Social networks stand accused of being enemies of productivity. According to one popular (if questionable) infographic circulating online, the use of Facebook, Twitter and other such sites at work costs the American economy $650 billion each year. Our attention spans are atrophying, our test scores declining, all because of these “weapons of mass distraction.”
Yet such worries have arisen before. In England in the late 1600s, very similar concerns were expressed about another new media-sharing environment, the allure of which seemed to be undermining young people’s ability to concentrate on their studies or their work: the coffeehouse. It was the social-networking site of its day.
Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world. England’s first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in the early 1650s, and hundreds of similar establishments sprang up in London and other cities in the following years. People went to coffeehouses not just to drink coffee, but to read and discuss the latest pamphlets and news-sheets and to catch up on rumor and gossip.
Coffeehouses were also used as post offices. Patrons would visit their favorite coffeehouses several times a day to check for new mail, catch up on the news and talk to other coffee drinkers, both friends and strangers. Some coffeehouses specialized in discussion of particular topics, like science, politics, literature or shipping. As customers moved from one to the other, information circulated with them.
The diary of Samuel Pepys, a government official, is punctuated by variations of the phrase “thence to the coffeehouse.” His entries give a sense of the wide-ranging conversations he found there. The ones for November 1663 alone include references to “a long and most passionate discourse between two doctors,” discussions of Roman history, how to store beer, a new type of nautical weapon and an approaching legal trial.
One reason these conversations were so lively was that social distinctions were not recognized within the coffeehouse walls. Patrons were not merely permitted but encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers from entirely different walks of life. As the poet Samuel Butler put it, “gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.”
Not everyone approved. As well as complaining that Christians had abandoned their traditional beer in favor of a foreign drink, critics worried that coffeehouses were keeping people from productive work. Among the first to sound the alarm, in 1677, was Anthony Wood, an Oxford academic. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the University?” he asked. “Answer: Because of Coffea Houses, where they spend all their time.”
Why closed-down stores?
The idea went back to 2005 when I drove weekly past a large closed supermarket on the North Side of Chicago. At night the space really transformed from one of neglect and misuse to something incredibly visual that described a Rothko-esque painting space divided in three parts (parking lot, building, and sky). I spent a few nights making some photographs to try and replicate what I saw. I had been working on a larger project dealing with American consumerism, and it was no surprise to me that these spaces would fail and dwindle as fast they arise. I was in the midst of a deeper project, photographing in thrift stores and recycling shops as part of my “Copia” series, so I shelved the idea.
At the end of 2007 with many rumblings of recession, I thought of those pictures and began the project in earnest in May of 2008. In many senses it was a vindication of what I had been talking about in my earlier work. How can an economy sustain a lifestyle based on exponential growth and the leisure and wealth to support it? It’s not rocket science to expect these kind of illusions to fail. What’s strange is how ingrained the brands and spaces are to us that so many were not only surprised to see major retailers and malls sink but were saddened. Many of these ideas were set in motion decades ago.
Don’t criticize me for posting this, I am from Alberta after all.
The drivers of the trucks are here for the same reason I am: the boom in drilling for oil and natural gas. The vast, dry lands south of Vernal hold about half of the state’s active rigs and present a veritable smorgasbord of opportunities for energy extraction: shale aplenty, fracking for both oil and natural gas, and even the state’s very own poised-to-open tar sands. Uintah County has been Utah’s main oil producer for more than 70 years. As far back as 1918, National Geographic extolled the area’s potential: “Campers and hunters in building fires against pieces of the rock had been surprised to find that they ignited, that they contain oil.” In other words, what is happening here is no nouveau drilling dalliance, no young sweetheart in first flush, freshly wooed, like the Bakken Field in North Dakota, but an on-again, off-again affair that has been going on for decades.
It is that affair that interests me, with all the salacious details of how Big Oil sidles up to a town, flirts with it, and wins it over. Not to mention what happens if — or, more accurately, when — the wooer decides to ditch the wooed.
