Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

With each successive election cycle, I become more cynical (how is that even possible?) about the candidates and their supposed earnest mission to actually serve the public interest. The last couple cycles have produced a new meme that attempts to shift blame for poor governance to the masses: the low-information voter. Ironically, considering the fact that airwaves, magazines, books, public addresses, online venues, and even dinner conversations (such as they still exist if diners aren’t face-planted in their screens) are positively awash in political commentary and pointless debate and strategizing, there is no lack of information available. However, being buried under a déluge of information is akin to a defense attorney hiding damning discovery in an ocean of irrelevance, so I have some sympathy for voters who are thwarted in attempts to make even modestly informed decisions about political issues.

Multiply this basic relationship across many facets of ordinary life and the end result is the low-information citizen (also low-information consumer). Some parties (largely sellers of things, including ideas) possess a profusion of information, whereas useful, actionable information is hidden from the citizen/consumer by an information avalanche. For example, onerous terms of an insurance contract, debt instrument, liability waiver, or even routine license agreement are almost never read prior to signing or otherwise consenting; the acronym tl;dr (stands for “too long; didn’t read”) applies. In other situations, information is withheld entirely, such as pricing comparisons one might undertake if high-pressure sales tactics were not deployed to force potential buyers in decisions right here, right now, dammit! Or citizens are disempowered from exercising any critical judgment by erecting secrecy around a subject, national security being the utility excuse for everything the government doesn’t want people to know.

Add to this the concerted effort (plain enough to see if one bothers to look) to keep the population uneducated, without options and alternatives, scrambling just to get through the day/week/month (handily blocking information gathering), and thus trapped in a condition of low information. Such downward pressure (survival pressure, one might say when considering the burgeoning homeless population) is affecting a greater portion of the population than ever. The American Dream that energized and buoyed the lives of many generations of people (including immigrants) has morphed into the American Nightmare. Weirdly, the immigrant influx has not abated but rather intensified. However, I consider most of those folks (political, economic, and ecological) refugees, not immigrants.

So those are the options available to powers players, where knowledge is power: (1) withhold information, (2) if information can’t be withheld, then bury it as a proverbial needle in a haystack, and (3) render a large percentage of the public unable to process and evaluate information by keeping them undereducated. Oh, here’s another: (4) produce a mountain of mis- and disinformation that bewilders everyone. This last one is arguably the same as (2) except that the intent is propaganda or psyop. One could also argue that miseducating the public (e.g., various grievance studies blown into critical race theory now being taught throughout the educational system) is the same as undereducating. Again, intent matters. Turning someone’s head and radicalizing them with a highly specialized toolkit (mostly rhetorical) for destabilizing social relations is tantamount to making them completely deranged (if not merely bewildered).

These are elements of the ongoing epistemological crisis I’ve been observing for some time now, with the side effect of a quick descent into social madness being used to justify authoritarian (read: fascist) concentration of power and rollback of individual rights and freedoms. The trending term sensemaking also applies, referring to reality checks needed to keep oneself aligned with truth, which is not the same as consensus. Groups are forming up precisely for that purpose, centered on evidentiary rigor as well as skepticism toward the obvious disinformation issuing from government agencies and journalists who shape information according to rather transparent brazen agendas. I won’t point to any particular trusted source but instead recommend everyone do their best (no passivity!) to keep their wits about them and think for themselves. Not an easy task when the information environment is so thoroughly polluted — one might even say weaponized — that it requires special workarounds to navigate effectively.

/rant on

Since deleting from my blogroll all doom links and turning my attention elsewhere, the lurking dread of looming collapse (all sorts) has been at low ebb at The Spiral Staircase. Despite many indicators of imminent collapse likewise purged from front-page and top-of-the-broadcast news, evidence continues to mount while citizens contend with other issues, some political and geopolitical, others day-to-day tribulations stemming from politics, economics, and the ongoing pandemic. For instance, I only just recently learned that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC — oh yeah … them) issued AR6 last month, the sixth periodic Assessment Report (maybe instead call it the State of the Union Address Planet Report). It’s long, dense reading (the full report is nearly 4,000 pp., whereas the summary for policymakers is a mere 42 pp.) and subject to nearly continuous revision and error correction. The conclusion? Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying. And although it’s true that mundane daily activities occupy center stage in the lives of average folks, there is simply no bigger story or concern for government leaders (I choke on that term) and journalists (that one, too) than climate change because it represents (oh, I dunno …) the collapse of industrial civilization and the early phase of mass extinction. Thus, all politics, geopolitics, economic warfare, class struggle, Wokeism, authoritarian seizure of power, and propaganda filling the minds of people at all levels as well as the institutions they serve amount to a serious misallocation of attention and effort. I will admit, though, that it’s both exhausting and by now futile to worry too much about collapse. Maybe that’s why the climate emergency (the new, improved term) is relegated to background noise easily tuned out.

