Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

For this blog post, let me offer short and long versions of the assertion and argument, of which one of Caitlin Johnstone’s many aphorisms is the short one:

Short version: Modern mainstream feminism is just one big celebration of the idea that women can murder, predate, oppress, and exploit for power and profit just as well as any man.

Long version: Depicting strength in terms of quintessential masculine characteristics is ruining (fictional) storytelling. (Offenders in contemporary cinema and streaming will go unnamed, but examples abound now that the strong-female-lead meme has overwhelmed characters, plots, and stories. Gawd, I tire of it.) One could survey the past few decades to identify ostensibly strong women basically behaving like asshole men just to — what? — show that it can be done? Is this somehow better than misogynist depictions of characters using feminine wiles (euphemism alert) to get what they want? These options coexist today, plus some mixture of the two. However, the main reason the strong female lead fails as storytelling — punching, fighting, and shooting toe-to-toe with men — is that it bears little resemblance to reality.

In sports (combat sports especially), men and women are simply not equally equipped for reasons physiological, not ideological. Running, jumping, throwing, swinging, and punching in any sport where speed and power are principal attributes favors male physiology. Exceptions under extraordinary conditions (i.e., ultradistance running) only demonstrate the rule. Sure, a well-trained and -conditioned female in her prime can beat and/or defeat an untrained and poorly conditioned male. If one of those MMA females came after me, I’d be toast because I’m entirely untrained and I’m well beyond the age of a cage fighter. But that’s not what’s usually depicted onscreen. Instead, it’s one badass going up against another badass, trading blows until a victor emerges. If the female is understood as the righteous one, she is typically shown victorious despite the egregious mismatch.

Nonadherence to reality can be entertaining, I suppose, which might explain why the past two decades have delivered so many overpowered superheroes and strong female leads, both of which are quickly becoming jokes and producing backlash. Do others share my concern that, as fiction bleeds into reality, credulous women might be influenced by what they see onscreen to engage recklessly in fights with men (or for that matter, other women)? Undoubtedly, a gallant or chivalrous man would take a few shots before fighting back, but if not felled quickly, my expectation is that the fight is far more likely to go very badly for the female. Moreover, what sort of message does it communicate to have females engaging in violence and inflicting their will on others, whether in the service of justice or otherwise? That’s the patriarchy in a nutshell. Rebranding matriarchal social norms in terms of negative male characteristics, even for entertainment purposes, serves no one particularly well. I wonder if hindsight will prompt the questions “what on Earth were we thinking?” Considering how human culture is stuck in permanent adolescence, I rather doubt it.

What if everyone showed up to an event with an expectation of using all their tech and gadgets to facilitate the group objective only to discover that nothing worked? You go to a fireworks display but the fireworks won’t ignite. You go to a concert but the instruments and voices make no sound. You go to a sporting event but none of the athletes can move. Does everyone just go home? Come back another day to try again? Or better yet, you climb into your car to go somewhere but it won’t start. Does everyone just stay home and the event never happens?

Those questions relate to a new “soft” weapons system called Scorpius (no link). The device or devices are said to disrupt and disable enemy tech by issuing a narrowly focused electromagnetic beam. (Gawd, just call it a raygun or phaser. No embarrassment over on-the-nose naming of other things.) Does the beam fry the electronics of its target, like a targeted Carrington event, or just simply scramble the signals, making the tech inoperable? Can tech be hardened against attack, such as being encased in a Faraday cage? Wouldn’t such isolation itself make tech nonfunctional, since electronic communications between locations is the essence of modern devices, especially for targeting and telemetry? These are a few more idle questions (unanswered, since announcements of new weaponry I consulted read like advertising copy) about this latest advance (euphemism alert) in the arms race. Calling a device that can knock a plane (um, warplane) out of the sky (crashing somewhere, obviously) “soft protection” because the mechanism is a beam rather than a missile rather obfuscates the point. Sure, ground-based technologies might be potentially disabled without damage, but would that require continuous beam-based defense?

I recall an old Star Trek episode, the one with the Gorn, where omnipotent aliens disabled all weapons systems of two spaceships postured for battle by superheating controls, making them too hot to handle. Guess no one thought of oven mitts or pencils to push the “Fire!” buttons. (Audiences were meant to think, considering Star Trek was a thinking person’s entertainment, but not too much.) Instead of mass carnage, the two captains were transported to the surface of a nearby planet to battle by proxy (human vs. reptile). In quintessential Star Trek fashion — imagining a hopeful future despite militaristic trappings — the human captain won not only the physical battle but the moral battle (with self) by refusing to dispatch the reptile captain after he/it was disabled. The episode posed interesting questions so long as no one searched in the weeds for plausibility.

We’re confronted now, and again, with many of these same questions, some technical, some strategic, but more importantly, others moral and ethical. Thousands of years of (human) history have already demonstrated the folly of war (but don’t forget profitability). It’s a perennial problem, and from my vantage point, combatants on all sides are no closer to Trekkie moral victory now than in the 1960s. For instance, the U.S. and its allies are responsible for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere just in the last two decades. Go back further in time and imperial designs look more and more like sustained extermination campaigns. But hey, we came to play, and any strategic advantage must be developed and exploited, moral quandaries notwithstanding.

It’s worth pointing out that in the Gorn episode, the captains were deprived of their weapons and resorted to brute force before the human improvised a projectile weapon out of materials handily strewn about, suggesting perhaps that intelligence is the most deadly weapon. Turns out to have been just another arms race.

In four seasons (so far …) of The Handmaid’s Tale (a/k/a SufferFest), a Hulu streaming TV show based on Margaret’s Atwood’s dystopian novel (1985) of the same title and not the 1990 movie, everyone suffers under bootheel oppression and tyranny. And suffers … and suffers … and suffers. Did I mention the suffering? EVERYONE! Including the tyrannizers.









OK, more of a capsule review, but frankly, that’s all you need to know.

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 then 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.

David Sirota, author of Back to our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now — Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything (2011), came to my attention (how else?) through a podcast. He riffed pretty entertainingly on his book, now roughly one decade old, like a rock ‘n’ roller stuck (re)playing his or her greatest hits into dotage. However, his thesis was strong and appealing enough that I picked up a copy (read: borrowed from the library) to investigate despite the datedness of the book (and my tardiness). It promised to be an easy read.

Sirota’s basic thesis is that memes and meme complexes (a/k/a memeplexes, though Sirota never uses the term meme) developed in the 80s and deployed through a combination of information and entertainment media (thus, infotainment) form the narrative background we take for granted in the early part of the 20th century. Children fed a steady diet of clichés, catchphrases, one-liners, archetypes, and story plots have now grown to adulthood and are scarcely able to peer behind the curtain to question the legitimacy or subtext of the narrative shapes and distortions imbibed during childhood like mother’s milk. The table of contents lists four parts (boldface section titles are Sirota’s; descriptive text is mine):

  • Liking Ike, Hating Woodstock. How the 50s and 60s decades were (the first?) assigned reductive demographic signifiers, handily ignoring the true diversity of experience during those decades. More specifically, the boom-boom 50s (economics, births) were recalled nostalgically in 80s TV and films while the 60s were recast as being all about those dirty, hairy hippies and their music, drugs, and sexual licentiousness, all of which had to be invalidated somehow to regain lost wholesomeness. The one-man promotional vehicle for this pleasing self-deception was Michael J. Fox, whose screen personae (TV and film) during the 80s (glorifying the 50s but openly shitting on the 60s) were instrumental in reforming attitudes about our mixed history.
  • The Jump Man Chronicles. How the Great Man Theory of History was developed through glorification of heroes, rogues, mavericks, and iconoclasts who came into their own during the 80s. That one-man vehicle was Michael Jordan, whose talents and personal magnetism were so outsized that everyone aspired to be “like Mike,” which is to say, a superhero elevated beyond mere mortal rules and thus immortalized. The effect was duplicated many times over in popular culture, with various entertainment icons and political operatives subverting thoughtful consideration of real-world problems in favor of jingoistic portrayals.
  • Why We (Continue to) Fight. How the U.S. military was rehabilitated after losing the Vietnam War, gifting us with today’s hypermilitarism and permanent wars. Two principal tropes were deployed to shape public opinion: the Legend of the Spat upon Veteran and the Hands Tied Behind Their Backs Myth. Each was trotted out reliably whenever we needed to misremember our past as fictionalized in the 80s.
  • The Huxtable Effect. How “America’s dad” helped accommodate race relations to white anxiety, primarily to sell a TV show. In contrast with various “ghetto TV” shows of the 70s that depicted urban working poor (various ethnicities), The Cosby Show presented an upscale black family who transcended race by simply ignoring the issue — a privilege of wealth and celebrity. The Obama campaign and subsequent administration copied this approach, pretending American society had become postracial despite his never truly being able to escape the modifier black because the default (no modifier needed) in America is always white. This is the most fraught part of the book, demonstrating that despite whatever instructions we get from entertainment media and pundits, we remain stuck in an unresolved, unhealed, inescapable trap.

(more…)

Caveat: this post is uncharacteristically long and perhaps a bit disjointed. Or perhaps an emerging blogging style is being forged. Be forewarned.

Sam Harris has been the subject of or mentioned in numerous previous blog posts. His podcast Making Sense (formerly, Waking Up), partially behind a paywall but generously offered for free (no questions asked) to those claiming financial hardship, used to be among those I would tune in regularly. Like the Joe Rogan Experience (soon moving to Spotify — does that mean its disappearance from YouTube? — the diversity of guests and reliable intellectual stimulation have been attractive. Calling his podcast Making Sense aligns with my earnest concern over actually making sense of things as the world spins out of control and the epistemological crisis deepens. Yet Harris has been a controversial figure since coming to prominence as a militant atheist. I really want to like what Harris offers, but regrettably, he has lost (most of) my attention. Others reaching the same conclusion have written or vlogged their reasons, e.g., “Why I’m no longer a fan of ….” Do a search.

Having already ranted over specific issues Harris has raised, let me instead register three general complaints. First, once a subject is open for discussion, it’s flogged to death, often without reaching any sort of conclusion, or frankly, helping to make sense. For instance, Harris’ solo discussion (no link) regarding facets of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which event sparked still unabated civil unrest, did more to confuse than clarify. It was as though Harris were trying the court case by himself, without a judge, jury, or opposing counsel. My second complaint is that Harris’ verbosity, while impressive in many respects, leads to interviews marred by long-winded, one-sided speeches where the thread is hopelessly lost, blocking an interlocutor from tracking and responding effectively. Whether Harris intends to bury others under an avalanche of argument or does so uncontrollably doesn’t matter. It’s still a Gish gallop. Third is his over-emphasis on hypotheticals and thought experiments. Extrapolation is a useful but limited rhetorical technique, as is distillation. However, treating prospective events as certainties is tantamount to building arguments on poor foundations, namely, abstractions. Much as I admire Harris’ ambition to carve out a space within the public sphere to get paid for thinking and discussing topics of significant political and philosophical currency, he frustrates me enough that I rarely tune in anymore.

In contrast, the Rebel Wisdom channel on YouTube offers considerably more useful content, which includes a series on sensemaking. The face of Rebel Wisdom is documentarian David Fuller, who asks informed questions but avoids positioning himself in the expository center. Quite a change from the too-familiar news-anchor-as-opinion-maker approach taken by most media stars. If there were a blog, I would add it to my blogroll. However, offer of memberships ranging from $5 to $500 per month irks me. Paid-for VIP status too closely resembles selling of empty cachet or Catholic indulgences, especially those with guarantees of “special access.”

I became especially interested in Daniel Schmachtenberger‘s appearances on Rebel Wisdom and his approach to sensemaking. Lots of exciting ideas; clearly the fellow has developed an impressive framework for the dynamics involved. But to make it really useful, as opposed to purely theoretical, formal study akin to taking a philosophy course is needed. Maybe there’s written material available, but without a clear text resource, the prospect of sifting unguided through a growing collection of YouTube videos caused me to retreat (out of frustration? laziness?). At some later point, I learned that Schmachtenberger was a participant among a loose collection of under-the-radar intellectuals (not yet having elevated themselves to thought leaders) working on an alternative to politics-and-civilization-as-usual called Game B (for lack of a better name). A good article about Schmachtenberger and what’s called “The War on Sensemaking” (numerous Internet locations) is found here.

While the Game B gang seems to have imploded over disagreements and impasses (though there may well be Internet subcultures still carrying the torch), its main thrust has been picked up by Bret Weinstein and his DarkHorse Podcast (var.: Dark Horse) co-hosted by his wife Heather Heying. Together, they analyze contemporary political and cultural trends through the twin perspectives of evolutionary biology and game theory. They also live in Portland, Oregon, home to the most radical leftist civil unrest currently under way this summer of 2020. They further warn unambiguously that we Americans are at grave risk of losing the grand melting pot experiment the U.S. represents as the self-anointed leader of the free world and standard-bearer of liberal democratic values sprung from the Enlightenment. What is meant by protesters to succeed the current regime in this proto-revolutionary moment is wildly unclear, but it looks to be decidedly fascist in character. Accordingly, Weinstein and Heying are actively promoting Unity 2020 (var.: Unity2020 and Un1ty2020) to select and nominate an independent U.S. presidential candidate — “Not Trump. Not Biden.” Unless you’re jacked into the Internet and political discussions avidly, it’s quite easy to overlook this emergent political reform. I was vaguely aware of Articles of Unity and its “Plan to Save the Republic” yet still had trouble locating it via Web searches. Weinstein’s penchant (shared with his brother Eric) for coining new terms with flexible spelling is no aid.

Like Rebel Wisdom, Weinstein and Heying, each on their individual Patreon pages, offer multiple levels of membership and access: $2 to $250 per month for him, $5 to $17 per month for her. Why such high divergence, I wonder? I raise paid memberships repeatedly because, while acknowledging the need to fund worthwhile endeavor and to earn a living, there is something tacky and unseemly about enabling concentric inner circles exclusively through paid access — no other apparent qualification needed. More pointedly, an article called “The Corrupting Power Of The Inner Ring” by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative discusses David Brooks’ column about Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think (2017) where Jacobs cites C.S. Lewis’ concept of the inner ring — something to be distrusted. (Sorry about that long string of names.) Also demonstrates how ideas are highly derivative of antecedents found throughout culture and history.

Anyway, the DarkHorse Podcast provides some of the best analysis (not to be confused with news reporting or journalism, neither of which is even remotely successful at sensemaking anymore) to be found among those inserting themselves into the public conversation (if such a thing can be said to exist). Willingness to transform oneself into a pundit and then opine freely about anything and everything is a shared attribute of the people profiled above. (I specifically disclaimed punditry as a goal of mine when launching this blog.) That most of them have embraced podcasting (not blogging — I’m so unhip, committed to a legacy medium that both came and went with surprising celerity) as the primary medium of information exchange is quite contemporary. I surmise it’s silent acknowledgement that Americans (on the whole) no longer read and that text has fallen out of favor compared to speech, especially the eavesdropped conversational type. Podcasting doesn’t complete the information gathering and sensemaking shift from text and newsprint to TV and video begun many decades ago but certainly intensifies it. Podcasting has also demonstrated real money-making potential if one succeeds in attracting a sufficient audience (driving ad revenue) and/or a cadre of subscribers and contributors. Potential for real political engagement is unproven as yet.

