Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category


I go through the occasional bout of nostalgia, I admit it. Sometimes I muse that it would have been much more fun to be alive during the Wild West, or during the American Revolutionary War. Mostly this is clearly symptomatic of the fact that I feel disconnected and I want to feel a part of a movement, something significant that is taking hold of history and making it sit up and pay attention.

While I lived in Paris I was privileged to see the works of infamous, modern-era, groundbreaking schools of art such as the Blau Reiter, the Futurists, Alexander Calder and the mobile sculptors, Impressionists, Fauvists, Surrealists, Cubists, Pointillists, you name it. As I browsed the carefully curated collections of work and imagined what it would be like to exist in a time of such intense creation, innovation and turn-the-world-on-its-head thinking, I remember thinking: does anyone really ever know when they’re living smack-dab in one of those eras?

Now that I’m back in the U.S. working, and no longer have the luxury of wandering the streets of Paris, being a flaneur and contemplating my navel, those questions have gone mostly by the wayside in favor of, oh, I dunno, buying toilet paper and writing corporate emails again. Sigh. However, they don’t have to because it may actually be true that we are in the middle of a cohesive burgeoning artistic, cultural and technological movement! It even has a name, folks, which is huge, because without a name it will be hard to reference it: The New Aesthetic.

What is it about? Well, significantly it’s pretty all-encompassing, which it has to be in this era of multimedia, consolidated and integrated channels, myriad communication modes and access. In a nutshell (though that is a depressingly analog expression to use in this context) it’s about taking the time to understand how technology is affecting and has already impacted the way we see the world, how we see everything. The movement focuses on the presumption that most of the world increasingly now experiences the world not directly through their eyeballs, but through the eyes of a technological device- whether it’s a camera, a smartphone, GPS, a tablet, an e-reader, a computer screen, etc.

This opportunity for reflection is significant first because the pace of technology and its adoption simply hasn’t historically allowed us to do this- we adopt a technology, learn it, deploy it and then we’re off and running with barely a glance backward. In the super-charged modern era of technology have we really reflected on its impact on how we see things? Yes, the visionary artists, influencers and politicians of our time have, in small numbers. But this movement finally has identified certain themes about how we have all been shaped by new technologies and it’s just so interesting.

Another great facet of the New Aesthetic is in how it is playing out. This is not a genre that is reserved for the intellectual or artistic elite. So far the movement has invited everyone to participate, thereby furthering the impact that the act of reflecting has. It begs questions of its members-How is the world different from how I saw it before? Can we actually evaluate if things were better or worse before this technology/gadget/access/knowledge? Show us what you see and how you see it. Can you find us other examples of where this is playing out?

From Bruce Sterling‘s Wired piece on the topic:

“The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture…it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”

The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight.” (http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/anessayonthenewaesthetic/)

It should come as no surprise that this discussion largely began at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. Here is the description of the panel discussion:

“Slowly, but increasingly definitively, our technologies and our devices are learning to see, to hear, to place themselves in the world. Phones know their location by GPS. Financial algorithms read the news and feed that knowledge back into the market. Everything has a camera in it. We are becoming acquainted with new ways of seeing: the Gods-eye view of satellites, the Kinect’s inside-out sense of the living room, the elevated car-sight of Google Street View, the facial obsessions of CCTV.

As a result, these new styles and senses recur in our art, our designs, and our products. The pixelation of low-resolution images, the rough yet distinct edges of 3D printing, the shifting layers of digital maps. In this session, the participants will give examples of these effects, products and artworks, and discuss the ways in which ways of seeing are increasingly transforming ways of making and doing.” (http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP11102)

James Bridle is sort of the figurehead of the discourse around the New Aesthetic and he has done an excellent job of laying out what it means to him and helping to provide spaces for the conversation about it to unfold. In fact, he’s downright poetic in some of his descriptions:

And what of the render ghosts, those friends who live in our unbuilt spaces, the first harbingers of our collective future? How do we understand and befriend them, so that we may shape the future not as passive actors but as collaborators? (I don’t have much truck with the “don’t complain, build” / “make stuff or shut up” school, but I do believe in informed consent. Because a line has been crossed, technology/software/code is in and of the world and there’s no getting out of it. ” (http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/)

“My point is, all our metaphors are broken. The network is not a space (notional, cyber or otherwise) and it’s not time (while it is embedded in it at an odd angle) it is some other kind of dimension entirely.

BUT meaning is emergent in the network, it is the apophatic silence at the heart of everything, that-which-can-be-pointed-to. And that is what the New Aesthetic, in part, is an attempt to do, maybe, possibly, contingently, to point at these things and go but what does it mean?” (http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/)

That’s good stuff, right? I think so.

But let’s take a step back from the philosophical implications of the movement and do some of our own shell collecting in the sand. Where do we see the New Aesthetic playing out?

Here’s a few that I found:

1) My latest favorite Tumblr: ScreenshotsofDespair. Apart from appealing to that deep and sinister Schadenfreude bone that I have, this Tumblr is a perfect example of the New Aesthetic. We take photos, of screens, which we see delivering ambiguous and subtly insulting messages that seem to mirror our own loneliness, unpopularity, failure,- despair. So good.

From "Screenshots of Despair"

2) Where am I?: Google Maps and StreetView. The fact that we now actively use archived and ongoing screenshots of satellite maps and digital photography to represent to us what the world looks like, rather than having to travel there physically. I know what my friend Anna’s house looks like in Berlin without ever having been there, but I only know what it looks like on a sunny day-  April 2nd, 2009.

3) Tweet-note: I’m coining this term (unless it has been coined before) to mean seeing a live event happen through the lens of what is being said about it by the Twitter-verse. See my piece onsentiment analysis for a more nuanced examination of the implications of this, but it’s pretty crazy that these days (especially at ANY high-tech conference) you can sit in a room of thousands of people, listeningto/watching the same keynote, and yet about 98% of the audience is simultaneously tracking what is being said about that event via Twitter on their smartphones, thereby allowing the rest of the audience to largely color their opinion in real time.

