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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

Teeming Links – July 18, 2014

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William Binney, the ex-NSA code-breaker and whistleblower, says the NSA’s ultimate goal is total population control: “Binney recently told the German NSA inquiry committee that his former employer had a ‘totalitarian mentality’ that was the ‘greatest threat’ to US society since that country’s US Civil War in the 19th century.”

“New research finds having a mobile device within easy reach divides your attention, even if you’re not actively looking at it.” (This explains a lot about an increasing number of my daily interactions with people who literally cannot maintain interpersonal attention for more than 30 seconds.)

There just has to be a Ligottian corporate horror story buried somewhere in this: Financial Times reports that businesses are increasingly using big data, including social media footprints, plus complex algorithms to make hiring decisions.

You can still be a passionate reader, but it’s getting ever harder to make a career of it: “A less-heralded casualty of the digital age is the disintegration of the lower rungs of the [publishing] ladder that have long led young, smart readers into the caste of professional tastemakers.”

Steven Poole says that, whereas the disciplined cultivation of spontaneous, effortless action along the lines of Taoism’s wu wei is a great thing, the counterfeit cult of consumer “spontaneity” encourages psychological and social chaos and numbs us to morally reprehensible sociopolitical conditions.

John Michael Greer lays out, in his characteristic elegant prose and with his characteristic lucidity, a vision of the deindustrial dark age that may await us.

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli argues cogently that science, philosophy, and the humanities in general all need each other: “Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view.”

Astrophysicist, author, and NPR science blogger Adam Frank reflects on the “science vs. religion” debate in light of Eastern philosophy.

If you “hear voices,” is it brain disease, communication from discarnate spirits, or perhaps the very voice of God? Tanya Luhrmann and three co-authors of a new study observe the profound impact of cultural assumptions on the subjective experience of voice hearing.

The ancient history of dream interpretation points to humanity’s insatiable hunger for the divine. For the ancients, every slumber held the promise of the numinous.”

Speaking of dreams, a recent study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping finds that psychedelic mushrooms put the brain in a waking dream state, with profound worldview-altering effects: “[T]he mushroom compounds could be unlocking brain states usually only experienced when we dream, changes in activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective.”

David Luke reflects on psychedelics, parapsychology, and exceptional human experience: “Psychedelic researchers since the time of Huxley and Osmond have been fascinated by exploring the apparently parapsychological affects of these drugs. Rightly so, because the implications of such research for understanding our capabilities as a species and for understanding reality itself are deeply profound.” (I’m happy to report that David will be contributing an article on the relationship between drugs and the paranormal to my paranormal encyclopedia.)

Finally, it looks like my adolescence (and also a significant portion of my twenties) wasn’t so egregiously misspent after all, since Dungeons and Dragons has now influenced a generation of writers: “As [Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot] Díaz said, ‘It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts of writers.’ ”

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – June 27, 2014

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Beware the man who has more influence on the future of reading than anybody else in the world: Jeff Bezos is simultaneously a visionary, an innovator, and a destroyer.

Pro Publica explains why online tracking is getting creepier. (Hint: It has to do with the merging of all the mountains of online and offline data about you.)

Meanwhile, Facebook has recently announced that it will start tracking users across the Internet using its widgets such as the “Like” button,” and it won’t honor do-not-track browser settings.

Helpfully, Pro Publica offers an illuminating look at Facebook’s complicated history of tracking you.

Feeling more antsy and irritable lately? Nicholas Carr says blame smartphones, which are turning us into patient and irritable monsters: “Society’s ‘activity rhythm’ has never been so harried. Impatience is a contagion spread from gadget to gadget.”

The Wall Street Journal briefly reports on Americans who choose to live without cellphones.

William Deresiewicz warns against uncritically buying into the apocalyptic rhetoric about the state of higher education, much of which comes from profit-minded billionaires who want to remake college for their own purposes: “The truth is, there are powerful forces at work in our society that are actively hostile to the college ideal. That distrust critical thinking and deny the proposition that democracy necessitates an educated citizenry. That have no use for larger social purposes. That decline to recognize the worth of that which can’t be bought or sold. Above all, that reject the view that higher education is a basic human right.”