Another public intellectual I cited briefly a couple years ago, Thomas Sowell, crossed my browsing path yet again. And yet again, I found myself somewhat credulously led down the primrose path set by his reckless (or savvy?) juxtaposition of facts and details until a seemingly logical conclusion appeared magically without his ever having made it manifest. In the two-year-old interview I watched (no link), Sowell states cause-and-effect (or substitutes one combo for another) confidently while simultaneously exuding false humility. He basically serves up a series of small sells leading to the big sell, except that the small sells don’t combine convincingly unless one is swept unawares into their momentum. But the small sells work individually, and I found myself agreeing repeatedly before having to recognize and refuse the final sale. I also recognize in Sowell’s reliance on facts and numerical data my own adherence to evidence. That’s an epistemological foundation we should all share. Moreover, my willingness to consider Sowell’s remarks is a weak stab at heterodoxy. But as the modern information environment has made abundantly clear, lying with numbers and distortion of facts (or more simply, fake news and narrative spin) are precisely what makes sensemaking so difficult yet critical. For instance, I have echoed Sowell recently in suggesting that inequality and structural violence may be less rooted in snarling, overt racism (at least since the Civil Rights Era) than in simple greed and opportunism while acknowledging that virulent white supremacism does still exit. Yet others insist that everything is political, or racist, or owing to class conflict, or subsumed entirely by biology, chemistry, or physics (or religion). Take your pick of interpretations of reality a/k/a sensemaking. I had halfway expected someone to take me to task for failing to voice the approved radical leftist orthodoxy or try to cancel me for publishing something nominally conservative or Sowellesque. But no one cares what I blog about; I have succeeded in avoiding punditry.

With such a sprawling survey of sensemakers good and bad, successful and unsuccessful (according to me), there is no handy conclusion. Instead, let me point to the launching point for this blog post: my blog post called “Mad World Preamble.” Even before that, I blogged about Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary (2010), drawing particular attention to chap. 12 as his diagnosis of how and when the modern world went mad. Perhaps we have indeed managed to step back from the atomic brink (MAD) only to totter and stumble through a few extra decades as PoMo madness overtook us completely in the latter half of the 20th century; and maybe the madness is not yet the hallucinatory type fully evident at a glance. However, look no further than the two gibbering fools foisted upon the voting public in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Neither is remotely capable of serving responsibly. Every presidential election in the 21st century has been accompanied by breathless analysis prophesying the implosion of either political party following an electoral loss. Well, they both imploded and can’t field a proper candidate for high office anymore. There is probably no stronger test case for societal and institutional madness than the charade we’re now witnessing. Maybe Unity 2020 is onto something.

Purpose behind consumption of different genres of fiction varies. For most of us, it’s about responding to stimuli and experiencing emotions vicariously, which is to say, safely. For instance, tragedy and horror can be enjoyed, if that’s the right word, in a fictional context to tweak one’s sensibilities without significant effect outside the story frame. Similarly, fighting crime, prosecuting war, or repelling an alien invasion in a video game can be fun but is far removed from actually doing those things in real life (not fun). For less explicit narrative forms, such as music, feelings evoked are aesthetic and artistic in nature, which makes a sad song or tragic symphony enjoyable on its own merits without bleeding far into real sadness or tragedy. Cinema (now blurred with broadcast TV and streaming services) is the preeminent storytelling medium that provokes all manner of emotional response. After reaching a certain age (middle to late teens), emotional detachment from depiction of sexuality and violent mayhem makes possible digestion of such stimulation for the purpose of entertainment — except in cases where prior personal trauma is triggered. Before that age, nightmare-prone children are prohibited.

Dramatic conflict is central to driving plot and story forward, and naturally, folks are drawn to some stories while avoiding others. Although I’m detached enough not to be upset by, say, zombie films where people and zombies alike are dispatched horrifically, I wouldn’t say I enjoy gore or splatter. Similarly, realistic portrayals of war (e.g., Saving Private Ryan) are not especially enjoyable for me despite the larger story, whether based on true events or entirely made up. The primary reason I leave behind a movie or TV show partway through is because I simply don’t enjoy watching suffering.

Another category bugs me even more: when fiction intrudes on reality to remind me too clearly of actual horrors (or is it the reverse: reality intruding on fiction?). It doesn’t happen often. One of the first instances I recall was in Star Trek: The Next Generation when the story observed that (fictional) warp travel produced some sort of residue akin to pollution. The reminder that we humans are destroying the actual environment registered heavily on me and ruined my enjoyment of the fictional story. (I also much prefer the exploration and discovery aspects of Star Trek that hew closer to Gene Roddenberry’s original vision than the militaristic approach now central to Star Trek.) A much more recent intrusion occurs in the rather adolescent TV show The 100, where a global nuclear exchange launched by an artificial intelligence has the follow-on effect a century later of remaining nuclear sites going critical, melting down, and irradiating the Earth, making it uninhabitable. This bothers me because that’s my expectation what happens in reality, probably not too long (decades) after industrial civilization collapses and most or all of us are dead. This prospect served up as fiction is simply too close to reality for me to enjoy vicariously.

Another example of fiction intruding too heavily on my doomer appreciation of reality occurred retroactively. As high-concept science fiction, I especially enjoyed the first Matrix movie. Like Star Trek, the sequels degraded into run-of-the-mill war stories. But what was provocative about the original was the matrix itself: a computer-generated fiction situated within a larger reality. Inside the matrix was pleasant enough (though not without conflict), but reality outside the matrix was truly awful. It was a supremely interesting narrative and thought experiment when it came out in 1999. Now twenty-one years later, it’s increasingly clear that we are living in a matrix-like, narrative-driven hyperreality intent on deluding ourselves with a pleasant equilibrium that simply isn’t in evidence. In fact, as societies and as a civilization, we’re careening out of control, no brakes, no steering. Caitlin Johnstone explores this startling after-the-fact realization in an article at Medium.com, which I found only a couple days ago. Reality is in fact far worse than the constructed hyperreality. No wonder no one wants to look at it.

Fully a decade ago, I analyzed with more length than I usually allow myself an article from The New Yorker that examined how media trends were pushing away from literacy (the typographic mind) toward listening and viewing (orality) as primary modes of information gathering and entertainment. The trend was already underway with the advent of radio, cinema, and television, which moved the relatively private experience of silent reading to a public or communal realm as people shared experiences around emerging media. The article took particular aim at TV. In the intervening decade, media continue to contrive new paths of distribution, moving activity back to private information environments via the smart phone and earbuds. The rise of the webcast (still called podcast by some, though that’s an anachronism), which may include a video feed or display a static image over discussion and/or lecture, and streaming services are good examples. Neither has fully displaced traditional media just yet, but the ongoing shift in financial models is a definite harbinger of relentless change.

This comes up again because, interestingly, The New Yorker included with an article I popped open on the Web an audio file of the very same article read by someone not the author. The audio was 40 minutes, whereas the article may have taken me 15 to 20 minutes had I read it. For undisclosed reasons, I listened to the audio. Not at all surprisingly, I found it odd and troublesome. Firstly, though the content was nominally investigative journalism (buttressed by commentary), hearing it read to me made it feel like, well, storytime, meaning it was fiction. Secondly, since my eyes weren’t occupied with reading, they sought other things to do and thus fragmented my attention.

No doubt The New Yorker is pandering to folks who would probably not be readers but might well become listeners. In doing so, it’s essentially conceding the fight, admitting that the effort to read is easily eclipsed by the effortlessness of listening. As alternative and unequal modes of transmitting the content of the article, however, it strikes me as an initiative hatched not by writers and editors capable of critical thought and addressing a similarly enabled readership but by a combination of sales and marketing personnel attempting to capture a widening demographic of listeners (read: nonreaders). Navigating to the article might be a modest extra complication, but if a link to the audio file can be tweeted out (I don’t actually know if that’s possible), then I guess the text isn’t truly necessary.

