Monthly Archives: August 2015

Musings on Resort Hotels, Simulation, Reality, and Social Change

[This post is a bit different than my usual posts. I’m not a scientist or computer scientist so forgive me if I make egregious science mistakes here. I wrote this post to help me sort through some thoughts.]

I’ve read essays on the ideas that it’s possible, or even likely, that the world (or universe) as we know it is a simulation. (Here’s an essay from Aeon on this topic.) In the end, I’ve always thought that from an experiential level, if it feels real, then it is real to you, similar to the Thomas Theorem in sociology. (For an explanation of the Thomas Theorem, you can read this short article.) However, I had the oddest experience at a large resort hotel and conference center that I went to in Orlando, Florida for a work conference. Between the conference center and the different wings of the hotel, there was a middle area with an atrium, trees, flowers, ponds, shops, restaurants all woven together. There was a pond with small alligators. (Baby gators and a turtle hatchery were tucked away in a nook.)  Due to the atrium letting sunlight in, it almost felt “real,” and by that I mean being outside in nature. It was climate controlled, too.  So, you walked inside from the humid, warm Florida air to this cooler zone. Between sessions, I wandered around, noticing the exquisite attention to detail. It was seductive in a way, and as the days passed by, I focused on the conference and my colleagues, and I adjusted to the environment that I was in.

One morning, I decided to run outside. However, there was no sidewalk down the road. (I was told by friends that live in the area this was an intentional choice by the city to force consumers to have to stay and spend more money.) I ran across the parking lot thinking that I’d just run around the four acre complex. However, a gate for employees to drive through blocked my path.  In the spirit of gaining sociological knowledge, I decided to run past the gate to see what was on the back side of the complex. There was a dock for large trucks to bring the props, if we’re using Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis. (I’ve talked about dramaturgy on this blog before, but here is a short, new video explaining it that I came across recently.) On my back-stage run, I particularly appreciated the beer trucks. It was great to see that, unlike the employees in the front-stage, these employees didn’t feel compelled to smile at me, or even interact with me. It didn’t seem that they were performing emotional labor to interact with me. Emotional labor is Arlie Hochschild’s concept that people must manage their emotions and their display of their emotions to complete their jobs. This is often a central component of service work.

After running a mile, I returned to the front of the hotel, took time to appreciate the lovely sunrise, palm trees, and view. When I returned inside, I was struck by how artificial everything seemed again compared with the scene outside. At first, I almost used the word unnatural, but the parts of the facility were obviously natural. However, I had the oddest feeling that grew during the day.  I found myself thinking of the idea of simulation. If the resort that I was staying in became more and more “real” and “authentic” to me as I acclimated, then what if we actually are living in a simulation? I’ve thought about these ideas before, but I really grokked it.

Occasionally, I feel like the idea of the universe as a simulation is just missing the most important point of “simulation” in our lives. If you think of our society itself as simulation, then you can occasionally see through the cracks. (This reminds me of the movie, The Matrix.) The societal narrative is the set of symbolic, imaginary scenarios developed by past generations (and maintained by current generations) including culture and structure. We (and our ancestors) have created all kinds of imaginary scenarios and let them loose in the real world. People strongly believe in “private property,” “money,” “democracy” and many other imaginary concepts like race as real. (These ideas don’t have to be negative, per se.) Race has become real in terms of its consequences and deadly for many people due to previous generations creation of imaginary stereotypes and ideologies. However, these stereotypes have solidified into “reality,” meaning systems of oppression that lead to very real, lived consequences for people.  Some ancestors believed something heinous into existence through their collective will to create structures to advantage themselves. They essentially created a societal narrative. A societal narrative’s characters, plot, and script change over time.  If you can make and maintain a system, then you can modify or even break a system.  But it takes great will, effort, and potentially, lots of time. The rise of social media allows people to expose the holes in the system, as can be seen by African Americans having more of a voice on social media than in mass media. I have to say that more people need to awaken to the fact that all the socially constructed structures, systems, symbols, etc., are not as solid as they seem. Then, the trouble becomes which one should change and who gets to change it?

This isn’t my usual type of post, but I’d love to hear what makes sense or more importantly, what doesn’t make sense.

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Filed under Sociology, travel

“The Goblin Emperor:” An Optimistic Look at Incremental Social Change with Intrigue, Swashbucking, and Airships

[These spoilers are bigger than airships.]

As a part of my reading of the 2014 Nebula Award nominees, I just finished The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. The award has already been given and went to Annilation, which I reviewed here earlier this year. Both books were gripping in strikingly different ways.  I don’t personally care much for horror so I got more pleasure out of reading The Goblin Emperor. At it’s core, The Goblin Emperor is an optimistic book.

Although I haven’t read them in years, I love the swashbuckling and courtly intrigue in the novels of Alexandre Dumas.  The story opens with Maia, the protagonist, receiving the news that his father, the emperor, as well as his brothers, were killed in an airship crash. He returns to court to become Emperor. There are many barriers to Maia becoming a successful Emperor: some internal and many external.

Addison does a great job of using the language of the book itself to give the reader a sense of how overwhelmed Maia feels at court. Name after name is introduced, and as a reader, I began to feel a bit bogged down. However, I feel that this was an intentional choice as it actually demonstrates how challenging it is to come to court ignorant of all the courtiers and various factions. Over time, as Maia (and the reader) become more familiar with the characters, it’s easier to understand.  Maia is ignorant, not unintelligent, which other characters in the book begin to realize. (There’s also stereotypes about goblins by the elves that lead to assumptions that Maia is unintelligent, among other things.)

The book explores inequality and shows how Maia was treated by elves due to his goblin heritage, including stereotyping and discrimination. I also like the fact that Maia, although he is a young man, treats women as equals with their own interests. He is a good ally to his sister for example, when he allows her to study the stars instead of forcing her to immediately marry for political reasons. His repeated and supportive actions of women allow other women to begin trusting him, including his fiancé, a swordswoman. It’s a lovely look at how being disadvantaged in one category should allow for empathy towards other disadvantaged groups. Certainly, this empathy doesn’t always develop, and individual’s in one oppressed group may oppress another.

The book also deals with the inherent problems of monarchy.  It’s quite easy to see in their society how the particular personality of the ruler combined with the ultimate power of the position could lead to negative outcomes for people in their society.

In a storytelling sense, the novel couldn’t end with the “success” of those who wanted to depose him because the reader is likely rooting for Maia, the underdog, even though he is the emperor.  However, one of the people who masterminded the attack on the monarchy points out that they actually did change things for the better for the people.  While some of those behind the attack wanted to end monarchy altogether, their actions placed Maia on the throne, who had already shown himself to be more liberal and caring in his policies than many of his predecessors. He is concerned with workers’ rights, for example. Change is incremental, as this books illustrates. Even if democracy exists as a theory, it takes time to change the structure of the society, as well as the culture and beliefs of the individuals in the culture. (I think that this is an important point to remember when countries invade other countries to “free” them. If the people of the invaded country aren’t yet ready culturally or structurally for the change, it becomes challenging to make changes.)

All in all, this was a delightful read about power, in-groups and out-groups, stigma, stereotypes, social change, and more. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who likes tales of diplomacy, swashbuckling, and a more optimistic look at the future of society’s social change. It’s refreshing to see a novel about a character who isn’t perfect but tries to be morally good.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology