Blog Archives

Teeming Links – August 30, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening word is actually double: two opening words. The first is from John Michael Greer, writing with his typically casual and powerful lucidity. The second is from international studies expert Charles Hill, who writes with equal power. They’re lengthy, so please feel free to skip on down to the list of links. But I think you’ll find something interesting if you first read these excerpts, and ruminate on them, and see if you can spot a deep connection between them.

First, from Mr. Greer:

Plunge into the heart of the fracking storm . . . and you’ll find yourself face to face with a foredoomed attempt to maintain one of the core beliefs of the civil religion of progress in the teeth of all the evidence. The stakes here go far beyond making a bunch of financiers their umpteenth million, or providing believers in the myth of progress with a familiar ritual drama to bolster their faith; they cut straight to the heart of that faith, and thus to some of the most fundamental presuppositions that are guiding today’s industrial societies along their road to history’s scrapheap.

. . . The implication that has to be faced is that the age of petroleum, and everything that unfolded from it, was exactly the same sort of temporary condition as the age of antibiotics and the Green Revolution. Believers in the religion of progress like to think that Man conquered distance and made the world smaller by inventing internal combustion engines, aircraft, and an assortment of other ways to burn plenty of petroleum products. What actually happened, though, was that drilling rigs and a few other technologies gave our species a temporary boost of cheap liquid fuel to play with, and we proceeded to waste most of it on the assumption that Nature’s energy resources had been conquered and could be expected to fork over another cheap abundant energy source as soon as we wanted one.

. . . [T]he fact that Wall Street office fauna are shoveling smoke about, ahem, “limitless amounts of oil and natural gas” from fracked wells, may make them their umpteenth million and keep the clueless neatly sedated for a few more years, but it’s not going to do a thing to change the hard facts of the predicament that’s closing around us all.

— John Michael Greer, “Terms of Surrender,” The Archdruid Report, August 28, 2013

Second, from Dr. Hill:

This vast societal transformation might be called “The Great Virtue Shift.” Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue. As gambling, obscenity, pornography, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and sneering disaffection became The New Virtue, government at all levels began to move in on the action, starting with casinos and currently involving, in several states and the District of Columbia, an officially approved and bureaucratically managed narcotics trade.

The Great Virtue Shift has produced among its practitioners the appearance of profound moral concern, caring and legislated activism on behalf of the neediest cases and most immiserated populations at home and around the world. To this may be added the panoply of social agenda issues designed to ignite resentment and righteous indignation among the new “proletarian” elite. All this works to satisfy the cultural elite’s desire to feel morally superior about itself regarding collective moral issues of large magnitude even as they, as individuals, engage in outsized self-indulgent personal behavior.

. . . There is a logic chain at work here, too: a lack of self-limitation on individual liberty will produce excess and coarseness; virtue will retreat and, as it does, hypocritical moralizing about society’s deficiencies will increase. Widening irresponsibility coupled with public pressure for behavior modification will mount and be acted upon by government. The consequential loss of liberty scarcely will be noticed by the mass of people now indulging themselves, as Tocqueville predicted, in the “small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” We will not as a result be ruled by tyrants but by schoolmasters in suits with law degrees, and be consoled in the knowledge that we ourselves elected them.

To retain liberty, or by now to repossess it, Americans must re-educate themselves in what has been made of Burke’s precept: “Liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.” Walt Whitman re-formulated this as, “The shallow consider liberty a release from all law, from every constraint. The wise man sees in it, on the contrary, the potent Law of Laws.” Learning what liberty is and what it requires of us is the only bulwark, ultimately, against American decadence. Pay no heed to the determinists: The choice is ours to make.

— Charles Hill, “On Decadence,” The American Interest, September/October 2013

If you made a Venn Diagram out of Hill’s and Greer’s respective ruminations, and if you meditated for a while on the shared middle ground between them, you might find something that would insightfully illuminate a lot of the material below.

* * *

Is America Addicted to War? (Foreign Policy, April 2011)
This exploration of “the top 5 reasons why we keep getting into foolish fights,” written by Harvard international affairs professor Stephen M. Walt in response to the United States’ military intervention in Libya’s civil war, is obviously and pointedly relevant to what’s going on right now with the Syria situation. “Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million per day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?

The real threat to our way of life? Not terrorists or faraway dictators, but our own politicians and securocrats (The Guardian)
“Convinced national security is for ever at risk, western governments mimic the fanaticism they claim to despise.”

The Leveraged Buyout of America (The Web of Debt Blog)
“Giant bank holding companies now own airports, toll roads, and ports; control power plants; and store and hoard vast quantities of commodities of all sorts. They are systematically buying up or gaining control of the essential lifelines of the economy. How have they pulled this off, and where have they gotten the money?”

Academy Fight Song (The Baffler)
This may be the most exhaustive, devastating, damning, dystopian, and dead-on essay-length critique of higher education in America that I’ve ever read. “Virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators. . . . What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality.”

Why Teach English? (Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker)
“No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. . . . No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department — texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.”

The Humanities Studies Debate (On Point with Tom Ashbrook)
A well-mounted, hour-long NPR radio debate. “Should American colleges and college students throw their resources, their minds, their futures, into the ancient pillars of learning — philosophy, language, literature, history, the arts. Or are those somehow less relevant, less urgent studies today in a hyper-competitive global economy? Defenders of the humanities say this is the very foundation of human insight. To study, as Socrates said, ‘the way one should live.’ Critics say: ‘Crunch some numbers. Get a job.’

Paper Versus Pixel (Nicholas Carr for Nautilus)
“On the occasion of the inaugural Nautilus Quarterly, we asked Nicholas Carr to survey the prospects for a print publication. Here he shows why asking if digital publications will supplant printed ones is the wrong question. ‘We were probably mistaken to think of words on screens as substitutes for words on paper’ [says Carr]. ‘They seem to be different things, suited to different kinds of reading and providing different sorts of aesthetic and intellectual experiences.'”

Japan Opens ‘Fasting Camps’ To Wean Kids Off Of Excessive Internet Usage (International Business Times)
“A government study found that up to 15 percent of Japanese students spend as much as five hours online everyday and even more time on the internet on weekends. As a result, the Tokyo government’s education ministry will introduce ‘web fasting camps’ to help young people disconnect from their PCs, laptops, mobile phones and hand-held devices.”

Cancer’s Primeval Power and Murderous Purpose (Bloomberg)
“It is a fundamental biological phenomenon. A single cell ‘decides’ (for lack of a better word) to strike off on its own. Mutation by mutation, it evolves — like a monster in the ecosystem of your body. Cancer is an occupying force with a will of its own. . . . What from the body’s point of view are dangerous mutations are, for the tumor, advantageous adaptations. . . . Susan Sontag called cancer ‘a demonic pregnancy,’ ‘a fetus with its own will.’ That is more than an arresting metaphor.”

New Exhibit Explains Why We’ve Been Fascinated By Witches For More Than 500 Years (The Huffington Post)
“A new exhibit at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, aptly titled exhibition, ‘Witches & Wicked Bodies,’ is paying homage to art’s heated affair with witches. The show dives into darker depictions of witches hidden in prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and more, shedding light on attitudes perpetuated by everyone from Francisco de Goya to Paula Rego.”

Beyond the Veil: Otherworld Experience as Archaeological Research (Prehistoric Shamanism)
“By ignoring trance experience of the otherworld, anthropologists could only understand part of the world shamanic people lived in. As it turned out, the otherworld and the existence of the spirits informed pretty much everything these people did. . . . The otherworld of the spirits that prehistoric people experienced is not made up, or a figment of a deluded mind, but is something wired into the brains of every human.”

William Gaines and the Birth of Horror Comics (Mysterious Universe)
“Through comics, films and television, ‘Tales From The Crypt’ and EC Comics have proven to be an enduring pop culture franchise and one that’s dear to the heart of many horror fans. Its legacy continues to manifest itself through the innumerable writers, directors and artists whose childhoods were shaped by nights reading those gloriously gruesome early comics by flashlight under the blankets.”

‘The Innovation of Loneliness’ – A short film about social networks, society, and the self

Here’s a new must-watch short film about the ironic reality of so-called “social media” that promise to create real community and human relationship but really function to generate a new kind of loneliness.

Beware “liking” or retweeting, which may well unleash waves of paradox that will warp the inner mind, rip a hole in the fabric of space and time, and manifest all manner of daimonic mischief.

What is the connection between Social Networks and Being Lonely?

Inspired by and based on the wonderful book by Sherry Turkle, Alone Together.

