At some point abundance goes from a benefit to a liability. We know this about material goods. Obesity, environmental destruction, and (arguably) mental illness are liabilities of a fantastically abundant consumer economy.
In some cases, abundance becomes its own enemy. For example, Walmart brings consumer abundance to small towns with its enormous selection of low-priced, imported goods, allowing the residents to buy more with the money they have. But Walmart advances a system that removes jobs from that small town, ultimately leaving the residents with less than they started with.
I don’t know the mechanism by which digital abundance becomes a liability, but I can feel it is happening. Some theories have been advanced.
Jaron Lanier, in books and numerous interviews, argues that the Internet is destroying the middle class. In simple terms, the cheap and free distribution of information, and the expectation that people should contribute content for free, undermines the ability of content producers (writers, musicians, journalists, entertainers, programmers) to make a living at their craft. For Lanier, the principle drawback of digital abundance is that it destroys jobs and hurts the generation of new content. It ultimately makes us poorer in the literal sense (the Walmart effect) and in the cultural sense.
Thom Yorke’s recent protest of the music-streaming service Spotify brings to light an example of this effect. As an example, musician Damon Krukowski describes the revenue that small artists get from the music streaming services: “it would take songwriting royalties for roughly 312,000 plays on Pandora to earn us the profit of one– one– LP sale. (On Spotify, one LP is equivalent to 47,680 plays.)” The New York Times offers this more comprehensive chart on the dire math. A solo artist would have to garner 4 million plays on Spotify per month to make minimum wage.
As another example, Evan Hughes argues that Amazon’s efforts to shut down physical bookstores will ultimately hurt its own sales, since most people discover most books that they buy in physical bookstores (though many go on to buy them cheaper online).
Taking a different approach to the question of digital abundance, Nate Silver, in his book, The Signal and the Noise, argues that data does not equate to meaning (signal). Although we have access to increasingly massive amounts of data, the problem we now face is that the noise is increasing faster than the signal, leaving us with less meaning than we had before. For Silver, this explains why predictions have not been improving with the increase in data and may continue to get worse for some time.
The notion is distinct from Lanier’s. Apart from the tendency of digital abundance to destroy jobs and thereby ultimately reduce the flow of important data (abundance as its own enemy), Silver argues that the increase in data itself hurts our ability to understand the world (abundance is the enemy).
Recently, I have been trying Spotify for listening to music. In principle, Spotify provides something I ought to be enormously excited about: instant access to almost any song I want to listen to, as if my personal mp3 collection had just grown to include not only my favorites, but any song I have a whim of an inclination hear. I was excited for about 5 minutes. It is hard enough choosing what I want to listen to out of my sizable mp3 collection, but choosing what I want to listen to out of anything? I run into something like a combination of decision fatigue and an unsettling feeling that Spotify is cheapening music (in the figurative sense; we already know it does so literally).
Taking Nate Silver’s notion somewhat far afield, perhaps access to any recording ever made, any time, increases the noise more than the signal. The “meaning,” if you will, the happiness or personal enrichment, one gets from music may be enhanced by having access to just the right song at the right time, but may be more-so diminished by the deluge of choices. The deluge may prevent one from spending much time with any one album, strip the personal significance from the way collections are obtained and cultivated, and limit the formation of the shared musical context that traditionally develops among friends and family members.
There is no doubt that digital music, and especially digital streaming services, enable you to get exactly what you want at any time. What I suggest is that getting exactly what you want is not the right goal in listening to music. Nor in life.
This point bears repeating since the irony is so sickly rich:
- Since 2001, U.S. police departments have been militarized at great expense in order to defend against Terrorism.
- As thanks, U.S. police departments are now using military weapons against hundreds to thousands of peaceful protesters, the very taxpayers that provided the funds in order to be kept safe.
The abuse of chemical weapons (tear gas, pepper spray) by police here in Oakland and across the country is now so well-known as to be cliché. But Chicago is preparing to step up its abuse with acoustic weapons aimed at protesters of the upcoming NATO summit. The city is poised to repeat the mistakes of Pittsburgh police by deploying a weapon better known for its use against Somali pirates against unarmed crowds. The type of device that Chicago and many other cities now own can cause permanent hearing damage to anyone within 15 meters, and severe pain and other symptoms at much longer distances.
