Archive for April, 2013

I have warned and been warned plenty about how the weird wired world is remapping our brains, our minds, and our consciousness in ways we don’t yet understand and probably never will, consider how the target keeps moving, eluding our attempts to uncover its inner nature. So it came as no surprise to me at least that, as reported in The Telegraph, there are now toddlers so deep into their iPads they require therapy. The epidemic of screenheads and pixelbrains has tracked all the way down to 3- and 4-year-olds:

Psychiatrists estimate that the number of people who have become digitally dependent has risen by 30 per cent over the past three years.

A survey last week revealed that more than half of parents allowed their babies to play with their phone or tablet device.

One in seven of more than 1,000 parents questioned by babies.co.uk website admitted that they let them use the gadgets for four or more hours a day.

Um, what’s with the one-sentence paragraphs at The Telegraph? I also find it a little strange how the report describes the problem in terms of addiction. Lumping more and more things into that category (alcohol, drugs, smoking, and gambling being among the mainstays, but sex, porn, gaming, and now iPads?) does no one any credit but does transform the problem into something done to a person rather than something one does to him- or herself. This is certainly the case with toddlers, who really have no responsibility for what happens to them. Their agency is quite limited; parents and caregivers are the ones who set up the kids to need therapy by providing them inappropriate devices as toys/pacifiers. The iPad babysitter is not the equivalent of handing toddlers real guns with which to play, but logical effects do appear to manifest within a relatively short time frame. So parents are pulling a trigger with a delayed effect, not unlike poor diet and hygiene, which are child endangerment issues sufficient to remove the children from their parents’ care.

If a cult deprogramming style of intervention becomes necessary, which is lightly being called “digital detox,” toddlers may have to be weaned, but parents should be sat down in a circle to have overwhelming pressure applied until their characters break down and they can be taught some parenting skills. Indeed, this is an example why misanthropes suggest that procreation should be limited, not open to anyone with the right functional biological parts. That restriction will never come to pass, of course, but something ought to happen to adults who ruin their own children, unwittingly or not.

That, too, will never happen, in part because the postmodern world is in a long-term project to put everything behind glass: first the glass of the microscope and telescope, then the glass of the film projector and television, then the glass of the computer screen, smartphone, e-reader, tablet, and virtual reality headset. No small thing, then, that Google calls its eyeglass-mounted display the Google Glass. Corning had a disgusting promotional video some time back about glass countertops and appliance façades with computer displays behind them. I suspect such devices are mere baby steps until engineers figure out how to do holographic displays and bioengineers provide the data feed directly into the nervous system — the creepy Google Implant. Despite claims that these developments are about making the virtual world real, I insist it’s really about our retreat into fantasy, where the pixelated objects of our desire are antiseptic and pure, unlike, say, the messy, nauseating fecundity of biology, where plants and animals kill to eat, poop, and decay after death. It’s transhumanism carried beyond wishful thinking, and the toddlers in the linked news report above show that we won’t tolerate living without access to the feed (while it lasts), even if it proves harmful. (more…)

Filtering performs an important explanatory function in shaping the ways we understand ourselves and our existence within a larger outer reality. Perception and cognition filtered through language is normally regarded as better than preverbal, ontological existence in its raw forms, such as we all experience in infancy prior to acquiring language, perhaps because truth (the adult kind, not the kid kind) is so powerful and unpalatable we either lose or never really had the ability to face up to it. Using words as symbols of thought, language performs an intermediary function by shaping mental activity, mostly of the intellectual variety, into stories, narratives, scenarios, and straightforward lies, each with their own subtle transformation of reality into something else, something quasifictional, something disembodied and distorted from the original source of direct experience. Figurative language, including similes, analogies, metaphors, euphemisms, metonymy, synecdoche, etc., establish notions extended even further from direct perception. Again and again, I stumble across metaphors that offer explanations of how objective truth/reality (assuming such a thing exists) is not merely compared to something more readily relatable but is in fact spun around through various mental and perceptual agencies and faculties, typically with our own willingness to grant authority to these quasifictions.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, telling how we perceive shadows cast against the wall rather than the reality projecting those shadows, is perhaps the earliest of such metaphors. Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical work, The World as Will and Representation, is another exploration of underlying realty vs. our mental image or perception of it. Jean Baudrillard wrote another philosophic treatise on the same subject called Simulacra and Simulation. The field of semiotics deals with similar categorical divisions, namely, the signifier and the signified. No doubt there are others of which I am unaware, and truth be told, I dare to blog about this subject without really having delved too deeply into the subject (books linked to above are unread). But then, I’ve always been an armchair intellectual, not a pundit, writer, or university professor with the time and position to devote to rigorous explorations.