Also based on Dr. Yair Amichai-Hamburger’s Hebrew article “The Invention of Being Lonely.”

Script, Design & Animation: Shimi Cohen.

Final Project at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.

Teeming Links – July 30, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To preface today’s offering of recommended and required reading, here’s a not-so-idle speculation from Damien Walter about the momentous fact of our collective cultural obsession with losing ourselves in the ever more immersive fantasy worlds that digital technology has enabled for us:

I am a writer and critic of fantasy, and for most of my life I have been an escapist. Born in 1977, the year in which Star Wars brought cinematic escapism to new heights, I have seen TV screens grow from blurry analogue boxes to high-definition wide-screens the size of walls. I played my first video game on a rubber-keyed Sinclair ZX Spectrum and have followed the upgrade path through Mega Drive, PlayStation, Xbox and high-powered gaming PCs that lodged supercomputers inside households across the developed world. I have watched the symbolic language of fantasy — of dragons, androids, magic rings, warp drives, haunted houses, robot uprisings, zombie armageddons and the rest — shift from the guilty pleasure of geeks and outcasts to become the diet of mainstream culture.

And I am not alone. I’m emblematic of an entire generation who might, when our history is written, be remembered first and foremost for our exodus into digital fantasy. . . . Immersion has . . . become the mantra of modern escapist fantasy, and the creation of seamless secondary worlds its mission. We hunger for an escape so complete it borders on oblivion: the total eradication of self and reality beneath a superimposed fantasy. . . . We’re embarking on a daring social experiment: the immersion of an entire generation into digitally generated escapist fantasies of unprecedented depth and complexity. And the most remarkable aspect of this potential revolution is how little consideration we are giving it.

— Damien Walter, “The Great Escape,” Aeon, July 12, 2013

* * *

This_Town_by_Mark_LeibovichA Confederacy of Lunches (The New York Times)
Christopher Buckley reviews Mark Leibovich’s This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital. “Not to ruin it for you, but: if you already hate Washington, you’re going to hate it a whole lot more after reading Mark Leibovich’s takedown of the creatures who infest our nation’s capital and rule our destinies.”

Who Are We At War With? That’s Classified (Pro Publica)President Obama has repeatedly said the U.S. is targeting Al Qaeda and “associated forces.” But the government won’t say who those forces are.

Halliburton pleads guilty to destroying Gulf oil spill evidence (Reuters)
The government said the guilty plea is the third by a company over the spill, and requires the world’s second-largest oilfield services company to pay a maximum $200,000 statutory fine.

Feds tell Web firms to turn over user account passwords (CNET)
Secret demands mark escalation in Internet surveillance by the federal government through gaining access to user passwords, which are typically stored in encrypted form.

The Charitable-Industrial Complex (The New York Times)
“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’ It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’ — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

The hour of anthropology may have struck (Toronto Star)
“The strength of anthropology at the moment comes when it turns its eye to our own society as just another tribe or collection of humans trying to make symbolic sense of their experience. We start looking like just another weird bunch of human creatures trying to make sense of their odd predicament, like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes when he finally gets it.”

The MOOC Racket (Slate)
Widespread online-only higher ed will be disastrous for students — and most professors.

E-book vs. P-book (The New Yorker)
On the persistence of the paper codex book in an age when so many are predicting its demise. “For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience — how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology.”

Thank You, Barnes and Noble (The New Yorker)
Michael Aggers on the literary and intellectual joy that B&N brought to his teen years in a small Pennsylvania town. “It was as if a small liberal-arts college had been plunked down into a farm field. . . . I’ll be rooting for you, Barnes & Noble, however you reinvent yourself. I’ve come to see that, despite your flaws, you were a suburban beacon of knowledge, history, and community — noble indeed.”

Creative differences (Financial Times)
Three great film directors — Orson Welles, Nicolas Roeg, and Roman Polanski — offer a glimpse into the complex life and work of the auteur. “Today’s directors are less monstrous, and altogether more respectful of the tiresome fact that cinema is a collaborative art form. Put it down to sharper accountants, blander movie stars, infernally complex technological demands. It is more difficult than ever to be a legend in your own lunchtime, and that’s a shame.”

The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema (The New York Review of Books)
A brilliant essay — deeply informed by an expansive knowledge of history and art, and written by none other than Martin Scorsese — on the signal importance of become literate in the visual language of cinema at a time when we’re awash in a sea of images all around us.

