Dynamist Blog

The Fabric of Civilization: A Robot Roundup

My current book project, working title: The Fabric of Civilization, combines my interests in economic history, technology, culture, and aesthetics. (For something of the book's flavor, you can read my 2015 Aeon article, which eventually led to a proposal.) It's an ambitious undertaking and great fun, because it lets me learn about everything from cuneiform tablets to woven electric circuits. The book is heavy on history, which limits the potential for related articles along the way, but the research has inspired several columns on the always-popular question, Will the robots take all our jobs?

I've written for Bloomberg View on about how robots are replacing seamstresses  and, more recently, on what laser-distressed jeans tell us about the future of computer-driven apparel manufacturing. The laser story prompted this online conversation with my colleague and friend Adam Minter, where we batted around thoughts on the future of apparel. (The author of the fantastic book Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, Adam is working on a new book about the global trade in secondhand clothing and electronics.)

Combining history and reporting from the cotton fields of West Texas, where nowadays it takes just two people to harvest thousands of acres, I looked back at the mechanization of cotton picking. How did machines transform a task once so labor-intensive and unpleasant that planters assumed it could only be done with slaves? What might that experience tell us about future automation?

We tend to equate textiles with apparel but, throughout history, fabric has been equally essential to furnishings, from blankets and wall hangings to upholstery and rugs. So it shouldn't be surprising, but inevitably is, to find that the interiors market is quick to adopt the latest in textile technology. As I reported in a pair of trade magazine articles, that can mean digital manufacturing or incorporating electronics into fabric. The early markets may not be in clothes.

Gifts Ideas that Aren't Books

Although I still use Amazon mostly for books, over the past year I've discovered some cool other products that might make excellent gifts (plus orthodontic silicone, which is great but not something to give as a holiday present). Here are some ideas, all of which I've bought and used.

Black & Decker cordless screwdriver, $39.99: Lighter and easier to use than a drill and small enough to fit in tight spaces, this gadget has a lithium ion battery that charges with a USB cord. Everyone should have one.

Biaggi Zipsak Boost! $89.99: You won't find a lighter carryon roller bag, because the Zipsak has no frame to add weight. For storage, it folds into a 14" x 9.5" x 5" square and—the reason I got it—if you need added space on your return trip, it expands to 28" high. One bonus I discovered after packing for the first time is that when you turn it from horizontal to vertical, allowing the contents to settle, you discover extra space at the top, perfect for inserting your plastic bag of liquids (and anything you need once you're on the plane) for easy removal. Comes in four colors.

GooDee Mini Portable Projector, $89.99: I remember when these cost upwards of $1,000 and didn't work nearly as well. Now they're cheap enough to buy just to practice speeches.

Mixfeer packable rain jacket with hood, $27.99: As you may guessed from the Zipsak, I like items that shrink for packing. I don't especially like rain coats, but this one came in handy on my Cusco trip. I also like that it has a waist so you don't look like a big blob.

Nylon handbag with lots of pockets $30.99: Not a style statement, but eminently practical for travel. Big enough to hold my laptop and lots of other stuff. Comes in 10 colors.

Stocking Stuffers:

An Anker dual wall charger: Two models, depending on how impatient (or frugal) you are. Quick Charge 39W for $23.99 and Elite 24W for $10.59. Plus an Amazon Basics cord if you need one. ALWAYS BE CHARGING.

Portable power bank $17.89: A life saver. Could be lighter, but this is the one I use. Holds a ton and shows you how much is left.

Neoprene sleep masks, $9.99 for pack of three: Forget dignity. My Granny was right. Unless you have blackout shades, you sleep better when you wear a mask. She wore glamorous satin, but these neoprene numbers don't mash your eyes. They do fray eventually and tickle your nose, however, so I buy them in quantity. I keep one at home and one with my travel stuff.

Over-the-cabinet dishtowel holder, $9.99: The solution to hanging towels without drilling holes. Looks good too.

iPhone tripod, $11.88: Handy especially for videos. Comes with a remote that I haven't tried.

Brita water bottle with filter, $12.89: A handy solution to the lousy taste of L.A. tap water. You do have to get used to sucking it like a straw rather than squeezing.

Bungee straps, $12.50: A dozen in assorted sizes. Keep them in your car's trunk.

Dynamism and Stasis in the Age of Trump

The rise of Donald Trump and of populism more generally, has made my 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies especially relevant.  of the American Enterprise, who calls The Future and Its Enemies his "book of the year" for 2016, interviewed me for his Richochet podcast. You can read a transcript here. Here's an excerpt:

It’s difficult to say to people the better world lies in leaving things alone, in saying let people conduct experiments, let them try things, let other people, the market critics, respond to those experiments and we’ll see what shakes out. And this is how we learn and this is how we go forward, whether you’re talking about science or whether you’re talking about markets or talking about living arrangements, all of this sort of thing.
That’s a hard message because people like a sense of stability in their lives. Now, they don’t really want some of the things that come along with a lot of stability. They don’t want the lack of progress, lack of growth. In fact, that makes for a lot of unhappiness. And they also don’t want the sort of brittleness that is created when you try to hold everything still.
And then, just to bring up something that has to do with the Trump administration, we’re going to see this more and more. There are inherent contradictions. So let’s take Donald Trump. Donald Trump loves the auto industry. He wants lots of auto jobs in the U.S. Michigan is a big part of his base. He really cares about the auto industry.
But he also likes the steel industry. He wants steel to be expensive and made in the U.S. Well, wait a minute. Who buys steel? Automobile companies buy steel. What happens if the price of steel goes up? Oh, it becomes harder to make it in the automobile industry.
When we talk about picking winners, that’s what we’re talking about. If you don’t let the marketplace, the decentralized deciders, set prices, if you’re going to have Donald Trump deciding who the winner is, he’s going to have to decide even between the automobile industry and the steel industry, never mind any newfangled things like Google or Amazon. So there’s that issue.
And then, of course, as much as he wants to do everything himself, ultimately you’re going to have some 35-year-old lawyer in the anti-trust division or the commerce department or somebody who went to some Ivy League school who’s going to be deciding these things actually. So the whole populist, anti-elitist thing goes away because inherently you end up with technocrats running things. You get France in the best case scenario.

Read the rest here.

Here's a Bloomberg View column I wrote on dynamism for Democrats.

Mary Tyler Moore, Oprah Winfrey, and the Power of Unintended Glamour

In honor of Mary Tyler Moore, who died yesterday at 80, here's an excerpt from The Power of Glamour:

Taken as a guide rather than the literal truth, however, glamour need not entail disappointment. By pointing toward real avenues of escape and transformation, even its most improbable sources can channel inchoate desire into personal fulfillment. Growing up impoverished and abused in the largely segregated South, Oprah Winfrey glimpsed a distant, more perfect world on TV: a beautifully gowned Diana Ross singing on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sidney Poitier arriving at the Academy Awards, and, oddly but most influentially, the TV newsroom of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A series whose comedy was largely based on embarrassing situations, the show wasn’t intended to be glamorous. But the right audience can always edit away the flaws. For Winfrey, the sitcom provided an intensely alluring portrait of friendship, collegiality, meaningful work, personal safety, and economic independence. Its protagonist was smart, pretty, stylish, and respected by her colleagues. For all their quirks, the characters lived interesting, fun-filled lives without significant hardship. The setting—the idea and ideal of the characters’ lives—was far more important than the details of any particular plot.

“I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore,” Winfrey recalls, equating the actress with her character. “I wanted to be Mary. I wanted to live where Mary lived. I wanted Mr. Grant in my life. I wanted my boss to be like that.” Following Mary’s example, she pursued a career in television news, eventually finding her niche as a talk show host. One of the highlights of Winfrey’s triumph as a TV star in her own right was recreating The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s opening credit sequence, with herself in the leading role. Instead of showing the character Mary Richards driving into Minneapolis to find a new life, this version showed Winfrey coming to Chicago and, like Mary, ending a sequence of joyful scenes by exuberantly tossing her hat in the air. “Whenever I’m having a down day,” she told her audience in 1997. “I just pop that [recording] in. I love that!” She had projected herself into a glamorous fiction and, with a few adjustments, made it come true.

For more on glamour and career choices, read my Libertine article here.

Come Study with Me in Greece Next Summer


Next summer, July 23-August 5, 2017, I'll be teaching a course on Culture and Consumption in an exciting new program called Unbound Prometheus, which offers summer courses in Kavala, Greece. Course topics range from nonlinear waves to paper-cutting, forensic anthropology to "Scepticism 101" (with Michael Shermer). Undergraduates can earn college credits, but all ages are welcome. The offerings are great for adults who want intellectual or artistic stimulation along with their vacation. In addition to a class, the $2,700 tuition includes 13 days of hotel (double occupancy), breakfasts and dinners, and a day trip to the island of Thassos. Read about the hotel on TripAdvisor here.

