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The secret art of life-curation: book review

The title here is not strictly the book’s title, but I think it ought to be. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying is, at its heart, about the prioritising and ordering of things in life that bring joy. The book is a bestseller, and Kondo can be seen in YouTube videos helping people implement her eponymous method (#konmari). 
Tidying, along with decluttering, is en vogue. So en vogue that here is also something of a backlash, exemplified in Dominique Browning’s New York Times article ‘Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter’. However, the Konmari approach to tidying need not be anti-‘clutter’ in the sense of being utilitarian, as at the heart of the exercise is joy. We can have all the ‘clutter’ in the world if we like, as long as it brings us joy and each item has a place in our home. 
Konmari offers a set of instructions that are, apparently, failsafe or relapse-proof. She advocates tidying one’s home thoroughly, all in one go, and tackling clothes first, before addressing books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items like stationary and DVDs), and finally sentimental items. The purpose of the ordering is to help you hone your ability to make decisions about what items to keep, based solely on whether they bring you joy. This is why I think Konmari can be best thought of not as tidying, but as life-curation.

Increasingly, we all have an instinct about life-curation. On social media, in our CVs, in reading or listening to reports of how being mindful and authentic will improve our lives, relationships, and health, we all spend time thinking about how we are in the world, and how we wish to appear to be. A healthy approach to that is to look inwards and ask what brings us joy, rather than ask what we ‘need’ to keep up with the Joneses, or are supposed to own or enjoy.

So it was with a sense of hopefulness that I endeavoured to implement Kondo’s method in my own little London one-bed. The first task was clothing. Fair enough. I was rigorous with myself. And I have done many such wardrobe exercises in the past. I was feeling like a pro, but trying to be more thoughtful about my decision-making. It took a while, but the pile of remaining clothes was notably smaller than the pile I had started with.

Having done all of the clothes, however, I ran into a difficulty: my home is too small to have all the things out all of the time. I needed to put all the clothes back. Before doing that, I had to seize the opportunity move the furniture, clean the walls, empty the other parts of the bedroom too, so that I could put things where I’d eventually want them. By the end of day one, I had just about managed to put all the clothes away again (barring shoes and handbags), and get out all of the books (see top photo). Given the number of books I own, I was starting to feel worried about the ‘all in one go’ doctrine.

I ploughed on. It was a three-day weekend, and I had started, so I had to finish. Books were also the most challenging area. I love my books. And although I respect Kondo, her feelings toward books are not mine. In discouraging people from keeping both unread and read books, she says, “‘Sometime’ means ‘never'”, and that “books you have read have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember”.

I had close to 600 books when I started the exercise. I recycled/donated about 150. But I kept both unread books, and those that I’d last read years ago. Because ‘sometime’ often does come for me, and I cannot be satisfied with her casual “even if you don’t remember”. The physical books are there to remind us. It is one of the reasons why e-books generally don’t work for me. A chance encounter with a book, a glance at its title or front cover, is about memory, and often sparks ideas for me.

More generally, ‘reliving’ memories is the way in which we construct them, bring them into a sense of order, draw them into the stream of our lives. Taking care over the things we keep, and arranging them so that we can encounter them time after time, is about establishing a space that is part of our lives, rather than just the location for them. This is what Kondo’s method brings to the fore: the care we should take in ordering the threads of our life and making them ready-at-hand for ourselves. To wit, a William Morris poster, long buried in a cardboard tube, revived as part of one of my many bookcases.

For those who want to be more mindful about the little things, there are worse places to start than with Konmari.

The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (José Van Dijck) — book review

The Culture of Connectivity is a few years old now (the acknowledgments are signed June 2012), but it caught my eye as an interesting endeavour to chart critically the origins of some of the companies and platforms dominating our online experiences today, and probably for the foreseeable future. 