A new survey of all 7 billion humans on planet earth — conducted by The Onion — finds that we’re surprised we still haven’t figured out an alternative to letting power-hungry assholes decide everything.

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On Point presents a 45-minute conversation about the deep and perennial fascination of Dracula in history, myth, and literature:

There is something about biting and blood that we never get over. Luis Suarez and his bite debated round the world in the World Cup. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the Victorian tale of castles and darkness that we still feel at our throats. That story has had amazing staying power. “I want to suck your blood!” and all the rest. Built off the story of Transylvania’s real Vlad the Impaler. Back to Europe’s long struggle with the Turkish caliphate. The story never dies. This hour On Point: the history and myth of literature’s great vampire — Dracula.

Historian Tim Stanley explains how Slender Man is a strongly Lovecraftian myth that became a violent reality.

E. Antony Gray gives a brief introduction to egregores and explains how Slender Man is a non-abstract and positively Lovecraftian example.

Writer, artist, and photographer Karen Emslie writes from first-person experience about the terror — and bliss — of sleep paralysis (while holding to a reductive neurobiological understanding of the phenomenon): “[S]leep paralysis has naturally spawned some very scary stories and films. But as a writer and filmmaker as well as a long-time percipient, I have another story to tell. Beyond the sheer terror, sleep paralysis can open a doorway to thrilling, extraordinary, and quite enjoyable altered states.”

(Note: I have personally never experienced the bliss of SP. For me it has always been pure, overwhelming, transformative horror.)

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Bela Lugosi as 1931 Dracula by Anonymous (Universal Studios) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Vlad Tepes by anonymous artist (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Teeming Links – June 20, 2014

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Pandemic plague? Nuclear holocaust? Lethal asteroid strike? No worries: in case of planetary disaster, plans are afoot to use the moon as off-planet storage for the religious, cultural, and even genetic trappings of humanity.

Meanwhile, back here on earth, philosopher Mary Midgely (currently 94 years old) warns of impending catastrophe in a culture of scientism where philosophical problems are reduced to physical science and human beings to neurons.

Tonia Lombrozo, UC Berkeley psychology professor and writer on neuroscience and philosophy, considers the effects of neuroscientific determinism on beliefs about free will.

In his new book The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser argues 1) that science is fundamentally limited, and 2) that this is not at all a depressing or defeatist recognition: “Not all questions have answers. To hope that science will answer all questions is to want to shrink the human spirit, clip its wings, rob it from its multifaceted existence. . . . [T]o see science for what it is makes it more beautiful and powerful, not less. It aligns science with the rest of the human creative output, impressive, multifaceted, and imperfect as we are.”

Astrophysicist Adam Frank finds Gleiser’s perspective invigorating: “[Gleiser] has found a roadmap for making all science our science. There is no need to root scientific endeavor in some imagined perfect cosmic perspective or demand that, at root, it provide a full-and-comprehensive account for all being. Science is all the more astonishing, all the more remarking [sic], for simply illuminating our being.”)

Scott Adams (yes, the creator of Dilbert) observes that the Internet is no longer a technology but a psychology experiment.

Paul Waldman reflects on the Orwellian underside of our “glorious and ghastly” digital transition from mass media to micro-niche media:

Whether you’re spewing out your anger or bestowing a smiley-faced blessing on an article or video that brightened your day, the media industry wants and needs to know. Every editor tracks how many likes and tweets each piece of journalism produces, hoping all those atomized individuals will signal their approval or their displeasure and pass it along. As the price for our re-individualization, we’ve laid ourselves bare. The National Security Administration knows whom you’ve called, and maybe what websites you’ve visited. Google knows what you’ve searched for and tailors the ads you see to products it knows you’re interested in. Facebook holds on to every photo you’ve posted and thought you’ve shared; the company can now track where your cursor hovers when you lazily peruse that ex-girlfriend’s page. You can express your consternation about the latest revelation of domestic spying, right after you show the world a picture of your children. We’ve built our own personal panopticons from the inside out, clicking ‘I accept’ again and again, and we didn’t need a tyrannical government’s help to do it.

