Archive for Think Tank

You’re Not Making Marriage Look Any Better

New York magazine interviewed “economist Joseph Stieglitz” and “his wife Anya Schiffrin” about why marriage rates are so low.

Anya makes an excellent point about the practical implications of marriage for women:

A.S.: Obviously for women getting married also means a hell of a lot more work.

J.S.: Is that right?

A.S.: [Laughs.] Well, of course, we divide things up 50-50.

So, okay, she’s probably used to being “his wife” – I imagine that’s part for the course if you’re married to a Nobel Laureate. But it’s great to hear that, despite his fame, they’ve developed an equal partnership.

Oh, wait.

A.S.: I’d love to comment on that study, but everything I know about it comes from you. One thing that definitely happens in a marriage, speaking of division of labor, is a division of information. When I was a journalist, I had to pay attention to where the dollar was and what the stock market was doing. Now I can always ask you. And there are a million things you don’t have to pay attention to because you can ask me. All domestic matters, for example.

J.S.: I would say more broadly that it’s everything except economics. Movies, plays, culture …

A.S.: Who’s who, and why do we recognize that person. It really is everything but economics. [Laughs.] It’s dynamic comparative advantage.

So, he specializes in being an award-winning economist, and she specializes in household affairs and their social life? All of a sudden it’s looking a lot less like 50-50 to me – particularly since only one of those roles is lucrative and high-status. (And asking “Is that right?” about whether marriage means more work for women? That’s just adding insult to injury.)

What’s going on here? Was Schiffrin making a bitter joke about the division of labor in their marriage? Are they exaggerating the degree to which he abdicates from everything but economic excellence? How can they possibly hold both those points of view?

I’m guessing this is an example of value conflict. Steiglitz and Schiffrin likely value fairness, equality, mutuality, and all those other good things – and no one wants to admit that their life violates the values they hold dear. This is what Maushart calls “pseudomutuality” – a facade of equality covering an unequal and highly gendered division of labor. What’s fascinating is that pseudomutual couples don’t just fool other people; they often genuinely fool themselves into believing their marriage is fair, because they can’t bear the alternative. No one wants to think of themselves as an exploiter, or to admit that they allow themselves to be exploited and abused.

This not-even-very-close reading shows the ugly reality of many marriages, which fall far short of our collective ideals and values. Wondering why marriage rates are at an all-time low? I think that’s a pretty good answer.

Skin in the Game

Matt Taibbi gets very upset about bankers claiming they’re the ones with skin in the game:

But it seems to me that if you’re broke enough that you’re not paying any income tax, you’ve got nothing but skin in the game. You’ve got it all riding on how well America works.

You can’t afford private security: you need to depend on the police. You can’t afford private health care: Medicare is all you have. You get arrested, you’re not hiring Davis, Polk to get you out of jail: you rely on a public defender to negotiate a court system you’d better pray deals with everyone from the same deck. And you can’t hire landscapers to manicure your lawn and trim your trees: you need the garbage man to come on time and you need the city to patch the potholes in your street.

And in the bigger picture, of course, you need the state and the private sector both to be functioning well enough to provide you with regular work, and a safe place to raise your children, and clean water and clean air.

The entire ethos of modern Wall Street, on the other hand, is complete indifference to all of these matters. The very rich on today’s Wall Street are now so rich that they buy their own social infrastructure. They hire private security, they live on gated mansions on islands and other tax havens, and most notably, they buy their own justice and their own government.

Perhaps I’m slightly less cynical than Taibbi, but I don’t think it’s just that the very rich can opt out of our shared social goods. Don’t get me wrong – all of them can some of the time, and some of them can all of the time. But I don’t think that’s the core problem.

I think, rather, that it’s easy to take these shared social goods for granted, to assume they’ll always be there no matter how many pension funds get plundered or how much budgets get cut. The human mind is weirdly conservative. We tend to assume that the way things are is the way they must always be, particularly when they are deeply embedded into our institutions, our social rhetoric, and our values. They become nearly invisible, unless you’re one of the people encountering them day to day.

I don’t think Schwartzman wants to destroy, say, the police. I think he assumes the police will magically continue to exist, because that’s how America works. Because he doesn’t have to engage with the police, because he’s got enough money to buy himself out, he never sees the reality of the police – only the stories we tell about them.

I think it’s analogous to how a lot of men see housework; clean clothes magically appear, and if they ever bother to think about the process, they assume that’s just how life works. They keep throwing dirty clothes on the floor*, knowing that the clean clothes will just keep coming – until the day their wife walks out on them, because actually they have no idea of the work they are creating or the person who is doing it.

In my analysis, Schwartzman and his ilk are in a similar situation. They think the way things are is the way they’ll always be. They can keep acting just as they like, because a functioning society is just how things work. And because their social bubble keeps them away from people who have to engage with those social goods more directly, they’ll keep thinking it, right up until the day things stop working for them.

* I do feel the need to say that if anyone throws clothes on the floor in my relationship, it’s me – but laundry remains a job primarily done by women, so I’m using it as the example here.

Second Thoughts on UP

As I type this, I’m wearing my UP bracelet – so if you don’t feel like reading this entire post, you can just consider the UP experiment to be an ongoing success.

I learned the most about my ongoing relationship with the UP when my band failed. In fact, that’s when I found out it was a relationship in the first place! I spent more time than I’d like to admit unplugging, replugging, resetting, and recharging. I even gave my band a helpful pep talk! Needless to say, nothing worked. I called customer service, got a printable shipping label, sent my band back and had a replacement en route the same day.

After more than a week with the band, going without it was strange. Here’s what I noticed.

Wrist freedom. I’ve had trouble with RSI in the past, so I’m hyper-aware of wrist stress. While the band didn’t give me any problems, I never quite got used to it enough to stop noticing it. This is actually partly good; noticing the band reminds me of my commitment to healthy behavior. Still, I enjoyed the extra freedom, particularly while typing and knitting.

Knowledge is power. It was sad not to know how much I was walking every day, especially because during the three days I was bandless I ran around quite a bit. I didn’t realize how excited I was to have that data until, suddenly, I didn’t.

Consistency rules. I’ve been kind of annoyed by the band’s built-in alarm and its tendency to ignore my sleep goals when waking me up. However, I didn’t realize the system’s biggest benefit: it was just hard enough to reset the alarm that I was leaving it set for the same time every day. While I was bandless, I kept on waking up at that time – sometimes even before my alarm!

Now that I’ve got my band back, I’m once again syncing my data three or four times a day to see how far I’ve walked. I’m not using the built-in alarm anymore, but I’ve set my phone alarm to wake me at the same time every day. And I’m reconciled to the slight adjustments I’ve got to make while wearing it. For the moment, it’s clearly worthwhile.

I’m still waiting for Jawbone to give me better access to my data, but I believe they’ll eventually get this right. For the moment I’m fairly happy collecting a baseline set of activity, sleep and food data, and finding patterns on my own.

Previously: First Thoughts on UP

First Thoughts on UP

Tuesday night, I came home to find a package waiting for me in the mailbox. It was a Jawbone UP! I breathlessly peeled it out of its case (notably well-designed, by the way) and stuck it on my wrist. I’m not only a game designer, I’ve also been trying to stay active while writing my dissertation, which is harder than you’d think – so I’m analyzing this thing both as a researcher and as a user.

For those following along at home, the UP is a system that tracks your activity, eating and sleep habits. The system includes a rubberized wristband, which has an accelerometer and a button that lets you give it some explicit instructions, like “I’m working out now” and “I’m sleeping now.” It connects to an app, which lets you see your results, and also lets you take pictures of your food for later analysis.

Some things about it are awesome …

Always available. I’ve owned a pedometer for years. Guess how often I remember to clip it on when I’m heading out? I can wear the wristband anywhere – even in the shower. If I never take it off, I never have to remember to put it back on. Similarly, my phone is the one thing I can count on always having nearby. I can check my data anytime, which is super motivating. For example, today I decided to do errands on my way home, instead of asking my husband to do them, because I checked my activity level on my way out of the office and realized it was low.

Sleep data. In addition to telling me how much I sleep, the band collects data on the quality and depth of my sleep. It can tell when I wake up in the middle of the night, when I’m sleeping deeply, and when I’m only lightly dozing. It gives me an overall sleep quality rating, and a picture of when I was in which mode of sleep during the night. Very cool.

Activity and food reminders. The band can be set to vibrate at various periods during the day, if you haven’t gotten any activity recently. (I’ve got mine set for once per hour.) The app pops up a notification asking you how you feel three hours after each meal. Together, these reminders mean that you never have to think about the app; it nudges you when it’s time for you to take action, and it doesn’t have to occupy mental space in between. As someone who has a lot going on, I really appreciate that feature.

On the other hand …

Alarm stupidity. The band’s got a built-in alarm system that wakes you up when it thinks, based on physiological signals, that your body is most ready to be awake. You give it a half-hour range and it does its best! The problem is that it keeps waking me up 12-15 minutes before I hit my sleep goals for the day. I’m walking around all day with a 99% full sleep meter, and wishing I could just tell the thing to be a little more chill when I’m about to get a full seven hours. But I can’t shift my alarm later because if it wakes me up too late, I won’t make it to the office on time. The app knows about my sleep goals; it should use that information to manage my alarm settings.

Requires connectivity. Instead of keeping my data on my phone, it logs it back to a central server every single time there’s an update. This might not be a problem for some people, but my office has neither wireless nor cell phone reception. It means I have to walk upstairs to check on my data – which, okay, okay, means I’m getting more activity, but it’s also kind of a pain.

Data analysis. Or rather, the extremely light-weight nature thereof. All you can really see is how you’ve done that day. No graphs, no charts, no trends – or if there are any, they’re so deeply buried I haven’t found them yet. I’m hoping they release better data analysis tools and more visualizations over time.

And here’s what I’ve learned about myself …

I sleep less than I think. I spent all of high-school and college perpetually sleep-deprived, so I like to boast about how getting eight hours of sleep a night is a priority. Turns out I sleep less than that – a lot less. My longest night of sleep so far was just over seven hours. If that’s a pattern, it needs to change.

I walk more than I think – a lot more. I like to walk, and for a while my husband and I were walking something like twenty miles a week, on top of our normal everyday activity. With my crazy deadlines, that’s fallen by the wayside a bit – but my “everyday” level of activity is still over 2 miles a day. That’s not awful, and I’m finding ways to increase it in one-minute increments. That way I can maintain a better baseline of activity even when I’m swamped, like I am now.

I rarely eat between meals. In fact, my biggest challenge is that I forget to eat, and then get hungry, cranky and headachy. I have to stop grabbing whatever’s handy at 3pm.

I’ll be reporting back in a couple of weeks, so I’ll let you know how much of this is first-blush excitement and how much is sustainable. I’m guessing the latter, especially if I can find some people I know who are also trying this thing. I wouldn’t want to share my data with strangers, but I’d love to collaborate with (and challenge!) my friends. So if you’re UP for it (oh, but you knew I was going there at some point) let me know and I’ll add you to my team!

Install This Extension!

My brilliant friend Danielle made a thing! A really cool, mind-blowing, brain-breaking thing!

Jailbreak the Patriarchy is a Chrome extension that swaps the gender of the Internet. Man becomes woman, girl becomes guy, he becomes she and her becomes his.

Here’s why this matters: because most of the time, we can’t see just how strongly gender affects our day-to-day experience. We have expected narratives for women to fit into, and schemas for what male behavior looks like. When those are subverted, we feel a sense of strangeness – and noticing just how often things feel strange, when genders are swapped, is a pretty good start to noticing just how much your own life experience is shaped by some of the same things.

Conceptual change only happens when people are confronted with experiences their existing concept can’t explain away. I hope that for at  least a few people, Jailbreak the Patriarchy will provide experiences of that sort.

