Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Shut Up, Shuttin' Up

Charlie Brooker:

But then right now I don't "get" most forms of communication. There's just so much of it. Everybody talking at once and all over each other; everyone on the planet typing words into their computers, for ever, like I'm doing now. I fail to see the point of roughly 98% of human communication at the moment, which indicates I need to stroll around somewhere quiet for a bit.

Tim Parks:

The words we constantly use and the narratives we write reinforce a drama of selfhood that we in the West complacently celebrate. There is also much consolation taken in the way in which writing and narrative can transform emotional pain into a form of entertainment, wise and poignant in its vision of our passage through the world, intense and thrilled by its own intensity. Narrative is so often the narrative of misery and of the passage through misery.

What silence and meditation leaves us wondering, after we stand up, unexpectedly refreshed and well-disposed after an hour of stillness and silence, is whether there isn’t something deeply perverse in this culture of ours, even in its greatest achievements in narrative and art. So much of what we read, even when it is great entertainment, is deeply unhelpful.

Being naturally inclined to relaxed daydreaming, I tend to feel much more substantial and whole as a result of making the effort to write regularly. It would be too easy otherwise to indifferently let my word balloons float away before I'd had a chance to tie them around my wrist and fully appreciate them. Perhaps writing is a form of self-medicating, helping me to focus without the help of doctor-prescribed speed. But sometimes I too wonder if I'm alert enough to the danger of becoming just one more babbling twit on the Internet whose rickety mental well-being depends on never shutting up, or if I'd recognize it happening to me in time to prevent it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

We Grow More Solitary, and We Do So Because the Whole Flood of Humanity is Surging Around Us

Daniel Bor:

One emerging suite of theories on autism suggests that this disorder is centrally defined not at all by a poverty of mental skills, but instead by the excessive richness of information these people experience. In other words, in some sense autistics have an overabundance of awareness, and all their symptoms are merely their way of dealing with this supercharged consciousness.

...Many autistics seem to perceive the world with more detail than the rest of us and can exercise a highly focused and sustained attention. But being flooded by so much detail can be stressful and overwhelming. Autistics tend to hate noisy or busy scenes; while sharp, unexpected sounds cause most people's consciousness to be taken over by this new event, in autistics the intrusion is particularly pronounced.

...Many autistics, in order to compress their overflow of conscious detail and reduce the related stress, find comfort in crafting structure inside their minds and in their surroundings. This is why they may build blocks in carefully crafted stacks, or develop many rules and rituals. These activities are a desperate attempt to reduce the novelty and chaos in their lives and replace them with reassuringly regular, compressed patterns. It is also why they tend to seek highly ordered hobbies, such as mathematics, being a human calendar, and so on.

I've said many times that a grade-school Scribbler could easily have been the subject of Portrait of the Autistic as a Young Man, and though I can function well enough as an adult, enough quirks and idiosyncrasies have hung around to make me think I might still have a place on that oh-so-trendy spectrum. One thing that never seemed to fit my experience, though, was the common assertion that autistics lack a "theory of mind", that they're incapable of understanding and relating to other people's thoughts and feelings — I thought, if anything, I'm too aware of the nuances of social dynamics, and as with direct eye contact, it's too intense of an experience to bear for very long. So it's very interesting to read this; if true, it certainly would shed light on my fierce devotion to minimalism in all aspects of my life, as well as my favorite technique of dealing with stress by doing cleaning chores.

Fill Your Heroes

Lady, people aren’t chocolates. D’you know what they are mostly? Bastards. Bastard-coated bastards with bastard filling.

Perry Cox

Margo Rabb:

Falling in love with a book is a unique and sometimes strange experience; it’s not hard to make the leap from adoring a novel to adoring its creator. The writer Justin Cronin compares it to a celebrity crush: “When you read a book, you spend hours in intimate contact with the mind of another person — it’s an intense, but one-sided relationship. If any reader knew who we really were, it’s guaranteed they’d find us disappointing. The experience of a book is so much better than the experience of a person.” The author Elizabeth Gilbert agreed. “When I meet readers, I feel a responsibility not to disappoint them. But how do you not disappoint someone who’s invented you?”

...But some writers enjoy discovering the darker sides of their favorite authors. “I’m always comforted when writers and artists I admire have terrible problems in their lives, as I did,” the novelist Kate Christensen told me. “I like reading about their struggles and misbehavior.” The poet and memoirist Mary Karr is also forgiving of flaws. “Tolstoy I’m sure was an incredible jackass, but I still love him. I still love Stevens, I still love Pound. If we didn’t read people who were bastards, we’d never read anything. Even the best of us are at least part-time bastards.”

If I had to credit any particular text with being a formative influence on my intellectual and psychological development, well — I'm afraid I'll have to reveal my utterly mainstream, lowbrow roots and name RIP magazine. For those who don't know, it was a hard rock/heavy metal magazine, produced by Larry Flynt's media empire, that existed for about a decade in the '80s and '90s. The first issue I got had Lars Ulrich on the cover with a long interview inside, and with that bait, I was soon hooked on what I thought was the best rock journalism around (there may have been better for all I know, but this was pre-Internet, and I was limited to what I could find in the mall bookstores). Lonn Friend, the editor during the magazine's heyday, has, on a couple occasions that I've seen, summarized a large part of RIP's guiding philosophy:

Because one of the edicts was that we weren't going to prostitute these artists over their bad behavior. If it fell into the story, we would discuss the party and then whatever else. But if it was to damage or hurt the image of an artist rather than the heroic image of the artist because that's what RIP was all about --- heroes --- then I chose not to.

RIP definitely erred on the side of generosity in its articles. A lot of magazines — especially British ones, I noticed — specialized in reporting the seediest gossip and exulted in sneering mean-spiritedness toward their subjects, but RIP, even though half its lifespan was spent covering the most decadent, trashy Sunset Strip glam-metal, never went that route. Bands were always presented in the best possible light, and the music was always described in terms of its highest potential, rather than its (frequently) humdrum reality. Even the most generic hair bands were treated as capable of moments of transcendent artistry.

