[Consumer] {and} [Identity]

September 18, 2006

In a BoingBoing’d post last week, Glenn Fleishman of WiFiNetNews wrote about a very exciting new…something:

Chumby received a rush of blog-licity when the firm handed out these portable Wi-Fi thingamabobs at O’Reilly’s Foo Camp to alpha-geeks: The device, in prototype, is small, designed for the “kids,” and sports a Wi-Fi adapter, an AC power plug, a small, color touchscreen, and an open architecture. The company wants people to hack the software, hardware, and even the device’s case with their own modifications. It’s not precisely open source, but it’s all open. They hope the device will ship in the second quarter of 2007 for about $150. They also expect that it could be licensed or replicated in many forms—they have released or shortly will release the parts list and schematics among other parameters—and they’re curious what results. In this podcast interview with Avalon Ventures partner and Chumby Industries chairman Steve Tomlin, we talk about how having a device that’s designed to be open affects what gets developed for it. We also talk about how Chumby, as a general-purpose appliance, make available many kinds of applications—it’s not just another picture frame, just another music player, or just another RSS display. In its current iteration, the Chumby has a touchscreen but no keyboard interface. Tomlin expects someone is already working on that.

This is fascinating in so many different directions that I can’t really hope to address more than a few, even partially, but here goes.

The market researcher in me (he lives down next to my liver) is just giddy about this for the frankly revolutionary idea that the product embodies. That is – it’s a product whose entire existence is premised not on any particular consumer need but appealing to a strongly culturally-identified demographic first and then, literally, letting them decide what it is that they’ve bought, and bringing the product into existence.

I’m no alpha-geek but I already definitely know what I’m going to get my Chumby to do (it’ll be my cookbook – think about it). And that’s the exciting thing about the product: we all get to be product testers, researchers, engineers AND members of a bleeding-edge community at the same time.

This entire enterprise – which included a perfectly-timed kickoff at uber-geek happening FooCamp – seems to have in its DNA (in its very existence) one of the best understandings I’ve seen of contemporary identity, consumer culture and the intersection thereof.

And if you still don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, what this “thing” is and/or why you should be excited – that’s kind of the point. Or rather, that’s part of the point. Most identities are, in some measure, exclusionary – deciding what’s not included, or what you aren’t, or what you’re better than is part of determining what you are. That last part is especially important in understanding tech culture, as the 1337 component is one of the core elements of the identity (both in defining, and defining against). Put another way: if you are an alpha-geek, or know how they think and operate, it’s actually surprising that a Chumby or Chumby-like product – one that you have to hack on some level in order to make useful in any way – didn’t already exist. Ownership of Chumby and its ideological descendants will be a proud badge of identity because it will be a tactile representation of the statement, “Look at the cool stuff that I can do.”


Post-Reality: a Case Study

September 8, 2006

There has been an enormous and deserved furor in the blogosphere (again – hate that word, but it is what it is) these past few days about “The Path to 9/11,” an ABC-produced mini-series that may or may not air this Sunday and Monday, wherein outrageous fabrications are represented as though they were events which actually occurred. Better and more thorough coverage of these misrepresentations and some of their truly terrifying implications (which I may discuss more, later) can be found here, here and here.

Of all the commentary, Bob Somerby’s non-minced words of this past Wednesday are perhaps the most instructive for my purposes:

“…what can you say about ABC? Plainly, this upcoming show is a form of Stosselism, in which the network provides an alternate menu for its dumbest pseudo-con viewers. This used to be called a “broadcast” network. Now, they narrow-cast to the intellectually challenged—and make a sick joke of our public discourse. Sorry, but the American system—indeed, the western experiment—simply can’t function this way.”

As is often the case, I might have chosen slightly different words than Somerby’s incomparable phrasing. “Dumb” isn’t quite right, as many intelligent people believe the perfectly false claims of “The Path to 9/11” and even more outrageous fictions about our recent history and current politics. But on the larger points, Somerby is dead right.

