Archive for February, 2022

From Barrett Swanson’s article “The Anxiety of Influencers” in the June 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine:

For the past thirteen years, I’ve taught a course called Living in the Digital Age, which mobilizes the techniques of the humanities—critical thinking, moral contemplation, and information literacy—to interrogate the version of personhood that is being propagated by … social networks. Occasionally, there have been flashes of student insight that rivaled moments from Dead Poets Society—one time a student exclaimed, “Wait, so on social media, it’s almost like I’m the product”—but it increasingly feels like a Sisyphean task, given that I have them for three hours a week and the rest of the time they are marinating in the jacuzzi of personalized algorithms.

As someone who suffers from Churchillian spells of depression, it was easy for me to connect this to the pervasive disquiet on campus. In the past ten years, my email correspondence has been increasingly given over to calming down students who are hyperventilating with anxiety—about grades, about their potential marketability, about their Instagram followings. The previous semester, for instance, during a class on creative non-fiction, twenty-four of my twenty-six students wrote about self-harm or suicidal ideation. Several of them had been hospitalized for anxiety or depression, and my office hours were now less occasions to discuss course concepts—James Baldwin’s narrative persona, say, or Joan Didion’s use of imagery—than they were de facto counseling sessions. Even students who seemed happy and neurologically stable—Abercrombie-clad, toting a pencil case and immaculate planner—nevertheless displayed unsettling in-class behavior: snacking incessantly during lectures, showing Victorian levels of repression. The number of emotional-support service animals had skyrocketed on campus. It seemed like every third person had a Fido in tow, and had you wandered into my lecture hall when we were still holding in-person classes, you might have assumed that my lessons were on obedience training or the virtues of dog-park etiquette. And while it seems clichéd even to mention it, the students were inexorably—compulsively—on their phones.

The phrase “all roads lead to Rome” is a way of saying that, at its height, Rome was the center of the Western world and multiple paths led to that eventual destination. That’s where the action was. Less obviously, the phrase also suggests that different approaches can lead to an identical outcome. Not all approaches to a given result are equal, however, but who’s splitting those hairs? Not too many, and not nearly enough. Instead, the public has been railroaded into false consensus on a variety of issues, the principal attributes being that the destination is predetermined and all rails lead there. Probably oughta be a new saying about being “railroaded to Rome” but I haven’t hit upon a formulation I like.

Ukraine

War drums have been beating for some time now about a hotly desired (by TPTB, who else?) regional war over Ukraine being aligned with Europe or part of Russia. Personal opinions (mine, yours) on whether Ukraine might join NATO or be annexed by Russia don’t really matter. Even a default aversion to war doesn’t matter. Accordingly, every step taken by the Russian government is reported as a provocation, escalation, and/or signal of imminent invasion. And in reverse, no interference, meddling, or manipulation undertaken by Western powers is cause for concern because it’s all good, clean, innocent business. Wasn’t a version of this maneuver executed in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq? (Be honest, it was a preemptive invasion that preempted nothing.) Legacy media have failed entirely (as I understand their reporting, anyway) to ask the right questions or conceive of any outcome that isn’t war with Russia. (Similar moves are being made regarding the China-Taiwan controversy.) After all, that’s where the action is.

Vaccines

Many observers were surprised at how quickly vaccines appeared after the current pandemic circled the world. Vaccines normally take many years to achieve sufficient safety and effectiveness to be approved for general use. However, Covid vaccines were apparently in development well before the pandemic hit because medical labs had been monkeying with the virus for years along with possible treatments. No matter that vaccine safety and effectiveness were never fully realized. The rush to market was a predetermined outcome that required emergency use authorization, redefinition of the term vaccine, and active suppression of other drug protocols. Mandates that everyone (EVERYONE!) be vaccinated and boosted (and now boosted again every few months to keep current) are in clear conflict with a host of rules, codes, and medical ethics, to say nothing of common sense. Creation of two-tier societies based on vaccination status (three-tier if RightThink is added) to force the unvaccinated into compliance is outright tyranny. This coercion lends false legitimacy to an emerging biosecurity state with wide application for the supposedly clean (vaccinated but not necessarily healthy) and unclean (unvaccinated but not necessarily unhealthy). After all, that’s where the action is.

Free Thought and Free Speech

The constant thrum of fearmongering legacy media has turned a large percentage of the public into cowering fools lest something turn out to be even mildly upsetting or give offense. “Save me, mommy! Protect me, daddy! Allow no one to introduce or discuss a fact or idea that conflicts with my cherished innocence. Words are violence!” Well, sorry, snowflake. The big, bad world is not set up to keep you safe, nor is history a series of nice, tidy affairs without disturbing incidents or periodic social madness. Moreover, governments, media, and scientists cannot rightfully claim to be final arbiters of truth. Truth seeking and truth telling are decidedly messy and have been throughout modern history. Despite attempts, no one can command or suppress thought in any but the most banal fashion (e.g., don’t think about polka-dot elephants); that’s not how cognition works except perhaps under extraordinary circumstances. Similarly, the scientific method doesn’t work without free, open scrutiny and reevaluation of scientific claims. Yet the risible notion that people can or should be railroaded into approved thought/speech via censorship and/or cancellation is back with a vengeance. Were lessons of the past (or the present in some regimes) never learned? Indeed, I must admit to being flabbergasted how otherwise normal thinkers (no disability or brain damage) — especially reflexive rule-followers (sheeple?) who shrink from all forms of conflict — have accepted rather easily others quite literally telling them what to think/say/do. To resolve cognitive dissonance lurking beneath consciousness, rationalizations are sought to explain away the inability to think for oneself with integrity. Adoption of routine DoubleThink just floors me. But hey, that’s where the action is.

