Let 2018 Be the Year

A somber and sober New Year’s reflection on the increasing cynicism this last year of chaos and conformity has wrought.

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Like the rest of you who remain tethered to glowing screens, this year has left me feeling constantly frayed. And like many others, my view of the internet, with its once attendant optimism for the future, has grown increasingly cynical.

I’ve been busy, of course, but peeling away that inevitable excuse, there’s also this to point to for my reticence in writing.

To write, to really write, is to break momentarily free from all that has come before to forge a pathway into the heart of darkness. To rediscover and lay bare the ancient byways that were already there.

But really, we — I — should have known better. Nothing is ever truly proffered for free. Every time we log into a browser, tap into an app, and affix our gaze onto a screen, our every click and swipe and clack of a key is harvested and mined for every last life drop of data. As William S. Burroughs, a professional junkie who would know, once said:

Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. The hell they don’t. What they mean is that they want more money; much more.

It all seems so banal, at first. But what a Faustian bargain it is. We grow not only reliant upon these ephemeral feeds, but addicted. The declension from creator to consumer occurs so subtly that we can almost convince ourselves that we are still creative gods as we color in prescribed, personalized templates administered to us in a drip line from the inner algorithms of a Forbidden City.

Those who control the data, who can mine them for patterns that will narrow the probabilistic outcomes for any given successive moments of time, grow stronger with every reinvestment of attention that we bestow within their encircled domains.

Yet here I am, freely spilling my branded pixels forth onto this particular platform which will be willingly disseminated via instant post grams in the hope that it may gain a stranger’s fleeting approval. So I keep clicking, and feeding, and posturing.

I — we — must still hope for something redemptive. Some Neo love Jesus transmutation that will imbue the raw bestiality of humanity with some kind of higher purpose and meaning.

But I know, we know, you know

that the greatest of power and riches lies within.

However trite, this is a diamond truth forged by star song. So long as this is kept just beyond immediate attention, we fumble in bonds.

Let 2018 be the year in which you and I and we dig closer to the inner flame for longer periods of time for a greater amount of good.

Pawns

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Pawn in the Form of an Indian Lady, Courtesy of The Met
“anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company. . .
For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company.
. . .even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens.”
 You Are the Product, John Lanchester / London Review of Books

Our everyday contingent on obscure factors

…we’ve invited technical standards bodies, national- and supranational-level regulators, and shadowy hackers into the innermost precincts of our lives. As a result, our ability to perform the everyday competently is now contingent on the widest range of obscure factors—things we’d simply never needed to worry about before, from the properties of the electromagnetic spectrum and our moment-to-moment ability to connect to the network to the stability of the software we’re using and the current state of corporate alignments.

A Sociology of the Smartphone on Longreads

Liking leads unto despair

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By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg) [Public domain or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-new-more-rigorous-study-confirms-the-more-you-use-facebook-the-worse-you-feel

We’re battling our own habits

History also shows that if we want to tame antibiotic resistance, we have to be ready to fight for a long time — perhaps forever. The problem is that we’re not really fighting against bacteria. We’re battling our own habits, which are deeply ingrained and hard to change.

 

—Carl Zimmer, “The surprising history of the war on superbugs — and what it means for the world today

The Cluetrain anti-Manifesto: People are Corporations

I have no idea who recommended The Cluetrain Manifesto, but it ended up on my Goodreads “want to read” list, and it arrived in my local library a few days ago. I honestly thought it was a fiction book from the title, something along the lines of The Monkey Wrench Gang, perhaps.

Turns out The Cluetrain Manifesto is a breathless paean to the Internet circa 2001, about how the internet will revolutionize business (though the version I’m reading has been updated with some sobered hedging by the authors ten years later).

The primary thesis of the authors is that markets are at heart conversations, and that businesses will either enable the freewheeling conversations empowered by the Net, or fight a losing battle for control.

I don’t want to wave away the advances that the internet has engendered, as I think it’s too easy to downplay, especially for you young whippersnappers who don’t even recall rotary phones. It really has been transformative. But from the vantage point of 2016, we can also see that the breathless prognosticating of the original Cluetrain hasn’t quite panned out. We’re seeing the once wide open, seemingly endless forests of internet anarchy, Grateful Dead-and-Phish-tape-trading freedom turn into gated communities as glossy, ad riven, and manipulative as the corporate fiefdoms of old.

So what went wrong? Why aren’t we living in an unmitigated bliss of genuine, heartfelt connection to one another across digital divides?

While markets have indeed become more about peer to peer sharing, people themselves have become more like corporations. 

Ever heard the term “personal brand”? That’s right – as individuals, we now carefully cultivate and craft our online personas, targeting our messaging, delivering elevator pitches to our friends, and twisting our faces and extending our arms to capture selfies at perfectly calibrated angles.

Successful businesses today support our social posturing, while gathering our data, as defined by every click, post, and geospatial movement. Successful online personas, such as Kim Kardashian, harness the hall of mirrors to their advantage.

In this manner, we market ourselves while allowing ourselves to be marketed. The damning thing about all of this is that the internet of yore – that wild, ecstatic beast – is still right here around us but we gild ourselves into gated, controlled, glossy realms like moths to bulb. 