4) Art: This is obvious, but the emergence of re-pixellating and bringing digital back to analog, and a nostalgia for real film is all playing out in the art world. The pixellation movement really interests me because it’s such a blatant reversion to pointillism, but it represents more of a re-education for a younger generation on how the greater whole is amassed as the result of millions and millions of tiny components. It’s also a throwback to so many other modernist movements- Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Picasso’s Cubism comes to mind, especially here, when we talk about the New Aesthetic in terms of trying to represent the everywhere-at-once nature of things today. You can look at a book, just a simple book with your own eyes. But you can also look up reviews of the book on Amazon or Goodreads, you can research Google images of the book, how much people will pay for the book on eBay, you can read reviews of the book on the NYTimes, you can take a weathered antique-y snapshot of the book with Hipstamatic, text message your friend about the book with its photo attached, and many other options that I can’t even think of right now. All of that is a more than 360 degree representation of that book: what it is, what it looks like, what it represents, where it is, and how it is. Just like in Cubism, the object ends up being transformed, rendered nearly unrecognizable to its original form by having been taken apart and conveyed based on its components, then re-constructed on more planes than the naked eye can fully behold. The same is true of my next example…

5) Does This Photoshop Make Me Look Fat?: We are no longer satisfied with truthful representations of human bodies. In fact, we might not even really believe the truth any more if it were given to us. We have been carried away- in the beginning unaware, later blissfully aware- by the movement to re-architect human anatomy through Photoshop. I admit I have visited blogs and websites that show the blunders of graphic artists and I often STILL can’t see that anything is wrong with the images. It is that nefarious. We are more content to see human bodies through the lens of Photoshop than through reality.

6) Branded Space: this is an old feature, the fact that we see in everything a chance to advertise or place products, but one recent example was so blatant I can’t fail to mention it here. It was very recently announced that in his next movie, James Bond will be sipping not a martini, but aHeineken. That’s right, 007’s drink of choice has received the ouster in favor of product placement. Needless to say, the reaction has not been, er, positive. But it is yet another example of the New Aesthetic- not only do we see even everyday objects and products through new physical lenses, we continue to see them through figurative lenses that are colored according to which advertiser has the most money to spend that day. So the object is not permitted to exist alone for us any more. Its meaning is always stamped across its face.

In fact, Maybe the weirdest aspect of this movement is how eminently consumable it is. It’s practically Warhol-esque in its commercial viability. A perfect example being how Facebook just gobbled up Instagram, the popular hipster-making photog app for $1B. But there are thousands more examples on the official New Aesthetic Tumblr. Let the New Aesthetic binge begin.

One last expression for you: Analog Recidivism: Actually, I’m just hoping this will somehow emerge as a reaction to the New Aesthetic. I think one of the next evolutions of the movement will be to feature in art, culture, social customs, etc. what we just don’t see any more as a result of our attachment to viewing the world through the lens of our gadgets and technology. Instead of showing us how our views have changed and been modified, somehow we will be shown what we just didn’t see as a result of staring at a phone, a computer, a tablet, etc. The little things we no longer notice or take note of will be featured as once again novel by virtue of the fact that we, physically, are no longer trained to see or look for them. Did I just blow your mind?

To read more on the New Aesthetic:

http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/

http://www.riglondon.com/blog/2011/05/06/thenewaesthetic/

http://newaesthetic.tumblr.com/

http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/anessayonthenewaesthetic/


Hi All, sorry for the hiatus. But I’m back in black. New year, and lots to discuss. Let’s get to it!

Clearly I couldn’t let discussion about SOPA and PIPA and the ensuing takedowns architected by Anonymous go untouched in this discussion space, so let’s delve into this, shall we?

For those who aren’t aware (where in the hell have you been?), let’s first break these two down to their most elemental forms:

Here’s what (admittedly biased on this matter) Wikipedia has to say about what SOPA is, “The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a United States bill introduced by U.S. Representative Lamar S. Smith (R-TX) to expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Provisions include the requesting of court orders to bar advertising networks and payment facilities from conducting business with infringing websites, and search engines from linking to the sites, and court orders requiring Internet service providers to block access to the sites. The law would expand existing criminal laws to include unauthorized streaming of copyright material, imposing a maximum penalty of five years in prison”

Basically, this was legislators catering to big media companies’ interests by proposing a law that would give the U.S. government the right to prosecute people who propagated intellectual property that they didn’t own online. In other words, the internet wouldn’t exist unless the government felt that it should.

“Proponents of the bill say it protects the intellectual property market and corresponding industry, jobs and revenue, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws, especially against foreign websites.”

“Opponents say the proposed legislation threatens free speech and innovation, and enables law enforcement to block access to entire internet domains due to infringing material posted on a single blog or webpage. They have raised concerns that SOPA would bypass the “safe harbor” protections from liability presently afforded to Internet sites by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.”

So that’s SOPA in the House of Representatives. A second, replica piece of legislation was simultaneously being put up for consideration in the Senate called PIPA or the Protect IP Act. On this legislation, Wikipedia says:

“The PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA) is a proposed law with the stated goal of giving the US government and copyright holders additional tools to curb access to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods”, especially those registered outside the U.S. The bill defines infringement as distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-digital rights management technology. Infringement exists if “facts or circumstances suggest [the site] is used, primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating the activities described. The bill was introduced on May 12, 2011, by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and 11 bipartisan co-sponsors.”

So that’s the house-cleaning. They’re the same piece of legislation, same clear and dangerous threat to internet freedoms and the Internet’s intrinsic ability to allow for the wide and free dissemination of information.  Now down to the brass tacks.

Let’s begin with the fact that just pragmatically, taking on the Internets is always stupid. Why? Because congress and the President are centralized forces of power- quite well identified and held to certain moral and legal standards of behavior and comportment. The internet is none of those things. It is a nebulous, unscrupulous, largely anonymous and completed decentralized force of power, and it will not be stopped. Which is why, they have certainly won this round of the fight and will ultimately win the war on issues of intellectual property online.

