Book of the Month :: When Steven met Stephen…

It is the summer of 2003. Europe is sweltering under the worst heatwave for 500 years as Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland all vote to join the European Union. In the US, it is less than six months since US forces invaded Iraq and liberated Baghdad, as intellectual fights rage as to the validity of this action. In the midst of all this, writer and journalist Stephen J. Dubner is asked by the New York Times to go and interview a man who is causing quite a stir in the world of Economics. So, he goes to Chicago, and for the first time meets Steven D. Levitt.

These were the days when social media meant MySpace and Friendster plus very little else: Skype had only just launched and no-one had even heard of Twitter or Facebook. Podcasting only began in this year: if you had an original idea to expound, there was literally nowhere to go other than magazines or newspapers for any radical thinker to find an audience who might be interested. In the case of Levitt, he’d already made a name for himself proposing fairly unconventional theories in a very conventional discipline.

His latest work, ‘The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime’ had aroused interest after publication in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Levitt argued that a crime wave that had swept the US in the 1990’s had not been arrested by any of the means by which politicians, commentators or indeed sociologists had stated were responsible. In fact, the rapid drop in teenage perpetrators was a direct result of the landmark Roe v Wade legal case in 1971 which legalised abortion and effectively prevented a very specific demographic of potential criminals from ever existing.

This assertion was, understandably, met with a fair deal of academic scepticism (which continued for many years after publication) but Levitt’s work was based not only in fact, but considerable background research. Here was a man who looked at Economics not simply as a series of empirical concepts, but was acutely aware of the interconnectivity of other World events in relation to basic economic theory. Dubner, very much the epitome of the street-smart New Yorker, saw potential for the two of them, but it was his literary agent who can be credited with the inspired notion of getting the pair to write a book.

Freakonomics was published in 2005, the same year as a blog of the same name was launched. The latter tapped into an important, emerging means to capitalise on a new and previously unexplored group of critical thinkers riding a wave of Internet freedom. William Morrow and Company, who distributed the book in the US, sent 100 ‘preview’ copies to specialist bloggers in the hope they’d give favourable reviews. Many people subsequently credit the initial success of publication to the influence of the ‘blogosphere’: as of late 2009 (according to Wikipedia) the book had sold over 4 million copies worldwide. Then came a number of (probably inevitable) challenges to the original concepts covered in the book, a 2006 defamation case, which forced a revised version of the original manuscript to be published in the same year.

The success of the Freakonomics brand wasn’t just in the hands of independent internet writers or thanks to publicity over legal challenges: 2007 saw the blog become so popular it was absorbed by the New York Times, who continued to host it until 2011. By then there’d been a second book, documentary film made about the concept and the establishment of a podcast, Freakonomics Radio. However, more significant was the foundation in 2009 of the Freakonomics Consulting Group, soon changed to The Greater Good or TGG. With a number of Nobel laureates, this rapidly emerging commercial juggernaut attempting to maintain largely ethical status made perfect sense.

In a decade plus, Freakonomics has become big business, the epitome of Internet Brand Awareness. There’s now four books, a bi-weekly podcast and, if you have the cash, the original instigators of the lifestyle are available to come speak at your event. Their publicity blurb joyfully celebrates 600k followers on Twitter and a now fully independent blog that receives two million hits a month. This duo effecively and smartly rode the wave of emerging social networks and established the concept of out of the box thinking as a buzz-phrase for a generation.

However, there are critics, especially when it comes to their assessment of certain subjects (climate change most notably) combined with this peculiar deconstruction of what an American academic can do with enough disparate data to work from. Their joint success has generated the kind of grumpy annoyance that inevitable follows anyone who’s able to be hugely successful at the task in hand: there are imitators of Levitt and Dubner’s partnership all over the World, inevitably including those who resent not having had the ‘idea’ first.

However, this pair have effectively redefined an area of academia, giving the -onomics suffix an entirely new lease of life, and allowing people like me to believe that there is more to explaining why the World works as it does than simply spouting statistics and claiming academic superiority. In fact, I’d not be here today with a Patreon were it not for the belief that acceptable explanations do not simply have to involve one discipline’s set of particulars and no others. Allowing disciplines to overlap and merge, reading data from multiple (and often unexpected) sources means that literature has much to thank science for, history can look to economics to help explain actions… it may be considered by some as homogenisation, but it is a logical reaction to the means by which we now both absorb and react to the vast amount of (often contrary) stimuli available.

