by Sunita

I’ve been collecting links for a while, since before the blog move, but kept putting off the post. But I said I would have links at the new blog, so here we go.

First up, the enduring appeal of feature phones. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve gone back to using my Nokia featurephone. It gives me phone, text, email, and a severely compressed browser that mostly allows me to read news sites. It has useful offline stuff too, like an alarm clock, timer, and ToDo list app. The battery lasts for days and the phone itself is tiny.

When I was in Japan a few years ago I was enraptured by the oversized flip phones that I saw people using. Apparently they’re still popular. Engadget has a story that suggests why:

The Japanese editor-in-chief of our sister site Autoblog JP was eventually browbeaten by coworkers (and this guy) into buying an iPhone, but his eyes light up when we ask him about the gara-kei thing. Why do you love these phones? “It’s light,” he says. “It’s small; it’s easy to type on, easy to talk into.” He then flips one open, adding, “It’s cool.” He flips it shut.

What has he gained from the upgrade to a smartphone? He’s silent: He doesn’t use the map app, and says the camera on his flip phone was good enough. I’m at a loss for words. Would he go back to a feature phone? “I just bought this thing,” he says as heaves the iPhone 6 up, “but maybe.”

I think it’s also the simplicity. If you can get the hang of typing on a 10-key pad, then you can communicate when necessary but for the most part your phone is just your phone, plus maybe a planner and a quick reference tool. It’s not a mini-computer and lifeline to the social media world.

Obviously we feature phone users are a dying breed. The same Engadget author wrote a second article about how difficult he found it to live with a feature phone even for a week:

… the AQUOS K can indeed download apps… it just can’t download many. There are roughly 20 to choose from, but I was hard-pressed to find many I actually wanted. I picked up a puzzle game as well as one to help me navigate Tokyo’s metro, but I was left aching for the apps I open weekly, if not daily: Instagram, Tinder (don’t judge), Kindle, Fitocracy, Spotify, WhatsApp, Line. Well, actually, Line messenger is here.

As the de facto messaging app for Japanese smartphone users, it’s a big deal to see the genuine app on a feature phone; it’s largely the same experience as my smartphone. Having said that, without a touchscreen (and the wizardry of SwiftKey), I’m stuck repetitively tapping through to the letters I want — and spending just as much time correcting myself.

If you love your apps, then no, a feature phone isn’t going to work for you. But the repetitive tapping is a choice, because the Japanese phones (and mine) have predictive text that works pretty well.

On to a less enjoyable topic: US election politics. It’s a mere 18 months before the presidential elections of 2016, so of course election journalism is in full swing. Hamilton Nolan at Gawker does an excellent job of breaking down why reading about politics is so unpleasant:

Politics is important. The politicians that we elect pass laws that meaningfully affect the lives of millions or billions of people. Political journalism is an important job. These journalists are responsible for telling the public what they need to know about the people they vote for. They are responsible for explaining and analyzing the critical issues that these politicians will be making choices about—many of which are quite literally life-and-death decisions. Will we go to war? Will we figure out how to adapt to climate change? Will we do something to stop the rampant economic inequality that is dividing our society? Getting to the heart of these questions is ultimately what political journalists should do.

That is not, of course, what most political journalists do. Most political journalists cover political campaigns in the same way that sports reporters cover sports. Team A has a new strategy! Team B made a mistake! Team C has a new manager! This style of “horse race journalism” has the effect of completely obscuring the issues underlying these political campaigns. So why do reporters do this? Because it is easy. It is easier to cover campaigns like this, and it requires less thought, and it leaves journalists less prone to being attacked by one side or another, and it is, in general, purely speculative rubbish which cannot be truly refuted. So it is what we get.

Horse race journalism about election campaigns and candidates isn’t just annoying and distracting, it’s insulting to voters. As Nolan points out, if you read books on the 2008 election you’d conclude that Hillary Clinton lost the nomination to Barack Obama because of campaign-staff infighting and screwups. Not because of latter’s grass-roots mobilizing, or their superior understanding of the benefits of concentrating on caucus states, or any of the other strategic choices political scientists can tell you about. Too many political journalists aren’t well versed on the current electoral politics literature, at a time when political scientists are better than ever at explaining and predicting political behavior. But what journalists do well is form relationships with political operatives. So those are the stories we hear.

