Brainjunk

Today, we eat a rich and decadent buffet of brainjunk, of useless tweets, of photos of people we don’t know, of articles that were written in ten minutes to stoke the content boiler. The dopamine cycle ensures that we keep on craving more content, the exact same dopamine cycle that makes a Happy Meal a happy meal. And nothing is enough in a world in which readers crave brainjunk at the expense of all other quality content. People want free content and they want a lot of it, and media companies have been more than happy to oblige. More articles, more videos, all cheaply made and distributed through the purveyors of brainjunk like Facebook and Twitter. Lewis D’Vorkin was chief product officer at Forbes, where he pioneered the open platform model that has juiced Forbes traffic while tarnishing that publication’s brand equity. He understood brainjunk and just how lucrative it could potentially be.

It is the deep irony of our times that readers, often deeply educated, will shell out $30 for a meal in New York or San Francisco while paying thousands in rent, only to avoid paying a few bucks a month for a publication, let alone ten. The bulk of the internet doesn’t pay for subscriptions. People will gladly spend hours a day reading brainjunk, to avoid even the slightest expense that might improve the quality of what they are reading. If you want to consume McDonald’s, be my guest. If you want to read whatever LinkedIn calls news, go right ahead. But if you actually want to learn, to improve your mind, to improve your awareness and understanding of the world, you have to shell out. Start paying. [Danny Crichton, 2018]

Diversity: An Ideology

While the rapid spread of affirmative action policies met a backlash in the late 1970s, this resistance was largely a white middle class revolt. Support never flagged among elites. In fact, most of the country’s largest corporations opposed the Reagan administration’s efforts to dismantle affirmative action practices in the early 1980s. Despite regulatory relief, nearly all Fortune 500 firms continued to pursue or even expand efforts to recruit and employ more racial minorities and women. Elite universities remained strongly committed as well. In 1978, the Supreme Court issued its famously scattered ruling. In a victory for affirmative action supporters, the Court agreed that some alternative system of racial preferences could pass constitutional muster. It is precisely here that the ideology of diversity entered mainstream American thought and practice.

Justice Powell argued that “a diverse student body” was a worthy goal of any university which allowed the consideration of race in admissions. He justified this neither on the grounds of racial justice nor the amelioration of past or present discrimination, but on the grounds of diversity. Powell claimed that racial and ethnic diversity advanced the core intellectual mission of American higher education, namely “speculation, experiment and creation,” “the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views,” and an encounter of differing “ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.” This claim hardly originated with Powell, of course. He was simply repeating the collective views of Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania as stated in their joint brief to the Court in defense of affirmative action.

The country’s managerial elite now rarely misses an opportunity to demonstrate commitment to diversity. When policies barring consideration of race, ethnicity, and sex in the public sector went to referendum, in each case, the largest corporations in the area – Exxon, Enron, Boeing, Microsoft, General Motors, Ford – were among the strongest opponents. In 2012 and again in 2015, 45 Fortune 100 firms argued that diversity is essential both for individual “success in the corporate world” as well as “business success” in “country and world economies that are increasingly diverse.” Diversity in higher education management is today so hegemonic that it stands as an orthodoxy against which only the most foolhardy or cantankerous now speak.

But is there really a business case for diversity? While most corporations claim to be true believers, social science gives a decidedly mixed answer. That being said, the academic debate over diversity’s impact on the bottom line is largely, well, academic. Managers embraced diversity long before any meaningful evidence existed for its positive effects. The first systematic academic study of whether diversity policies even produce diversity, much less profitability, wasn’t published until 2006. Business and educational elites certainly aren’t waiting around for academics to tell them what to do now. Higher education managers are in a similar position. Universities claim the case for diversity is an educational one, an argument their most elite representatives pioneered decades ago. Yet academic debate continues, particularly over the degree to which diversity improves student cognitive skills and tendencies.

Despite all this uncertainty, higher education displayed total unity of purpose in the Fisher case. Plaintiffs Abigail Noel Fisher applied to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008 and was denied admission. The woman, White, filed suit, alleging that the University had discriminated against her on the basis of her race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Briefs supporting the University of Texas were filed by seventy-five universities and colleges as well as by the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the Association of American Law Schools. Not one college, university, or educational organization filed in support of Abigail Fisher.


Culture

Maclise, Daniel (1909) “Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster” in Cassell’s History of England, Volume 2 (The King’s Edition ed.), London, New York, Toronto & Melbourne: Cassell and Company, pp. p. 64 Retrieved on 19 June 2009.

E Pluribus Unum

In the theoretical toolkit of social science we find two diametrically opposed perspectives on the effects of diversity on social connections. The first, usually labelled the “contact hypothesis”, argues that diversity fosters interethnic tolerance and social solidarity. As we have more contact with people who are unlike us, we overcome our initial hesitation and ignorance and come to trust them more. More formally, according to this theory, diversity reduces ethnocentric attitudes and fosters out-group trust and solidarity. For progressives, the contact theory is alluring, but I think it is fair to say that most (though not all) empirical studies have tended instead to support the so-called “conflict theory”, which suggests that, for various reasons (above all, contention over limited resources) diversity fosters out-group distrust and in-group solidarity. On this theory, the more we are brought into physical proximity with people of another race or ethnic background, the more we stick to ‘our own’ and the less we trust the ‘other’. 
Contact theory suggests that diversity erodes the in-group/out-group distinction and enhances out-group solidarity or bridging social capital, thus lowering ethnocentrism. Conflict theory suggests that diversity enhances the in-group/out-group distinction and strengthens in-group solidarity or bonding social capital, thus increasing ethnocentrism. However, once we recognize that in-group and outgroup attitudes need not be reciprocally related, but can vary independently, then we need to allow, logically at least, for the possibility that diversity might actually reduce both in-group and out-group solidarity – that is, both bonding and bridging social capital. We might label this possibility ‘constrict theory’. Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ – that is, to pull in like a turtle.
A wide array of other measures of social capital and civic engagement are also negatively correlated with ethnic diversity. Diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically-defined group hostility, our findings suggest. Rather, inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbours, regardless of the colour of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television. Note that this pattern encompasses attitudes and behavior, bridging and bonding social capital, public and private connections. Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us. 
[E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century. The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture. 2007 Nordic Political Science Association. Robert D. Putnam]
 

Meritocracy

Michael Young’s “The Rise of the Meritocracy” argued that the most significant fact of modern society is not the rise of democracy, or indeed capitalism, but the rise of the meritocracy. In a knowledge society the most important influence on your life-chances is not your relationship with the means of production but your relationship with the machinery of educational and occupational selection. [The Economist]