Overall, the book is a firmly theorised version of the many critiques written about how social behaviours can be (and are) co-opted by capitalism under the guise of ‘the sharing economy’, ‘social networking’, etc. (see, most recently, yesterday’s Guardian long-read by William Davies).
Interestingly, as I was writing this review, I caught sight of Wired’s reporting of yesterday’s Science, which published a study into the impact of Facebook’s algorithms on interactions between users from different political backgrounds. However, as Wired and others note (e.g. Zeynep Tufekci on Medium), the study’s methodology is not robust enough to allow us to reach firm conclusions about how technological decisions impact social experiences, although the study suggests both that Facebook’s algorithms decrease the amount of ideologically challenging content users see and that users limit their own exposure to such content via their active choices between content.
A few brief comments on the individual chapters themselves:
I joined Facebook in 2005 and have paid attention to some of the dust-ups over Terms of Service, the introduction of Timeline, etc., but it was still interesting to read an overview of how Facebook has repeatedly pushed users to stretch the norms of data sharing. Van Dijck summarises well the various criticisms over the company’s asymmetrical attitude towards transparency (whereby it has few obligations and users many), and I think her analysis is persuasive.
The book next explores how Twitter’s filtering and weighting algorithms can produce, as well as reflect, trends, and can create a circular pattern of popularity. Twitter is the main SNS that I use currently, and the site whose future choices will most directly impact my online experience (at least in the short-term, while I’m still a loyal user!).
The latter chapters I found mainly of academic interest, as they analyse sites that haven’t attracted me as an active user. Van Dijck explores Flickr’s difficulties establishing itself as a leader through indecisive leadership and a fractious relationship with the core user base, and she identifies how YouTube, ostensibly a ‘democratic’ UGC site, has been on a convergence course with PGC (professionally generated content) producers, tracing users’ own conversations about the lines between self-expression and marketisation.
The chapter on Wikipedia was surprisingly fascinating. Van Dijck teases out the nuances of Wikipedia’s user levels, including the increasing bureaucratisation of the site behind the scenes, with strict control over the content of the site exercised in a veiled layer of interactions below the familiar layout of which page. I have previously dallied with editing Wikipedia, but doing so is not particular intuitive for a newbie, and I have been genuinely anxious about incurring the wrath of other users for ‘not doing it right’, so I’ve not bothered.
From a personal perspective, I find looking at the impact of embedded, often invisible structures — including language (“friending”, “sharing”, etc.), algorithms, and “logged-in experiences” — in forming our online experiences is an intuitive approach to exploring this new social ecosystem in which many of us live. Her Foucauldian exploration of the “power of norms”, and how social media has changed online norms around privacy and sharing information, seems productive. She finds (unsurprisingly, although nonetheless usefully) that platforms are “mediators rather than intermediaries: they shape the performance of social acts instead of merely facilitating them”.
What is most interesting in the book is how it clearly debunks some of the myths about the utopic potential of social media, which elide the technological and human choices involved in constituting social practices online. Only a few days ago, for example, Accenture’s “Pulse of Media” argued that “consumers are now both kings and kingmakers, fully in control of which bundles, which brands and which content succeeds”, naively suggesting that the bundles being offered, the brands “promoted” and advertised through personalised ads, the content encouraged to “trend”, have no impact on consumer choices. Van Dijck goes some way to shining a spotlight on software which, as DM Berry (@BerryDM) has argued, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and yet “also withdraws”. The research on hard data that is being undertaken by researchers with access to data held by the big SNSs, such as the Science article mentioned above, is only the beginning of the work that needs to be done.

Van Dijck‘s book offers chapters on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and Wikipedia, as five of the major players in various digital niches (social networking sites (SNSs), user-generated-content (UGC) sites), although she steers clear of addressing either trading and marketing sites (TMSs) like Amazon or eBay, or play and games sites (PGSs) such as FarmVille or Angry Birds. Her individual analyses are interesting for anyone who hasn’t actively followed the development of these sites, but at times the chapters are dry. Organising the book this way makes sense, allowing Van Dijck to focus on chronological historical analysis, but I wondered several times whether a thematic structure (e.g. considering governance as a whole) might have been more productive. 

Around these five central chapters exploring the growth, development, governance and users of these platforms, Van Dijck offers a methodology for writing such histories, combining [academic nerd alert!] actor-network theory and political economy. The main aim is to draw together theories about the social and the technical in order to develop a theory of how they can be mutually constitutive. 