In this case, and increasingly so across all areas of content, ABC (like all of its broadcast competitors) is designing its content not to appeal to a single mass audience but to one of the four or five Americas [I would actually contend that in addition to the four or five, there are probably 20 or 30 large sub-Americas – but more on that later].

The good old days were never as good as we’d like to believe – remember, advertising used to be read by the anchors on the evening news (radio and TV). And though there was an idea that broadcast television really was broadcasting, even that wasn’t quite right: it was disseminating a consensus reality, but that consensus was one by, for and about middle-aged, straight, white, Christian men. That was America, and suffice to say that that consensus is no longer operative.

Instead, there are now many competing narratives, and “The Path to 9/11” embodies a particular narrative of American history and identity that strongly emphasizes nearly every bad outcome in the country’s history as being a “stab in the back” from internal political enemies. Invariably, those enemies end up being members of the political left. The “betrayal of Yalta” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Who “lost China”? Harry S Truman – and Korea, too. And Cuba? Amazingly, John F. Kennedy gets the blame here. And on and on – Lyndon Johnson “lost Viet Nam”; Jimmy Carter gave away American hemispheric dominance with the Panama Canal, and somehow comes in for blame in the ascendance of the Iranian Revolution; and, finally, Bill Clinton is to blame for 9/11, an act perpetrated nearly a year after George W. Bush’s ascendancy, and for which his national security team specifically warned Bush’s incoming officials.

It almost goes without saying that this particular group-identity – broadly, contemporaray American conservatives (not entirely, but most who ascribe to this notion are contained therein) – affix the blame never on themselves but on their politically-mistaken countrymen while at the same time taking on-board the full credits of martyrdom for the events.

Again, I want to emphasize how right Somerby is: the American and Western democratic systems cannot function like this, for two chief reasons:

  1. These particular interpretations of history are provably false, and
  2. Inherent in the idea of democracy is collective responsibility for the acts of a government. You might not have voted for a particular administration or legislature, but by your sanctioning of the process, you have agreed to abide by the results of the contest – and thus, by the outcomes of its policies.

ABC, by tailoring their programming on this incredibly important event of recent history to suit the view of one and only one group of cultural and political identity, cheapens not only the value of truth in broadcasting and a responsible public dialogue – these are, after all, our airwaves – but undermines a core tenet of our democratic system. The media is at its core a means of communicating information – be that information news, entertainment, or whatever else – and the media hold an important place in our political system. Freedom of the press, after all, was enshrined as our most important right, and no press fixated on appeals to narrow groups of interest and identity – regardless of considerations of truth or accuracy – can rightly be regarded as free.


Our Age of Paranoia – High, Low, Middle and the Way Forward

September 6, 2006

Three stories in the last two days deserve further examination:

  • Facebook’s deployment of a new “feeds” feature that tracks every change to every user’s profile, and broadcasts those changes to the user’s entire network of friends
  • Hewlett-Packard’s admission that their CEO spied on members of the Board in an effort to determine who was leaking information to the press
  • S. S. 2543, a bill drafted by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Vice President Dick Cheney (R-Mordor), which would instill in the President the right to order surveillance without oversight

These three items throw into sharp relief the current state of privacy in the United States. Working backwards, I’ll try to piece out how we’ve arrived where we are.

Kos, in commenting on S. S. 2543, cites Sen. Frank Church’s (D-ID) warnings of 1975 on the danger posed by the National Security Agency:

“That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

He added that if a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A. “could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”

This is a profound and recurring fear in American politics: a combination of the expansion of executive authority and imposition of a national security state. And it’s no wonder – the United States as originally comprised was largely a response to George III’s absolute authority and impositions of his will on the lives of Americans. It’s where the Bill of Rights comes from, and why such seeming anachronisms as the Third Amendment – “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law” – were deemed important enough to make the Top Ten.