Enlightenment Engineer (Wired)
Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace — it’s about getting ahead.

Ecstatic_Healing_by_Margaret_De_WysSpirit Possession Here and Now (Reality Sandwich)
Interview with Margaret De Wys, author of the recently published Ecstatic Healing: A Journey into the Shamanic World of Spirit Possession and Miraculous Medicine. “My acceptance of possession turned out to be my spiritual path. That was my choice and it wasn’t an easy one.”

Mysterious Hum Driving People Crazy Around the World (LiveScience)
It’s known as the Hum, a steady, droning sound that’s heard in places as disparate as Taos, N.M.; Bristol, England; and Largs, Scotland. But what causes the Hum, and why it only affects a small percentage of the population in certain areas, remain a mystery, despite a number of scientific investigations.

Psi in the News – July 17, 2013 (Reality Sandwich)
The latest installment of David Metcalfe’s ongoing roundup of parapsychologically-oriented links. Exceptionally rich.

Recommmended Reading 42

THIS WEEK: A report on the riots in Sweden and what they may portend for affluent liberal-democratic nations that have thought themselves insulated from such crises. Thoughts on how the Internet is using us all. The crumbling facade of mainstream authority and received wisdom in public health pronouncements, along with internal strife in the medical community over how — or whether — to try to explain uncertainty and nuance in medical science to the general public. The survival, and in fact centrality, of philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular amid our age of scientific confusion. An interview with science fiction legend and culture war lightning rod Orson Scott Card on politics, art, and writing. A review of a new book about “deciding to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being part of a community,” which may offer “a plausible way out of the postmodern alienation and ironic posturing” that characterizes contemporary views of the good life. A three-minute animation of the main points from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Read the rest of this entry

It’s reading vs. screen culture — and screens are winning

Yesterday I posted some excerpts from and commentary on last weekend’s interview with Stephen King in Parade magazine, in which King says he’s uneasy about the future of reading in an increasingly screen-oriented culture. The main data point he cites in this regard is his experience of teaching a couple of writing seminars to Canadian high school students last year and finding that although the students were very bright,  their written language skills — and by implication their reading skills — were dismal. (See “Stephen King on writing, inner dictation, and his fears for the future of reading.”)

Following on from this, and for what it’s worth, I can confirm King’s observations and worries from my own 13 years of experience as a teacher, first in high school and now in college. The scary things you’re hearing about the collective state of literacy, or rather a-literacy, among the screen-reared generation are not just hype, not just hand-wringing, not just empty Chicken Little-ism. It really and truly is the case that among people under, say, 30 years of age, the very idea of reading, the attitude and sensibility that says reading is something desirable or worthwhile or even, in many cases, tolerable, is locked in mortal combat with the psychic-gravitational pull of screens and visual media culture. And it looks for all the world as if the ruling idea from the Highlander mythos — that “There can be only one” — is fully in play. And reading is losing the war. Badly. Read the rest of this entry

Silence, solitude, and self-discovery in an age of mass distraction

“[T]he internet seizes our attention only to scatter it. We are immersed because there’s a constant barrage of stimuli coming at us and we seem to be very much seduced by that kind of constantly changing patterns of visual and auditorial stimuli. When we become immersed in our gadgets, we are immersed in a series of distractions rather than a sustained, focused type of thinking … There are messages coming at us through email, instant messenger, SMS, tweets etc. We are distracted by everything on the page, the various windows, the many applications running. You have to see the entire picture of how we are being stimulated. If you compare that to the placidity of a printed page, it doesn’t take long to notice that the experience of taking information from a printed page is not only different but almost the opposite from taking in information from a network-connected screen. With a page, you are shielded from distraction. We underestimate how the page encourages focused thinking — which I don’t think is normal for human beings — whereas the screen indulges our desire to be constantly distracted.”

— “Information and Contemplative Thought: We Turn Ourselves into Media Creations,” Interview with Nicholas Carr, The European, January 31, 2012

“Has it really come to this? In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight. Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen. Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago. Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers … [T]he average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen … The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day … We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say … The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual.”

— Pico Iyer, “The Joy of Quiet,” The New York Times, December 29, 2011

“I am encouraged by services such as Instapaper, Readability or Freedom — applications that are designed to make us more attentive when using the internet. It is a good sign because it shows that some people are concerned about this and sense that they are no longer in control of their attention. Of course there’s an irony in looking for solutions in the same technology that keeps us distracted.”

— Carr, “Information and Contemplative Thought” Read the rest of this entry

The future of reading at the interstices of print and digital literature

Here are some highly interesting remarks and reflections on the rise of electronic reading and the shape of the literary future (and present) from Yale University literature and reading scholar Jessica Pressman, whose “current research focuses on how 21st century literature — both in print and online — responds to the threat of an increasingly paperless and multimodal society.” The excerpts come from a recent installment of the always-worthwhile series of “FiveBooks Interviews” published by The Browser. Note that Dr. Pressman references several specific texts that are pertinent to the question of what books and literature can and may become.

We’re talking about digital textuality and what happens to literature when it interfaces with the prospect of the digital — of digital technology and digital culture. And we’re talking about readers who are becoming literate, and perhaps even more literate, on the screen rather than on the page … [P]eople are just reading in different ways online. Rather than engaging with a single book and a single author for a sustained amount of time, people are reading in the kind of Web 2.0 social networking ways … [T]hey’re reading hypertextually across web pages, and they’re also producing their own content … I think the place to look to see these changes is the location where conventional print literature and digital literature meet. That’s where these works live — House of Leaves , The Raw Shark Texts , and digital literature too — at the interstices.

— “Jessica Pressman on Electronic Literature,” The Browser, October 18, 2012

Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Recommended Reading 17

 

This week’s recommendations encompass the spiritual past and future of money and capitalism; the use of neuroscience by tech companies to profit from Internet addiction; the future of books, libraries, and old movies in an age of digital instant gratification and a perpetually shrinking historical awareness; the deep appeal of fairy tales; thoughts on a new future for the debate over paranormal abilities; a riveting first-person account of what it’s like to live with cosmically horrifying panic attacks, and of the way these impact a person’s worldview; and a nice compilation of speech excerpts from Robert Anton Wilson about the nature of reality.

Read the rest of this entry

Google: Not making us stupid, not making us smart

A recently published essay by University of Virginia professor Chad Wellmon in The Hedgehog Review stands as one of the most elegant, incisive, and persuasive entries I’ve yet read in the great debate over the effects of the Internet/digital media revolution on human consciousness and culture. And I’ve read a fair amount of them.

Wellmon says:

On the one hand, there are those who claim that the digitization efforts of Google, the social-networking power of Facebook, and the era of big data in general are finally realizing that ancient dream of unifying all knowledge…[They say] Our information age is unique not only in its scale, but in its inherently open and democratic arrangement of information. Information has finally been set free. Digital technologies, claim the most optimistic among us, will deliver a universal knowledge that will make us smarter and ultimately liberate us. These utopic claims are related to similar visions about a trans-humanist future in which technology will overcome what were once the historical limits of humanity: physical, intellectual, and psychological

Read the rest of this entry

New Outer Limits: “Stream of Consciousness”

If you, like me, are feeling more and more haunted in our information-glutted age of universal online connectedness by T.S. Eliot’s famous lines “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” then maybe you’ll find this 1997 episode from Season 3 of The New Outer Limits to be as compelling as I do. Written by TV writer and producer David Shore (who later created House), “Stream of Consciousness” is a brilliantly conceived and effectively executed dystopian science fictional meditation on the clash between the computer’s “craving” for pure information and the human values and realities of the people who, if we’re not careful, may allow ourselves to become enslaved as instruments for the furtherance of this inhuman imperative.

Here’s the official description, followed by the full episode. If you watch it, notice that at one or two points the dialogue seems to indicate that Shore wrote the episode with Eliot’s words explicitly in mind.

Due to a brain injury, Ryan Unger cannot enjoy the benefits of a neural implant that allows other people to tap into The Stream — a direct connection into all human knowledge. He tries, unsuccessfully, to keep up with everyone else by using a long-forgotten skill: reading books. When the Stream develops a virus causing people to die, Ryan, being the only one that is immune, must use the knowledge he has gained from books to save the world.

Opening narration: We quantify our world in order to learn. We break it down into facts, numbers, information. But how far dare we go before we destroy its mystery?

Closing narration: We make tools to extend our abilities, to further our reach, and fulfill our aspirations. But we must never let them define us. For if there is no difference between tool and maker, then who will be left to build the world?