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My Automated Life

Automation, or the use of computers, robots, and machines, is efficient and presumably saves us time and mental energy. But automation still requires human involvement. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses some of the ways she experiences automation and how human involvement is still needed to make automation work, which begs the question as to whether automation really does replace human workers. 

I missed a mortgage payment. I found out 21 days after the payment should have posted. This should not have happened. I have my mortgage payment process completely automated — or so I thought. I have a dedicated checking account that I use only to make my mortgage payment. I have a portion of my paycheck set-up to directly deposit money during each pay period into that account. Once set up, I should not have to do anything to make it work.

Unbeknownst to me, however, my bank resets automated payments every 12 months. I learned this when I received a letter in the mail notifying me of my missed payment.  As soon as I opened the letter, I logged into my bank account and made the payment. I then called the bank to ask them to waive the late fee (which they did). I fixed the automatic payments so that they would begin occurring again. Then, I set up a reminder in Google Calendar one month prior to the automated payment expiration so that I can reset the automated payments before they are stopped in 2017.

If you were counting along at home, it took me four steps to fix the problem that saved me from logging into my account 12 times a year to make my monthly payment. So much for saving time by automating my mortgage payments. Further, several steps were involved to set-up this automation in the first place. First, I had to calculate my 12-monthly mortgage payments over 10 months of paychecks (I get paid August-May, like many faculty). Then, I had to go into my payroll system, which is online, and set up my direct deposit with the amount that I wanted directed into that bank account.

A couple of years ago, my family was driving in the mountains outside of Portland, Oregon. We had GPS and our cell phones for directions. At one point, however, the road our GPS instructed us to turn on was clearly a logging road. And our cell phones were now out of range, too. We opted to turn around and go back the way we came where we knew where we were at and when we last knew we had cell phone coverage. Using a GPS simply requires you to input your destination. Your directions, then, can be read out loud to you. You do not need to be able to read a map or even have paper map in your car (we now keep a US-Mexico-Canada Rand McNally Road Atlas in our car). In this case, if we trusted the automation system, we could have gotten seriously lost. Using this system also required us to pay attention to our route in case our GPS failed us (which it did)….

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Even an Uber-Bad CEO Isn’t Responsible For All of a Company’s Problems

In this piece, Nathan Palmer argues that the resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick will likely not solve the companies systemic and complex problems.

Last week, Travis Kalanick, the controversial CEO of Uber resigned. Under Kalanick’s leadership, Uber grew into a disruptive international force worth an estimated $69 billion at the time of his departure. Both Kalanick’s leadership and the company during his tenure were defined by their blatant disregard of the traditional rules of business, government regulators, and social norms in general. During Kalanick’s reign, Uber also developed a workplace culture that many of its employees found hostile and sexist. A blog post by former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler about sexual harassment and over 200 allegations of sexual harassment by Uber employees, prompted the company to commission an investigation by former Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarrán. At a meeting to go over the Holder-Albarrán report, Uber board member David Bonderman made a sexist joke and Bonderman resigned shortly after that.

In the news media’s coverage of Uber’s rise and its current struggles, the personality of Travis Kalanick has been both the secret ingredient behind its success and the toxic element behind its company culture. For instance, in February Biz Carson of Business Insider said that “Uber would not exist without Travis Kalanick.” and that “[Kalanick] has the soul of the business in him and Uber was crafted in his form.” Articles in published on CNN, Slate, and The Telegraph said Kalanick personified Uber and its company culture. Randall Stross in a New York Times Op-Ed went even further, saying that the company’s cultural values are Kalanick’s culture values and that, “The entire mess that Uber is in is, ultimately, his doing.”

As a sociologist, I don’t think this is a fair depiction of Travis Kalanick or Uber.

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Eviction and the American Dream

Evictions have become a common occurrence in the past 10 years. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses Matthew Desmond’s book about evictions and her own experience with informal eviction.

I have never been evicted. Scratch that. I have never been formally evicted. I have been informally evicted.

In 2005, I lived in an apartment building one block from Piedmont Park in Atlanta. The building was old. There was a one-inch gap between the top and bottom windowpane in the bathroom–which I discovered during the winter. The ventilation was terrible–which I discovered when I found mold growing in my bedroom closet (and had to throw out a lot of clothing and shoes–some which were too far gone to clean). But it was near the park and all the park had to offer, so there were trade-offs to living here. I lived there for only a few months before our building was sold. The new landlords wanted to convert the building into condos. They needed the current tenants out so that they could do this. They paid me $1,000 to move (enough to cover my moving expenses). I did not consider this an eviction until I read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in The American City, by sociologist and wunderkind, Matthew Desmond (MacArthur Fellow, Pulitzer Prize, New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016). I also did not consider my next move an eviction when my rent was raised by $50 a month. Two forced moves in a row.

My family and I decided it was time to buy a home. Unfortunately, we bought during the housing crash–prices were still declining, but we had no idea how much more they would decline when we needed to move again (our choice). We sold for less than we paid for the house. We rented for awhile. Then we bought again. Then we moved again (read more about that here and here). Again we sold for less than we paid for our house. In both cases, we were just grateful for an offer…any offer.

The Extent of Evictions

In Evicted, Desmond reports the findings from the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS) that he conducted. He found that:

  • In Milwaukee, one in eight renters were either formally or informally evicted within the previous two years (p. 330). These evictions were categorized as (p. 330-1):
    • Informal evictions: 48%
    • Formal evictions: 24%
    • Landlord foreclosures: 23%
    • Building condemnation: 5%

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Why Smoking Makes you Free

In this essay, John Kincaid uses symbolic interaction and cigarette advertisements from the early 1900s to illustrate how symbols are used to shape and reshape society.

Students pledging allegiance to the American flag with the Bellamy salute

One of the things that we work hard on in introduction to sociology classes is to get students to understand how larger level social forces shape the world around us. One of those forces that can be hard to grasp is the power of language, images and interaction to shape our experiences of reality. Social scientist call the study of the way we use shared symbols to help us shape a shared reality symbolic interactionism. The basic insight is that all of our perception is based in the shared sets of social meaning that we use to order the world around us. For example, what’s wrong with the black-and-white picture on the right?

When we see the children performing this particular symbolic action, the meanings that come to us are immediately negative, but why? One obvious reason is because we associate this hand gesture with the Nazi’s and their horrific crimes. But before World War 2 and the Nazis, this was known as the Bellamy salute, and was the official way to honor the flag and nation when reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance. The act was adopted by Nazi Party and Italian fascists in the 1920’s, and the act became so socially distasteful that Congress officially replaced it with the hand-over-the-heart salute in 1942.

How Symbols Can Shape (and Reshape) Our World

What this example shows us, is that in powerful ways, the way we experience reality is shaped by shared sets of meanings that we learn from our society, and attach to the world around us (if you doubt it, would you be willing to perform the Bellamy salute in public? Why not?). What the salute also shows, is that these shared meanings can also change, and sometimes change very quickly. The meanings that we use and share to help order the world are not set in stone, they are subject to change driven by history, current events and politics.

This is where cigarettes come in….

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As Marijuana Becomes Legal, The Legacy of Structural Racism Still Haunts Many

In this essay, Beverly Yuen Thompson describes the structural racism created by the War on Drugs era and shows how the racial inequality it created may continue to disproportionately oppress people of color in the emerging legal marijuana economy.

While the 2016 U.S. presidential election will be remembered by history for the shocking election of Donald Trump for president, it should also be remembered for the 8 states that voted to legalize marijuana for adult and medical use. Continuing the trajectory established by the previous two elections, marijuana legalization increased its momentum by passing eight of the nine initiatives put forth. Medical marijuana became legal in Montana, North Dakota, Arkansas, and Florida, bringing the national total to twenty-eight states (plus Washington D.C.). Four states legalized marijuana for adult-use: California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine, doubling the total to eight states nationally. Only one state rejected an adult-use legalization measure: Arizona. However, after this election multiple questions surrounding legalization remain. For instance, what will be done for individuals previously convicted or currently imprisoned on marijuana charges. Furthermore, how will our legal system treat felons seeking employment in this now legal industry?

The New Jim Crow and Structural Racism

“After 40 years of impoverished black men getting prison time for selling weed, white men are planning to get rich doing the same things. So, that’s why I think we have to start talking about reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?”

–Michelle Alexander (2014)

Jim Crow laws enforced continued segregation of African Americans from white Americans in places such as public schools, restaurants, hotels, and rest rooms, after the Reconstruction period, and lasted until they were challenged in the mid–1960s by the Civil Rights Movement. Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow, that the drug war has been overwhelmingly oriented towards disenfranchising Black Americans convicted of possessing narcotics.