Despite finding the book informative and persuasive, I also found myself frustrated as a reader. In her search for a more objective historical narrative voice, Van Dijck doesn’t tackle the impact of the structures and strategies that she is charting. Although she offers the example of the Alvin family to describe different user reasons and strategies for engaging with social media, she tries to stay away from offering any value judgments. At various times, the book refers obliquely to privacy concerns as though the reader would be so thoroughly familiar with the arguments that they could be taken as read. This is probably true of her intended audience, but the book could benefit from a greater focus on the individual and the specificities of individual experiences, even if this might make the text more polemical.

At the risk of a hackneyed metaphor, there can be something Kafkaesque in the increasing technocracy of leading platforms, in the diminishing freedoms for the individual user who interacts online only through increasingly closely mediated channels. As platforms grow, commercialising or merely becoming more complicated, the rules for users interacting with them grow more detailed and more unfathomable. Wikipedia, for example, still open to (almost) all, is nevertheless more complex for a first-time user who wishes to modify it than it once was.

Testojunkie (Beatriz Preciado) — Book Review

I bought Testojunkie (the English translation from Feminist Press) a few months ago, having stumbled across it in a bookshop in Boston. I wasn’t familiar with Preciado, but thought that I probably ought to be. There is also an interesting interview with Preciado over at The Paris Review, where s/he discusses working with Derrida, his/her new work building on Testojunkie, and continuing to take testosterone.

Testojunkie was initially published in 2008, although the English translation wasn’t published until 2013. The book is a combination of autobiographical story-telling and political theorising, mainly juxtaposed as alternating chapters, so might be thought of as “low theory”. It tells the story of Preciado’s auto-experimentation (around 2005) with Testogel, which coincides with the traumatic death of friend Guillaume Dustan and a new relationship with Virginie Despentes, at the same time as elaborating Preciado’s theory of the pharmacopornography.

I was initially drawn to the book by this biographical element charting Preciado’s auto-experimentation, although this is ultimately the ‘minor’ part of the book, at least in terms of word count. Significant chunks of the book are also taken up with historical accounts of the pharmaceutical industry’s development of hormone pills and other various methods and medications, parts of which were new to me, particularly the testing of the contraceptive pill in Puerto Rico (an interesting Planned Parenthood blogpost series explores this in more detail). These historical and biographical elements are drawn together in a conceptual framework that seeks to elucidate the relationship between capitalism, gender and sexuality.

Preciado discusses post-Fordist society and the ‘new’ capitalism that has transformed sex, gender, sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual pleasure into “objects of the political management of living” carried out via “advanced technocapitalism, global media, and biotechnologies”; a “hot, psychotropic, punk capitalism” “imposing an ensemble of new microprosthetic mechanisms of control of subjectivity by means of biomolecular and multimedia technical protocols”; an “excite and control” society that moves beyond Foucault’s disciplinary regime.

The term “pharmacopornographic” reflects this two-pronged control, implicating both the medical and media establishments. Preciado challenges the reader to think about what labour in this context means — bringing to mind the trite aphorisms that “sex sells” or “everything is about sex, except sex” — arguing that production no longer results in objects, but “mobile ideas, living organs, symbols, desires, chemical reactions, and conditions of the soul”, with the “raw materials” being “excitation, erection, ejaculation, and pleasure and feelings of self-satisfaction, omnipotent control, and total destruction”. Preciado suggests that “pharmacopornographic capitalism is ushering in a new era in which the most interesting kind of commerce is the production of the species as species, the production of its mind and its body, its desires and its affects”.

Preciado’s analysis is thought-provoking, raising a range of questions about medicine, media (particularly social media), mass consumerism, and more! That every aspect of our lives can now be described with the suffix “porn” (food-porn, bookshelf-porn, etc.), and the ways in which more and more of us are using social media, smartphones, tablets, and apps to blur the various aspects of our lives (family, social, work, dating, etc.) suggests that a critical analysis like Preciado’s is increasingly necessary in order to better understand the submerged “control” elements of “excite and control”.

I don’t want to repeat too much of Preciado’s own analysis, but I would like to reflect on just one topic that kept coming to mind as I was reading Testojunkie, even though it’s not addressed directly: the Quantified Self movement, and the idea of acquiring self-knowledge through the use of gadgets, numbers and self-surveillance. For the most part, QS projects are not inherently sexual, but their underlying logic does involve labouring with the purpose of producing “mobile ideas, living organs [in the form of healthier bodies], chemical reactions, and conditions of the soul”, drawing on feelings of “omnipotent control” and also “self-satisfaction”, I think (not strictly meant as a criticism). QS-ing does seem to be involved, if not in producing the species as species, then certainly a mechanism for the production of the individual as individual.

