Category Archives: Society & Culture

Your smartphone is built to hijack and harvest your mind

At the beginning of each semester I tell my students the very thing that journalist Zat Rana gets at in a recent article for Quartz when I deliver a mini-sermon about my complete ban on phones — and also, for almost all purposes, laptops — in my classroom. A smartphone or almost any cell phone in your hand, on your desk, or even in your pocket as you’re trying to concentrate on important other things is a vampire demon powered by dystopian corporate overlords whose sole purpose is to suck your soul by siphoning away your attention and immersing you in a portable customized Matrix.

Or as Rana says, in less metaphorical language:

One of the biggest problems of our generation is that while the ability to manage our attention is becoming increasingly valuable, the world around us is being designed to steal away as much of it as possible….Companies like Google and Facebook aren’t just creating products anymore. They’re building ecosystems. And the most effective way to monetize an ecosystem is to begin with engagement. It’s by designing their features to ensure that we give up as much of our attention as possible.

Full Text: “Technology is destroying the most important asset in your life

Rana offers three pieces of sound advice for helping to reclaim your attention (which is the asset referred to in the title): mindfulness meditation, “ruthless single-tasking,” and regular periods of deliberate detachment from the digital world.

Interestingly, it looks like there’s a mini-wave of this type of awareness building in the mediasphere. Rana’s article for Quartz was published on October 2. Four days later The Guardian published a provocative and alarming piece with this teaser: “Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet. Paul Lewis reports on the Silicon Valley refuseniks alarmed by a race for human attention.” It’s a very long and in-depth article. Here’s a taste:

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity — even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”

But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosenstein’s peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it. . . .

Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive “likes” for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder. . . .

“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will,” [ex-Google strategist James Williams] says. “If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.” If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?

“Will we be able to recognise it, if and when it happens?” Williams replies. “And if we can’t, then how do we know it hasn’t happened already?”

Full Text: “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: The tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia

In the same vein, Nicholas Carr (no stranger to The Teeming Brain’s pages) published a similarly aimed — and even a similarly titled — essay in the Weekend Review section of The Wall Street Journal on the very day the Guardian article appeared (October 6). “Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens,” says the teaser. Here’s a representative passage from the essay itself:

Scientists have long known that the brain is a monitoring system as well as a thinking system. Its attention is drawn toward any object in the environment that is new, intriguing or otherwise striking — that has, in the psychological jargon, “salience.” Media and communication devices, from telephones to TV sets, have always tapped into this instinct. Whether turned on or switched off, they promise an unending supply of information and experiences. By design, they grab and hold our attention in ways natural objects never could.

But even in the history of captivating media, the smartphone stands out. It’s an attention magnet unlike any our minds have had to grapple with before. Because the phone is packed with so many forms of information and so many useful and entertaining functions, it acts as what [Adrian] Ward calls a “supernormal stimulus,” one that can “hijack” attention whenever it’s part of the surroundings — which it always is. Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library, and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That’s what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.

Full Text: “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds

At his blog Carr noted the simultaneous appearance of his essay and the Guardian article on the same day. He also noted the striking coincidence of the similarity between the titles, calling it a “telling coincidence” and commenting:

It’s been clear for some time that smartphones and social-media apps are powerful distraction machines. They routinely divide our attention. But the “hijack” metaphor — I took it from Adrian Ward’s article “Supernormal” — implies a phenomenon greater and more insidious than distraction. To hijack something is to seize control of it from its rightful owner. What’s up for grabs is your mind.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about all of this is that John Carpenter warned us about it three decades ago, and not vaguely, but quite specifically and pointedly. The only difference is that the technology in his (quasi-)fictional presentation was television. Well, that, plus the fact that his evil overlords really were ill-intentioned, whereas ours may be in some cases as much victims of their own devices as we are. In any event:

There is a signal broadcast every second of every day through our television sets. Even when the set is turned off, the brain receives the input. . . . Our impulses are being redirected. We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep. . . . We have been lulled into a trance.