So Wikipedia was one of the largest of many web resources (others included Reddit, the social news site, and BoingBoing, a technology and culture blog) that decided to shut down for a 24 hour period in public protest against these two bills.  As the NYTimes Bits Blog reported: “Visitors around the globe who try to reach the English-version of Wikipedia will be greeted with information about the bills and details about how to reach their local representatives. Mr. (Founder Jimmy) Wales said 460 million people around the world visited the site each month, and he estimated that the blackout could reach as many as 100 million people. In addition, some international Wikipedia communities, including the one in Germany, have decided to post notices on their home pages leading to information about the protests, although they will remain functioning as usual.”

“The government could tell us that we could write an entry about the history of the Pirate Bay but not allow us to link to it,” he said, referring to the popular file-sharing site. “That’s a First Amendment issue.”

But then Anonymous had to go and get all involved, making it no longer a seemingly noble protest, but taking matters into their own hands. And this is where decentralization begins to get really interesting.

For Anonymous it wasn’t enough to shut down one’s own site, and make one’s own decision to go dark- Anonymous wanted to prove once and for all to big media companies such as CBS and Universal Music that it is but for the grace of Anonymous that their sites exist at all. In a bold and HIGHLY under-publicized and under-discussed move if you weren’t online (I think largely because of Anonymous’s reputation as an anarchist and borderline-terrorist non-organization) Anonymous temporarily removed CBS.com and Universal Music as well as its parent company Vivendi from online view. There has been much speculation about whether the sites were full-on deleted, redirected, etc. and I won’t debate that here, but I think the major point here is that a decentralized network of self-labeled “hacktivists” hold the power to completely destroy someone else’s online presence as retribution. So while the politicians, PACs and lobbyists seek to pass these bills the old-fashioned way through our system of government and legislation, the internet turns its nose on their efforts and operates completely independently.

The repercussions of these acts by Anonymous are massive. Is it to be said once and for all that the internet is ungovernable? Certainly any jurisdiction over internet content and domains is highly debatable and obscure- who has the right or the resources to police the net? Where is that online security task force- is it a branch of the UN peacekeeping forces? Which country’s government holds the right to censor content? If Google’s tangle with China and the Arab Spring have taught us anything, it’s that the rules for who gets to yea or nay internet content are still being written and continue to be written by unknown authors, sitting in dark corners leading their revolutions with armies of revolutionaries who couldn’t recognize them if they passed by on the sidewalk.

President Obama said no to the current versions of these bills, but SOPA and PIPA are by no means dead in the water. This will be an ongoing discussion, but I stand by my opinion that even if SOPA or PIPA were to pass in Congress, they would have a completely unmanageable time attempting to enforce either in the chaotic and decentralized network that is the Net. The point it would seem, my friends, is moot.


If you’ve had any contact with the news or the radio- or even newsradio- in the last few months you’ve most likely heard the hoopla surrounding Texas Governor Rick Perry’s controversial decision to mandate HPV vaccinations for young girls in Texas.

Sadly, you’re probably more aware of the controversy as a fulcrum point issue, marking the decline of what was Perry’s initial momentum going into the GOP Presidential Candidate debates, rather than as an issue of public health.

As the HuffPost writes in their coverage, “In the two most recent presidential debates, Perry has had to repeatedly explain and defend the executive order, which he says he signed in order to help prevent girls from developing cervical cancer as a result of contracting the sexually transmitted virus.”

Did you also know, dear reader, that a CDC advisory panel also, just recently, announced that boys ages 11 to 12 also get the shot? Oh yes, “Despite the recent controversy among presidential candidates regarding the effects of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, a CDC advisory panel voted (recently) to recommend that boys ages 11 to 12 get the shot.” This announcement garnered way less coverage and generated way less outrage and controversy than when the announcement made was targeted at young girls.

Why?

And why is the CDC Advisory panel only just now getting around to mentioning that, if you’ll allow me, “it takes two to tango?”

Two points before I launch into this whole cluster of issues:

1) Although I can’t really fathom agreeing with Rick Perry on most counts, I do agree with his decision on this matter and I am proud of him for defending it. As the Huffington post mentioned in their coverage, “The Texas law would not have been a pure mandate either… As in Virginia, parents would not have been required to have their daughters vaccinated. The law would have just made the vaccine available and affordable to all girls, insured and uninsured, through the state vaccination program.”

2) Although I am supportive of the incredible progress that has been made with the use of most vaccines, I also understand parental concerns around the manufacture, clinical testing, and business side of the vaccination and pharmaceuticals market, especially as it pertains to the U.S. healthcare model. I believe that questioning the processes and methods of engineering and testing these vaccines is productive and worthwhile. That being said, if I had a kid right now, that kid would receive vaccinations- a lot of them.

I’ll now put all of those opinions aside, because what I really want to get at here are the rhetorical constructions being used to have this conversation by politicians, the media, and the public- whether consciously, or unconsciously.

Before we officially begin, a few figures:

  • HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US
  • 20 million people are affected by it every year
  • At least 50 percent of sexually active Americans will contract genital HPV in their lifetimes, often unwittingly because symptoms aren’t always overt (http://theweek.com/article/index/220717/the-controversial-hpv-vaccine-now-for-boys)
  • Condoms alone cannot 100% prevent the spread of HPV, beccause it is transmitted through skin contact
  • The vaccine may prevent cervical cancer in women, and  anal cancer and mouth cancers in boys, as well as prevent the spread of the infection to sexual partners
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cervical cancer is the second leading cancer killer of women in the world. Almost 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of cases of genital warts are linked to the four strains of HPV that can be prevented with Merck’s Gardasil vaccine or GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/rick-perry-hpv-vaccine_n_961159.html)
  • The CDC recommends that girls receive the vaccine at the age of 11 or 12, in order to increase the likelihood that they will be vaccinated before having sexual contact. It consists of a series of three injections over a six-month period. Similarly, the hepatitis B vaccine is a 3-shot series that prevents a disease that can be transmitted through blood and sexual fluids. It is is administered at birth, or within a 2 month time frame, and in most states it’s required for entrance into school system (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/rick-perry-hpv-vaccine_n_961159.html)

Now that we’re all up to date on the factoids, let’s do some analysis of the language being tossed around. Regrettably, for research purposes, most of this language is coming from one prominent source: Michele Bachmann.