Jim Crow laws and the “War on Drugs” demonstrate how structural racism is enacted. While we may think of racism as an individual’s biased perception of other people, structural racism demonstrates that institutions themselves can uphold racism, such as segregated public places or discrimination against those seeking home mortgages. A modern example of structural racism can be found in the “good moral character” clause that bars many people of color from the legal marijuana industry….

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Is Having a Baby Like Buying a Rolex? Economic Values & Children as Luxury Items.

In this piece John Kincaid explores how our profane capitalist economic values have seeped into aspects of our life we hold sacred. Specifically, he asks us to think about how modern capitalism in the U.S. encourages us to view babies as expensive luxury items. If the question in this piece’s title offends you, then read on, that’s precisely what this piece is about.

Sociologists love to write, think, talk and argue about capitalism. In part this is because the large-scale shifts from a feudal economy to a capitalist economy were what made social systems so apparent and so interesting to early sociologists. Early sociologists from Durkheim to Weber were fascinated with the links between economy and society in this era of change. So, as sociologists, we may have capitalism itself to thank for our discipline.

Few writers described capitalism as poetically as Karl Marx, who in the Communist Manifesto argued that in a capitalist system, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” In an earlier post, I talked about the role of the sacred and profane in modern society. For Marx and others witnessing the transition between two enormous social systems, the economy was reshaping the fundamental relationships of our society, and the distinctions we often placed between those relationships.

Economic Values & Our Families

One example of this in Marx’s time, of the economy rewriting social relations were the conditions of child workers and the necessity of families to sell their children’s labor to survive. This is such a striking example because as a society we often think of things like the value of children (sacred) and the value of business profit (profane) as being parts of two very different systems of values. But we also have examples of the profaning of the sacred in pursuit of profits in our current society. It’s not quite on the same level as child labor, but I can think of multiple other examples from my own family….

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Social Construction of Cosmetically Challenged Food

Have you ever bought a potato that looked like Abraham Lincoln’s face, an eggplant that had arms to hug you with, or an orange with a strange growth? Why is it that in America, we pass over “ugly” produce that is nutritionally sound in favor of pretty produce? In this post, Ami Stearns argues that the designation of our fruit and vegetables as edible or non-edible has been socially constructed.

In America, a quarter to a third of all food grown is simply never eaten. In fact, much of it is discarded before it even has the chance to reach the grocery store shelves. When organic “trash” is added to a landfill, dangerous methane gas is produced, which is a significant contributor to the greenhouse effect. Not only is trashing organic matter dangerous, it is a moral and ethical issue as well. According to Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland, twenty-five percent of the food that Americans waste would provide three daily meals to over 40 million people. We are a culture that celebrates throwing things away as a symbol of high status. American sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote about our consumer culture in the late 1800’s, arguing that the higher one’s social standing, the more one should consume, discard, and consume again.

Our throw-away culture replaces phones not when they wear out but when a new one is introduced, and also re-creates this behavior with food. Because we live in an environment of excess, we are free to be wasteful. Food waste is an issue at all levels, from individual families to mega-corporations. The average family throws out food that costs them $1,365 to $2,275 per year. The food waste that restaurants discard is now equal to approximately 15% of the average landfill waste. A full 20% of crops grown are turned away by grocery stores based on the cosmetic appearance of the fruits and vegetables.

The Ugly Fruit Movement

Grocery stores insist on a certain “perfect” look for their produce. Skin discolorations and other unsightly blemishes, shapes, or textures are deemed not fit for the fruit and vegetable aisle. Many good-looking tomatoes make it all the way to the grocery store loading dock only to be rejected due to bumping and bruising from the long trip. Because this practice leads to so much waste, food activists have begun raising awareness about the waste of perfectly good, unattractive food. Let’s call it the ugly fruit movement….

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Mom, Dad, & Uncle Sam Want YOU To Be An Engineer

The push for students to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics is growing rapidly. In this piece, Mediha Din describes what this nation-wide educational focus means for our society and students. 

If you are a student or teacher, you have undoubtedly come across the acronym STEM during your educational experience. Over the past four years, President Obama has been discussing an academic emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics for our nation’s students. High schools and even elementary schools with a STEM focus are developing in neighborhoods throughout the country at a quick pace. Funding for these programs is receiving strong government support at all academic levels.