It’s not just background noise, though, unlike the foreknowledge that death awaits decades from now if one is fortunate to persist into one’s 70s or beyond. No, it’s here now, outside (literally and figuratively), knocking on the door. Turn off your screens and pay attention! (Ironically, everyone now gets the lion’s share of information from screens, not print. So sue me.) Why am I returning to this yet again? Maybe I’ve been reviewing too many dystopian films and novels. Better answer is that those charged with managing and administering states and nations are failing so miserably. It’s not even clear that they’re trying, so pardon me, but I’m rather incensed. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of knowledgeable experts compiling data, writing scientific reports, publishing books, and offering not solutions exactly but at least better ways to manage our affairs. Among those experts, the inability to reverse the climate emergency is well enough understood though not widely acknowledged. (See Macro-Futilism on my blogroll for at least one truth teller who absolutely gets it.) Instead, some lame version of the same dire warning issues again and again: if action isn’t taken now (NOW, dammit!), it will be too late and all will be lost. The collective response is not, however, to pull back, rein in, or even prepare for something less awful than the worst imaginable hard landing where absolutely no one survives despite the existence of boltholes and underground bunkers. Instead, it’s a nearly gleeful acceleration toward doom, like a gambler happily forking over his last twenty at the blackjack table before losing and chucking himself off the top of the casino parking structure. Finally free (if fleetingly)!

Will festering public frustration over deteriorating social conditions tip over into outright revolt, revolution, civil war, and/or regime change? Doesn’t have to be just one. Why is the U.S. still developing and stockpiling armaments, maintaining hundreds of U.S. military bases abroad, and fighting costly, pointless wars of empire (defeat in withdrawal from Afghanistan notwithstanding)? Will destruction of purchasing power of the U.S. dollar continue to manifest as inflation of food and energy costs? Is the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture actually doing anything to secure food systems, or does it merely prepare reports like the AR6 that no one reads or acts upon? Will fragile supply lines be allowed to fail entirely, sparking desperation and unrest in the streets far worse than summer 2020? Famine is how some believe collapse will trigger a megadeath pulse, but I wouldn’t count out chaotic violence among the citizenry, probably exacerbated and escalated as regimes attempt (unsuccessfully) to restore social order. Are any meaningful steps being taken to stop sucking from the fossil fuel teat and return to small-scale agrarian social organization, establishing degrowth and effectively returning to the land (repatriation is my preferred term) instead of going under it? Greenwashing doesn’t count. This headline (“We Live In A World Without Consequences Where Everyone Is Corrupt“) demonstrates pretty well that garbage economics are what pass for governance, primarily preoccupied with maintaining the capitalist leviathan that has captured everything (capture ought to be the trending word of the 2021 but sadly isn’t). Under such constraint, aged institutions are flatly unable to accomplish or even address their missions anymore. And this headline (“Polls Show That The American People Are Extremely Angry – And They Are About To Get Even Angrier“) promises that things are about to get much, much worse (omitted the obvious-but-erroneous follow-on “before they get better”) — for the obvious reason that more and more people are at the ends of their ropes while the privileged few attend the Met Gala, virtue signal with their butts, and behave as though society isn’t in fact cracking up. Soon enough, we’ll get to truth-test Heinlein’s misunderstood aphorism “… an armed society is a polite society.”

Those who prophesy dates or deadlines for collapse have often been slightly embarrassed (but relieved) that collapse didn’t arrive on schedule. Against all odds, human history keeps trudging further into borrowed time, kicking cans down roads, blowing bubbles, spinning false narratives, insisting that all this is fine, and otherwise living in make-believe land. Civilization has not quite yet reached the end of all things, but developments over the last couple months feel ever more keenly like the equivalent of Frodo and Sam sitting atop Mount Doom, just outside the Cracks of Doom (a/k/a Sammath Naur), except that humanity is not on a noble, sacrificial mission to unmake the One Ring, whatever that might represent outside of fiction (for Tolkien, probably industrial machines capable of planetary destruction, either slowly and steadily or all at once; for 21st-century armchair social critics like me, capitalism). All former certainties, guarantees, sureties, continuities, and warranties are slipping away despite the current administration’s assurances that the status quo will be maintained. Or maybe it’s merely the transition of summer into fall, presaging the annual dormancy of winter looking suspiciously this year like the great dying. Whatever. From this moment on and in a fit of exuberant pique, I’m willing to call the contest: humanity is now decidedly on the down slope. The true end of history approaches, as no one will be left to tell the tale. When, precisely, the runaway train finally careens over the cliff remains unknown though entirely foreseeable. The concentration of goofy references, clichés, and catchphrases above — usually the mark of sophomoric writing — inspires in me to indulge (further) in gallows humor. Consider these metaphors (some mixed) suggesting that time is running out:

  • the show’s not over til it’s over, but the credits are rolling
  • the chickens are coming home to roost
  • the canary in the coal mine is gasping its last breath
  • the fat lady is singing her swan song
  • borrowed time is nearly up
  • time to join the great majority (I see dead people …)
  • the West fades into the west
  • kiss your babies goodnight and kiss your ass goodbye

/rant off

Continuing from part 1.

