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:

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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?

Social isolation and anomie during COVID-19

One possible explanation of the weird behavior of people during COVID-19 draws on the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim:

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The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too.

“We’ve got, I think, a generalized sense that the rules simply don’t apply,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, told me. In some places, he says, police arrested fewer people during the pandemic, and “when enforcement goes down, people tend to relax their commitment to the rules.”

This perspective is interesting to consider alongside the millions who did follow national and local guidelines regarding masking and behavior. A lot of attention has been paid to those refusing to comply but many did; does the weirdness stand out even more because of this?

To take the Durkheim reference further, he thought the breaking of the rules and the subsequent reaction and sanctions could help reinforce the original rules.

I might add to the list of explanations in the article the influence of smartphones and social media. These could matter in multiple ways. First, the weird behavior can easily be recorded by others. People may have been weird in the past but was there such a visible record of that behavior? Second, the people with the weird behavior may be recording and sharing their own behavior. Overall, what may have been more private behavior in the past or actions limited to a relatively small set of people or closely connected set of people are no longer kept from a broader audience.

Smartphones as objects providing comfort

Research suggests using a smartphone helps comfort adults:

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But scientists studying the relationship between people and their smartphones also have come up with additional insights in recent years about how people behave when using them, including discovering that people can draw needed comfort by their mere presence.

Individuals hold a deep personal connection with their phones, according to researchers. This leads phone users to express their views more freely when using their phones, often in exaggerated ways, and with more honesty, disclosing personal or sensitive information, for example, compared with laptops or tablets, experts say. They are portable and they have haptic properties that stimulate our sense of touch. And we regard them as much more personal than computers, which are closely associated with work…

“What might be going on? We don’t know, but one theory that makes sense to me is that they represent that we have friends,” he says. “It’s a reminder that we have friends, and knowing we can reach them, even remotely, is comforting. Also, they are very personal devices, more so than any other device, and with us all the time. From that perspective, we see them as an extension of ourselves.”

The phones also serve as a repository for all the details in our lives, from banking and entertainment, to tracking the whereabouts of our children, and getting us from one location to another. “They are the holy grail for convenience,” says Jeni Stolow, a social behavioral scientist and assistant professor at the Temple University college of public health. “It’s someone’s whole world in the palm of the hand. That is really appealing because it can make people feel in control at all times.”

Humans have the capacity to use many different items as tools and accessories to our daily tasks and activities. The smartphone is in a long line of “devices” that extend human possibilities. With the smartphone, someone can soothe themselves, access all sorts of information, and interact with others. It offers tremendous possibilities.

The emphasis here in the rest of the article is the possible effects of having all of this in a smartphone. Is it a “pacifier” or a creator of new problems? New tools bring new problems. And this leads to a pressing question for our era: is the smartphone in the long run a positive for humans? More broadly, we are in the midst of 30 years or so of asking the same question about the Internet: does all this access to people and information improve human life?

It might be hard to answer this question in the middle of an ongoing process. Having research, such as that cited above, can help us understand the effects as well as consider our interaction with the changes. All might be clearer in a decade or two…or even more complicated if we end up further down a path with devices that offer much in terms of both positive and negative possibilities.

New phone, new laptop, and disoriented

I had the opportunity this past week to replace both my smartphone and my work laptop. One had to happen, the other was a scheduled replacement.

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Both experiences were disorienting in multiple ways. They required time that I did not necessarily have in my schedule to acquire the new device and set it up in ways consistent with the old devices. Because they are newer machines, they have some new options to consider. I was temporarily without access to each and what they provide access to in parts of the setup.

And the transition process went rather smoothly. Copying over contacts, apps, and files just took some time. I had to tweak a few settings but they now look and operate similarly (with some nice upgrades) to what I was used to before.

These are not just machines. For many daily tasks, they are extensions of my self. They enable my work and embody my work. They are distributed cognition devices – extending my ability to think, reason, and write – and portals to interactions with people and systems. For them to be altered or unavailable, even for a short time, shakes up my day.

Ultimately, I am glad to have the new devices. My daily activities are back on track. Almost all of the wrinkles of adjusting to new machines has happened. And I hope I do not have to do it again for a while.

Build a dorm where 94% of the bedrooms have no windows in order to encourage more activity in common areas

The construction of college dorms not not typically attract national attention but an unusual plan at the University of CaliforniaSanta Barbara and the architect who quit in protest did make the news:

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Billionaire Charlie Munger is bankrolling the design of a massive dormitory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The $1.5 billion project comes with a major catch — 94% of the dorm’s single occupancy rooms are in the interior of the building, and have no windows.

A consulting architect on the university’s Design Review Committee quit in protest of the project, in a resignation letter obtained by CNN Business and reported by the Santa Barbara Independent…

Munger, the 97-year-old vice chairman of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, donated $200 million to UCSB to fund the dorms, with the caveat that his designs are followed. He wanted the dorm rooms to be tiny and windowless to encourage residents to spend more time outside in the common areas, meeting other students…

The rooms do have artificial windows, however, which Munger said resemble the Disney cruise ship’s artificial portholes where “starfish come in and wink at your children,” the Santa Barbara Independent reported.

The debate between Munger and the architect seems to come down to differing opinions on what the optimal residential experience is. Munger hopes that no windows would help students leave their rooms. The architect wants students to have access to natural light. Architecture often has ideas about how people in spaces should operate based on the physical surroundings. As my sociologist colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith, religious buildings are also built with specific experiences and behaviors in mind.

Three other factors connected to larger trends are interesting here:

  1. From what I have read, the demand for single-person rooms has increased at colleges. This provides students more private space. But, this may limit sociability and it could increase costs for everyone because more space is needed.
  2. I wonder what role smartphones play in all of this. Even with a window, smartphone use is pretty pervasive. Even with smartphone use, natural light and seeing the outside world has benefits.
  3. People with money and influence sometimes want to translate that status into physical buildings. If you have big money, you can help plan a significant building or attach your name to it. It would be interesting to see how long Munger’s name would continue to be attached to this particular building.

See an earlier post on spending a lot of time in windowless rooms.

The difficulty of measuring TV watching (COVID-19 and otherwise)

Nielsen and TV networks are sparring over Nielsen data that suggests fewer people are watching television during COVID-19:

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Through the trade group Video Advertising Bureau, the networks are perplexed by Nielsen statistics that show the percentage of Americans who watched their televisions at least some time during the week declined from 92% in 2019 to 87% so far this year.

Besides being counter-intuitive in the pandemic era, the VAB says that finding runs counter to other evidence, including viewing measurements from set-top cable boxes, the increased amount of streaming options that have become available and a jump in sales for television sets…

The number of families, particularly large families, participating in Nielsen measurements has dropped over the past year in percentages similar to the decrease in viewership, Cunningham said. Nielsen acknowledges that its sample size is smaller — the company is not sending personnel into homes because of COVID-19 — but said statistics are being weighted to account for the change…

More people are spending time on tablets and smartphones, which aren’t measured by Nielsen. The podcast market is soaring. Sports on television was interrupted. Due to production shutdowns, television networks were airing far more reruns, Nielsen said.

This sounds like a coming together of long-term trends and short-term realities. The long-term trends include people engaging with media across a wider range of devices, it takes work to measure all of their viewing and finding people to participate in any data collection, and there are a lot of entertainment choices competing with television. In the short-term, COVID-19 pushed people home but it disrupted their typical patterns.

Will this affect the long-running place television has in the everyday lives of Americans? Even as of 2018, Nielsen reported that the average American watched more than 4 hours of television a day. TV might be conveyed through different formats – streaming, handheld devices, etc. – but it is still a powerful force and a significant use of time.

At the same time, how TV is consumed and how this affects what television means could be quite different moving forward. Watching streaming television on a smartphone while commuting is a very different experience than sitting on the couch after dinner for an hour or two and watching a big-screen TV. Teasing out these differences takes some work but a new and/or younger generation of TV viewers might have quite a disparate relationship with television.

Videogames under the tree to sizable global industry

The flood of new gaming consoles and new game titles to Americans for the Christmas season hints at the size of the video gaming industry:

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Global videogame revenue is expected to surge 20% to $179.7 billion in 2020, according to IDC data, making the videogame industry a bigger moneymaker than the global movie and sports industries combined. The global film industry reached $100 billion in revenue for the first time in 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association, while PwC estimated global sports would bring in more than $75 billion in 2020

The videogame industry has boomed in recent years because of the variety of ways to play games. Gone are the days when all one had to track were console sales and games sold for their respective consoles and PCs. With the rise of digital-copy game sales, mobile games, in-app purchase freemium games, cross-platform games that aren’t limited to a specific console, streaming game services like Microsoft’s Game Pass, games-as-a-subscription models, and online distribution services like Steam, along with varying levels of transparency, anyone wanting to make apples-to-apples comparisons encounters an unwieldy fruit basket.

While console sales will get a boost from new versions, that’s not the biggest chunk of the industry, nor the fastest-growing. The biggest gain is expected to come from mobile gaming, with China playing a big role in smartphone and tablet gaming revenue, Ward said. Excluding in-game ad revenue, world-wide mobile gaming revenues are expected to surge 24% from a year ago, to $87.7 billion.

The gamification of the world is well underway.

Seriously, it is interesting to compare the status of videogames compared to the two industries mentioned in the article: movies and sports. These are established industries with prominent actors around the world. They have been established for decades. Videogames, on the other hand, are more recent – only several decades in the hands of the global public – and still have negative connotations for many (too violent, a waste of time, played only by a certain segment of the population, etc.). Since videogames are big business and part of their spread is due to the smartphone, which many have, will videogames have a different status in a few years?

Debating the connection between larger houses and fewer children present

A working paper from an Australian researcher investigates what happens to children who grow up in large homes with relatively few people inside. Here is some of the debate thus far:

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“My working hypothesis is that children now grow up too isolated within their own homes,” he said. “Too often, they have separate bedrooms and living spaces when they would instead benefit from more interaction with other siblings and adults.”…

Australians builds the second biggest houses in the world after the US, according to a report by CommSec and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which also found the average floor size of an Australian home (houses and apartments) was 189 square metres in 2018-19.

About 4 per cent of Australian households are considered overcrowded, or require additional bedrooms for the number of occupants, Professor Dockery said. “The vast majority of children simply do not grow up in homes that are crowded,” he said. “It appears they grow up in homes that are too empty.”…

Paul Burton, director of the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University, said overcrowding was a problem when it was a product of economic necessity rather than a choice.

I wonder if this possible issue extends to both countries with big houses – with the United States and Australia leading the way – and countries with lower birth rates where the homes may be smaller but there are fewer children. In the latter case, other features of social life might mitigate the problem of fewer people at home including more social ties and and more participation in public spaces. It may not just be the homes are larger in certain places; the emphasis on private space and private lives could be influential.

How much of this issue might be related to technology? I am thinking of Jean Twenge’s argument regarding the introduction of the iPhone and its affects on teenagers and young adults. It is not just about private space; it is using that space to interact virtually or in a technologically mediated way rather than having face-to-face interaction. (Or, for a previous generation, having a television in the kid’s bedroom limited interaction around the family television.)

And another thought: these large homes may have fewer people but they could be filled with a lot of stuff. It may not be just fewer people to interact with but more objects, material items a child sees and interacts with. This could include screens but also toys, clothes, decorations, and clutter. Does all of this decrease sociability?

Building Faith, COVID-19, and staying away from religious buildings

When sociologist Ben Brenneman and I went through the final stages of writing Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, COVID-19 was just starting to spread widely in the United States. We did not have a chance to consider the role of religious buildings within a pandemic. And there is a lot that could be said – and that others have already said well. Thus, just a few thoughts on studying religious buildings amid COVID-19:

One reason we started this project was because sociologists of religion, other observers, and religious participants themselves often paid little attention to the influence of religious buildings. Instead of focusing on the physical structure, people emphasized clergy, the congregation, the surrounding community, the religious tradition, the service, and other social dimensions of religious life.