In Vernal, population 9,000, evidence of earlier wooing abounds. A quick ride around town reveals Big Oil’s equivalent of a dozen roses or a box of candy. There are shiny new schools and municipal buildings and ballparks. The Western Park Convention Center, covering 32 acres, is one of the largest buildings of its kind in the West. Not every town hosts a golf tournament called Petroleum Days or throws a music festival — like last summer’s weekend-long Country Explosion — co-sponsored by a maker of centrifuges and mud/gas separators. Then there’s the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College, a beautiful sandstone building with the streamlined look of a brand-new upscale airport.
On my first visit to Vernal, in the heat of July, I peeked in on a class called Well Control, where a movie was being shown that, unlike the grainy safety films of my youth, had the production values of a Spielberg movie. There were models of oil derricks in the lobby, with the name Anadarko, the giant Texas oil company that is one of the area’s main employers, prominently displayed. In this case, Anadarko’s particular bouquet was a $1.5 million gift for construction and faculty endowment.
It was a short drive over to the rec center, a looming spectacle of oaken beams and concrete and great sheets of glass that revealed within Olympic-size pools and running tracks and climbing walls and squash courts. It looked as if Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Shorter had gotten together to build their dream house. This building points to one of the less obvious ways the town has been wooed. While Anadarko alone paid $14 million in county property taxes last year, the total income for Vernal and Uintah County from oil and gas far exceeds this number, as a result of sales tax, production taxes, mining royalties, and lease payments on federal land. In other words, the building is not a gift outright but the metaphoric equivalent of Big Oil saying, “Here, honey, go buy yourself something nice.”
It starts out well
“When I first came here in the seventies, it was a beautiful place,” Herm said. “A lazy Main Street lined with cottonwoods. The old booms had faded, and the two top businesses in town were agriculture and tourism. People came to see the dinosaur quarry at the park. People came to float on the river.”
He held out his large hands, palms up. “And what are we left with now?”
Certainly not tourism. A tourist would be hard pressed to find a hotel room in Vernal. In fact, while oil jobs and the services that support them have been rising, the numbers of people employed in agriculture and recreation have fallen dramatically.
And then there were the busts. Herm remembers the last one. Storage lockers of people’s possessions being auctioned off. Houses foreclosed. He is not against drilling, he told me, but what is lacking is perspective and long-term thinking. The problem is exemplified by the archetypal Vernal high school student who drops out, lured by the chance to make money working in the oil fields, and buys a house, a big truck, some ATVs.
“What happens if that job goes away?” Herm asked. “He is left with no education, many debts.” In fact, at the public meeting where Herm questioned the oil orthodoxy, a boy just like that stood up and said, “If we don’t keep drilling, how will I pay for everything?”
Herm wasn’t trying to drive oil out of town. He was merely suggesting that Vernal proceed with some restraint and consider investing in the future. For that he was greeted with fury, even death threats.
Over the past 40 years Herm had seen Big Oil bring its gifts, and its gifts were shiny. But he had also seen oil and chemicals foaming and floating down the Green River. He had seen rising crime, prostitution, spousal abuse, and a culture defined by the twentysomething males who come to work the oil fields. (Utah has a higher incidence of rape than the national average, and Vernal has a much higher rate than the state as a whole.) Air quality has dramatically worsened; last winter’s ozone levels in the county rivaled those of Los Angeles.
All this has made Herm a little less giddy than most about Vernal’s prospects.
“I’ve been through it before,” he said. “They come into your neighborhood. They change your neighborhood. Then they move away. And we’re left to pick up the pieces and pay the bills.”
The party does always end but it’s going to be going on for a while, even in towns like Vernal. Yet even in Alberta, the party may not end, it may be occasionally interrupted.
The US consumes 25% of the world’s oil — but as energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens points out onstage, the country has no energy policy to prepare for the inevitable. Is alternative energy our bridge to an oil-free future? After losing $150 million investing in wind energy, Pickens suggests it isn’t, not yet. What might get us there? Natural gas.
The Baining—one of the indigenous cultural groups of Papua New Guinea—have the reputation, at least among some researchers, of being the dullest culture on earth. Early in his career, in the 1920s, the famous British anthropologist Gregory Bateson spent 14 months among them, until he finally left in frustration. He called them “unstudiable,” because of their reluctance to say anything interesting about their lives and their failure to exhibit much activity beyond the mundane routines of daily work, and he later wrote that they lived “a drab and colorless existence.” Forty years later, Jeremy Pool, a graduate student in anthropology, spent more than a year living among them in the attempt to develop a doctoral dissertation. He too found almost nothing interesting to say about the Baining, and the experience caused him to leave anthropology and go into computer science.