At various points during the seemingly never-ending cycle of GOP Presidential Candidate Debates, Michele Bachmann has used the following language to describe the vaccination mandate:

A “government injection” of a “potentially dangerous drug

“I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate,” Bachmann said. “She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.”

“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,”

Rick Santorum also chose to weigh in on the vaccine, describing it as:

“having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government.”

So…let’s review:

Group A Words:

  • “LITTLE DAUGHTER”
    “LITTLE GIRL”
  • “INNOCENT LITTLE GIRL”

Group B Words:

  •  “INJECTION”
  • “FORCE”
  • “COMPULSION”

Each of these terms is very charged, which is, of course, why they were selected and used in this way.

In the Group A Words, we have “Little girl,” little daughter,” “innocent little girl.” These terms are deeply psychologically embedded for Americans, and connote a strong visual image.

It’s basically this:

Associated terms: cherubic, innocent, helpless, in need of protection.

And then, as a counterpoint to this- placing them alongside terms of force, rape, exploitation and violence such as “force,” “injection,” and “compulsion,” makes the juxtaposition that much more jarring.

It’s the same as saying “stab duckling,” or “sodomize kitten.”

The point is, the language is doing some subconscious, heavy lifting here, and it is further charged by an already traditionally conservative, puritanical American tradition. That we are like this is not news, it is in fact our history as a United States.

That doesn’t change the fact that I am saddened that this very important debate– which should only extend as far as whether the federal or state level has the right to mandate certain healthcare treatments for U.S. citizens– has instead landed us smack in the middle of a firestorm addressing female sexuality, female independence and the archetype of the femme fatale.

NPR asked why there wasn’t nearly the level of attention being paid to the announcement concerning the boys’ vaccine. “’There’s been a surprisingly muted reaction,’ says Dr. Don Dizon, a Brown University oncologist.” Why? “’We tend to believe that girls are chaste and are going to ‘save themselves for marriage.’ But, you know, sexual activity is something that’s almost expected of boys.’”

They even found a seventeen-year-old boy to back up that theory, “Connor Perruccello-McClellan agrees. The idea that teenage girls might have sex is ‘just a touchy issue, a taboo, I guess,’ he says. ‘It’s just not as accepted for girls.’

Wow, Connor…ya think?

As we have already seen (thanks, Salem Witch Trials), females in the United States often have the dubious experience of living through a number of different stages of characterization by the general public and American lore. We begin as “innocent little girls,” but, once sexually active, menstruating, and/or assertive, we become “femme fatales.”

The term femme fatale in modern-day usage is more frequently used to refer to strong, female leads in movies-i.e. women with a penchant for the vindictive. However, according to its original definition, a femme fatale “is a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She is an archetype of literature and art. Her ability to entrance and hypnotize her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, vampire, witch, or demon.”

Relying heavily on Wikipedia here, “The femme fatale has generated divergent opinions amongst social scholars. Sometimes, the femme fatale is closely tied to fears of female witch and misogyny. Others say Femme fatale “remains an example of female independence and a threat to traditional female gender roles,”or “expresses woman’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm.”

However, historically and un-ironically, “the myth of the femme fatale of the 19th century is believed to be partly derived from the devastation of syphilis, with classic examples in literature including John KeatsLa Belle Dame sans Merci.”

Well, so isn’t that interesting?

I don’t have space to summarize an excellent article I found in “The Nation” on the topic of Michele Bachmann’s poor fact-checking and poor history, but one of the most important points to make here is that because of the oldest profession in the world, women have historically been most connected with outbreaks of Syphilis. Yet “Syphilis is believed to have infected 12 million people worldwide in 1999… After decreasing dramatically since the widespread availability of penicillin in 1940s, rates of infection have increased since the turn of the millennium in many countries… This has been attributed partly to unsafe sexual practices among men who have sex with men.” Men who have sex with men.

But it’s nearly impossible to turn the tide of cultural and literary history, and nearly impossible to eradicate archetypes once they exist in our shared cultural stores.

To summarize my point- the HPV vaccination debates are fascinating to me because I see that two completely divergent female rhetorical frames- “the innocent little girl,” and “the femme fatale”- are being called upon, in concert, to rail against these mandates. That is what brings us to this very point in American rhetoric.

There are no such strong literary or cultural archetypes for boys through which to view their plight at being forced to vaccinate. Thus there are no images of young, innocent boys being exploited or abused, no nubile young men who travel the world poisoning their lovers.

HPV vaccine adoption is ultimately failing because it prevents “children” from getting STDs. We have the juxtaposition of “child” with “sexually transmitted disease” here. In the American mindset, those two things are never supposed to be associated. Yet Americans vaccinate their children all the time against Hepatitis B, which is also a multi-dose vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease.

I want to leave you, dear readers, with one closing thought about these vaccines and what they represent, from a USA Today article covering the CDC Advisory Board’s announcement:

“This is cancer, for Pete’s sake,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“A vaccine against cancer was the dream of our youth.”


In my opinion, discussions of identity and what identity means, and what constitutes identity have never been more interesting. With the web as a mirror for each of us, as well as a playland of impersonation, self-invention, reincarnation and improvisation, the platforms and dimensions where human identity is played out have never been more abundant and easily accessible.

I was reading my New Yorker last night and came across an article about Aadhaar, an enormous project on a scale never before attempted, that could have far and wide reaching implications for generations of humans yet to come. The project is to officially identify and document the existence of every Indian living in India by collecting certain biometrics from each individual and then issuing those specific biometric features an ID number.

As summarized here:

“Aadhaar, launched by Nandan Nilekani, a genial software billionaire, intends to create a national biometric database ten times larger than the world’s next-largest biometric database.”