It was largely through years of reading RIP while dreaming of a career as a musician that I formed my weltanschauung (there, perhaps that ten-dollar word will redeem my intellectual pretensions!), my ideal of a life lived in accordance with low-key, bohemian foolosophy values. I had an idealized image of the rock/metal world as being something like an itinerant tribe of minstrels, poets and plainspoken philosophers who devoted their lives to pondering the meaning of it all in between ritual musical performances. An insight here, a perspective there — I clothed my burgeoning sense of self in a patchwork quilt painstakingly stitched together from the scraps of interviews with creative people. I assembled an idealized personality that would take years to fully grow into. And of course, the flawed mortals behind those pull quotes and aperçus were bound to disappoint upon closer examination, as they often did. But the ideal they all contributed to is no less powerful for all that.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

I Got, Got, Got, Got No Time

Tauriq Moosa:

Recognising things aren't black and white means recognising nuance. Nuance leads to accuracy. Accuracy isn't merely about being right, it's about reality. It's only when we know how the world is that we change it; otherwise, we're only working to change a fiction we've created in tweeted outrage: whether it's that Rolling Stone is insensitive or two bystanders were the bombers.

Of course, nuance requires time, which goes against the social media outrage machine.

Good ol' Tauriq, fighting the good fight. Of course, I don't think that most of the people he's talking about necessarily care about being accurate or changing the world for the better. I mean, sure, no doubt they say they do, but like a lot of aspirational statements, that's only designed to get the maximum status boost from a minimum of actual effort. In the same way that parasitism, by gaining sustenance at no cost, is a brilliant evolutionary strategy, social media "activists" accrue a lot of cultural capital without having to put in the hard, thankless work that a lot of real activism entails. Again, you might even suspect that some of these people have masterfully exploited a narrow niche: they get attention, increased self-esteem, and, in some cases, even money, by doing little more than acting like loudmouthed assholes on the Internet. Much of what Tauriq describes is simply the popular online spectator sport of pointing and denouncing, a game anyone can play, whatever their skill level.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Hue and Cry

Laura Hudson:

Shaming, it seems, has become a core competency of the Internet, and it’s one that can destroy both lives and livelihoods. But the question of who’s responsible for the destruction — the person engaging in the behavior or the person revealing it — depends on whom you ask. At its best, social media has given a voice to the disenfranchised, allowing them to bypass the gatekeepers of power and publicize injustices that might otherwise remain invisible. At its worst, it’s a weapon of mass reputation destruction, capable of amplifying slander, bullying, and casual idiocy on a scale never before possible.

...We despise racism and sexism because they bully the less powerful, but at what point do the shamers become the bullies? After all, the hallmark of bullying isn’t just being mean. It also involves a power differential: The bully is the one who’s punching down.

...Internet speech can be cruder and crueler than our real-life interactions, in large part due to our literal distance from the people we’re talking to and their reactions. That detachment can sometimes be liberating, and it’s often a good thing that people speak bluntly online, especially against injustice that they see around them. But a sense of proportion is crucial. These days, too many Internet shame campaigns dole out punishment that is too brutal for the crime. Using an influential social media account to call out individuals, as Richards did, isn’t simply saying something is “not cool”; it’s a request to have someone put in the digital stocks, where a potentially unlimited number of people can throw digital stones at them. And it turns out to have real-life consequences for everyone involved.

There are a lot of things about the social web that are various degrees of annoying, but this is a phenomenon I truly despise. Assholes are a fact of life, but they can be avoided or ignored in many cases. The panopticon of small town life is stifling, but it can be escaped by moving to a bigger city. But in the age of social media, assholes with a small-town desire to obsessively monitor everyone else's behavior have mixed technology with self-righteousness to create the ultimate high: a belief that a better world is created by indulging one's most petty, vindictive, assholish urges. The only thing anyone "learns" by being on the receiving end of one of these vigilante campaigns is to fear provoking mob action, something we should all know by now, and nothing we should be celebrating.

Procrusteans

J.E.H. Smith:

I consider myself politically progressive, but there are a few major sticking points that keep me perpetually at odds with my would-be allies. I hold in utter contempt anyone who would attempt to dictate to me a list of things I am forbidden to say, and it is generally more from the left than from other quarters that such dictation comes. I am part of that minority that continues to consider political correctness a real threat, and not a momentary excess of the early 1990s, when we heard all that reactionary huffing about how soon enough they'll be making us say 'vertically challenged' instead of 'short' and so on. I speak not with Rush Limbaugh but with Vladimir Nabokov when I say that I am horrified by the limitation of free expression, by which I don't mean the usual 'expression of unpopular ideas' beloved of 'card-carrying members of the ACLU', but rather the creative use of language where a Schillerian free play of the imagination is the only source of regulation. I believe the desire to regulate externally stems not just from a misunderstanding of how political progress is made, but also of how language functions.

...If my would-be political allies were being grown up about these things, they would understand that what they are really after is not something that can be attained by setting down, once and for all, the complete index nominum prohibitorum. Rather, it is a matter of cultivating virtues like tact and discretion: virtues for which there are no easy rules to be mastered in an a priori way, but which always depend upon the combination of a million different social cues.

"The desire to regulate externally" being, in my opinion, the heart of it. Most of the progressive linguistic police I've encountered are extremely distrustful of the anarchic, nebulous nature of language, as they are with anything that doesn't fit neatly into their conceptual taxonomy. I've heard that tendency described variously as "rationalism" or "theorism", but I've started thinking of such uptight people, progressive or reactionary, as Procrusteans. Above all their professed causes, they care most about the internal consistency of their worldview, the supposedly clear, strong connections between their axioms; they're happy to stretch or amputate any inconvenient facts or realities as needed.

Noncommittalbrowse

Michael Agger:

Then a Barnes & Noble “superstore” came to town. It anchored a mini-mall with a large parking lot. The bookseller already had a cloudy reputation; I knew that its steep discounts on best-sellers were putting pressure on smaller bookstores near its locations. The retailer was then making its big expansion push. Soon after the opening, I drove over to check it out. Look, Starbucks coffee! A magazine rack filled with alien titles such as Zyzzyva, Utne Reader, and Foreign Affairs. A “Cultural Studies” section. An entire shelf full of Faulkner. Going to Barnes & Noble became a Saturday afternoon. It was as if a small liberal-arts college had been plunked down into a farm field.

