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

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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.

God had come in

“When I came back out there was a strange light in the kitchen, as if there was a film of silver over everything, like frost only smoother, like water running thinly down over flat stones; and then my eyes were opened and I knew it was because God had come into the house and this was the silver that covered heaven. God had come in because God is everywhere, you can’t keep him out, he is part of everything there is, so how could you ever build a wall or four walls or a door or a shut window, that he could not walk right through as if it was air.

“I said, What do you want here, but he did not answer, he just kept on being silver, so I went out to milk the cow; because the only thing to do about God is to go on with what you were doing anyway, since you can’t ever stop him or get any reasons out of him. There is a Do this or Do that with God, but not any Because.

–Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

Sometimes, One Can Only Watch

By Photograph taken by Official War Photographer at an Australian Advanced Dressing Station near Ypres in 1917.

He experienced neither joy at having escaped nor remorse. War made everything one could say or think about it simultaneously true and false, and there was too much evil and too much good mixed up in every moment for one to be able to judge. One could only hold one’s peace and watch. Beside the window a young soldier was learning how to light a cigarette, clasping it between the remaining stumps of his hands.

—Andrei Makine, Requiem for a Lost Empire

The Requisite Power for a Functional Goverment

A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.

–Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 31

My Review of Hunger Games

I wrote this review on The Hunger Games on Goodreads back in April, 2012, and just happened to be scanning through my reviews recently—thought it was worth sharing.

When my wife first read The Hunger Games a while back, I read the first paragraph over her shoulder and couldn’t resist making fun of it. That term, “the reaping,” smacked of cheap sci-fi melodrama. Later, after The Hunger Games blew up and everyone was hysterical over the movie, I tried reading the book again, but again couldn’t get past a few pages. The sentences were too short, lifeless, devoid of meaning.

When I discussed this with my wife, she advocated for the “truncated” sentences as having more power due to the circumstances of the character in the story. This idea of the power of truncated sentences made me think immediately of Hemingway. And that’s when I found out that she had never read Hemingway!

So I made her a deal. I would read this pop culture phenomenon of a book if she would read A Farewell to Arms*.

I finished reading the first book of The Hunger Games this morning, and I admit to enjoying it much more than I thought I would, given my initial reaction. Sticking militantly to her short sentences, the author creates a fantasy world of warfare, romance, and survival that reads like an updated, media-driven cross between “The Most Dangerous Game” and The Lord of the Flies. The fact that Collins’ sentences are short and slick ends up contributing to the overall theme of all actions and words being tuned to the everpresent eye of the camera and an audience hungry for cheap action and thrills. The story is thus imbued with some sense of self-awareness and deeper critique of human society, though I do wonder whether the book thus ends up falling under it’s own subversive critique.

In other words, it may be just a little too action driven and slick for its own good. I understand that it is a book marketed, ostensibly, for teen girls, and I also get that the entire realm of deeper thought and critique of society is left up to the reader to develop. And I do appreciate that the main character is a girl who is strong and who resonates with values of the working class and the poor. But I wonder about the shallow world, lacking any sense of real history, that Collins has created, and about the true powerlessness that her characters have if that world is taken as one of reality. There is no hope in such a world, no matter the outcome. Such worlds can indeed be effective settings for deeper explorations of humanity, such as Cormac McCarthy weaves in The Road and Blood Meridian.

I question whether the depth of feeling we are ultimately made to feel for Katniss, Peeta, and Rue is fully earned, and furthermore, the critique that then comes as a result of that questioning must be confined to pointless comparisons of our own society. I say pointless, because beyond some obvious parallels to the patrician society of Rome, there’s nothing enough to add up as a substantial critique, beyond our own infatuation with sensationalist media and our own ease in being led towards projecting emotion for characters that stand unmoored from any history or depth of context and relationships.

It either speaks to the power of the author that this is indeed her very point, or it speaks to our credulousness as consumers. I guess I’ll just have to let you be the ultimate judge on that point.

At the end of the day, the most we can say, perhaps, is that we enjoyed the experience.

*My wife, by the way, never has yet been able to finish a Hemingway book. I also tried to get her to read A Sun Also Rises, but to no avail. You win some, you lose some . . .