George Washington knew enough of the dangers of concentrated authority to pointedly refuse a crown, and opted to establish a precedent of executives serving only two terms. Critics even within the Democratic Party were unnerved by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s concentration of authority to warn against American dictatorship, and it was Roosevelt’s attempted court-packing that ultimately doomed further expansion of the New Deal. And of course, Church’s fears as cited above came on the heels of Nixon’s broad expansion of authority (outside the law, as it turned out), authority which junior Nixon aide Cheney now seeks to enshrine in law.

Throughout our nation’s history, Americans have rightly feared and guarded against concentration of executive authority for many reasons, but chief among them was always the threat to personal privacy posed by establishing in a single man rights and powers above all other men. That remains the case today.

But there are other erosions of personal privacy of perhaps a far larger scale than a set of centrally-controlled surveillance programs – the development of corporate surveillance systems and scores of overlapping entrepreneurial panopticons.

Corporate surveillance is easy enough to define – your company is watching you. Your company is reading your e-mail. Your company is recording where you go on the Internet. Most office workers are well aware of these realities, and so as creepy as HP’s actions are – they involved “monitoring of board members’ calls from home phones and cellphones in January, an effort authorized by Patricia C. Dunn, the chairwoman” – they are best seen as an incremental shift rather than a sea change, even if they turn out to be illegal. Corporations have long been notoriously secretive in the protection of industry secrets and records.

But what’s an entrepreneurial panopticon?

It’s a service that offers the user a clear benefit – say, online shopping or free digital photo storage – and asks only that the user let it know every little thing they’re doing, which they will in turn broadcast to everyone else willing to pay the same price (*one identity*). Well, it doesn’t ask that in so many words – it’s hidden in the fine print of the User Agreement – but that’s the price a user pays for what in many cases are “free” services. Some examples:

  • Web2.0 enterprises. They rely on users who “provid[e] content AND personal information to for-profit companies for free” and who, in return, receive everything from social networking to photo storage to calendars to anything else
  • Amazon.com and other e-tailers, who track not only their users’ every purchase but every product page visited in order to better “recommend” other products
  • Google and other search engines, who are now advertising total storage of each user’s search history as a feature, not a bug. For the time being, Google is assuring that this information will remain private

In the above contexts, identity is currency, and people are pricing their identities very cheaply. But what’s really interesting is what happens to identity once it’s in the hands of these companies. They keep it, compile it and, because once they have that information it’s infinitely replicable, they sell it.

That’s what’s going on with Web2.0 – these companies are providing a service for a fee (your identity), then turning around and selling their service to other users with the added value of your identity thrown in for the low, low price of – that user’s identity. Sort of like a pyramid scheme where in the end people don’t lose their life’s savings, just their privacy and potentially their identity (which, in turn, could mean…their life’s savings).

But they wouldn’t do that!

Oh, wouldn’t they?

This is what’s going on:

The third generation [of social networking] will expose the history of this visibility. The full history of what you’ve done in the network. A record of how you’ve behaved in the past will be available in the future. This will (and should) affect your behavior and your friend lists and your decision about which pictures to post.

And this is a good thing – as it mirrors the real world. You shouldn’t lie to your friends. As I’ve said before, the real world is a quaint place where actions matter and people remember. It’s also a place where this virtual overlay we’re playing in today will be taken for granted in only a few very short years. The decisions you make online today will, and should, matter tomorrow.

What technology is enabling in this case is the re-emergence of the small-village social dynamic. Until very recently and through most of the history of human civilization, most people in most places could expect to have most of their actions observed by people they knew – people who would in turn quite often disseminate that information (i.e., “gossip”) across the rest of the community, especially if it didn’t conform to community standards. This was an incredibly oppressive way to live for people who didn’t fit into narrow-minded ideas of acceptable identities or behaviors (e.g., women, non-whites, homosexuals, Star Trek fans) but it was an excellent method of social control.

A community panopticon is only oppressive to the extent that community standards are oppressive.