The Chicago police claim that the sound cannon is meant to be used as a “communication device,” and that could very well be the initial intention. However, recent history demonstrates U.S. police departments’ inability to resist using (and abusing) military gadgetry once they own it.
Take note. Carry earplugs.
Imagine if all of the advertisements on billboards, in metro stations, on buses, inside buses, on walls, and on the sides of buildings were replaced with art. Imagine that as you stand on the train or drive on the freeway, instead of vapid images intended to manipulate and dehumanize you, you were shown art intended to inspire, challenge, entertain and enrich you.
Suppose that these artworks came from the same variety of sources and rotated with the same frequency as do advertisements. Many of the same graphic designers and photographers could be employed in this new enterprise. The billboard, as an artistic medium, would still lend itself to bold imagery that can be quickly absorbed, something former advertising employees would know how to make. Metro posters, on the other hand, can be studied for cumulative hours by commuters, who currently see the same ones daily for months. This medium lends itself to the complexity of more traditional visual fine arts.
You may object that it would be impossible to select art that everyone would like. True enough. We could use various voting-based selection processes but we might end up with the billboard equivalent of a lot of Thomas Kincaid. Likely, we would want to do some selections by committee, and have some element of competition among the artists. But more importantly, consider the status quo: the images currently displayed make people and neighborhoods worse off; as evidence, virtually everyone would prefer no advertisements if given the choice. It would not be difficult to do better than the current selection of images when freed from the profit motive driving them.
You may next ask, who pays for it? But of course, you are already paying. And not merely with your money, but with your free will and individuality, by buying things you don’t want and wanting things you wouldn’t have cared about. What I am suggesting is that rather than launder our money through corporations, we spend it directly and in our own collective interest. So the new enterprise would be publicly funded. One can imagine variations based on the public radio model or locally-minded foundations, but ultimately the citizens benefit and the citizens ought to pay.
How could this start? A city could do it. Transit agencies have great leeway to determine images in and on their property. Billboard restrictions remain legally contentious, but 4 states have long-standing bans, Los Angeles’ and New York’s restrictions have been upheld in court, and New York’s even distinguishes between commercial and non-commercial signage. The long-term benefits in population growth and tourism might very well outweigh the lost revenue from advertising on public property. Some local businesses might be hurt, but others would benefit from less attention being diverted to national brands.
No doubt, a transformation of our urban landscape from advertising to art would meet with challenges from vested interests. Yet, imagine a visual culture than inspires rather than manipulates. Isn’t it worth trying?
This excellent article about police spraying peaceful, seated UC Davis students with pepper spray brings up several important points missing from other OWS reporting:
- Standing arm-in-arm and sitting are the essence of non-violent protest tactics, widely used by Dr. Martin Luther King and others, against which violent police tactics are never justified. Authority figures are trying to call these tactics violent in order to justify police brutality.
- The vague and hypothetical threats to public health and safety posed by Occupations pale in comparison to the actual injuries inflicted by the police attempting to stop them. The “public health” threat has been evoked over and over by mayors and chancellors to justify breaking up the camps. Did anyone do the cost-benefit calculation? Police actions are far more hazardous and dangerous these days than protests.
- Police brutality in the face of Occupy protests is directly related to the militarization of police forces in the name of the “War on Terror”. Police departments bought all these fancy toys with Homeland Security money, and now they feel they have to use them. Glenn Greenwald makes this point in more detail.
Taxpayers, are you getting that? The police took billions of your tax dollars to outfit themselves with military-style gadgetry and now, as a reward, they are using them not on terrorists, or violent criminals, or even petty drug users, but on you, to prevent you from freely assembling and speaking.
Recent events give the impression that the world has lost its moral compass. You have Chancellors of UC Berkeley and Davis, who are probably very nice, intelligent, left-leaning people, authorizing violence against their own students and afterward asserting the necessity of the tactics. Why are authorities so scared to death of the Occupy protests? Why do the police keep fucking up and getting away with it? Are the violent suppressions going to work? I hope not.
I went to Occupy Oakland last night for the celebration of their one-month anniversary. What was supposed to be a party with music, dancing, and cake, turned out to be a candlelight vigil. A young man was shot to death earlier in the day in the same plaza as the camp. And although the shooting apparently had nothing to do with the Occupy movement — an instance of neighborhood violence common in Oakland — the crowd showed profound sympathy for the victim and his family. After a couple of visiting union leaders and a clergy representative said a few words, we had a period of silence for the vigil. As I paced the perimeter of Frank Ogawa Plaza, carrying a candle in a paper cup, I had some time to observe the camp and contemplate its role.