One of the stated aims of the project is to “help reduce the extraordinary economic distances between those who have benefitted from India’s boom of the past two decades and those who have not.”

Some of the stunning details of this project that I read about raised very fundamental issues of modern identity as being tied to a specific nation-state. For instance:

“India has no equivalent of Social Security numbering, and just thirty-three million Indians, out of 1.2 billion, pay income tax, and only sixty million have passports. The official opacity of hundreds of millions of Indians hampers economic growth and emboldens corrupt bureaucrats.”

It’s just incredible to think that in this day and age, not everyone who is born into the world is documented as even being alive. It’s incredible, as an American, to consider a situation where your government has no idea that you exist, and you survive outside of the limits of its systems .

Though that all sounds like fodder for a summer anarchist action movie trailer, the reality is, though the lines and boundaries between physical country border and cultures are disappearing slowly as a result of widespread globalization and commercialization, our identities are still very strongly tied to the countries in which we are born, or in which we live. And I should clarify that I am not saying that if you are born in America, you automatically strongly identify as an American. I am saying that if you are born in America and hate the U.S., you are still defined by the country in which you were born, or in which you live, even if you hate it. You are defined in reference to being a part of it, however tenuous that connection is. But if you are born in India and your country does not know you, nor acknowledge that you exist, how is your identity derived?

And if you do not really exist in the eyes of the government, and are not automatically considered a citizen in having been born there, what right does the government have to come and claim you later, as India and the Unique Identification Authority of India (the government agency that is directing this program) are attempting to do with Aadhaar?

It is ironic in this instance that India, so woefully behind in identifying its own citizens due to an outsized human population, is poised to actually jump the gap immediately and overstep other more-developed countries’ systems of social security and citizen identification. Aadhar’s system is based on biometrics, or “methods for uniquely recognizing humans based upon one or more intrinsic physical or behavioral traits.” Interestingly, Wikipedia’s entry here described two different applications of biometrics information: “In computer science, in particular, biometrics is used as a form of identity access management and access control. It is also used to identify individuals in groups that are under surveillance.” Oh Foucault, why do you plague us so?!

Still, in this case, it is hard not to question the intense nature of these methods of identification and the database of information they will generate. Concerns about privacy have, of course, been raised:  “Alongside arguments about social policy, there is also some Indian disquiet about Aadhaar’s threat to privacy.”

A Times of India article also mentioned the potential for exploitation of this info:

“For Nandan Nilekani , the chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India , the challenge now is not just to roll out one lakh or more Aadhaar numbers a day, but to create an ecosystem for players to build applications on top of this identity infrastructure. Now, Nilekani has been negotiating with the Reserve Bank of India to allow banks to treat Aadhaar number as the only document for opening an account. In a free-wheeling interview with Shantanu Nandan Sharma, Nilekani talks about life after Aadhaar when a villager would be able to use a micro-ATM in his locality, or a migrant from Bihar would be able to flash out his number in Mumbai as an identity proof.”

So the ability to identify people, truly down to their physical core can be both exploitative and empowering, as the New Yorker article claims, “If the project is successful, India would abruptly find itself at the forefront of citizen-identification technology, outperforming Social Security and other non-biometric systems.” Of course it would, it’s the physical data collection analog of what Facebook has been doing all along.

In fact, the arguments for embarking upon this venture to issue ID numbers to each Indian are manifold, yet one that seems to float upwards most often is the assertion that this system of identification will help to cut down on abuse of government resources and inaccurate snapshots of how many people are affected by official policy.

Interesting that this is the very reason that Facebook famously insists upon banning pseudonyms on its ever-popular social platform. As Gawker puts it, “the idea that anonymity or multiple identities leads inexorably to a cesspool of abuse, cyberbullying, and spam is Facebook’s strongest argument for a monolithic online identity—one they come back to again and again in defending their controversial real name policy.”

This is written in the context of an article highlighting Chris Poole, shadowy head of the online meme-maker  4chan, and his remarks at the recent Web 2.0 conference that “true identity is prismatic,” and that the actions of online mega-sites like Facebook are “eroding our options” when they lock us into a single identity. In reality, Poole argues, humans are not defined in only one way or another, but by multiple simultaneously performed identities.

Gawker writes, “At this week’s Web 2.0 conference, Poole criticized Facebook’s real name, one profile-per-person policies. Facebook are, he said, ‘consolidating identity and making people seem more simple than they really are… our options are being eroded.

True identity is ‘prismatic,’ according to Poole. You want to be able to present a different identity in different contexts, and be able to experiment without risking a permanent stain on your identity—something Facebook is making increasingly possible as it colonizes everything from games, to blog comments to your favorite music service.”

Synthesizing these ideas and arguments for a minute, the very idea that a retinal scan can prove someone was born somewhere, and that those two elements of identity correlate to provide a human identity is interesting enough to a modern mind. How about when we suppose that each of us– though we may physically have blue, green, or brown eyes, blond, black, brunette or red hair, have been born in Bali, Mexico, Singapore, or Tunisia—is actually a shapeshifter, constantly adapting our personality and persona to best compliment a new group of people, or a new context. Are these quests to nail down our identity through increasingly scientific pursuits even worth their salt if we are each, many people, simultaneously?

No matter how we think our own identities are constituted and shaped, whether we believe we are multiple people or just one, the quest to collect information and data about how we behave, who we are, and what we look like is always evolving. Just recently Facebook field paperwork to form a Facebook Political Action Committee (PAC) that “will fund candidates who support ‘giving people the power to share.’

According to the Gawker story about the PAC, it’s “dedicated to ‘mak[ing] the world more open and connected,’ a spokesman tells The Hill. It will be funded by Facebook employees. Meanwhile, Facebook’s lobbying budget is metastasizing ; the company spent $550,000 so far this year, compared to $350,000 all of last year.”

Will a new era of online conmen and women emerge as a result of this movement to collect identity data? Is privacy officially dead? How do you choose to identify yourself, what do you identify with?


