Greetings from Helsinki, land of The Moomintrolls, endless light and… hardcore egalitarianism. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to some lovely Finnish people these past few days, and they’ve all conveyed a jubilant sense of equality/incredulous claustrophobia of classed societies. Finns have long been world leaders in literacy, happiness, gender and wealth distribution (below). I’ve been wondering what makes the Finns so advanced?
Gini Coefficient World CIA Report 2009 A map of income inequality. Australia is only slightly behind Sweden, for the time being, but seeing as the Abbott government is basing our social policy on the US of A, I guess we’ll be sliding down towards purple before long.
A sociological perspective would argue that there is an existing cultural convention of equality which materialises in policy, media and industry through laws such as the sliding fine scale, through to high emphasis on public education. Conventions are hard to change and take concerted efforts from different social players. However one social policy intervention stands out as most likely to encourage further equality, the Kela Maternity Package.
This package dates back to the 1930s when the state ruled to give one to expectant mothers as a means of both combating infant mortality and boosting birth rates. Mothers must access health services during pregnancy in order to be eligible for the package, giving babies the healthiest start in life.
Finnish maternity package: a constant reminder of egalitarianism.
The box is designed to support the first year of infant care, containing children’s clothes, nappies, gauze towels and other child-care products. The mattress is the same size as the box, which is often used as the infant’s first crib. The maternity package has been used for various social and environmental causes; ten years ago bottles and dummies were taken out to encourage breastfeeding, nappies have been reusable since 2000 and all garments are gender neutral. Finnish babies, from all walks of life, all spend their first year wearing the same clothes, playing with the same toys and sleeping in the same cardboard box.
Imagine knowing that you slept in the same cardboard box as your friends, bus driver and prime minister.
I’ve spent the last two days at a Socialising Big Data workshop at the futuristic IT University Copenhagen. Big Data is one of those trendy all encompassing buzz-words that refers to the proliferation of data gathered everyday on all of us, from our food purchasing, health services access, sleep and exercise patterns to Grindr hookups. This information can be used for anything from predictive epidemic preparation (like google flue trends) to just-in-time manufacturing.
IT University of Copenhagen Campus
Every time you use Maps, Run Keeper, or Twitter, catch the bus, go to the doctor, use public rubbish bins, listen to music, read your email or use your credit card, your information is being saved and analysed. Facebook even has plans to listen to our conversations through our own phones’ microphone every time we use their App. There is some lip service paid to ethics and security, but with technological developments fast outstripping developments in law, on top of the recent revelations of the NSA and Yahoo breaches, no-one can ever know who has access to our ‘private’ information. The only way to avoid the hungry eyes of Big Brother would be not to partake in these modern conveniences. But even so your information can still turn up in the public domain.
When I moved to Sweden I was mildly disconcerted to find my personal details online. Yes I am 30, single, and live above a kebab shop. No rose tinted glasses on Google. Also that is my actual salary.
I could email The Authorities and ask them to take this information down, but for some reason I haven’t.
There is some part of me that believes in radical transparency. If government and financial institutions keep tabs on me, why not everyone else? In the words of American policy intellectual Samuel P. Huntington “Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”(in Chomsky, 2014). If everyone knows everything then there are no secrets to hide. When there are no secrets, asymmetry of power can be balanced.
Salary negotiations are a great example of this, in Sweden the difference between men and women’s economic participation is 94% compared to the 60% world average (World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report, 2013).
If everyone’s data is included in research, can this lead to more representative depictions of reality, and can avoid special interest groups perpetuating power inequalities? Or does big data lead to further exploitation of the powerless?
… much a part of the globalising, accelerating, glossy-media-saturated world we live in. We are bombarded with images of impossibly flawless faces, bodies, homes, food…
Celebrity aside, my Facebook stream is incessantly flooded by perfectly smiling friends, going on perfectly exotic holidays, picking up keys for perfectly designed apartments, holding perfectly adorable babies and making perfectly crafted comments.
What does this perpetuation of perfection do?