Looking for the unexpected answer to a question often allows us the ability to grasp the larger, more fundamental principles at play. In the introduction to Freakonomics, the perfect example of this is the US ‘real estate’ agent who you’d like to sell your house… but does she have your best interests at heart? Not according to the data, say Levitt and Dubner. If you look at the behaviour of Real Estate agents when selling their own houses, they’ll always try and angle for more money themselves, whilst looking for clients to take the first good deal that comes along.

What this pair are asking their readers to do is not necessarily agree with their principles, or indeed subscribe to this way of thinking. They are providing a valid alternative to what is presented as ‘conventional’ thinking. The definition of our individual truth, undoubtedly, is a complex combination of many factors. Sometimes, it is apparent that groups of people aren’t necessarily interested in the scientific facts presented. What they crave is their own, personal comfort away from actual reality.

If you want a perfect example of this in action, spend a moment reading around the subject of clean eating which has rapidly and significantly altered both what we consume and what is considered as healthy in the last decade. This movement owes more than a little to internet evangelicals: often women who have sought to transform themselves, creating a particular lifestyle of foods and detoxes before selling the concept to others via platforms such as Instagram. In many cases, conventional wisdom and scientific fact has been completely ignored in preference to ‘feeling good’ regardless of how this actually takes place.

However, in the last few years, academics and others have been at pains to debunk the transformative properties of certain foods, and that in many cases prolonged exposure can cause long term harm. Many cite this as yet another example of a ‘post truth’ environment many people now choose to inhabit. They would rather be wrong and happy than right and miserable. With the current state of world news right now, it really is not difficult to grasp the appeal.

The truth for most of us should be a combination of acquired knowledge, influence and personal consideration: looking outside what has been your accepted norm and thinking differently is never a bad thing. Challenging what is presented as fact is, after all, never a bad thing. What is increasingly apparent is that the real truth can not only be painful, but potentially damaging to people who refuse to accept that science and mathematics can only be ignored for so long.

Freakonomics challenges us to look at the World in a different way. It uses often disparate facts and examples to present a reality where everything truly is interconnected with everything else. Science’s constant reassessment of the Universe is now showing this to true on a molecular level, with rapid advances pointing the way towards a number of major re-examinations of matter, existence and even the history of mankind itself. As our very perception of reality is both reassessed and altered, it is time to look to the ordinary in order to find answers we can grasp on a personal level.

Now you appreciate the concept, it is time to examine evidence…

Book of the Month :: My Body, My Internet


Of all the essays contained in Ways Of Seeing, it is the two that focus on female form that are the most interesting from a personal point of view. One is simply a set of imagery: 1970’s adverts juxtaposed beside modern photography, challenging and mundane presentations of women plus classical images of the female form, nude or provocatively clothed. The other is a verbal dissection of how men have painted women, process of visual manipulation that has taken place over hundreds of years. This ties in with the second of four BBC documentaries on that same subject, which was broadcast on 15 January 1972.

The conclusions of both are damning:

Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relations of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

This essay postulates the portrayal of nudes for hundreds of years as an example that women in paintings are rarely, if ever placed there for anyone except men. It is they who stare at the female form, covet it, with the woman always aware that she is being painted simply to be objectified. There was a period where the use of mirrors became popular, supposedly signifying the perceived conceit of women, with truth as anything but:

You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.


For many decades both before and after these essays were written, it is very easy to cite and demonstrate the influence of the ‘classical’ nude in popular culture, and to be able to read into this a back story that men continued the process of objectification of their own desires. Except, in the last thirty years, there has been an undoubted change in how this takes place, if it does so at all. Actualisation has, in many situations, become unacceptable, both socially and morally. However, it would be a fallacy to believe that with so many key positions in advertising and media still dominated by men that there is as yet an end to such practices in sight.

What has altered are the means by which such practices take place, the methods in which the imagery is delivered to the ‘consumer’ and what now passes as objectification in the first place. Tastes have rapidly evolved since the 1970’s: add to this that racism, sexism and segregation were commonplace forty years ago, and have been slowly eroded as acceptable practice. However with the recent rise of fascism as a popular flag to stand behind and the controversial stance of the current President of the United States, these seemingly outdated ideologies are currently very much at the forefront of public consciousness.


Women as objects however remain a subject of contention, especially when one sees popular icons such as Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé take to social media as their own stylised variant of the classical nude. Are these women making a ‘sight’ of themselves, or are they perfectly aware of the significance and impact their naked forms will have on those who consume their brand? Somewhere between the 1970’s and here women have gained significant power and influence in many areas of society: equal pay and conditions however are still a long way off for many, key management positions in many industries notably lacking a diversity in employees.

