The Battle for Your Mind

“Abfeuern von Propagandaschriften von der 1.Linie bei Infanterieregiment 49” by K.u.k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle – Wien is licensed under PDM 1.0

“The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”

—Evan Osnos, David Remnick, and Joshua Yaffa, “Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War” – The New Yorker

“The term ‘propaganda’ has been replaced by ‘a behavioral approach to persuasive communication with quantifiable results.’ “

—Tamsin Shaw, “Invisible Manipulators of Your Mind” – The New York Review of Books

“the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.”

—William Davies, “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next” – The Guardian

Reading is Knowledge

When he was still in juvenile hall, a friend who was in prison elsewhere sent him the “Mexica Handbook”—a tiny book, the size of a cell phone, about the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the colonial plantations that had conscripted and subdued the native populations. Murillo began to understand that his people had a history, and he read that the Mayans were not primitives: they had astrologers and architects and high priests. After he read the “Mexica Handbook,” he decided to read whatever he could get his hands on. At first, he read the kind of genre fiction that was available in the shu: Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dan Brown. But one day when he was out in the yard—in solitary, the “yard” was a small concrete enclosure that had high walls but was open to the sky—a man on the other side of a wall told him that he should stop reading crap and get some good books from the prison library. After that, Murillo had many conversations with the man about books, although he never saw his face.

The man told him to start with Voltaire’s “Candide.” Murillo read it, and was amazed at how resonant it was—its depiction of the slave sounded very similar to what he’d heard about sweatshops. He came across a list of American novels with social-justice themes, and he read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He read “Don Quixote” and “Les Misérables.” He read about the Zapatistas, and about how the Spanish had pillaged Latin America.

When he first got to Pelican Bay, he became enthralled by a book called “The 48 Laws of Power”: “I was thinking, Yo, I’m gonna be a fucking smart-ass criminal. When I go home, I’m gonna set up this drug empire and I’m gonna fucking make bank.” But, as he read more deeply in the book, he began to hate it. He still wanted power, but he no longer wanted to get it by stomping on another guy’s neck. He read about Zen Buddhism, and that made him feel that he didn’t need money anymore. And, as he started reading more about the history of Latin America, he stopped believing that his life was a random card dealt to him by fate: he started to think about politics, and about how the way his life had unfolded was partly the consequence of systematic inequality.

, “BUILDING A PRISON-TO-SCHOOL PIPELINE” in The New Yorker

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

Consumerism Meets Ayahuasca

By Awkipuma (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Awkipuma (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale.”

—Ariel Levy, “The Drug of Choice in the Age of Kale

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.

Complaint as Spectacle

“The spectacular dimension of capitalism has a way of defanging and absorbing any form of resistance or dissent which fails to attack it on a mass, material level. All complaint is commoditized and itself converted into spectacle. The veneer of rebelliousness is retained to gratify us and make us feel like we’re all doing something other than intellectual self-love, but on some level we all must know that’s what we’re doing and we all resign ourselves to being partially satisfied with small bits of libidinal and moral pleasure. Any part of us that could have put up a fight is effectively neutered and reduced to mere performance. Some figure or entity within the industry does something thoughtless and offensive, everyone gets mad, the offending party does their darnedest to remove it, and the whole thing starts all over again.”

—”Distraction, Consumption, Identity: The Neoliberal Language of Videogames

Trump is a Chaos Monkey (or Why I’m Not Afraid of Trump)

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As the media machine ramps up outrage for every small wind that blows from Trump’s mouth, I’ve found myself growing increasingly zen about it all.

Yeah, there’s a slight possibility that Trump may win. So what?

Here’s why I’m OK with the possibility and why you won’t hear me whine about moving to Canada:

  1. It means that many Americans voted for him. Remember that whole thing, voting?We still live in a representative democracy, meaning that we elect our public representatives. We can then thank all those young idealists that either failed to vote or voted for a 3rd party candidate. Maybe they’ll get an inkling of how politics works from that experience.
  2. Trump is surfacing the toxins of our society.  If many Americans are truly angry racist xenophobic zealots, then it’s probably about time we saw one another for what we really are.
  3. If Trump doesn’t destroy our democratic republic, then he will make it stronger. We’re supposed to have a system that balances power. Like a chaos monkey, Trump will test this system through impulsive, bull-headed, shortsighted and selfish decisions. If our system then fails, then that means we need to build a better one. If it doesn’t fail, then it will adapt and react to his incursions like an immune system fighting off a viral invader. And so our political system shall evolve and continue.

Today, when the next headline crosses your radar manufactured to make your conscientious, caring, and progressive self get upset, calm yourself by considering that Trump may well be the Chaos Monkey of the gods. We shall overcome.