So here’s the dilemma: knowing a little bit about media theory and how the medium shapes the message, I’m spectacularly unconvinced that the cheerleaders are correct and that an entirely new mediascape (a word I thought maybe I had just made up, but alas, no) promises offers to correct the flaws of the older, inherited mediascape. It’s clearly not journalists leading the charge. Rather, comedians, gadflies, and a few academics (behaving as public intellectuals) command disproportionate attention among the digital chattering classes as regular folks seek entertainment and stimulation superior to the modal TikTok video. No doubt a significant number of news junkies still dote on their favorite journalists, but almost no journalist has escaped self-imposed limitations of the chosen media to offer serious reporting. Rather, they offer “commentary” and half-assed observations on human nature (much like like comedians who believe themselves especially insightful — armchair social critics like me probably fit that bill, too). If the sheer count of aggregate followers and subscribers across social media platforms is any indication (it isn’t …), athletes, musicians (mostly teenyboppers and former pop tarts, as I call them), and the irritatingly ubiquitous Kardashian/Jenner clan are the most influential, especially among Millennials and Gen Z, whose tastes skew toward the frivolous. Good luck getting insightful analysis out of those folks. Maybe in time they’ll mature into thoughtful, engaged citizens. After all, Kim Kardashian apparently completed a law degree (but has yet to pass the bar). Don’t quite know what to think of her three failed marriages (so far). Actually, I try not to.

I’ve heard arguments that the public is voting with its attention and financial support for new media and increasingly disregarding the so-called prestige media (no such thing anymore, though legacy media is still acceptable). That may well be, but it seems vaguely ungrateful for established journalists and comedians, having enjoyed the opportunity to apprentice under seasoned professionals, to take acquired skills to emerging platforms. Good information gathering and shaping — even for jokes — doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and responsible journalism in particular can’t simply be repackaging information gathered by others (i.e., Reuters, the Associated Press, and Al Jezeera) with the aforementioned “commentary.” A frequent reason cited for jumping ship is the desire to escape editorial control and institutional attempts to distort the news itself according to some corporate agenda or ideology. Just maybe new platforms have made that possible in a serious way. However, the related desire to take a larger portion of the financial reward for one’s own work (typically as celebrities seeking to extend their 15 minutes of fame — ugh) is a surefire way to introduce subtle, new biases and distortions. The plethora of metrics available online, for instance, allows content creators to see what “hits” or goes viral, inviting service to public interest that is decidedly less than wholesome (like so much rubbernecking).

It’s also curious that, despite all the talk about engaging with one’s audience, new media is mired in broadcast mode, meaning that most content is presented to be read or heard or viewed with minimal or no audience participation. It’s all telling, and because comments sections quickly run off the rails, successful media personalities ignore them wholesale. One weird feature some have adopted during livestreams is to display viewer donations accompanied by brief comments and questions, the donation being a means of separating and promoting one’s question to the top of an otherwise undifferentiated heap. To my knowledge, none has yet tried the established talk radio gambit of taking live telephone calls, giving the public a chance to make a few (unpurchased) remarks before the host resumes control. Though I’ve never been invited (an invitation is required) and would likely decline to participate, the Clubhouse smartphone app appears to offer regular folks a venue to discuss and debate topics of the day. However, reports on the platform dynamics suggest that the number of eager participants quickly rises to an impossible number for realistic group discussion (the classroom, or better yet, graduate seminar establishes better limitations). A workable moderation mechanism has yet to emerge. Instead, participants must “raise their hand” to be called upon to speak (i.e., be unmuted) and can be kicked out of the “room” arbitrarily if the moderator(s) so decide. This is decidedly not how conversation flows face-to-face.

What strikes me is that while different broadcast modes target and/or capture different demographics, they all still package organize content around the same principle: purporting to have obtained information and expertise to be shared with or taught to audiences. Whether subject matter is news, science, psychology, comedy, politics, etc., they have something ostensibly worth telling you (and me), hopefully while enhancing fame, fortune, and influence. So it frankly doesn’t matter that much whether the package is a 3-minute news segment, a brief celebrity interview on a late night talk show, an article published in print or online, a blog post, a YouTube video of varying duration, a private subscription to a Discord Server, a Subreddit, or an Instagram or Twitter feed; they are all lures for one’s attention. Long-form conversations hosted by Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, and Lex Fridman break out of self-imposed time limitations of the typical news segment and flow more naturally, but they also meander and get seriously overlong for anyone but long-haul truckers. (How many times have I tuned out partway into Paul VanderKlay’s podcast commentary or given up on on Matt Taibbi’s SubStack (tl;dr)? Yeah, lost count.) Yet these folks enthusiastically embrace the shifting mediascape. The digital communications era is already mature enough that several generations of platforms have come and gone as well-developed media are eventually coopted or turned commercial and innovators drive out weaker competitors. Remember MySpace, Google Plus, or American Online? The list of defunct social media is actually quite long. Because public attention is a perpetually moving target, I’m confident that those now enjoying their moment in the sun will face new challenges until it all eventually goes away amidst societal collapse. What then?