It was a tumultuous day for the Bay Area Occupy movement. The previous night, a large demonstration in Berkeley followed when police beat UC Berkeley students with batons for trying to establish their own Occupation. In the afternoon, some Oakland City Council members and business leaders held a press conference about a mile from the Occupy Oakland camp to call for its removal. Occupy supporters showed up and shouted down the speakers. At the same time, Mayor Quan visited and the camp and, in an apparent change of heart 2 weeks after her last reversal, told the Occupiers they would have to leave.
The Mayor and other detractors uniformly say that they agree with Occupy’s message, and that they support free speech, but that sleeping in the plaza is causing the problems. It is a “safety hazard” and attracts the wrong element, hurting downtown businesses. They have a point. Oakland’s struggling downtown businesses are not helped by tear-gas raids, broken windows, or (additional) multitudes of homeless people.
From my own observations, the people at Occupy Oakland are not generally people you would want hanging out around outside your downtown sandwich shop or clothing store. But these are the people you would want to band with, post apocalypse. They are capable, practical people, with a diverse set of skills, able to take a small patch of mud and create all the elements of a functioning community: food service, with an elaborate pantry and kitchen; education, with the library and daily classes and trainings; government, with the General Assemblies and committee system; health care, with medics and the medic tent; entertainment, with the music tent and its ceaseless drum circle; and well-being, with their daily scheduled yoga and meditation. Some of these are also like the people you’d be stuck with, post-apocalypse: crazy people, mentally damaged by the apocalyptic trauma; leachers, looking out for themselves; and fringe types, who survived the doom because they were holed-up somewhere far from people and now they aren’t very well socialized.
But let’s set aside for a moment the question of ills wrought by Occupy Oakland’s choice of location. (Yes, one thing Occupy Wall Street has going for it is that no one cares about hurting the business of the adjacent megabanks.) One Oakland business leader had wondered bitterly to the press why protesters always choose 14th & Broadway to demonstrate when the rich people are all elsewhere. Here is the answer: the symbolism can not be beat. City Hall towers over Frank Ogawa Plaza, all white stone and columns, much like any capital building in Sacramento or Washington, looking every bit the seat of power that it was designed to be. Glass office buildings bear down on other sides and traffic lumbers by on Broadway, downtown’s central drag. A person standing in Frank Ogawa Plaza feels small and humbled. But a crowd standing in Frank Ogawa Plaza knows that everyone in all those window can see them — in fact, can’t ignore them — and feels empowered.
If I were Mayor Quan, I would look out the window of my mayoral office at the 180-tent encampment below and I would be afraid. Not afraid for my personal safety, but surely for my political future. I would be afraid because this ragtag bunch of unemployed kids has twice the proportion of public support that I do. I would be afraid because this scruffy homeless encampment can rally 10,000 to march on a week’s notice . I would be afraid because every move I make would be scrutinized by the populist hoard below, each of them hungry for a reason to protest.
I don’t have a better answer than anyone else about how we can turn the Occupy movement into real change. But this is my feeling: When the President of the United States looks out his window at the masses and feels fear, when congressmen look down the Capital steps at the demonstrations below and feel fear, that is when we will get the change we’re looking for.
I sent this message to Diane Feinstein (links added for this post).
Dear Senator Feinstein,
It was reported by the New York Times recently that the FBI plans to
expand its already invasive practices by conducting database searches,
surveillance, and going through the trash of American citizens who are
not even suspected of wrongdoing.
This is one more outrage in a long series of outrageous secret and
illegal violations of civil liberties by the Federal government which
are destroying America. Since its founding, this has been a country of
laws, and that is what made us great. America is becoming an oligarchy.
When that transition is complete, we will be no better than the
tyrannical dictatorships we are fighting against.
I know that, as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, you are
privy to even more of the lawless, power grabbing activities than the
substantial abuses that are publicly known. If you are a patriot, I urge
you to fulfill your Constitutional responsibility as a check on
Executive power and oppose the new FBI guidelines as well as other
attacks on civil liberties.
We have time or we don’t have time. We buy time or we lose time. But time cannot be owned. And so, how can it be lost?