Rooms and Elephants

In defiance of Internet Time, I’m going to recommend an essay I came across a couple of months ago: Sven Birkerts’ “The Room and the Elephant.”

Birkerts weighs in on a debate I’m quite deeply interested in, both personally and as a scholar. Whether it’s being framed as a conversation about collective intelligence, expertise, authorship or individuality, the thread running through it is always the myth of individual creativity.

I say myth quite deliberately, because unlike Birkerts and Lanier (of whom he seems to approve, though I can’t imagine why), I find the notion of individual creativity deeply problematic. We romanticize a process that actually involves many more people than we like to admit. Colleagues, collaborators, conversation partners, chance encounters are all a part of the creative process – not to mention the professional apparatus involved with execution, production and distribution of any big idea. Every creator is connected to the world. We use the myth of individual creativity to draw a line between what is the creator’s and what is the world’s, but that line is essentially arbitrary, drawn more from our minds and dreams than from reality.

At the same time, that hardly puts me in a camp with Bustillos and the others Birkerts cites as his opposition. I believe expertise matters, for example; I’m enough of a cognitive psychologist to understand the ways in which experts differ from novices in perception, memory, problem-solving and more. I think it’s disingenuous to assume those differences don’t translate to the digital world. I also am less than enchanted with the notion that online is necessarily different. You’ll notice I don’t believe that individual creativity has become a myth, in our newly networked world. Rather, I believe that it has always been a myth that we finally have the tools to examine.

Finally, I’ll add that I’m increasingly interested in the role of the body in our increasingly screen-based age. I think it’s no coincidence that the body is treated more and more like an object, to be exercised or groomed or controlled, as our work lives become more and more about pouring our brains onto screens. Birkerts may call it a longing for selfhood, but I’d argue that a lot of the web is about expressing and constructing selves – even if it’s not the deep subjectivity Birkerts valorizes. What’s missing is a way of constructing the self that integrates the mind, the body, and the often-forgotten heart.

Beauty Work, Geeky Work

As a woman who profoundly hates the geek identity options open to her*, I’m always interested to hear someone talk intelligently about the problem of female objectification in geek culture. Yesterday I came across a fantastic article on Geek Feminism that does precisely that.

I recommend you go read the article; it’s subtle and nuanced and very, very smart. Stoker ties the “slave Leia cosplay” phenomenon to the beauty work required of women in modern American culture, and points out that it gets rewarded in rather concrete ways. Positioning yourself as the geek babe can be a pretty good idea for you, as an individual, because that’s how you get your metaphorical cookies. It’s the same reason I wear makeup to job interviews and important meetings, even though I’m fully aware of what it means. Compliance with beauty norms has very real rewards, whether you’re hoping to get a promotion or just feel included at a con.

Of course, if you think back to the flap over whether Miss USA could really be a geek, playing the beauty game really doesn’t help you in the long run. You can’t win, ladies! That’s how you know it’s sexism!

What Stoker’s article got me thinking about, though, is why.

To be Miss USA – or Olivia Munn, or Team Unicorn – requires an enormous amount of work meeting the expectations of others. You have to police how you look, how you act, what you wear, how you talk to people, to meet a constantly changing set of standards. And what’s the romantic myth** of geekdom? We’re outsiders. We don’t conform. We suffer for our weird passions.

Doing beauty work challenges the origin story, so to speak of geekdom. You’re not an outsider; you’re an insider. You’re not a rebel; you’re a conformist. Your passions aren’t weird; they’re mainstream. If you can bring yourself to do beauty work – and worse, succeed at it – then you can’t possibly be one of us, because you clearly don’t believe what we believe.

The truly funny thing is that I think many geeks are completely oblivious to the enormous work they do to participate in geek culture, a la Goffman. The myth of geekdom is a naturalistic one. We do not perform mainstream culture, therefore we do not perform. We are simply ourselves.

This is, of course, a magnificent self-delusion. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s one that’s going to change anytime soon.

* But who also can’t opt out entirely, what with the loving (and working with!) many things that geek culture loves to claim.