I have recently become obsessed with analytics. I just love the idea of using solid data to make informed choices toward action. It’s the ultimate voyeurism. After all, the internet is a window through which you can peer to monitor other people’s activity. It’s also seductive, instant gratification- I post a document and then check in just an hour later to see how many people have clicked on it, how long they spent reviewing it, where they went after they read it, where they came from before reading it. ..

The power that platforms like Google Analytics and Omniture offer excites me in ways I shouldn’t even publicize- the possibility that all of that information about online actions and behavior is at my fingertips to exploit in order to be more productive, more effective is intoxicating. This is probably why it’s a good thing that I don’t work in marketing or advertising.

But apparently the harvest, process of sorting, and the exploitation of human information no longer stops with marketers and advertisers- now the government wants in.

According to an article in yesterday’s  NY Times,  “social scientists are trying to mine the vast resources of the Internet — Web searches and Twitter messages, Facebook and blog posts, the digital location trails generated by billions of cellphones” to predict the future. This is being conducted all in the name of the U.S. Government, or in this case, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity unit of the Office of National Intelligence.

Why? Because  they believe “that these storehouses of ‘big data’will for the first time reveal sociological laws of human behavior — enabling them to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena.”

Remember our dear friend Michel Foucault who opined on systems of surveillance in modern society? He just rolled over so many times in his grave he’s now a taquito. But putting the panopticon aside for a moment, let us instead turn to “chaos theory” to underline why this whole venture isn’t necessarily a very good idea.

Chaos theory, as a discipline, studies:

“the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect.”

The “butterfly effect theory” is basically this:

Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.  This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.

Yes, if this is ringing a bell, it’s because you’ve heard of the anecdote the theory is named for, whereby a hurricane’s formation occurred because a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before. Ridiculous, but it does vividly illustrate the point that the entire globe is a system, and there are infinite factors within that system interacting every day to produce outcomes- and needless to say, these factors are not all diligently recorded in Brooke Shields’ Twitter stream.

Ever since analytics, Facebook, and Twitter broke onto the human information scene, the embedded hubris of men has convinced us that if we’re just smart enough to design a program to parse all of this information, then finally all of our inane yet determined recordings of our daily details will finally mean something– that it will be useful!

Right? Wrong.

The mashed potatoes are just mashed potatoes. If you want to see anything in the figurative mashed potatoes, then see this: the Tower of Babel, people.

“Tower of Babel?” you say? Yes. The Tower of Babel. My favorite of all biblical references ( we all have one, right? Right?).

Need a quick brush-up? OK!

In the story of the Tower of Babel, from Genesis, ‘a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower “with its top in the heavens…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.’ God came down to see what they did and said: ‘They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.’ So God said, ‘Come, let us go down and confound their speech.’ And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel ‘because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.’(Genesis 11:5-8).

In other words, chaos theory’s conclusion that all of the world’s data is basically worthless, unreliable crap aside- this “big data eye in the sky” can and will never be.

First, because, without God’s intervention, we are perfectly great at getting in our own way, thankyouverymuch.

For example, the NY Times article cites IARPA’s claim that “It will use publicly accessible data, including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries.”

About that, the U.S. Government would do well to recall the response to every single privacy change that Facebook has ever made about user data.

Also, the public’s responses to the Patriot Act.

Also, the public response to News Corp’s recent phone hacking scandal.

I could go on. The point is, I don’t think folks will accept the government’s efforts to exploit the aggregation of their online and publicly collected information in order to predict when we might all come down with whooping cough.

Second problematic claim, “It is intended to be an entirely automated system, a “data eye in the sky” without human intervention.” Errrr…what about all of that human generated information? Isn’t that, um, human intervention?

I recently had the absolute pleasure of hearing Stephen J. Dubner- author of Freakonomics and creator or host of every other program, show, or book that came along with it- speak at a conference. He gave an excellent and very compelling lecture on the dangers of relying too much on “self-reported data.”

His point is that, for industries or disciplines where data in large part determines future strategy and action, a little outside consulting and collection is merited. Self-reported data is, by virtue of the fact that humans are involved, problematic when it comes to accuracy.

This means that every tweet, Facebook update and comment flame war on a review site should be read and collected with a massive grain of Kosher salt. It is hard to imagine how the government would calculate this unreliability into its system through error analysis and standard deviation. Suffice it to say, there is still much work to be done on human reported data, sentiment analysis and social statistics before we could get anywhere close to sorting this all out in any meaningful fashion.

Luckily, as the NY Times reports in the article, not everyone is convinced this is even worthwhile:

“”I’m hard pressed to say that we are witnessing a revolution,’ said Prabhakar Raghavan, the director of Yahoo Labs, who is an information retrieval specialist. He noted that much had been written about predicting flu epidemics by looking at Web searches for ‘flu,’ but noted that the predictions did not improve significantly on what could already be found in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

So, though I myself am drinking the cherry kool aid of acting and strategizing based on the measured results from analytical data, I feel the U.S. Government is seriously overstepping its bounds on this one- both in terms of infringing on other people’s data rights, as well as in terms of outpacing the world’s statistical abilities when applied to cultural data.

Hit me in the comments if you have thoughts of your own on the matter…


I came across a great article from NPR that discusses the role that human evolution plays in fostering tighter and more effective communities. Basically the story poses the question: as we evolve as human beings, do we become more socially-oriented– more other-focused?

According to evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson “evolutionary principles work not just at the genetic level, but also on the community level,” and “evolution is among the factors that drive community involvement.”

Prosociality, or prosocialness, is “the scientific term for any other-oriented attitude or behavior.” So the more you consider other people’s feelings, situations or the impact that your actions have on others, the more “prosocial” you are, and the more likely you are to be an active member in supporting a community of people. For example, a locavore, food bank volunteer, employee at the local women’s shelter would be highly prosocial. Someone who worked at pre-2008 Lehman Brothers? Just about at the bottom of the prosocial scale.