The famous lyric goes “haters gonna hate.” That reflexive structure is equivalent to the meaningless phrase “It is what it is.” Subtexts attach to these phrases, and they take on lives of their own, after a fashion, with everyone pretending to know precisely what is intended and meant. That was the lesson, by the way, of the phrase “Stupid is as stupid does,” made up precisely to confound bullies who were making fun of someone of apparently limited capacity. In light of these commonplace rhetorical injunctions to actual thought, it is unsurprising that practitioners of various endeavors would be revealed as cheerleaders and self-promoters (sometimes rabidly so) for their own passion projects. With most activities, however, one can’t XX about XX, as in sport about sports, music about music, or cook about cooking. If one plays sports, makes music, or cooks, exemplary results are identifiable easily enough, but promotion on behalf of those results, typically after the fact but sometimes in the midst of the activity (i.e., sports commentary), takes place within the context of language. The two major exceptions I can identify are (1) politicking about politics and (2) writing about writing, both heavily laden with speech. (A third example, which I won’t explore, might be celebrating celebrities. Ugh.)

Of the first example I have little to say except that it’s so miserably, ugly, and venal that only politicians, policy wonks, political junkies, and campaign strategists (now full-time political strategists considering campaigns never end) derive much joy or energy from the reflexive trap. The rest of us prefer to think as little as possible about the entirely corrupt nature of political institutions and the associated players. The second example, however, is arguably an inborn feature of writing that still commands attention. Writers writing about writing might be typically understood as fiction writers revealing their processes. A recent example is J.K. Rowling, who leapt from obscurity to international fame in one bound and now offers writing tips (mainly plotting) to aspirants. An older example is Mark Twain, whose recommendation to ward off verbosity is something I practice (sometimes with limited success). Writers writing about writing now extends to journalists, whose self-reflection never seem to wear thin as the famous ones become brands unto themselves (perhaps even newsworthy in their own right). Training attention on themselves (“Look mom, no hands!”) is rather jejune, but again, commonplace. It’s also worth observing that journalists journaling about journalism, especially those who reveal how the proverbial sausage is made (e.g., Matt Taibbi and his book Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another (2019)), are essentially self-cannibalizing (much like celebrities).

What strikes me lately is how many writers, journalists, and commentators (probably includes bloggers like me — bloggers blogging about blogging) have become cheerleaders for the media in which they work, which is especially true of those who have abandoned legacy media in favor of newer platforms to connect with readerships and/or audiences. Extolling the benefits of the blog is already passé, but the shift over to podcasting and YouTube/TikToc channels, accompanied by testimonial about how great are attributes of the new medium, has passed beyond tiresome now that so many are doing it. Print journalists are also jumping ship from legacy publications, mostly newspapers and magazines, to digital publishing platforms such as Medium, Revue, and Substack. Some create independent newsletters. Broadcast journalists are especially keen on YouTube. A fair bit of incestuous crossover occurs as well, as media figures interview each other endlessly. Despite having restricted my media diet due to basic distrust of the legacy media in particular, I still award a lot of attention to a few outlets I determined deserve my attention and are sometimes even trustworthy. Or sometimes, they’re just entertaining. I still tune in the stray episode of someone I find infuriating just to check in and reinforce my decision not to return more frequently.

Stopping here and breaking this post into parts because the remainder of the draft was already growing overlong. More to come in part 2.

Continuing my book-blogging project on Orality and Literacy, Ong provides context for the oral tradition that surrounded the two great Homeric classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey. According to Ong, it took decades for literary critics and sociologists to overcome their bias, borne out of literacy, and recognize how formulaic are the two epics. They are essentially pastiches of commonplace plots, phrases, and sayings of the time, which was a notable strength when oral delivery based on memorization was how epic poetry was transmitted. In a literate era, such clichés are to be avoided (like the plague).

Aside: my review of David Serota’s Back to Our Future mentions the dialect he and his brother developed, filled with one-liners and catchphrases from entertainment media, especially TV and movies. The three-word (also three-syllable) form seems to be optimal: “Beam me up” (Star Trek), “Use the Force” (Star Wars), “Make my day” (Dirty Harry), “I’ll be back” (The Terminator), etc. This construction is short, punchy, and memorable. The first holder of high office in the U.S. to attempt to govern by catchphrase was probably Ronald Reagan, followed (of course) by Arnold Schwarzenegger and then Donald Trump. Mustn’t overlook that all three (and others) came to prominence via the entertainment industry rather than through earnest (Kennedyesque) public service. Trump’s numerous three-word phrases (shtick, really) lend themselves especially well to being chanted by adoring crowds at his pep rallies, swept up in groupthink, with a recognizable beat-beat-beat-(silence) structure. The rock band Queen stumbled upon this same elemental rhythm with its famous stomp-stomp-clap-(wait) from the anthem “We Are the Champions,” consciously intended for audience participation (as I understand it).