Perhaps the most universal albeit pejorative term I have come across recently to describe the entire complex of mental associations that yield social consensus and cohesion is by Joe Bageant: the hologram, as described in his blog/article “Escape from the Zombie Food Court” (and elsewhere). Nicolas Carr has a thought-provoking blog at Rough Type discussing online/offline experience, which might be more recognizable as digital/analog or virtual reality/meatworld. I also learned recently from Thomas Frank, a columnist at Harper’s who is quickly earning my admiration, that in the political realm, the preferred term to denote the appearance of actuality, not truth itself, is optics. (Worthy of note is the fact that the optic nerve connects to the emotional center of the brain, bypassing the logical/rational part. So video in particular, and even imagistic words (those that conjure pictures in the mind), play on our sensibilities more effectively than text even though text is nominally perceived through the eye as well.)

In the age of marketing and mass media, the most significant means of shaping perception and consensus are undoubtedly television and cinema, including all the advertising and product placements that work insidiously to manufacture desire. Constantly served up for our brainwashing entertainment are the rich, powerful, young, beautiful, fashionable, and famous. The picture of the good life, or the American dream, that emerges from these ubiquitous images is glamorous and glitzy, much like the commodities with which these people surround themselves, but the picture typically bears little resemblance to day-to-day life as most of us experience it. And on closer inspection, the images/ideals are revealed to be hollow, sometimes even tawdry and trashy, mere fabrications used as inducements (carrots) to participate fully in commodity culture.

Given how omnipresent this interlocking set of filters is, it should be no surprise that the resulting ideology appears to sensitive souls completely false and meaningless yet paradoxically the only thing that matters, since all other competing worldviews are driven out of sight, mind, and existence. So, for instance, we continue to subscribe to the idea that political action can effect positive, meaningful change even though what actually appears before us is the political theater of profoundly dysfunctional institutions no longer able to solve fundamental problems of social organization and justice. This is the tragedy behind Lawrence Lessig’s latest TED Talk, which tantalizes the viewer (instead of the listener) with a whizbang PowerPoint show and falsely reified textual talking points but really recommends that the citizenry deal with the eternal problem of undue political influence flowing from deep pockets by throwing even more money at the problem, now siphoned off the entire population (sorta like a electoral tax). There is little danger, however, that the scales will fall from our eyes. The self-reinforcing nature of social consensus ensures that nothing outside the hologram will intrude until, at last, unavoidably, the entire, fragile daydream shatters like so many fallen tree ornaments.

Longitude

Posted: April 9, 2013 in Cinema, Culture, History
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A couple years ago, I saw a film (DVD) made for British television called Longitude. I meant to blog about it then but turned elsewhere for material, yet the film has stayed on my mind. It tells the story of John Harrison and his decades-long work singlehandedly inventing an accurate marine chronometer, which eventually won him the Longitude Prize from British Parliament, though according to the film he had difficulty convincing the Board of Longitude that his inventions deserved the award. Harrison’s marine chronometers made navigation on sailing ships in the 18th century more accurate than dead reckoning or line-of-sight navigation. Though this may sound like a routine technical development, it was judged by many 17th- and 18th-century scientists, inventors, and technicians to be an unacheivable goal and in its effects might be comparable to the Gutenberg press or even the medieval clock. This is partly why Parliament incentivized seeking a solution through the Longitude Act of 1714 and why it took decades for the prize to be claimed in full by Harrison. The other part is that many lives were lost due to maritime disasters attributable to navigational error during a time when the British Empire was in its imperial-colonial phase and safe overseas travel was a highly desirable achievement.

I suspect this distinguished bit of history survives in the British mind in good company with many other British scientific and geographical/exploratory achievements, such as those by Newton, Darwin, and Burton. In the U.S., our own celebrated history comes somewhat later, as with Fulton, Edison, Bell, Ford, and others. My greater familiarity with American invention is an accident of birth, and I warrant that whatever achievements we Americans can claim — including those of the 20th century such as the television and computer — we should be humble enough to recognize they were built on earlier work done abroad, much like the currently preeminent West owes consideration to Islamic cultures and early developments in the Middle and Far East.

What interests me about this slice of history (I’m not really reviewing the film) is that it represents a technical achievement during the nascent part of what might be called the Materials Age, already well into the Age of Exploration, which along with advances in communications conferred upon international trade much greater reliability and profitability. Maritime history is replete with horrific stories of hardship and loss. Over the centuries, so many ships when down it’s hard to fathom just how difficult the life was, often initiated through impressment. (One could make a worthwhile comparison, I think, with modern soldiers who risk joining up out of economic desperation only to suffer torments at what they’re forced to do and witness, resulting in high suicide rates among active military and veterans alike.) Motivation to improve conditions was accordingly powerful and was neither dispassionate science nor mere profit seeking.

The closest thing we have in the modern era may be the U.S. space program (now more of an international venture), which ran hot and cold for a decades but (IMO) suffers diminished public interest today. NASA is gearing up for its newest manned spaceflight program: Orion. Unlike the marine chronometer, however, the motivation for Orion (and before it, Mercury, Titan, Altas, Apollo, Skylab, the Space Shuttles, and the International Space Station) is idealistic, not born of direct need. I must confess that I believe the space program to be a gigantic boondoggle for two reasons: (1) the vast, untraversable space between bodies in the solar system and galaxy, and (2) the technical difficulty and cost of maintaining human habitats in space. Putting men in space, on the moon, and eventually on Mars are technical achievements in want of any need, however romatic they may be.

Power Outtage

Posted: April 5, 2013 in Corporatism, Culture, Economics, Politics
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The news is about a lot of things, not least of which is constructing a passably coherent narrative of modern life out of so many disjunct and disparate bits and pieces. But news is probably foremost about two things: business (money) and death (destruction). When the two are combined in, say, war profiteering, the preoccupation of Western oligarchs for some decades now, well, even better. The news media has/have been called out for their conjuring of fantasies continuously since Eisenhower introduced the term military-industrial complex in 1961, but no matter. The proper outrage of the masses has been bought off by commodities and entertainments — bread and circuses, if you will. This is especially true with handheld electronics, which are a bit of both and the equivalent of information IVs (always jacked in, constant drip). The so-called Information Superhighway (a term no one uses anymore) is superior to drugs, though we have plenty of them, too, because information is virtual, inviting us to conjure our own fantasies if they’re not already whipped up for us by marketers and entertainers. It’s basically a version of Huxley’s soma, which we consume willingly by never looking away.

In the past few weeks, news media buzzed then fell suspiciously silent then buzzed again and are now again mostly silent about events in Cyprus relating to its banking and government crises. That the two are so intertwined is an indication how the military-industrial complex, especially in countries without standing militaries or much industry, has now added -corporate, -finance, or -banking to the mix. Take your pick; they all amount to the same thing. I don’t especially consider it a watershed event that the Cypriot (gawd, how everyone loves that previously unknown modifier!) government decided to confiscate bank deposits, partial though that confiscation may be, to prop itself up, since baby steps toward that eventuality have been piling up throughout the international finance sector for more than a decade., This latest activity is perhaps more honest brazen, but it’s not without precedent. To the public, however, only slightly less flummoxed by the labyrinthine elaborations of government, finance, and media sectors, the idea may have actually crystallized that deposits are no longer safe. Those who have blithely ignored the world stumbling inexorably toward financial collapse may be surprised by this change of sea or canary in the coal mine (metaphors abound — again, take your pick), but anyone wizened and brave enough to recognize truth staring him or her in the face may observe with some equanimity the desperation of dying regimes, even those the size of Mediterranean islands. Ultimately, we’re all riding this ship down together, though there will be a few unrefusable offers made of the “you first” variety.

In other news, the North Korean government is lining up to attack the United States and/or South Korea, surely a suicidal act or suicide pact, doesn’t matter which. It’s difficult to imagine the motivation or what positive outcome could possibly result from N. Koreans throwing themselves at us, which I find tantamount to throwing themselves on their own swords, since they likely have no bullets and possession of WMDs isn’t altogether clear. Reminds me that more than one regime throughout history has willingly wasted its men in pointless battle. It also calls to mind an extended battle scene in the final film of the Matrix trilogy, where the machines swarm into Zion only to be cut down en masse by overweening firepower yet continue to swarm until eventually overwhelming all defenses. It’s an instructive bit, though I doubt the filmmakers intended it as such. For entertainment purposes, it was just more-is-more idiocy, “more” in this case being CGI effects — the easy, virtual equivalent of more power. But the scene didn’t offer visual richness or narrative depth, just meaningless, forceful overkill. It did depict the willingness of both the characters in the film and the filmmakers to waste themselves on false glory. Sometimes, there is no winning in winning.

And that may well be the crux of it: the nihilistic application of more and more power (lies, money, arms, lives, etc.) in a futile attempt to mask the fact that we’re really suffering a power outtage, an inability to rein ourselves in or halt the trends our decisions have delivered as a final trajectory. That trajectory may rise for some while longer, like a plane approaching stall, but we surely end in a deadspin. So we can no longer pretend that deposited money will stay there anymore (shades of the NDAA, which asserts that, in a pinch, your financial and material assets can be seized by the government, just like Cyprus), that geopolitical stresses are even remotely manageable (when the players, us no less than them, have gone suicidally or genocidally insane), and that life at twilight can offer much hope or meaning when instead so many catastrophes and cascade power failures stand poised to manifest. Indeed, since world events demonstrate that we’re reacting quite literally to a new sort of survival pressure, those with and without power will undoubtedly spend the last of what they’ve got to eke out a few more graceless breaths.

Should an attack from N. Korea actually occur, despite the awful deprivations its population suffers, a fair bit of damage can probably be done before we, in turn and with characteristic imbalance, destroy them utterly. Their destruction, if it’s responsive on our part, as opposed to preemptive, will likely be without hesitation, without remorse, without compunction, without conscience, and without pity or compassion, and it will be gloriously celebrated as a demonstration of our superior power and righteousness when in actuality it will be our complete lack of introspection or power to transcend our own base nature. There is something pathetic, really, when the proverbial 90-lb weakling lands a lucky albeit fateful blow and the big, dumb, schoolyard bully can only respond by pummeling the weakling relentlessly into the dirt. Everyone knows there is an early crossover point when the bully becomes something worse, something monstrous, like a boxer who kills his opponent in the ring. Sometimes, there is no winning in winning.