Archive for January, 2020

The Doomsday Clock moved again a few days ago, and not toward a safer margin or remove from disaster. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a rather long statement, of which I’ll provide only the first paragraph:

Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.

The mention of a threat multiplier gets my attention, though calling it “cyber-enabled information warfare” might be hyperbole. The term propaganda is still applicable. Along similar lines, I’ve heard it argued that we’re already in the midst of WWIII — Planet Earth vs. humans — and losing. Still, from my perspective, it’s hard to disagree with either assessment, which I’ve been blogging about for more than a decade. My tiny, insignificant voice means nothing amid the countervailing noise, of course. And even for those folks who believe as I do, there’s little meaningful action for individuals to take. We’re mere drops in the ocean compared to industrial civilization surrounding us.

In a couple previous blog posts pointing to the Doomsday Clock, I included the image of the clock face from the Bulletin. Happened to notice this time that the reset clock has a registered trademark symbol behind it. Seems unreasonable to claim trademark protection for such a ubiquitous image.

Not much else to say about this latest update to the Doomsday Clock except to observe that dire, urgent warnings that we must TAKE ACTION NOW! to forestall worst-case scenarios from manifesting have always fallen on deaf ears. The Bulletin gives itself almost no room for any more updates. We’ve been inside 5 minutes to midnight since 2015. Now that we’re inside 2 minutes, the Clock may have to start counting portions of a second.

One of the victims of cancel culture, coming to my attention only days ago, is Kate Smith (1907–1986), a singer of American popular song. Though Smith had a singing career spanning five decades, she is best remembered for her version(s) of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which justifiably became a bit of Americana. The decades of Smith’s peak activity were the 1930s and 40s.

/rant on

I dunno what goes through people’s heads, performing purity rituals or character excavation on folks long dead. The controversy stems from Smith having a couple other songs in her discography: That’s Why Darkies Were Born (1931) and Pickaninny Heaven from the movie Hello, Everybody! (1933). Hate to break it anyone still living under a rock, but these dates are not far removed from minstrelsy, blackface, and The Birth of a Nation (1915) — a time when typical Americans referred to blacks with a variety of terms we now consider slurs. Such references were still used during the American civil rights movement (1960s) and are in use among some virulent white supremacists even today. I don’t know the full context of Kate Smith having sung those songs, but I suspect I don’t need to. In that era, popular entertainment had few of the sensibilities regarding race we now have (culture may have moved on, but it’s hard to say with a straight face it’s evolved or progressed humanely), and uttering commonly used terms back then was not automatic evidence of any sort of snarling racism.

I remember having heard my grandparents, nearly exact contemporaries of Kate Smith, referring to blacks (the term I grew up with, still acceptable I think) with other terms we no longer consider acceptable. It shocked me, but to them, that’s simply what blacks were called (the term(s) they grew up with). Absolutely nothing in my grandparents’ character or behavior indicated a nasty, racist intent. I suspect the same was true of Kate Smith in the 1930s.

Back when I was a librarian, I also saw plenty of sheet music published before 1920 or so with the term darkie (or darkey) in the title. See for example this. The Library of Congress still uses the subject headings “negro spirituals” (is there another kind?) and “negro songs” to refer to various subgenres of American folk song that includes slave songs, work songs, spirituals, minstrel music, protest songs, etc. Maybe we should cancel the Library of Congress. Some published music titles from back then even call them coon songs. That last one is totally unacceptable today, but it’s frankly part of our history, and like changing character names in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, sanitizing the past does not make it go away or any less discomfiting. But if you wanna bury your head in the sand, go ahead, ostrich.

Also, if some person or entity ever does some questionably racist, sexist, or malign thing (even something short of abominable) situated contextually in the past, does that mean he, she, or it must be cancelled irrevocably? If that be the case, then I guess we gotta cancel composer Richard Wagner, one of the most notorious anti-Semites of the 19th century. Also, stop watching Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars films (among others), because remember that time when Walt Disney Studios (now Walt Disney Company) made a racist musical film, Song of the South (1946)? Disney’s tainted legacy (extending well beyond that one movie) is at least as awful as, say, Kevin Spacey, and we’re certainly not about to rehabilitate him.