Further aside: “We Are the Champions” combines its iconic rhythm with a recitation tone sourced in antiquity. Make of that what you will.

Ong goes on to provide a discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, which I list here without substantive discussion (read for yourself):

  • orality is additive rather than subordinative
  • orality is aggregative rather than analytic
  • orality is redundant or copious
  • orality is conservative or traditionalist
  • orality is close to the human lifeworld
  • orality is agonistically toned
  • orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced
  • orality is homeostatic
  • orality is situational rather than abstract

Of particular interest is Ong’s description of how language functions within oral cultures distinctly from literate cultures, which is the source of the bias mentioned above. To wit:

Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing … In a primary oral culture, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase … [w]ithout writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual … [for] ‘primitive’ (oral) people … language is a mode of action and not simply a countersign of thought — oral people commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power. [pp. 31–32]

If this sounds conspicuously reminiscent this previous post, well, congratulations on connecting the dots. The whole point, according to a certain perspective, is that words are capable of violence, which is (re)gaining adherents as our mental frameworks undergo continuous revision. It’s no small thing that slurs, insults, and fighting words (again) provoke offense and violent response and that mere verbal offense equates to violence. Not long ago, nasty words were reclaimed, nullified, and thus made impotent (with varying levels of irrational rules of usage). Well, now they sting again and are used as ammo to cancel (a form of administrative violence, often undertaken anonymously, bureaucratically, and with the assistance of the digital mob) anyone with improper credentials to deploy them.

Let me draw another connection. Here’s a curious quote by Walter Pater, though not well known:

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.

Put another way, the separation of signifier from signified, an abstraction conditioned by literacy and rationalism (among other things) is removed (“obliterated”) by music, which connects to emotion more directly than representational art. Similarly, speech within primary oral cultures exists purely as sound and possesses an ephemeral, even effervescence (Ong’s term) quality only experienced in the flow of time. (Arguably, all of human experience takes place within the flow of time.) Music and “primitive” speech are accordingly dynamic and cannot be reduced to static snapshots, that is, fixed on a page as text or committed to a canvas or photograph as a still image (hence, the strange term still life). That’s why a three-word, three-syllable chant, or better yet, the Queen rhythm or the Wave in sports arenas (a gesture requiring subscription of everyone), can possess inherent power, especially as individuals are entrained in groupthink. Music and words-as-violence get inside us and are nearly wholly subjective, not objective — something we all experience organically in early childhood before being taught to read and write (if in fact those skills are learned beyond functional literacy). Does that mean culture is reverting to an earlier stage of development, more primitive, childlike, and irrational?

While working, I half listen to a variety of podcasts via YouTube, usually minimizing the window so that I don’t see the video. Some report that long-haul truckers are also avid podcast listeners (presumably discarding AM radio); who knows? At any rate, I find it dispiriting that nearly every podcast has attracted sponsors and now features unavoidable, in-your-face advertising on top of ubiquitous exhortations to like, subscribe, ring the bell, and buy merch. Ads are sometimes read live, no longer being prerecorded bits during regular commercial breaks. Segues into ad reads are often tortured, with tastelessness being an inverted badge of honor somehow.

I get that for those who have made podcasting their primary incomes, opining on anything and everything ad nauseum (sorta like me, actually), sponsorship is what keeps them stocked with peanut butter. Why do I still tune in? Well, some are actually entertaining, while others are exceptional clearinghouses for information I wouldn’t otherwise gather — at least when not pedantic and irritating. Good thing I’m only half listening. Case in point: a few weeks back, the DarkHorse Podcast (no link) announced it would begin doing ads, but to make the bitter pill easier to swallow, free endorsements (unpaid ads) would also be presented. Right … more of what I don’t want. In characteristic fashion, the two hosts beat that damn horse well into the afterlife, softening none of the irksome content (at least for me). Although legacy media (e.g., radio, TV, magazines, newsprint) has always required forfeiting some part of one’s time and attention to ignoring or filtering out ads, streaming services and online blockers have done away with much of the unwanted marketing. Perhaps that’s why I’m exasperated at it now being unavoidable again.