** This myth irritates the crap out of me, especially when it’s the source of so freaking many boring stories.

Passion and Work

I’m generally hesitant to write about studies I haven’t read yet, but I was so fascinated by this piece about passion and work that I’ll break my own rule. (But I’ll get the original article when I’m back on campus next week!)

I came across this piece as part of some research I’m doing on meaning-making and intrinsic motivation. Passion – what an awesome thing to study! But what really captured my imagination was Vallerand’s distinction between two types of passion: harmonious passion and obsessive passion.

Harmonious passion, Vallerand argues, is passion that fits into one’s life. Work is experienced as joyful, harmonious, and consonant with one’s larger life values. Obsessive passion, on the other hand, involves uncontrollable urges and a sense of lack of control. Instead of work fitting into one’s life, the work becomes one’s life.

While I couldn’t easily find the passion type questionnaire online, I used the examples quoted in the article to give myself a quick self-test. Do I engage in my work with a harmonious or an obsessive passion? Based on their six questions – half the test – I seem to be harmoniously passionate.

What was most useful to me about this model was actually how I feel about my passion. I sometimes feel guilty that I’m not more obsessive about my work. I’m very happy when I’m singing, or sailing, or reading, or talking to interesting people. If I couldn’t do the work I do, I can imagine other work that would satisfy me. For a long time, I’ve wondered if that dooms me to being creatively and professionally second-rate. Conceiving of this experience as successful harmonious passion, instead of unsuccessful obsessive passion, lets me see the power and advantages of my approach. I call it my ‘magpie mind’ – my ability to see all the things I do in the context of the questions that interest me. When I’m singing or reading or sailing, I’m doing so as the same person who writes and designs studies and conducts research. That lets me bring the lessons of those experiences back into my professional life.

On the other hand, I do have an obsessive passion. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you can probably guess what it is: reading. I think about the books I read all the time. If I don’t read, it impacts my mood. I sometimes can’t stop myself from reading when I really should be doing other things.

According to the article, obsessive passion is linked to a whole host of negative experiences and outcomes – but reading is an enormously positive force in my life. I wonder if that’s because it’s a core part of my identity. It’s part of my work and part of my play, part of my relationships and part of my deeply private life.

All that said: after some of my recent reading, I can’t stop hearing the class assumptions behind any discussion of work and passion. I’ve definitely got to get my hands on that original paper to see whether they’re conflating a psychological experience with a sociological construct. You may be hearing more from me about this then.

Identity and Action

A friend just pointed me at a fantastic* study of voting behavior, well-summarized at Language Log.

People were asked about their future voting behavior in one of two forms. Some people were asked whether they were going to vote. In other words, they were asked to predict their future behavior. However, a second group were asked if they were voters. These people had to predict what they might do in context of their identity as “voter,” or perhaps more likely, “someone who is actively engaged with civil society and shows it by voting.”

Guess which group was more likely to vote**? The second group – the ones who were reminded of how the specific action (voting) would advertise a positive element of their identity (being a “voter”).

We all use our actions to advertise who we think we are, especially when those identities are supported by a community that we’re a part of. For example, I think of myself as a reader. I advertise my reader-self all the time – by reading in public, by talking about books with friends, by writing about what I read here on this site. I get lots of social approbation for being a reader, too, whether in the form of explicit compliments or access to awesome people who like to talk books with me.

The study authors point out, though, that voting is quite private behavior. It’s also something that only happens once in a while; you don’t exactly get regular reinforcement for it! Perhaps the identity-invocation works so well because people aren’t getting it in the course of their ordinary voting lives. If people were reminded of themselves as voters every day, I bet we’d see a positive effect on voting rates in this country.