Often, I fight time. It is scarce. Internally, I rail against its scarcity. Externally, I go faster. Dangerously fast. Internally, I feel helpless. I grit my teeth. Externally, I do not do one third of the things I have planned. Meanwhile, I do other things. Useless things. Internally, I feel bad about this.
Time is a limited container. Fill it with what you will. Put in the large rocks of your schedule first: work, doctor’s appointments, crises, sleep. Sleep is sandstone, softer than the others. You may break off a peice here and there to make it fit. Then, add the smaller and rounder stones of meals, visits with friends, concerts, errands, showers. It is tempting to shake the container at this point, to settle the contents and make room for a few more. Do not do this. Leave room for travel time. Now, add the sand of daily life. Fill the space with e-mail, television, chatting in the hall, reading a few pages on the train, buying a candy bar. Finally, pour in the water of thoughts, paces, breaths, and sighs. Is the container full? Does it hold everything you want?
Of course not. But time is not a limited container. The containers are constructs of our own creation. A day is a basket, woven out of numbers and social conventions. I have woven a basket, and now I am upset that it doesn’t hold everything I want it to hold. The limits, I feel, are imposed by the fabric of the universe. Time is scare and I am helpless to stretch it, to wind it back, to own more of it. But really, I have just mismatched the basket and what I want to carry.
It’s tempting to think about communication as just about transmitting information. It would follow that the quality of communication can be measured by how well the idea in the head of the person listening matches the idea in the head of the speaker that she wishes to convey. To be sure, plenty of communication is best characterized as a means to an end:
“So, the trash.”
“Trash, it’s everywhere. I know.”
“I mean, the particular trash in our garbage can.”
“It’s such a wasteful society we live in. I totally feel your pain about the waste of it all. You try to be conscientious, but everything comes in so much packaging.”
“No, I just want you to take out the trash.”
We convey such information in order to modify the behavior of the listener in some related way. But I would venture that the majority of words spoken in our day-to-day lives are not about transmitting information, not the kind that serves a specific purpose. We also communicate as a means of forming social bonds, of establishing social relationships.
“How about that weather, huh?”
“Hey, now that we’ve established this bond, you know, over our shared experience of the weather, maybe it’ll be less awkward next time we pass each other in the hall?”
“Yeah, I feel so much closer to you now. I won’t look away so pointedly next time we may chance to make eye contact.”
The goal of such communication is not related much to what is transmitted, but the fact that we share something. One may still argue that communication of this type is a means to an end. But there is also communication for its own sake. We just want to connect, to feel less alone.
“I just tripped on this sidewalk and broke my ankle.”
“Oh my God. Do you need help?”
“It’s just a perfect end to a lousy day. I mean, my boss bitched me out this morning. I was all distracted, rerunning the conversation in my head and coming up with retorts, carrying all these grocery bags. I didn’t see the crack.”
“Hey, should I call 911 or something?”
“I mean, you ever had one of those days, where just everything goes wrong? It feels like the world is against you?”
“I could at least try to help you up?”
“No, I’m good. I just needed to vent.”
“Oh yeah. Well. I know what you mean. We all have those days.”
“I feel so much better now. Well, except for my ankle.”
This is the kind of communication that we crave when we’ve been alone. It’s not that we’re starved for information. We can watch movies and read books. We can even read the news and be sure of having a set of shared information with plenty of other people. One can still get awfully lonely without having two-way communication for its on sake. I would speculate that this third type of communication has fallen off as the first two types, mediated by technology, have increased as a proportion of our lives. I wonder if this has something to do with why everyone seems to be in therapy.
A fascinating thing I learned in a seminar today: there is life almost 6 km (3.7 mi) underground — basically as far down as we can drill, we’ve found living microbes. We don’t know the limits of life below the surface, so it could go much deeper. Estimates indicate that more than half of the earth’s biomass could lie in the “deep biosphere”, that is, on a mass basis there could be as much or more life deep underground as there is on the surface and near-surface.An interesting feature of the organisms that live down there is that they live very slowly, with lifetimes of a thousand years or more. The seminar was on the “Deep Carbon Observatory“, a new, 10-year research effort to understand the deep carbon cycle.
