Monthly Archives: February 2009

“Elsewhere, U.S.A.” by Dalton Conley = FABULOUS

It is not that often that I find myself cheering “Yes! Yes!” as I read a book, but Dalton Conley’s “Elsewhere U.S.A.: How we got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety” made me do precisely that. As a result, I feel the need to urge you to go and buy this book. He has captured an essence that we all know, but grounded it in a way that really helped me put two and two together at a time when we’re all trying to work out what the hell is happening to our society. He hits a nerve in a way that helps you see what’s right in front of you.

If you don’t know Dalton Conley, he’s a brilliant sociologist at NYU who is mostly known for his work on race (“whiteness” in particular). [If you’re a geek, you’re probably more familiar with his partner Natalie Jeremijenko.]

In Elsewhere, U.S.A, Conley starts by painting two portraits – one of Mr. and Mrs. 1959 and one of Mr. and Mrs. 2009. Using broad strokes, he highlights the differences in lifestyle between the educated, white collar families of those two different eras. From there, he weaves us through a discussion of changes in the economic, social, and corporate levels. Mixing enticingly delicious prose with sociological theory (conveyed in a unbelievably accessible manner), Conley starts mapping out changes that have taken place and how they’ve panned out.

For example, he explains why the upper classes have become so insecure and anxious about their jobs, resulting in the first point in history where the wealthier you are, the more you work. A good quote on that one: “This constant fear of being exposed, cut out, or outsourced, and thereby having one’s ‘capital’ rendered valueless, is the principal pathos of the era.” Conley investigates how two-income households have created new pressures, forcing families to work harder to keep up. He examines how technology has helped us work harder, more often, and everywhere instead of relieving burdens.

Moving from the tax code to the dinner party, he also looks at how “leisure” is being blurred with work in new ways and how people in the upper echelons invest in social activities in an effort to maintain status at work. This gets into a broader notion of networking and how being social is key to having high status. “Whereas in the industrial epoch, the ability to cloister oneself off from the hoi polloi was a mark of power; in the post-industrial, networked economy, being surrounded by as many people as possible, all seeking your attention, is the ultimate manifestation of rank.”

While the focus of the book is on the upper classes, Conley introduces the working class as a backdrop, noting how some of the upper class dynamics have altered working class culture. He examines the shift in power between the employee and the employer, using relations like the nanny and mother as a way of looking at how traditional structures of power and status maintenance have broken down. But he also looks directly at how the structure of poverty has changed. “Poverty in a post-industrial economy is less about the ability to meet basic material needs and more about the lack of control over life choices and the personalized humiliation that the poor experience in their work lives.”

Anyhow, “Elsewhere, U.S.A.” is chock full of good information that’ll make you think about the lifestyle we live and how it shapes and is shaped by modern society. Plus it is written in such a fun way that it’s hard to put it down. For many of those who read this blog, this book is a tremendous social critique of your (and my) lifestyle. I cannot recommend this book enough. (I especially recommend reading it while on a plane or otherwise living the “elsewhere” lifestyle… then it’ll really hit a nerve.)

Note: Neither Conley nor his publisher or agent or anyone else asked me to do this review or know that I’m doing it. I wrote this post purely because I think that this book is a MUST READ.

licensing your dissertation under Creative Commons

When I wrote my dissertation, it didn’t dawn on me that using the Creative Commons license might be remotely controversial. There’s a template for dissertations at Berkeley and one of those pages is the copyright page. Initially, I edited the copyright page to match the CC license that Cory Doctorow uses in all of his books on the copyright page. Shortly before I was set to file, I talked to another grad student in my department who had just filed his dissertation. Much to my horror, I learned that he was the first student to file his dissertation at Berkeley under the Creative Commons license and that it had been a disaster. He went through many iterations before they accepted it, complete with the CC license as an Appendix. Not wanting to pick a fight, I copied his approach verbatim. I went to file my dissertation and hit a stumbling block. They told me they had never seen such a thing. I told them that Joe Hall had filed that way only a few months back. They told me that it would need approval from high up and that I’d have to wait a long time to get that approval. Frantic, I started texting and emailing Joe. Luckily, he had all of the emails on hand and forwarded them to me. As it turns out, the person that I was trying to file with as the one who filed Joe’s and when I showed her emails that she sent negotiating this process with Joe, she let me file. I suggested she might want to take note since there would be plenty more students like me and Joe.

