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Month: December 2017

“Content:” Creating For The Machine

Richard Powers, 1977

Too often I’ve heard the proud pronouncement, “We’re manipulating the SEO! We’ve done it, were on page one of Google!” Cheers all around. Glasses clink. A feeling of accomplishment rides on the air and stinks like ozone. Meanwhile, the hyperlink smirks at the competition. Now, it’s the authority, the badass source for that particular keyword, e.g. “Manx cats,” or “senior citizen eSports.” Who decided that this or that deserves to stand atop the podium?

Nobody.

No body manipulates the algorithm. The notion is entirely misguided. Bodies are manipulated by the algorithm. When we wear our blue ribbons and smile, were not congratulating some ingenious process; we congratulate our ability to march in-sync with a horde. We conform our creations to the edicts of a dynamic code nobody really understands.

We create “content.”

“Content.” The word isn’t a net for scooping tropical fish, but a 50-gallon trash bag stuffed with any junk that can be digitally codified. Do you refer to a book as “content?” How about a song? Movie? No. Not unless it’s a YouTube video (with an accompany blog-ready transcript) on VideoVinny’s channel. Now that’s content: compressed and optimized for an attractive call-to-action. Masking vinegar with synthetic honey.

Content with “content.”

“Content” has become a word without a soul, without a vision of itself. A project which is a means to an end, catching clicks to cash in. All watched over by machines of calculating content. The cybernetic forest is a junkyard, and the deer are starving on knotted wires shaped like flowers.

The quasi-religious myth of singularity proposes a world where technology has run so far amok it achieves a kind of divinity. If that were all it suggested then Kurzweil is a prophet. Our world is already a collection of cybernetic clerics. Eating our calculated daily bread.

“If they could speak, do you think they would tell us to try and be a little more creative?”

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On The Postmodernism-Blame Game

Every era wants something to blame. A people, a trend, a concept: an ominous and mysterious monolith for common sentiment to stone. This thing from another planet is responsible for all our problems; its overcoming means the removal of all responsibility. If only this thing was gone, neutralized, destroyed. It’s typically just a word, as empty as the air which carries it.

“Postmodernism.”

While the origin of postmodernism disdain is uncertain, it’s clearer who’s leading the cavalry’s charge. Jordan Peterson for one. A man who started his career tackling evil through a wonderful book called Maps of Meaning and will probably end it as a YouTube pundit berating, what he sees as, the trend hurling Western civilization towards the abyss.

What’s not clear is exactly what is conceived as “postmodernism.” The definition is vague. And one that Peterson and cohorts rarely take the time to elucidate, if at all. There are names of course: Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, Lacan; a majority of French intellectuals and the offbeat American playing translator for a curious audience.

These are figures easily criticized but rarely read. Though they are mere theorists. Any real definition or understanding of “postmodernism” would encompass its totality, if that’s possible. It begins with Duchamp’s urinal and ends with Peterson’s rants.

I’m no reader of the aforementioned list; this is not an article supporting 20th-century theory. No desire. No time. Too busy with earlier thinkers. Afterall, today’s houses aren’t made of one room. I have to admit I’m impressed so many people discuss these postmodernists. How they’ve absorbed history to arrive at late 20th century theory is a triumph of time management; these are readers indistinguishable from their Twitter accounts.

We still need a definition. What is understanding but ensuring definitions have flexible pillars to thwart off any earthquake? “Postmodernism.” On its own legs it’s an interesting word. It suggests something beyond the present, the modern; something out there, an alternative in the future inevitably arriving. Something above and beyond, a transcendental understanding about earthly matter.

Anything operating under postmodernism assumes a grandiose pretentiousness. It seems ripe to be a criticism of you, the reader, for not seeing the light from tomorrow’s sun singing in the cracks of the door. If only you understood. Post: Beyond: Superior: Better. Fine enough.

Not that whatever postmodernism is adheres to anything just described. Maybe it’s just what comes after “modern.” Is that the poetry collecting the wake of Frost, H.D., Stevens? I’m not sure. Whatever is underneath this nefarious somethingness that captivates audiences is the throbbing snot that hangs off even the best of minds.

Another sordid state of affairs. What Peterson, and those like him, have done is to take a sweeping concept—a warehouse of papers in which only a few names are discerned and understood—and demonized it. Crucified it. “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” Sure Peterson likes to reiterate he’s read a little Foucault, but Peterson’s criticism isn’t directed at Foucault, but at some private club Foucault holds a membership card for.