/rant off

Nicholas Carr has a pair of thoughtful new posts at his blog Rough Type (see blogroll) under the tag “infinite media.” The second of the two is about context collapse, restoration, and content collapse. I won’t review that particular post; I’m merely pointing to it for you to read. Carr is a journalist and media theorist whose work is especially interesting to me as a partial antidote to what I’ve been calling our epistemological crisis. In short, he offers primers on how to think about stuff, that stuff being the primary medium through which most people now gather information: via screens.

Relatedly, the other media theorist to whom I pay attention is Alan Jacobs, who has a recent book (which I read but didn’t review or blog about) called more simply How to Think. It’s about recognizing and avoiding cognitive biases on the way to more disciplined, clear thinking. I mention these two fellows together because I’ve been reading their blogs and books for over a decade now and have been curious to observe how their public interactions have changed over time. They have each embraced and abandoned various new media (particularly social media) and adopted more stringent media ecology. Carr posts ocassionally now and has closed comments at his blog (a shame, since his commentariat was valuable, quite unlike the troll mob at most sites). Jacobs is even more aggressive, starting and abandoning one blog after another (was active at multiple URLs, one formerly on my blogroll) and deleting his Twitter account entirely. Whatever goings-on occur at Facebook I can’t say; I never go there. These aren’t criticisms. We all evolve our associations and activities. But these two are unusual, perhaps, in that they evaluate and recommend with varying vehemence how to interact with electronic media tools.

The wide-open Web available to Americans (but restricted in some countries) used to be valorized as a wholly democratic, organic, grass-roots, decentralized force for good where information yearned to breathe free. Though pioneered by academic institutions, it wasn’t long before the porn industry became the first to monetize it effectively (cuz duh! that’s there the money was — at least initially) and then the whole thing was eventually overwhelmed by others with unique agendas and mechanisms, including commerce, surveillance, and propaganda. The surfeit of information demanded curation, and social media with algorithmic feeds became the default for folks either too lazy or just untrained (or uninterested) in how to think for themselves. Along the way, since a surprisingly large portion of human activity diverted to online media, that activity turned into a resource mined, harvested, and in turn monetized, much like the voting public has become a resource tracked, polled, channeled, activated, disenfranchized, corrupted, and analyzed to death.

An earlier media theorist I read with enthusiasm, Neil Postman, recommended that curricula include the study of semantics as applied to media. (Use of a word like semantics sends nonacademics running for the hills, but the recommendation is basically about thinking critically, even skeptically, regarding information, its sources, and its means of distribution.) The rise of handheld omnimedia postdates Postman, so I can only surmise that the bewildering array of information we confront absorb every day, which I liken to drinking from a fire hose, only compounds Postman’s concern that students are severely overmatched by media (especially advertising) intent on colonizing and controlling their minds. Thus, today’s information environment is a far cry from the stately slowness of earlier eras when teaching and learning (to say nothing of entertainment) were conducted primarily through reading, lecture, and discussion.

A comment came in on this blog chiding me for still blogging after 14 years. I admit hardly anyone reads anymore; they watch (or listen, as with audio-only podcasts). Preferred forms of media consumption have moved on from printed text, something USA Today recognized decades ago when it designed its print publication and sidewalk distribution boxes to look more like TVs. Nonetheless, the modest reproach reminded me of a cry in the wilderness by Timothy Burke: why he still blogs, though quite infrequently. (There’s a brokeback can’t-quit-you joke in there somewhere I’ll leave unformulated.) So this blog may indeed be past its proper expiration date, yet it remains for me one of the best means for organizing how I think about stuff. Without it, I’m afraid thoughts would be rattling loose inside my head, disorganized, only to be displaced by the next slurp from the fire hose.

Magnitude

Posted: January 6, 2020 in Artistry, Corporatism, Culture, Science
Tags: ,

Something I read somewhere (lost track of what and when) sparked some modest inquiry into the mathematical concept of magnitude, or more specifically, the order of magnitude. I suspect, consistent with the doomer themes of this blog, that it was a statement to the effect that the sixth extinction (or Holocene extinction if you prefer) is proceeding at some order of magnitude faster than previous mass extinction events.

