Technopoly Not Technology Is The Problem

What is responsible for the problems we’re having with Big Tech?

In the late 1990s, the end of the century was shaping up to look like the End of History, a capitalist utopia. The Internet was still the “information superhighway” and it was going to make us all smarter and our lives more convenient. The revanchist Russia and wealthy but authoritarian China we contend with today were unthinkable. Wealth and stability derived from liberal democracy and fueled by free-flowing information was going to triumph everywhere.

But somewhere between the attacks of September 11th and the election of Donald Trump things got all mixed up. For the convenience of online shopping and instant connection with our loved ones we seem to be paying a high price in anxiety and mass, institution-wide incompetence. Smartphones have even been blamed for the 25% increase in the suicide rate in the United States since 1999, a rate which has doubled for teens in the last ten years. Nobody seems to know how we got here, but we’re all pretty worked up about it.

That’s why, when I picked up a copy of the latest issue of Harper’s with the cover story “The Dark Hole of Social Media, How the Internet Subverts Democracy,” I thought I was going to read a satisfying hit piece about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. The company he and Cheryl Sandberg run has been blamed for allowing the distribution of propaganda by foreign powers, launching its own antisemitic attacks against George Soros, and of wantonly sharing private customer data to seize market share.

I was looking forward to a few thousand words of Schadenfreude, as the headline promised. Instead, I got something better but tougher to stomach. I got an argument stating that the problem with technology isn’t the algorithms or the screens that regulate our lives. It isn’t the corruption or greed of the people who manage the algorithms or sell the screens. It isn’t even the people who manipulate technology to win market share or elections. The problem is our belief that we can turn over our most vital decisions to non-human systems.

In the words of Fred Turner, the Stanford communications professor who wrote the Harper’s piece, “The new authoritarianism represented by [white nationalist Richard] Spencer and Trump is not only a product of who owns today’s media. It’s also a product of the political vision that helped drive the creation of social media in the first place–a vision that distrusts public ownership and the political process while celebrating engineering as an alternative form of governance.”

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On a digital fast until January 2nd

From this moment, 8:58 p.m. on Friday, I won’t be looking at a newspaper, any of the dozen or so magazines I get, any digital news feeds, or any social media, like Instagram, Facebook, twitter, or LinkedIn, until the morning of January 2nd, when I return to work. I don’t watch TV news so I’ve got nothing to give up there. It’ll be just novels, poems, scriptures, and maybe some non-fiction for a while. Perhaps I’ll just spend the time looking at pictures or staring out the window. And I’ll be taking a break from my daily posts here.

Why?

Because this week, a no man’s land between years, is the perfect time to recover some temporal bandwidth, the kind that fills childhood afternoons or, for those of us who can remember, was common in the time before the Internet.

Hours and days spent without the instantaneous continuous stimulus of news is time to remember who I am, what I think of the world, and what’s worth loving about it.

I manipulate symbols for a living, ensuring that they are relevant to the way people are speaking and thinking on any given day. Keeping up with it all is how I keep a tactical advantage in the battle to win attention and trust. It’s a bracing challenge, but it makes it hard to honor silence and memory, to whom I owe whatever creativity I have. So I’ll be off lighting candles to them for a while.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you and your loved ones.

Anatine, salubrious, tatterdemalion

These are three words I encountered during a morning’s reading that I had to stop and look up. The first was in a New Yorker story about the study of taxidermied birds, and the second two were in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic tale Ollala.

The first word was not in the dictionary, not the Webster’s I keep at arm’s length on my desks at work and at home and not in the digital version, either. I don’t trust online dictionaries or whatever source Google is consulting when it gives you definitions. The best I could do with anatine was to see the first part, “anat-”, which the dictionary defines as relating to anatomy, and combine it with the latter part “-tine” which means like or of. In the same way that serpentine means snake-like, anatine, used to refer to a bank of dead birds or perhaps their glass container, means anatomy-like. Or maybe it meant something like a vitrine, which is a glass display case, itself a word that means “glass like thing.” Seems like the author of this piece just made anatine up. I wonder what The New Yorker copy department made of it.

The other two words fell into that rather large category of words that I know about but need to look up just to be sure. The slower my eyes scan the page or my fingers hit the keys as I write, the more I find myself reaching for the dictionary.

Words are mnemonic devices to remember thoughts, as arbitrary as a color, a movement of the body, or shape assigned to do the same thing. The more words we know, the more thoughts we are capable of having.

That dictionary at elbow’s length is a catalogue of news ways of being.

Any words you’ve learned recently? Or relearned?

What actors and orators in the classical world knew about the quirks of the brain

Quite a bit, apparently. Recent research suggests that the same part of the brain which helps us see space and navigate through it also guides us through the thinking process. As we remember and reason, we’re taking a spatial tour of memories and possibilities.

This is precisely how classical and medieval scholars, actors, and orators carried knowledge with them. They would meticulously construct memory palaces by memorizing spatial locations, like cathedrals, areas, palaces, and parts of cities, which they would then mentally place powerful images in to help them remember facts and ideas.

It’s easy to think about the power of such locations when we think about our earliest memories. You may not remember what was on TV in a given year of your childhood, but I’ll bet you remember what the TV looked like and where in the room it was placed. Your whole childhood home, or series of homes, is probably indelibly imprinted on your mind. This same fantastic staying power of visual memory can be knowingly harnessed. In the era before paper and Google, it was probably how troubadours memorized long songs on a single hearing, or how orators could speak for hours on end using a predetermined sequence of ideas.

We can’t enter the mansions of memory any more, thanks to information tech in all its forms, but it seems like we’re hardwired to want to be there.

Anybody out there use a memory palace or anything like it?

Commonplace book: Shirley Jackson on writing as a weirdness outlet

“The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing”

The quote is from her delightful essay about writing and the pressures of everyday life. Reading about her days, you can feel a jollity to the weirdness which the claustrophobic atmosphere of her fiction lacks. At least The Haunting of Hill House lacks it. I finished the book the other night in a feverish rush and after closing the final page felt as if the objects around me and the walls and the bricks holding them up were all objects of menace. Thinking that the mischievous waffle iron in her essay might be an ancestor of Hill House makes me feel a bit better.

A bit.

Neil Postman on the built-in irrelevance of news

Yesterday, I wrote about wisdom only mattering if you can remember it in time. Today, I’d like to finish the thought in the context of my own work: journalism, advertising, and public relations.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman asks why we should care about news if it goes so quickly out of date. If the newspapers and magazines we read are meant to be discarded, what’s to stop us from discarding them the moment they arrive or from ignoring them all together?

The answer is that the meaning of a message changes over time. Responding yes to a friend’s request for a same-day lunch date at 11 p.m. might represent your true feelings but it would be a useless expression.

Eternal truths should be carved in stone, but you can’t simply point to them every time something in the world needs to be understood and acted upon. You’ve got to explain their relevance to the moment. Even the Christian scriptures, which have been styled as the original good news, get a weekly sermon to help them stay relevant. We write and we speak without end because it is a form of understanding simply to do so. To make sense of the world we have to make sense with our words first, in our own minds. We have to keep talking to each other and to the future and looking to the past for context.

That said, most of what passes for language and sense online or in print is neither good language nor good sense. But we can’t stop the attempt to produce it because some people mangle or abuse the language.

If we’re going to be wise in time, we’ve got to understand the times we’re in and that takes a lot of talking. And that’s one thing that keeps me coming back to the keyboard every day, for myself and for my firm. The attempt keeps me thinking and keeps me sane.

Teddy Roosevelt on timing

 

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 5.02.37 PMThis is true and not something a literary education teaches you well. When you spend most of your time rightly reading books written long before you were born, you don’t see the point of a thought having value simply because it is recent. Compared to the great books, most things written recently aren’t very good, or won’t have relevance much past their date of publication. In the classroom, it doesn’t matter when something was said, just that it was said well.

In the battle of life outside the classroom, with wealth and reputation always on the line, the timing of a thought, phrase, or action is everything. We read the great books to remember them when we need to. And unless we speak up when we have to or act before its too late, having a wise thought becomes rather a curse than a blessing, because it becomes an occasion for regret. This is something Teddy Roosevelt likely knew from experience, both in regret and in victory.