When I was in college, one of my close friends majored in English. His parents worked tirelessly to persuade him to major in Computer Science instead. They were worried about spending money on an education that would not result in a high-paying career. It’s a common dilemma for students majoring in the Liberal Arts. In today’s world, students may find that it’s not just their parents that want to sway their educational pursuits, their state officials and governing bodies may also have a desire to influence their paths.

Why STEM?

The emphasis on STEM education is based on the desire to guide students towards degrees that have plenty of job opportunities and train American students for jobs that will earn the highest incomes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Projections for 2018, the current demand for STEM-capable workers greatly surpasses the supply of American applicants trained for those careers. Earlier this year, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin suggested promoting STEM education and cutting Liberal Arts funding in colleges “There will be more incentives for electrical engineers than French literature majors, there just will. All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will.” Currently 15 states offer a financial bonus or incentive for “high-demand” degrees in the science, math, engineering, and technology fields, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will.”
– Kentucky governor Matt Bevin

The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that STEM graduates are expected to command the highest overall average salaries in 2016. Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown University professor and director of the Center on Education and the Workforce, explains that most of the top earners in liberal arts will make only as much money as the bottom earners in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Some will even earn less than high school graduates with technical skills in vocations such as welding and mechanics….

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What Does it Mean to “Get Ahead” in Life?

In this piece, Nathan Palmer asks us to think about what we really mean when we ask, “what are my chances of getting ahead in life?”

What are my chances of getting ahead? That’s a question we all ask ourselves at some point. But before you get that answer, you have to tell me what you mean by “get ahead”; ahead of whom? Or maybe a better question is, get ahead in what?

If you stop and think about it, the social world is a divided one. Families are broken up into children, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and so on. Your school is comprised of administrators, teachers, and students (who we further break down into freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors). Businesses have boards of directors, CEOs, vice presidents of this and that, managers, and entry level employees.

But the social world isn’t just divided, it’s hierarchical. Meaning that we rank order these social positions with those at the top commanding the most power, opportunities, and resources compared to those below them. Teachers have the power to grade students. Graduating seniors, who typically get to register first, have a greater opportunity to get into the classes they want. And CEOs have the greatest access to a company’s resources.

Social Hierarchies All Around Us

Social stratification is a field of sociological research that identifies social hierarchies and studies how power, opportunities, and resources are distributed within that hierarchy. Social hierarchies are rank ordered networks of relationships. Families, schools, and corporations are all social hierarchies. Your rank within a social hierarchy is based on the social assets you possess.

A social asset can be anything that allows an individual to lay claim to a particular spot within a social hierarchy. I am a parent and that status is a social asset that places me above my daughter within my family’s social hierarchy. The number of completed credit hours is the social asset that allows students to claim their status as a freshmen, sophomore, junior, or senior. Within a company, the job title of middle manager is a social asset that affords its owner the ability to give orders to those below him or her, but not to those above. Some social assets must be earned (e.g. a bachelor’s degree), while others are obtained at birth (e.g. your age, gender, race, citizenship, etc.).

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Short Shifted: Labor Power & Workplace Scheduling

Have you ever been sent home early from work? Have you ever worked a job where you both closed and then opened? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how these labor practices illustrate Marx’s concept of labor power. 

When I was a teenager, I got a job at a fast-food restaurant. I was working for spending money and some vague notion of “saving for college.”

I was paid $5.25 an hour (management was proud to point at the starting pay was $0.10 an hour more than minimum wage). I was only paid if I was at work and clocked-in. If I had to call in sick, then I was not paid. If I was sent home early, I also was not paid. None of this is unusual in a capitalist economy. I was trading my labor power for a wage.

Karl Marx addresses the concept of labor power and its role in a capitalist economy. Labor power is valuable to an organization as long as it is profitable. Costs associated with labor power are also one of the easiest and quickest ways to increase profits.

In my own experience, I quickly learned that if business was slow, management would start sending people home early. At 16-years-old, this seemed wonderful. I never refused when I was asked if I “wanted to go home early.” Of course I did! I was usually too tired and dirty from the work I had already done to request to stay longer or ask management to find someone else to send home. Besides, I was just working for spending money. I didn’t have actual bills to pay. If I got sent home early, I still made rent because my rent was zero dollars as I lived rent-free with my parents. If anything, I was elated to be sent home early….

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