Why? Because that’s where all the cool kids are.

Outside of the Cluetrain, I’ve been grappling with this lately in terms of my use of Facebook. I deeply appreciate how the platform enables me to interact and relate to others. I’m not always the most personable person in everyday life, and Facebook helps me to communicate different aspects of myself with people I wouldn’t otherwise.

But it’s also a gated community designed to keep me posting and clicking so it can stay in business.

This is the Faustian bargain we make. And if I assume some kind of radical stance on Facebook and delete my account or just stop using it (both of which I’m considering), well, I’ve also then got to justify why I am still actively using Google services, or Twitter, or Instagram, or …

… Or even why I am so tethered to a smartphone in the first place. Do I really need to be notified the minute I get an email? Do I really need GPS instead of a map? 

Are the things I’m actually spending my time on each day adding meaning to my existence?

Would I do more of the things I really want to do if I didn’t have addictive attachments to social media? Would my relationships with people around me be more positive?

I don’t know. But I do remember the internet of the early 90s, back when I would spend summer nights chatting to random strangers on IRC. And yes, even then, we vied for social status with any nerdy signifier we could lay claim to, whether it was our handle, our ASCII graphic skills, our quick wit with a keyboard, or our creative use of asides. Even without the like buttons and the notifications, we found ways to develop and curate our online personas.

The difference is that nobody was really watching, outside of the Cheers-like regulars we came to know at our regular watering holes.

There was a freedom to it, and a loneliness.

Do I still have the wherewithal for that kind of thing? I’m not sure.

But surely in a day and age in which wildernesses both virtual and real are ever diminishing, it’s worth escaping from the everyday mall of mirrors–even if only for a blog post B&B–and exploring.

Happy B-Day, Me!

Well, I’ve hit the big 3-2! I don’t feel old at all. I’m tired, but that’s just cuz I work my ass off. I’m pretty healthy (excepting the secret cancer I’m convinced is invisibly eating away at my soul), since I’ve kept any vices I’ve had so far in check. For example, I once became somewhat enamoured with cigarettes (Kamel Red Lights) when I was in college, really just because it was something to do at parties, but I would always get to this point where one day they would suddenly taste incredibly disgusting, and I would quit for a few weeks before I started up again (due to the desperate need to keep myself looking occupied even when having nothing interesting to say). This kept me from ever getting dependent on them. This is how it’s been for most things in my life. Before I ever become dependent on something, I have some innate need to reject it and switch things up.

The only thing I’ve become dependent upon is my fiancee. She is there for me, doing all kinds of things to ensure that I am on track physically and mentally, such that she really knows me better than I know myself in some ways. I’m notoriously absent minded, so she helps me take care of some of the things I need to take care of (God, I sincerely hope I’m not succumbing to early Alzheimer’s!) only becoming exasperated with me on a bi-daily basis. She puts up with my need to zone out on my computer when I crawl home to escape from the grind of my stressful work life, and she endures my proclivity towards moodiness and reclusiveness. She continually assumes the best in me and keeps trying to engage me in discussions of things I have not the slightest bit of interest in. She cooks amazing meals for me every week, which I happily shovel down my gullet without comment. She sort of endures my neverending supply of gaseous emissions. (But I would like to formally and publicly log the complaint that she steadfastedly refuses to fix me an alcoholic beverage, pack the nargile, or give me a back massage.)

I never would have foreseen myself making my living here in this vast and alien city of New York, not in a million years. But here I am, pushing myself beyond any expectations I would have once set for myself. I was once a shy, introverted, pimply-faced narcissistic simpleton with a tendency to write grandiose and bellicose ramblings. Well, the narcissism, the grandioseness, and the bellicose ramblings still continue, but otherwise this San Diegan native son has made some progress. I’m alright with my age, I’m alright with where I am in life spiritually, mentally, physically, and otherwise. As far as I’m concerned, life just keeps getting better.

My aim is to never get stale, to never be complacent, to always keep growing and pushing myself and developing. The good news is that no one has ever discovered my amazing talent and thus I’ve never become overexposed and drained by stardom and fame. Lucky me! And lucky you, dear reader! I’ll continue to jissom out random blog posts into the night with the absolute guarantee that not many people will ever read them (aside from all the folks that do searches for guns and stumble upon my most famous post of all time, on my grandfather’s gun collection). But that’s what makes people like you and me so special. We’re not verified and vindicated by the status quo. We’re deviant simply by the nature of our anonymity, by the fact that even though we are quite certain that we are geniuses in our own right, we will never be officially sanctioned and recognized and blessed by any archdeacons of societal norms and powers.

On this day, 32 years ago, I managed to get pulled out of my mother’s belly via C-section. Please, don’t congratulate me for this accomplishment. It really didn’t take much effort. Honestly, I should be sending a card and monetary gifts to the doctor that performed that operation, as well as to my mother, of course, for having nurtured and grown me to the point of my individual conception. Thanks mom. I should probably also send a card to the nurse whose face I pissed upon as I was cleansed of birthing blood.

In other words, I didn’t really do much to get to this point of time. I’ve just been coasting along via the pathways of the inevitable, headlong push of gravity, with some intervening forces of human benefaction along the way. Thanks, universe! Thanks, humanity!