American Babel, Dissent Poetry, and Slow Drives: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From how we communicate to how we travel, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
America has always been shaped by a cacophony of voices. But it's hard to imagine trolling and doxing those your perceived Twitter enemies to be what the Founders had in mind.
The biblical story of Babel is short—barely 200 words about the power of human cooperation and the devastating consequences when we can no longer understand each other or work together. “Let’s hold that dramatic image in our minds: people wandering amid the ruins, unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension,” writes Jonathan Haidt in a truly brilliant essay for The Atlantic (roughly 8,000 words) about how social media, starting in the 2010s, turned America into a modern Babel. “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.” I am a longtime fan of Haidt’s work, which applies a deep understanding of social psychology to problems like political polarization and the fragile mental health of so many young people. His work with Heterodox Academy advocating for more intellectual diversity on campus has opened much-needed room for debate in academia. For all of that, this extended metaphor on the power of “enhanced-virality social media” to prey on our psychological weaknesses and undermine our social institutions may be the best thing he’s written. And just about everyone I know in the education and policy worlds has read the piece and wrestled with its central argument. “American politics is getting ever more ridiculous and dysfunctional not because Americans are getting less intelligent,” Haidt argues. “The problem is structural. Thanks to enhanced-virality social media, dissent is punished within many of our institutions, which means that bad ideas get elevated into official policy.”
One of the most surprising things about Haidt’s essay is his recommendation for preparing the young to enter this confused and agitated arena. He wants to take some concrete regulatory steps, like forcing social media companies to get serious about keeping preteens off their platforms and urging schools to keep phones out of the classroom. But he also wants to bring back playtime and encourages “free-range parenting,” giving children far more unstructured hours to roam and romp. “Stop starving children of the experiences they most need to become good citizens: free play in mixed-age groups of children with minimal adult supervision,” he writes. “Unsupervised free play is nature’s way of teaching young mammals the skills they’ll need as adults, which for humans include the ability to cooperate, make and enforce rules, compromise, adjudicate conflicts, and accept defeat.” How wonderfully analogue—and a lot more fun than doomscrolling the afternoon away. —Stefanie Sanford
Fergal McGrath, in 2021, after setting a Guinness World Record for lowest energy consumption driving. The trip began in John O'Groats, Scotland, and ended, fittingly, in Land's End, England. With a view like that, who cares how long the drive takes?
The Tesla and the Hare
When I first started driving, gas prices were routinely more than $4.00, not unlike today. So getting good gas mileage has always been important to me. But I've never gone out of my way to ensure that I got the best deal. I drive a Prius; that's been enough. I recently learned about a whole new attitude toward driving, though: the hypermiler who, according to the Wall Street Journal, "try to coax as much mileage from their fuel, whether gas or electric." In practice, that means driving slowly to conserve energy. (For electric vehicles, or EVs, that could mean below 30 mph.) Two British hypermilers, Fergal McGrath and Kevin Booker, broke the Guinness World Record for lowest energy consumption traveling across Great Britain last July. It took them 27 hours to drive 840 miles, traveling at an average of 40 mph. To me, this pace seems agonizingly slow. And I'm not alone. McGrath and Booker said that they experienced their fair share of road rage from other drivers. Yet, their eccentric hobby has some distinct benefits, besides fuel savings. Car companies producing EVs have joined forces with hypermilers to both test the ranges of their new and increasingly popular EVs and promote the message that they won't leave drivers stuck on the side of the highway with a drained battery, the largest deterrent for potential buyers. Most EVs have a range of 250-300 miles, but hypermilers have dramatically pushed the range. One hypermiler managed to get 606 miles out of a Tesla Model 3 in a single charge. As the world becomes more electric, and as fuel prices continue to soar, maybe it's time we all stop to smell the roses—or, in this case, the highway exhaust as our less-mileage-conscience friends leave us in the dust. —Hannah Van Drie
Readers of a certain age don't even need the audio to immediately have the song these guys are bopping to rattle your brain.
One and Done
Growing up in the 1990s meant hearing a lot of one-hit wonders. A lot of them are best forgotten, but I’ll absolutely own that “What is Love” by Haddaway is my guilty pleasure. Years after its release, the track was all over radio, sports arenas, and fueled a recurring Saturday Night Live segment that spawned the movie A Night at the Roxbury. YouTuber Todd in the Shadows articulated it best when reviewing the song for his excellent series, “One Hit Wonderland”: “For me, there is no song that sums up the entire ‘90s dance scene more than ‘What is Love’ … it feels like a towering, mammoth, defining hit. Just the pinnacle of the genre.” Haddaway had a string of hits in his adopted home of Germany, but never scored another U.S. chart-topper. Why couldn’t he replicate the magic? Is there even a recipe to follow? Derek Thompson tackled those questions in a recent article published by The Atlantic. The author of Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction, Thompson compares the ‘90s commercial music fates of Blind Melon (and their one hit “No Rain”) and Shania Twain (the only female artist with three straight albums going “diamond” with more than 10 million copies sold).