The tragedy of Rome and the farce of America

I’m confident that what follows is the best paragraph I’ll read this week. I daresay it may be the best one you’ll read, too. Unsurprisingly, it’s from James Howard Kunstler’s blog. For me, it provides both a substantively and a tonally accurate description of what I’ve been seeing, hearing, and experiencing around me in recent weeks and months (and years).

Poor old Karl Marx, tortured by boils and phantoms, was right about one thing: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Thus, I give you the Roman Empire and now the United States of America. Rome surrendered to time and entropy. Our method is to drive a gigantic clown car into a ditch.

BONUS ITEM: Here’s the best headline I’ve read in recent memory. The story itself resides behind a paywall at The Washington Post, so I don’t know what it actually says, but the headline alone probably says it all:

Rocket man and dotard go bonkers in toontown

I can’t help wondering if this headline might serve for future generations as some sort of quasi/crypto-Zen koan of esoteric fascination, in the same way that “No Wife, No Horse, No Mustache” worked for Robert Anton Wilson.

 

The Sad Failure of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ to Prevent the Future

Teeming Brain readers are familiar with my longtime focus on Fahrenheit 451 and my abiding sense that we’re currently caught up in a real-world version of its dystopian vision. This is not, of course, an opinion peculiar to me. Many others have held it, too, including, to an extent, Bradbury himself. I know that some of you, my readers, share it as well.

As of a couple of weeks ago, a writer for the pop culture analysis website Acculturated has publicly joined the fold:

Ray Bradbury often said that he wrote science fiction not to predict the future but to prevent it. On this score, Fahrenheit 451 seems to have failed. The free speech wars on college campuses, the siloing effect of technology, the intolerance of diverse political opinions, and the virtual cocoon provided by perpetual entertainment all suggest that Bradbury anticipated the future with an accuracy unparalleled elsewhere in science fiction literature.

It’s a strange irony that, in the age of the Internet, which was supposed to encourage more transparency and debate, the open exchange of ideas is under threat. This was pointed out by another famous science fiction writer, Michael Crichton. “In the information society,” says Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “No one thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.” Bradbury saw this coming many decades earlier, and he understood why. Exposure to new ideas is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Staying safe, comfortable, and equal requires that everyone think identically. Liberal learning, the crucible that forms the individual, is anathema to group identity and cannot be tolerated. If you disagree, you’re morally suspect.

Which is why we need Bradbury’s message today more than ever. In a coda to the 1979 printing of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury wrote: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

Full Text: “Ray Bradbury Wrote ‘Fahrenheit 451’ to Prevent a Dystopia. Instead, He Predicted One

(If you click through to read the full text, be aware that the first paragraph of the piece presents a slightly inaccurate potted history of Bradbury’s career trajectory that implies he only rose to literary prominence with the publication of F451 in 1953. In fact, some of his previous books and stories, including, especially, 1950’s The Martian Chronicles, had already brought him considerable attention and acclaim.)

For more on the same theme, see my previous posts “On living well in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia: Notes toward a monastic response” and “Facebook, Fahrenheit 451, and the crossing of a cultural threshold,” as well as the Strange Horizons essay “The Failure of Fahrenheit 451.”

For thoughts from the author himself, see the 2007 LA Weekly piece Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted,” featuring Bradbury’s comments on the reality of F451-like trends in contemporary society. (However, Bradbury’s comments in that article/interview should be read in tandem with this context-creating response from his biographer, Sam Weller.) Also see Bradbury’s interviews for A.V. Club and the Peoria Journal Star for more observations from him about the encroaching threat of his novel’s realization in the world around us. And see especially his 1998 interview for Wired, titled “Bradbury’s Tomorrowland,” in which he said the following:

Almost everything in Fahrenheit 451 has come about, one way or the other — the influence of television, the rise of local TV news, the neglect of education. As a result, one area of our society is brainless. But I utilized those things in the novel because I was trying to prevent a future, not predict one.

Our smartphone apocalypse, animated by Steve Cutts

This remarkable animation comes from the hand (or computer) of illustrator and animator Steve Cutts, famed for such things as 2012’s Man, which packs an unbelievable punch. So does the one I’ve chosen to post here. Cutts created it for last year’s hit song “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” by Moby and The Void Pacific Choir. But I personally like this slight repurposing much better, where the musical accompaniment is changed to French composer Yann Tiersen’s “Comptine d’un autre été, l’après-midi” (best known for being featured in the soundtrack for the 2001 French film Amélie).