Finally, however, anthropologist Jane Fajans, now at Cornell University, figured out a way to study them.
Fajans studied the Baining in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s. Like her predecessors, she found that they lacked the cultural structures that are the stock-in-trade of anthropology, such as myths, festivals,religious traditions, and puberty rites, and that the method of trying to learn about them through interviews produced little response. They did not tell stories, rarely gossiped, and exhibited little curiosity or enthusiasm. In Fajans’s words, “Their conversation is obsessively mundane, concerned primarily with food-getting and food-processing.” She found, however, that she could study them by following them around and observing their daily activities and interactions. From this she could discern their general cultural beliefs and values. What she found is fascinating, at least to me. By negative example, it tells us something about the value of play to human existence.
The Baining are small-scale agriculturalists, who subsist on their gardens and the few animals they raise. In their style of life and attitudes they are in many ways the opposite of hunter-gatherers, including those hunter-gatherers to whom they are closely related. Hunter-gatherers love the bush, or forest; value freedom and individual initiative; and—as I have discussed elsewhere (including here and here)—are extraordinarily playful in their daily lives and especially value play among children. Hunter-gatherer children are allowed to play all day, every day, from dawn to dusk, and in that way they acquire the subsistence skills, social skills, and personal traits and values that characterize their culture. In contrast, the Baining shun the bush, which they view as chaotic and dangerous, and they derogate play, especially that among children.
Yep, sounds like Moose Jaw. via
This talk is by FS Michaels, the author of Monoculture and is from the Vancouver talent search for TED Talks. FS Michaels is the author of "Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything," which won the 2011 NCTE George Orwell Award for outstanding contributions to the critical analysis of public discourse. Watch the presentation and if you like it, head here to rate it.
By the way, Monoculture is on my list for the 10 best books I have ever read. If you haven’t read it, make sure you pick it up.
The NY Times has a piece about the challenge of making new friends in your 30s and 40s.
In studies of peer groups, Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California, observed that people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had.
Basically, she suggests, this is because people have an internal alarm clock that goes off at big life events, like turning 30. It reminds them that time horizons are shrinking, so it is a point to pull back on exploration and concentrate on the here and now. "You tend to focus on what is most emotionally important to you," she said, "so you’re not interested in going to that cocktail party, you’re interested in spending time with your kids."
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
Luc Ferrandez’s last bicycle was a Kona, a sturdy model with thick tires, ideal for hauling heavy loads. During his 2009 campaign as the Projet Montréal candidate for the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, he would hook it to a trailer piled with a laptop, a projector, a collapsible screen, and (this being Montreal) a couple of bottles of rosé. After setting up his equipment next to a café terrace, he would distribute paper cups and launch a PowerPoint slide show of streets and squares in Copenhagen, Paris, and Madrid, as well as historical photos of local boulevards, all unencumbered by traffic. He figures it was these partys de trottoir, or sidewalk parties—during which he made the case that Montreal could be as clean, green, and safe as any place in Europe—that won him the mayoralty of the city’s most populous district. His mountain bike, alas, didn’t survive the campaign.
“I was having a discussion with a citizen,” recalls Ferrandez. “I left my bike against a wall, unlocked. When I came back an hour later, it was gone.” These days, his main mode of transportation is an Opus, which has the upright handlebars and broad saddle of a bike you would expect to find leaning against a canal-side railing in Amsterdam.
I like his philosophy
“I accept that some people think I’m the devil!” Ferrandez shouted over his shoulder, making a right onto rue de Brébeuf. “For them, the Plateau doesn’t exist. It is just a place to be driven through. I don’t give a shit about these people. They’ve abandoned the idea that humans can live together.”
Ferrandez’s vision of what the borough is, and could be, seems almost exalted. “The Plateau is an Italian cathedral. It’s a forest. It’s something to protect, something sacred. I don’t want it to become a place where people come to live in a condo with triple-glazed windows for a couple of years. This has to be a place where people can be comfortable walking to the bakery, walking to school, walking to the park—where they want to stay to raise a family.”