Category Archives: Internet & Media

How reading can save us from the digital dispersion of the self

Here are some choice passages from an insight-rich essay by historian James McWilliams at The American Scholar, in which he discusses two major and complementary options for dealing with digital technology’s epochal assault on the stable self: first, take serious and substantial steps to humanize the digital world; second, retain (or return to) a serious relationship with the physical book.

The underlying concern with the Internet is not whether it will fragment our attention spans or mold our minds to the bit-work of modernity. In the end, it will likely do both. The deeper question is what can be done when we realize that we want some control over the exchange between our brains and the Web, that we want to protect our deeper sense of self from digital media’s dominance over modern life. . . .

The essence of our dilemma, one that weighs especially heavily on Generation Xers and millennials, is that the digital world disarms our ability to oppose it while luring us with assurances of convenience. It’s critical not only that we identify this process but also that we fully understand how digital media co-opt our sense of self while inhibiting our ability to reclaim it. . . .

This is not to suggest that we should aim to abolish digital media or disconnect completely — not at all. Instead, we must learn to humanize digital life as actively as we’ve digitized human life.

No one solution can restore equity to the human-digital relationship. Still, whatever means we pursue must be readily available (and cheap) and offer the convenience of information, entertainment, and social engagement while promoting identity-building experiences that anchor the self in society. Plato might not have approved, but the tool that’s best suited to achieve these goals today is an object so simple that I can almost feel the eye-rolls coming in response to such a nostalgic fix for a modern dilemma: the book. Saving the self in the age of the selfie may require nothing more or less complicated than recovering the lost art of serious reading. . . .

[A]s the fog of digital life descends, making us increasingly stressed out and unempathetic, solipsistic yet globally connected, and seeking solutions in the crucible of our own angst, it’s worth reiterating what reading does for the searching self. A physical book, which liberates us from pop-up ads and the temptation to click into oblivion when the prose gets dull, represents everything that an identity requires to discover Heidegger’s nearness amid digital tyranny. It offers immersion into inner experience, engagement in impassioned discussion, humility within a larger community, and the affirmation of an ineluctable quest to experience the consciousness of fellow humans. In this way, books can save us.

Full text: “Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie

Related reading:

Why I’m fed up with Amazon

Night_Sky_with_Stars

In the past I have both 1) praised Jeff Bezos for displaying what looks like a true love of books and reading, and 2) highlighted Amazon’s bullying and heavy-handedness in the publishing industry by linking to Steve Wasserman’s damning 2012 article “The Amazon Effect,” in which Wasserman, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times Books Review, explains how his early positive view of Bezos and Amazon soured over time as it became evident that the company is intent on “bulldozing any real or perceived obstacles to its single-minded pursuit of maximum clout” by imposing “increasingly harsh terms on both its competitors and its clients.”

Recently it’s looking like the scale has tipped definitively in favor of the negative judgment on both Bezos and his company. Or at least that’s my take, which is based on the fact, revealed just last week, that Amazon is now flat-out blackmailing publishers and authors into complying with their draconian demands by charging higher prices and delaying shipments for products from companies that resist them. Various other tactics are also involved, such as removing entire promotion pages for some books. What’s more, Amazon isn’t afraid to play this kind of hardball with books by big-name authors. Titles by J. K. Rowling, Anne River Siddons, and James Patterson are among those that have been affected.

Says The New York Times‘ David Streitfield and Melissa Eddy:

Amazon’s power over the publishing and bookselling industries is unrivaled in the modern era. Now it has started wielding its might in a more brazen way than ever before. Seeking ever-higher payments from publishers to bolster its anemic bottom line, Amazon is holding books and authors hostage on two continents by delaying shipments and raising prices. The literary community is fearful and outraged — and practically begging for government intervention. . . . No firm in American history has exerted the control over the American book market — physical, digital and secondhand — that Amazon does.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m personally fed up with this kind of crap, and this feeling applies to more than just the Amazon situation. Amazon is emblematic of a major cultural shift that has taken place in the Internet era as megacorporations representing various sectors of the business world and cultural life at large have attempted to hold us all hostage by playing an egregiously monopolistic game. And it all seems doubly sinister in a way that’s distinct from the monopolies of a past age, since this time the imperialistic and totalitarian business practices are hitched to, and also — or so the corporate titans hope — enabled and sweetened by, the digital-populist tone of “personal freedom and empowerment” that still attends the Internet like a lingering morning mist at midday.

This kind of thing makes me remember all over again why I ditched Facebook and Twitter. Among other reasons, I just got sick of being a willing pawn in the war of the Digital Overlords, where my personal data and decisions are used as leverage and ammunition. I’ve been thinking for many months that it may be time to ditch Amazon as well, and this recent revelation adds some serious weight to that consideration. This would of course mean going back and removing all of the Amazon affiliate links here at The Teeming Brain. I also own a Kindle and subscribe to Prime, so, you know, I’m pretty deeply entangled. And don’t think for a minute that I’m not aware of the tarry syrup of irony that automatically coats every word I type here, on a blog, using a computer that’s running a Windows operating system, thus reinforcing the basic thrust of the entire digital economy and cultural technopoly that I’m ostensibly criticizing.

I would be interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on this issue. Is Amazon really a tyrant? Would a personal boycott be advisable? Would it even be meaningful? More broadly, is the future just a giant playing field for megacorporations where the role of us peasants is simply to be trampled underfoot while saying thank you for it?

Image courtesy of mack2happy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How “the news” creates a fake hyperworld in our heads

This absorbing video condenses the message presented by philosopher Alain de Botton in his new book The News: A User’s Manual, whose basic thesis and purpose is described by the publisher as follows:

We are never really taught how to make sense of the torrent of news we face every day . . . but this has a huge impact on our sense of what matters and of how we should lead our lives. In his dazzling new book, de Botton takes twenty-five archetypal news stories — including an airplane crash, a murder, a celebrity interview and a political scandal — and submits them to unusually intense analysis with a view to helping us navigate our news-soaked age.

Here are the points made in the above video (and thus in de Botton’s bok), as distilled by me: Read the rest of this entry

Looking for a still point amid our digital cacophony? Consider writing in longhand.

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, I kept a longhand journal. It was where I learned the sound of my own inner voice and the rhythm of my own thoughts, and where I gained a more conscious awareness and understanding of the ideas, subjects, emotions, and themes that are, through sheer force of gravitational passion, my given subject matter as a writer and human being.

This writing discipline, which was powered by a combination of conscious will and involuntary compulsion (so deeply intermixed that I could never fully figure out where the one left off and the other began), began to alter itself spontaneously with my plunge into Internet culture circa 1995. To condense a very long story to a single sentence, almost from the very minute I entered the Internet fray, my desire to write by hand began to dwindle until it almost disappeared — but it remains something that I deliberately return to from time to time for inner recalibration and recentering, and I invariably find it so full of beneficial, soul-healing effects that I wonder every time why I ever abandoned it to begin with.

Now comes digital culture commentator Tom Chatfield, writing in City Journal about information age anxiety and the danger that we will be utterly swallowed by the vortex of digital noise and distraction that we have created. And he talks cogently about this very issue: the relationship between, and in fact the conflict between, the clear-souled act of writing by hand and the swirl of digital noise and distraction that otherwise cocoons us:

I have noticed, for example, that I think and feel differently depending on whether my cell phone is switched on or off. The knowledge that I am potentially contactable subtly alters the texture of my time. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of American adults have experienced “phantom” rings, thinking that their phones are vibrating or ringing when they aren’t. I now try to build some uncontactable time into each of my days — not because I fear technology but because feeling able to say no as well as yes helps me take ownership of my decisions. Without boundaries, without friction, value slips away.

I sometimes write in longhand simply to re-create some of this friction. When I write with a pen on paper, words flow with the sense that they exist just half a sentence ahead of the nib. The mechanical slowness of writing helps me feel words as objects as well as ideas, with a synesthetic pleasure in their arrival. Composing into a physical notebook helps writing and reverie mix, often unexpectedly: sentences and phrases arrive out of the blue. Pens and paper are themselves simply the technologies of another era. There’s no magic in them, no fetish to worship. It is the experiences they enable — not what they are in themselves — that I value, alongside the gifts of more recent innovations.

Yet I struggle to live up to my own plan. I check my e-mail too often. I ache for the tiny endorsement of a retweet. I panic at an hour’s loss of cell-phone reception. I entrust ever more of my life and library to third parties, from Amazon to Apple, whose “ecosystems” seem to absorb me.

Where is the still point of the turning world where I might stand, understand, and take back control?

— Tom Chatfield, “Anxious in the Information Age,” City Journal 23.3 (Summer 2013)

I can tell you that my own experience parallels that of Mr. Chatfield with uncanny precision. Perhaps yours does as well.

Relatedly, I encourage you to go and read Mitch Horowitz’s recent article about taking a “massive leap forward in your writing through one simple exercise.” And what is that exercise? It’s very simple, and also simply revolutionary, says Mitch:

First, identify a piece of critical writing that you admire — perhaps an essay, article or review — but above all, something that captures the vitality and discretion that you would like to bring to the page. Then, recopy it by hand.