The piece was inspired by Stanford psychologist Justin M. Berg’s research article “One-Hit Wonders versus Hit Makers: Sustaining Success in Creative Industries,” published in SAGE Journals. Berg used an algorithm to study hit songs released between 1959–2010 to “measure the songs’ sonic features, including key, tempo, and danceability,” and quantifying a hit song’s “novelty” in relation to its performer’s “variety” of work. “No Rain” rated low on novelty, but was a hit largely due to its iconic “bee girl” music video. Twain’s pop-country hybrid style ranked high on the novelty scale, and she built off initial success by utilizing an “explore-exploit” model of creativity to mine the same successful territory to produce a “hot streak” of hits. Meanwhile, Haddaway repeatedly tried to strike gold again in the “love” mine with songs like “Lover Be Thy Name,” “Who Do You Love,” “Love Makes,” “You Gave Me Love,” “I Love The ‘90s,” “What Is Love Reloaded,” and “What Is Love 2K9.” To quote Todd in the Shadows again, “Even for the single most popular topic in music, that’s a lot of love.” —Christian Niedan
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
A health worker wearing protective clothing waits as local workers register to take free nucleic acid tests to detect COVID-19 at a makeshift testing site in Dongcheng District on April 26, 2022 in Beijing, China.
Shall I Compare Thee to a Covid’s Day?
Poetry has long been the medium of choice to share thoughts and feelings that are hard to express any other way. For a subset of Chinese students, who face all kinds of state-imposed limits on what they can express online and in class, the freedom of verse proved especially alluring. “A student poetry competition in China has become an unexpected outlet for public frustration over social issues that have roiled the country in the past few months,” reports Lily Kuo in The Washington Post. “Poems submitted to the International Competition in Short Chinese Poems for University Students, held for the fifth year by Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, explore topics including the severe lockdown measures being imposed across the country, gender, environmental issues, poverty, freedom of speech, and the war in Ukraine.” As some of the more politically charged poems attracted attention and support online, government censors moved to block access to them.
It’s a reminder that for all the frustration in the United States about social media’s disruptive role in politics and public life, trying to curtail discussion of controversial topics comes with its own costs. China’s censors have been working overtime to stifle videos and Weibo posts about covid lockdowns and economic worries, concerned about any large-scale political discontent ahead of this year’s Communist Party Congress. It’s unlikely the student poets considered that context when penning their missives, but a lot of readers certainly are. As the Poetry Foundation points out in the introduction to its collection of dissident verse, “Poetry is commanding enough to gather crowds in a city square and compact enough to demand attention on social media. Speaking truth to power remains a crucial role of the poet in the face of political and media rhetoric designed to obscure, manipulate, or worse.” —Eric Johnson
There's gotta be an easier way to change your address...!
Disrupting Big Paper
One of the worst parts of “adulting” (cough) is paperwork. It’s everywhere, it’s time consuming, and it’s annoying. Opening a bank account? Fill out these forms! Renewing your driver’s license? More forms! Registering to vote? Forms!! And then there’s taxes. The horror. The horror….. But for those who rely on assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or unemployment insurance, things go from mildly annoying to crushingly, often discouragingly onerous. “Even if safety-net programs are meant to help struggling people, in many cases they are not designed for struggling people to access,” Annie Lowry writes in The Atlantic. “Filling out paperwork is harder when you’re homeless. Making it to an interview is harder if you’re hungry. Remembering appointments and deadlines is harder when you are trying to figure out how to get your car out of the impound lot.” Lowry opens her article with such an example—the 26-page (!!) application a mother in Louisiana is confronted with when applying for SNAP benefits—before introducing us to an organization working to lighten the load. “The San Francisco–based civic-technology nonprofit Code for America has endeavored to use digital tools to make these kinds of applications easier,” Lowry writes. “Now, with $100 million in new donations, CFA is planning to double in size and scope, and ‘unlock’ $30 billion in benefits for millions of families in 15 states.”
Lowry locates CFA’s efforts in a larger push among governmental bureaucracy to relieve people from the “time tax” of all this “administrative kludge” (what a beautiful turn of phrase): “A number of states are redoing their benefit applications using accessible-design principles, bills to slash red tape and simplify benefits administration are pending in Congress, and President Joe Biden is using executive orders to cut down on the “time tax” the government puts on low-income families.” But what caught my attention was the use of code and tech tools to relieve governments of some of the R&D burden of improving their systems while improving how people access the social safety net. “We really had to vet Code for America, because we didn’t know who they were and it just seemed out of the ordinary for a nonprofit organization to come and want to help with your systems for no money,” Terri Ricks, the deputy secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services, told Lowry. “But that work had an amazing impact.” What CFA is doing is exactly the kind of thing that realizes the promise of technology and code. We hear so much about how tech erodes privacy and is used in cynical, Orwellian ways by all sorts of jurisdictions. And that makes this ray of (fingers crossed) good tech shine all the more brightly. —Dante A. Ciampaglia