Of course, discussing ideas is challenging. A challenge that’s not sexy or boisterous enough to reap $70,000 a month in Patreon donations, plus whatever direct donations result. Unfortunately. Because when ideas are set aside for vagaries what you’re left with is emotional belittlement. Stirring the pot with the anger of directionless youth. People want to discard a pariah and you’re giving it to them. Just another part of the routine isn’t it?

I can hear Thomas Sowell, in a mix of sighing and laughter, repeating the hubris of intellectuals who step out of their field. Never fails. A shame too. (I want to repeat here that Maps of Meaning is a wonderful book.)

What I’ve written here isn’t really about the critique of postmodernism. It’s a critique of critiquing placeholder concepts like postmodernism. Things without solid reference turn into another witch hunt. What a waste of time to attack emptiness, to crash into a windmill while we pick up the debris. If anyone wants to attack postmodernism, then attack the individuals associated with it: debate ideas, not concepts.

What begins as farce ends as tragedy, and then cycles back to farce. Today’s popular attacks on postmodernism—the concept—are a sad comedy. Another dialogue dismissed with arrogance. A monster summoned from the dust to be exterminated to protect Bethlehem.

There is a principle that ought to be internalized as a child. That is, no idea is worthless. Even if it’s wrong. Even if it’s not in accordance with intuition. All ideas—including those wearing sweatshirts from postmodernist college—inspire thinking. To agree or change your mind, to evolve, to inspire clarity.

Any idea is a prompt for discussion—with yourself.

Unfortunately, those who continue to attack “postmodernism” will stand at the sea, slashing with their sword, believing they’ve won a battle each time the tide retreats, and that the end is nigh when the salt returns to nip at their ankles.

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Waiting For The Door Bell: On Impatience

“Order placed.” Now it’s a game where the clock is the only rule. It doesn’t tick anymore. No. It changes whenever it feels like, stretching moments as far their arms can go until they finally snap into the next position. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Anticipating the future. Filling every room with the stink of anticipation, hungry for completion, for climax.

Anticipation promises that when it finally arrives, it will do nothing less than melt reality.

But it’s that emotional resonance of anticipation that’s cold butter dropped on a hot pan. It sucks up your consciousness. Leads you like a dollar on fish wire. Wrapping you tightly in a swirl of thoughts that would be better used to flush toilets. Living in a future that will probably arrive, but definitely not soon enough.

“Patience is a virtue.”

Where does impatience come from? Tempting to say that the infatuation with what has yet to arrive is the promise of green fields, of a better tomorrow, the land of milk and honey in a 40-year-desert. That is an escape from the unbearable present. As if I was trapped on Elephant Island, having given up on praying, thinking no thoughts because no thought can take another punch to the jaw from the cold wait.

The anxiety of anticipation fills the mind with mud, staining the present’s floor.

Seeing anticipation external to myself like a shadow on the wall may itself be the issue. I am my anticipation. Embodying it completely when it takes hold. Wearing it like a tattered coat and parading my ass up and down Main Street, past the only authentic New York pizza in the state.  “I want it now… I want IT NOW!” This need for immediate gratification: more than childlike; spoiled with instantaneous desires. And for what. For what?

In a way, I’m admittedly arguing for presence. For living in the moment. To be immersed in the immediate sensations that make up the world around. Herein lies the calming sigh spilled out of hundreds of thousands of yoga studios at 7:30 am daily. A sign that states awareness without the ego: almost universally known in the Western after its cherry-pick absorption of Eastern practices. Fine to rehash, difficult to follow.  

Unfortunately for retired airport gurus, I’m not arguing for presence.

I’m arguing for impatience. Be impatient. Life is too fleeting not to declare impatience to the world, to stick a flag in the dirt and scoop it up into fat clumps until it finally spits out what you’ve been waiting for. At least as far as trivialities are concerned. Like pizza. Or, a new Switch game.

Yes, yes. I understand the importance of immediate experience. But is anticipation not a part of experience? Another faucet to turn and see what happens: we know the sink will overflow a priori, but there’s a part of us that still wants to see it happen.

To be content with sunshine and a fine pot to sit in is a fine thing, but my Amazon packages arriving on time is far finer. That moment is the finest. The release from the jaws. The waking moment after a long sickness; the prying open of a wreck; the breath of fresh air after choking on a lozenge. And then…

When the object of my anticipation moves from the winter-worn mat at the front door to the kitchen table, I feel nothing. The tide has retreated from the earth. A tsunami in reverse. All that emotion evaporates instantaneously and the reward rarely resonates as powerfully as the tease. The gratification that follows anticipation wanes in proportion to the amount of conscious energy dedicated to the desire. The more I want, the less fulfilled I feel.

It would be over-drawing if I said something about goals, and the journey, or some other aphoristic line created for American fortune cookies. The truth is likely tamer, closer to some sociohistorical condition. Something constructed and lurking, something smart and boring, a schizoid sickness in the water: to be recited at a dive bar about technology and capitalism and labor. Something mysterious and, and… and boring.   

What’s not boring is waiting in impatience. It’s all consuming, all becoming. A great way to spend Saturday, a passive victory that only requires a credit card and a stable internet connection.

Impatience is an excited anxiety, one that will make me believe in God if Ontrac delivers on time.

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On Silicon Valley’s Commentary On Distraction

Second-level techies routinely discuss their Silicon Valley episode in major publications. RSS feeds are littered with them. “I was a programmer with Google/Facebook/Twitter, etc. and I’ve realized the great harm the technologies I’ve worked on have created.” It’s now in-vogue to join a rebellion, condemning services vying for people’s attention.

While not outright espousing some neo-luddism the technie writers will stereotypically praise meditation, nature, and a kind of being in the world without allusions to Heidegger. Their evil is three-syllables and typically SEO’d into the headline: Distraction.

The story is lukewarm but that doesn’t undermine its truth. Humanity is ensnared by its technologies: constant coruscaintg blips tempting like river nymphs. Of course, the nymph is dead and today’s cult gods are Akihabara anime girls and choose-your-own-adventure VR porn.

We’re all part of a cult that erects temples to stinging text messages, Instagram party pictures, Tweets from your enemies, scientifically unsound clickbait listicles, Imgur rabbit holes, made-up greentext, YouTube videos promising all the answers, bickering comments sections on articles nobody bothers to read, and typing in “Trump” to either keep the existential crisis burning or for a hearty laugh over the same morning routine.

All for the dopamine.

The sinister conspiracy underlying twenty-something’s wrist arthritis is that all the aforementioned platforms are designed to hold a captive audience. The more numbers, the more money. The higher their Alexa rating, the more advertising revenue. People aren’t people, their users, and the whole game orbits that always-fun-to-hate word, “profit.”

For those who believe they’ve revealed the stage for what it is, the natural reaction is to bang the pointer-finger against the state of tech. To say something superficially insightful like, “We are being strung along by technologies spiraling out of our control. There is nothing we can do to stop it. We are slaves to a process we created, one we can no longer comprehend. Can you make it to level-23 reality?”

No matter the time, people will do anything to strip off responsibility, to point to their nakedness as a sign of ineffable weakness. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. Man blames the Stanford graduate working 60 hours a week at Google. Never looking to themselves, always looking to the other.

The reason being obvious. Criticism is a simple matter. Anybody can tear apart a concept and say, “Look at all these scars and flaws. How ugly! How awful! How ruinous!” They go on to proclaim that if only “X” was removed our problems would be solved. Socrates was killed but Athens still fell.

To be fair, the disenchanted techies do offer a solution. They tell us new paradigms are needed. Technologies need to be developed and reevaluated while catering to some utilitarian notion of people’s well-being, i.e. giving control back to people over how they interact with information systems. Their social idealism is admirable. But naive.

But it’s the kind of solution delivered at a TED conference to a round of gullible applause. The kind of sentiment Zuckerberg robotically recites to investors, and makes public so NPR can share a story saying, “Facebook cares.” I’m reminded of the call for capitalism to incorporate social wellness into its profit maxim to rectify cronyism and exploitation. A notion that doesn’t happen simply by proclamation.

It’s typical of people with grandiloquent ideas to propose changing the world by casting a spell with one swift gesture. That simply moving the puzzle pieces around will paint a picture worthy of being in a museum. Hence, the attraction of radical ideology.

In the real world, cultural changes are rough beasts: they slumber and stumble towards the future, rarely taking baths unless the world drowns. Practical advice is boring. (Just look at smart investing strategies.)

A new consciousness is needed to survive the trampling elephants of distraction technologies, one of individual awakening—a recognition of one’s own will and radical freedom. Do you not want to be distracted? Do you not want to feel a spectral convulsion climbing up your leg? Disconnect. Put your phone on silent. An answer so simple it’s stupid.’

The sixties revolution called for a radical awakening of a global consciousness, of oneness, of the common ties of human experience. Something achieved to a degree, heightened by universal communication. Anybody with at least average intelligence is less likely to play the us/them game—unless language creates the barrier.

Today’s solution lies in a similar awakening—though with less tarot mysticism. A reignited consciousness of individual will is needed to cope with an age that relegates people to analytics. To overcome distraction, individuals must overcome themselves—assert control over their lives.

The system isn’t the issue. It’s you.

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