AIM away messages and a “basic form of social liberty”

AIM away messages provided a way for users to show that they were not available:

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on

Sometimes you had to step away. So you threw up an Away Message: I’m not here. I’m in class/at the game/my dad needs to use the comp. I’ve left you with an emo quote that demonstrates how deep I am. Or, here’s a song lyric that signals I am so over you. Never mind that my Away Message is aimed at you.

I miss Away Messages. This nostalgia is layered in abstraction; I probably miss the newness of the internet of the 1990s, and I also miss just being … away. But this is about Away Messages themselves—the bits of code that constructed Maginot Lines around our availability. An Away Message was a text box full of possibilities, a mini-MySpace profile or a Facebook status update years before either existed. It was also a boundary: An Away Message not only popped up as a response after someone IM’d you, it was wholly visible to that person before they IM’d you.

Messaging today, whether through texting or apps, does not work the same way:

Catapulting even further back into the past for a moment: Old-fashioned phone calls used to, and sometimes still do, start with “Hey, you free?” Santamaria points out. “You were going to tell me if you could talk before we started the conversation.” There’s a version of this today—someone might preface their message with “Not urgent, respond when you can,” for example—but for the most part, we just send the text message without consideration, Santamaria says. Interruption is the default.

The ability to walk away from communication and the demands it makes on a person struck me as similar to one of the three “basic forms of social liberty” humans had before settling in cities and large societies. Anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow say the second form was “the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others.” Text messages, emails, and messages in apps create a pressure for someone to respond. To not have these digital “commands,” one practically not use apps and devices.

Is this the freedom we have traded to use social media, the Internet, and smartphones? People can unplug but it is difficult to do that and still participate in regular social life today. Saying no to messages or refusing to respond will likely not garner many friends or close connections. And related to the first form of freedom, “the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings,” the messages and apps can follow us anywhere there is Internet access or cell coverage.

These platforms succeed by encouraging messaging and connections. But, what if a basic human freedom is the one to say no to that interaction when desired?

Argument regarding the three freedoms humans gave up for agriculture, cities, and “civilization”

I recently finished reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow. I highly recommend the book for its argument about how evidence from recent decades disrupts the common idea that people moved from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and cities and “civilization.” The reason I put civilization in quotes has to do with the argument they make regarding the freedoms humans used to have:

If we do not have these freedoms today what went wrong? The argument and the evidence is worth considering.

More on “Obama wants to reengineer your neighborhood”

Commenting on HUD’s plans to introduce more poorer residents into wealthier communities, a conservative argues this is an assault on the ability to sort by social class:

This is not about blocking housing discrimination, which has been illegal since 1968. It is unlawful for someone to deny you a loan or prevent you from buying a home because of your race, creed or color. Socioeconomic status is — and ought to be — another matter. If you want to buy a nice house in the suburbs, you have to be able to afford it. Apparently, Obama thinks that’s unfair discrimination by the “holders of capital.”

Putting decisions about how local communities are run in the hands of federal bureaucrats is an assault on freedom. Local autonomy is essential to liberty. As Milton Friedman put it in “Capitalism and Freedom,” “If I don’t like what my local community does, be it in sewage disposal, zoning or schools, I can move to another local community. .?.?. If I don’t like what my state does, I can move to another. If I do not like what Washington imposes, I have few alternatives in this world of jealous nations.” Washington has no business imposing decisions about zoning and housing policies on thousands of local communities…

Having Washington micromanage the housing and zoning policies of thousands of local communities is not going to change this. The answer is not to force local governments to build affordable housing in affluent communities. The answer is to restore upward mobility in the United States so that more people can afford housing in affluent communities.

Free markets can solve residential segregation, right? Except this simply hasn’t worked over time in the United States. The end of the argument in this article suggests the Obama administration has not been good for poorer Americans. This may be the case but there aren’t many (or any?) magic free trade eras in American history where people of different races and backgrounds could move wherever they wanted even when in the same social class. For example, research in recent years continues to suggests that blacks and Latinos who have the same or similar socioeconomic status as whites tend to live in poorer neighborhoods. Urban renewal – when the government forces residents out of poorer neighborhoods for newer development projects usually benefiting wealthier people – may not work but neither would a completely unfettered market.

Additionally, race and ethnicity are intimately tied to social class in the United States. To suggest that we can easily not discriminate by race but social class is something different ignores the realities of how these key life factors have worked together for hundreds of years.

Holding a McMansion mortgage limits your American freedom and liberty

Here is another argument why you should not own a McMansion: it limits your ability to be a free American.

Want to sever from your body an arm and a leg in the name of the American Dream? It’s certainly at odds with what the dream is supposed to be about. If the idioms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ still reign supreme in the minds of Americans, a mortgage on a single family McMansion is losing its shine.