A lot of my autodidactic education took place in the aisles of B&N. That Ward Churchill book I just quoted from was the very first book I bought there, in fact. As the exact sort of person who could happily browse all day but would go bankrupt purchasing at retail price, I'd happily pay for a membership in something like Virginia Postrel's idea should that be implemented:

Instead of fighting showrooming, embrace it. Separate the discovery and atmospheric value of bookstores from the book-warehousing function. Make them smaller, with the inventory limited to curated examination copies -- one copy per title. (Publishers should be willing to supply such copies free, just as they do for potential reviewers.) Charge for daily, monthly or annual memberships that entitle customers to hang out, browse the shelves, buy snacks and use the Wi-Fi. Give members an easy way to order books online, whether from a retail site or the publishers directly, without feeling guilty.

Equinsu Ocha!

J.E.H. Smith:

There is a deeply ingrained idea coming from what passes for the Left, and distracting the younger and more naive members of the Left, to their own detriment, according to which we can each only speak for our own group, and in relation to other groups the most we can hope to be is 'allies'.

A good example of this was in the reaction to the phrase that sprang up spontaneously as a call to rally against the verdict: I am Trayvon Martin. This was of course not new, but a recycling of a common reaction to galvanizing events, e.g., the banners around Paris that declared Nous sommes tous américains on September 12, 2001. (I say, with Whitman: I am everyone, I am each of you, at every moment.) By the next morning some bold white internauts had posted video clips of themselves declaring emphatically that they are not Trayvon Martin, that they could not possibly be Trayvon Martin, in view of the many privileges they have that keep them safe from Martin's fate. By nightfall of the same day white people were abuzz in social media about how other white people needed to stop trying to get attention by announcing how not-Trayvon Martin they were, that this was not about what they either were or were not.

Clearly, the white kids just don't know what to do with themselves. 

The infamous Ward Churchill, in his essay "Another Dry White Season", an attack on Jerry Mander's Luddite/Noble Savage romanticism, started off with this paragraph:

They just can't help it. I swear, they really can't. It's too deeply ingrained in the subconscious, a matter of subliminal presumption. No matter how well-intentioned or insightful, regardless of how critical of the dominant conceptual paradigm and "sensitive" to non-Western perspectives, the theoretical writing of Euroamerican men — and most white women, as well — seems destined with a sort of sad inevitability to become yet another enterprise in intellectual appropriation, a reinforcement of the very hegemony they purport to oppose. To expect otherwise, one supposes, would be to expect that a leopard will (or can) change its spots. This remains true despite the authors' most genuinely held desires that things be otherwise, not to mention their oft and fervently expressed assertions that, in their own cases at least, such wishes have already been fulfilled.

I first read that almost twenty years ago; ploosa shawnje. If one were to observe, like a naturalist, the interpersonal dynamics on display throughout the social web, one might find oneself hard-pressed to resist the conclusion that white people are very, very good at setting themselves up in charge of diagnosing and fixing the problems that other white people have supposedly created. If one were further possessed of a cynical disposition, one might even suspect that this is all just a clever power grab, a way to make sure privileged people still retain their perks. After all, as we learned in school studying the Salem witch trials and reading The Crucible, what better way to shield yourself from damning accusations than to accuse someone else first? I can't help but notice, when I go online, that it's often other white men who are pointing angry fingers in my face, shouting how this and that about me needs to change, because they've analyzed the problem and they have the plan.

Ideas certainly should stand or fall on their own merits, of course, regardless of who champions them. I just find it amusing to see, when "whiteness" is accepted as valid shorthand for a plethora of problematic ideas and attitudes, how many white people apparently exempt themselves from that judgment and carry on just as before, bringing their enlightenment to the benighted masses, even to the point of attacking and insulting members of those oppressed groups who have the temerity to disagree with their betters. They just can't help it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lucubratio (XVII)

Happening upon this post by Wayne Curtis, a flicker of recognition rose from the embers of memory, and I said to myself I said, Jee-zus; what Nicholas Carr is to print media, this guy wants to be to perambulatory locomotion.

Monday, July 22, 2013

There's No Real Need for Conversation Here

Joe Moran:

Yet introversion is not the same as shyness, as Cain is careful to point out, although the two do often overlap. Introverts are people whose brains are overstimulated when in contact with too many other human beings for too long — in which case I am most definitely a shy introvert. If I’m in a noisy group of people for more than about an hour, my brain simply starts to scramble like a computer with a system error, and I end up feeling mentally and physically drained. Introverts such as me need to make frequent strategic withdrawals from social life in order to process and make sense of our experiences.
Shyness is something different: a longing for connection with other people which is foiled by fear and awkwardness.

I'm not quite sure how they supposedly overlap. As a certified introvert, that brain-scrambling sensation is nothing pleasant, and certainly nothing I long for. But while I'm skeptical that introversion and shyness could occupy the same psyche at the same time, I do think they can occupy different points on the same life cycle. I mean, I was painfully shy as a kid. Quiet and withdrawn, but completely lacking in confidence and assurance. I would have loved being popular among my peers; I would have been terrified of standing out from the crowd and attracting critical attention. It wasn't until adolescence that I started making tentative steps toward individuality, and it probably wasn't until my thirties that I was able to honestly say that I knew my own mind and character enough to be self-contained and largely indifferent to the madding crowd's ignoble strife. There's a great line in a James Kavanaugh poem: "I do not like many people, love; they bore me, or attack me, or talk too much when there is nothing to say." Yep. I was born shy, but I achieved introversion.

Another trait peculiar to introversion: Introverts never have to drink water. They can get all the water they need from reading books.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

No, No, No, I've Never Worn No Uniform

Anna Vesterinen:

A recent study on atheism and agnosticism in the USA has established six categories of non-believers. The newly identified groups are Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics, Activist Atheist/Agnostics, Seeker Agnostics, Antitheists, Non-theists and Ritual Atheist/Agnostics. 

Wrath James Wright:

There are no atheist missionaries risking their lives to bring science and reason to uncivilized savages. I am beginning to think that this isn't something we should be proud of. Perhaps this moral high ground is actually cowardice on our part.

The idea of travelling to Third World countries where atheism is equated with witchcraft, where homosexuals are stoned, and women and religious minorities are oppressed, and telling them the god, upon which all their cultural beliefs are based, is a fiction, frightens me too. The prospect of going into low income neighborhoods and knocking on doors to introduce people to deductive reasoning and explain logical fallacies as they relate to religion is terrifying to me. But if we ever hope to free this world and ourselves of this ignorance, isn't this exactly the sort of thing we should be doing? We often hear famous atheist thinkers saying they are not trying to convert anyone or spread atheism, but if we are not trying to change minds, then what the fuck are we doing?