In the action of copying the piece by hand — not typing on a computer or tablet — you will discover the innards and guts of what the writer is doing. Writing by hand, with pen and paper, compels you to become mentally and even physically involved in picking apart the work. You will gain a new perspective on how the writer says things, how he deploys evidence and examples, and how his sentences are designed to introduce details or withhold them for later.

— Mitch Horowitz, “How to Take a Massive Leap Forward in Your Writing through One Simple Exercise,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2013

Mitch goes on to describe how his hand-copying of an article by Jack Curry in The New York Times “reinvigorated my own passion for writing — and led me to focus on metaphysical history, which resulted in my two recent books: Occult America (Bantam, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014).”

Again, my own experience parallels what’s described here, because I myself have gotten enormous authorial mileage from copying down by hand the work of other writers.

And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve got to log off, pick up a pen, and spend some time blackening a few pages in the notebook (as in, a bound stack of real paper pages, not a petite laptop computer) that awaits my real-world attention. But before I do, if any of this speaks to you, then I suppose the upshot is obvious: go thou and do likewise.

Teeming Links – September 27, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening and presiding word comes from Jonathan Franzen:

While we are busy tweeting, texting and spending, the world is drifting towards disaster, believes Jonathan Franzen, whose despair at our insatiable technoconsumerism echoes the apocalyptic essays of the satirist Karl Kraus — “the Great Hater.”

Nowadays, the refrain is that “there’s no stopping our powerful new technologies”. Grassroots resistance to these technologies is almost entirely confined to health and safety issues, and meanwhile various logics – of war theory, of technology, of the marketplace – keep unfolding automatically. We find ourselves living in a world with hydrogen bombs because uranium bombs just weren’t going to get the job done; we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability — and who wouldn’t want them? — we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.

. . . The sea of trivial or false or empty data is millions of times larger now. Kraus was merely prognosticating when he envisioned a day when people had forgotten how to add and subtract; now it’s hard to get through a meal with friends without somebody reaching for an iPhone to retrieve the kind of fact it used to be the brain’s responsibility to remember. The techno-boosters, of course, see nothing wrong here. They point out that human beings have always outsourced memory – to poets, historians, spouses, books. But I’m enough of a child of the 60s to see a difference between letting your spouse remember your nieces’ birthdays and handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control.

— Jonathan Franzen, “What’s wrong with the modern world,” The Guardian, Friday, September 13, 2013

(Note that Franzen’s words in this piece have generated a large and varied response and backlash.)

* * *

Elites’ strange plot to take over the world (Salon)
“A few decades ago, politicians hatched a Tom Friedman-esque idea to unite U.S. and Western Europe. Did it succeed? Once we recognize that the Cold War saw the construction of a powerful international regime that explicitly sought to get rid of sovereign nations, these broad security architectures revealed by the Syria situation and the NSA spying revelations make a lot more sense.”

Pope condemns idolatry of cash in capitalism (The Guardian)
“Pope Francis has called for a global economic system that puts people and not ‘an idol called money’ at its heart. The 76-year-old said that God had wanted men and women to be at the heart of the world. ‘But now, in this ethics-less system, there is an idol at the centre and the world has become the idolater of this “money-god”,’ he added.”

From Crystal to Christ: A Once and Future Cathedral (First Things)
On the prominent and painful-to-watch implosion of Robert Schuller’s positive-thinking-based Protestant Christian ministry. “The implosion of the Crystal Cathedral can be explained in many ways — dysfunctional family dynamics, financial hard times, lack of wise leadership, and a changing religious climate. Moreover, today’s digital generation has no time for a whole ‘hour’ of power from anyone — two minutes on YouTube is enough! But long before the Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy, another kind of insolvency was at work eating away at the soul of the enterprise.”

DNA Doubletake (The New York Times)
“From biology class to ‘C.S.I.,’ we are told again and again that our genome is at the heart of our identity. Not long ago, researchers had thought it was rare for the cells in a single healthy person to differ genetically in a significant way. But scientists are finding that it’s quite common for an individual to have multiple genomes.”

A Toddler on 3 Different Psychiatric Meds? How Drugging Kids Became Big Business (AlterNet)
“Big pharma has discovered a lucrative new market in kids. The most recent estimates suggest that up to eight million American kids are on one or more psychiatric medications. Meds for kids are big business and highly profitable.”

Changing brains: Why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era (The Guardian)
“The big money has moved from developing psychiatric drugs to manipulating our brain networks. . . . Advances in neuroscience are not just discoveries. They also shape, as they always have done, how we view ourselves. As the Prozac nation fades, the empire of the circuit-based human will rise, probably to the point where dinner party chatter will include the misplaced jargon of systems neuroscience.”