Of course, the question becomes who thinks of themselves as “a voter.” I had a fascinating conversation with Jay Blahnik*** at the GE Game Changers Summit yesterday about just this issue. He explained that he works with people who run – but that some people who run very seriously are hesitant about taking on the identity of “runner.” Within the community, there’s a concept of what being a runner means, and who gets to define that concept, that leaves some people out. For example, before Nike+, “runners” didn’t listen to music. Some people ran a lot but also listened to music, which left them outside the bounds of the “runner” identity. Of course, now that aspect of being a runner is changing!****

What I’m wondering is this. Does being a voter work like being a runner? Do some people simply not feel included by that identity, even as they participate in the behavior it describes? What do people think they have to do to “be a voter”? Do they see it as a personal quality, like competence or moral behavior, that relies largely on their own individual actions, or are there people who implicitly decide who’s in and out?

Of course, I’m also thinking hard about how we might answer these questions for the identity of “learner” someday!

* Not a surprise; Carol Dweck was a co-author, and I respect her enormously.

** It actually turns out that both groups were more likely to vote than average – possibly because of having participated in the experiment in the first place! But the difference between the groups is still robust, and the implications of the study still significant.

*** Who is fantastic!

**** The term “gamer” is contested, too – but in a much more depressing way, because the term is often deployed to exclude anyone who isn’t straight, white and male. For example, Lesley Kinzel dissects the impressive sexism displayed by a bunch of Battlefield 3 players who excluded women from their LAN party.

Good Questions at the Seder Table

Six years ago, my partner and I decided to host our first Passover Seder. Although we spent the official Seder nights with my family this year, this past Friday we hosted seventeen of our dearest friends for an unofficial but extremely Seder-like event. We studied and argued and sang and ate and drank wine late into the night – this year was a new record, finishing at nearly 4am! And we only ended because our bodies failed us, not because our hearts or our minds did.

Our Seders are, so I’m told, fairly unusual. We try to combine attentiveness to tradition with a sort of radical openness, both intellectual and emotional. (Our friend Amy summed it up when she said, “You’d best come to this Seder with an open mind and an open heart.”) We use the traditional text as our basis for discussion, but we’ve also read Ursula K. Le Guin, argued about semiotics, and studied Mishna at the Seder table. We ask everyone who joins us to take the Seder seriously as a Jewish ritual, but we include atheists and agnostics, Christians and Buddhists, and of course Jews of all stripes. There is room for anyone who is willing to ask a good question.

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about what makes a good question. In my post advising high school students about game research, I tried to introduce students to the idea of disciplinary thinking – that people with different disciplinary approaches will think different questions are good ones. I saw this happening in practice just the other day! I’m part of an interdisciplinary fellowship program, and at our seminar last week a colleague presented her work on how taxation and transparency affect political engagement. I thought it was a really well-designed study that effectively isolated the specific variables she was looking at – but the questions she was getting from, say, the historians and sociologists in the room were really not about the study at all. They were asking these wonderfully rich questions about the local political situation, and concepts of ownership, and how information flows, which were clearly rooted in the types of questions their own disciplines support. Sometimes I think half the work of the program is just getting us to understand the kinds of questions other scholars spend their lives grappling with!

But, of course, not all questions are disciplinary. When it comes to life questions, I’m inspired by this wonderful essay about why “Do you believe in God” is a bad question. Rabbi Mitelman essentially says that to ask a good question, you must let go of any preconceived notions you have about the answer. That’s a powerful technique to use in conversation – and, for that matter, at a Seder. At this year’s Seder, someone asked why we say the Hallel, a series of psalms in praise of God. What does it mean to praise God? What if one doesn’t identify as a Jew? What if one doesn’t believe in God? How metaphorical is our relationship to the text? What can we learn from it no matter who we are? These are not questions with answers, but they are questions that can lead to reflection and, one hopes, eventually wisdom.

Of course, disciplinary questions and “lifeworld” questions aren’t entirely separate ones. I find they intersect most often when I teach. Early in every semester, I tell my students, “When I ask a question in this class, I don’t always know the answer – and those are the best questions, because it means you can find something out.” The questions are always rooted in the (multiple) disciplines I use to engage with games, but the answers are genuinely unknown. It feels incredibly risky, whether you’re asking about game design or God, but it’s the only way to know the world as something more than what you think it is. As my friend Rob once put it, “The world is more interesting than any one person in it.”  And I really, really like the world that way.