How do we expect to change the world if we are not on the front lines? How do we expect to free ourselves from the ignorance, immorality, and oppression of organized religion, if we are not willing to be soldiers of reason just as believers rejoice in martyring themselves as soldiers for their deities? They are out there, every day, knocking on doors, handing out their propaganda on street corners, filling the airwaves everyday with their dogma and rhetoric, spreading their delusion. How the hell do we expect to combat this if we are not at least as aggressive with our counter-message? And if we are not willing to take it to such extremes, why bother writing blogs like this one? Why bother writing our books and creating our little organizations and websites?

Michael von Brück:

For the most part, atheism will fail to develop a political voice. Most people simply aren’t interested in a combative atheism. European history is peppered with wars that were fought over religious beliefs, and the modern response has been to sideline discussions about religion and to secularize political discourses. Previous generations openly committed themselves to Christianity – but the decline of religiosity will thus not result in open commitments to atheism in the political arena.

Atheists who want to fully replace religious rituals face an impossible task: Their rhythms would have to be as lasting as the rhythms of Christianity. Atheists would have to find a way to bridge the gap between cosmic timescales and universal history on one side and the individual and experiential horizon of everyday life on the other side – and they would have to make this bridge non-ephemeral and, thus, ritualistic.

But maybe atheists don’t mind. Their focus is a clear demarcation between religion and politics, and their agenda is the limiting of religious rhetoric in public discourse. Modern atheists care about politics, but they don’t seem to be too keen on nurturing new rituals.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Counting Coup

Jessa Crispin:

I am used to this kind of thing by now. There was this whole article written a few years back about how because I was running a site named Bookslut and interviewing male authors, I was a tool of the patriarchy. That's fine. These types of things don't really bother me. Mostly because I feel like if you are the type of person to write emails using words like "tool of the patriarchy" and "rape culture," your goal is not to open a dialogue, it's to shame me into correcting my behavior. It's not likely to happen, unfortunately.

I should state up front that I hate the phrase "rape culture." It's not because I don't think we have a culture where rape is normalized, where women are in danger, with television programs with pretty violated dead girls lovingly filmed for our viewing pleasure, whatever. I'm not stupid, I know how this works. But I also think that throwing around the word "rape culture" is a silencing tactic, that shuts down dialogue, that creates an atmosphere of animosity. I think it is stories, not slogans, that change things, that bring people around. And hearing out a person's viewpoint, rather than scolding or telling them they are wrong, is the only way to find middle ground.

...So yeah. It annoys me when someone sends an email telling me that my language needs policing. It annoys me when someone writes to say, "I just today discovered your site and you are doing it wrong and hurting women in the process." You are acting as a tyrant, not as a human being when you do that. I have that impulse, too, god knows. But if you're getting hung up on words, these forbidden words that you yourself are changing into weapons, like slut or bitch or hysterical or whatever else I've been called out for using, you're missing the story. And you're missing the human being using the words. And I don't answer email sent by tyrants.

Yesterday, while sitting in the parking lot at work, I saw a bird aggressively confronting his own reflection in a car's side-view mirror. All ruffled feathers and widespread wings and "Come at me, bro!" attitude. With Crispin's excellent post still fresh in my mind, it struck me as an amusingly apt symbol of so much social media dialogue — people catching a glimpse of their own projected fears or insecurities, reading malign intent into the shadows of vague or poorly-expressed ideas, squawking, pecking and accomplishing absolutely nothing.

There's this former co-worker of mine, a devout Christian. Devout, as in, he and his wife were seriously talking about becoming New Monastics. When I met him, he was attending a conservative Christian college. Liberty University, in fact. Ideologically, we predictably disagree on some things — he's not a right-wing religious nut, but he does seem to have some theocratic leanings where he thinks Christian beliefs should trump civil liberties, such as in cases involving abortion or voluntary euthanasia (that's just an impression I've gotten, to be fair; I've never asked him about it flat-out). We argued a bit over whether Michael Behe is anything more than an intelligent design-promoting hack. He has a lot of left-wing political beliefs, though: he's actually traveled to Palestine to protest Israeli actions and defend Palestinians from being attacked (hoping that the presence of Americans will deter any violence); he's in favor of single-payer health care; he opposed both of our imperial adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and any potential actions against Iran, but he's also a former Navy SEAL and still has some of that rah-rah, go troops, U-S-A, U-S-A stuff going on. He got into a shouting match with John Hagee after a speech Hagee gave at Liberty. He voted for Bush twice, but still had enough of an intellectual conscience to change his mind about him and admit what a mistake it was. He voted for Obama after having supported Ron Paul in the primaries. He used to hate Michael Moore, now he loves him. He was thrilled when he saw me wearing a Noam Chomsky t-shirt one day, saying that he was his hero. He drives a gigantic monster truck that he converted to run entirely on vegetable oil, and he drives around in it blasting cheesy 80s synth-pop music like Wham! just to freak out the people who assume he's a fellow redneck. Other fun discussions included everything from his love-bordering-on-worship of Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins to what he saw as a postmodern perspective in Scrubs as personified by the Janitor.

Most importantly, he's just a genuinely nice guy. Intellectually curious and unfailingly polite (though I guess Hagee might argue otherwise), his willingness to consider new perspectives and change his mind accordingly made me realize how accustomed I'd gotten, especially on the Internet, to dealing with ideologues who traffic almost entirely in buzzwords and butthurt, who argue with slogans and snark, and who, by all appearances, care more about being right and being praised by their fellows for being right than actually changing any of the things they spend their Internet time raging against. Anil Dash's perceptive Law of Fail comes to mind here.

Perhaps he's more incoherent than truly iconoclastic; maybe he's just never tried to figure out how all these passions and ideas can coexist in the same skull. Could be that if he ever attempts to be thoroughly rational and internally consistent in his beliefs, he might find himself rejecting his progressive leanings and becoming rigidly fundamentalist. Eh, I doubt it, though.

The rather pedestrian point I'm making is, had I met him on the Internet as a bullet list of beliefs and a set of tribal identity flash cards, I doubt I would have seen him as a friend. And I'm certainly not one to promote a ridiculous romantic Internet, fake, boo; real life, authentic, yay! perspective. I'm just saying what she's saying: if you enjoy being mean and snarky to strangers online to give yourself a little sugar rush of superiority and gain a little status among the rest of the in-group, knock yourself out. But if you honestly want to "make a difference" and change people's minds, you might want to engage with them in a more personable way. You might even thereby decide that the fate of all good things in the world doesn't actually hinge on whether you win an argument or bully someone into acquiescence.