At this point I avoid most stories about candidates. We’re going to hear a ton of inconsequential, gossipy stuff about them. Tune in again next winter, when the Iowa caucuses kick off the actual campaign. If you must read about electioneering in the meantime, follow a blog with real political scientists, like The Monkey Cage.

I can’t remember how I found this next article, but it resonated with me because I’ve been experimenting with a more minimal wardrobe. I have clothes for four seasons’ worth of work, which means teaching and conferences, and leisure, plus specific clothes for India, and I tend to buy well-made items that don’t wear out. My closet was way too full. So I got rid of about a third of my stuff and have been trying to wear fewer items more frequently. I like splashes of color so I can’t go full Cayce Pollard, but most of my wardrobe is neutral. I’ll say more in a longer post, but this gives you a sense of the approach:

The aesthetic choice to wear black that I made when my parents were still buying my clothes was cemented when I was an undergraduate and graduate student (almost all of my teens and twenties), because black clothes are an intensely practical choice when the phrase ‘disposable income’ is an oxymoron. I remember this Glenn O’Brien article in SPIN from 1985, in which (once you get past the casual homophobia and the implicit assumption that women are not reading it, and possibly not even sentient beings) he makes the case for that practicality—how black clothes don’t show dirt or damage much (useful when you can’t easily afford to replace something if you spill coffee on it), and how they’re appropriate for a wide range of social settings. And all shades of black match, which is more than you can say for other colours. But what wearing black mostly meant to me was that I could make decisions about purchasing clothes and accessories on just one axis—functionality—without worrying about colour. When I gave talks at research conferences or went off to interviews for a postdoctoral position, I had exactly one purse and one pair of good dress shoes and one briefcase and I could still be guaranteed that I had a coordinated outfit. 

The roots of the ‘Grey Man’ lie in the Great Male Renunciation: the period around the end of the 17th century, in the middle of the Enlightenment, when society collectively decided that men’s clothing, previously as colourful and ornamented as women’s, was to be dark, sober and serious. What’s kind of astonishing is how we’ve never really gone back—a quick scroll through red-carpet photos makes that clear—and how we mostly just accept this sexual dimorphism as the norm. Just why men’s clothing has never returned to pre-GMR levels of finery is something I’ll leave to historians and sociologists, but it’s almost certainly related to the harsh enforcement of gender norms—while women can wear colours and clothing styles indistinguishable from men’s (as I write this, I’m wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt, and Camper high-tops), the slightest hint of femininity in men’s self-presentation elicits verbal abuse at best, and the worst is far worse.

I think the feature phone and clothing columns struck a nerve because I’ve been thinking about paradox of choice issues. I know the research is mixed, but I definitely believe that in some areas more options can be detrimental, or at least it works that way for me. Now Amazon has introduced a new “Dash” button that lets you reorder all kinds of items without thinking. This sounds great, right? But maybe not, as Ian Crouch in The New Yorker observes:

But what if there is actual value in running out of things? The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from “Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?” to “Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?” The act of shopping—of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site—is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice—even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we’re all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun. 

Soon we won’t even have to hit a button. Amazon is also working with companies on devices that will be able to restock themselves. As the Wall Street Journal explained, “Whirlpool is working on a washer and dryer that anticipate when laundry supplies are running low so they can automatically order more detergent and dryer sheets.” Water purifiers could reorder their own filters; printers reorder their own ink. This is the dream of domestic life as a perfectly calibrated, largely automated system.

I agree that buying something should be a conscious decision. When it’s not, or when it becomes about fulfilling some other need via the act of purchasing, then we’re freighting indirect or unrelated behaviors on to that act, and before we know it our house is packed to the gills and our town is running out of landfill space.

It’s harder to remember to consume mindfully in a 24/7 news and consumption oriented world, but it’s more important than ever.