Here part of what I wrote a decade ago:

If the waning of the typographic mind proceeds, I anticipate that the abstract reasoning and critical thinking skills that are the legacy of Enlightenment Man will be lost except to a few initiates who protect the flame. And with so many other threats cropping up before us, the prospect of a roiling mass of all-but-in-name barbarians ruled by a narrow class of oligarchs does indeed spell the total loss of democracy.

Are we getting perilously close that this dystopia? Maybe not, since it appears that many of those in high office and leadership positions labor under their own failures/inabilities to read at all critically and so execute their responsibilities with about the same credibility as hearsay. Even The New Yorker is no longer protecting the flame.

I recall Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Celestial Railroad railing against the steam engine, an infernal machine, that disrupts society (agrarian at that time). It’s a metaphor for industrialization. The newest infernal machine (many candidates have appeared since Hawthorne’s time only to be supplanted by the next) is undoubtedly the smart phone. Its disruption of healthy formation of identity among teenagers has already been well researched and documented. Is it ironic that as an object of our own creation, it’s coming after our minds?

I remarked in an earlier blog that artists, being hypersensitive to emergent patterns and cultural vibes, often get to ideas sooner than the masses and express their sensibilities through creative endeavor. Those expressions in turn give watchers, viewers, listeners, readers, etc. a way of understanding the world through the artist’s interpretive lens. Interpretations may be completely fictitious, based on real-life events, or merely figurative as the medium allows. They are nonetheless an inevitable reflection of ourselves. Philistines who fail to appreciate that the arts function by absorbing and processing human experience at a deep, intuitive level may insist that the arts are optional or unworthy of attention or financial support. That’s an opinion not at all borne out in the culture, however, and though support may be vulnerable to shifts in valuation (e.g., withdrawal of federal funding for the NEA and PBS), the creative class will always seek avenues of expression, even at personal cost. The democratization of production has made modes of production and distribution for some media quite cheap compared to a couple decades ago. Others remain undeniably labor intensive.

What sparked my thinking are several TV series that have caught my attention despite my generally low level of attention to such media. I haven’t watched broadcast television in over a decade, but the ability to stream TV programming has made shows I have ignored for years far more easy to tune in on my own terms and schedule. “Tune in” is of course the wrong metaphor, but suffice it to say I’ve awarded some of my attention to shows that have up until now fell out of scope for me, cinema being more to my liking. The three shows I’ve been watching (only partway through each) are The Americans, Homeland, and Shameless. The first two are political thrillers (spy stuff) whereas the last is a slice-of-life family drama, which often veers toward comedy but keeps delivering instead tragedy. Not quite the same thing as dark comedy. Conflict is necessary for dramatic purposes, but the ongoing conflict in each of these shows flirts with the worst sorts of disaster, e.g., the spies being discovered and unmasked and the family being thrown out of its home and broken up. Episodic scenarios the writers concoct to threaten catastrophe at every step or at any moment gets tiresome after a while. Multiple seasons ensure that dramatic tension is largely dispelled, since the main characters are present year over year. (The trend toward killing off major characters in others popular TV dramas is not yet widespread.) But still, it’s no way to live, constantly in disaster mode. No doubt I’ve cherry picked three shows from a huge array of entertainments on offer.

Where art reflects reality is that we all now live in the early 21st century under multiple, constantly disquieting threats, large and small, including sudden climate change and ecological disaster, nuclear annihilation, meteor impacts, eruption of the shield volcano under Yellowstone, the Ring of Fire becoming active again (leading to more volcanic and earthquake activity), geopolitical dysfunction on a grand scale, and of course, global financial collapse. This, too, is no way to live. Admittedly, no one was ever promised a care-free life. Yet our inability to manage our own social institutions or shepherd the earth (as though that were our mandate) promise catastrophes in the fullness of time that have no parallels in human history. We’re not flirting with disaster so much as courting it.