Within various scientific fields, magnitude has specific and specialized meanings. For instance, the Richter Scale, used to denote the power of earthquakes, is a familiar though poorly understood measure reported in the aftermath of an event. Magnitudes of distance and time are more immediately understood in the mundane sense of how far/long to travel somewhere (via foot, bicycle, car, train, plane, etc.) and more exotically outside Earth orbit as depicted in science fiction. Perhaps the most cognitively accessible illustration of magnitude, however, is scale. Arguably, size (absolute?) and scale (comparative?) are intertwined with distance, or even more broadly, time-space. I’ll leave that discussion to someone who knows better than I do.

All that said, I recalled from boyhood a short film depicting scale in terms of Powers of Ten. Unsurprisingly, I found it on YouTube (embedded below).

Perhaps it’s just my refurbishing of memory, but this film (now video) has a sense of wonder and amazement, sort of like how Disney properties (e.g., films, TV shows, theme parks, merchandise) from the 1960s and 70s retained an innocence from the time when Walt Disney himself was in charge. Early NASA orbital missions and moonshots had that quality, too, but NASA’s wonder years dissipated around the time space shuttles went into service, demonstrating that NASA’s primary objective was neither technical innovation nor exploration anymore but rather commerce, namely, putting satellites into orbit for communications services. Just this past year, the risible U.S. Space Force, wished into existence by 45 single-handedly over all reasonable objections (not unlike the border wall with Mexico), demonstrates a similar loss of innocence. It’s essentially an attempt to patrol and/or weaponize the commons. I’d like to believe that military personnel are dutifully obeying a pointless command from the commander-in-chief and will abandon or scuttle the new military branch once 45 is out of office. Time will tell.

Loss of innocence may be inevitable in the postmodern world given our jadedness, cynicism, and oh-so-hip ironic detachment. It’s not a good look on us. For instance, once Disney went corporate, the aesthetic pioneered and guided by old Walt changed for the worse. Relatively recent acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars (among others) and expansion of theme parks and resorts reveal an entertainment behemoth geared more cynically toward money-making than artistry or inspiration. The apparent insufficiency of earlier incarnations of NASA and Disney find a parallel with an updated version of Powers of Ten (not embedded), narrated by Morgan Freeman (because … why not?) and using the same basic script but employing whiz-bang graphics considerably enhanced over their 1977 counterparts. Even the pop-culture digital network Buzzfeed (not exactly a venerated news source) gets some action with its derivative, examination-lite of cosmic scale (ignoring the microscopic and subatomic):

Going back to the idea of magnitude, I’m aware of four time-scales in common use: human history, evolutionary time, geological time, and cosmic time. Few contextualize the last 2–3 centuries this way, but human activity has had substantial effects that collapse events usually occurring over evolutionary or geological time into human history. We unwittingly launched a grand terraforming project but have yet to demonstrate overriding care for the eventual outcomes. The, um, magnitude of our error cannot be overstated.

An astounding sentence (sandwiched for context) from They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (2014) by Paul Street:

The contemporary wealthy do not simply benefit from society; they accumulate fortunes at the expense of it. They profit from mass unemployment’s depressive impact on wages, which cuts their labor costs; regressive tax cuts and loopholes, which increase with wealth while shutting down social services for the poor; the cutting and undermining of environmental regulations, which reduce their business costs while spoiling livable ecology; wars and giant military budgets, which feed the bottom lines of the “defense” corporations they own while killing and crippling millions and stealing money from potential investment in social uplift; a hyper-commercialized mass consumer culture that despoils the environment while reducing human worth to exchange value and destroying peoples’ capacity for critical thought; dealing with corrupt dictators who provide natural resources at cheap prices while depressing wages and crushing democracy in “developing countries”; the closing down of livable wage jobs in the United States and the export of employment to repressive and low-wage peripheries; a health care system that privileges the profits of giant insurance and drug companies over the well-being of ordinary people; exorbitant credit card interest rates that lead to millions of bankruptcies each year; predatory lending practices that spread and perpetuate poverty and foreclosure; agricultural and trade practices that destroy sustainable local and regional food cultivation and distribution practices at home and abroad; the imposition of overly long working hours that keep employee compensation levels down while helping maintain a large number of unemployed workers; exorbitant public business subsidies and taxpayer incentives and bailouts of the rich paid for by the rest; and … the list goes on and on. Corporate and financial profits were restored in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis largely because the working-class majority paid for them, through taxpayer bailouts, slashed social services, layoffs, and reduced wages, hours, and benefits. [p. 89]