Would less door-to-door trick-or-treating and more community Halloween events decrease or increase social interactions?

If Halloween is indeed evolving away from neighborhood trick-or-treating (good discussion here), are the replacement or alternative or additional events in downtowns, at churches, and activities organized by other groups leading to more or less community and social interactions? Thinking out loud:

-Going door-to-door often involves interacting with people who are near you in physical proximity. Even if neighborhood interactions are declining, people would be more likely to run into each other at other times just because they live near each other.

-Going to centralized Halloween events in other locations means more people might gather together. But, their interactions might be limited. Perhaps it depends on what commonalities people at the event may share – a church event could involve a number of core community members as could a downtown event where local luminaries or figures are involved. On the other hand, community or organized events could involve more people just dropping in and out after acquiring candy and a lower likelihood of later interactions.

In both cases, the practice of getting candy could do little to build community if (1) candy is the only goal and (2) the likelihood of subsequent interactions is limited. It would be easy to turn Halloween into an exercise is gathering a commodity with few opportunities to interact with people.

And more broadly, how much is Halloween a family or community holiday compared to other big celebrations like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and July 4th?

Archetypal American cities and “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

A story about the decline of retail establishments in Manhattan and the consequences for street life ends with this saying from Tennessee Williams:

“America has only three cities,” Tennessee Williams purportedly said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” That may have been true once. But New York’s evolution suggests that the future of cities is an experiment in mass commodification—the Clevelandification of urban America, where the city becomes the very uniform species that Williams abhorred. Paying seven figures to buy a place in Manhattan or San Francisco might have always been dubious. But what’s the point of paying New York prices to live in a neighborhood that’s just biding its time to become “everywhere else”?

These three cities are indeed unique with distinct cultures and geographies. But, I could imagine there would be some howls in response from a number of other big cities. What about Chicago and its distinct Midwest rise in the middle of a commodity empire? What about Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs and highways between and across mountains and the ocean? What about Miami serving as a Caribbean capital? What about Portland’s unusual climate and approach to social issues? And the list could go on.

Perhaps a more basic question is this: how many archetypal American cities are there? One of the books I have used in urban sociology, The City, Revisited, argues for three main schools of urban theory: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These happen to be the three largest cities in the United States and also have the advantage of having collections of urban scholars present in each. New York is marked by a strong core (Manhattan) and a unique colonial history (Dutch and then English) that helped kickstart a thriving economy and religious and cultural pluralism. Chicago is the American boom city of the 1800s and was home to the influential Chicago School at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Los Angeles is the prototypical twentieth-century American city built around highways and Hollywood with a rise of urban theorists in the late 1900s dubbing themselves the Los Angeles School. If these are the three main cities on which to compare and contrast, a place like Cleveland is more like Chicago (as is much of the Rust Belt), Houston is more like Los Angeles (as is much of the Sunbelt), and San Francisco is more like New York (and some other coastal cities might fit here).

But, these three biggest cities cannot cover all possible kinds of American cities. How many archetypal cities are too many before the categories become less helpful? Should the emphasis be on cultural feel or on how cities develop (New Orleans might simply be a unique outlier in all of this data)? Having these ideal type cities is only helpful so that they help describe and embody broad patterns across groups of cities.

Home swapping about community life, sustainability

A new study about people who swap homes are motivated by several factors:

‘My House is Yours’ is the first in-depth study of people using home exchange to travel the world. It was carried out by the University of Bergamo and based on a survey of 7,000 members of the HomeExchange.com website…

Researchers Francesca Forno, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Sociology of Consumption, and Roberta Garibaldi, Assistant Professor of Marketing and Tourism Marketing concluded that “people are turning more and more to models of consumption that emphasise community over selfishness”, and that home exchange “may help to make our societies work better towards a sustainable future”.

“Swapping houses is one of the most significant boundaries of modern tourism, because it incorporates some of the dynamics that characterise the tourist of the new millennium: the increasingly felt desire to travel several times a year, even with limited budgets, the need to organise tailor-made trips as personalised as possible and the desire to make the trip an authentic experience … not only to know a new country with all its attractions, but also to immerse yourself in a new culture,” they said.

The tourist of the new millennium also has a home to swap in the first place.

Additionally, it sounds a like more “ethical tourism” where the tourist seeks to not contribute to the inauthenticity of a place (tourist traps/hotels/resorts, menial jobs, etc.) and would rather move in and out unobtrusively. The 21st century tourist wants to soak up an authentic location and leave it the same or better than when they came. This could have quite an impact on places with lots of tourists, possibly aiding a resistance to a globalized/Westernized set of tourist experiences.

It’s too bad we don’t have a reaction from the tourism industry in this article. Are hotel chains worried or is this something that be marketed and commoditized?