In our more enlightened (er, mostly) times, and with the rise of voluntary communities of shared interest and identity (see: San Francisco), the knowledge that your actions are being recorded and judged according to community standards can be a good thing – it can mitigate against poor decisions and, further, can accrue credit to those who behave in exemplary manners. The latter is the great appeal of many Web2.0 applications and networks – frequent visits and laudatory comments on a blog; becoming a Friendster/MySpace/Facebook “hub”; postive user feedback on Digg; etc.

There’s been a lot of talk about how technology is making the world smaller, and that’s right – and now it’s more right than ever before. Many of us are now living in small villages of our own creation, and more people are moving into nearby neighborhoods every day.

So what to make of it all? I would argue for three kinds of response to these three kinds of intrusion on privacy.

  1. Resist impulses for centralized authority in the hands of a national executive. Very little good and quite a lot of bad has come from these impulses, and no politics has yet produced (to my satisfaction) leaders enlightened enough to be trusted with particularly great authority over their fellow-citizens.
  2. Remain skeptical of corporate security measures but always remember – it’s not about you, it’s just about the money.
  3. Embrace the re-emergence of small-village social organization. For starters, and not that it’s a great reason, but – it’s not like you have any choice. The use of technology to re-establish this elemental means of human organization is an inevitable reaction to the societal upheavals of the last generation, which were key in dashing away many of the vestiges of the old (read: non-voluntary) small-village organization model. More happily, this model of organization has much to offer in nearly every category of human need: friendship and companionship; intellectual stimulation; emotional support; artistic creation; solidarity.

As is often the case when I look to the future, I feel a mix of dread, trepidation and excitement. Some things are too big for us to touch or even see as events carry us forward but I believe that, if we pay attention, we can observe and shape the world as it is re-created around us.


Stuff2.0

September 4, 2006

This is going to get rather far into the weeds, quite quickly. So:

I need to buy a new phone this week.

It’s two years since I’ve been seriously interested in what a phone can do. In that time, the whole “moblogging” thing has gone a little cold, due mostly to punitive mobile communications costs in much of the world and limited, cranky functionality. This blog is run on WordPress, and the built-in post-by-mail option has stubbornly refused to work for me. And my old Treo 600 (which also needs replacing next year) is now refusing to connect to the blog’s Write Post screen. That’s why this place goes quiet when I’m away. I don’t have a laptop, and my current set-up can only post here via Flickr, which inserts weird formatting into the posts.

Point One: there are a lot of functions – full-function Web use with mobile sub-sub-notebook devices; blogging; word processing; VOIP and video-multi-conferencing – that current technologies should be able to do, that some people want them to do; that, in fact, many people pay good money with the idea of doing, but whose reliability is not anywhere near the reliability and functionality necessary to fully integrate them as standardized uses for the technologies. Put more simply – it’s gotten to the point where just about anyone can pick up a mobile phone and, without thought, conceptualize what it’s for, how to use it, and then use it. The same can’t be said for total wireless connectivity with hand-sized devices.

So when I get a new phone, I want to look again at how it can interact with the internet.

Which leads me to the notion of informational presence.

With a working moblogging system, there are all kinds of ways to translate physical presence into informational presence. A way to cast my shadow on to the net.

A glogging — “cyborglogging” — solution could have my phone automatically taking shots while I’m travelling and uploading them. You could see where I am in 15- or 30-minute spaces, perhaps. In theory, I could drop Quicktime-playable voice messages on the site whenever I had time to record them on the phone and MMS or email them off. Same with phone video — vlogging. It also seems likely that my GPS-logged physical presence could be placed on the site.

Or I could set up a module-powered site, like Protopage, and have it call RSS feeds from web services. So there’d be a separate page that acted as a snapshot of my presence, right up to running the weather report for the town I’m in.

A live record/recording on the web of where you are and what you’re doing. A collection of the information stream trailing behind me as I move through the world. To the point where someone could check your Protopage or whatever and see where you are, where you’ve been, what the weather was and is like and is going to be, and possibly even text you to let you know it’s going to rain in an hour, right off the page with an Ipipi function.