#PrincessAdelaideWhoopingCough


Ahaha. I suppose it says something regrettable about me, but though I can dispassionately observe arguments over morals, ethics, public policy, and other matters of significance without even a ripple of discontent disturbing my ataraxy, I found myself almost offended by the sheer banality of this article — I mean, wow, holy shit, "testaments not only to Twitter's power as a platform for sharing, but also to cameras' increasing ubiquity in our lives," Jesus Christ, how incredibly goddamned profound, thank god you wrote a fucking article to tell us that every idiot with opposable thumbs has a camera phone and hence people are posting a lot of pictures on Twitter.

Fits of ill-tempered pique aside, you know that feeling when you hear of a celebrity's death, and you're surprised because you'd been under the assumption they'd already been dead for years? Well, it's surprising to me that it took until now for this comic to exist. You see it, you laugh, and then you think, wait, no one else thought of this yet? You kind of assume this joke has always existed, perhaps in Platonic ideal form. I'm certainly no early adopter, but I was yearning for an end to the meta-fascination last year. Oh, I was so cute when I was young and naïve...

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Holiday, Holiday; I Declare a Holiday

In one of the lamentably-lesser-known stories of Norse mythology, Willis Carrier, a.k.a. Frosty Prometheus (praise his name), seduced the goddess Skaði 111 years ago on this very date.  She awoke from post-coital drowsiness to see him attempting to tiptoe out her door. Enraged at his caddishness, she cursed and bellowed at his departing form, her anger taking the form of a howling winter gale. Using a bottomless magic pouch that Loki had lost to him in a card game, he captured her frigid breath before it could freeze him solid, tied off the pouch, and scurried back home to safety. After patenting the mechanism for the safe storage and release of Skaði's breath, he deigned to parcel out a certain amount of it every summer for public consumption, thus allowing his fellow humans to live comfortably on days like today and tomorrow, when the heat index hovers around a hundred and ten goddamned degrees, I mean for fuck's sake already. So yes, fall to your knees and give thanks that such a hero ever existed.

(Seriously, that's one of the best myths of all time. I'm surprised Ovid hasn't covered it yet.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus (XI)


So, I refinanced the house last month, cutting the interest rate by almost half and reducing the payment by a couple hundred, with a couple months' vacation from making mortgage payments as a much-welcome bonus. I worked a lot of extra shifts in the meantime to make hay while the sun was shining. And, like I said in the last post, I got dropped by that company only to land softly on my feet in a better-paying, better-structured job with the new company.

It's been a very good summer. I'd go so far as to say it's celebration time, in fact. And how do I celebrate? That's right, by buying a bunch of books I've had on my wish list for up to two years now.

This Is My Job for Life; There are No Jobs for Life

Tom Streithorst:

Back in the 1970s, pop stars sang songs about of the tedium and anomie of factory work. Today the sons of laid-off autoworkers would trade anything for that security and steady wage.

Yeah, I used to chuckle about that during my days of reading political blogs, seeing so much aching nostalgia for the post-WWII decades of upward mobility. Hell, a lot of progressives would have settled for a recurrence of the mini-boom of McJobs created under Clinton. Remembering how the factory and cubicle have always been seen as symbols of conformity and soul-killing ennui, I just took it as further proof that people are never happy with what they have.

One of the companies I work for lost their contract in this area due to repeatedly disorganized clusterfuckery, effective tomorrow. I found out about it last week, when the head of the new company called me and said I was one of the two guys he wanted to keep on through the transition. Yes, that's just how I roll; I make myself indispensable wherever I go. Anyway, the rest of my co-workers weren't informed until today. Our now-former boss sent us all texts, telling us to catch up with him sometime today and bring all our equipment to replace it with "new stuff". That's a nice touch, don't you think? Like George telling Lenny about the rabbits. "Hey, got all that expensive gadgetry with you? All right, cool, lemme just put that right here, certainly wouldn't want anything to happen to that...and, here's your replacement HAHA PSYCHE it's actually a pink slip, thanks much, good luck in your job hunt."

I've made my peace with the insecurity of it all. I just keep my eggs stored in a variety of baskets and live within my means.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Noam Sayin'

Mike Springer:

On Friday we posted an excerpt from an interview in which linguist Noam Chomsky (something of a political celebrity himself) excoriates Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, along with Lacan’s superstar disciple, Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek, for using intentionally obscure and inflated language to pull the wool over their admirers’ eyes and make trivial “theories” seem profound. He calls Lacan a “total charlatan.” 

Yep. As the pop star Neecha sang, "Those who know they are profound strive for clarity; those who would like to appear profound to the crowd strive for obscurity." And there was also the philosophy collective, Depeche Mode, whose seminal paper on the political use of language, "Words Are Very Unnecessary: They Can Only Do Harm," is still influential today.

People like Karen Armstrong have said that religious fundamentalism is a wholly modern movement, not a premodern one, born as a result of feeling threatened by the advance of science and technology. In essence, once fundamentalists accepted the challenge to prove the literal truth of their mythic stories, rather than be content with them as allegories, they stepped onto a playing field they were woefully unprepared for. I recently read someone — I forget who — saying something similar about postmodernism and critical theory. Much of modern science is extremely specialized and incomprehensible to a lay reader. So, in a misguided attempt to compete with science and retain the humanities' relevance, postmodernism tried to incorporate similar jargon and specialization. But as Chomsky has said before on this topic, the difference is that if he wants to get a layman's understanding of the latest theories in physics, he can find someone capable of explaining it to him on a level he can understand. With theory, the bafflegab is the point, and it can't be stripped away without leaving banality standing there, naked and embarrassed.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Defacing the Currency

Julian Baggini:

Perhaps the greatest slur against cynicism is that it nurtures a fatalistic pessimism, a belief that nothing can ever be improved. There are lazy forms of cynicism of which this is certainly true. But at its best, cynicism is a greater force for progress than optimism. The optimist underestimates how difficult it is to achieve real change, believing that anything is possible and it's possible now. Only by confronting head-on the reality that all progress is going to be obstructed by vested interests and corrupted by human venality can we create realistic programmes that actually have a chance of success. Progress is more of a challenge for the cynic but also more important and urgent, since for the optimist things aren't that bad and are bound to get better anyway.

Didn't I say something counterintuitive like that once? I think I said something like that. Yeah, I did say something like that. People need to quit ripping me off.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Granddaddy of an Awful Lot of Sciences of Man

Shhhh. Simon Blackburn and Nigel Warburton are having an interesting conversation on one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume. Let's eavesdrop on them and see what kinds of fun stuff we learn:

He’s also thought of as a great Enlightenment figure, but the caricature of the Enlightenment is that it put all the weight on human reason: reason is the light that is shone into the darkness.

Yes, it’s a very back-handed compliment to Hume, because he was very doubtful about the powers of human reason. One’s got to be careful here, reasonable is a term of praise, and Hume uses it as such. He doesn’t doubt that there are better and worse ways of conducting our intellectual lives or conducting our scientific enquiries. He’s firmly on the side of the better ways of doing that. But he’s an opponent of the scholastic, quasi-mathematical, logical powers of the mind. Those powers he diminishes. What comes in to take their place is the doctrine of natural belief, of the way our psychologies will end up distributing confidence in things.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Truth Is Out There

The invention of mobile camera-phones. On the one hand, as XKCD says, they've unwittingly eliminated whatever tiny likelihood there was of the existence of paranormal activity. On the other hand, they've helped remind us that we take our lives in our hands anytime we eat food we haven't prepared and cooked ourselves.

What? Everything Only — Human, All-Too-Human?

Akim Reinhardt:

After all, if we'd been getting smarter these last 15-plus years, you'd expect that humanity might have formed new and deeper insights into the nature of existence, and used those insights to update our collective goals: world peace, eliminating hunger, and flying taxis driven by cats wearing little chauffeur's caps. But not only haven't we gotten wiser and developed new collective goals, we haven't even gotten any cleverer and moved closer to achieving the same old ones we've always pined for. There's still the endless butchery of war and the terminal ache of starvation.

Of course, none of it's a surprise. There are at least two obvious reasons why the existence of a cheap, and even free storehouse of knowledge, the likes of which could not have even been imagined by most people a generation ago, has done little to make us all a whole helluva a lot smarter.

For starters, people can be lazy and superficial. Whether you prefer a Marxist interpretation, an existential one, or something equally incisive but less Eurocentric, the conclusion is the same: Lots of people are largely obsessed with chasing pleasure and shirking meaningful work. They'd rather read about celebrity gossip than learn about mechanical engineering or medicine. They'd rather indulge a neurosis or compulsion than work towards the common betterment. And they'd rather watch funny cat videos than try to figure out how those ghastly little beasts can better serve us.

This is why when you plop an unfathomably rich multi-media warehouse of knowledge in front of them, they'll mostly use it to wile away the hours on Facebook and Twitter. In much the same way that if you give them an actual book, and eliminate the social stigma that says books are sacred, instead of reading it they might be inclined to rip out the pages and make paper airplanes. The creative ones might set them on fire before pitching them out the window, in a quest to create a modern, aerial Viking funeral.

We had a traveling academic friend spend a weekend with us last month in between conferences, and one of the attempts we made to camouflage our boring home life was to take her to visit Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. Afterward, somewhere in the course of the conversation reflecting on his accomplishments, character and legacy, one of us joked about the likelihood of him being suicidally depressed were he to come back and witness the spectacle of millions of people having instant access to the sort of education and information that took him a lifetime to accumulate, yet not being interested in the slightest. 'Course, it's obviously debatable just how far Jefferson's Enlightenment idealism actually extended; he clearly had no problem believing that some classes of people were exempt from that "all men created equal" jazz. Maybe he would take it all in stride, who knows.

Point is, pace a fine fellow like David Cain, being human isn't something you really "get better" at. "Being human" encompasses everything between Genghis and Gandhi, not just the parts that appeal to highly specific modern cultural mores. Even in "civilized" nations, during episodes of sport —something that supposedly distinguishes us in its complexity from the mere animals — the most horrific barbarism doesn't need much encouragement to rear its atavistic head. Should educated Western suburbanites miraculously manage to herd the entirety of humanity into thinking, behaving and believing in accordance with their values, humanity en masse would not then level up and unlock all sorts of fantastical knowledge and abilities. You hear a lot of condescending scorn about the various opiata populi, but the opium of the intellectuals, the pleasant, colorful haze between them and the rictus grin on the face of existence, is the belief that human existence is for something, aimed at this or that telos, and the idea that true humanity could be achieved if only humans would stop being so, well, human, is just as much a delusion as anything the great unwashed have ever come up with.

Commerce Claws

Kenneth Folk:

“Mindfulness” is poised to become the Next Big Thing. Here is the likely trajectory of the movement: “mindfulness” will be thoroughly co-opted by corporate interests, embraced as a fad by the public at large, discredited through its association with corporate power, and then rejected as cynically manipulative bullshit, all within ten or twenty years. In the short term, the credibility of all contemplative practice will suffer as a result. A shame, that. I wonder what will replace it?

Meh. There will always be trend-chasing dabblers, there will always be dedicated practitioners, and there will always be those completely uninterested. Those demographics might fluctuate, but I don't see any reason to fear wholesale changes. Contemplative practice in all its forms is far too widespread and deeply-rooted around the world to worry about temporary dips in quarterly performance in the American market. "Mindfulness" will make a quiet difference in the lives of many who practice it, just as "spirituality" has. Marketers will no doubt invent a new term in order to sell people the same old contemplation in a redesigned box or bottle, but nothing's really being "replaced", except in the most superficial sense. As panta rheism teaches, the current stays in endless motion, but the form of the river endures.

For more of my thoughts on this topic, be sure to pick up a copy of my book, Water, Water Everywhere: The Alluvial Wisdom Contained Within the Neo-Ancient Principles of Panta Rheism, or visit my website for other fine products to assist you in your journey to the Sea of Enlightenment.

Monday, July 08, 2013

How Much Reverence Has a Noble Man for His Enemies!

I read Pascal Bruckner's essay last week, but the one line that really stuck with me, despite being somewhat tangential to the broader theme, was this one:

There are useful enemies that make you fertile and sterile enemies that wear you out.

I like that formulation. I like the way it limns the subtle concept of an intellectual sparring partner who brings out the best in you through integral opposition while keeping you from slipping into the easy tendency toward moralistic tunnel vision, where winning the argument and trouncing the enemy at any cost becomes the goal. Maybe that's not so remarkable an attitude among scientists, say, but I find it to be rare in general culture. There are a handful of people I describe as favorites "to think with" — they manage to enlighten even as they provoke; they pull off the difficult trick of balancing stunningly original insight with clear, almost obvious, expression.

Useful enemies don't have to be individuals, of course; they might be general concepts or themes. One theme I've been circling around for the past year or so is the superficial progressive obsession with achieving racial/sexual demographic parity in artsy fields. Well-meaning folks, I'm sure. Nothing more than guilt-ridden honkies looking for a simple, clearly visible metric to reassure themselves that they aren't accidentally contributing to someone's oppression. Their vapid "activism" is the sociopolitical equivalent of feng shui — rearranging society's demographic furniture in order to, like, free up the inequitable energy flow and create good vibes of social justice. But though I mock them, I'm glad for the time I spent taking their arguments seriously and engaging with what they said instead of dismissing them after a cursory glance. In the spirit of Nietzsche's rules, they were the stones against which I sharpened my own thoughts: why would I resent them for that?

That theme could easily become a sterile enemy, though, if I let it. It could just be something I routinely return to in order to reenact the same old drama, with nothing new to say, both of us going through the predictable motions in a dysfunctional relationship. Especially on the social web, I feel, there's a phenomenon where one has to perform one's dislike, even when there's no point to it. It's not enough to quietly ignore people or websites that waste my time; I have to announce my ignoring in a passive-aggressive stage whisper to someone else. I see people in forums and on Twitter doing that all the time: seeking attention in a symbiotic relationship with someone they profess to be bored or sickened by. It's like watching kids who think they're cleverly disguising their flirting by punching each other and calling names, only it's pathetic instead of cute. I've noted this unhealthy dynamic a couple times recently, and it motivates me to pay closer attention, to be sensitive to when it's time to add a period and turn the page.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Tumblr Lysenkoism

Jerry Coyne:

No, the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is absolutely sound: our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are the product of evolution and natural selection over the past six million years, and some of our current behaviors reflect that evolution.  To deny that is ideologically motivated nonsense. To parse out the evolutionary component of such behaviors is the goal of evolutionary psychology.

As a layman, of course, that's pretty much how I've always looked at it. It seems like a potentially useful field of inquiry, and the fact that it could be bent to reactionary ideological purposes, like many other concepts, should be neither here nor there. Truth-seeking is a much longer game than electioneering. But progressive ideologues, of course, are just as happy to make selective use of science for their short-term political goals as their mirror-image brethren are. We saw last winter what happens when an evolutionary psychologist actually takes the time to directly engage with an agenda-pushing social media demagogue, and now, if you want to collect the whole set, you can click the link and see Coyne enlist Steven Pinker's help in enumerating the ways in which Peezie Myers is an ideological gasbag.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Your Pink Hides are Ridiculous

John Wilkins:

Tallis says that humans are special and not just animals. A lot of weight is put in that four letter word “just”. What can he mean? Are humans special and thus apart from animals? The evolutionary view of human capacities is that they have precursors in ancestral traits, and these precursors can be found in other animals. Dogs, corvids, cetaceans, primates, and a host of other animals display moral, cognitive and conscious behaviour. Humans are special indeed in their capacities. But, and this is what what Tallis overlooks, so are all other animals. The word “special” is merely the adjectival form of “species”. To be a species is to be special. Sure, humans are special in their own way. So is a cat, a mole or a mouse. If the target of your explanation was a mouse, then you would explain it having its abilities and social behaviours in terms of evolved dispositions inherited from ancestors. You may as well say a mouse is special in ways other animals (including humans) are not. Otherwise we couldn’t even tell it was a member of a species, by definition. Unless there are properties that mark it out from other species, it would be folded into other species.

So too with humans. If we were not different in our traits from other primate species like chimps, then we would be chimps. But we have our own special traits, and so we and chimps are distinct species. So the argument is a kind of fallacy (affirming the consequent). Humans can be special and yet be animals, just like every other animal species.

So I Never Wrote a Letter, I Never Took My True Heart, I Never Wrote It Down

Andrew Coyne:

How we write, in other words, affects what we write. You compose in a different way using pen and ink than you do on a computer. You think in a different way. It may even be that you are, to that extent, a different person, much as we take on a different personality when we speak a foreign language.

We are becoming different people now: Our brains are almost certainly being restructured by interacting with computers all day long. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it would be a shame if that were all we knew — if one day we found ourselves cut off from our ancestors, unable to fully comprehend the thoughts they composed, having forgotten how they used to compose them.

And no less an authority than Socrates/Plato thought that it was a devolution for an oral culture to become text-based, because it would make people forgetful and only superficially learned. Writing eats your brain! No, typing eats your brain! Paper eats your brain! No, pixelated screens eat your brain! Hey, you know, perhaps the popularity of the zombie motif in mythology and pop culture speaks to this apparently-ancient fear that something malevolent is trying to eat our brains. Anyway, before I digress any further, I'm going to go ahead and suggest that the narcissism of small differences plays a huge role in this perennial argument. I mean, come on, man; these are trivial differences in style we're talking about here, not yawning chasms of comprehension. I read Chaucer and Beowulf in high school with the help of footnotes, and my brain has been able to segue into the idiom of text-messaging and back again without stalling and belching black smoke.

And if we're going to trade anecdotes, well, I find longhand writing to be laborious and tiresome, causing my interest to fade long before I approach saying everything I could. On a computer, the fact that the actual text can be set down (legibly!) in a matter of seconds reserves that much more time for contemplation and mental composition. Despite the supposed irresistible logic of the machine working its hoodoo on me, my writing process consists of multiple re-readings of whatever excerpt I'm using as a springboard, followed by a lot of intent staring at the screen as I organize my thoughts, ending with a brief flurry of typing. Whatever my limitations as a writer, I likely would have never even tried exploring it as a hobby were it not for the ease facilitated by a keyboard.

Sometimes drudgery is just drudgery. Not everyone who chops wood and carries water becomes spiritually profound as a result. Forming letters individually with your fingers doesn't make your thoughts deeper or your writing better. Clearing mental space and making time for reflection — assuming you truly want to do so — is much more important. Meaning cannot be reduced to mechanism.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Rued, Prude, Tattooed

Mike Tanier:

CHILD: Don’t tattoos look ugly when you get old?