All of these are important – yet, COVID-19 helped expose the importance of buildings. With people not able to worship in religious buildings for weeks and months, it highlights the role of the physical structure. In today’s networked world, religious services and interaction can still go on through Zoom, social media, email, and smartphones. Some might even say that the “essential” activity continued.

Our book focuses more on the construction and/or adaptation of religious buildings. While one chapter emphasizes how congregations present aged religious buildings, we do not consider what happens when congregations cannot meet in their regular building (which could happen for a variety of reasons). COVID-19 provides an opportunity to consider what happens religious groups cannot utilize their buildings as they wish for an extended period. While people need to stay away, the building does not go away: congregations will still need to preform maintenance, pay mortgages, and think about how their physical grounds can best serve their needs. And all of this while giving might be down and congregants cannot experience the benefits of the building.

The lack of gathering together and/or regularly in religious spaces has consequences. The experience of worshiping near others, singing together, talking in person, experiencing the collective effervescence of the congregation or the experience of the divine are essential parts of religiosity. Religious activity is embodied, enacted by people in physical settings. Worshipers and congregants are not “brains on sticks” but creatures who breathe and move and fidget and more. Many religious traditions emphasize collective activity and worship and this takes place within

Once COVID-19 abates, this could lead to more appreciation for religious buildings. Being away so long might make congregations more fond of the actual structures in which they gather. When they return to the places they know so well – and maybe are so familiar with that they do not recognize much – they may appreciate it more fully. Or, the time spent away from a religious building and experiencing religion from afar might prove alluring. Some religious people may have found alternative sacred spaces of their own and without the constrictions of having others around. With technology enabling dropping in to religious gatherings, the temptation might be to stay away from religious buildings.

Religious buildings have affected millions of people around the world and will continue to do so after COVID-19. How they shape religious experiences and groups will continue to matter and provide ongoing opportunities for scholars to explore further.

 

A brief history of the Sunday drive

With Illinois residents asked to shelter in place, architecture critic Blair Kamin suggests the Sunday drive could be revived – and provides a brief history of the practice:

Building on the precedent of the high society horse-drawn carriages that rolled down elegant boulevards in the late 19th century, the Sunday Drive is thought to have originated in the 1920s — just a few years after the great influenza epidemic of 1918 that killed at least 50 million people worldwide…

Henry Ford, whose mass production methods made cars available to millions, is said to have supported the Sunday Drive because it helped to sell cars…

The popularity of the Sunday Drive reached its apex in the 1950s and 1960s, when cars were still associated with personal freedom, not air pollution or suburban sprawl.

But something changed in the 1970s. Perhaps it was rising gas prices or a heightened environmental consciousness. Or maybe, some urban planners think, suburban sprawl was blurring the once-clear boundary between town and country. Where once there were farm fields and expanses of nature, now there were strip malls and traffic-jammed arterial roads. That made the Sunday Drive a lot less alluring.

This impulse is not foreign to Americans today. Driving is romanticized in many ways, from the celebration of road trips to marketing for cars which shows happy drivers moving through alluring landscapes to ordering social life in the suburbs around the need to drive. At the same time, as Kamin notes, driving is a humdrum activity much of the time. The car commercials that show people cruising down empty roads in the middle of the day do not match everyday experiences.

I also wonder about the connections between Sunday drives and other activities. For example, take organized religion. The classic sociological study Middletown describes the changes in a small city with the introduction of cars, including some residents who shifted from going to church on Sundays to taking recreational drives with family. The car offered an escape from the typical way of life. As a more recent example, data suggests younger people are less interested in getting their driver’s licenses. Why would you want to go for a leisurely drive when a smartphone or tablet or laptop offers access to what information and destinations you want?