With this in mind, here’s my promise to you, dear reader: I will never monetize this blog or put it behind a paywall. I won’t even put up a tip jar or coffee mug to entice micropayments. The blog will also never connect to Facebook or Twitter or any other platform. This blog is totally free and unencumbered (except the ads WordPress puts in, which are relatively easy to dismiss and/or circumvent). Maybe I’m fortunate that I earn my living elsewhere and disavow any desire to be a pundit, influencer, or media figure. Those folks are uniformly unenviable, especially when distorted by their own celebrity so that they forget who they are. Instead, this blog will remain what it’s always been: a venue for me to work out my ideas and secondarily share them.

For more than a decade, I’ve had in the back of my mind a blog post called “The Power of Naming” to remark that bestowing a name gives something power, substance, and in a sense, reality. That post never really came together, but its inverse did. Anyway, here’s a renewed attempt.

The period of language acquisition in early childhood is suffused with learning the names of things, most of which is passive. Names of animals (associated closely with sounds they make) are often a special focus using picture books. The kitty, doggie, and horsie eventually become the cat, dog, and horse. Similarly, the moo-cow and the tweety-bird shorten to cow and bird (though songbird may be an acceptable holdover). Words in the abstract are signifiers of the actual things, aided by the text symbols learned in literate cultures to reinforce mere categories instead of examples grounded in reality. Multiply the names of things several hundred thousand times into adulthood and indeed throughout life and one can develop a formidable vocabulary supporting expressive and nuanced thought and speech. Do you know the differences between acute, right, obtuse, straight, and reflex angles? Does it matter? Does your knowledge of barware inform when to use a flute, coupe, snifter, shot (or shooter or caballito), nosing glass (or Glencairn), tumbler, tankard, goblet, sling, and Stein? I’d say you’ve missed something by never having drunk dark beer (Ger.: Schwarzbier) from a frosted schooner. All these varieties developed for reasons that remain invisible to someone content to drink everything from the venerable red Solo cup. Funnily enough, the red Solo cup now comes in different versions, fooling precisely no one.

Returning to book blogging, Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy) has curious comparisons between primarily oral cultures and literate cultures. For example:

Oral people commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things. Explanations of Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2:20 usually call condescending attention to this presumably quaint archaic belief. Such a belief is in fact far less quaint than it seems to unreflective chirographic and typographic folk. First of all, names do give humans beings power over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand, for example, chemistry and to practice chemical engineering. And so with all other intellectual knowledge. Secondly, chirographic and typographic folk tend to think of names as labels, written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen. Written or printed representations of words can be labels; real, spoken words cannot be. [p. 33]

This gets at something that has been developing over the past few decades, namely, that as otherwise literate (or functionally literate) people gather more and more information through electronic media (screens that serve broadcast and cable TV, YouTube videos, prerecorded news for streaming, and podcasts, and most importantly, audiobooks — all of which speak content to listeners), the spoken word (re)gains primacy and the printed word fades into disuse. Electronic media may produce a hybrid of orality/literacy, but words are no longer silent, internal, and abstract. Indeed, words — all by themselves — are understood as being capable of violence. Gone are the days when “stick and stones ….” Now, fighting words incite and insults sting again.

Not so long ago, it was possible to provoke a duel with an insult or gesture, such as a glove across the face. Among some people, defense of honor never really disappeared (though dueling did). History has taken a strange turn, however. Proposed legislation to criminalize deadnaming (presumably to protect a small but growing number of transgender and nonbinary people who have redefined their gender identity and accordingly adopted different names) recognizes the violence of words but then tries to transmute the offense into an abstract criminal law. It’s deeply mixed up, and I don’t have the patience to sort it out.

More to say in later blog posts, but I’ll raise the Counter-Enlightenment once more to say that the nature of modern consciousness if shifting somewhat radically in response to stimuli and pressures that grew out of an information environment, roughly 70 years old now but transformed even more fundamentally in the last 25 years, that is substantially discontinuous from centuries-old traditions. Those traditions displaced even older traditions inherited from antiquity. Such is the way of the world, I suppose, and with the benefit of Walter Ong’s insights, my appreciation of the outlines is taking better shape.

Wanted to provide an update to the previous post in my book-blogging project on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy to correct something that wasn’t clear to me at first. The term chirographic refers to writing, but I conflated writing more generally with literacy. Ong actually distinguishes chirographic (writing) from typographic (type or print) and includes another category: electronic media.

Jack Goody … has convincingly shown how shifts hitherto labeled as shifts from magic to science, or from the so-called ‘prelogical’ to the more and more ‘rational’ state of consciousness, or from Lévi-Strauss’s ‘savage’ mind to domesticated thought, can be more economically and cogently explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy … Marshall McLuhan’s … cardinal gnomic saying, ‘The medium is the message’, registered his acute awareness of the importance of the shift from orality through literacy and print to electronic media. [pp. 28–29]

So the book’s primary contrast is between orality and literacy, but literacy has a sequence of historical developments: chirographic, typographic, and electronic media. These stages are not used interchangeably by Ong. Indeed, they exist simultaneously in the modern world and all contribute to overall literacy while each possesses unique characteristics. For instance, reading from handwriting (printing or cursive, the latter far less widely used now except for signatures) is different from reading from print on paper or on the screen. Further, writing by hand, typing on a typewriter, typing into a word-processor, and composing text on a smartphone each has its effects on mental processes and outputs. Ong also mentions remnants of orality that have not yet been fully extinguished. So the exact mindset or style of consciousness derived from orality vs. literacy is neither fixed nor established universally but contains aspects from each category and subcategory.