It can be paralysing. Obsessing over details, one can indefinitely postpone possible failure by refining ideas in increasingly meaningless increments. It is better to never have failed, than to look like a try-hard. And with so much perfection shining at us from every possible crevice, it’s impossible not to feel comparatively try-hardish.
In an age where the Facebook profile has become a simulacrum of success, it’s hard to invest ones-self in anything that might not be perfectly successful. When confidence matters as much as competence, being uncommitted, uninvested, paralysed can be a self-perpetuating spiral.
But how can one be confident amongst the plethora of perfection? No-one will ever live up to their online profile, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling any less perfect back in the un-Adobé’d world. Perfect is a moving target: or as Anna Karenina put it “If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” Perhaps there is no such thing as perfect. It’s an ideal hanging just over the next horizon.
And when one is constantly focussed on the horizons it’s easy to miss the little things happening here and now. Being able to hop, skip and jump, the sunburn on your lover’s neck, bicycles, unexpected tulips, doing handstands on the beach, eating an entire packet of timtams and feeling sick for hours. The imperfections in life are what makes it perfect.
According to Marilyn Monroe anyway, ‘Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.’ Perhaps ridiculously, mad imperfection is where useless inhibitions can be ditched and life can be lived at the horizons. Where we can take wholehearted satisfaction in the accomplishments of others. Because I would rather be brilliant than perfect.
I’ve been wanting to post this since December. I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Most of me wants to dismiss it as the music industry sexualising yet another female artist. But it’s one of my top played songs. I’ve asked my friends and the first reaction is mostly ‘oh great, another nearly naked singer, what happened to feminism?’ Am I a misogynist pervert? Possibly, I have no idea why I find this video irresistible.
Is it because Beyoncé is a beautiful woman celebrating part of her life with her partner of more than ten years and father of her child? Is it that, nearly perfect body aside, her flaws are unedited? Is it because she seems to be having so much fun? Is it the way she makes you feel somehow included?
Usually when I see music videos it makes me feel like doing infinity sit-ups, wearing a paper bag over my head and never eating again. Watching this makes me want to go dancing on the beach.
Yesterday Bruno Latour, fêted french sociologist, doyen of Actor Network Theory and charming man about Paris, presented his new research project, An Inquiry Into The Modes Of Existence (AIME), to a distinguished gathering of academics at Copenhagen Business School. The collaborative research project takes the form of an online resource with the explicit aim to ‘facilitate reflexivity’. The researchers are calling for everybody, all over the world, to take part in this inclusive research project and co-create new and relevant bottom-up sociological theory.
To raise globally applicable issues and contributions from, and for, humanity, Latour has especially assembled a team of handsome white french men (and one Italian). The eloquent clique collaborated on a web platform aimed to elicit participatory Grass-roots Universalism. Crowd-sourcing of key meta-truths relies on participation and disagreement explained one particularly tall, attractive AIME member, urging the audience to log-in and contest their initial, ‘provocative’ ideas.
During the presentation the well-educated, immaculately groomed and luminously white audience scribbled furious notes, paying special attention to the login and submission advice, and I can only imagine started drafting universal truth submissions in their beautiful designer notebooks.
When the Q+A session rolled around, rapt attendees taking up the contestation invitation interrogated Latour and his attractive AIME team on their views of ways this new paradigm may affect the construction, application and abstraction of knowledge in different ways of calling modernity into question, how we gather articulations behind these increasingly vacuous signifiers and the political frontiers they generate, and how these beautifully complex meanings of practicing may perhaps completely transform ideas of the way we engage with the performativity of institutional regimes.
We can only wait with baited breath to see how this devilishly handsome band of privileged men, and participants from distinguished universities all over developed cities in western Europe, create an accessible, inclusive and universal voice for the entirety and complexity of our world.
One of my favourite parts of immersing in Swedish culture is the sauna. Sweating in hot cedar and then dipping in the cold North Sea with the old dames of malmö has become somewhat of a mid-week ritual. One I’m loath to miss. Wednesday afternoons have become a flurry of finishing writings, jotting to-do-lists for tomorrow, sending brisk replies to emails and duking out the back door. Once home it’s a scramble for towel, thongs, water, sweater, keys and a victorious sally out into the street. Volume on full I hightail past the station, through the park, along the beach and arrive puffed, pink and ready to relax. Only to find I have not bought my wallet.