The autobiographical sections of the book are a form of QS narrative: Preciado discusses the effects of testosterone (in terms of his/her writerly life, it seems almost a performance-enhancing drug like caffeine), as well as dosage, and this is something that clearly played on Preciado’s mind throughout the experience. Preciado critiques early on the rigidity of the instruction booklet enclosed with the testogel, calling it a “manual for microfascism”. There is a tension between QS projects as methods of resistance — particularly against ‘standard’ medicine and healthcare — but also as mechanisms for control, for example, whereby individuals’ data can be commodified. I continue to have mixed feelings about QS-ing, which I’ll write about elsewhere, but Preciado’s analysis certainly felt relevant to my thinking about it. 

A Greedy Man in a Hungry World (Rayner) — book review

I was travelling recently and looking for something ‘easy’ but worth reading, to keep me entertained on the flight. I stumbled across a tweet from Jay Rayner (@jayrayner1: he’s immensely funny and worth a follow!) saying that A Greedy Man in a Hungry World was in the Kindle store for £2.99. Well, such a bargain is not to be resisted, particularly when I’d been casually eyeing the book in Foyles for months, and policies on food waste has formed a big part of my work recently.

This book is a very pleasing blend of autobiography and investigative journalism, prepared with a blend of Rayner’s bullish humour. It is a quick read, but by no means a light one. Rayner does not have any particular axe to grind except that he loves food, wants to enjoy it, and would like to not destroy the planet in the process. Who can’t agree with that?

There is some really fascinating stuff in here: reflections on the ‘weekly shop’ before supermarkets had been invented; details about how produce is stored and the innovations in this country in order to seek to make farming profitable again; the realities of the slaughterhouse; and the complex analysis needed in order to determine what is really the most “sustainable” food options. Surprisingly, it does not (strictly or necessarily) equate to “organic”, or “local”, or “seasonable”.

If you’re at all interested in eating healthily, it’s easy to become bogged down in individual choices, sourcing your turkey breast and eggs and veg, and miss the big picture of securing a supply chain that will keep producing those things for the whole world for decades to come. I think that in this respect Rayner lets the supermarkets off a little too lightly, and what the book lacks is a deeper attack on how the ends can be achieved, having persuaded of the need for agricultural intensification over faddish individualism. What should governments and intergovernmental organisations be doing to better educate consumers — and future consumers — about nutrition and the issues that Rayner tackles in his book? How much will ‘the market’ be able to lead the way because it makes economic sense (as with the expanding UK apple orchard that is successfully intensifying), and how much will it be dragged?

This book offered precisely what I was looking for in a plane read, but I think actually I would have enjoyed a bit more politics in it! Perhaps this was just because I was already mostly with Rayner on some of his key points about farmers’ markets and the like, but it did make the more biographical ending feel a bit of a let-down.

Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox (Finlay) — book review

I bought this book a while ago on a bit of a whim and added it to my Classics Club list as a little motivation to get on and read it. I’ll admit, the cover appealed to me, but I also thought it might be a good one to read because I’m particularly interested in nineteenth-century Aestheticism, and I hoped that it might be a useful tangent. Sadly, it was not to be. Like The Red and the Black, I’ve abandoned this one.

Finlay has taken a conversational tone and is trying to present the book as a personal narrative, rather than a more traditional historical presentation. Unfortunately, I don’t find the voice very engaging. It reads like a diary, self-indulgent in parts, focused very much on her own journey when, with respect, the reader doesn’t have a great deal of investment in her. The actual product — a history of pigments, their trading and their use — is obscured by Finlay presenting herself and her travels as the product, a sort of paint-based Year in Provence. For me, it simply doesn’t work.

So, instead, I’m going to replace it on my Classics Club list with Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve. It was rather disputed when it was first published (in 2011. And yes, I bought it in hardback then. And yes, I haven’t read it yet! Why are you asking?). You can read some of the critical reviews in the Guardian and the LA Review of Books (and comment on that review and the MLA’s awarding the Lowell Prize to Greenblatt at In the Middle). I’m rather after an “entertaining but wrong-headed belletristic tale”, so undeterred, I shall read on and report back here when I’m done!

Injustice (Dorling) — book review

I recently added Daniel Dorling‘s Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists (2011) to my Classics Club reading list, although I later learned that I was a little behind trend and should have been reading Thomas Piketty‘s post-crisis Capital in the 21st Century, which has been causing rather a rumpus (reviews in the Guardian, Telegraph, and Economist).

I admit that I was a little frustrated, reading Dorling’s book, at the gap between when it was written and the current social and political circumstances in Britain. Inevitably, this sort of book, writing about modern social ills, feels out-of-date quickly, although the core of Dorling’s argument is solid. Updating William Beveridge’s well-known five social evils (squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease), he proposes five ‘modern’ social ills evident in unequal societies: elitism, exclusion, prejudice, greed and despair.

The book is densely populated with facts, statistics and charts, not all of which are very readable or digestible. They do, however, serve to depoliticise what is a politically contentious subject. Dorling’s book criticises equally the spectrum of political parties. His book aims to set out how and why his five social ills have become entrenched in common thought, taking aim at private schooling, competition in public services, consumer culture, and a host of other features of modern society. He does not propose, per se, any one approach or set of policies to remedy these ills, but instead seems to be focused on consciousness raising, something that he’s up-front about in the book.

Because it is so politically contentious, and I try to keep this blog apolitical, I’m not going to analyse Dorling’s arguments in depth, or endorse or quibble with any of his conclusions. The spread of reviews on Piketty’s more recent book is pretty reflective of the types of responses Dorling’s received from across the political spectrum. Whether you are ultimately likely to agree or disagree with Dorling’s arguments and conclusions, they are definitely worth a read.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman) — book review

This book had a bit of a cult following when it was first published a few years ago, and a lot of people mentioned it to me. I only got around to buying Thinking, Fast and Slow around a year ago (in a train station), and didn’t start reading it until a few weeks ago. I’d started reading Dan Ariely‘s (@danarielyPredictably Irrational (2008) and then remembered that I had Daniel Kahneman‘s book, so jumped to reading it instead.

Both books are focused on understanding why and how human rationality may be an illusion with a view to informing our (conscious) minds about how to spot and hopefully avoid some of our own biases and lapses in rationality. A very noble aim! I have a huge interest in psychology generally, but particularly decision-making and rationality, so both books were fascinating. In theory.

In practice, Ariely’s is the more ‘popular science’ of the two, which means it is easier reading. Kahneman’s is dense and, I’m afraid to say, rather a struggle to plough through. There is rather a lot of repetition and a deliberate focus on personal anecdote that teeters on being tedious. However, I admire the very structured approach that Kahneman takes, tackling each type of illusion and error of thinking and proposing ways of talking about them in ordinary conversation, in order to make it as easy as possible for people to take some of the book’s messages forward in their daily lives. It is only a shame that the prose doesn’t make it as easy for people to get to the end of the book!

Two of the most interesting ideas from Kahneman’s book are What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI), a deliberate play on WYSIWYG, and his discussion of the ‘halo effect’. Together, I think these account for a lot of so-called “public opinion”, which can often be dictated by the media, which sets the parameters (the “seen” elements of a story) within which the public then typically think, or the elements of a person/situation to focus on that then produce a “halo” (good or bad) and limits how they are thought of in the future.

Kahneman also gives some very interesting statistics and thoughts about “expert” predictions, such as those made by political advisers or journalists (or, indeed, doctors) in circumstances where expertise does not improve their judgment, but they strongly believe it does. The limits of human knowledge and possible expertise are interesting to explore, and Kahneman’s perspective is fascinating, even though it is based on his own expertise, and therefore if we are reading his book ‘properly’, we have to read it with a challenging approach at times.

Having finished Kahneman’s book, I will now get back to finishing Ariely’s, which I’m sure will a breeze to read in comparison. I would recommend both (tentatively in the case of Ariely’s, as I’ve not finished), but if you do buy Kahneman’s, don’t be afraid to skip pages of anecdotes. I know that Kahneman is trying to educate and impress his points upon people with the way that he writes, but I found myself reading several sections without any of the words sinking in!