Tag Archives: Society

L’indifferenza della folla

Avete mai sentito parlare dell’effetto-spettatore? Se la risposta è no, dovreste leggere questo articolo. Dico sul serio.

Ecco di che si tratta. Siamo nel 1964, e due psicologi sociali, John Darley della New York University e Bibb Latané della Columbia University, restano molto colpiti da un terribile fatto di cronaca nera: Catherine Susan Genovese, detta Kitty, viene accoltellata a morte e stuprata nel distretto del Queens, a New York.

Lei gestisce un bar e rientra, come sempre, molto tardi. Parcheggia a trenta metri da casa. Ad aggredirla è un ventinovenne incensurato di Manhattan che, catturato pochi giorni dopo mentre sta compiendo un furto, confesserà l’omicidio di altre due donne e ulteriori crimini. Dichiarerà inoltre che preferisce aggredire donne perché “è più facile”.

L’aggressione a Kitty Genovese si svolge in due riprese e dura nel complesso circa mezz’ora: all’inizio qualcuno dalla finestra grida “lascia stare quella donna!”, e l’omicida si allontana. Poi torna per finire la sua vittima. Genovese tenta di difendersi e chiede aiuto, ma l’unica telefonata che un vicino fa alla polizia non viene presa in considerazione. E comunque pochi si interrogano su quel che sta effettivamente succedendo: sono solo strane urla nella notte.

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Posted by on September 16, 2020 in Uncategorized



Live Wrong and Prosper: Covid-19 and the Future of Families

“Do we know if she had family?”

Self-isolating in my bedroom, I finally watched Avengers: Endgame, and I found myself sniffling at the scene where Earth’s defenders gather to bury Black Widow. The character had previously been portrayed in the Marvel superhero franchise as a tragic loner, the only girl in the gang, the spandex-clad supersoldier who never quite manages to get it together with Hulk or Hawkeye, whose infertility makes her a “monster”—the single woman without children who is, by definition, alone.

Until Captain America points out the obvious: Yes, he says, as the music soars. Black Widow did have family. “Us.”

This moment—the moment when the ragtag band of heroes realizes that they are one another’s “real family”—is a pop culture trope that’s still just poignant enough not to feel trite. Especially when you’ve been alone in your bedroom for a week, trapped in a body that frightens you, coughing yourself into a frenzy of frantic self-monitoring, with only your housemates to push lovingly if ineptly made mugs of tea through the door. As it has for millions of others, the Covid-19 pandemic has made me reassess exactly what family means. The idea of the found family is a cultural artifact whose time has thoroughly come—because so many of us are currently in the process of making, and remaking, our own.

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Posted by on July 29, 2020 in Reportages


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The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic

Members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult, believed that as the Hale-Bopp comet passed by Earth in 1997, a spaceship would be traveling in its wake—ready to take true believers aboard. Several members of the group bought an expensive, high-powered telescope so that they might get a clearer view of the comet. They quickly brought it back and asked for a refund. When the manager asked why, they complained that the telescope was defective, that it didn’t show the spaceship following the comet. A short time later, believing that they would be rescued once they had shed their “earthly containers” (their bodies), all 39 members killed themselves.Heaven’s Gate followers had a tragically misguided conviction, but it is an example, albeit extreme, of cognitive dissonance, the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings—even when those findings can save our lives. This dynamic is playing out during the pandemic among the many people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.

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Posted by on July 20, 2020 in Uncategorized


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The Simple Things That Are Hard to Do

Traditional Marxists distinguished between Communism proper and Socialism as its first lower stage (where money and the state still exists and workers are paid wages, etc.). In the Soviet Union there was a debate in the 1960s about where they were in this regard, and the solution was that, although they were not yet in full Communism, they were also no longer in the lower stage (Socialism). So, they introduced a further distinction between lower and higher stage of Socialism… Is not something similar going on with the Covid pandemic? Until about a month ago, our media were full of warnings about the second, much stronger, wave in the Fall and Winter. With new spikes everywhere and numbers of infections growing again, the word is that this is not yet the second wave but just a strengthening of the first wave, which continues.

This classificatory confusion just confirms that the situation with Covid is getting serious, with cases exploding all around the world again. The time has come to take seriously simple truths like the one recently announced by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: “The greatest threat we face now is not the virus itself. Rather, it’s the lack of leadership and solidarity at the global and national levels. We cannot defeat this pandemic as a divided world. The Covid-19 pandemic is a test of global solidarity and global leadership. The virus thrives on division, but is thwarted when we unite.” To take this truth seriously means that one should take into account not only international divisions but also class divisions within each country: “The coronavirus has merely lifted the lid off the pre-existing pandemic of poverty. Covid-19 arrived in a world where poverty, extreme inequality and disregard for human life are thriving, and in which legal and economic policies are designed to create and sustain wealth for the powerful, but not end poverty.” Conclusion: we cannot contain the viral pandemic without also attacking the pandemic of poverty.

