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.
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?”
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.
Here’s the ever-reliable Nick Ripatrazone discussing the inspirational influence of Marshall McLuhan on David Cronenberg as the latter was conceiving and making 1983’s Videodrome, which Ripatrazone characterizes — correctly, I think — as “perfect viewing for 2017 — the year a man baptized by television becomes president.” The article also provides an able introduction to McLuhan’s legacy, reputation, and influence.
In his audio commentary for the film, Cronenberg admits that the professor [Brian O’Blivion, who runs the sinister Videodrome broadcast and its attendant “mission” for homeless people, the Cathode Ray Mission] was inspired by the “communications guru” Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto while Cronenberg attended, but to his “everlasting regret,” he never took a course with the media icon. Cronenberg said that McLuhan’s “influence was felt everywhere at the university” — a mystical-tinged description that McLuhan would have appreciated. . . .
McLuhan was a scholar of James Joyce, a purveyor of print. He documented the advent of the electric eye, but he didn’t desire it. Although he had “nothing but distaste for the process of change,” he said you had to “keep cool during our descent into the maelstrom.” Max can’t keep cool. He is infected by Videodrome; the show’s reality subverts its unreal medium. Max discovers that Professor O’Blivion helped create Videodrome because “he saw it as the next phase in the evolution of man as a technological animal.” Sustained viewing of Videodrome creates tumors and hallucinations. Max is being played by the remaining originators of Videodrome, whose philosophy sounds downright familiar: “North America’s getting soft, and the rest of the world is getting tough. We’re entering savage new times, and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them.” Videodrome is a way to identify the derelicts by giving them what they most crave — real violence — and then incapacitate them into submission.
McLuhan’s idea that “mental breakdown is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information,” and his simultaneous interest in, and skepticism of, the “electric eye” finds a gory literalism in Cronenberg’s film. Videodrome is what happens when a self-described existentialist atheist channels McLuhan — but makes McLuhan’s Catholic-infused media analysis more secular and raw. Cronenberg was able to foretell our electronic evolution, the quasi-Eucharistic way we “taste and see” the Internet. The film’s gore and gush might now strike us as campy, but Videodrome shows what happens when mind and device become one. “Death is not the end,” one character says, but “the beginning of the new flesh.” We’re already there.
Film critic A. S. Hamrah on the life, mind, and work of David Lynch, including his pursuit of a fearsome disease and darkness lurking in the heart of everything, including America:
A nicotine fiend and a coffee addict who mixes existential dread with sadomasochism in all-American settings, Lynch is that rare director who makes subversive films without a chip on his shoulder, seemingly without any will to provocation. He is at home with his neuroses and obsessions. His secret is that he proceeds as though he is acting from the most impossible condition of all: normalcy. While directors like David Fincher and Lars von Trier explore similar terrain with grim determination, only Lynch enters nightmare worlds like the Eagle Scout he was, as inquisitive about the depths of human psychology as he is about bugs and twigs.
“There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force—a wild pain and decay—also accompanies everything,” Lynch has said. “There’s this beautiful world and you just look a little bit closer, and it’s all red ants.” Like the ones on the severed ear in Blue Velvet. Lim connects Lynch to the dark forces that drive the American psyche, the same ones D. H. Lawrence analyzed in his Studies in Classic American Literature, and there is more than a touch of “Young Goodman Brown” in Lynch’s homespun American surrealism. Like the character in Hawthorne’s story, Lynch is drawn to the woods at night, where ordinary people confront the demonic. The Black Lodge in Twin Peaks houses America’s violent soul.
“Fire of Troy” by Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Coninck), 17th cent. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
NOTE: This post was originally published in January 2007 in a different form. Based on various circumstances — including the publication just yesterday of a post titled “Collective Brainwashing & Modern Concentration Camps” over at Daily Grail, which calls out the below-transcribed portion of My Dinner with Andre — now seems like a good time to re-present this in a slightly revised and enhanced form.
* * *
One of the most nightmarish things about a dark age is the degradation it entails for life’s overall tone, not least in the dehumanization that occurs when a people’s intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual, political, social, and cultural life in general is reduced to a ghastly level of brutishness and ignorance. As is now plainly evident all around us in the industrialized world of present-day info-technocracy, this coarsening of life can occur even in circumstances of relative material prosperity. It doesn’t always have to be a dark age like the one that gripped Europe in the aftermath of Rome’s fall, when starvation and plague were rampant and most people barely scraped by at a miserable subsistence level. A dark age can unfold and exist right in the middle of outward conditions that may appear enlightened to those who don’t look too closely or deeply.
Sometimes it’s oddly comforting to dwell on the words of people who have seen today’s dark age of dehumanization unfolding. When it feels like the world is full of robots instead of people, or when it begins to feel like we really are living on the planet of the apes (as Robert Anton Wilson liked to put it), it can be a powerfully affirming experience to be reminded that other people have observed the same thing.
With this in mind, here are three of my own favorite articulations of these things, which, based on my own experience, I recommend you ingest, digest, memorize, and keep mentally handy for reciting to yourself on a rainy day. There are no solutions offered here. There’s just the satisfaction of being confronted by grim realities and looking them full in the face. Read the rest of this entry
Yes, of course, this is a topic that I have broached many times before. But this recent — and fantastically brilliant — video from The Onion brought it roaring back to the forefront of my thoughts. (Hat tip to J. F. Martel for alerting me to it.)