The lifestyle manufactured by the burbs lacks the luster it once held. Working incessantly to maintain payments on your suburban box and pay for gas to drive EVERYWHERE is less desirable for those who have the luxury of choice in today’s America…

I recently visited a very well planned subdivision. It had a small row of shops, a park, lots of trees and wonderfully manicured lawns as far as the eye could see. It felt false. It felt like the neighborhood committee was the Joneses that enforced the keeping up. In older neighborhoods there are intermittent shops, bars, community halls, schools and houses of all shapes and sizes. Some neighbors are house-proud and commit themselves to a fine garden and home. Others have bottomed out station wagon in their front yard. The lots are different sizes. The houses have assorted kitsch, architectural details. There are old people who have lived there since the Great Depression.

It’s time for an organic refit of those suburbs that reek of bland mass-market ideals. They come from a time that was most certainly thrown overboard in the 2009 housing crisis. Surely, the frugality that was thrust upon us can manifest itself in creativity!

I interpret this argument as an updated version of a decades-old suburban critique. First, the old part of this critique which was quite common in the 1950s. Living in the suburbs stifles your creativity and ability to innovate. This is because all of the houses look the same, everyone has to drive, the zoning only allows for one use at a time, and conformity is encouraged. In this view, you can’t really be an individual in the suburbs because the environment pushes everyone to be the same.

The updated part of this argument is that owning a single-family home may not be worth the cost. For the last 100 years or so, the United States in both policy and culture has pushed homeownership and its ties to individualism and being part of the middle-class. But, taking on a big mortgage limits your options. Indeed, even conservatives like Dave Ramsey might agree with this critique as there has been an increase in advice to avoid taking on unnecessary debt.

In the end, I suspect this argument hinges on what you consider American freedom to be. Is it the “right” to get ahead and purchase a nice home in the suburbs where you can raise a family? Or is it the “right” to be an individual outside of the mass market and mass society and enjoy and contribute to vibrant communities?

Comparing pollution in cities versus suburbs

The Infrastructurist sums up a new study that compares pollution generated in cities versus that produced in the suburbs:

To illustrate this point, the authors of the new report examine per capita emissions rates in three locales in the greater Toronto region. The lowest per capita emissions rate (1.31 tons of carbon) belonged to the inner-city neighborhood of East York, home to dense apartments within walking distance of a commercial center and public transit. The highest rate (13.02) was found in Whitby — pictured at the top of this post — a sprawling suburb whose residents rely on automobiles to reach the shopping districts. Splitting the difference was Etobicoke (6.62), an area full of single-family homes but still accessible to the downtown core via public transportation.

The authors conclude:

The most important observation is that there is no single factor that can explain variations in per capita emissions across cities … .

An equally important observation, I might contend, is that the conversation about reducing emissions shouldn’t stop at the city limits.

It would be interesting to know what the authors then recommend.

But the larger issue still seems to be how to convince suburbanites that this pollution and emissions issue is a big enough one that they should change their behavior. Is some more pollution worth it to have the personal freedom and autonomy of living in a suburban, single-family home where you can drive in your car from place to place?

Trying to figure out whether to support Mubarak or the people in Egypt is not the first time the US has been in this position

In the United States, part of the coverage of the happenings in Egypt involves how the United States should respond. As has been noted by many, the US is stuck in a difficult position: we have generously supported Mubarak but we also claim to be about freedom and democracy. How can we balance these two approaches, particularly when our larger strategic goals in the Middle East region are tied to Israel and Egypt’s long-term support of this country?

It would be helpful is this difficult position would be put in some historical context. This is not the first time this has happened for the United States (nor is it likely to be the last time). Since the end of World War Two when the United States emerged as a superpower, we have ended up in this position numerous times in countries around the world. Look at Iran. Look at Chile. This has occurred in recent years in Palestine – does the United States support open and democratic elections if it means that Hamas is voted into power? In order to further our strategic interests, we have ended up supporting dictators. Some commentators have said Egypt presents the same conundrum: support Mubarak or open it up to the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could come to power?

When American presidents speak about advancing freedom (President George W. Bush did this openly for years when talking about Afghanistan and Iraq), could people around the world take them seriously? On one hand, we claim to be a beacon of light in the world. On the other hand, we act in ways that seem at odds with the interests of “the people” in other countries.

All of this could lead to some interesting long-term discussions in the United States about approaching global politics.

(As an aside, it has been interesting to watch live coverage on the Internet from Al Jazeera English. I just heard an anchor openly argue with an official in Mubarak’s ruling party about whether the people in the streets were mobs or not – the official said they were looting and burning and creating disorder, the anchor kept saying that the protesters were peaceful and just wanted democratic elections. This perspective is quite different from coverage in the United States.)