affect our minds, food and drink our bodies. My advice on physical health is the same as seeking advice on stress; there is lots of sources of advice out there for you to try out – while separating the wheat from the chaff. Most importantly, if you do drink then avoid letting the bottle get the best of you. There are romantic notions of alcoholism in academia; reading through some Jean-Paul Sartre in soft lighting, over a glass of read wine. Alcohol helps to put the mind at ease, of course, but use it recreationally and socially. Working yourself up into a state of anxiety and isolation and using drink as a tool for breaking out of that cycle will, I find, only lead to big social problems and big health problems in the long run – problems which only exacerbate the feeling of isolation. With the work hard and play hard ethos, you should have a fairly good idea of when your work-time and wild-times are going to take place. The main thing with food and drink is to avoid thinking, thinking, that your mental health can maintain your physical health. Take a more holistic view to what you are digesting, mentally and physically.

IMG_1589My last point, and I think this is the biggest point, relates mainly to my experiences in sociology, philosophy and culture studies – so I am note sure it entirely applies to subjects such as history or literature. You are welcome to criticize this as entirely my own view, but I am entitled to one: I have found in the past that students of sociology, culture studies or philosophy are generally people who have previously been marginalized in their lifetime, in some way or another. Therefore, we have grown up with a heightened sense of self as distinguished from society, and this attracts us to these subjects, and makes us good students in these disciplines. Most of us mainly deal with issues (“dualisms”) such as free will and determinism, subjectivity and objectivity, structure and agency, or individualism, solipsism, existentialism and so on. In researching such subjects we are constantly to further question and probe your Self – Who are “You” as an observer? What knowledge can “You” contribute? and so on. There is a constant demand for critical, self-reflexivity and this is something you could well have grown up with your entire non-academic life already. We all have our own view on this subject, some more extreme than others, I am more than willing to accept an external, objective, real world within which I play a role. But, be weary of this trap, the never-ending cave of solipsism, where you will constantly be re-re-re-re-re-eternally re-evaluating your role as a social observer before any social observing, criticism, writing or work gets done. My advice, if you feel yourself getting into that re-eternal occurrence (as Nietzsche would call it), then get outside, get active, get sporty, get jogging, get participating and get socialising.

Experiencing Dyslexia at the University of Cambridge

by James Addicott
St Edmunds College
Email: jea56@cam.ac.uk

Dyslexia is not only a struggle with written language but with bureaucracy in general. Some people don’t believe in dyslexia and in the past I have herd it referred to as “an excuse for lazy people.” I was diagnosed as being severely dyslexic at age of thirty having just started my undergraduate degree. I don’t necessarily believe in “dyslexia” either. How I have come to understand it, and how I explain it to other non-dyslexic people, is that not everyone can draw. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much shared or common power in drawing pictures. It would be quite nice if there were because I am actually quite good at drawing. Writing, however, has proved throughout history to be incredibly powerful. For better or for worse, just think how many lives The Word of God or The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has affected.

photoAs a mature student at Cambridge, and someone who actually enjoys the creative process of theorising and writing, then studying for a PhD represents the ultimate challenge in a struggle with written words. There is help available; the disability centre at this university is as friendly and welcoming as the other universities that I have studied at in the past. However, once again I am confronted with the same problem that I have encountered my whole life: bureaucracy. When applying for any of the funding or services that are available for people in my situation the first thing you are given is huge wads of paperwork to fill in, complete and return. The situation is almost as bizarre as handing a blind person a pamphlet to read to discover how they can get help reading. If dyslexia is recognised as a disorder that affects people in reading, then why hand them huge amounts of documentation?

What would actually make my life easier is if someone would just take the time to talk to me: discover what help I need and make recommendations. The whole process could be done verbally and that would also save on paper and the environment. The problem, I can only assume, is that this would make applying for disability allowances far too easy: what is required as a regimented form of bureaucratic gate-keeping: all the relevant boxes need ticking and paperwork processed before help, support and subsidies become available. This just leads to the most idiosyncratic situation, where people who struggle with reading and writing are forced to do even more paperwork at the time of their lives where they are surrounded with books to read and dissertations to write.

There have been theories of the Internet and computer networks alleviating the pressure on dyslexic students. Without a doubt the non-linear layout of interconnected web pages and automatic spell checkers on computers have contributed towards the successes in my academic career. However, bureaucratic institutions have in no way been fragmented by computing technologies, like some theorists predicted they would. While dyslexic websites are made to look bright and bubbly, easy to read and fun, it is almost inevitable that while searching for support for your disability what you will finally be given on your quest is one or several documents that will need to be download, read and understood, filled in, printed off and then handed in. There are lots of changes that I would like to make in the world: one of them is that people would lessen the amount of reading a “word blind,” dyslexic student needs to do, while assisting her or him to advance in their academic career. Please, help dyslexic students to battle paperwork bureaucracy instead of making them victims of it.

by James Addicott, St Edmunds College: Email: jea56@cam.ac.uk