And of course that reminded me of — and may well have been partly inspired by — this, which remains one of the quintessential moments in my religious education and one of the most astonishing moments of divine truth ever to erupt into cinema:
Then there’s the essay by Barbara Ehrenreich about this very thing that I just stumbled across today at The Baffler. Like so many other people, I was surprised and fascinated last year by the revelations about Ms. Ehrenreich’s spontaneous mystical experiences and the accompanying shift in her general worldview and philosophical thinking. Now I find that she is actually deeply read in the science fiction and horror literature devoted to speculating about the horror of a monstrous God or gods, as evidenced by an essay in which she takes Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as a springboard to talk about the works of Philip Pullman, H. P. Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick, along with the ideas of the New Atheists and various prominent works of sociology and religious history. Says Ms. Ehrenreich,
[What Prometheus presents] is not atheism. It is a strand of religious dissidence that usually flies well under the radar of both philosophers and cultural critics. . . . Barred from more respectable realms of speculation, the idea of an un-good God has been pretty much left to propagate in the fertile wetlands of science fiction. One of the early sci-fi classics of the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft’s 1931 At the Mountains of Madness, offers a plotline that eerily prefigures Prometheus. . . . The idea of an un-good God, whether indifferent or actively sadistic, flies in the face of at least two thousand years of pro-God PR, much of it irrational and coming from professed “people of faith.”
. . . If God is an alternative life-form or member of an alien species, then we have no reason to believe that It is (or They are), in any humanly recognizable sense of the word, “good.” Human conceptions of morality almost all derive from the intensely social nature of the human species: our young require years of caretaking, and we have, over the course of evolution, depended on each other’s cooperation for mutual defense. Thus we have lived, for most of our existence as a species, in highly interdependent bands that have had good reasons to emphasize the values of loyalty and heroism, even altruism and compassion. But these virtues, if not unique to us, are far from universal in the animal world (or, of course, the human one). Why should a Being whose purview supposedly includes the entire universe share the tribal values of a particular group of terrestrial primates?
. . . [Philip K.] Dick may have been optimistic in suggesting that what the deity hungers for is “interspecies symbiosis.” Symbiosis is not the only possible long-term relationship between different species. Parasitism, as hideously displayed in Ridley Scott’s Alien series, must also be considered, along with its quicker-acting version, predation. In fact, if anything undermines the notion of a benevolent deity, it has to be the ubiquity of predation in the human and non-human animal worlds. Who would a “good” God favor—the antelope or the lion with hungry cubs waiting in its den, the hunter or the fawn? For Charles Darwin, the deal-breaker was the Ichneumon wasp, which stings its prey in order to paralyze them so that they may be eaten alive by the wasp’s larvae. “I cannot persuade myself,” wrote Darwin, “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” Or, as we may ask more generally: What is kindness or love in a biological world shaped by interspecies predation? “Morality is of the highest importance,” Albert Einstein once said, “but for us, not for God.”
. . . [C]ontra so many of the critics, we have learned an important lesson from the magnificent muddle of Prometheus: if you see something that looks like a god — say, something descending from the sky in a flaming chariot, accompanied by celestial choir sounds and trailing great clouds of star dust — do not assume that it is either a friend or a savior. Keep a wary eye on the intruder. By all means, do not fall down on your knees.
MORE: “The Missionary Position” by Barbara Ehrenreich
With my personal religious/spiritual status as a kind of nondual Protestant Christian influenced by equal amounts of Zen, Vedanta, Jungian psychology, Fortean trickster ontology, Robert Anton Wilsonian reality tunnel skepticism, and a few additional factors, all of them infused with and underlaid by intimations of deepest gloom emanating from the likes of Poe, Lovecraft, and Ligotti, I can honestly say that my immediate and heartfelt response to Ehrenreich’s words can be summed up in a single word: amen.
If this isn’t impressive, then I don’t know what is. I never thought (or allowed myself to hope) that someone would end up pursuing a long-form project to make a feature film incorporating / adapting / celebrating Lovecraft’s Dreamland tales. Simply amazing.
Read more about it here.
Watch the crowdfunding campaign video here.
THE DREAMLANDS is a dark fantasy film based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle, destined to become one of the most ambitious and lavish independent films ever made.
. . . Roland, a troubled young orphan, is led by a mysterious old man into another world. This is a world that has been created over thousands of years by Earth’s greatest dreamers while they slept. In this world the old man reigns as king and hopes to train and guide Roland to be his successor.Unfortunately Roland cannot overcome the dark shadows that weigh upon him and he is forced to decide whether he will use his abilities to keep building the Dreamlands or to destroy what others have already created.
Screenplay is written by Huan Vu and based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories “Celephaïs”, “The White Ship”, “The Strange High House in the Mist” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” among others. It will build upon the world created by H.P. Lovecraft but also remain faithful to his core concepts of fantastic escapism and cosmic horror. THE DREAMLANDS is a film you are never likely to see produced by the established film industry.
Tangentially (or not), I have been deeply and enduringly inspired by these particular stories among HPL’s corpus. Here is my own two-minute musical meditation on them, titled simply “The Dreamlands” and composed amidst the same multi-year burst of inspiration that resulted in the creation of my Daemonyx album: