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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.

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.

Vampires, Frankenstein, and Alien Horror: The Dark Mirror Film Festival 2013

If you find yourself in Waco, Texas in October 2013 — specifically, on Friday, October 25 — and you’re in the mood to celebrate the Halloween horror season in style, be sure to come join us for the fourth annual Dark Mirror horror film festival. Four classic horror films. Informative introductory talks by vampire expert and religion scholar Dr. J. Gordon Melton, Baylor University film professor Dr. Jim Kendrick, and yours truly. All the junk food you care to buy (popcorn, candy, chili cheese nachos, hot dogs, soda, water). What’s not to like?

Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge

In praise of horror movie music, from Bernard Hermann to Goblin to Ennio Morricone to John Carpenter

First, I’m a classically trained pianist. Second, an enormous part of my musical education, especially in terms of fundamental sensibility, has come from film scores. Third, of the film scores that have been most foundationally important to me, a large number have been horror film scores.

I trust these three statements don’t exist in mutually irreconcilable tension.

A recent engaging article from the Guardian pings on a number of my most cherished horror film themes and composers by examining the contributions of, among others, Bernard Hermann, Howard Shore, John Carpenter, Goblin, and Ennio Morricone, and by invoking the cinematic legacy of such directors as Dario Argento, Umberto Lenzi, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, and William Friedkin. “The scariest horror films,” says the summary line, “don’t just make you want to cover your eyes, but your ears, too. Stephen Thrower on movie music with real menace.”

Thrower begins with this interesting observation: “There are two schools of thought when it comes to film music: some say you should scarcely notice it, while others are attuned to every flattened fifth. Being a musician as well as a film journalist, I’ve always been staunchly in the latter camp (although I did have to look up ‘flattened fifth’). It seems inconceivable to me that we should fail to notice something as profoundly affecting as a movie soundtrack, and that goes double for the horror genre.” After examining the above-mentioned luminaries and more, he concludes by observing that “If you truly want the audience to experience the clammy thrill of the grotesque, the uncanny and the fearful, you have to reach for the unfamilar, the perplexing, even the ugly; there’s an infinite Lovecraftian sound-world out there waiting to be explored. We need new combinations, new textures in film scoring. Horror has a licence to be weird — it’s supposed to mess with our heads. Comfort-zone rock and respectable string arrangements be damned; what we need is a neat draft of madness.”

This is all great stuff, and it’s full of links to representative clips from representative films. I highly recommend it. See the full story at the Guardian.

But wait, as they say, there’s more! It turns out that Thrower, who has written books about Lucio Fulci, exploitation horror cinema, and so on, will be involved in putting on a presentation titled Sound and Fear at the Vision Sound Music festival at London’s Southbank Centre on September 3. Here’s the formal description:

“Sound of Fear is an epic two-part event featuring an international cast of artists, critics and composers brought together in a celebration of the music and sound design of the horror film. Through live performance and discussion, Sound of Fear explores the musical universe of horror, with its supernatural soundscapes and shrieking string arrangements, and pays homage to the masters of musical menace who have made the horror movie soundtrack a melting pot of opposing musical cultures.

“Tracing the historical developments and cultural significance of music set to horror films, Sound of Fear looks at the introduction of the European avant garde into popular culture via the Hammer pictures of the 50s, Bernard Herrmann’s redefinition of how horror was heard with his revolutionary score for Hitchcock’s Psycho and the influence of cult director John Carpenter’s atmospheric genre scores of the late 70s and early 80s on a new wave of musicians working today.”

There’s even an original interview, conducted specifically for the event, with John Carpenter about his musical education and influences, his film scores, and his future direction as a composer:

Note the fascinating revelations Carpenter makes throughout, as when he opens by explaining that his father taught him 5/4 time, which then showed up in the legendary main theme for Halloween. He also explains how his inspiration for the main theme to Assault on Precinct 13 came from Led Zeppelin and Lalo Schifrin. I find this fairly enrapturing.

By way of exhibiting my own processing of influences by cherished musical forebears, here’s my song “Daimonica,” which I should have titled “Curse of the Daimon,” from my album Daemonyx: Curse of the Daimon. Note the muted but definite influence of Goblin on the opening motif, which serves as the thematic anchor for the entire track:

Here’s me being influenced a bit by Bernard Hermann (recall the glockenspiel in his score for Fahrenheit 451):

It’s truly an exhilarating feeling when you sense your own creative demon being inflamed by inputs from other artists that speak directly to your soul, and that are then processed and appropriated by your unconscious partner to result in something original to you. That’s just one of many reasons why this recent media focus on the internal and external legacy of influences in the world of horror film music is so cool and valuable.

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Adventures in nocturnal assault

In the early and mid-1990s, beginning immediately after my graduation from college, I began to suffer from a recurring experience of sleep paralysis. If you’re not familiar with this phenomenon, click the link just given or do a Web search. There’s plenty of detailed information available. The link above will take you to an article titled “Sleep Paralysis and Associated Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Experiences” by a professor at the University of Waterloo. Its opening paragraph gives as direct and accurate an explanation of the term as I could hope for:

Sleep paralysis, or more properly, sleep paralysis with hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations have been singled out as a particularly likely source of beliefs concerning not only alien abductions, but all manner of beliefs in alternative realities and otherworldly creatures. Sleep paralysis is a condition in which someone, most often lying in a supine position, about to drop off to sleep, or just upon waking from sleep realizes that s/he is unable to move, or speak, or cry out. This may last a few seconds or several moments, occasionally longer. People frequently report feeling a ‘presence’ that is often described as malevolent, threatening, or evil. An intense sense of dread and terror is very common. The presence is likely to be vaguely felt or sensed just out of sight but thought to be watching or monitoring, often with intense interest, sometimes standing by, or sitting on, the bed. On some occasions the presence may attack, strangling and exerting crushing pressure on the chest. People also report auditory, visual, proprioceptive, and tactile hallucinations, as well as floating sensations and out-of-body experiences. These various sensory experiences have been referred to collectively as hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences (HHEs). People frequently try, unsuccessfully, to cry out. After seconds or minutes one feels suddenly released from the paralysis, but may be left with a lingering anxiety.

My own bouts with the condition have included most of the above, minus the out-of-body experiences. I have been overtaken by the customary hypnagogic visions of being visited by a malevolent presence in my bedroom. I have also experienced various other commonly reported phenomena, such as a sense of burning electricity surging through my body, and a rushing, swishing, or sizzling sound that seems preternaturally loud and vivid. These phenomena didn’t seem like dreams, but like actual experiences that were occurring in some sort of nightmarish otherworld, or sometimes in the real waking world itself. The most vivid such episode involved my emerging from a very deep sleep and becoming aware of the experience already in progress, which thus made for an authentically John Carpenter-ish sense of waking up into a nightmare (Carpenter plays masterfully upon this trope in his films In the Mouth of Madness and Prince of Darkness). That particular episode involved an especially nasty and vivid sense of a malevolent presence hovering at the foot of the bed like a black vortex and regarding me with supernaturally intense hatred. When my wife began shaking me in an effort to wake me — I was trying to thrash and scream — I thought she was reacting in terror to the very same presence I was seeing. It was an unnerving moment, I assure you.

My mature birth as a writer can actually be attributed in some measure to these sleep disruptions. Although I had already been addicted to horror literature and film for many years when the nocturnal problems started, and had tried my hand at writing a few stories, even winning a local writing contest in my hometown when I was a senior in high school, it was the changes that these episodes wrought upon my overall sense of psychic stability that led to my mature efforts at fiction writing. The pervasive mood of absolute, unbearable terror and horror that characterized many of my nights began to seep into my daylight hours and plague me with fears that I might be losing my mind. I was already a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, but as my worldview darkened, I began to sense a greater significance in the cosmic horror and twisted ontology of Lovecraft’s fictional worlds. Some years later, when I first began reading the works of Thomas Ligotti, my overwhelmingly powerful and appreciative response to them was due in large measure to the changes that had been worked upon my intellectual and emotional cast by my sleep disruptions. In Tom’s works I saw a miraculously pure and direct expression of the same principle or realm of ultimate, absolute nightmarishness that had opened up to me on many a bad night.

Again, if you’re not familiar with sleep paralysis, I urge you to do a Google search, because I think it’s probably a fascinating subject even for those who haven’t been afflicted with it. I recall that The Learning Channel produced a documentary about it a few years ago, so if you can get your hands on that, it might prove interesting. It certainly did to me, in part because it leaned in the direction of sensationalizing the experience by speculating that it really does involve paranormal visitation. This isn’t a new claim, of course; sleep paralysis is widely thought to be the origin of beliefs about supernatural nocturnal attacks throughout history, and also, perhaps, of stories about supernatural monsters in general, and even of mythology as a whole. As stated in another article at the University of Waterloo site, “Nightmares and nocturnal attacks have been closely connected to myths and monsters across time a cultures. It has even been even suggested that the nightmare is the origin of all mythology. Although few modern scholars would be quite so bold or sweeping in their claims, the pervasiveness of the nocturnal attack in mythology, religion, and legend is quite striking.”

As mentioned earlier, sleep paralysis has also been cited by numerous researchers as a likely contributing factor in the modern rash of alien abduction stories. Alas, I’ve never been abducted myself, but who can say what might happen tonight? I still suffer from occasional, although milder, bouts with this disorder, so I may well wake up tomorrow with a chip implanted at the base of my skull.

But seriously, sleep paralysis is the most dreadful thing you can imagine. The term “soul-searing” comes to mind but hardly does it justice. The sense of terror, and sometimes horror, and sometimes both, that accompanies it is literally unendurable. I wouldn’t wish the experience on anybody. But at least it provides useful grist for the mill. You’re more likely to write a decent horror story when your entire life has been overtaken to some degree by the pure, unmediated experience of horror itself, hideous and raw.