Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Markets’ Category

In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 31, 2008

gatewaysofiamedium

A few days ago, I resumed posting to my alter-ego photographic and (art/urban) historical weblog, Bubkes.Org.  The title of the latest entry: In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing.” Taking a photograph of a wrought-iron gate in Sofia, Bulgaria (above) as its point of departure, the new post considers the merits of a classic film-based pocket camera, the origins of the decorative iron work that was once characteristic of Balkan cities, and the changing circumstances of Balkan Roma (Gypsies).

Additional photograph-based postings treating small cameras, transformation of cities, and the urban experiences of Roma will follow on Bubkes.Org.  I hope to accompany them with parallel postings here on HakPakSak.  Indeed, In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing” touches on matters of the sort treated within the present “pages.”  Consideration of contemporary small-camera digital photography raises issues as to whether companies’ marketing or users’ actual wants and needs are the drivers behind product design, manufacture, and distribution.  It aslo raises issues as to how technology and taste interact.  Examination of the history and circumstance of Roma in Balkan cities casts light on the interplay of infrastructural shifts and transformations of identity within the urban context.  (Much) more to follow, thus.

Posted in Architecture, Bulgaria, Change, Cities, Economy, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Markets, National Identity, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure of Work and Society: Five Failed American Axioms

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 9, 2008

Both sides in the US presidential campaign and debates — albeit one side far more than the other — use language and cling to axioms that obscure reality, make “change” unlikely, and keep America out of sync with the rest of the world. Five examples follow:

1. “American workers are the best in the world”

Nonsense. Americans may be decent sprinters but Western Europeans win the race. Good health care, regular vacations, job security, employee participation in management, lower stress, and no necessity to work two or three jobs to pay the kids’ educations makes Western European workers the world’s most productive. The growth of Asian economies speaks volumes about the quality of Asian workers just as does America’s outsourcing of its most exacting tasks to them. The diligence of Central and South American workers now bolsters America’s productivity through immigration. Turkish workers spend their lives laboring at highly segmented tasks. Even Eastern European workers are on their way to surpassing Americans. In alcohol-sodden Bulgaria, for example, workers tend to be “jacks of all trades and masters of none,” the upside of which is the ability to improvise and to more-or-less fix and keep running all things in their environment regardless of scarcities or systemic collapse.

2. “The Middle Class”

Both presidential candidates talks of helping the “middle class” but neither say a word about helping the working class or the poor. Avoidance of the term “working-class” is part-and-parcel of America’s pathological fear of “socialism.” It also belies the harsh reality that social mobility in America has been on the downturn since the 1950s. Not speaking of the poor is either callousness, blindness, or the abandonment of the tradition of the party of FDR and LBJ (let alone the party of Debs and or even that of LaFollette).

3. “Families”

Candidates speak of needs, opinions, and values of “families.” This in a country where the number of single and divorced adults rivals that of married ones and in which a good proportion of those nuclear families that are intact are dysfunctional. Since World War II, housing policies, suburbanization, and westward and southeastward migration have compromised multigenerational families (except amongst the poor and marginalized ethnic minorities), as has the Americanisation of immigrants. Eastern Europe and the “third world” have far stronger family values and structures. In fact, America may have proved itself to be a family-breaker and, through this, a compromiser of its own social infrastructure.

4. “We Honor Your Service”

Both candidates become Uriah-Heep-like in their obsequiousness when talking about the military or when speaking with present- or ex-servicemen. Obsequiousness toward the military was a hallmark of Franco’s Spain, Peron’s Argentina, and other tinpot dictatorships. It is also a matter-of-fact reality in countries such as Turkey, where, in an unusual balance of power, the military, with its proven willingness and ability to stage coups, is the guarantor of the survival of a secular state in a predominantly religious country. I would like to hear the candidates also “honor” America’s war and draft resisters for their sacrifices. A few words of “honor” and thanks for “service” to America’s lowest paid workers wouldn’t hurt either.