How to do this is, in principle, easy: we have enough means to reorganize healthcare adequately and so forth. However, to quote the last line of Brecht’s “In Praise of Communism” from his play Mother: “Er ist das Einfache, das schwer zu machen ist. / It is the simple thing, that is so hard to do.” There are many obstacles that make it so hard to do and, above all, the global capitalist order. But I want to focus here on the ideological obstacle, ideological in the sense of half-conscious, even unconscious, stances, prejudices, and fantasies that regulate our lives also (and especially) in the times of crisis. In short, I suggest that what is needed is a psychoanalytic theory of ideology.

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Posted by on July 20, 2020 in Uncategorized


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I negazionisti usano la pandemia per costruire un mondo più disuguale

Il sociologo Keith Kahn-Harris ha scritto uno dei testi più affascinanti sul negazionismo. In Denial: the unspeakable truth (uscito nel Regno Unito nel 2018) distingue tra negazione e negazionismo. La negazione è un processo individuale che rimanda al rifiuto psicologico di accettare come vero un fatto assodato. È una specie di processo di rimozione che ricorda il tentativo di ignorare una verità scomoda il più a lungo possibile. Il negazionismo, invece, non si limita a rimuovere la realtà ma ne costruisce una alternativa. In questo senso è un processo più complicato, che chiama in causa le diseguaglianze e le strutture di potere della nostra società.

Esistono molti esempi di negazionismo: da quello che minimizza, o respinge, i rischi del riscaldamento globale, a quello che mette in discussione l’olocausto, fino al negazionismo dell’hiv, che ha portato un’ex presidente del Sudafrica come Thabo Mbeki a bloccare la fornitura di farmaci antiretrovirali causando la morte di circa 330mila persone, secondo uno studio di Harvard. Il negazionismo rivela la volontà di confutare fatti empiricamente accertati per costruire una società alternativa, a partire spesso da un desiderio inconfessabile.

Negli ultimi mesi il concetto di negazionismo è stato evocato in tutti i paesi colpiti dall’epidemia di covid-19. Per riprendere le categorie di Keith Kahn-Harris, anche in questo caso possiamo distinguere tra negazione e negazionismo. Raccontando l’aumento dei contagi in Africa, per esempio, la Bbc ha parlato di negazione per descrivere la reazione della popolazione di alcuni paesi. In Nigeria, dove il lockdown è stato introdotto ancora prima che il virus si diffondesse per evitare il collasso del sistema sanitario, queste misure sono state accolte con diffidenza dall’opinione pubblica. Molti hanno una sorta di rifiuto psicologico nell’accettare la pandemia come un problema reale.

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Posted by on July 15, 2020 in Uncategorized


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Working from home has a long history – be careful what you wish for not wanting to go back to the office

In the Wall Street Journal, Dana Mattioli and Konrad Putzier speculate that the white-collar workplace as we know it might soon cease to exist.

They cite Twitter’s plan to allow its 5,000 or so staff to work from home indefinitely, along with plans by OpenText Corp to cut more than 50% of its global offices.

“Many executives …” they say, “point to the success of an unprecedented work-from-home experiment, and how little productivity appears to have been impacted after millions of employees in technology, media, finance and other industries have been forced to work remotely for months.”

Yet if we’re to understand why some 74% of corporations, according to one study, now intend to employ at least some of their staff in that way, we should recognise work from home as neither “unprecedented” nor “an experiment” but rather a method of labour organisation crucial to the development of the modern economy.

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Posted by on July 7, 2020 in Uncategorized


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Why Remote Work Is So Hard—and How It Can Be Fixed

In the nineteen-sixties, Jack Nilles, a physicist turned engineer, built long-range communications systems at the U.S. Air Force’s Aerial Reconnaissance Laboratory, near Dayton, Ohio. Later, at NASA, in Houston, he helped design space probes that could send messages back to Earth. In the early nineteen-seventies, as the director for interdisciplinary research at the University of Southern California, he became fascinated by a more terrestrial problem: traffic congestion. Suburban sprawl and cheap gas were combining to create traffic jams; more and more people were commuting into the same city centers. In October, 1973, the OPEC oil embargo began, and gas prices quadrupled. America’s car-based work culture seemed suddenly unsustainable.

That year, Nilles published a book, “The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff,” in which he and his co-authors argued that the congestion problem was actually a communications problem. The personal computer hadn’t yet been invented, and there was no easy way to relocate work into the home. But Nilles imagined a system that could ease the traffic crisis: if companies built small satellite offices in city outskirts, then employees could commute to many different, closer locations, perhaps on foot or by bicycle. A system of human messengers and mainframe computers could keep these distributed operations synchronized, replicating the communication that goes on within a single, shared office building. Nilles coined the terms “tele-commuting” and “telework” to describe this hypothetical arrangement.

The satellite-office idea didn’t catch on, but it didn’t matter: over the next decade, advances in computer and network technology leapfrogged it. In 1986, my mother, a COBOL programmer for the Houston Chronicle, became one of the first true remote workers: in a bid to keep her from leaving—she was very good, and had a long commute—the paper set her up with an early-model, monochrome-screen PC, from which she “dialled in” to the paper’s I.B.M. mainframe using a primitive modem, sending screens of code back and forth. “It was very slow,” she told me recently. “You would watch the lines load on the screen, one by one.” The technology wasn’t fast enough for widespread use—hours could pass while the computers synchronized—but the basic template for remote work had been set.

In the following decades, technical advances arrived with increasing frequency. In the nineteen-nineties, during the so-called I.T. revolution, office workers started using networked PCs and teams embraced e-mail and file-sharing. People began spending less time in meetings and on the phone and more time interacting with their computers. As computer prices dropped, many bought comparable machines for their homes, using modems to access the same tools they used at work. In 1994, A.T. & T. held its first “Employee Telecommuting Day”; in 1996, the federal government launched a program to increase remote-work options for its employees. In the early two-thousands, broadband Internet made home connections substantially faster, and, in 2003, a pair of European programmers released Skype, which took advantage of this broadband explosion to enable cheap audio communication. In 2004, they added conference-call capabilities, and, in 2006, video conferencing. By the next year, their program had been downloaded half a billion times.

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Posted by on July 7, 2020 in Reportages


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Nostalgia is the rocket fuel that powers hope and change

Somewhere in the recesses of my online presence, I keep a virtual pinboard called ‘Nostalgia’. Its images are like stills from a jaggedy film of my childhood: a Rainbow Brite doll, her yarn hair pulled into a fat ponytail. An A4 Trapper Keeper binder with an acid-trip cover. Models in moon boots marching across a magazine spread of a 1996 issue of Seventeen. Brown leather oxfords with the lace ends wound into corkscrew-shaped knots.

For years, I felt a subtle kind of embarrassment whenever I added to this board. Had someone else walked into the room, I would have closed the browser window. Combing through these old images – each of them bog-heavy with emotional resonance – seemed like just another way to procrastinate. It also felt nakedly frivolous. What purpose could photos of The Baby-Sitters Club book covers or orange mall storefronts possibly serve in the present? What could I hope to gain from inhaling the imagined scent of the scratch-and-sniff stickers my first-grade teacher put on my papers?

Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to stop. Each thumbnail graphic was an invitation to ride a mental slipstream that could buoy me along for 20 minutes or two hours. Swirling in the eddies of reminiscence brought on a flow state in which I felt outside of time yet acutely conscious of its passage.

What nagged at me afterward, besides shame at having frittered away work time, was that I had no idea why I was so determined to spelunk into my past. I started poring over experimental studies on nostalgia – which felt like a more productive alternative to nostalgising – and reached a conclusion I hadn’t expected. The research showed that, far from lulling me into a click-driven stupor, my nostalgic journeys were feeding my inner stability, even girding me to pursue new opportunities I hadn’t yet imagined.

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Posted by on June 29, 2020 in Reportages


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The end of tourism?

Of all the calamities that befell tourists as the coronavirus took hold, those involving cruise ships stood apart. Contagion at sea inspired a special horror, as pleasure palaces turned into prison hulks, and rumours of infection on board spread between fetid cabins via WhatsApp. Trapped in close proximity to their fellow passengers, holidaymakers experienced the distress of being both victims and agents of infection, as a succession of ports refused them entry.

When it began, the deadly situation at sea was seen as a freakish outgrowth of what many still thought of as a Chinese problem. The first ship to suffer a major outbreak was the Diamond Princess. By mid-February, 355 cases had been confirmed aboard, and the ship was held being in quarantine in the port of Yokohama. At the time, the ship accounted for more than half of reported cases outside China. Fourteen passengers on the Diamond Princess would die of the virus.

The nightmare at sea has not concluded. Even after passengers from more than 30 afflicted cruise ships were allowed to disembark, and flooded into hospitals, quarantine hotels or on to charter flights home, an estimated 100,000 crew and staff remained trapped at sea, some in quarantine, others blocked from disembarking until their employers could make onward travel arrangements. This second drama led to a mass hunger strike – by 15 Romanian crew in limbo off the coast of Florida – and a police intervention to quell disturbances on a ship quarantined in the German port of Cuxhaven. As recently as 1 June, crew and staff aboard 20-odd cruise ships marooned in Manila Bay were reportedly clamouring to be allowed ashore.

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Posted by on June 18, 2020 in Reportages


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Greta and Bernie should be leading in these troubled times, but they are NOT RADICAL ENOUGH

With everything that’s plunging the world into chaos right now, one thing surprising me is, why are Greta Thunberg and Bernie Sanders comparatively quiet? Make no mistake, racism, climate issues and the pandemic are all connected.

Except for a short note from Greta that she thinks she survived the Covid infection, the movement she has mobilized has failed to avoid getting drowned out by the Covid-19 pandemic panic and the anti-racism protests in the US. As for Bernie, although he advocated measures (like universal healthcare) which are now, amid the pandemic, recognized as necessary all around the world, he is also effectively nowhere to be seen or heard. Why aren’t we seeing more, not less, of the political figures whose programs and insights are today more relevant than ever?

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Posted by on June 18, 2020 in Uncategorized


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