Jill Lepore identifies what’s wrong with the reigning gospel of “disruptive innovation”: it’s not some universal societal law but simply “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.”

Arthur Krystal writes in defense of (the idea of) a literary canon: “The canon may be unfair and its proponents self-serving, but the fact that there is no set-in-stone syllabus or sacred inventory of Great Books does not mean there are no great books. This is something that seems to have gotten lost in the canon brawl — i.e., the distinction between a list of Great Books and the idea that some books are far better than others.”

Tim Parks observes that novels themselves are changing under the pressure of a culture of perpetual distraction that saps the “the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction.”

Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf highlights 100-plus pieces of the best journalistic and nonfiction writing from 2013.

Michael Hughes offers a concise and nifty account of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its enduring influence on occult, esoteric, spiritual, and popular culture.

BBC News Magazine writer Jon Kelly traces the lasting allure of the flying saucer.

Atlantic writer Megan Garber recounts the story of Kenneth Arnold, the man who introduced the world to flying saucers.

Visions of my comics-saturated childhood: remember the truly awesome UFO Flying Saucer comics from Gold Key? (And remember their truly awesome covers?)

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Thelemic visions, magickal texts, and the tedium of transgression: Erik Davis interviews Gary Lachman about his new biography of Aleister Crowley.

Gnosticism, Lovecraft, and the labyrinth of biblical interpretation: Erik Davis interviews Robert M. Price about his new book Preaching Deconstruction.

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – June 13, 2014

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In a truly horrific instance of mythic and memetic madness, Slender Man has now inspired two teens to try and murder a friend and (apparently) a daughter to try and murder her mother. For those who aren’t aware, Slenderman is “perhaps the Internet’s best and scariest legend,” a daemonic/demonic monster that was created in full view over the past few years by a collective Internet fanbase and that now stands as “a distillation of the most frightening images and trends” in both supernatural folklore and current pop culture (especially the horror genre). In Slenderman we can trace the birth and evolution of a modern monster that has now, in some sense, stepped out of daimonic-folkloric hyperspace and into the literal-factual realm.

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Awesome: Behold the Dystopia Tracker: “Our goal is to document, with your help, all the predictions in literature, film or games that have been made for the future and what has become reality already.”

Arts and culture writer Scott Timberg worries that people who read will become monkish outcasts in a cultural of digital distraction: “Are we doing our son a disservice by allowing him to become a deep and engaged reader? Are we raising a child for the 19th century rather than the 21st, training him on the harpsichord for an Auto-Tune world?”

A. O. Scott reflects deeply on the relationship between art, work, and financial success in a money-obsessed culture.

Roger Scruton analyzes the problem of scientism in the arts and humanities: “This is a sure sign of scientism — that the science precedes the question, and is used to redefine it as a question that the science can solve. . . . [There] are questions that deal with the ‘spirit,’ with Geist, and therefore with phenomena that lie outside the purview of experimental methods.”

Cultural and intellectual historian Sophia Rosenfeld observes that Americans have become tyrannized by too many “choices” in a culture dominated by the neoliberal market model of universal consumerism.

Mitch Horowitz traces the fascinating friendship and mutual inspiration of Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan.

Al Gore says the violations that Edward Snowden exposed are greater than the ones he committed.

Comparing_Religions_by_Jeffrey_KripalJeffrey Kripal’s new book Comparing Religions is the first introductory textbook on comparative religion that makes a major place for the paranormal as such. Chapter 8, for example, is titled “The Religious Imagination and Its Paranormal Powers: Angels, Aliens, and Anomalies.” In a recent two-part review (see Part 1 and Part 2), religion scholar and UFO theorist David Halperin writes, “More than a textbook, it’s an initiatory journey. . . . Do UFOs figure in any other textbook of comparative religion?  I haven’t seen it. . . . One of Kripal’s former students, he says while introducing his subject, felt each day as she left class that her tennis shoes had just burst into flames, that she had just stepped onto some very dangerous, but very exciting ground.’ Some will surely have this reaction.” The publisher’s companion Website for the book contains much of interest, including “Six Guidelines for Comparing Religions Responsibly” and detailed summaries of seven religious traditions.