The story told by the visuals, and also by the piercingly beautiful and sad musical accompaniment, can stand without comment here, as Teeming Brain readers are well aware of my deep disturbance and unhappiness at the digital dystopia that has emerged in the age of the smartphone. I consider Cutts something of a genius, both for his choice of animation style and for his devastating accuracy in calling out the dark and despairing heart of this cultural dead end in fairly visionary fashion. And no, the fact that his creation of this animation, and my sharing of it here, and your reading of it, is all facilitated by the existence of networked computers doesn’t invalidate the message with a fatal irony. We could probably do better, culturally and humanly speaking, in our uses of these technologies. But instead we’re apparently inclined to give way, en masse, to our lowest impulses, resulting in a kind of digital Dante’s Inferno whose factual reality isn’t really all that far from the only slightly exaggerated version presented by Cutts.

A grateful acknowledgment goes out to Jesús Olmo, who introduced me to Cutts by sending me a link to Man last month.

Our Craving for Apocalypse: ‘Dispatches from the Ruins’ (short video)

This brief video essay on the source of our collective craving for “the awful futures of apocalyptic fiction” is really well done. Skillfully executed and thought-provoking. A worthwhile investment of five reflective minutes. Here’s the description:

In the first two decades of the new millennium, stories of the post-apocalypse have permeated pop culture, from books such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) to films and TV programmes such as The Walking Dead (2010-), the Hunger Games series (2012-15) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). While post-apocalyptic fictions of previous eras largely served as cautionary tales — against nuclear brinksmanship in On the Beach (1959) or weaponised biology in The Stand (1978) — today’s versions of these tales depict less alterable, more oblique and diffuse visions of our doom. So why can’t we seem to get enough of humanity’s unavoidable collapse and its bleak aftermath?

Dispatches from the Ruins reflects on what these stories — set among crumbling buildings, overgrown lots and barren wastelands — might be telling us about modern fears and fantasies. This Aeon original video is adapted from an Aeon essay by the US writer Frank Bures. Bures is also the author of The Geography of Madness (2016), a book about cultural syndromes across the world. His work has been included in the Best American Travel Writing and appeared in Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly and the Washington Post Magazine, among others.

 

One Nation under Many Gods: In a Fractious and Fractured Political Age, New Age Mysticism Still Unites Americans

 A version of the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States printed in a 1909 U.S. Government booklet on the Great Seal. According to Henry A. Wallace, this was the version that caught his eye, causing him to suggest to President Franklin Roosevelt to put the design on a coin, at which point Roosevelt decided to put it on the back of the dollar bill.

 

A newly published article at Salon by Mitch Horowitz is typically insightful and well-written, and well worth your time.  And despite the headline, it’s not really about Steve Bannon. I mean, yes, it does contain the revelation that Horowitz knows Bannon, and that his view of the man diverges sharply from the widespread popular one that reigns in the mass media:

Although the media have characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration, I knew him, and still do, as a deeply read and erudite observer of the American religious scene, with a keen appetite for mystical thought.

But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd:

Rather than fomenting secrecy or subterfuge, America’s embrace of esotericism is often characterized by a chin-out earnestness, something that many observers and conspiracy-mongers miss.. . . . Today, cable television producers and radio hosts often urge me to postulate some kind of occult “pact” between the Bushes and the dark side (cue up Skull and Bones). But such things are fantasy. The truth is, Americans have always been, well, a little strange. As a historian, I feel affection for that aspect of American life. Shadowy figures have long hung around the fringes of power in many nations; but rarely have they done so with the ingenuousness and transparency of those I’ve been considering.