Sociologists and historians prepare scholarly works that attempt to provide a grand narrative of the times. Cinema seems to be preoccupied with planetary threats requiring superhero interventions. Television, on the other hand, with its serial form, plumbs the daily angst of its characters to drive suspense, keeping viewers on pins and needles while avoiding final resolution. That final resolution is inevitably disaster, but it won’t appear for a few seasons at least — after the dramatic potential is wrung out of the scenario. I can’t quite understand why these shows are consumed for entertainment (by me no less than anyone else) except perhaps to distract from the clear and present dangers we all face every day.

Nick Carr has an interesting blog post (late getting to it as usual) highlighting a problem with our current information environment. In short, the constant information feed to which many of us subscribe and read on smartphones, which I’ve frequently called a fire hose pointed indiscriminately at everyone, has become the new normal. And when it’s absent, people feel anxiety:

The near-universal compulsion of the present day is, as we all know and as behavioral studies prove, the incessant checking of the smartphone. As Begley notes, with a little poetic hyperbole, we all “feel compelled to check our phones before we get out of bed in the morning and constantly throughout the day, because FOMO — the fear of missing out — fills us with so much anxiety that it feels like fire ants swarming every neuron in our brain.” With its perpetually updating, tightly personalized messaging, networking, searching, and shopping apps, the smartphone creates the anxiety that it salves. It’s a machine almost perfectly designed to turn its owner into a compulsive … from a commercial standpoint, the smartphone is to compulsion what the cigarette pack was to addiction

I’ve written about this phenomenon plenty of times (see here for instance) and recommended that wizened folks might adopt a practiced media ecology by regularly turning one’s attention away from the feed (e.g., no mobile media). Obviously, that’s easier for some of us than others. Although my innate curiosity (shared by almost everyone, I might add) prompts me to gather quite a lot of information in the course of the day/week, I’ve learned to be restrictive and highly judgmental about what sources I read, printed text being far superior in most respects to audio or video. No social media at all, very little mainstream media, and very limited “fast media” of the type that rushes to publication before enough is known. Rather, periodicals (monthly or quarterly) and books, which have longer paths to publication, tend to be more thoughtful and reliable. If I could never again be exposed to noise newsbits with, say, the word “Kardashian,” that would be an improvement.

Also, being aware that the basic economic structure underlying media from the advent of radio and television is to provide content for free (interesting, entertaining, and hyperpalatable perhaps, but simultaneously pointless ephemera) in order to capture the attention of a large audience and then load up the channel with advertisements at regular intervals, I now use ad blockers and streaming media to avoid being swayed by the manufactured desire that flows from advertising. If a site won’t display its content without disabling the ad blocker, which is becoming more commonplace, then I don’t give it my attention. I can’t avoid all advertising, much like I can’t avoid my consumer behaviors being tracked and aggregated by retailers (and others), but I do better than most. For instance, I never saw any Super Bowl commercials this year, which have become a major part of the spectacle. Sure, I’m missing out, but I have no anxiety about it. I prefer to avoid colonization of my mind by advertisers in exchange for cheap titillation.

In the political news media, Rachel Maddow has caught on that it’s advantageous to ignore a good portion of the messages flung at the masses like so much monkey shit. A further suggestion is that because of the pathological narcissism of the new U.S. president, denial of the rapt attention he craves by reinforcing only the most reasonable conduct of the office might be worth a try. Such an experiment would be like the apocryphal story of students conditioning their professor to lecture with his/her back to the class by using positive/negative reinforcement, paying attention and being quiet only when his/her back was to them. Considering how much attention is trained on the Oval Office and its utterances, I doubt such an approach would be feasible even if it were only journalists attempting to channel behavior, but it’s a curious thought experiment.

All of this is to say that there are alternatives to being harried and harassed by insatiable desire for more information at all times. There is no actual peril to boredom, though we behave as though an idle mind is either wasteful or fearsome. Perhaps we aren’t well adapted — cognitively or culturally — to the deluge of information pressing on us in modern life, which could explain (partially) this age of anxiety when our safety, security, and material comforts are as good as they’ve ever been. I have other thoughts about what’s really missing in modern life, which I’ll save for another post.