Google vs. Death (Time, via 2045)
“How CEO Larry Page has transformed the search giant into a factory for moonshots. Our exclusive look at his boldest bet yet — to extend human life.”

Science: The religion that must not be questioned (The Guardian)
Fascinating: A senior editor at Nature not only points out the unduly quasi-religious attitude toward science that has infected public perception for many decades but argues that current journalism only exacerbates the problem: “TV programmes on science pursue a line that’s often cringe-makingly reverential. Switch on any episode of Horizon, and the mood lighting, doom-laden music and Shakespearean voiceover convince you that you are entering the Houses of the Holy — somewhere where debate and dissent are not so much not permitted as inconceivable.”

The_Secrets_of_Alchemy_by_Lawrence_PrincipeNo nearer the Philosopher’s Stone (The Times Literary Supplement)
“Lawrence M. Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy is a deeply gratifying book that brilliantly unveils the hidden wonders of that most shadowy and misunderstood art. Alchemy has not always been associated with esoteric mystics muttering necromantic incantations in the quest for spiritual purification. For much of its history, Principe reveals, alchemy was recognized as a sophisticated pursuit entailing the vigorous exertion of mind and hand, a convergence of laboratory experimentation and theoretical speculation that yielded spectacular control of chemical processes.”

Talk with me (Aeon)
“Western philosophy has its origins in conversation, in face-to-face discussions about reality, our place in the cosmos, and how we should live. The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society.”

Silencing the Djinns (City Journal)
A dam project is threatening the ancient city of Hasankeyf, nestled between the Tigris River and the steep cliffs of the Tur Abdin Plateau in southeastern Turkey. This article talks about the clash of spiritual cultures that this development represents. “Here one can see every aspect of urban life in the middle centuries of Islamic civilization, when power shifted from Baghdad and Cairo to Istanbul, Isfahan, and Delhi. So it is hardly a surprise to learn that there are djinns here, too. ‘There are as many djinns as there are people in the world,’ [shepherd Ali Ayhan] says firmly. ‘But we live in the shining places, and they live in the dark places. That valley is for them.'”

Teeming Links – September 20, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening word comes from novelist and National Book Award winner Richard Powers, speaking to The Believer magazine in 2007 about the unique value of reading — and specifically, reading fiction — in helping to “deliver us from certainty” during an age when a great deal of evil arises from a surplus of that empathy-less state of mind:

We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point of view. How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you? We can survive the disorientation; we even love immersing ourselves in it, so long as the trip is controllable and we can return to our own lives when the book ends. Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. As the pioneer neuropsychologist A. R. Luria once wrote, “To find the soul it is necessary to lose it.” To read another’s story, you have to lose yours.

. . . It seems to me that evil . . . might be the willful destruction of empathy. Evil is the refusal to see oneself in others. . . . I truly don’t know what role the novelist can play in a time of rising self-righteousness and escalating evil. Any story novelists create to reflect life accurately will now have to be improvised, provisional, and bewildered. But I do know that when I read a particularly moving and achieved work of fiction, I feel myself succumbing to all kinds of contagious rearrangement. Only inhabiting another’s story can deliver us from certainty.

. . . Our need for fiction also betrays a desire for kinds of knowing that nonfiction can’t easily reach. Nonfiction can assert; fiction can show asserters, and show what happens when assertions crash. Fiction can focalize and situate worldviews, pitching different perspectives and agendas against each other, linking beliefs to their believers, reflecting facts through their interpreters and interpreters through their facts. Fiction is a spreading, polysemous, relational network that captures the way that we and our worlds create each other. Whenever the best nonfiction really needs to persuade or clarify, it resorts to story. A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.

— “Interview with Richard Powers,” The Believer, February 2007

(Hat tip to Jesús Olmo for calling this interview to my attention.)

* * *

Not One Top Wall Street Executive Has Been Convicted of Criminal Charges Related to 2008 Crisis (Reuters – The Huffington Post)
“Five years on from the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the debate over how to hold senior bank bosses to account for failures is far from over, but legal sanctions for top executives remain a largely remote threat.”

Online Security Pioneer Predicts Grim Future (LiveScience)
“One of the creators of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption believes that the future of Internet security will see everyday users getting the short end of the stick. The United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) has likely compromised SSL, one of the foremost methods of Internet encryption. ‘There will be a huge pressure to catch up to NSA, and where this leads is not pretty.'”

CDC Threat Report: ‘We Will Soon Be in a Post-Antibiotic Era’ (Wired)
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just published a first-of-its-kind assessment of the threat the country faces from antibiotic-resistant organisms. ‘If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era,’ Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, said in a media briefing. ‘And for some patients and for some microbes, we are already there.'”

Class Is Seen Dividing Harvard Business School (The New York Times)
Truly bothersome information on the way the ultrawealthy are segregating themselves into a walled-off elite at America’s premier business school. Sign of the times. Culture replicating itself from above and below.

The More a Society Coerces Its People, the Greater the Chance of Mental Illness (AlterNet)
“Coercion — the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance — is intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling and parenting. . . . [The partnership between Big Pharma and Big Money] has helped bury the commonsense reality that an extremely coercive society creates enormous fear and resentment, which results in miserable marriages, unhappy families and severe emotional and behavioral problems.”

Science Confirms The Obvious: Pharmaceutical Ads Are Misleading (Popular Science)
“The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that allows pharmaceutical companies to market their products directly to consumers — in commercials like those cute little Zoloft ads and all those coy Viagra spots. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a new study finds that when over-the-counter and prescription drug companies make commercials trying to sell the public on their product, they’re not always the most truthful.”

Reparative Compulsions (The New Inquiry)
“Social media works similarly [to gambling casinos], aiming to ensconce users in a total environment that ministers to their anxieties by stimulating them in a routinized fashion. . . . Is anyone thinking of me? What are people doing? Do I belong? Am I connected? These continuous processes allow us to digest our memories, experiences and fears and excrete commercially useful information.”

Stephen King: True compassion lies at the heart of horror (The Telegraph)
“Stephen King’s books convey terror through character in a way that films never can. . . . This makes King different from the horror writers of a previous generation — Dennis Wheatley with his wicked aristocrats or H P Lovecraft with his luxuriant, ornate prose.”

David Attenborough: “I believe the Abominable Snowman may be real” (Radio Times)
Hat tip to Matt Staggs at Disinfo. “The world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster says he thinks the creature of Himalayan legend — which has a North American cousin known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch — could be much more than a myth.”

Unholy mystery (Aeon)
How fictional detectives, in the wake of the cultural religious disillusionments following the advent of Darwinian evolutionary theory, came to take the place of priests and shamans in the modern secular mind.

Brazilian Believers of Hidden Religion Step out of Shadows (NPR)
On the new and increasing mainstream cultural status of Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé, which are based on the experience of spirit possession, and which are coming forward for the first time to assert a claim to above-board political, economic, and social power. “Followers believe in one all-powerful god who is served by lesser deities. Individual initiates have their personal guiding deity, who acts as an inspiration and protector. There is no concept of good or evil, only individual destiny.”

Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of Marvels (Joscelyn Godwin for New Dawn)
“The museum of Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in the Jesuit College of Rome was an obligatory stop for high-class tourists, from John Evelyn the diarist to Queen Christina of Sweden, but they never knew what to expect. . . . By the time of his death Kircher’s world view was already under demolition by the Scientific Revolution.”

Frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in 1652-1654. By .Ihcoyc at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in 1652-1654. By .Ihcoyc at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

NSA director modeled war room after Star Trek’s Enterprise (PBS Newshour)
“In an in-depth profile of NSA Director Keith B. Alexander, Foreign Policy reveals that one of the ways the general endeared himself to lawmakers and officials was to make them feel like Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise from the TV series ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.'”

Educating the Potential Human — Skepticism, Psychical Research and a New Age of Reason (David Metcalfe for Disinfo)
“Whatever one’s personal beliefs on the subject of anomalous experience, it seems a bit blind not to realize that much of the heated conversation on the topic has nothing to do with actual understanding, and plays directly into the hands of profiteers of one sort or another, even down to the most mundane level of ego stroking experts on both sides who use the lack of clarity in the situation to support their personal brands.”

A New Story of the People (Charles Eisenstein)
A brilliant portion of Eisenstein’s talk at TEDxWhitechapel, set to a compelling video complement, that explores the process of changing the world by changing our narrative about it. “The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation.”

Dystopia now: We’re living in (and living out) a real-life “Harrison Bergeron” scenario

By Butenkova Olga (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Butenkova Olga (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rebecca Solnit, writing in London Review of Books:

In or around June 1995 human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago.

. . . Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

I live in the heart of it, and it’s normal to walk through a crowd — on a train, or a group of young people waiting to eat in a restaurant — in which everyone is staring at the tiny screens in their hands. It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.

. . . A short story that comes back to me over and over again is Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’, or one small bit of it. Since all men and women aren’t exactly created equal, in this dystopian bit of science fiction a future America makes them equal by force: ballerinas wear weights so they won’t be more graceful than anyone else, and really smart people wear earpieces that produce bursts of noise every few minutes to interrupt their thought processes. They are ‘required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.’ For the smartest person in Vonnegut’s story, the radio transmitter isn’t enough: ‘Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.’

We have all signed up to wear those earpieces, a future form of new media that will chop our consciousnesses into small dice. Google has made real the interruptors that Vonnegut thought of as a fantasy evil for his dystopian 2081.

MORE: “Diary: In the Day of the Postman

Teeming Links – September 13, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Far Away from Solid Modernity (Revolution: Global Trends and Regional Issues)
Zygmunt Bauman on liquid modernity and our unfolding apocalypse. “[We live in a society] which, moving relentlessly towards the apocalypse, does not care (does not want to care or is not able to) about the security and well-being of human community spreading one’s ideas.”

The Tech Intellectuals (Democracy: A Journal of Ideas)
“The good, bad, and ugly among our new breed of cyber-critics, and the economic imperatives that drive them.” Henry Farrell argues that the “tech intellectual,” today’s version of the public intellectual, works in an “attention economy” that’s based on using digital media to attract enough notice to make a living by spreading one’s ideas.

Gobekli Tepe Was No Laughing Matter (Science 2.0)
“The circular stone enclosures known as the temple at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey remain the oldest of its kind, dating back to around the 10th millennium B.C. But Göbekli Tepe may also be the world’s oldest science building. Giulio Magli of the Polytechnic University of Milan hypothesizes it may have been built due to the ‘birth’ of a ‘new’ star; the brightest star and fourth brightest object of the sky, what we call Sirius (Greek for ‘glowing’). . . . Magli says this new star may have prompted a new religion that was not evident anywhere else. Or, as is the case of Stonehenge, it could have been a multi-purpose astronomical observatory that also became a religious site.”

Crimes Against Humanities (The New Republic)
Here is Leon Wieseltier’s brilliant rejoinder to Steven Pinker’s recent and deeply wrong-headed essay about the relationship between science and the humanities. “The superiority of the sciences to the humanities in Pinker’s account is made clear by his proposed solution to the crisis in the humanities: ‘an infusion of new ideas,’ which turns out to be an infusion of scientific ideas. There is nothing wrong with the humanities that the sciences cannot fix. . . . With his dawn-is-breaking scientistic cheerleading, Pinker shows no trace of the skepticism whose absence he deplores in others. His sunny scientizing blurs distinctions and buries problems.”

Beyond black: Laird Barron and the evolution of cosmic horror (Slate)
“What finally emerges from cosmic horror’s miasmic evolution over the course of the 20th century is a literary concept that is equal parts genre and philosophy, cerebral and primordial. . . . Enter the Alaskan-born Laird Barron, author of two novels and two previous story collections, who is equally concerned with mucusy gross-out and cosmic doom as he is with language, formal experimentation, and, above all, character.”

Teen’s hairy run-in with 7-footer probed as Bigfoot encounter (The Omaha World Herald)
“A hair sample found at the site was still being analyzed. A 15-year-old reported seeing the creature, which he said stood about 7 feet tall on two legs as it ran in front of the vehicle the youth was driving about 5:30 a.m. The creature then disappeared into the trees along the river. [Saunders County Sheriff Kevin] Stukenholtz, who became county sheriff six years ago after a long career with the Nebraska State Patrol, said he has no reason to believe the report was a hoax. . . . [Idaho State University anthropology and anatomy professor Jeff] Meldrum said he’s convinced that in the Pacific Northwest and other heavily wooded U.S. areas with proper rainfall there might be a ‘relic population of a rare primate.'”

Unafraid of alienating themselves (Portland Press Herald)
“Two Maine men who claim they were abducted by extraterrestrials aren’t shy about retelling their stories. . . . In the world of ufology — the oft-marginalized study of unidentified flying objects and the accompanying foreign beings that purportedly interact with people on Earth — the ‘Allagash incident’ ranks among the most substantiated in the United States.”

Fandom & Fantasy: Exploring the Anomalous at Dragon Con

DragonCon Babylon

Exterior view of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis

 

A living person is forgiven everything, except for being present among the dying ones of this world.  “Oh, holiest sacrifice of the (children) of the unique one.”

— Louis Cattiaux

It is odd to step out of my personal reality and into a fantasy world much more mundane than the mere act of making coffee in the morning at the Liminal Analytics Georgia offices. But so it was last week as I entered the neo-Babylonian hotel complex that hosts Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta each year. “There are no real freaks* here,” I murmured to my traveling companion at the convention, Dr. Tim Brigham, a professor of experimental psychology at Georgia Perimeter College, as we looked around at the nervous faces of conference attendees who were dressed as their favorite characters (or as those most convenient to their sense of outward escape). “Maybe once it gets dark, we’ll get some spirited folks in here,” I opined aloud as the agitated buzz of students, executives, and average Americans bent on an escapist weekend began getting on my nerves, making me wish I could leave for a nice, normal afternoon at a local Botanica to study the beautiful skeletal visage of la niña bonita, Santa Muerte.

Rationalized irrationality

Upwards of 60,000 people converged on Atlanta this year to attend one of the largest  fantasy, science fiction, comic, and gaming conventions in the world. I mused and milled among the Dragon Con attendees with Dr. Brigham as we awaited an opportunity to see how the realms of anomalous science might fare in such a heady environment. The convention played host to two well-stocked tracks of paranormal and skeptical speakers, and so it seemed a perfect opportunity to understand how the ideas that Dr. Brigham and I are used to experiencing through laboratory work, statistical analysis, and philosophical discourse play out in the public domain. And play they did, to the abrasive tune of crass commercialization and the repetitious mantra “I am here to escape.”

Having spent time with some of the world’s leading parapsychologists, I’ve often been confused as to how the skeptical subculture can exist in such seeming disconnect with everything that I’ve encountered during my reading, travels, and conversations. Dragon Con provided me with an unpalatable answer by revealing the illusory landscape of fantasy and fandom that the skeptics inhabit, far afield from those liminal, but legitimate, climates where anomalistic science holds proper court. If this is what the skeptics consider a reasonable place to air their ideas, then I’m not surprised that they express such dismay at the state of anomalistic science. I’ve never seen even one of these people at any of the serious parapsychological events that I’ve attended or hosted, and nothing I’ve attended or hosted has ever been so fraught with fiction as this Dragon Con convention. Yet here among the cosplay and comic books were such leading lights of the skeptical subculture as Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, Michael Stackpole, and Massimo Pigliucci.

Without going to Dragon Con, you can get a sense of where many popular skeptics are coming from in the fact that Ben Radford is a staff writer for Discovery News, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, the company that has received attention recently for its decision to run television specials claiming the existence of living megalodon sharks (which have been extinct for upwards of 2 million years) and mermaids (which have probably never existed). The cognitive dissonance that’s palpable in this promotion of pulp fiction as fact by what purports to be a leading science education platform fact gives writers like Radford the leeway to make strange claims, such as his contention that the legendary Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Remote Viewing project returned no valid results. At Dragon Con I was unable to find anyone who had even heard of SRI, let alone who had looked at the research itself, and so skeptics like Radford, when pitted against a paranormal panel track stocked with ghost hunters, professional psychic mediums, a demonologist, and some UFO experts, were able to weave their web of rationalized irrationality with ease.

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – September 6, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To introduce today’s offering of necessary and recommended reading, here’s a description of a trend in academia that represents one of the most ironic of all ironies (as described by the excerpt), and also one of the most welcome and revealing developments of the present age:

It’s odd how many academic disciplines grew out of the study of trance or ecstatic states. . . . Psychology, neurology, sociology and anthropology all began, in the late 19th century, with the study of ecstatic, charismatic, or trance states. They all found naturalistic interpretations for such states. And they were usually pejorative explanations. The academic distinguished himself from the ecstatic individual or crowd by remaining outside the trance, dispassionately analysing it, classifying it. The academic is masculine, European, conscious, rational, self-controlled. The ecstatic individual or group is feminine, unconscious, irrational, uncontrolled, weak-willed, hysterical, childish, primitive, degenerate.

I’d go as far as to say modern academia is founded on the rejection of the supernatural, including the rejection of revelation-through-trance. It’s the foundational principle of so many of its departments — not just the social sciences, but also economics, history, even literary criticism. Academia is a machine for disenchantment.

. . . [V]ery slowly, there are signs that a [William] Jamesian spirit is returning to academia, and the cross-disciplinary study of ‘unusual’ or ‘altered’ states of consciousness is making a come-back. . . . [Various academic and scientific disciplines are] exploring the value of unconscious or altered conscious states, of involuntary experiences like trances and ecstasies. The researchers in the field are by no means committed to belief in some metaphysical ‘beyond’, or God, but they do tend to think that altered or unusual states are not always simply pathological — they can sometimes be positive and life-enhancing.

. . . Academics and non-academics working on this field need to summon up the spirit of William James to take it forward, by cultivating the Jamesian virtues of open-mindedness, interdisciplinarity, humility, sympathetic scepticism, empathy and respect for people’s experience, and above all, a willingness to be thought foolish.

— Jules Evans, “The New Science of Religious Experiences,” Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, September 6, 2013

* * *

The Future of History (Foreign Affairs)
Francis Fukayama famously announced “the end of history” in 1989, after which all kinds of stunning new history swiftly transpired. Now — or rather, in January 2012, which is when this piece appeared — he’s wondering about a different kind of ending. In this piece (whose full text, alas, resides behind a paywall), he is inspired by the global financial crisis to ask whether liberal democracy, “the default ideology around much of the world today,” can survive the death of the middle class. Thanks go out to David Pecotic for the link.

The sad realisation that you’ve stopped reading books (Daily Life)
“Somewhere between the invention of Facebook, Game of Thrones entering a third season and the 356th Gif ‘listicle’ on Buzzfeed about signs you’re almost 30, I stopped reading books. . . . [I]ncreasingly, it seems the dizzying superabundance of readable and watchable and eminently digestible stuff on the internet is proving a powerful opponent..”

Traveling without seeing (The New York Times)
“I’m half a world from home [in Shanghai], in a city I’ve never explored, with fresh sights and sounds around every corner. And what am I doing? I’m watching exactly the kind of television program I might watch in my Manhattan apartment. . . . [We have an] unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.”

The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real (Pacific Standard)
Max Weber’s classic early-twentieth-century sociological/economic treatise The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism — which argued that Calvinist insecurity about one’s eternal destiny was the ironic and primary psychological and societal force that created modern capitalism — has always made sense to me personally, even though in recent years it has been fashionable to claim that Weber’s idea was mostly fanciful. Now here’s some news about several recent studies that indicate he really was onto something.

TED talks now routinely censoring scientists who share ideas on consciousness (Natural News)
The tone of this opinion piece is too wildly polemical for my taste (as is the author’s bizarre non sequitur of a tangent about racism), but the subject, the thesis, the supporting evidence, and the writer’s reasoning and conclusion are quite significant: “To really understand the desperation behind TED’s censorship and attempted suppression of ideas from people like [Graham] Hancock and [Rupert] Sheldrake, you first have to understand why the idea of consciousness is so incredibly dangerous to the mythology of modern-day science.” Read this in tandem with the item directly below.

Science vs. Pseudoscience (The Huffington Post)
Read this in tandem with the item directly above. It’s written by computational scientist, emeritus professor of mathematics, and former NASA researcher Dave Pruett, and it explores the epic pro-materialist/anti-consciousness bias of what we call mainstream science, using the Sheldrake and Hancock TED controversy as a starting point: “Sheldrake’s and Graham’s offense: proposing the unorthodox view that consciousness is nonlocal. . . . Nonlocality is now mainstream in physics. Psi phenomena strongly suggest that consciousness is also both nonlocal and collective. Were mainstream science able to relax its rigid orthodoxy, rigorous scientific investigations could help to confirm or refute this hypothesis, to shed light on the numinous qualities of the cosmos, and to probe the full potential of the human being.”

I Dream of Genius (Joseph Epstein for Commentary Magazine)
An excellent, concise history of the very idea of “genius,” including a look at its previous meaning in the form of the Socratic daimon and the Roman genius spirit and the way this was fatefully altered in Western cultural history: “The dividing line for our understanding of genius was the 18th century. In an emerging secular age, Descartes and Voltaire removed the tutelary-angel aspect from the conception. . . . Men were no longer thought to have genius but to be geniuses. . . . Genius, meanwhile, remains the least understood of all kinds of intelligence. The explanation for the existence of geniuses and accounting for their extraordinary powers have thus far eluded all attempts at scientific study. . . . I find it pleasing that science cannot account for genius. I do not myself believe in miracles, but I do have a strong taste for mysteries, and the presence, usually at lengthy intervals, of geniuses is among the great ones.”

Slash on His New Horror Film, Nothing Left to Fear (The Huffington Post)
Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash has co-produced and written the score for a new horror film. Here he talks about the film and his lifelong relationship to the genre, with references to H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Night of the Living Dead, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. He also comes off as quite reflective and well-spoken. Okay, mind officially blown.

Aleister Crowley and esoteric art open window to the sacred (The Sydney Morning Herald)
“[Crowley’s] landscapes and trance paintings were created as part of his occult practices and influenced by symbolism and expressionism, says curator Robert Buratti. . . . Buratti says esoteric art is usually part of a personal spiritual practice, often of a ritual or magical nature. ‘It fundamentally asks the artist to delve into their own existence, and the artwork functions like a diary of that ordeal or a prompt to delve even further,’ he says. He says esoteric artists such as [Rosaleen] Norton and James Gleeson, the father of Australian Surrealism, use techniques like meditative trance to find a deeper truth.”