Check out all the course offerings here. Go here for full information on tuition and registration. I hope to see you in Greece!

Update: My syllabus is now up, as are most of the others. Check them out here. (If you register, whether for my course or another one, please tell them I sent you.)

Textiles as Technology

In a recent feature for the online magazine Aeon, I laid out the theme of my latest ongoing research (which may eventually result in a book but is currently in the just-writing-articles stage):

textiles are technology, more ancient than bronze and as contemporary as nanowires. We hairless apes co-evolved with our apparel. But, to reverse Arthur C Clarke’s adage, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. It seems intuitive, obvious – so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted.

We drag out heirloom metaphors – ‘on tenterhooks’, ‘tow-headed’, ‘frazzled’ – with no idea that we’re talking about fabric and fibres. We repeat threadbare clichés: ‘whole cloth’, ‘hanging by a thread’, ‘dyed in the wool’. We catch airline shuttles, weave through traffic, follow comment threads. We talk of lifespans and spin‑offs and never wonder why drawing out fibres and twirling them into thread looms so large in our language.

The story of technology is in fact the story of textiles. From the most ancient times to the present, so too is the story of economic development and global trade. The origins of chemistry lie in the colouring and finishing of cloth. The textile business funded the Italian Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; it left us double-entry bookkeeping and letters of credit, Michelangelo's David and the Taj Mahal. As much as spices or gold, the quest for fabrics and dyestuffs drew sailors across strange seas. In ways both subtle and obvious, textiles made our world.

Delving into this theme has sent me to a fascinating conference on ancient textiles, a trade show on technical textiles—think temperature-adjusting or able to withstand explosions—and a too-brief visit to the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, while in the area giving a corporate talk on glamour.

Along with the Aeon feature, my textile research so far has led to articles on contemporary subjects ranging from Google's Project Jacquard, which is producing conductive yarn designed to brings the idea of "wearables" into cloth, to how stuffed Easter bunnies got so soft. And in a mash-up of ancient and contemporary, I used 3D printing to test the theory that Venus de Milo might originally have been a spinner. There's more to come, and I welcome any ideas and leads from readers.

Some Bootylicious Thoughts on Changing Fashions in Body Types

The 1900 version of Nicki Minaj's figure.

For this Hollywood Reporter story, which quotes me briefly at the end, fashion writer Merle Ginsburg emailed me some questions about the fashion for big butts. I wrote the following, somewhat disjointed, thoughts in response:

When I saw a profile shot of Nicki Minaj at the Grammys my immediate thought was that she was a throwback to the S-shaped ideal of the late 19th century. She had the bustle shape without the bustle.

The rise of hip-hop and dance music showcased both beautiful female performers who aren’t ashamed of their bodacious butts—Jennifer Lopez was the pioneer here—and men who appreciate a little junk in the trunk. That’s Sir Mix-a-Lot, of course, but also countless rap videos where success equals being surrounded by scantily clad women whose curves include big butts. The effect, over a couple of decades, was to reveal an underserved taste. Combine that with the friendly fit of Lycra-enhanced fabrics and fashion’s restless quest for new looks and you get clothes that highlight well-rounded backsides, whether on the red carpet or at the mall. It’s worth noting, too, that this isn’t just a “black thing” and it isn’t just about bigger being better. The very white Lululemon was built on the insight that women would pay extra for yoga pants that made their butts look good. (Great story here.)

What is different is that the ideal of curves coexists with the ideal of the athletically toned body. (By curves I mean curves—particularly the waist-hip ratio—not a euphemism for fat.) In the past, they’ve been seen as opposites. The slim silhouette of the 1920s was a youthful, active ideal. The same thing happened in the 1960s and ‘70s and carried over even through the glamazon era. A “womanly” shape meant softness all over—and culturally it implied domesticity and weakness. Now we have curvy, hard-bodied performers like Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé—and Scarlett Johansson as a cat-suited action hero. The Crossfit movement builds up butts and thighs rather than slimming them down.

I don’t agree that butts have replaced breasts. Rather, we’re seeing in beauty ideals the same thing that we’ve seen in clothing fashions—think hemlines—where lots different possibilities are stylish at the same time. Instead of one ideal body type, there are multiple ones. Nobody is going to write off Penelope Cruz or Charlize Theron as sex symbols because their butts aren’t big enough. Margot Robbie’s body is stunning—as we learned in great detail in The Wolf of Wall Street—but her butt is distinguished more by its shape than its size.