5. “Business is better than government”

This is the mother-of-all failed axioms, especially in the month when America’s iconic financial sector turns to the government for bailouts. During the last debate McCain trotted out this worn chestnut to denigrate Obama’s modest health-care proposals.

This brings us full circle. Universal health care is one of the features of European social infrastructure that ensures productivity by keeping health high and stress low. An important question for Americans is whether health insurance should be viewed as a luxury as it is now, a commodity as McCain proposes, or an essential aspect of social infrastructure as Obama proposes in part. The answer is not just a function of one’s morality but of one’s method of accounting. If one takes a longer and broader view, money invested in infrastructure — i.e. those physical and intangible systems and processes on which the social and economic life depend — pays off in macro terms even if initially developed or delivered at a short-term loss. The consensual nature of government and its operation beyond enterprise-level constraints of profit and loss make it the ideal provider or prime-mover when it comes to infrastructure. In fact, the provision and maintenance of infrastructure might be at the very essence of what government always has been, is, and should be.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Economy, Health Care, Infrastructure, Language, Markets, Work | Leave a Comment »

Value Where No Value Exists: Links to a “Brands Diary” and Nostalgia for a World Without Brands

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 30, 2008

Just as much of our economy is based on the sale and resale of dubious financial paper ala the recent US mortgage fiasco, another part is based on the sale and marketing of redundant products that have little or no meaningful or useful differences other than “brand” identities. Brands obscure not only what products are but also what they are used for. In Jane’s Brand Time-Line Portrait the absurdity of elevating contrived brand identities to objective reality is conveyed by listing the tasks and pleasures of a full day as practitioners of marketing would have us see them, i.e. as a progression of brands. The day ends with the most absurd extreme in a life as mirrored in brands, with sex becoming Durex.

Several minutes into Big Wide World, a recent broadcast of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life, Valentina, a new immigrant to the US from the Ukraine, describes her first trip to a mammoth American drugstore just two weeks after her arrival in the country. Searching for tampons, Valentina encounters shelves upon shelves of tampons, in every conceivable (and inconceivable) shape, size, and touted level of absorbency. The redundancy and irrelevant distinctions between tampon brands first caused Valentina to laugh and then to become sad and homesick … for a world without brands. Choice is ballyhooed as a core value of so-called market economies — but choice between what, and determined by whom? And why waste a moment of one’s time or a drop of one’s concentration chosing amongst products the distinctions between which fit the schemes of hucksters rather than the shapes, interests, and needs of our individual lives let alone the wise allocation of natural and economic resources?

Posted in Commentary, Communications, Markets, Media | Leave a Comment »

Post-Hiatus Notes: Kudos and Quixote, Markets and Soup-Kitchens, Hip-Hop and Zoot Suits, Podcasts and Dante

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 10, 2007

During the September to October hiatus in my postings to this site (see Turkey’s Ban on WordPress), I was unable to respond to a number of links and comments …

Kudos and Quixote

In a September 28 posting to his weblog, Doc Searls delved into the dichotomy between individuals’ and society’s passive acceptance of manipulative “marketing” and the possibility of “consumers” actually raising their voices and marshaling emerging technology to turn the tables on corporations and “marketeers” by articulating, broadcasting, and demanding responsiveness to their own needs and desires. Doc ended his post by pointing to our conversations and collaborations over the past four decades. In Doc’s words:

“By the way, when I want to talk to somebody about what a real market is, my first source is Stephen Lewis. Like me, he has in his life labored far too long in the mines of marketing. Unlike me, he has lived in, and studied deeply, real markets in the real world. We need more of that.”

My thanks to Doc for this acknowledgment. Doc has always been generous in his references to me. In a piece he penned seven years ago, he compared me to both Raul Julia and Lenny Bruce, an honor that I still try (albeit ever more quixotically!) to live up to.