I recorded a demo EP. 5 songs, full-band arrangements, all originals. Themes include climate change, the financial crisis, disillusionment with the Obama administration, the dystopian future, and turning 30. There is even a music video. Check it out on my music website: http://www.stolaroff.com
I started working on this project maybe a year and a half ago. It turns out, recording an album on your own is a lot of work. Why do many of us take on challenging creative projects with dubious rewards? It’s something I continue asking myself, and I think I’ve explored it far enough to know that the answer is not, simply, “for fun”.
To get to work, I have to pass through a guard station and have my badge checked. The guards are mostly big, beefy guys in SWAT gear, but friendly. When I drive in, I usually get a “Thank you, sir” or “Have a good day, sir.” When I bike in, however, I get a “How’s it goin’, man?” or “Hey, man,” followed with “Have a good one” or similar. Apparently on a bicycle I am more a man of the people. That, or I command less respect.
I was listening to PBS NewsHour yesterday and was struck by some of the messages from corporate sponsors. For example:
…solving climate change is going to require energy. What if that energy came from an energy company? Chevron. Harnessing the power of human energy.
Bank of America. Helping America out of the financial crisis.
Apparently it was “corporations pretending to solve the problems they helped create” night for NewsHour sponsors.
The beauty of capitalism, argues Adam Smith and my textbook, is that resources are magically guided by the invisible hand of the market to their most efficient uses. No central planning body is needed, as it is in communism, to decide how much of each product should be produced and who should receive it.
On the micro-scale, this is true in many ways. The individual decisions of millions of businesses, communicating through prices, add up to a system that satisfies most people’s wants with a dizzying array of constantly-improving products. We don’t need a giant bureaucracy to set the price of raisin bagels or determine how many electric lawnmowers should be built.
However, what I’m now discovering is that there is no “invisible hand” analogy on the macro-scale. The “natural” macroeconomic outcome of an entirely free market is abhorrent. Devastating cycles of boom, bubble, and recession; ever-more concentrated wealth; terrible working conditions for the poor; and, perhaps, resource depletion and collapse. It’s entirely up to the government (and, in some cases, labor unions), to guide the market with fiscal policy (government spending), monetary policy (mainly the interest rate), and human rights protections, and to clean up after the market with social welfare programs.
The hands are quite visible. So how much do you trust your government? They’ve been doing a bang-up job lately. Poor monetary policy (years of super-low interest rates, among other problems), contributed greatly to the housing bubble and our current Great Recession.
I just think it’s important to remember when certain pundits and Wall Street executives plead for small government and financial deregulation, that there is no reason to believe that would help in macroeconomic terms.
On the micro-level — when you are talking about things like price tariffs, subsidies, restrictions on trade, product standards — there is a justification, at least in theory, to call for “smaller government” or deregulation. Because here the market allocates resources more efficiently than the government would (again, at least in theory). But we already know what happens to the macroeconomy, left to its own devices, and that is everyone but the fabulously rich and very lucky gets smacked around by the invisible hand.
Judging by the remedial, tediously redundant treatment of math in my macroecon textbook, I assume that it is meant for business majors. So it’s great to know our future captains of industry are reading passages like this one (on the “multiplier effect”):
First, the economy supports repetitive, continuous flows of expenditures and income through which dollars spent by Smith are received as income by Chin, then spent by Chin and received as income by Gonzales, and so on.
Notice how this apparent attempt at multiculturalism implies an income hierarchy reinforcing ethnic stereotypes and supports a paternalistic, trickle-down theory of wealth creation at the same time?
I was curious from the beginning how far into a macroeconomics textbook I would get before it pissed me off. It turns out: only until the end of Chapter 2: The Economizing Problem. The most offensive passage comes from a section titled “Women and Expanded Production Possibilities”, which aims to explain the increased proportion of working women in the U.S., and which does it thusly:
Over recent years, women have greatly increased their productivity in the workplace, mostly by becoming better-educated and professionally trained. As a result they can earn higher wages. Because those higher wages have increased the opportunity costs — the forgone wage earnings — of staying at home, women have substituted employment in the labor market for more “expensive” traditional home activities. This substitution has been particularly pronounced among married women.1
This passage implies that the reason women were not working before is that they weren’t valuable workers (being untrained and uneducated) and without the prospect of high wages, they preferred to stay home. The section goes on to give a number of additional explanations, none of which give any reference to social factors, e.g. the women’s movement (just as a random example).
Certainly economic explanations are important to understanding broad social and demographic changes. But only an economist would not put social or cultural factors among the reasons for women’s rise in the workplace. And this goes to a fundamental problem with neoclassical economists: they believe economics can explain far more about the world than it does. And then they make policy recommendations based on that conceit, and we keep listening to them.
- McConnel, Campbell R. and Brue, Stanley L. Macroeconomics: Principles, Problems, and Policies (15th ed). McGraw-Hill. New York, 2002. [↩]
When I was in the crunch of finishing several projects before my fellowship ended, I had all kinds of fantasies about the many things I would do during my partly-hoped-for, partly-fated break in employment. One of those things was a return to blogging, which I entirely neglected in said crunch.However, oddly enough, I have less inclination to go online now in total than I used to during non-work hours (when I was already spending most of the day online). My friend put it this way, describing her experience on maternity leave: “You get inside your own bubble, and you don’t want anything to intrude on that bubble.” That includes news, phone calls, emails. I wonder if spending time online isn’t a diminishing returns phenomenon. Like you most want to spend more time online only after you’ve been online a lot (see figure).
One thing that has surprised me about unemployment so far: some things that used to seem hopelessly tedious are somewhat satisfying, such as practicing scales and reading bottom-of-the-stack, good-for-you books like “People’s History of the United States” and a macroeconomics textbook (after the financial crisis, I figured I should understand macro econ better).
Well, back to not working…
My latest paper1, going by the title above and written with Chris Weber and Scott Matthews, has been published online. It refers to the Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule proposed by the EPA, which is out for public comment until June 9th.
The point of the rule is to collect greenhouse gas emissions data from facilities in order to support future regulations and climate policy development. It is an exciting first step toward controlling emissions from the majority of sources across the economy. Many of the issues that have to be hammered out about who is in or out of the system and what kinds of emissions are included are the same for the reporting rule as for a cap-and-trade system. In this way, the reporting rule may very well set the groundwork and the boundaries of a cap-and-trade system or other regulation. Cap-and-trade, however, will not be enough to solve the climate problem.
Our major point in the paper is that the reporting rule can be easily augmented to collect more data to support a wider array of future policies and regulations. We also discuss the choice of reporting thresholds (the proposed rule did not use any objective criteria to set the threshold of 25,000 tons CO2e/yr across the board) and basically recommend a lower threshold than what was chosen.
I encourage interested members of the pubic to (read our paper and) submit a comment on the rule.
The Post has apparently declined to publish my letter. As the stories of U.S.-sponsored torture and the Obama Administration’s continuing support of it continue to unfold, I encourage everyone to pressure the mainstream media to present the situation accurately. I also encourage everyone to read Glenn Greenwald, who continues to give clear, honest, and comprehensive accounting of our government’s violation of laws and civil rights.
Waterboarding is torture. It’s a well known and accepted fact by everyone except a small number of extremists like Dick Cheney, and unfortunately, editors of major newspapers like the Washington Post. The torture memos recently released by the Justice Department describe waterboarding, among other forms of torture. However, as one example in a pattern of underplaying torture committed by the U.S. Government, today in a news article the Washington Post referred to the techniques described in those memos as “harsh tactics that critics liken to torture”. This is akin to describing carbon dioxide as “an industrial byproduct that critics liken to pollution” or referring to current economic conditions as “a slowing of the market that critics liken to a recession”.
Of course you can find many people, even people in prominent or powerful positions, who believe carbon dioxide is not a pollutant (e.g. Senator James Inhofe), or who don’t characterize current economic conditions as a recession. But that does not justify presenting a widely-held and generally-accepted fact as a fringe belief. Waterboarding is widely and generally accepted to be torture, not “likened” to torture and not only by “critics”, just as carbon dioxide is not merely “likened” to pollution and not only by “critics”.
I wrote a letter to the editor of the Post about this; I’ll let you know what happens.
International tourists are common near my office. This afternoon I was passing a group Spanish-speaking tourists taking a group photo. The woman holding the camera intoned “Uno, dos, tres … queso!” Now, I always thought the tradition of saying “cheeeeeese” while one’s picture is being taken stems from the approximation of a smile one’s mouth forms when making the “ee” sound. But could it be that cheese is simply a cross-cultural symbol of happiness? Or was the woman making an ironic cultural reference? Or is saying “cheese” for a picture something spanish-speakers have adopted from English in contradiction with the original motivation? Any of those explanations is kind of hilarious.