This partially mirrors some of the current thinking about “blogjects” and the like — wired objects that blog their presence and status. Or, to butcher some writing of Sterling’s, using a gizmo to create spimelike action.

Point Two: the above functionalities are also technical possibilities, and could likely be accomplished rather easily by someone with some expert software and hardware interface knowledge. But – in contrast to those functionalities I mentioned in Point One – all of the above functionalities are, at present, hacks. They are not even mentioned as the reasons that you would buy the products which are capable of the functions, but are instead inferred and imagined as functions that the devices should and, with the proper code and finesse, could do.

That’s the techie standpoint. The social standpoint is something else. Either you’re stalking yourself, ha ha, or you’re making it disturbingly easy for someone else to stalk you. My girlfriend, navigating through the countryside with a TomTom GPS device, opined that someone with deep unauthorised access to the TomTom system would know when your home is unoccupied and vulnerable to burglary. I think about it every time I choose to let people on the net know I’m travelling. I’m not sure how smart it is to have a page that not only shows where I am, but where I’m not. Services like Dodgeball or the UK equivalent seem to me, on a cynical level, to invite personal disaster.

Look through any list of WordPress plug-ins and you’ll find a hundred things that seemed like a good idea at the time to the coders but are in fact utterly useless. The equivalent of chindogu — “unuseless” inventions that do actually do something, but they’re something you’d never actually want to do, like converting all the dates on your website to Star Trek stardates. I suspect that a lot of the tools for mobile informational presence are much the same thing. You don’t actually need to know that I’m taking a piss in a public toilet in West Stow, and I’m unlikely to choose to pass on that little bit of information.

(Setting up a Protopage in advance of visiting an area, filled with informational feeds about that area, is, however, a good idea, and with reliable phone-web access, I’ll be trying it soon.)

Ultimately, how much information do I need to broadcast? How many footprints do I need to leave on the net? And also: in an age where privacy is becoming an important political issue once more, how much do I choose to give up just to perform experiments of doubtful interest and practicality? Niki already has to drop to 29mph in the car on her way home from her mother’s in order to avoid being photographed by strangers. And her mother is fearing the insertion of a chip in her rubbish bin to measure how much waste she’s throwing away, and wondering if she’s going to have to start storing garbage in the house to avoid being charged for tossing broken objects and wine bottles she can’t get to a glass bank.

I need moblogging tools because I want to be able to produce and publish content from the street. The question now, as I wonder what new tools are available for my incoming shiny new phone is: what constitutes content? The difference between me and a blogject is that it doesn’t know it’s squirting useless crap on to the web. The difference between me and a glogger is that a glogger doesn’t care that they’re squirting useless crap on to the web — or, at least, has set the bar low enough for the term “content” that automatically photoblogging themselves taking a piss qualifies as something worth expressing through a webpage on its way to storage.

A lot of you have commented in email that this site now seems awfully pared down compared to the previous iteration. I mean, I haven’t finished rebuilding it yet. But there needs to be a conscious difference between being able to just cover it in stuff, and actually choosing where to focus your attention and mine where it’ll do the most good.

Okay. I understand why Ellis finishes the way he does – it’s the implications of it all that are relevant to him – but I’d like to first answer his “what constitutes content?” question and then take it in another direction.

Anything Warren Ellis puts up at his website is content, because he says it is. He is a brand and has earned credibility, both through his comics work and through the consistently excellent content at his site – but at this point, if he even maintains 75% of the quality of previous content at the site, he can continue basically forever with sustained and even increasing readership. Not that he would or should, but he could, because his place as an A-lister is well-cemented, not least because of the regular cross-linking from Super-A-listers BoingBoing and William Gibson. A random picture that he posts becomes of much higher value by virtue of his having posted it, just as Atrios’ Friday Cat Blogging is judged of much higher value than random cats because he’s Atrios.

[You’ll also notice that in one sentence I – a more-or-less-unread blogger – just linked to several of the highest-trafficked sites on the web. This is an interesting phenomenon, in and of itself, as is the cross-linking between A-listers – for more on that, read what Fred has to say.]

So it’s really not so mysterious what content is for someone who’s reached that threshold.

A more interesting question to ponder is: what is content for the rest of us – and what’s the relationship between availablility of technology and production of content, particularly social content? I’d argue that we’re caught in a bit of a time-lag right now, on these issues: there are a lot of people who see the promise and coolness of, e.g., real-time geotagging correlated with the *click* of a camera phone and a quick burst of SMS, but there aren’t that many people who are actually doing it. And hence, as the primary value of geotagging is in having a lot of people doing it – you’re not going to geotag your whole neighborhood, let alone your city, by yourself – there’s a disincentive for all but the very-early adopters to actually hack together the tech necessary for the cool new function.

There, too, is the other rub: there aren’t that many people geotagging yet because you can’t “just do it,” which roughly translated means you can’t just buy it.

This leads to an interesting re-assessment of Web2.0 phenomena. While the services themselves are, for the most part and at the first level nearly always, free, the means of producing and interfacing with them are not. I’m not arguing for any sort of digital-divide issue that would somehow deligitimize the production of culture on the Web – ultimately I think that, as has increasingly been the pattern for the past five or so years, the gadgets (spimes, blogjects, whatever) of tomorrow+1 will be cheaper and better at all their functionalities than any of the currently available stuff – but I think it’s quite worth noting that in many cases the social uses of the Web and new thingies, which long lagged behind the latest technological innovations, have now caught up with and in many cases passed currently mass-available means.

There is, really, no good reason that a phone shouldn’t be able to take a picture, compose an accompanying blog post via voice recognition software, and post both via the best available connection (be it cell tower, Bluetooth, WiFi or what have you) – with geotagging – to your ClaimID-verified blog. It could do all of those things – it just doesn’t.


The Embracing, Aping, and Fashionizing of Identity

September 1, 2006

Many choices on personal taste – especially for young people – are at least as much about representing a particular kind of image of our selves to the rest of the world as they are about whatever enjoyment is derived from the taste itself. Certain tastes connote a whole range of other identities – political, philosophical, religious, etc.

It doesn’t even have to be something incredibly obvious like a tie-dyed Phish t-shirt – it could be a much smaller, but equally potent, signifier. For example – I am indisputably urban in my dress, but wear belts with funny belt buckles; ergo, I am a Democrat and heavy user of the Internet.

These sorts of cues – especially visual (fashion), but in the case of self-representation on social networking services, also text-based (lists of favorite books, bands, movies, etc.) – save us time in deciding the kinds of social interactions we wish to undertake. And so, it behooves everyone, for the sake of the system’s smooth functioning, to behave honestly and more or less stick within the relatively narrow range of identity and behaviors connotated by these signifiers.

Which brings me around to the following story by New York-based blogger (and, clearly, cab driver) The Hungry Cabbie:

…the other day, in South Williamsburg, I idled in front of a brownstone on Wythe Street for a good fifteen minutes while my fare poured her heart out. She had been living a lie.

I had first spotted her not too far away in North Williamsburg staggering out of a bar on Union Street and Richardson. I didn’t expect much from her. She looked like every other girl in Williamsburg right down to the mullet, the Duran Duran tee shirt she had obviously not bought before Simon got fat, the torn leg warmers, the oversized pink plastic belt, and the can of PBR in her hand. She was a classic hipster chick.

But she clearly had to get something off her chest. She danced around it for a while, and I wasn’t in the mood to fish for it…
“I’M A REPUBLICAN!!!” she blurted out. “I’m from Utah. I’m from Utah, and we’re all Republicans. ALL OF US. I mean . . . I love being Republican. I love George W. Bush.” She was talking very fast now. “I hate Ralf [sic] Nader, I hate the Democrats . . . I even hate other Republicans who don’t stand behind Bush. I’m a Republican. . . a Republican.” We were at a light, and I had been looking at her in my rearview. As I turned my gaze back to the street in front of me, I noticed in the mirror that my mouth had been hanging open. The light had been green for some time.

Usually, I’ve got something to tell people. Something to at least start to put things in perspective. Maybe even something to make people feel a little better. But I was speechless. I actually considered that she might be on some crazy drug, and I could be in physical danger.

She kept talking as we crossed into the south side of Williamsburg. I managed to ask, “Do your friends know?” This only served to agitate her to the point where I could barely understand her. And, no, her friends did not know.

She’d voted for Bush twice. She’d actually worked for the Bush campaign in 2000 and, like Alex P. Keaton, worshipped Richard Nixon. Her hobby was collecting Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich memorabilia. She was against abortion, against gay marriage, against immigration, against Arabs in general. Yet she was living in possibly the most liberal neighborhood on the planet.

…She calmed down and worked her problems down to their core: “Why should I be afraid of becoming an outcast just because I support our president? Why should I live in fear of letting all these liberal freaks around here ‘find me out’ for the Republican I am?

She seemed empowered. Her facial expression relaxed, and she grabbed her purse to pay me. Even though the meter had been on, I still could have made way more money out there picking up and dropping off fares in the time I sat in front of her house. I expected a nice tip. I hadn’t considered that, as a Republican, she did not identify with the working man one bit. She gave the change plus a dollar.

Now I was the one who felt deflated. I asked her, “Is there any place in Williamsburg you go to get away from the other hipsters, I mean the real ones.” I didn’t care that I might have sounded offensive.

“Marlow and Sons is only a couple blocks away. I love their oysters.” She said it reminded her of her drunk mother’s summer house on Puget Sound. [emphases added]

Okay. The author is pretty clear on the violation that’s gone on here – the title of the post is “The Impostor” – and that this young woman has violated important social norms in major ways. He makes a point of saying, “I actually considered that she might be on some crazy drug, and I could be in physical danger,” and I believe him when he says that. Cabbies – especially in New York City – have to be keen observers of social behavior. People who deviate wildly from established norms could – often are – real threats to their personal safety.

Continuing – she says that her friends – who presumably, as most friends do, dress similarly, have similar tastes, etc. – don’t know, and then proceeds to rail against the idea that she should feel threated being found out by “these liberal freaks,” a category which almost certainly includes…her friends.

Clearly, this is a story of many things, but first and foremost it’s about a very confused young woman. As nearly all of us do, she wished to make friends and be well-liked, and so adopted the tastes and dress of those around her. But she didn’t download the whole package beyond those signifiers – she was, truly living a lie.

Can a t-shirt and torn leg warmers really lie? Yes. They connote membership of a social group with established norms, one of which is political liberalism. She was concerned that her friends might cease to be her friends if and when her political views became known. Rightly so, too – her failure to disclose the significant way in which she deviated from the set of assumed norms amounted to a great betrayal of trust.

This incident does also remind me of a great bit of analysis by Michael Berubé last December:

I’ve been wondering about this for about four years now: how is it that when former liberals pledge allegiance to George Bush (because, you know, everything changed on 9/11), they not only jettison many of their former beliefs, but they take on every single last one of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Wingnut Faith?

It’s like, “Everything changed for me on September 11. I used to consider myself a Democrat, but thanks to 9/11, I’m outraged by Chappaquiddick.”

It’s as if the moment they threw in their lot with Bush, they were e-mailed a Wingnut Software Package that allowed them to download every major wingnut meme propagated over the past thirty years.

In addition to being hilarious, and true (uh-oh! politics alert!), I actually think it’s not too puzzling why this happens. They really do download a “Wingnut Software Package,” because supporting Bush and the project of modern conservatism has become a cultural identity impossible to separate from political views. There’s a lot more to unpack here, and I will do so in future posts.