Ong also takes a swing at Julian Jaynes. Considering that Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1977) (see this overview) was published only seven years prior to Orality and Literacy (1982), the impact of Jaynes’ thesis must have still been felt quite strongly (as it is now among some thinkers). Yet Ong disposes of Jaynes rather parsimoniously, stating

… if attention to sophisticated orality-literacy contrasts is growing in some circles, it is still relatively rare in many fields where it could be helpful. For example, the early and late stages of consciousness which Julian Jaynes (1977) describes and related to neuro-physiological changes to the bicameral mind would also appear to lend themselves largely to much simpler and more verifiable descriptions in terms of a shift from orality to literacy. [p. 29]

In light of the details above, it’s probably not accurate to say (as I did before) that we are returning to orality from literacy. Rather, the synthesis of characteristics is shifting, as it always has, in relation to new stimuli and media. Since the advent of cinema and TV — the first screens, now supplemented by the computer and smartphone — the way humans consume information is undergoing yet another shift. Or perhaps it’s better to conclude that it’s always been shifting, not unlike how we have always been and are still evolving, though the timescales are usually too slow to observe without specialized training and analysis. Shifts in consciousness arguably occur far more quickly than biological evolution, and the rate at which new superstimuli are introduced into the information environment suggest radical discontinuity with even the recent past — something that used to be call the generation gap.

I’ve always wondered what media theorists such as McLuhan (d. 1980), Neil Postman (d. 2003), and now Ong (d. 2003) would make of the 21st century had they lived long enough to witness what has been happening, with 2014–2015 being the significant inflection point according to Jonathan Haidt. (No doubt there are other media theorists working on this issue who have not risen to my attention.) Numerous other analyses point instead to the early 20th century as the era when industrial civilization harnessed fossil fuels and turned the mechanisms and technologies of innovators decidedly against humanity. Pick your branching point.

Considering the acceleration of practically everything in the late-modern world (postmodern refers to something quite different), which makes planning one’s higher education somewhat fraught if the subject matter studied is rendered flatly out-of-date or moribund by the time of either graduation or entry into the workforce, I’ve heard it recommended that expertise in any particular subject area may be less important than developing expertise in at least one subject that takes a systems approach. That system might be language and communications, mathematics (or any other hard science), history, economics and finance, business administration, computer coding, law and governance, etc. So long as a rigorous understanding of procedures and rules is developed, a structuralist mindset can be repeated and transferred into other subject areas. Be careful, however, not to conflate this approach with a liberal arts education, which is sometimes described as learning how to learn and is widely applicable across disciplines. The liberal arts have fallen distinctly out of favor in the highly technological and technocratic world, which cares little for human values resistant to quantification. Problem is, Western societies in particular are based on liberal democratic institutions now straining due to their sclerotic old age. And because a liberal arts education is scarcely undertaken anymore, civics and citizenship are no longer taught. Even the study of English has now been corrupted (postmodern does apply here) to the point that the basic liberal arts skill of critical thinking is being lost through attrition. Nowhere is that more abundantly clear than in bristling debate over free speech and censorship.

Aside. Although society tinkers and refines itself (sometimes declines) over time, a great body of cultural inheritance informs how things are done properly within an ideology or system. When tinkering and refinement become outright intransigence and defiance of an established order, it’s commonplace to hear the objection “but that’s not how _______ works.” For instance, debate over climate science or the utility of vaccines often has one party proclaiming “trust [or believe] the science.” However, that’s not how science works (i.e., through unquestioning trust or belief). The scientific method properly understood includes verification, falsification, and revision when results and assertions fail to establish reasonable certainty (not the same as consensus). Similarly, critical thinking includes a robust falsification check before “facts” can be accepted at face value. So-called “critical studies” (a/k/a grievance studies), like religious faith, typically positions bald assertions beyond the reach of falsification. Well, sorry, that’s not how critical thinking works.

Being older and educated before critical studies were fully legitimized (or gave rise to things as risible as feminist glaciology), my understand has always been that free speech and other rights are absolutes that cannot be sliced and diced into bits. That way lies casuistry, where law founders frequently. Thus, if one wishes, say, to trample or burn the U.S. flag in protest, no law can be passed or constitutional amendment enacted to carve out an exception disallowed that instance of dissenting free speech. A lesser example is kneeling silently rather than participating in singing the national anthem before a sporting event. Though offensive to certain individual’s sensibilities, silencing speech is far worse according to liberal democratic values. Whatever our ideological or political difference are, we cannot work them out when one party has the power to place topics out or bounds or remove others from discussion entirely. The point at which spirited debate crosses over into inciting violence or fomenting insurrection is a large gray area, which is the subject of the second impeachment of 45. Civil law covers such contingencies, so abridging free speech, deplatforming, and adopting the formulation “language is violence” are highly improper responses under the liberal form of government codified in the U.S. Constitution, which includes the Bill of Rights originally omitted from the U.S. Constitution but quickly added to articulate the rights fully.

