Here’s a beautiful public-awareness project from China: Working with the China Environmental Protection Foundation, the advertising firm DDB Shanghai made 132 street murals and installed them at intersections in Chinese cities during 2010 and 2011. Each mural started out as an image of a bare tree; as they crossed the street, pedestrians stepped on sponges saturated with environmentally friendly, “quick dry” green paint, and so ended up filling the bare branches with leaves as they crossed. It was all part of a larger campaign to encourage city-dwellers to cut down on pollution by walking, rather than driving. China, DDB Shanghai points out, is now the world’s largest car market, with 500 million cars on the road.
It’s a delicate idea, but the project was realized on a massive scale; the organizers calculate that as many as 3,920,000 pedestrians may have participated. One of the murals was exhibited in Shanghai’s Zheng Da Art Museum.
Panning the classics
Over at The Morning News, the writer Matthew Baldwin has gathered up some of his favorite one-star reviews for classic novels on Amazon. My three favorite, from among his selections:
“The Catcher in the Rye”: “So many other good books...don’t waste your time on this one. J.D. Salinger went into hiding because he was embarrassed.”
“The Sound and the Fury”: “This book is like an ungrateful girlfriend. You do your best to understand her and get nothing back in return.”
“The Sun Also Rises”: “Here’s the first half of the book: ‘We had dinner and a few drinks. We went to a cafe and talked and had some drinks. We ate dinner and had a few drinks. Dinner. Drinks. More dinner. More drinks....I love you, I hate you, maybe you should come up to my room, no you can’t’....I flipped through the second half of the book a day or two later and saw the words ‘dinner’ and ‘drinks’ on nearly every page and figured it wasn’t worth the risk.”
That’s not to say that all the reviews are wrong, necessarily—I, for one, happen to agree with the reviewer who wrote that “On the Road” is “trite, saccharine and false.” But that’s just me.
How Americans are changing
What are Americans really like? Experts all seem to have their own convenient answers to the question. But there’s also a different approach to finding out: Ask Americans. Lots and lots of them.
Since 1972, sociologists at the University of Chicago have been working on an ambitious project called the General Social Survey. Every other year, they perform 90-minute, face-to-face interviews with thousands of Americans, asking them in-depth questions about their feelings, attitudes, and opinions. The goal is to provide a broad view of how America is changing, year after year.
Now a new book, “Social Trends in American Life: Findings from the General Social Survey Since 1972,” has brought together essays by two dozen researchers to sum up what the survey shows. The trends they highlight are fascinating—and more nuanced than you might expect.
Some developments aren’t surprising: Americans today are, on the whole, more tolerant and open-minded than they were in 1970; we’re less likely to be affiliated with an organized religion; and we trust TV, and media in general, less than we used to. These are the trends everybody knows about.
A more detailed look, however, reveals subtler shifts. Americans see less of their neighbors, but make up for it by seeing more of friends and family. Political polarization has increased—but so have the number of Americans who identify themselves as “moderate.” Since the 1970s, rising living standards and educational attainment have increased American happiness, but that’s been balanced out by our declining church attendance. (Going to church, it turns out, makes you noticeably happier.) Even our vocabularies are subject to the same tidal push and pull: Though each generation has been less articulate than the last, they’ve also stayed in school longer, keeping our total vocabulary performance steady.
Taken together, the essays are a reminder of how complex social change can be. Sometimes, as in the 1960s, an obvious set of transformations sweeps the country. More often, though, change to the social fabric happens slowly. Pull a thread in one place, and the fabric will adjust somewhere else.