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
“Slender Man” image courtesy of mdl70 under Creative Commons / Flickr

Teeming Links – June 6, 2014

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MUST READ: Tom Englehardt’s hypothetical commencement address to the class of 2014 about the Big Brotherness of the world into which (and in which) they’re graduating: “That bright and shiny world of online wonders has — as no one could have failed to notice by now — also managed to drop the most oppressive powers of the state and the corporation directly into your lap, or rather your laptop, iPad, and smartphone. You — yes, I mean you with that smartphone in your pocket or purse — are a walking Stasi file.”

But remember, they’re not “Generation Y,” they’re Generation Omega, and they didn’t create the current disaster; they’re just inheriting it: “Stories about Millennials’ character flaws aren’t just wrong; they’re cover for the real perpetrators of crimes against the future. . . . The world we’ve inherited is rotten, and it’s getting rottener. We are living in the twilight of a world order on the brink of economic, ecological and ethical collapse. We are the last generation who will live in this version of the world.”

The Anxieties of Big Data: “Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us.”

Lewis Lapham observes that the word “revolution” is everywhere in America now but seems to apply only to new techno-gadgets, since America’s spirit of rebellion has been swallowed by a culture of bread and digital circuses: “Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.”

And speaking of revolutionary, check out these mindblowing new jobs of the digi-media-fied future!!! “Our venture-funded vertical-driven content prosumer phablet platisher is rapidly growing and we need to add some Ninja Rockstar Content Associates A.S.A.P. See below for a list of open positions!” (My personal favorite from the list: Neologizer: “Reimaginatorialize the verbalsphere! If you are a slang-slinger who is equahome in brandegy and advertorial, a total expert in brandtech and techvertoribrand, and a first-class synergymnast, then this will be your rockupation!”)

The Exorcists Next Door: On the Christian “deliverance” ministry of two North Texas suburbanites. “Pastors and Christian mental-health professionals from all over the country quietly refer clients they just can’t help to the Pollards, after trying everything. In the 15 years or so since the Pollards started their ministry, there has been no shortage of tortured souls.”

The Entity: The True Accounts of Doris Bither: A nicely balanced consideration of the details and different possible interpretations surrounding the most famous modern-day case of paranormal assault.

The Unlimited Mind of Dr. John C. Lilly: “[H]e is perhaps most famous for his experiments with psychoactive drugs and the isolation tank, which he invented at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland in 1954. . . . He is capturing the imagination of a new generation of internet savvy alternatives and conscious hipsters — a younger crowd who are enthusiastically embracing the work and do-it-yourself ethic of eccentric 20th century notables such as Nikola Tesla, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Phillip K. Dick, Alan Watts, Ram Dass and Terrence McKenna.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – May 23, 2014

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Decline of religious belief means we need more exorcists, say Catholics: “The decline of religious belief in the West and the growth of secularism has ‘opened the window’ to black magic, Satanism and belief in the occult, the organisers of a conference on exorcism have said. The six-day meeting in Rome aims to train about 200 Roman Catholic priests from more than 30 countries in how to cast out evil from people who believe themselves to be in thrall to the Devil.”

Is there a ghost or monster? Is the weather always awful? Is the heroine a virginal saint prone to fainting? Is the villain a murderous tyrant with scary eyes? Are all non-white, non-middle class, non-Protestants portrayed as thoroughly frightening? Chances are you’re reading a Gothic novel.

The Return of Godzilla: “The first time Godzilla appeared, in 1954, Japan was still deep in the trauma of nuclear destruction. Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fresh and terrible memories. US nuclear tests in the Pacific had just rained more death down on Japanese fishermen. And here came the monster. Godzilla. The great force of nature from the deep. Swimming ashore. Stomping through Tokyo. Raising radioactive hell. Godzilla came back again and again. In movies and more. Now, maybe Fukushima’s nuclear disaster has roused the beast. It’s back.”

When you first heard the Snowden revelations about the NSA, did you just kind of shrug and feel like the whole thing merely confirmed what you already knew? This may be no accident: funded by the wealthy and powerful elite, Hollywood has acclimated us to the idea of a surveillance society.