PARENT: Everything looks ugly when you get old. Look at me: I am in my early 40s, but without a shirt on I look like a trash bag full of stale pudding, covered in barber’s clippings. Would a dragon on my shoulder make a lick of difference? If anything, it might distract attention to the fact that I look like a manatee and instead send a different message, like “I was cool and interesting once.”

Haha. I forget where, but I recently heard this "Ew, tattoos, what about when you're 75?" sentiment expressed again, by someone who otherwise did not appear to be a drooling idiot. I say "again" with that incredulous tone, because I thought most of the inane objections to tattoos had run their course over the last couple decades as they've become increasingly mainstream. But no, good point, you're right; I mean, I wouldn't want anything to distract from the natural beauty of liver-spotted, blemished, saggy old-folk's skin. That is, assuming that I arrive at old age having successfully navigated between the Scylla of disease and the Charybdis of dementia, yes, I'm totally sure that I'll still be concerned with adolescent standards of vanity and maintaining my beach bod. Christ.

He Would Never be in It

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

— Wendell Berry

Dave Pell:

The digital age gives a new (and almost opposite) meaning to having a photographic memory. The experience of the moment has become the experience of the photo.

And it’s not only the subjects of the photos who are affected. In the age of the realtime, social web, the person taking the photos is often distracted by the urgent desire to share near realtime photos of an experience. Is it worth reducing an entire real life experience to what can be seen through a tiny screen? I recently attended a concert where I was the only one in my section who had no device between my eyes and the performance — and that was only because I forgot my iPhone.

I enjoy photography as a spectator, but I've never been able to get into the habit of snapping photos of stuff I'm experiencing. Just can't seem to inhabit that removed perspective long enough to think, "This would make a great picture." As for our increasingly-popular inclination to filter life through a gadget screen in order to experience it later at a more convenient time which will likely never come, well, it makes me think that maybe there's some metaphorical usage to be gotten from the stories of American Indians who thought that photographs would steal the subject's soul.

The Birds are the Keepers of Our Secret


And what of the semipalmated sandpiper, a few of which I last saw at low tide on Labor Day? Is it appropriate to use words such as gossip and love, to think of their self-awareness? I put the question to the British ornithologist Tim Birkhead, whose latest book is Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2012). He told me he couldn’t recall any behavioural tests of sandpipers, nor rigorous comparisons to crows or parrots, but still, he said: ‘You can guess that they have more sophisticated cognitive abilities than most people would give them credit for.’ Given everything we know about animal consciousness, and the primal nature of both our own emotions and our social bonds, it certainly seems reasonable to err on the side of personalising the birds.

...I can’t truly know what goes on their heads. Yet at some point this becomes irrelevant: we can’t ever really know what goes on in another person’s mind, but we manage all the same. I’m happy to know simply that the birds I’ve seen have their own private worlds, their own sense of light and companionship. They go to sleep expecting to wake again. Perhaps they have names for each other. I just don’t know what they are.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Matthew 5:22

Casanova Frankenstein: It's so easy to get the best of people when they care about each other. Which is why evil will always have the edge. You good guys are always so bound by the rules.

David Banks:

Swearing, while not its only function, has a lot to do with offending people. Swearing is a necessary social sanction that does a lot of good in the world. There will always be people in this world that deserve to be told off. (Like my neighbor for example.) But in the process of telling each other where to shove it, we also reaffirm and establish who in the world is desirable and who is unwanted. So if I call you dumb, stupid, lame, gay, retarded, or even a girl, I’m not only saying that women, non-cis gendered people, or the differently abled are inherently bad, I’m also invoking all of the power of ableism, homophobia, and patriarchy to make you feel bad. Too many curse words strengthen the kind of social structures that we should be dismantling. I want to quickly and easily compare people to the parts of society that I find gross and unseemly. I want words that compare people to those with ill begotten wealth or obscene power but, so far, calling someone the President of the United States of America doesn’t have the sticking power it should.

Lord, what a div.

...adding, while on the topic:

The shift in taboos away from sacrilege and gross-out topics toward more personal and, well, flat-out mean epithets appears to be a move in the right direction. The increasingly offensive nature of these words—and the visceral, emotional responses they trigger within us when spoken or heard—just might amount to a signifier of social progress. “There’s got to be something that people take seriously” and see as out of bounds these days, says Allan. “And right now, it’s human frailties.”

Progress? More like the fickle nature of fashion, aimlessly wandering around in circles. There will always be people who want to shock and push boundaries for the sake of doing it, and there will always be uptight prigs who want to mother-hen everyone else into line with their ideals. The battleground will change, yet the battle will remain the same. In the meantime, our overly-neurotic friend above should relax: calling someone a "fucking moron" does not increase, in some quantifiable way, the likelihood that the U.S. will re-introduce eugenics legislation to overwhelming public approval. The epithet does not seep into the cultural groundwater to accumulate with other social toxins, thus contaminating us all just that little bit more with a desire to sterilize the unfit. Language expresses so much more than simple binary logical propositions.

What Will You Write? For Whose Pleasure, For Whose Delight? Will Your Readers See Your Light?

Kevin Hartnett:

One of the initial promises of social media was that it might help ideas succeed on their own -- removing the old gatekeepers, whether Roman aristocrats or publishers, and democratizing how information circulates. But this isn’t quite how it has turned out.

...Social media is in fact not especially democratic. The most powerful people and institutions have the most Facebook fans and Twitter followers which means that content that serves their interests is much more likely to show up in your newsfeed. In the case of the Gatsby post, the scholars were mostly positive about the movie -- and it’s hard to imagine that the post would have had nearly the same readership if they’d hated it and thus the movie studio had ignored it. For people in the media, this kind of power sets up a dilemma that's not altogether different from the one authors faced in Cicero's time: the bigger the interests you please, the more likely you are to be read.

If I'm going to be slightly caustic about it, and why not, that supposed promise of social media provides a frisson of rags-to-riches fantasy to people who might otherwise consider themselves too savvy to waste money playing the lottery. The dream of a pure meritocracy dies hard, I suppose. But again: our eyes and ears tell us that most people are social animals who care more about fitting in and feeling comfortable than tormenting themselves with nuanced thinking for the sake of abstract ideals. Human nature isn't merely a frustrated urge toward disinterested inquiry awaiting the proper tool or organizational system to set it straight. New technologies will, ploosa shawnje, be used in service to the same old pursuits of glad-handing, status-seeking, ego-stroking and score-settling.