Using algorithms to judge cultural works

Imagine the money that could be made or the status acquired if algorithms could correctly predict the merit of cultural works:

The budget for the film was $180m and, Meaney says, “it was breathtaking that it was under serious consideration”. There were dinosaurs and tigers. It existed in a fantasy prehistory—with a fantasy language. “Preposterous things were happening, without rhyme or reason.” Meaney, who will not reveal the film’s title because he “can’t afford to piss these people off”, told the studio that his program concurred with his own view: it was a stinker.

The difference is the program puts a value on it. Technically a neural network, with a structure modelled on that of our brain, it gradually learns from experience and then applies what it has learnt to new situations. Using this analysis, and comparing it with data on 12 years of American box-office takings, it predicted that the film in question would make $30m. With changes, Meaney reckoned they could increase the take—but not to $180m. On the day the studio rejected the film, another one took it up. They made some changes, but not enough—and it earned $100m. “Next time we saw our studio,” Meaney says, “they brought in the board to greet us. The chairman said, ‘This is Nick—he’s just saved us $80m.’”…

But providing a service that adapts to individual humans is not the same as becoming like a human, let alone producing art like humans. This is why the rise of algorithms is not necessarily relentless. Their strength is that they can take in that information in ways we cannot quickly understand. But the fact that we cannot understand it is also a weakness. It is worth noting that trading algorithms in America now account for 10% fewer trades than they did in 2009.

Those who are most sanguine are those who use them every day. Nick Meaney is used to answering questions about whether computers can—or should—judge art. His answer is: that’s not what they’re doing. “This isn’t about good, or bad. It is about numbers. These data represent the law of absolute numbers, the cinema-going audience. We have a process which tries to quantify them, and provide information to a client who tries to make educated decisions.”…

Equally, his is not a formula for the perfect film. “If you take a rich woman and a poor man and crash them into an iceberg, will that film always make money?” No, he says. No algorithm has the ability to write a script; it can judge one—but only in monetary terms. What Epagogix does is a considerably more sophisticated version, but still a version, of noting, say, that a film that contains nudity will gain a restricted rating, and thereby have a more limited market.

The larger article suggests algorithms can do better at predicting some human behaviors, such a purchasing consumer items, but not so good in other areas, like critical evaluations of cultural works. There are two ways this might go in the future. On one hand, some will argue this is just about collecting the right data or enough data. Perhaps we simply aren’t looking at the right things to correctly judge cultural products. On the other hand, some will argue that the value of an object may be too difficult for an algorithm to ever figure out. And, even if a formula starts hinting at good or bad art, humans can change their minds and opinions – see all the various cultural, art, and music movements just in the last few hundred years.

There is a lot of money that could be made here. This might be the bigger issue with cultural works in the future: whether algorithms can evaluate them or not, does it matter if they are all commoditized?

Are McMansions about maximizing exchange value?

A commentator takes a look at a new, oversized condominium building and discusses use value versus exchange value:

The house on this lot was rebuilt into two large condominiums.  Each is about 3,000 s.f. and priced at $849,000.  It’s a way to maximize the return for the property owner.  I can’t say the building is very attractive, but it is one block from the forthcoming Monroe and Market Street development adjacent to the Brookland Metro Station, and is two blocks from the Metro.

It’s too bad buildings such as this are oversized for the lot in a manner that degrades the visual qualities of the rest of the block.  Use values, including aesthetics, are subsidiary to the exchange value of place (maximizing financial return) in this instance.

To complete the circle about use value, one could also look at the experience of the homebuyers. Are these large housing units worth the money? Even if these big homes don’t quite fit in the neighborhood, they could be nice places to live. As noted above, they are spacious, located near desirable mass transit stops, and are probably have some nice interior features (surely granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and hardwood floors!). Even the New Urbanists that wrote Suburban Nation admit that Americans have superior private realms in our homes. (Of course, there are others, like Sarah Susanka and Winifred Gallagher who suggest these spacious, comfortable homes may not be good fits after all.)

Lurking behind this analysis is Marx’s discussion of use value, exchange value, and capitalism. In a capitalistic system, much can be commodified: Twitter followers, positive online reviews, and houses. Particularly during the 20th century, American homes became more than just shelters: they were expected to increase in value and become investment vehicles. (One could look at some data to see if these oversized housing units are flipped more quickly than other kinds of housing as owners look to make money.) Builders and developers can make even bigger money on houses. One very influential idea in urban sociology in the last few decades is the growth machine model, the idea that boosters, business leaders, politicians, and developers work together to make profits by transforming open land into valuable land. From the early days of the American suburbs when streetcar operators built their lines into the countryside and then offered free rides to the end of the line to show people lots and potential to McMansions today, much development, aesthetically pleasing or not (actually, aesthetics may indeed just help increase the value!), is about making money. Commodifying the home can move the discussion away from other important aspects f purchasing and owning a home like community life, environmental responsibility, and providing affordable housing.