Simon and Garfunkle and McLuhan

November 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The term “global village” was coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1962 in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy.

But certainly the electro-magnetic discoveries have recreated the simultaneous “field” in all human affairs so that the human family now exists under conditions of a “global village.” We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums. So that the concern with the “primitive” today is as banal as nineteenth-century concern with “progress,” and as irrelevant to our problems.

McLuhan was prescient. He saw that the electronic media would dissolve the distinction between primitive and modern. In 1962, even the term “electronic media” was not much in circulation (McLuhan uses electro-magnetic). “Globalization” had not yet entered the general conversation, and the Internet and World Wide Web were decades away.

(Frequency of globalization in books. Google n-Grams.)

I doubt that anyone still reads The Gutenberg Galaxy these days, but Maurice Stein assigned it, along with McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) to my Sociology of Literature class in 1965. That was also the year that Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sound of Silence” became a huge hit.

These seemingly diverse facts came together for me this morning as I was listening to a promo for a new audiobook, Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon.

(No transcript. The idea is entirely in the music.)

Dave Frishberg, 1933 - 2021

November 19, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Times obit for Dave Frishberg left out the best parts. Frishberg wrote some wonderful lyrics, but the lines the Times chose are hardly the best. From “I’m Hip,” they commented on “I read People magazine,” noting that in the original 1960s version it was “Playboy magazine.” Frishberg changed it. But the best line in this song in the persona of someone who’s “on top of every trend”  was “When it was hip to be hep, I was hep.”

My favorite Frishberg rhyme is vocal/local in “I Want to Be a Sideman.” Not many words rhyme with vocal (focal and yokel are the only two that come to mind), so while the rhyme is unusual, it’s not forced. It fits perfectly with the sense of the song.

I wanna fill behind the vocal
Double on flute
And jam on the blues.
I wanna go and join the local
Buy a dark suit
And start payin’ dues

Frishberg wrote “Do You Miss New York” in 1980 a few years after he had moved to Los Angeles. It has the wonderful line,
Did you trade
The whole parade
For a pair of parking places?
Susannah McCorkle’s version captures poignancy in a way that Frishberg’s own voice, often described as “reedy.”

[UPDATE: Since writing this, I’ve read the WaPo obit, which is much better and not just because it mentions the same lines that I included

Halloween and Child Danger — From Legend to Law

October 31, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Halloween of 2006, when this blog was only a few weeks old, I did a post (here) that mentioned Joel Best’s famous 1985 Social Problems article debunking “Halloween sadism.” All those stories about evil adults putting needles in apples or LSD on candy, they were urban legends — stories that many people have heard about, but when you try to track down specific instances, they vanish like a ghost. Best updated his research in 2012 and still could not find case where a child had suffered serious injury let alone the deaths claimed in the legend. There a few stories, usually in local online news sources, of sharp objects found in candy, but no reports of injury.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the post was really about cognitive biases. It takes more than lack of evidence to drive a stake through the heart of a good legend. It’s not just that people don’t stop believing. They can expand and transform it, and then give it a much more solid form.  Halloween sadism has shifted shape and become Halloween pedophilia.  And while Halloween sadism was spread more or less randomly by word-of-mouth, Halloween pedophilia is now written into the law. Starting in the early 2000s, many states have passed laws restricting sex offenders on Halloween. In many places they are not allowed to give out candy. In some, they are not allowed to decorate their homes or have the lights on. Police and parole officers may intensify their surveillance, and some jurisdictions just round up all known sex offenders and keep them in a single location like city hall till trick-or-treat is over.*

These extraordinary measures are based on the assumption that, as Fox News puts it, “pedophiles will be out in full force” on Halloween.

The evidence shows no such Halloween effect. Researchers looked at rates of sex crimes against children over the course of eight years and found no difference between Halloween and any other day. Nor were rates any lower after the new polices were put in place than they had been before. (The article is a behind a paywall here.)

You don’t have to be much of a child safety expert to guess which people do actually present a greatly increased risk to children on Halloween. Motorists.

The numbers are small, thankfully, but the Halloween effect is unmistakable.

* In the last few years, we’ve had a more serious examples of new laws based on myth as myths of voter fraud and stolen elections became the basis for changes in election laws. The big difference is that the people propagating the election myths were doing so in order to further their own interests. The diffusion of Halloween myths was more “endogenous.” For more on endogenous and exogenous factors, see this earlier post on the rise and fall in the popularity of baby names and movies.

On Becoming an Entrepreneurship Industry User

October 18, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sixteen years ago, I went to hear what I guess you’d call a motivational speaker. He was trying to motivate the thousand or so people in the auditorium buy his course on getting rich, and to do that he had to first make us feel that we could be wildly successful if only we changed the way we thought about money. And he did. He was really good. Motivational, even inspirational. We really did feel as though some gigantic prize were within our grasp.

The way to unlimited wealth, he said, is of course, to have your own business. If you work for someone else, whatever your monthly salary or (God forbid) hourly wage, your income is limited; there are only twelve months or twenty-four hours.

I remembered that talk as I was listening to the latest episode of the Sociology Annex podcast (here). Joe Cohen’s guest was Rasums Koss Hartman, and I realized that my motivational speaker was part of what Hartman calls  calls the Entreprenership Industry. Hartman teaches at a business school (Copenhagen — all his degrees are from there too), but his take on the Entrepreneurship industry and the entrepreneurs took me back to my intro sociology course six decades ago where we read Outsiders and Theory of the Leisure Class.  

Most people who try to become entrepreneurs run into a variety of setbacks — they have problems getting their business to work properly, they get rejected by potential investors, they lose money, they go into debt, and all these can compromise their relationships and mental health.

But the Entrepreneurial Industry is there to persuade them that all these experiences are normal and possibly necessary steps to eventual success. Becoming an entrepreneur in the 2000s is much like what Becker described in “On Becoming a Marijuana User” for jazz musicians in the 1940s. The crucial challenge is to learn to define as pleasurable and good what others might see as unpleasant. Becker’s musicians had their own hip culture (it was  the 1940s, so probably their “hep” culture). Hopeful start-ups have the Entrepreneurial Industry. In fact, Hartman calls the entrepreneur’s transformational learning “the Beckerian Distortion.”   

There are differences of course. Pot was legally and socially condemned; entrepreneurship is highly praised. The hepcats didn’t charge for their help, and nobody went broke. Nor did they strive to smoke  unlimited quantities of pot or try to figure out how to be a mega-hophead. Being a pot user was not the core of their identity.

But in the US, we lionize the successful start-up billionaire, so being an entrepreneur is a valid and valued identity. As Hartman says, “If you’re a young person and you’re underemployed, if you’re a college-educated barista, it’s socially preferable to be the ‘founder and CEO’ of a company even though it might not succeed.” Spending your money on the goods and services the Entrepreneurial Industry sells is a kind of conspicuous consumption, signaling to others that even if you are not the next Steve Jobs, at least you are doing something everyone admires. And so we have what Hartman calls “The Rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur.”

In both these papers, Hartman begins with what my motivational speaker omitted: that the graph of entrepreneurial success is a highly skewed power curve. The typical venture ends up as a “Muppet” (I’m not sure why he borrows that term): “An economically marginal, under-sized and poorly performing enterprise.” Maybe that’s still better than being a barista.