All of these are still ideals, attainable only by a few highly disciplined genetic freaks. But ideals are more inspiring and less oppressive when you can see something of yourself in them. I was a teenager in the 1970s, when the one and only ideal was the Golden Mean (Farah Fawcett, Cheryl Tiegs)—a tan bathing suit body with long legs and moderate curves. If you were flat-chested or dark-skinned or, like me, had an untannable English Rose complexion and a tiny waist and big booty, you were just out of luck. Not only weren’t you perfect, you couldn’t even picture yourself that way.

Fashion change is mysterious. The Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson, who uses baby names as a case study, identifies three factors: “external events of social, political, and economic significance; internal mechanisms of taste that generate changes even when the external environment remains constant; and the unique historical conditions of a fixed point in time.” In this case, the external events would be things like the rise of hip-hop as a cultural influence; the internal mechanisms would be fashion boredom with earlier silhouettes; the unique historical conditions might be something like reality television as a showcase for the Kardashians, one of whom just happens to provide a model of a white woman with a big butt.

On cycles and possibly relevant to the plastic surgery question: Fashion often changes by exploring all of the aesthetic possibilities in a certain direction until they’re exhausted. Shirts get shorter and shorter and then get long. Shoulders get wider and wider and then get narrow. This doesn’t have to be the pattern. Sometimes there’s a big break, as in the 1920s or the early 1960s. Today many different silhouettes are popular, although some things (mom jeans, big shoulders) are still out of style. And it’s still really hard to find clothes that fit if you have a small waist and a big butt.

Random fact: Body scanner data on large samples of the general U.S. population finds that Latina and Asian women have larger waist-hip ratios than black and white women. I don’t know how this maps to butt size, since I know it in the context of waist fit. But I suspect that the rising proportion of Latinos in the U.S. population works both for and against the emphasis on butts. On the one hand, in some Latin cultures (Brazil being the most famous) the butt is a major focus of male attention and beauty ideals. On the other, aspiration aside, Latinas may not actually be as curvy as black and white women, and East Asians definitely aren’t. (“White” is way too broad a category, but it’s what we have.)

Forbes.com, Self-Censorship, and the Perils of Cheap Content

A few weeks ago, Forbes.com abruptly fired contributor Bill Frezza after he posted a column warning fraternities to watch out for female party guests who show up intoxicated. I addressed the substance of his column and the resulting controversy in this Bloomberg View piece. Frezza has now written a follow-up post on his own site, explaining why he cares so passionately about the problem of binge drinking.

What has drawn little comment is the business model that produced a journalistic fiasco. Forbes.com (not to be confused with the print magazine) is a publication that acts like a platform. It hires columnists, gives them a general turf, tells them to write and post pieces, and pays them by how much traffic they attract. Unlike a traditional publication, it doesn't spend money on having editors review the topics or articles beforehand. In the traditional model, Frezza's article either would have had the backing of the publication--which would have stood up for it--or it would have never seen the light of day. If the argument seemed beyond the pale, an editor would have said, "No thanks. What else do you have?" There would have been no public blowup and no firing. One way or another Forbes.com would have taken responsibility. (As anyone who reads Forbes.com knows, its lack of editorial oversight extends to basics of proofreading.) Forbes.com's business model has been successful in a tough environment, but it presents editorial perils. 

Under the new model, columnists have to guess what readers will find interesting and they also have to guess what editors will find a firing offense. They are expected to internalize vaguely defined standards and self-censor accordingly. That's made clear in the email that opinion editor Avik Roy sent out following Frezza's firing, which was passed on to me by someone who got it from a Forbes.com contributor:

Fellow Opinionators,

You may know "don't do stupid stuff" as the Obama foreign policy doctrine. But it also applies to writing for Forbes.

On Tuesday, one of our contributors wrote a piece entitled "Drunk Female Guests Are The Gravest Threat To Fraternities." The first sentence read, "I realize this headline is click-bait, but I believe it to be true. Let me explain."

The article did not meet our editorial standards -- not by a long shot -- and was taken down within 8 minutes of its publication. The contributor is no longer with us.

8 minutes, however, was long enough for the article to ignite a firestorm around the internet, much of it justified. You can survey the wreckage here:


As you know, we allow the vast majority of you to self-publish on the Forbes platform without prior editorial review. This is because we trust you to write responsibly about matters of public importance, in a way befitting your own reputations and the Forbes brand. But as opinion writers, we are all capable of making mistakes.

The contributor in question here was one of our best performers from a traffic standpoint. It doesn't matter. Forbes' reputation for quality journalism is more important than traffic stats or any individual. If you're writing about a sensitive or controversial topic, please make sure you're doing so in a way that brings light, instead of heat, to the issue.

Overall, you all are doing great work. Forbes Opinion traffic is up around 50 percent, relative to last year. Our impact is increasing as we refocus the channel around original expert commentary, like yours. But let's make sure that we use this week's incident as an opportunity to improve.



Avik S. A. Roy
Opinion Editor, Forbes
60 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10011

[email protected]

The latest news out of Forbes.com is this Facebook post from former contributor Brett Arends reporting that he and other, unnamed contributors have also been fired, despite having nothing to do with Frezza's article.

Forbes managing editor Dan Bigman (yes, that's really his name) had to be seen to be doing something. Forbes just got sold to some people in Hong Kong. Mr Bigman had to be able to say "look - I've taken action! I've fired people!" So he's axed a bunch of contributors, pretty much randomly. Apparently the only unifying theme is that we write interesting copy.

In another post, he writes:

The sad thing is that people will take this as a sign that the original "bucks for clicks" Forbes model didn't work. The truth is that it would be an excellent model - so long as you don't give blog posts to guys the editor met at a cookout.

It's an excellent model until it isn't. Arends thinks Frezza got in trouble because he was an "amateur," but he's just being arrogant. The same thing could have happened to anyone, however experienced, who offended the wrong loud voices. For now, Forbes.com seems to think a combination of columnist pruning and self-censorship will make it work.

Update: A reader alerts me to this August Space Politics post and discussion about a deleted Forbes.com post attacking Space X with what (from the post) appear to be ill-founded rumors. That contributor still appears to be on the Forbes.com team, having posted most recently four days ago.

Note: Bill Frezza's archive is still on the Forbes.com site. You can see how many views each post received--the numbers range widely, from a few hundred to tens of thousands--which (assuming Roy is telling the truth) gives some idea of what qualifies as "one of our best performers."

Does "Culture" Now Equal "Food"? What I Learned at the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble

Cultural-Studies Food
At the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble, the "cultural studies" section is largely devoted to food.

On a recent visit to the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble store, I visited the "cultural studies" section to make sure they had The Power of Glamour in stock. At first, I was confused, thinking I'd wandered into the wrong area. The sign said "cultural studies," but the books seemed to be all about food. I started writing down the titles:

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the WorldEating AnimalsLocal: The New Face of Food and Farming in America, We the Eaters: If We Change Dinner, We Can Change the WorldFood Fight: The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Organic: A Journalist's Quest to Discover the Truth behind Food Labeling, The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business, The Carnivore's Manifesto: Eating Well, Eating Responsibly, and Eating MeThe World Is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human RaceSalt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, Bitter Chocolate: Anatomy of an IndustryThe American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table...

And all of those are before you get to Michael Pollan, whose phenomenal success undoubtedly explains why publishers put out so many food-related cultural studies. The section features Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, a modest selection of titles.

Once past Pollan (and the easily overlooked non-food book by Postrel), the list of food titles goes on: The End of Food, Blessing the Hands That Feed Us: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us About Food, Community, and Our Place on Earth, and, of course the best-seller Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal and movie tie-in Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer-And What You Can Do About It. The food books in this section are all indeed cultural studies; nutrition and cooking have sections of their own. Most of the section's other titles are about drugs (particularly marijuana), tattoos, and piercing.

Why, in Santa Monica at least, does "culture" now equal "food"? There are two reasons. The first is the way Barnes & Noble is organized. Many cultural topics, including religion, entertainment, fashion, and sports, have sections of their own. "Social science" siphons off most of the sociological books that have any element of rigor (which is not to say they're academic). The adjacent Asian, Hispanic, Native American, African-American, Gay, Lesbian, and Women's Studies sections take care of most of the other cultural works.

What remains are books that address the other ways that white people in Santa Monica define their cultural identities: drugs, body modification, and, above all, food. Your ancestors may have rebelled against food taboos but, these days, you are what you refuse to eat.

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