Google Glass and related technologies will create the perfect Orwellian dystopia for workers: “In an office where everyone wears Glass, the very idea of workplace organizing will be utterly unimaginable, as every employee will be turned into an unwilling (perhaps even unwitting) informant for his or her superiors.”

Speaking of dystopias, James Howard Kunstler recently observed that it’s a true sign of the times when, in a society where our digital devices have basically become prosthetic extensions of our hands, it’s impossible to get anybody on the phone anymore.

Also speaking of dystopias, researchers are teaming with the U.S. Navy to develop robots that can make moral decisions. Meanwhile, scientists have no idea how to define human morality.

Net neutrality? Get real. It’s far too late to save the Internet: “The open Internet of legend is already winnowed to the last chaff. . . . To fear a ‘pay to play’ Internet because it will be less hospitable to competition and innovation is not just to board a ship that’s already sailed, but to prepay your cruise vacation down the river Styx.”

And anyway, as far as the Internet goes, it’s totally broken, including, especially, when it comes to security: “It’s hard to explain to regular people how much technology barely works, how much the infrastructure of our lives is held together by the IT equivalent of baling wire. Computers, and computing, are broken. . . . [A]ll computers are reliably this bad: the ones in
hospitals and governments and banks, the ones in your phone, the ones that control light switches and smart meters and air traffic control systems. Industrial computers that maintain infrastructure and manufacturing are even worse. I don’t know all the details, but those who do are the most alcoholic and nihilistic people in computer security.”

Despite Wikipedia’s skeptical disinformation campaign against all paranormal matters, remote viewing is not pseudoscience, says Russell Targ, the field’s most prominent pioneer. What’s more, he easily eviscerates the Wikiskeptics with a revolutionary tool called evidence: “Jessica Utts is a statistics Professor at the University of California, Irvine, and is president of the American Statistical Association. In writing for her part of a 1995 evaluation of our work for the CIA, she wrote: ‘Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established’ . . . . [I]t should be clear that hundreds of people were involved in a 23 year, multi-million dollar operational program at SRI, the CIA, DIA and two dozen intelligence officers at the army base at Ft. Meade. Regardless of the personal opinion of a Wikipedia editor, it is not logically coherent to trivialize this whole remote viewing undertaking as some kind of ‘pseudoscience.’ Besides me, there is a parade of Ph.D. physicists, psychologists, and heads of government agencies who think our work was valuable, though puzzling.”

And finally: “Mesmerists, Mediums, and Mind-readers” (pdf) — Psychologist and stage magician Peter Lamont provides a brief and thoroughly absorbing “history of extraordinary psychological feats, and their relevance for our concept of psychology and science.”

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – September 20, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teeming Links – August 13, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I invite you to peruse today’s installment of recommended and necessary reading in light of this recent reflection from Walter Kirn, who says his former personal and current authorial involvement with a certain high-profile murderer and impostor has combined synergistically with the rash of apocalyptic awfulness currently infesting global news headlines to generate the impression that we’re all living in a real-life story that’s one part Lovecraftian horror and one part dystopian science fiction:

All summer I’ve been manacled to my desk writing a book about a former friend of mine, the impostor and convicted killer known to the world and the media as Clark Rockefeller.

. . . I couldn’t have chosen a worse few months for such a paranoia-inducing task. Since the end of my old friend’s murder trial in April — a proceeding which taught me a lifetime’s worth of lessons about manipulation and deception — the news from the world of government and politics has been unremitting in its spookiness, a serial ghost story from the Age of Terror. The Summer of Lovecraft, I’ve decided to call it. Snowden. PRISM. Secret courts. The death of Michael Hastings. That program, just outed, that allows the DEA to substitute spurious investigative trails for the ones it actually uses to track suspects. The only winners here? Literature professors. Orwell, Kafka, Huxley, and Philip K. Dick we hardly knew ye, it turns out. But now we’re getting to know ye much, much better.

. . . Tomorrow morning, per my daily ritual, I’ll spend a few minutes reading the headlines before I buckle down to work. I already know what’s in store for me, unfortunately: I’ll learn yet again that what I’m writing about on a small and personal scale is happening in some form on a grand scale.