Liberal democratic ideology arose in mercantile, substantially agrarian Western societies before scientific, industrial, and capitalist revolutions built a full head of steam, so to speak. Considering just how much America has developed since the Colonial Period, it’s no surprise society has outgrown its own founding documents. More pointedly, the intellectual commons was a much smaller environment, often restricted to a soapbox in the town square and the availability of book, periodicals,and broadsides. Today, the public square has moved online to a bewildering array of social media platforms that enables publication of one’s ideas well beyond the sound of one’s voice over a crowd or the bottleneck of a publisher’s printing press. It’s an entirely new development, and civil law has not kept pace. Whether Internet communications are regulated like the airwaves or nationalized like the U.S. military, it’s clear that the Wild West uber-democratic approach (where anyone can basically say anything) has failed. Demands for regulation (restrictions on free speech) are being taken seriously and acted upon by the private corporations that run social media platforms. During this interim phase, it’s easy for me, as a subscriber to liberal democratic values, to insist reflexively on free speech absolutism. The apparent mood of the public lies elsewhere.

Evil exists in the world. History and current events both bear this out amply. Pseudo-philosophers might argue that, like emotions and other immaterial sensations, good and evil are merely reified concepts, meaning they are human constructs with no palpable external reality. Go tell that to victims of evildoers. Human suffering can’t be anonymized, rationalized, or philosophized away quite so handily.

It was sort of refreshing, back in the day, when Google’s motto and/or corporate code of conduct was simple: “Don’t Be Evil.” It acknowledged the potential for being or becoming evil (like any of the Bigs: Big Tobacco, Big Soda, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Media, Big Agriculture, etc.) and presumably aspired to resist obvious temptations. That was then (from 2000 to 2018), this is now (2021 until death take us — soon enough, I fear). But like all entities possessed of absurd levels of wealth and power, Google (now reorganized as a subsidiary of Alphabet, but who actually refers to it that way?) and its Silicon Valley brethren have succumbed to temptation and become straight-up evil.

One might charitably assess this development as something unbidden, unanticipated, and unexpected, but that’s no excuse, really. I certainly don’t envy celebrity executives experiencing difficulty resulting from having created unmanageable behemoths loosed on both public and polity unable to recognize beastly fangs until already clamped on their necks. As often occurs, dystopian extrapolations are explored in fiction, sometimes satirically. The dénouement of the HBO show Silicon Valley depicts tech mogul wannabes succeeding in creating an AI (or merely a sophisticated algorithm? doesn’t matter …) that would in time become far too powerful in blind execution of its inner imperative. In the show, characters recognize what they had done and kill their own project rather than allow it to destroy the world. In reality, multiple developers of computer tech platforms (and their embedded dynamic, including the wildly unhelpful albeit accurate term algorithm) lacked the foresight to anticipate awful downstream effects of their brainchildren. Yet now that those effects are manifesting recognizably, these corporations continue to operate and wreak havoc.

Silicon Valley shows a extended software development period of bungling ineptitude punctuated by brilliant though momentary breakthroughs. Characters are smart, flawed people laughably unable to get out of the way of their own success. The pièce de résistance was yoking one so-called “learning machine” to another and initiating what would become a runaway doomsday process (either like ecological collapse, building slowly the making the biosphere uninhabitable all at once, or like the gray goo problem, progressively “processing” biomass at the molecular level until all that remains is lifeless goo). It was a final act of bumbling that demanded the characters’ principled, ethical response before the window of opportunity closed. Real Silicon Valley tech platforms are in the (ongoing) process of rending the social fabric, which is no laughing matter. The issue du jour surrounds free speech and its inverse censorship. More broadly, real Silicon Valley succeeded in gaming human psychology for profit in at least two aspects (could be more as yet unrecognized): (1) mining behavioral data as an exploitable resource, and (2) delivering inexhaustible streams of extremely divisive content (not its own) to drive persistent engagement with its platforms. Yoked together, they operate to drive society mad, and yet, mounting evidence of this development has not produced even an inkling that maybe the damned doomsday devices ought to be shut off. As with the environment, we operate with freedom enough to destroy ourselves. Instead, politicians issue stunningly ineffectual calls for regulation or break-up of monopolies. In the meantime, ever more absurd wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few executives who have clearly punted and decided “let’s be evil.” No restraints on their behavioral experimentation across whole societies exist.

Much more to say on this topic in additional parts to come.