David Sloan Wilson decided to conduct an analysis of real-world prosociality in his hometown of Binghamton, NY by asking people the question: “I think it’s important to make my community a better place. Agree or Disagree?” And according to Wilson, those who agree strongly with his statement would be considered highly prosocial.

As a result of this analysis, Wilson distilled eight factors in a community that can enhance prosociality, listed here from the article:

  1. A strong sense of group identity, and a strong sense of what the group is about. If you don’t think of yourself as a group, and if you don’t know what the purpose of the group is, then it’s unlikely to function well as a group.
  2. Proportional costs and benefits. It cannot be the case that some people do all the work, and other people get the benefits. That’s not sustaining over the long term.
  3. Consensus decision-making. People hate being told what to do, but they’ll work hard for a decision that they agree upon.
  4. Monitoring. Most people want to cooperate but there’s always a temptation to slack a little bit. And then a few people are going to actively to game the system. So unless you can monitor good behavior, forget about it.
  5. Graduated sanctions. If somebody does misbehave, you don’t bring the hammer down. You remind them in a nice and friendly fashion, and that keeps them in solid citizen mode. At the same time, you do need to be prepared to escalate in those rare cases, when necessary.
  6.  A fast, fair conflict resolution. If there is a conflict, it needs to be resolved in a fast and fair fashion, in a manner that’s regarded as fair by all parties.
  7. Autonomy – for a group to do these things, they have to have the authority to manage their own affairs.
  8.  In a large society consisting of many groups, those groups have to be put together using those same principles. That’s called polycentric governance, a very important concept which emerged from political science, but now has a more genuine evolutionary formulation.

I’d like to look a bit closer at these, because they apply very closely to certain important themes in communication studies and communications philosophy. Hidden among these prosociality factors, two very important names leap to mind for me: Geert Hoftsede, and Michel Foucault.

Geert Hofstede, for those who don’t know him, basically invented a system of analyzing differences at the national level behind human interactions, an index of the differences between people from different countries, using four indicators, or what he called “anthropological problem areas”: “ways of coping with inequality, ways of coping with uncertainty, the relationship of the individual with her or his primary group, and the emotional implications of having been born as a girl or as a boy.”

Geert Hofstede

These became the Hofstede dimensions of  national culture: Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Individualism versus Collectivism, and Masculinity versus Femininity.

Ok, Jess, why in the hell is this relevant to these factors that enhance prosociality? Well, because Wilson is basically looking at the same thing but on a micro-scale, in smaller communities. Let’s take #1, the need for the group to understand its identity, its raison d’etre. This factor relates directly to what Hofstede termed “uncertainty avoidance,” which “deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity and indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.”

On the scale that Hofstede invented, “Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth:  “there can only be one Truth and we have it”. People in uncertainty avoiding countries are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy. The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side.”

In other words, communities that are “uncertainty avoiding” cultures who have an agreement about why they have been formed are more prosocial toward others in their communities, yet Hofstede would argue that “uncertainty avoiding communities,” or more “prosocial communities” are often more hostile and unsocial toward groups not a part of their communities.

Coming to #2, proportional costs and benefits, and relatedly, graduated sanctions, because they both relate to equality, power and punishment, Hoftsede looked carefully at the dimension of “power distance,” or “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” For Hofstede, “power distance” was an index measurement of “inequality defined from below, not from above.”

His research suggested that “ a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders,” which is to say that everyone agreed that there were discrepancies in power. This relates directly to Wilson’s analysis that one important factor of prosociality is “it cannot be the case that some people do all the work, and other people get the benefits.” Of course some people cannot do all the work, but Hoftsede argued that every society understood that some people will do more than their fair share of the work, and some will reap greater benefits than others.

Of course, the infamous Michel Foucault factors in here as well, in #2 as well as in #4 (Monitoring)  and #5 (Graduated Sanctions).

Michel Foucault

Foucault, for those who are unfamiliar, was best known for his  studies of modern society and its institutions, namely psychiatry, medicine, human sciences and the prison and punishment systems. In his tome Discipline and Punish, he examined “technologies of punishment,” monarchical punishment, and disciplinary punishment. In the latter, which Foucault determined was the more modern take on societal and systematic punishment, punishment is left to “professionals” (psychologists, programme facilitators, parole officers, etc.) to dole out in a demonstration of their power over the prisoner. Foucault believed that disciplinary punishment led to “self-policing by the populace as opposed to brutal displays of authority from the Monarchical period.” He also retrieved from historical obscurity Jeremy Bentham’s concept of a modern architectural structure for prisons called the Panopticon, in which “a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen,” and “where visibility is a trap.”

#7 brings us back to Hofstede, with its mention of Autonomy. Why is autonomy important to facilitating a prosocial human being? Wilson believe it is because “for a group to do these things, they have to have the authority to manage their own affairs.” Yet Hofstede measured individuality as part of his scale as a contrast with collectivism. He felt that “On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after her/himself and her/his immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” So on that point, again, they differ.

I have prattled on a bit too long on this entry, but the point is that what makes us, as human beings with free will and the ability to operate autonomously and individually, have the seemingly built-in desire to commune with others and cooperate to enhance our own lives? What Wilson was studying in Binghamton, NY is what Hoftsede was examining at the international state level, and what Foucault was looking deeply into at the human soul level. Yet still, we have no definitive answer.

On my end, I just though it was interesting that as each of us grabs hold of new technologies, and read reports of how those technologies are actively distancing us from our ancient proclivity toward social interactions with others, social scientists like Wilson claim that it’s possible we are actually evolving to be more selfless, to be more involved with our own communities.

So what do you think? Are we becoming more prosocial, or less?


This morning I heard this story on NPR about the efforts to study and improve public perception of “reclaimed wastewater,” aka sterilized and filtered sewage water that has been cleaned for re-use by the public. It made me remember this story on NPR from last night about what we should call the current economic crisis. Both of these stories essentially address the oft-referenced “what’s in a name?” question, and it is a question that has spawned an enormous communications sub-industry known as “branding.”

From an intellectual standpoint, the discipline of branding is completely fascinating. It melds science and psychology with a worship of capitalism, and produces a proscriptive and insidious process for advertising and marketing to follow. The field of branding helps companies, organizations and these days, even human beings, to develop an aura of feeling around a name, product, or icon. As Wikipedia puts it, “The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a ‘name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.’” For me, that definition is way too harmless.

You see, the way we feel about brands in modern America has been directly driven by the children and cohorts of Sigmund Freud. From Coca-Cola to Proctor & Gamble, Barack Obama to Apple; a good brand is worth billions and billions of dollars- and is a very high stakes business.

So here is where perhaps I should admit, I’m not a huge fan of branding. Though I am fascinated by it and by how powerful it can be, I also conversely often find it either insidious, or very fluffy. For instance, I often hearken back to my first job out of college where I was the account manager at my consultancy for a large tech storage company which shall remain nameless. When that company re-branded itself the client required that I and my account team attend their extensive briefing on the new brand. We sat through countless hours of presentations about the new “drivers” for the brand- items such as, “if this brand were a marine mammal what would it be? A dolphin!” “If this brand were a luxury airline, which would it be?” etc. The whole thing was such an utter waste of money and of time that I left feeling sick to my stomach. I was terrified that this was what a career in communications would lead to. Thankfully it didn’t, for me.

However, if done well, there really is a science to branding and re-branding. Some companies spend millions of dollars on U.S. census-level studies and data mining to discern what people will buy and what they won’t. In other words, once you’ve seen it on a shelf at Target, millions of dollars have probably gone into ensuring what is likely now a foregone conclusion- that you’ll buy it.

What does all of this have to do with reclaimed wastewater and the economic downturn, Jessica, you ask?

Well, taking the first topic on wastewater, the issue at the heart of this excellent NPR report is the very prominent problem of water sources in California. One of the theories and proposed solutions for water shortages in California has been wastewater recycling whereby plants would be built in California “that would clean local wastewater — aka sewage water — and after that cleaning, make it available as drinking water. “ There’s no rational reason that this shouldn’t be a stellar solution to California’s chronic droughts- if the water is 100% safe to drink, this is a phenomenal solution. The only real roadblock to moving forward with the plan? The public perception that the plan is for them to drink other people’s, er, waste.

As one of the leading professors who helped to draft the proposal, Brent Haddad, who teaches environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz attested, “The public wasn’t really examining the science involved,” Haddad says. “They were just saying no.”

Why? Because there was a complete lack of branding involved in proposing this plan to the public. They should have seen the public rejection of this coming from a mile away, especially given the utter germophobia and hypochondria the general public suffers from these days (just think about the rise of those anti-bacterial hand sanitizer bottles ).

Too often the science of branding isn’t applied where it could be most useful- moving the public to adopt new courses or policies that are agreed to be rational and most beneficial to the greater good, but that suffer from being completely distasteful given the contemporary political, social or cultural context.

In the case of the California wastewater proposal, rather than turning to a branding firm, Haddad turned to a group of psychologists for help. Enter Carol Nemeroff who works at the University of Southern Maine and studies an area of psychology known as “psychological contagion.” Still with me? Because this is where it gets really, really good.

“Psychological contagion,” or informally, “contagion thinking,” “refers to the habit we all have of thinking — consciously or not — that once something has had contact with another thing, their parts are in some way joined.” In other words, “psychological contagion” is all about how the human brain works to create lasting neural connections between two objects because of their relationship to each other. From here we are only one hop, step and a small jump from the principle of “brand identity,” where objects adopt and carry attributes of feeling or sentiment with them due to successful marketing and advertising ploys. The one item contaminates the other in our brain, and they are inextricably interlinked sometimes forever.

Nemeroff’s conclusion on the wastewater topic? “You need to change the identity of the water so that it’s not the same water. “It’s an identity issue, not a contents issue,” she says, “so you have to break that perception. The water you’re drinking has to not be the same water, in your mind, as that raw sewage going in.” Nemeroff suggested that the wastewater project managers find a way to more closely relate the purified wastewater with shared concepts of nature in order to purify the water not only in physical form, but also in its branded form for the general public. This is re-branding at its best, people. The water will be the same water, but you need to convince the public with all of the available branding bells and whistles that the water is different than it was before.

So here’s where we get to the topic of re-branding the current economy. The other NPR story from Marketplace addressed how the economic downturn is being branded, and therefore also perked my ears. This one struck me because I have felt myself grasping for a title for this strange economy, without any luck. Clearly I’m not alone, as the accompanying article to the story reads, “The subprime crisis, the credit crunch, the recession — all are clearly part of one enormous economic mess that, at the moment, is nameless. There’s no question that we’re living through a historic downturn. But what will we call it?”

NPR interviewed Jonathan Wald, senior vice president of business news at CNBC, about how they were referring to the economic period, and he admitted,

“it’s really hard when you’re in the middle of something to know what it will be called. So all you can do is brand the hell out of it. In the media, he says, if it’s not branded, it doesn’t exist”

We have “economic downturn,” we have “deficit,” we have “depression,” but none of those has really stuck. The “depression” is fairly easy to weed out of the running, since bankers aren’t out on the corner selling apples, and thanks to the infamous photographic record by Dorothea Lange, the images of economic hardship we are observing now don’t fit with the national collective memory of a “depression.”

It seems the general consensus is that a name for a historical period or economic trend only begins to take form in retrospect, as historians, journalists, novelists and documentarians begin to need a commonly acknowledged term to indicate their subject matter. I guess we’re just not there yet.

I am not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but I know enough cursorily about investor confidence to know that a brilliant brandsman or woman could easily re-brand this current economic situation into something less threatening for us all and most likely do the economy some favors in the process.

If we could all be assured that this is NOT a “depression,” or “devastation,” but rather a “temporary lull,” or a “cyclical recession,” it would be akin to the very act of taking wastewater and forcing us all to drink recycled sewage- and to feel good about doing so. Not the most palatable idea, but in the public’s best interest in order to move on.