The Aggregate: Kids and Instagram, The American Myth of Mobility, and The Rebirth of the Nokia Brick
“Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some of the biggest stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.”
Parenting and Social Media Go Together Like… Well, Nothing
The Guardian – Emine Saner, “The ‘sharent’ trap – should you ever put your children on social media?”
This lifestyle piece was published to The Guardian‘s U.S. site on May 24, 2018. While the concept of sharing pictures of cute kids on social media is not anything new, the ramifications of all of our online behavior is constantly evolving as technology changes, too. A great example of this was the passage of the General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR) by the European Union this week. Saner uses this brief piece to consider some of the less cheery, cute, harmless aspects of sharing pictures of your children on social media.
Are generations of children now growing up without privacy? “I don’t think so,” [Sonia Livingstone says]. “The conditions of their privacy are changing, partly because of their own actions, partly others’. What will matter to children is to feel they have agency, respect and dignity – that’s at the heart of privacy. So anyone sharing or using their images should prioritize this.”
Some professions— politicians, journalists, or officials who are supposed to remain nonpartisan for one reason or another— require their employees to maintain a degree of objectivity when it comes to sharing their opinions on social media. We all have a social media “footprint” (for lack of a better term), but we can see this issue in a whole new light when it comes to young(er) children.
One example she gives is parents posting pictures of their children at political demonstrations […] “They give the child a political agency in some way. But [parents] tend not to think about the fact that that’s creating a political trace that can be tracked in the future. It’s important that we start thinking about the way in which data is bought and used without us knowing […] social media is one tiny dimension of the data traces that are produced about children today.”
Author Bex Lewis offers a simple, yet seemingly ridiculous solution to our question of including children (especially when they are your own) in posts on social media, specifically if the content is promotional or monetized. Even if sitting down with a six-year-old to ask them for their permission to post a picture may seem ridiculous, it is a single instance in a much bigger picture of maintaining open and honest communication with children from a very young age.
“Keep the child involved in the conversation from an early age. The digital world is an everyday part of our lives now. It’s still evolving, so I’m not sure there are any fixed rules, but having a bit of thought about what you are posting and where you’re posting it is the critical thing.”
Mobility In America Is Disappearing, and Here’s Why
The Atlantic – Matthew Stewart, “The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy”
Note: Even the breakdown on this piece is a little on the long side, but it is SO worth the full-length read if you have the chance.
This piece ran as the cover story for the June 2018 edition of The Atlantic, and if you can get past the hefty word count (or even if you can’t, which might be why you’re here) it packs a powerful, moral punch. Laden with research and longitudinal studies, personal anecdotes, and larger theoretical ideas, Stewart’s piece paints a shocking picture of the ways in which America’s 9.9 percent (AKA, everyone in the top 10 percent, along with the top 0.1 percent) has silently tipped the scale of economic opportunity (and every other kind of opportunity, for that matter) heavily in their favor. Stewart pays special attention to ideas of family (specifically children) and the role that child-rearing has in shaping American understandings of things like mobility, equality, and success.
While media attention and common catchphrases constantly have us blaming “the one percent” for an assortment of wrongdoings— hoarding the majority of our country’s wealth, stifling economic activity, and ensuring that the political candidates/causes that they support see an ample amount of “support”— Stewart’s piece argues that the issue of economic imbalance in today’s economy is far more widespread than this framework of “the one percent” allows.
“So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re “middle class.”
Being self-effacing is one way to steer clear of taking blame for any social or economic downturn that appears to exist beyond the control of the humble members of this “middle class.” Another way to avoid blame is to, well, blame someone else. Stewart examines labor, home ownership and virtually anything else the government is involved in (directly or indirectly); as well as the ways in which the 9.9 percent have used their unassuming, yet widespread presence in all aspects of society to subvertedly reframe the narrative of who the government really helps. Safe neighborhoods and well-funded public schools create a buffer between these 9.9 percenters and the rest of the country that is wide enough to generate disdain for people on welfare or Social Security; and a conviction that those people are the ones getting all the help from the government.
“There is a page in the book of American Political Thought—Grandfather knew it by heart—that says we must choose between government and freedom. But if you read it twice, you’ll see that what it really offers is a choice between government you can see and government you can’t. Aristocrats always prefer the invisible kind of government. It leaves them free to exercise their privileges. We in the 9.9 percent have mastered the art of getting the government to work for us even while complaining loudly that it’s working for those other people.”
Jumping way down in Stewart’s piece, he takes ideas of competition and success in a capitalist society, and places them in the context of the extreme circumstances we are experiencing today. Socioeconomic stratification and class differences are more visible in today’s world than they have been in a long time (since the 1920s, Stewart argues), and 9.9 percenters have created means of preserving these class boundaries that extend far beyond saving money. Sending their kids to elite universities, using existing social networks and connections to get well-paying jobs, and even younger generations dating based on this “social wealth” are all ways in which the 9.9 percent continues to fortify their place near the top. These practices sound more like something out of a Jane Austen novel or The Great Gatsby (which Stewart actually mentions for more than one reason) than America in 2018, but the numbers add up and social attitudes confirm that this is, in fact, the world we live in today.
“The source of the trouble, considered more deeply, is that we have traded rights for privileges. We’re willing to strip everyone, including ourselves, of the universal right to a good education, adequate health care, adequate representation in the workplace, genuinely equal opportunities, because we think we can win the game. But who, really, in the end, is going to win this slippery game of escalating privileges?”
While all of this sounds fairly bleak, and Stewart poses an extremely valid question about these issues, he also offers insight on how to grapple with our new reality moving forward; in a way that shows promise for a lot more than just 10 percent of Americans. The U.S. Constitution was written so that it could be literally amended and updated to keep pace with a changing world. Stewart argues that this very concept of a document, which was acknowledged as imperfect and made ready for impending change from its very inception, is the key to rebalancing and advancing the socioeconomic stratification that exists in our country today.
“In our world, now, we need to understand that access to the means of sustaining good health, the opportunity to learn from the wisdom accumulated in our culture, and the expectation that one may do so in a decent home and neighborhood are not privileges to be reserved for the few who have learned to game the system. They are rights that follow from the same source as those that an earlier generation called life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
A more modern interpretation of what constitutes a meaningful, satisfying and safe life for Americans today is perhaps best envisioned through what kind of life we want to ensure for future generations. On this note, Stewart leaves readers with this particularly powerful call to action, which encourages a more inclusive, empathetic approach to what will really make Americans successful for generations to come.
“It’s going to take something from each of us, too, and perhaps especially from those who happen to be the momentary winners of this cycle in the game. We need to peel our eyes away from the mirror of our own success and think about what we can do in our everyday lives for the people who aren’t our neighbors. We should be fighting for opportunities for other people’s children as if the future of our own children depended on it. It probably does.”
So Your Smartphone Doesn’t Make You Smarter: Now What?
The New York Times Magazine – John Herrman, “Is a Dumber Phone a Better Phone?”
If a smartphone hasn’t made you smarter, then a dumb phone can’t make you dumber… right? In this piece, which ran in The New York Times Magazine on May 16th, delves into the ideas and the physical phones that are leading the movement to dumb down our cellphones. Not sold? Herrman compiles compelling evidence for stripping down the far-reaching capabilities of today’s smartphones in favor of something a little less distracting, and a little more 2006.
Herrman takes a look at the relationships users have with their smartphones in our society today, and identifies some of the companies and products (like the Light Phone) that have come to market recently in an effort to disrupt that relationship.
“The smartphone is half of a strained and intimate relationship, one that we never could have imagined would become so serious, but which we now can’t imagine leaving. This portrait of discontent would seem to suggest a need— or at least some demand— for smartphone alternatives. But the market has yet to signal that it’s sick of smartphones […]”
If you’re going to try to do something— build a phone, in this case— that feels straight out of the pre-iPhone era, then why not consult the people who were actually building (and selling an insane amount) of the devices for real up until 2006? That is exactly what Herrman suggests Nokia is planning to do.
“Few companies are better positioned to make a less-smart phone than Nokia […] In early 2017, Nokia announced a new model, the 3310, based loosely on a predecessor of the same name first released in 2000, a.k.a. “the Brick,” one of the most popular cellphones in the world. It is not the purpose of the 3310 to offer much of anything new, but it can at least offer a challenge: You joke that you miss your old phone, so here’s a chance to buy one.”
These dumber phones actually may take less time and attention away from your normal routine, and their approach isn’t genius in its complexity, but rather for its simplicity. Products, like the Light Phone and Unihertz Jelly, phone seek to make people less interested in their phones by making them less interesting. Simple interfaces, small text, minimal displays, and lack of access to 256GB worth of apps (thanks, Apple) are all features of these minimalist phones of the future.
“[The Unihertz Jelly phone’s] approach to smartphone moderation is to make the process of using it difficult enough that, in more marginal cases, it’s simply not worth it. It’s an engagement machine with the resistance turned up as high as possible. Messages become shorter. Reading becomes more deliberate. An idle check of the phone is associated less with the rush of refreshing an app than with the tedious process of opening one in the first place. As an individual strategy, the device supposes that helplessness might be solved, or at least replaced, with frustration.”
Whether or not these products become massive on a popular scale is beside the point, Herrman argues. The ability of products, like the Light Phone, to get traction at all, suggest bigger, more important ideas about technology use and our relationship with our smartphones to consider moving forward.
“They are the products the tech giants haven’t given us and probably never will. But they illustrate, at least, how narrow the industry’s imagination has become, and how much we wish for its expansion in any direction but directly, inevitably forward. They may also suggest a need to adjust our collective sense of what smartphones are, and why they bother us when they do.”
Thanks for reading this week, and see you again next week.