Markets and Soup-Kitchens

At the moment, Doc and I are examining the human and infrastructural aspects of traditional markets and marketplaces as models for using the internet to reestablish the modes of interaction and responsiveness that were once the hallmarks of face-to-face commerce. Traditional markets were tangible physical places, powered by the integrity and quality of goods and running on reputations and trust. In the modern age, however, the word “market” become a metaphor for statistical abstractions and the word “marketing” for the artificial creation of demand and the manipulation of the economic behavior of individuals and groups. Doc dug into this theme in his contributions to the 1990’s business bestseller Cluetrain Manifesto. For the subjective underpinning of my own take on the issue look at Markets and Marketing, Fishes and Faces on my alter ego weblog Bubkes.Org.

My part-time studies and work at the fringes of the field of Ottoman history has kept me close to the vision of markets as accretions of individual interactions, conversations, and trust. Over the course of more than a half millennium, the Ottomans evolved physical infrastructure and institutions that enabled commerce and information exchange as well as conquest. One facet of this infrastructure was the Imaret — a publicly- or foundation-financed combination of travelers’ lodge and soup kitchen — a veritable “internet” of which dotted the roadways of the Ottoman Empire from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Middle East and North Africa. Those interested in this aspect of the dynamics of Ottoman infrastructure, travel, and trade should turn to a newly published volume of essays edited by historians Nina Ergin, Christoph Neumann, and Amy Singer: Feeding People, Feeding Power; Imarets in the Ottoman Empire (Istanbul, 2007).

Hip-Hop and Zoot Suits

In a comment on this post, hip-hop commentator Rafi Kam expressed surprise at “being on my radar.” As they used to say in the Bronx in the 1970s: “What can I tell you?” I may prefer Louis Jordan to Fifty Cent — and certainly have more of a weakness for Borsalino hats and zoot suits (reat-pleat, stuff-cuff, drape-shape and all) than for sagging jeans and baseball hats worn backwards — but I am still open to new music, ironic humor, good writing, and all that cuts through common wisdom and accepted ideology.

Apropos of both Kudos and Markets above, Rafi Kam’s and Dallas Penn’s YouTube clip Bronx Bodega (which I have mentioned previously on this site and on Bubkes.Org) is not only disarmingly humorous but in its 7-minute length portrays exactly the same point that Doc Searls and I are trying to examine in our far more pedantic styles, i.e. that marketing in its extreme is a one-way affair that targets people’s’ weaknesses rather than strengths. Marketing reduces people to “consumers” and attempts to dictate what they can buy and limits their access to competing outlets, goods, and services — a demographics-driven twist on plain old imperialism.

The same combination of wit and debunking that go into the Bronx Bodega clip also characterizes the weblog of Rafi’s fellow self-styled “Internet Celebrity” Dallas Penn. Dallas Penn’s blog lights up the integrity of street-driven hip-hop and pinions the marketing-driven cynicism of the music industry; his takes on the marketing of political “personalities” (e.g. US Republican presidential “wannabe” Giuliani) are delightfully unsparing. Most remarkably, Dallas Penn seems to have the rare talent of being able to write exactly as he speaks (or is it the other way around?).

Podcasts and Dante

To close: A confession. I have not always been as kind to Doc Searls as Doc has been to me. Three or four years ago, I was vocally skeptical when Doc was amongst the first to enthuse about the Copernican revolution podcasting was about to occasion by liberating content from limits of time and geography and by enabling listeners to choose and pull broadcasts rather than having them pushed at them. At the time, I saw podcasting as technology without worthy content. Events proved me totally wrong; I now live from podcasts. I reload my I-Pod daily, supplementing my usual mix of Bartok, Turkish and Armenian Oud virtuosi, Monk and Ellington, Aretha Franklin and Rev. James Cleveland, and the like with the latest podcasts from the BBC’s Melvyn Bragg, PBS’s Bill Moyers, the New Yorker magazine, NPR’s Car Talk Plaza, and WNYC’s Sara Fishko, Leonard Lopate, Brian Lehrer, and John Schaeffer. A few days ago, I admitted to Doc that if there isn’t a special circle in the Inferno for those of us who doubted podcasting, there should be. With magnanimity, Doc offered to release me from such a fate if I posted my confession on this site … thus this entry!

Posted in Books, History, Infrastructure, Markets, Media, Music, Podcasting | 1 Comment »