And to cap it off, he ends on a note that is positively eloquent and inspiring:

If there is a central principle in American life, one valued across our political spectrum, it is a belief in the protection of the individual search for meaning. The presence and persistence of esoteric and unusual religious ideas in our political culture, including in its most conservative quarters, serves as evidence that that core principle is still working. In the U.S. military, religiously observant service members and veterans can now choose among more than 65 “emblems of belief,” including pentagrams, druidic symbols and every variety of mystical insignia. We are truly one nation under many gods — a fact that unites us across our fractured political divide.

FULL TEXT: “Steve Bannon and the Occult: The Right Wing’s Long, Strange Love Affair with New Age Mysticism

Orwell Meets Frankenstein: The Internet as a Monster of Mass Surveillance and Social Control

The following paragraphs are from a talk delivered by Pinboard founder Maciej Cegłowski at the recent Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise conference in Philadelphia.  Citing as Exhibit A the colossal train wreck that was the 2016 American presidential election, Cegłowski basically explains how, in the current version of the Internet that has emerged over the past decade-plus, we have collectively created a technology that is perfectly calibrated for undermining Western democratic societies and ideals.

But as incisive as his analysis is, I seriously doubt that his (equally incisive) proposed solutions, described later in the piece, will ever be implemented to any meaningful extent. I mean, if we’re going to employ the explicitly Frankensteinian metaphor of “building a monster,” then it’s important to bear in mind that Victor Frankenstein and his wretched creation did not find their way to anything resembling a happy ending. (And note that Cegłowski himself acknowledges as much at the end of his piece when he closes his discussion of proposed solutions by asserting that “even though we’re likely to fail, all we can do is try.”)

This year especially there’s an uncomfortable feeling in the tech industry that we did something wrong, that in following our credo of “move fast and break things,” some of what we knocked down were the load-bearing walls of our democracy. . . .

A question few are asking is whether the tools of mass surveillance and social control we spent the last decade building could have had anything to do with the debacle of the 2017 [sic] election, or whether destroying local journalism and making national journalism so dependent on our platforms was, in retrospect, a good idea. . . .

We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we’re good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it? . . .

The economic basis of the Internet is surveillance. Every interaction with a computing device leaves a data trail, and whole industries exist to consume this data. Unlike dystopian visions from the past, this surveillance is not just being conducted by governments or faceless corporations. Instead, it’s the work of a small number of sympathetic tech companies with likable founders, whose real dream is to build robots and Mars rockets and do cool things that make the world better. Surveillance just pays the bills. . . .

Orwell imagined a world in which the state could shamelessly rewrite the past. The Internet has taught us that people are happy to do this work themselves, provided they have their peer group with them, and a common enemy to unite against. They will happily construct alternative realities for themselves, and adjust them as necessary to fit the changing facts . . . .

A lot of what we call “disruption” in the tech industry has just been killing flawed but established institutions, and mining them for parts. When we do this, we make a dangerous assumption about our ability to undo our own bad decisions, or the time span required to build institutions that match the needs of new realities.

Right now, a small caste of programmers is in charge of the surveillance economy, and has broad latitude to change it. But this situation will not last for long. The kinds of black-box machine learning that have been so successful in the age of mass surveillance are going to become commoditized and will no longer require skilled artisans to deploy. . . .

Unless something happens to mobilize the tech workforce, or unless the advertising bubble finally bursts, we can expect the weird, topsy-turvy status quo of 2017 to solidify into the new reality.

FULL TEXT: “Build a Better Monster: Morality, Machine Learning, and Mass Surveillance

WE SLEEP – John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ as Prophecy (video essay)

Love this video essay from filmmaker (and former Buddhist Studies scholar) Daniel Clarkson Fisher. Perhaps you will, too. It’s great stuff, excellently conceived and executed. Perhaps I don’t agree with absolutely all of the political statements made in it. But I agree with enough of them. And anyway, it’s about Carpenter’s They Live. So what else matters?

From the included interviews:

Slavov Zizek: They Live from 1988 is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. It tells the story of John Nada — nada, of course, in Spanish, means “nothing,” a pure subject deprived of all substantial content — a homeless worker in L.A. who, drifting around, one day enters an abandoned church and finds there a strange box full of sunglasses. And when he puts one of them on, walking along the L.A. streets, he discovers something weird: that these glasses function like “critique of ideology” glasses. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, publicity glitz, posters, and so on.

John Carpenter: I was reflecting on a lot of the values that I saw around me at the time, mainly inspired by Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution. There was a great deal of obsession with greed and making a lot of money, and some of the values that I grew up with had been pushed aside. So I decided to scream out in the middle of the night and make a statement about that. And They Live is partially a political statement. It’s partially a tract on the world that we live in today. And as a matter of fact, right now it’s even more true than it was then.

Indigenous myths, animal ESP, and portents of apocalyptic transformation

Here’s science writer Carrie Arnold, in a newly published article at Aeon titled “Watchers of the Earth,” discussing the possibility that indigenous myths may carry warning signals for natural disasters:

Shortly before 8am on 26 December 2004, the cicadas fell silent and the ground shook in dismay. The Moken, an isolated tribe on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, knew that the Laboon, the ‘wave that eats people’, had stirred from his ocean lair. The Moken also knew what was next: a towering wall of water washing over their island, cleansing it of all that was evil and impure. To heed the Laboon’s warning signs, elders told their children, run to high ground.

The tiny Andaman and Nicobar Islands were directly in the path of the tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Final totals put the islands’ death toll at 1,879, with another 5,600 people missing. When relief workers finally came ashore, however, they realised that the death toll was skewed. The islanders who had heard the stories about the Laboon or similar mythological figures survived the tsunami essentially unscathed. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern Nicobar Islands. Part of the reason was the area’s geography, which generated a higher wave. But also at the root was the lack of a legacy; many residents in the city of Port Blair were outsiders, leaving them with no indigenous tsunami warning system to guide them to higher ground.

Humanity has always courted disaster. We have lived, died and even thrived alongside vengeful volcanoes and merciless waves. Some disasters arrive without warning, leaving survival to luck. Often, however, there is a small window of time giving people a chance to escape. Learning how to crack open this window can be difficult when a given catastrophe strikes once every few generations. So humans passed down stories through the ages that helped cultures to cope when disaster inevitably struck. These stories were fodder for anthropologists and social scientists, but in the past decade, geologists have begun to pay more attention to how indigenous peoples understood, and prepared for, disaster. These stories, which couched myth in metaphor, could ultimately help scientists prepare for cataclysms to come.

Reading this triggered a flood of associated thoughts this morning, mostly related to things I’ve read elsewhere that resonate with it. Although the basic focus is different, for me this article somewhat recalls a starkly apocalyptic and millenarian passage from the ending to Benjamin Hoff’s The Te of Piglet (1992), a book that many readers found off-putting for its semi-grimness, which represented a departure from the more charmingly whimsical presentation of Taoism that Hoff had adopted in its predecessor, The Tao of Pooh: Read the rest of this entry

How thought leaders displaced public intellectuals

The next time somebody tries to recommend a TED talk to me, I may recommend this piece, or else the book it’s excerpted from, Daniel Drezner’s The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas. It’s not that there aren’t any worthwhile TED talks, of course. But Drezner’s words hit home in this era of “thought leaders.”

When I refer to “public intellectuals,” I mean experts who are versed and trained enough to be able to comment on a wide range of public policy issues. The public intellectual serves a vital purpose in democratic discourse: exposing shibboleths masquerading as accepted wisdom….

How is a thought leader distinct from a public intellectual? A thought leader is an intellectual evangelist. Thought leaders develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot….

Public intellectuals know enough about many things to be able to point out intellectual charlatans. Thought leaders know one big thing and believe that their important idea will change the world.

What is happening is that the marketplace of ideas has turned into the Ideas Industry. The twenty-first century public sphere is bigger, louder, and more lucrative than ever before. A surge of high-level panels, conference circuits, and speaker confabs allows intellectuals to mix with other members of the political, economic, and cultural elite in a way that would have been inconceivable a half century ago….

As America’s elite has gotten richer and richer, they can afford to do anything they want. A century ago, America’s plutocrats converted their wealth into university endowments, think tanks, or philanthropic foundations. Today’s wealthy set up their own intellectual salons and publishing platforms—and they are not hands-off about the intellectual output of their namesakes.