That much I can trust.

— Walter Kirn, “This Is the Summer of Lovecraft,” The New Republic, August 9, 2013

* * *

4 in 5 in US face near-poverty, no work (Associated Press exclusive)
“Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream. Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.”

The Real War on Reality (The New York Times)
On surveillance, secrecy, deception, and the accompanying philosophical danger of “epistemic attack.” “If there is one thing we can take away from the news of recent weeks it is this: the modern American surveillance state is not really the stuff of paranoid fantasies; it has arrived.” [NOTE: Read this one in light of the next item below.]

You’re Being Lied To: The Culture of Conspiracy (Micah Hanks for Mysterious Universe)
“Whether it be the alleged plot to kill JFK, or the conspiracy behind granny’s secret rhubarb pie recipe, many people these days appear to be capable of finding a conspiracy tucked away with nearly every corner and cranny of our culture. In essence, we are living in a literal culture of conspiracy.” [NOTE: Read this one in light of the previous item above.]

Nuke the Cat! Star Script Doctor Damon Lindelof Explains the New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting (Vulture and New York Magazine)
“That escalation can be felt across the entire film industry this summer, a season of unparalleled massiveness: more blockbusters released, more digital demolition per square foot, and more at stake than ever. But Hollywood’s gigantism, Lindelof points out, is practically algorithmic — and the effect tendrils all the way down to the storytelling level.”

The Art of Attention (Sven Birkerts for Aeon magazine)
The peculiar vividness of the world becomes clear when we slow down and attend, learning to see all things anew. “To pay attention, to attend. To be present, not merely in body — it is an action of the spirit. The things of the world are already layered with significance, and looking is merely the action that discloses.”

Grotesque Horror Through a Kid-Sized Window (NPR)
Novelist Erin Morgenstern on the enduring personal impact of Stephen King’s It, which she read at age 12. “It was filled with things I didn’t understand juxtaposed with things I did — like a fascinating, if morbid, glimpse into the future. It showed me that the things hiding under your bed and lurking in the sewers don’t disappear just because you grow up.”

Wonders_and_the_Order_of_Nature_by_Lorraine_DastonMonsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science (Nautilus)
Interview with Lorraine Daston, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and author of Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. She traces the central role played by the emotional-spiritual “Bermuda Triangle” of terror, horror, and wonder — the latter tinged with awe — in the birth of modern science, as early figures such as Francis Bacon tried to shake people out of the complacency of their established assumptions about the world by highlighting anomalies and monstrosities in nature.

Byron and Mary Shelley and Frankenstein (The Byron Centre for the Study of Literature and Social Change, PDF)
Absorbing 2000 lecture delivered to inaugurate the University of Nottingham’s Byron Centre. “Victor’s dream of what he could accomplish became a monstrous reality that outlived him; and Mary Shelley’s waking dream, which became the novel Frankenstein, has outlived her — what she called her own ‘hideous progeny’ has given her a kind of immortality. Both Byron [in his poem “The Dream”] and Mary Shelley seem to be saying that sleep, which mimics death, yields dreams that yield art that can transcend death and mutability.”

Necronomicon_31st_Anniversary_EditionThe Necronomicon: 32 Years Later (New Dawn)
A 2009 essay by Simon, author of the most famous (notorious) putative Necronomicon, who offers an interpretation of current world conflicts, and especially the Iraq war and associated disruptions, as illustrations of occult principles at work. “It may be that the Middle East conflict is a metaphor for a deeper spiritual struggle — a jihad — taking place within our own hearts and minds as our modern sensitivities wrestle with our ancient instincts. However we characterise it, a Gate has been opened.”

Gods in Mind: The Science of Religion Cognition (The Templeton Foundation)
An utterly fascinating project. “At present, scientific descriptions of how people think about God and gods are fragmented across subdisciplines of the psychological, cognitive, and social sciences. . . [T]here is little sense of an integrated and global conception of how God or gods are represented in mind. This funding competition is designed to promote integration of existing lines of research and to generate and test new hypotheses emerging from such integration. ”

 

 

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.