Tagged: Junk

Barbara Ehrenreich on Our Obsession with Aging

Earlier this week on WNYC’s newish program, Midday on WNYC, Barbara Ehrenreich spoke with guest host Kai Wright about her new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. (Buy through this link and I’ll get a commission, or get it from her website.)

There were a lot of great insights into this interview, especially her critiques of medical testing, wellness, fitness, and mindfulness that mirrored a lot of Michel Foucault’s work, particularly that which deals with surveillance, discipline and what he calls “discourse,” knowledge that is produced by a power structure. Here are a few takeaways from the interview:

  • Ehrenreich characterizes the escalation of medical testing to surveillance over the body, bringing to mind Foucault’s critical history of the panopticon as a technology of surveillance.
  • Ehrenreich describes the dedication to fitness as a kind of control one exercises (ha!) over the body. In an age when people feel powerless over various social and economic conditions, exercise acts as a mechanism to maintain a sense of power.
  • Ehrenreich argues that the contemporary obsession with wellness can function in two ways, largely dependent on economic class.
    1. For the working class, it acts as a form of Taylorist surveillance for the employer to manage the employee’s health. This is done in the name of reducing health insurance payouts but in effect trains the employee to shape his or her behavior.
    2. For the upper class, wellness is a form of conspicuous consumption, where rich people can show off their commitment to fitness through expensive workout regiments and pricey foods and nutritional practices. While Ehrenreich illustrates this trend with a wellness coach who advocates eating pearls to combat aging. I immediately thought of the boutique gyms that pepper affluent cities and communities that were the subject of a recent Washington Post article. The article describes a diversity problem—a disproportionate number of young, rich, and white people in an otherwise demographically diverse cities—at expensive, boutique gyms. However, I think that the diversity problem is largely due to the uneven distribution of wealth, especially among younger people who have ascended economically since the Great Recession of the last decade. Hence, these gyms function as a token of affluence and commitment to health.
      *Ehrenreich also critiques the recent surge of mindfulness as Silicon Valley’s solution to the problem they created with digital devices and their distracting platforms. What began as a spiritual ritual practiced by Buddhists has been emptied of any religious properties and reduced to an app on a smartphone or Apple Watch.

I do quibble with one of her suggestions: to Google your health questions and add a few keywords such as “controversy” or “evidence based.” I think one of the reasons that so many people have become followers and practitioners of junk science is because of this very practice. On the Internet, good information and quack-pot theories are almost indistinguishable, especially to many who lack the training or experience in doing research.

Overall, however, I do appreciate her larger message that I would paraphrase as this: life is too short to worry about death.

Farhad Manjoo’s Junk-Free, Two-Month Print-News Cleanse

The tech columnist at the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo, spent the first two months of 2018 only getting his news from print sources. The experiment seems a bit counter intuitive to what a technology reporter should do. Why would someone surrounded by high-tech gadgets want to get his news in this low-tech, antiquated way?

The experiment seems to have yielded two conclusions. The first, which he readily acknowledges, is that it allowed him to get news at a slower rate, or “slow jam the news,” as he calls it. This allowed him to spend his time doing other things, rather than react to each news alert and post on social media. The results, he admits were quite dramatic: “I’m embarrassed about how much free time I have — in two months, I managed to read half a dozen books, took up pottery and (I think) became a more attentive husband and father.”

This is a common theme in the discourse of “being disconnected” from our digital devices. Disconnecting, the thinking goes, will allow us to live life at a more human (and humane?) pace, one more naturally attuned to our physiology and our psychology. Perhaps, there is a truth to that, but we humans are quite adaptable. These same arguments were made when newspapers were around: “how can anyone process so much news that fast?” Today, we make those same arguments to digital news.

The second conclusion he reaches is that he now gets higher-quality news. His new print-only news diet directed him to “looking to formats that prized depth and accuracy over speed.” He lists New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the weekly newsmagazine, The Economist as the ones he chose to subscribe to and read regularly. The result was that he felt better informed.

I don’t doubt that Manjoo is getting better news through these sources, but it’s not their print-first format that makes them so reputable: it’s the professional journalists who write for them. Being a journalist is like being a physician in that both professions train intensively and are both committed to the truth. A journalist learns methods for investigating and adheres to practices to present information in a responsible way, not unlike the physician’s long program of study prepares her to follow a proper course of treatment and adhere to a patient’s well-being.

Perhaps, it’s no coincidence that the Internet and born-digital “news” outlets have brought us so much junk news (or “fake news,” in the parlance of our times) over the years, as well as the junk science that feeds the anti-vaxxers and the anti-medicine crowd. The barriers of entry to start propagandistic and fraudulent websites are pretty low. In a way, this is why digital news is so polluted. Those who start and write for these junk news and junk science sites are usually the same know-nothings that rail against professional journalism (derisively calling it “fake news” or the “mainstream media”) and also against medicine. And don’t get me started on the anti-scientific bozos who drink “raw water,” or where Louis Pasteur meets Charles Darwin.

Social media has only amplified and expanded the reach of these junk dealers. Manjoo concludes, “you don’t have to read a print newspaper to get a better relationship with the news. But, for goodness’ sake, please stop getting your news mainly from Twitter and Facebook.” That is because, as we have seen, social media treats all “news” the same, and that has helped spark the disinformation that we’ve seen over the last twenty years. But that is not to say that the news a print journalist reports can’t be shared responsibly online.

And vice-versa: print is not immune to disinformation. As early as the nineteenth century, we had all kinds of salacious news, hoaxes, and outright frauds printed in newspapers. It took newspaper publishers a lot of soul searching and the field of journalism to establish professional training programs to make print the gold-standard of news and information.

Update: Apparently Manjoo couldn’t lay off the Twitter, much in the same way I can’t lay off those buttery Tate’s cookies.