The dystopian sociological origins of the concept of meritocracy

What exactly meritocracy means requires going back to the origins of the term in the 1950s:

As the tech writer Antonio García Martínez pointed out, “It’s worth recalling that the word ‘meritocracy’ was coined as a satirical slur in a dystopic novel by a sociologist.” Martínez is referring to The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033, published in 1958 by the British sociologist and politician Michael Young. Young’s work was indeed intended as a social satire, positing a future in which trends in the British educational system were carried out to their absurd conclusions.

Written in the style of a doctoral dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards. But those standards simply end up reinscribing the old class system, leading to a popular revolt.

Writing in The Guardian in 2001, a year before his death, Young looked back ruefully on how the irony of his coinage had been lost on the likes of Tony Blair, who was then making “meritocracy” the keystone of the Labour Party’s educational policy. “I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,” he wrote. “I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.” His book, he added, was “a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded).”…

But our friend Throgmorton didn’t simply see meritocracy as some sort of Platonic ideal—he jingoistically claimed that the United States was already a meritocracy, and the world’s only example of it. Not only did he overlook the peculiarly British irony in which Young couched the term, he also missed out on an irony much closer to home: In 1959, five years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, African Americans were still being systematically denied equal access to education across the South.

It sounds like people wanted the idea of meritocracy to be true or they could justify their existing ideologies with such a term. And then the concept simply takes on a life of its own separate from its origins. It is hard to imagine a ruling class – whether there by wealth or educational achievement or battle – that does not have an ideology that justifies their presence there and rise to that position. At what point will meritocracy fail to provide enough justification? And, if meritocracy is at some point no longer defensible, what ideology comes next to explain those in power?

This origin story also may serve as a reminder that satire is difficult to present to the public. It is a relatively lesser-known genre and can easily be misunderstood. Plenty of recent examples suggest satire is often taken as truth (think incidents with The Onion or the Babylon Bee) until a respected source goes out of their way to point out the original point.

 

Designing homes in “Disaster Chic”

Looking for a home that will help you survive the coming apocalypse? Look no further than printable homes, prefabricated small homes, and shipping containers.

You peer warily out of the single window in your zombie-proof steel box. The street seems deserted—except for a lone figure who is staring at you from a distance. Is it 2079, in the years after the Great Drought Plague!? No, it’s 2015 in Royal Oaks, Michigan, and that zombie is a curious local Fox reporter.

Royal Oaks is just the latest American town to get a house made from shipping containers, which offer something unique to consumers with a taste for apocalyptic adventures. While designers are developing smarter ways to build temporary housing and disaster shelters, developers and real estate agents are using the same technology to sell trendy and high-end homes. What results is a bizarre kind of hybrid style that pairs our worst fears with our biggest hopes for the future—utopia and dystopia overlap. Call it disaster chic…

Of course, it’s not surprising to see interesting ideas cross-pollinate—3D printing, containerization, and pop-up dwellings are all really cool concepts, and there’s no reason they should be shrouded in break-in-case-of-emergency glass. What’s interesting is how similar our ideas about crisis engineering and future chic really are. In the city of the future, everything is instant, whether for a good reason or a bad one. The cities of our dreams have a lot in common with those of our nightmares.

These homes don’t seem all that well equipped to help keep you safe. If anything, their primary feature in relation to disasters is that they can be quickly produced and moved. Those are important features in recovering from disasters but I imagine some might want more solid homes to survive the disaster in the first place.

But, it is interesting that such homes that do well at addressing disaster recovery might become more popular with a broader audience. Do such designs simply offer something different in a housing market where the typical home or housing unit isn’t really that exciting or different? Is this a way to offer ironic commentary about one’s home – homes in the United States are often intended to imply permanence but these structures hint at catastrophic change and adaptability? Or is this primarily driven by younger adults looking for cheaper housing options in cities that seem pretty determined to not provide much in the way of affordable housing?

Making something out of hundreds of unfinished subdivisions

The economic crisis of recent years had broad effects including stalling the construction of hundreds of suburban subdivisions across the United States:

There are hundreds of zombie subdivisions like this one scattered across the country. They’re one of the most visible reminders of the housing boom and bust, planned and paved in the heady days where it seemed that everybody wanted a home in the suburbs, and could afford it, too. But when the economy tanked, many of the developers behind these subdivisions went belly-up, and construction stopped. In some cases, a few people have moved into homes in these half-built subdivisions, requiring services to be delivered there. In others, the land is empty, except for roads, sidewalks, and the few street signs that haven’t been stolen yet. In some counties in the West, anywhere from 15 to 33 percent of all subdivision lots are vacant, according to the Sonoran Institute…

But if roads have been paved or a developer has installed infrastructure improvements, it’s very hard to just revert the space back to farmland. Local governments who try to stop building—even if there is little demand—can be sued for preventing development where it had once been approved…Still, some developers  have come up with creative ways to turn zombie subdivisions into something other than rows upon rows of empty McMansions.

Maricopa, Arizona, for instance, had issued about 600 residential building permits a month during the boom, and then saw many of these developments stall. Rather than just wait to see if demand would ever return, the city hooked up a Catholic church with the owners of an empty development. The church had been looking to erect a new building, and was searching for a site with existing water and infrastructure services. The developer had been looking for someone willing to build. With a little bit of rezoning help from the city, the church could start building on the land…

And in Teton County, Idaho, population around 11,000, where the Sonoran Institute estimates that 68 percent of land parceled into subdivisions was undeveloped, local officials passed ordinances that would allow subdivisions to be rezoned. One development, called Canyon Creek Ranch, changed its plans from a resort with 350 lots to a community project with only 21 lots, shrinking the infrastructure price tag by 97 percent and reducing the environmental impacts.

From zombie pedestrians to zombie subdivisions. It sounds like communities have to hope that someone wants the land – whether a residential developers or some other user – so they can do something with it. As noted, communities might be able to speed that up by rezoning the land for other uses. Perhaps this might lead to some ultra-flexible zoning where these spaces could be residential, commercial, industrial, or other as long as somebody has a plan.

I do wonder how many of these subdivisions would have legitimately filled up. Where were all the people going to come from? If they moved to the new homes, they opened up other units. Are there so many people rooming together or living with family to create the demand for all these new houses?

My suggestion for what these settings can be used for: sets for all of the post-apocalyptic or dystopian TV shows and movies. Studios could likely get cheap long-term deals on these properties and use them however they wish.

The dystopias right in front of us: “Sochi is Pure Dystopian Reality”

Much has been written about Sochi and its varying degrees of glitz and cover-up. This piece considers the dystopian aspects of Sochi and how it compares to recent fictional dystopias.

But here’s the best-worst part: no matter how many articles use the word “dystopia,” Sochi doesn’t just look like a hellish future straight off the NYT bestseller list. It’s a complete and active masterpiece—because despite all the plot markers, despite all the freaky realities that scream something is really wrong here, we still tune in. Just like the Hunger Games‘ Capitol citizens, Western audiences eat up happy-faced Olympic broadcasts as readily as we have since the games were first televised on a closed circuit in Berlin in 1936. We’ll read all the coverage as entertainment, make Twitter jokes about stray dogs, and laugh about it over drinks (even if it’s to keep from crying). Six thousand athletes will compete just as they did in London in 2012, even if tourists don’t quite make it out. The Olympics are the Olympics, after all. Sochi is the Dystopian Singularity because we accept it as reality—and thus are complicit in its success…

If this is really happening, though, at least we have a few protagonists. Members of the radical-feminist punk performance art collective Pussy Riot have been active, powerful critics of President Putin’s regime—which is exactly how they came to the West’s attention at all. After several members’ arrest and political imprisonment for hooliganism (after they performed a radical protest song in Moscow’s biggest cathedral), Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova were released in December just months before their two-year sentence was up. (They maintain that their release was a Putin PR stunt.) While the pair have since split from Pussy Riot proper to pursue their own activism for prisoners’ rights, their association with the group and the media tour they’ve taken in the past few months has made many aware of the dire sociopolitical circumstances in Russia. Last week they appeared on The Colbert Report and at an Amnesty International benefit concert, where they urged people to boycott or protest the Games and the leaders overseeing them. There’s no quantitative way to measure Nadya and Masha’s success—and it’s likely that some might miss the point—but it’s a good bet that their story (and Pussy Riot’s message) has resonated with audiences even if it doesn’t affect their willingness to add to the ratings.

