I have a relatively short list this month, because we’re going to be traveling and I want to get this out before that.
“The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score,” by Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, discusses the increasingly common use of systems that continually track employees to measure how much of their time at work is actually spent working. Predictably, there are lots of problems with these systems: they can generally only track time spent using a computer, so any part of your job that involves, say, talking on the phone or interacting directly with other people is coded as unproductive; they are easy to game, say, by wiggling your mouse periodically; and, perhaps most problematically, they, if your performance is assessed based on these metrics, then you will begin to behave in the ways most likely to improve your numbers— which may not be the same as actually doing your job well.
This piece also has some really great, functional web design: it monitors your progress through the article, measuring how long you are “engaged” versus time spent “idle,” and gives you a score at the end. For me, at least, this was more than just clever. Even though I knew that it was meaningless, and that it was there only to make a point about the way this monitoring can produce both anxiety and perverse incentives, part of me still wanted to get a good score, and I did actually feel anxious when the indicator said I was “idle.” Perhaps this says as much about about me as about employee monitoring systems, but it was startling to realize how effective the pressure they create can be.
Unrelated, but also some really nice web design from the New York Times: “The Power of Hugs in Anime,” by Maya Phillips
You may have heard that traffic fatalities have dramatically increased in the last year or so. That’s a reversal of several decades of declines, going back to the 1960s, and, while it began back in 2015, the numbers really surged in 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Nobody is entirely sure why this is happening, but a piece of the story that has gotten less attention is the increased number of pedestrians killed by cars.
“The Deadliest Road in America,” by Marin Cogan, is about a stretch of U.S. 19, in Florida, which is statistically the most dangerous in the country for pedestrians. As she makes clear, though, that stretch doesn’t differ dramatically from any number of others with similar characteristics: multiple lanes of traffic, high speed limits, businesses along both sides, and few crosswalks. Cogan introduces Charles Marohn’s concept of a “stroad” to describe the area: if we think of a “road” as “meant to move people as quickly as possible from one location to another,” “streets” designate “places: where people live, shop, eat, and play. Because streets are highly developed on either side, vehicle traffic needs to be slow, to accommodate people outside of cars.” A limited-access freeway, which relatively few points of entry or exit, high speed limits, etc., is a road, while the typical downtown area will be made up of streets. A “stroad” is an unhappy combination of the two, featuring the high speeds and many lanes of a road, but with lots of turns and stops and businesses alongside that people will need to get to. Marin compares it to “a futon that’s trying to be both a couch and a bed and does neither of them well… A stroad tries to be both a street and a road at the same time, and it underperforms at both.” It’s a useful concept, because these are everywhere, in the United States (and especially in the South and West, where a lot of development has happened more recently).
“Moral Panics Come and Go. Sex Bracelet Hysteria Is Forever.” by Claire McNear, traces the spread of a story that I entirely missed at the time: in 2003, media all across the country were telling parents that their children— including those only in middle school— were engaging in all kinds of sexual acts, and wearing colored jelly bracelets to indicate the ones they were willing to perform. As you might expect, the precise origins of this claim are murky, and it seems there was little if any truth behind it; as you also might expect, it spread like wildfire, touching as it did so directly on parental fears.
The story of the bracelets itself is interesting, but what really struck me about the piece was a point that McNear makes at the end, about the net effect of this kind of story. Even if one didn’t believe this particular claim, or knew that it had been found groundless, it still tends to create a sense that this KIND of this is happening, or could happen, and encourages parents to act accordingly.
To [sociologist Kathleen] Bogle, the pervasiveness of mistaken or grossly exaggerated panics around teen sex is no laughing matter. She says that the enduring perception of the bracelets has influenced some of the more disproportionate punishments that have been handed out in relation to a real youth behavior: sexting.
“If you go into the sexting phenomenon and you believe youth are out of control, that they have no morality whatsoever, they’ll do anything with anyone, they’ll send naked pictures to anyone they can and all these kinds of things—then you get some of the reaction of like, ‘We’re going to prosecute this as child pornography,’” she says.
That is, parents don’t interpret the phenomenon of sexting on its own terms, but as part of a more general, dangerous trend that they feel they have to try to protect their children from. Most Americans believe crime has gotten worse and worse, even as all forms of crime have declined across the country since the early 1990s (despite a recent uptick in some cities); this is at least partly because of the way the media—especially local news— focus on crime, which creates a pervasive sense of fear and disorder, even among people who never actually experience crime themselves. This is a similar situation: these stories create a generalized sense that everything is getting worse, that kids are becoming more and more sexually active and careless, even though there are no data to support this belief. (For instance, teen pregnancy in the U.S. is about as low today as it has ever been). I think this is also part of the explanation for conspiracy theories like QAnon: to believe something so utterly ludicrous and so unsupported by any evidence, you must already have a general sense that the people in government, the people in charge, are terrible, corrupt, dishonest, immoral, etc. And certainly the way the media cover politics has helped to create that sense for a lot of people. The impact of a such coverage isn’t just what people think about a particular individual, or group, or policy; it’s also the atmosphere it contributes to, which is a lot harder to measure and, potentially, a lot more dangerous.
To be honest, “How a Dem Congressional Staffer Faked Being an FBI Agent and Became a Fugitive,” by Jose Pagliery, is a somewhat unsatisfying story: the staffer in question has not yet been tried, and so we don’t know anything about WHY he did this— whether he actually intended to use his fake identity to DO something, or just liked looking and feeling like part of the FBI, or something else all together. Also, whether this was related to the fraud by which he gave himself a raise of $80,000 a year. None of that is answered here, which is too bad, but it’s still a good story.