Addendum

Apologies or citing George Orwell as often as I do. Orwell got so much correct in his depiction of a dystopic future. Regrettably, and as others have pointed out, TPTB have mistaken 1984 (Orwell’s novel) as a playbook rather than a dire warning.

By a substack author going by the pseudonym Moneycircus, describing the cult of paranoid preparedness (a subset of safetyism?), unnecessary paragraph breaks removed:

We should be alert to the suffering of children. For they are the most delicate in society, the point at which the bough breaks. Children should experience life one bright day at a time, bursting with colours, tastes and sounds. It is an experience so complete that they only have time for the present. Yet talking to children during the pandemic I see their time accelerates. They are already falling into remembrance. They ask questions that only adults should ask, and later in life: “Do you remember when … such and such? What was that place where …?” This means they are experiencing life at one remove. This is cruelty beyond measure.

As a sometimes presenter of aphorisms, felicitous and humorous turns of phrase and logic interest me as examples of heuristics aimed as parsimony and cognitive efficiency. Whether one recognizes those terms or not, everyone uses snap categorization and other shortcuts to manage and alleviate crowded thinking from overwhelming demands on perception. Most of us, most of the time, use sufficiency as the primary decision-making mode, which boils down to “close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades.” Emotion is typically the trigger, not rational analysis. After enough repetition is established, unthinking habit takes over. Prior to habituation, however, the wisdom of sages has provided useful rubrics to save unnecessary and pointless labor over casuistry flung into one’s way to impede, convince, or gaslight. (I previously wrote about this effect here).

As categories, I pay close attention to razors, rules, laws, principles, and Zuihitsu when they appear as aphorisms in the writing of those I read and follow online. Famous rules, laws, and principles include Occam’s Razor, (Finagle’s Corollary to) Murphy’s Law, Godwin’s Law, Jevon’s Paradox, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect (do your own searches if these escape you). Some are quite useful at dispelling faulty thinking and argumentation. Café Bedouin (see blogroll) has an ongoing series of Zuihitsu, which has grown quite long. Many ring fundamentally true; others are either highly situational or wrong on their face, perhaps revealing the cardinal weakness of reduction of ideas to short, quotable phrases.

I recently learned of Hitchens’ Razor (after Christopher Hitchens), usually given as “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” According to the Wikipedia entry, it may well have been reconstituted, repurposed, or revived from other sources stretching back into antiquity. Caitlin Johnson, a notable aphorist I’ve quoted numerous times, uses Hitchens’ Razor to put the lie to claims from the U.S. war machine and its dutiful media lapdogs that the “situation in Ukraine” (whatever that is) demands intervention by Western powers lest the utility bad guys of the moment, the Russians, be allowed to run roughshod over its neighbor Ukraine, which (significantly) used to be part of the now-defunct Soviet Union. As with many controversial, inflammatory claims and assertions continuously heaped like a dog pile on hapless U.S. citizens with little time, few resources, and no obligation to perform their own investigations and analyses, I have only weak opinions but very strong suspicions. That’s where Hitchens’ Razor comes in handy. Under its instruction, I can discard out-of-hand and in disbelief extraordinary claims designed to whip me and the wider public into an emotional frenzy and thus accept or support actions that shouldn’t just raise eyebrows but be met with considerable dissent, protest, and disobedience. Saves me a lot of time entertaining nonsense just because it gets repeated often enough to be accepted as truth (Bernays’ Principle).

To set up this blog post, let me venture recklessly into a less-familiar (for me at least) area of science, namely, physics. Intersections with particle physics and cosmology might be possible, but my concern is within the everyday world of objects that don’t require an electron microscope or telescope to be seen by humans. Most of us know in a routine sense that liquids, solids, and gases come under a variety of influences, e.g., radiation (including light), heat (and its inverse cold), and pressure (and its absence vacuum or its inverse suction). Could be other causes of deformation; it’s not my area of expertise but rather that of materials engineers who determine how much stress various kinds of a particular material can withstand before becoming useless. Pressure in combination with heat governs when an object, tool, or part is likely to fail over its projected useful life, which can be the root of either planned obsolescence or permanence for particularly hardy man-made (?) objects such as Neolithic ruins. For solid objects in particular, the amount of deformation that can be absorbed relates to its function. Rubber bands, springs, and paper clips serve their purpose by tolerating deformation, whereas bridge framing has far less flexion. When objects become truly massive, such as planets and stars (suns), gravitational forces in their interiors where the highest pressure/heat is found produce effects that are understood imperfectly. As I understand it, the (inferred?) molten iron core of Earth is responsible for its magnetic field, which has been determined to reorient repeatedly over planetary history. The sun is massive enough to produce nuclear fusion and energy roughly equivalent to the explosion of 91.92 billion megatons of TNT per second.

/rant on

Importing deformation under pressure into human character and society, opposite ends of the socioeconomic scale arguably produce the most distortion. Although many welcome the prospect of a big lottery win, anecdotal evidence suggests that most winners simply can’t take the sudden release of normal financial responsibility (pressure). Similarly, those who rise from austere beginnings to become hundy billionaires (names withheld) reliably become maniacs, diverting their wealth into undeserved influence, boondoggles, and self-serving bids for immortality. Born into obscene wealth? Arguably never even had a chance at normalcy. And because fame, influence, and indulgence go with extraordinary fortunes, idle whims are given serious consideration because, after all, why the hell not? Nothing holding back someone who can essentially purchase anything.

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