Today, the Daily Cal ran a story about our adventures in filing. I was pleased to learn that the Dean of the Grad Division committed to making CC licenses available to students in the future. This is truly good news!

But I also want to make a plea to all of you grad students out there who are slaving away on your dissertations… Use Creative Commons. The forms you fill out when you file your diss under ProQuest encourage you to make sure to copyright your dissertation. While theft is part of the framing, it is also framed as being about you profiting off of doing so (and ProQuest brokering the sale of your diss). Realistically, 99% of all grad students are never going to see a dime directly from their dissertation. What’s the advantage of keeping “all rights reserved”? Why not let folks use it for whatever non-commercial purposes they deem fit (like teaching a chapter or two in class)? I mean… I would LOVE it if someone translated my dissertation. Or remixed it. Or turned it into a movie. That ain’t ever gonna happen, but still… why actively prevent it?

And while we’re at it… why not make it freely available? Part way through my dissertation, I realized that I had never read a dissertation. I was surprised to find that very few people make their dissertations easily available. Why? In some senses, the diss is quite embarrassing. It’s imperfect. You’re sick of it. But there are huge advantages to making it available. At the very least, it allows future students to get a sense of what they should expect. (There was nothing more nerve-calming than realizing that my mentors’ dissertations were totally sloppy at points.)

Anyhow, if you’re a student out there, consider licensing your dissertation under Creative Commons and making your diss freely available either on your website or through services like SSRN or arXiv. I’m sure that there are many others out there doing similar things, but perhaps our story and template can help you persuade your school to allow CC-licensed dissertations.

My dissertation: Taken Out of Context

Joe’s dissertation: Policy Mechanisms for Increasing Transparency in Electronic Voting

doing the math on MySpace and registered sex offenders

The Attorneys General – mostly angry at me and other researchers – have spent considerable time trying to publicly reject the ISTTF report that was published last month. This week, I watched as they blasted the airwaves with an announcement that 90,000 sex offenders have been removed from MySpace. This PR campaign is intended to provoke fears in the American psyche, to serve as “proof” that we were wrong. The underlying message is, “See, social network sites are dangerous!” Fear mongering by public officials is quite effective, but, once again, I’m frustrated to see the framing miss the reality of the data. For this reason, I want to challenge the message of the current PR fear campaign.

First, it is important to acknowledge that there are dozens of crimes that put people on the sex offenders list that have nothing to do with children. It differs state by state, but includes a variety of adult-adult crimes and even some crimes like indecent exposure in public. There is no indicator that the presence of those convicted of such crimes put children at risk.

Second, it is critical to note that it is not illegal for an individual who is on the sex offenders list to join a social network site unless it is part of their parole conditions (which constitute a very small number of cases). It is MySpace’s prerogative and they have been proactively engaged in removing these individuals as a private enterprise because they believe that it benefits the community of MySpace. Yet, many who are kicked off only learn that they are unwelcome once they are kicked off.

Now, let’s do some math. The National Alert Registry has over 491,000 registered sex offenders on its list. In data collected in December, Pew found that 35% of American adults are on social network sites. If sex offenders were a representative population, we’d expect that 172,000 of them would be on social network sites. Now, I know nothing of who is on that list, but if they were to skew younger or more urban, we’d expect even more of them to be on those sites. Regardless, the number announced by MySpace should not be unexpected or shocking.

One of the worst parts of dealing with quantitative numbers of any kind is our tendency to read into them what we want to read into them. We see a number like 90,000 and expect that it’s high and outrageous. But it is not more than would be expected by statistical patterns. And it’s not an automatic indicator of a problem. We need to know WHO those registered sex offenders are and WHAT they are doing to get a critical assessment of the risk. By focusing solely on the number, we introduce a red herring and, in doing so, miss the whole point of our report: there are children online engaging in risky behavior who desperately need our help. Blocking adults who have raped other adults, while likely desirable in general, does NOTHING to help at-risk kids.

Why are we so obsessed with the registered sex offender side of the puzzle when the troubled kids are right in front of us? Why are we so obsessed with the Internet side of the puzzle when so many more kids are abused in their own homes? I feel like this whole conversation has turned into a distraction. Money and time is being spent focusing on the things that people fear rather than the very real and known risks that kids face. This breaks my heart.

Update: Others have been responding to this issue with some very valuable and relevant content that I feel should be shared: