Tag: Control

Day 994: The Game Of Milton Bradley’s Life

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I confess: I am but one week away from commemorating my 40th year on this planet, and I have yet to ever play The Game of Life. This is not due to some ethical or existential objection to simulating the course of one’s existence upon a square slab of cardboard, but rather due to my friends and I having spent our youthful recreation time with Star Wars toys and kindly ol’ Super Mario. I never got around to playing Candyland either.

As beloved as this board game may be, with its plastic minivans, its cruel cash-drains and generous paydays, buried deep within its roots is a transformative story. The original version of the game, concocted by Mr. Milton Bradley himself, elevated the concept of gaming from prescriptive quests for moral elevation to a more practical and modernized measure of success. More importantly, it came packaged with choice.

The Game of Life as we know it (well, as you probably know it, since I’ve never played the thing) features one early decision: go to school or get a job. After that, each soul is subjected to the whim of the spiteful spinner, suggesting that life is but a cavalcade of random collisions, and that we are always at the mercy of the fickle flick of fate. Mr. Bradley’s outlook on destiny was far more empowering.

Milton Bradley, 1860s

Tracing the Bradley lineage would suggest that a rather dreary definition of “life” could have taken center-stage in his outlook. The family tree was planted in America in 1635, and since then its bark shows the hatchet-marks of murder, Indian attack, kidnapping, and at one point hot embers being poured into an infant’s mouth. When Milton finally squeezed his way onto the planet in 1836, the Bradleys were a little less prone to being butchered, but far from being economic titans. Read more…

Day 826: I’m Living It

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As we clamber into another springtime, the romantics fluttering their tootsies at the prospect of potential prospects while we loathers of the eternal snow pray for sanctuary from the dreary grey, it’s time to get away from talking about the weather and back to what matters: bitching about society. It doesn’t take a Father Knows Best marathon or a visit to one’s local seniors’ home to realize that things aren’t as they used to be. Our inherent institutional respect has deteriorated, our unflinching trust of “the system” has fallen like a Jenga tower of probing questions, and people appear to be less affluent and less happy about it.

On the flip-side, we have an unending cavalcade of bulldog puppy pictures on the internet, so perhaps we aren’t entirely doomed. But no – that’s the wrong attitude. You can’t get a good kvetch on if you’re looking at puppy pics. If we want to stack our plate at the local gripe-ateria, we must excrete the cutesiness and optimism we might possess and make room for the complaining.

I make no apologies for that metaphor. As anyone who read the book Fast Food Nation knows, we are living in a fast-food nation (I haven’t read the book, but the front cover was very informative). I’m not talking about our collective addiction to Whoppers and Double-Downs and Blizzards and Sonic’s delectable tater-tots. Fast-food is representative of everything we’ve been sinking into, culturally-speaking, over the last few decades. Rev up your grumble-motors – it’s time to whine about ourselves.

Then, and only then can we look at bulldog puppies.

Then, and only then can we look at bulldog puppies.

Sociologist George “Puttin’ On The” Ritzer observed our gradual slip into societal doom back in 1993 when he wrote his best-selling (or at least good-selling – I don’t have the numbers) book, The McDonaldization of Society. Max Weber – that’s the German political economist from the early 1900’s, not the Canadian rock band from the 80’s – used the bureaucracy as a representation of society. George Ritzer felt we’d evolved into a new cultural organism, and that the multi-national fast food empire was a better way of seeing us today. Or, ‘today’ in his 21-year-old book, but I think you’ll agree we’re still there.

We have been shifting from the traditional mode of thought into a more rational process for years. We are less guided by ancient morality and outright conservatism and more driven by the marketplace and the outright scientific means by which we can hold as much of it as possible in our pockets. This shift may have begun within the embers of American capitalism, but thanks to globalization we’re seeing this inferno spread all around the globe.

When you're bitching about society it's all about the metaphors.

When you’re bitching about society it’s all about the metaphors.

Ritzer has pinpointed four pillars of McDonaldization. There’s efficiency: everything present in a McDonald’s restaurant is specifically geared toward minimal time and maximum turnaround, from the pre-cooked patty-warming drawers to the mostly uncomfortable plastic seating. It’s the fastest route from A to B – in this case from a hungry customer to a full one, and evidence of this mandated efficiency pops up in virtually every corporate culture  out there. This leads into the second important concept – calculability. McDonald’s wants to quantify their success through sales rather than qualify it through making food that actually tastes good. Okay, that’s basic economics. But they also know that they can tap into our sense of quantification by offering us a substantial amount of food for a low cost. You can still fill your face at McDonald’s for $6 – that’s enough of a selling point to make a lot of people forget that a McChicken tastes like a sofa cushion.

Now imagine that philosophy expanded to our entire culture. Sacrificing quality for quantity is happening everywhere, from cheapo $5 t-shirts that wear out before lunch to the people who actually buy dollar-DVDs from the discount bin.

The other two tenets of Ritzer’s observations are fairly self-evident mainstays of the McWorld: predictability – every McDonald’s is expected to provide a fairly identical experience, same as you’d expect from every Gap, every Costco, every Old Navy – and control – employees must conform to a strict and rigid corporate philosophy. The other option for control is, of course, mechanizing the process, something that has become significantly easier to attain in the online market that has popped up in the years since Ritzer’s book.AbandonedMcDonalds-3

Fortunately, the McDonaldization process isn’t going to bring about a 1984-esque degradation of our world. We don’t have to worry about becoming corporate slave automatons dressed in sci-fi jumpsuits and confessing our indiscretions to an automated salvation-system that will dispense mind-numbing medication to ensure our continued sheep-like behavior (which is as many future-dystopia-film tropes as I can fit into a single sentence). The corporate system’s weaknesses are already poking through the seams. George Ritzer calls this the ‘irrationality of rationalization’.

This essentially means that the dehumanization will become evident before we all devolve into expressionless flesh-robots. Bureaucratic red tape has snarled the quest for efficiency, the focus on calculability has led to low quality products, employees have become frustrated and confused about their lowly position and few prospects for elevation within the corporate culture (which kills off predictability), and the concept of control is, as a result, getting shakier. Is this good news? Can we all be saved?

Is salvation even in our best interests?

GoldenArchesTheory

According to journalist Thomas L. Friedman, no two countries with a McDonald’s inside their borders has ever fought a war against one another, at least after the restaurant chain had opened up shop. This is known as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, and it no doubt has more to do with McDonald’s-hosting countries being relatively stable and financially secure than the ability for each society to procure a Filet-O-Fish. Okay, the US did invade Panama in 1989, but that wasn’t technically a ‘war’. Oh, and India and Pakistan duked it out in 1999, but that was just a regional Kashmir thing, not an all-out military deathmatch.

Shortly after Friedman’s book dropped in 1999, NATO bombed Yugoslavia, and Belgrade protestors demolished the city’s McDonald’s. Friedman revised his book in 2000, citing the swift end of that conflict as evidence that Serbia did not want to lose its place in the global system that remains very much symbolized by McDonald’s. There have been other exceptions since (Crimea and Russia, for example), but it’s still an interesting lens through which to squint at the world.

BiteSizeJournalism

So we may be addicted to bite-size junk journalism, and maybe our post-secondary aspirations have been shaped by pseudo-universities that offer bullshit online degrees. Maybe we’re eager to embrace mediocrity because dammit, when it’s placed in a shiny ad next to a sexy model and a thousand twinkly lights it just looks so good. But I don’t buy it – we’ll sink into this muck pretty far but for most of us, there’s a way out.

As McDonald’s continues to spread its tendrils around the planet, a number of corporations are discovering the massive niche market of people who actually want quality over quantity, who actually want skilled, free-thinking workers and a subtle unpredictability in their experience. Even look at one of the myriad of Buzzfeed articles – Buzzfeed itself being a McDonaldization of online information – about the weird regional McDonald’s dishes that seem to show up in every country in order to cater to local tastes. Is that not traditionalism and/or individuality triumphing in a small way over the corporate machine? Is the proliferation of craft beer not indicative of our collective will to resist the vacuum of corporate homogeneity?

So there’s hope. At least until my next rant – the Kardashianization of popular culture. Until then, I highly recommend an overdose on optimism-feeding bulldog puppy pics.

Ahhh, that's better.

Ahhh, that’s better.

Day 586: Rockin’ Out To The Walkman Effect

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It’s not uncommon to look around while riding the bus and notice that everyone around you is staring vacantly into oblivion, plain white earbuds tethered to their heads like pod-zombies wired into the Matrix. I know – I’m one of them, although I prefer the comfy over-the-ear cans that drown out the rabble and the squawky bus brakes. Sometimes I find myself sketching out the rough contours of a daydream, wondering through what individualized experience my fellow travelers may be venturing.

Is the girl in the Metal Mulisha shirt indulging her guilty pleasure of vintage Boyz II Men? That portly guy absorbed in beating one of the timed levels in Candy Crush, does he have some rapid-fire J-Pop cranked through his earphones or is he satisfied with the game’s blippy sound effects? That skinny white guy with the dreads who always wears a Phish t-shirt, is he listening to the unbelievable version of “Weekapaug” from the New Year’s Eve 1995 show? Because that performance totally rocked.

Do these silent drones imagine themselves singing and strumming the music in their ears? Are they dancing once more with a lost love? How are they fashioning their completely bottled-in experience? These are the questions that plague a mind that hasn’t learned to shut the hell up. These are the questions which bring me to the Walkman Effect.

WalkmanEffect

Like most of our modern electronic toys, the Sony Walkman first slapped itself over the hungry lobes of Japanese consumers. It makes sense then for the first philosophical study on the technology to have taken place in the same corner of the world. Over at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, a professor named Shuhei Hosokawa wanted to come up with some sort of theoretical implication of burying oneself in one’s own tuneage. Read more…