There are quieter acts of solidarity, as well, scripted straight from Katniss’s victory tour: Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev appeared to display a Pussy Riot member on the bottom of his board when he took to the slopes on Thursday; the same day, Google unleashed a pro-LGBT Doodle. One could even argue that Jonny Weir’s fashion statements are marks of resistance. But these won’t change the fact that things will probably worsen in Russia after the Games end and the world stops watching; the Olympics are notorious for draining economies dry and Sochi is the most expensive Games ever assembled.

Certainly, Sochi isn’t single-handedly decimating the dystopia YA marketplace, but it’s nonetheless a perfect example of why the genre is failing. It’s not because a shallow fad has run its course; it’s because the fantasies and the facts have become nearly identical. And that’s the problem — Entertainment is meant to be an escape, fantasy and science-fiction in particular; movies about poverty don’t do well during a recession because no one in the midst of turmoil likes seeing their suffering splashed onto the silver screen. And it’s not just in Sochi, either; from Snowden, to the American wealth gap, to the (thankfully canceled) prospect of DMX cage-fighting George Zimmerman on pay-per-view, to the world’s premier newspaper printing an accused pedophile’s “response” to his child victim’s account, there are countless examples of our satirical imagination matching the real world right at our front door. (And we wonder why people still get fooled by Onion articles.) The fact is, when the allegory starts looking like the reality, it’s time for the allegory to evolve.

Perhaps we should then ask what the average viewer/consumer is supposed to do in this situation. Ignore the Olympics? Engage in a more real world right in front of them? Insist the Olympics avoid countries with lots of inequality (Russia might seem like an obvious choice but others might argue this could rule out the United States)?

This also hints that the really important dystopias are not ones we imagine but rather ones that are right in front of us that we don’t notice. This might be like the tourist experience: we are often like visitors who hope to see the popular sights and are distracted by what is new and exciting. How closely do we look behind the scenes? (This is starting to sound like a pitch I would make in an Introduction to Sociology course.) A number of sociologists have voiced their concerns about “fake” places, often invoking Disney World or Las Vegas or Times Square, that tend to hide the real world behind consumerism and private spaces.

Exploring the urban and island geography of Grand Theft Auto V

One reporter focuses less on the gameplay of the new Grand Theft Auto V and instead examines the landscape:

These are places where, within wide virtual borders, the player is granted freedom to explore. What makes Los Santos so different is its scale, interactivity and ambitions — here is a digital sandbox so habitable that the game itself comes with a large paper map that, as I explored Los Santos and its surroundings, I referred to as often as I would a map describing a real-world place I’ve never been.Indeed, not unlike a real place that offers too much, I made a small list of places I wanted to visit here and things I wanted to do: haircut, strip club, take in a movie ($20 in Los Santos), maybe ride a bike to the top of a mountain and leap off. All of which you can do. If, like me, you overbook vacations with activities, you will find plenty to do. Conversely, if you’re the kind of traveler who eventually pines for a hotel room to take a nap in after a day of playing tourist, Los Santos offers that, too…

The island itself is Ireland-shaped — curious, considering that the game’s creators are primarily Scottish and British. The north side of the island is Blaine County, with mountains at its east and west coasts and Mount Chiliad to the far north. A desert borders the Alamo Sea in the interior, and salt-water-eaten trailer parks line the northwest oceanfront, the Great Ocean Highway ringing it all. If previous “Grand Theft Auto” games offered riffs on Miami and New York City, this is basically San Francisco mashed against Los Angeles, an alternate reality where Napa Valley is a 10-minute commute from the Paramount backlot.

Tellingly, it also feels as geopolitically accurate and culturally barren as the places it satirizes: a Los Angeles of the mind, where a peek inside studio gates reveals a sci-fi movie being filmed, a bike ride into the forest is greeted by screeching mountain lions and extreme wealth and poverty are never far apart. Conversation with Los Santosians is mostly limited to real estate, celebrity chitchat and random threats, though, generally, your existence is so inconsequential to the day-to-day fabric of Los Santos that you feel like a ghost.

Sounds like a dystopian Los Angeles crossed with a strange island. What more could be needed in a virtual sandbox?

While I’ve seen academics occasionally address virtual worlds – Second Life seemed to prompt some study – it would be interesting to see more full studies of these sprawling virtual worlds that are common in some of the more popular games. Think about games like Skyrim, World of Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed, Minecraft, and others that offer interesting and often realistic settings. Yet, does this space have the same logic as space in the non-virtual realm? What exactly distinguishes these spaces from real spaces?

Saskia Sassen on three possible futures for cities: optimistic, dystopian, articulation

Sociologist Saskia Sassen shares three possible visions for cities in the future:

ArchDaily: What will cities be like in the future?

Saskia Sassen: Well I have two scenarios: a very optimistic one and a very dystopian one. The dystopian scenario is that we will have a lot of private cities. Abuja is de facto a private city. It is how not to be in Lagos in Nigeria. The mechanism is very simple. Everything is super expensive. The milk, the houses, everything. It de facto eliminates all kinds of people. But I think we’re going to take it further. Songdo is sort of a private city. There are now big firms that sell you a city. They will build you a city. And some of them will rent you the city. So that’s the dystopian scenario. That’s the dystopian scenario; in other words we will have vast settlements with probably many toxic conditions, where a lot of people—modest, middle-class people—will be living in slums. In a country like Brazil, many people who are in the civil service of the government live in the slums. Same thing in India. This is contrasted with these brand new perfect cities that aren’t really cities in that full robust sense of the term.

At this end, my utopia is that when so many new people come to cities there is going to be a lot of making—making of sub-economies, not the economy. Making of urban agriculture, making of buildings that work with the environment. People of modest means will use their imaginations; they will understand how to make air circulate so that mosquitos are less likely to come in. They will work and have that knowledge—that is my optimistic scenario. So even a modest, poor slum will have people that know that the shack that they are building is part of larger systems. Then of course, the rich will be the rich and the upper-middle class will be the upper-middle classes. I think the modest middle-classes will keep on splitting up. The splitting up of the middle class has been happening for 25 years. I wrote about it in the late 1980s and people didn’t believe me. They said, “That’s not happening. We’re all becoming richer.” Well, no. Now we know that.

On a larger systemic map about cities, I think that the desirable, optimistic format is multiple articulations of the territory—not one endless metropolitan zone. I think we will have understood that the vast metropolitan area does not work.

The option is articulations. China is building all of these cities so they build nine small cities around Shanghai rather than letting Shanghai become an endless stretch. In my optimistic view, I see a different way of articulating the urban with territory. Moving away from metropolitanization.  Now, my Dutch, practical sense tells me that we’re not going to be able to do that. We’ll build something unmanageable and then the elites will move out and build a new private city.

The three visions: private cities where the wealthy can control everything versus cities where all, or most, people will be able to make things that improve their lives (though the scales of these improvements will likely differ) versus smaller big cities that are more manageable. To some degree, all of these are happening now so its unfortunate Sassen doesn’t go on to explain how these three scenarios might play out and under what conditions.

Something refreshing in this brief analysis: it sounds like Sassen is thinking about cities around the world and not really thinking about American cities. American urban sociology would do well to keep considering the changes to major cities elsewhere in the world…

Quick Review: City of Quartz

For a Midwesterner like myself, Los Angeles can seem like a strange and mysterious place: it certainly is a different kind of city compared to the older cities of the Midwest and Northeast. The book City of Quartz by sociologist Mike Davis adds to the mystery while also explaining why Los Angeles is the way it is. Some quick thoughts on this book:

1. The scope of this book is tremendous and includes discussions about history, politics, conservative revolts from suburbanites,  policing, and culture. The scope is staggering and fascinating.

2. Davis would seem to fall into the Los Angeles School of urban sociology. While action and development can usually be explained by politics and money, his emphasis is also on the disjointed nature of the metropolis. With the downtown core continually struggling to assert its authority, the tale of LA includes many other actors, including the Westside and suburbanites, trying to promote their own goals.

3. Davis continually plays with the idea of LA as suburban paradise and exposes the dystopian reality behind this facade. While it may have sunshine, orange groves, and movie stars, the city has a daunting list of troubles including race relations, pollution, sprawl, water shortages, and crime. Most of the stories in here are heavily tinged with this dystopian vision.

Overall, this is the sort of urban sociology text that I find incredibly engaging. It is lacking in a few areas such as potential solutions for LA, comparisons to other cities (is LA completely anomalous or was it simply the first of its kind?), and not being up-to-date (published in 1990). But for someone looking to understand Los Angeles and all of its strangely fascinating complexity, this is an excellent read.