This is not so uncommon, last week some of my colleagues were gently ribbing another who bolted a sandwhich in two minutes flat so they could make it to their massage. Skynder sig för att lugna sig.
Speeding through tasks to have time to relax, to become speedier at tasks. Productivity, efficiencies, streamlining, just-in-time, lean manufacturing. Or in Annie Lennox’s words:
For me that animation would look like: research a lot, teach a lot, learn Swedish, write lots of grants, publish, publish, publish or perish, become a post-doc, research more, teach more, get more grants, publish more, get tenure, become a professor, do professor stuff, reproduce the overworked academic caricature. This is actually kind of my plan at the moment (minus the last bit). It would be nice to be a young professor. But why do I think that?
Maybe because everyone I know thinks that being a professor would be kind of cool. The privilege of sharpening ones own intellect and increasing reflexivity in students and investigating a subject you care passionately about becomes overshadowed by the social construct. It’s easy to go with the majority.
But what if the majority is wrong? Academia is saturated with urban legends of burnout. But who actually cares if you are 35, 40 or 60 when you get tenured? Would I rather be a stressed out, grey-haired young professor, or an older one with more travels, dances, books and friends tucked into the folds of my life experiences? But as a student, sometimes I feel too immersed in the humdrum rush, too busy perpetuating my own ambitious demised to stop and reflect on whether the ends or means are more important.
I read a beautiful piece of writing last weekend by David Graeber making a convincing argument that being alive is the ends, and therefor taking joy in ones abilities is the means. Perhaps that is why it is resonantly beautiful to listen to some of the professors in my department presenting ideas, or watch Beyoncé videos. These people are really good at what they are doing.
For now doing things that I am good at is the best reason to be alive. When I enjoy what I do, when I slow down, when I focus on what is in-front of me, I feel more alive. I can see deeper currents and produce more resonant research. And am probably a lot less likely to forget my wallet.
‘Life is the moments in between’ – 242,000,000 google hits
For the first time in my life I have a stable job. Which means for the first time in my life I have a stable income. Which also means, that for the very first time in my life, I have the chance to crystalise my thoughts on money.
Since leaving home, money has always been a means to an ends: paying rent, scraping through uni, drinking cask wine, travelling when I could. Now that I can do all of the above and have some left over, conventional wisdom says ‘save’, ‘buy a house’, ‘invest in your future.’ There is also another voice saying, ‘live a little’, ‘buy pretty things.’ I’m not really sure where these voices come from. But I did buy a very nice dress with my second pay check (I sent the first to my mum, better a decade late then never). This dress actually started an interesting chain of thoughts. The symbolic First Purchase.
The idea swirling tumbled out something about our society. Something about desires. Something about positional treadmills. Something about asymmetry of voice.
It reminded me of that quote from british economist Tim Jackson: ‘We spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people we don’t care about.‘ He pretty much nails it.
I must’ve thought about it last year when I ambled about Alternative Hedonism (sorry Kate Soper, you got edited out by an over zealous sub). The Christmas consumption spirit gets a fair amourt of air-time in my brain around this time of year.
Sating desires only amplifies them. So what is actually important in life? I have food, home, friends, wine, music, health and work that I adore. And I can buy the things I need in fair-trade, organic, not-screwing-over-anyone-except-my-own-liver options. Anymore and there is the definite danger that I will be sucked into the status treadmill.
I sent the dress back.
But the thoughts keep coming.
Wealth distribution is fucked. This video has been watched 13 million times, and it’s easy to see why. Who the hell is this flaming galah with ten of his own bloody columns?! I’ve watched it three times today, getting steadily more riled up.
But then change ‘America’ to ‘The World’ and that flaming galah is me. I am in the richest 1% of people in the world, according to The Global Rich List. And if you’re reading this on an electronic device you probably are as well.
So what are we meant to do? Does using money mean becoming implicit in the system? Accessory to perpetuating inequality?
I have no idea what ‘economics’ really is. It seems like a sneaky way for powerful people to hide the fact that they are ripping us off. Highly credible academic Jürgen Habermas points out ‘law often provides illegitimate power with the mere semblance of legitimacy’ (1998, p.40). And this remains somehow invisible to us. Another credible academic, Alf Hornborg, said recently ‘any technology that is out of the price range of the average global citizen, probably conceals asymmetry of exchange.’ We get screwed over because we can’t understand the convoluted mechanisms of this abstract money concept. But we also participate in screwing over those with less financial power than us. When we are ignorant. When we buy cheap crap.
Whether or not one ‘decides’ to buy-into money, you have to admit it is kind of arbitrary. Just a vague promise of things or services in the future. But it can disappear in a puff of smoke, like it did for so many families during the Global Financial Crisis. Or for the Germans in the 192os. On a tenuously relevant note – here’s a photo I took of my friend’s million mark notes collection. Inflation.
Money is unreliable, but it is still everywhere. And bloody powerful. Everyone I’ve asked over the last few days has politely answered that ‘living without money isn’t for me.’ There are a few nice stories of people who have opted out of the financial system, but I’m not sure this would be a viable solution for our forecasted 9 billion co-habitants. I’m not even how sustainable it is for the opt-outers in the long run. Eventually they will need aged care or other services made possible by our financial system. Even though our economy is massively flawed, no enticing alternatives have emerged.
So who has the power to let power go?
I don’t know, but I do believe in education. At least if more people know how the system works there is a chance of more equal power distribution. Maybe I will donate my spare cash to schools. Write to me if you have any better ideas.
In the meantime I’m letting M.I.A. have the last word with her new single Exodus.
I do solemnly declare that I shall give the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
I’ve never really thought much about what the truth is.
But Liv told me there is no such thing.
At face value truth seems quite straightforward. A description of a real object is truthful. But then what is real? Is anything objectively real? Don’t we all subject reality to our past experiences, opinions, judgements? Everything we see and hear goes through our personal filters and the closest we can get is some kind of approximation of each other’s experiences. Some relational truth in shared meaning.
But as Stuart Hall points out: meaning is not straightforward or transparent, facts are regularly passed through representation, changing and shifting significance with context. Meaning is never finally fixed, always approaching but never arriving at Absolute Truth (1997, p.9, his caps).
And Foucault thinks that you can create reality. “All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true.’”(1977, p.27). No, I don’t think he was watching ‘the secret’ when he wrote that.
I guess this is kind of obvious in fashion magazines. Clothing designers believe that garments look better on thin models, photographers use thin models, and thin comes to represents beauty. Thin models in magazines, billboards, films. Thin is truly beautiful.
Nothing and everything is beautiful. You are so beautiful to me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is truth in the tongue of the speaker?
Liv thinks that we can try to get closer to an objective knowledge by being honest about ourselves. Making explicit our worldviews, standpoints, contexts and perspectives. Making others aware of the biases in our truths. She explained to me that: ‘Truth like meaning, is always contextual. “Being’ has more to do with that objects are always presented to us within discursive articulations, and never as mere blank – existing – entities. Outside a discursive context objects have no being.”
And then she sent me a poignant if dense quote from Laclau: “…the moment of failure of objectivity is, the constitutive outside of the latter. The movement towards deeper strata does not reveal higher forms of objectivity but a gradually more radical contingency. The being of objects is, therefor, radically historical, and ‘objectivity’ is a social construction. It is in this sense that society does not ‘exist’ in so far as objectivity, as a system of differences that establishes the being of entities, always shows traces of its ultimate arbitrariness and only exists in the pragmatic – and as a consequence always incomplete – movement of its affirmation.” (1990, p.183).
To become more objective, real, truthful is to develop more and more abstract ways of thinking about the world.
Research is a constant quest to become a truthful speaker. But also an understandable and relatable one. Striving to give a true description of how objects really are; how the world really is; controlling for the plethora of experience and attendant values that shape the way we see things, in a way that is relevant and useful to everyday life.
And then finding perfect value-free recipients with whom to share perfect truths. Or creating them/us by igniting reflexivity in society/ourselves.