It is not simply the female form that is expanding away from the realms of objectification. Sexual culture has changed beyond all recognition, with thanks undoubtedly due to the expansion of the Internet: terms such as ‘revenge porn’ and ‘slut shaming’ live alongside female and male cosplayers, fetishists are a breath away from Hentai. What the Internet offers us as consumers is a breadth of choice in consumption which is both staggering and concerning, where lines often blur with such speed as to be impossible to discern. At the heart of all these things however is imagery: for the first time objectification extends beyond the desirable, and into areas which were previously inaccessible or even culturally taboo.


All body shapes and types can be found online: as fashion houses continue to rely on unrealistic physical proportions, more and more individuals celebrate and embrace body diversity. For each conventional porn site there’ll be somewhere else to celebrate every kink and desire… with this extending into the darker, depressing depths of depravity. In the past all these things undoubtedly took place, it is just there was no one platform to show them to an audience with such immediacy and impact. This is why, more than ever, it is vital to understand the truths in what is presented to us as ‘seen.’ Images can lie, and that is a fact that many young and vulnerable individuals need to be reminded of, often on a daily basis.

As a depressing example of this of particular relevance, there’s been a marked increase in the number of young girls asking for labial surgery on the back of viewing online porn, believing their own bodies are somehow deformed. This, like it or not, is a direct consequence of the standard imposed on actresses in said profession. It is proof that, wherever you look, someone will decide a benchmark for visual acceptance that is often utterly unrealistic. In their own way, whenever an actress poses nude and attempts to justify this as an example of ‘my body, my rules’ they forget about the negative influence their perception of beauty and empowerment may have on those simply and immediately swayed by visual stimulus.


However, despite this, there must remain a freedom of expression in this regard, to extend to every single person who chooses to use their body as an extension of personality. Social media has gone a long way towards allowing that extension, and undoubtedly it has created a generation who are more capable of communication than the one which preceded it. Of course, this expression has not come without consequence, and that is probably a discussion for a different place. If we are to focus on the issues with body image, is it fair that this is automatically associated with simply the female form?

It is now just as common to find the male body objectified not simply by women but other men. In fact, any physical shortcoming is fair game in the modern world: however without due thought and attention this can and does backfire. The company who considered making body lotion bottles in the same varied shapes and sizes of their audience failed to grasp a key factor in why this process is inherently dangerous. How we see ourselves is often vastly different to how we are perceived by others. The classical nude was painted as a reflection of beauty at that time, and would as a result become a benchmark for what those creating the images desired. Trying to second guess the complexity of imagery in the rapidly changing world is considerably more difficult.


What we can do, as viewers, is to attempt to address the wider themes at play. Undoubtedly there are those celebrity women whose ‘brand’ dictates an almost constant exposure to media scrutiny. On the flip side, it would be unwise to take a certain actor’s desire not to do interviews or photo shoots as a sign of integrity. The truth is undoubtedly found at a differing point in each individual case. No longer can we accurately use history as the means by which certain truths are illuminated. The past remains where we should begin the journey, but not all of the answers can or will be found there.

However, there is one ability that is clearly absent in many people’s mindset: acceptance. Allowing freedom of expression and individuality has always been an issue: questioning the might of Catholicism, the elimination of slavery, allowing women the vote, accepting gay marriage… all of these events have come at considerable personal toll to all those who fought in opposition. Yet, without that concerted effort, life would not be as refreshing and confusing as is undoubtedly the case. The price one pays for liberation is seldom grasped at the time: for many older people, the past remains the only place where they feel truly safe.


The next time you are presented with an image that could be considered as provocative, try and interpret why that might be the case. Half the battle in understanding is the ability to grasp why one person finds an image offensive and the other doesn’t. Berger suggests at the end of his essay on nudes that if a male reader were to substitute their own image for those of the countless women across the ages, and then to consider what another person might think of the resultant picture, there would be a very different set of feelings at play. This concept works for an awful lot of current imagery too, and makes for an exercise in enlightenment like no other.

In the end, like it or not, it is rare for an image now to be just that, simply encompassing the moment. Parents use their children’s pictures as news on Facebook, female streamers post provocative images of their bodies to garner views on Twitch… and the list goes on. Everybody has a reason, and no two are ever exactly the same. If you are to truly understand the Internet’s depth and breadth, then every picture should be studied with at least some measure of care, before any immediate conclusions can be drawn.

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