Why, Complicator? (Okay, Computer.) – On Technology | An Excerpt

I am writing a long essay about technology. Its thesis is fairly simple:

  • We live in an increasingly ugly world.
  • To escape its ugliness, we seek diversion. Whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, Farmville, or any number of games we can play on our mobile devices, many are integrating an ethic of escapism into their daily lives to avoid, most often, the content of daily life.
  • Because we can escape the world’s tedium, sadness, decay, and horrors, we lose the impetus to make things better, to set things right.
  • Why strive to live a better life when we can escape into our own digital heavens? Distraction, more so than efforts to improve the situation, might prove more effective now and in the future at helping us avoid tiny personal and larger global hells, so to speak.
  • I believe technology will save us from suffering, this at the expense of sensitivity and empathy and cognizance of our collective humanity. We will become insular individualists, and suffer from “autism”, in the early 20th-century definition of that medical term.

Using a computer was once a social, integrative activity

The introductory paragraphs, and bits and pieces from a few others.

As I was driving into Chicago earlier this week, on the Stevenson expressway, I saw a very large billboard which proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, that Judgment Day will come sometime this May. I believe said the 21st. It was an advertisement for a Christian radio station, located at 91.9 FM, and, finding myself bored of NPR and in the mood to exercise the critical thinking muscles putatively strengthened in college, I decided to take a listen.

And what I heard was not surprising. Before God we are sinners; we must prostrate ourselves and plead for His mercy; we must know that His secrets are His, and are sealed away in a special Bible; the coming Jesus Christ is the only one able to unseal it. Unbelievers will descend into eternal hellfire, will be consumed by the Beast, be deafened by the thundering hooves and blaring horns of the approaching Apocalypse. And that’s all well and good. The radio host quoted from biblical texts with facility, but his message seemed a little out of date. Dante’s Purgatory might be updated. Its setting: I-55, crawling around in morning rush hour. Christian talk radio is the Inferno of the mind.

But his message rang loud and clear: believe in, adopt, and practice this doctrine; take it into your being such that the line between you and it is obliterated. Do this, he said, and you will be saved from an eternity of horrors.

[…]

Escapism is a fundamentally solitary pursuit. Whether sitting in a movie theater, reading a novel, listening to the radio or music, or even just daydreaming, the vast majority of escapist activities are mental. There is nothing more supremely, singularly solitary than the internal dialogue between that kernel-level personage you call you and the oft-silent counterparty: either the creative work, or that etherial conversation partner–simultaneously one’s self and another, a stranger–to whom you make your arguments, and whose counterarguments strike you viscerally.

[…]

Defined by the OED, “Autism” is a condition which has its onset in childhood and is marked by severely limited responsiveness to other persons, restricted behavior patterns, difficulty with abstract concepts, and usually abnormal speech development. Some of the earliest uses of the word were in scientific journals in the nineteen-teens. In the improbably named American Journal of Insanity, in 1912, Hoch asserted that “the chief traits which had existed before the mental breakdown were those which I had at the time called shut-in tendencies–tendencies to which Professor Bleuler has recently applied the term autism.” Carl Jung, translated in 1916 by C. E. Long noted in his Papers in Analytic Psychology that Bleuler’s “autism” was much like Freud’s “auto-eroticism”, though “[Jung] employed the concept of introversion for this condition.” A then widely-circulated clinical definition of autism described “a mental condition in which fantasy dominates over reality, as a symptom of schizophrenia and other disorders.”

Why I Like Writing Fiction (Reason #1)

“I don’t know, Ruth. You seem like such a happy person; I mean, I’ve never seen you less than glowing with anybody. But I have a question for you: your prettiness, all the attention, do you ever find it oppressive? Like, because men just like the idea of themselves being ‘with’ someone as pretty as you, but not really caring about you?”

I am damned with two coincident conditions: I am inquisitive, and I am analytical. This comorbidity could easily result in me asking wildly inappropriate questions. These questions are inappropriate not because they are vulgar, or in poor taste, or even, well, inappropriate; but because they are so rarely asked, especially in casual conversation, they are interpreted as strange, their asker as something of an outlier, or a Nietzschean. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Zarathustra.)

I believe the unspeakable nature of these questions is repressive and tragic, and it leads to that malaise hysteria–or, if the questions are particularly disturbing, they lead the asker to be admitted to mental health facilities. But because fiction is, technically, a separate and ontologically porous realm where almost anything goes, characters are able to ask those questions. If an author lets her/his characters ask these difficult questions, his/her book or story is lauded by critics–in the language particular to book critics–as “poignant” or “heartbreaking” or as “a daring exhortation compelling the reader to explore the inner world of [fill in the blank]. [Writer’s Name] shoves readers toward the door to the silent conscious, opens it, and dares them to step into the black.” Or whatever.

But, the thing about these questions is that they open up entire universes of personhood. Asking these questions takes what is otherwise a laundry list of traits and descriptions, set pieces, the meta-structures of introductions –> introduction of tension –> complicating factors –> climax –> denouement –> closing, and renders them real and relatable.

They are the barbs in the hook of plot; they emotionally attach the reader. Based on characters’ answers, they grow into something real; readers either empathize with a character’s assertions and grow fond of them, or they disagree and come to hate the character. It’s that connection which prevents the reader from leaving the story; once hooked, they come along for the ride.

Some Quotes & The Halcyon Days Goes on Academic Lockdown

Such is the life of a student. In the coming 168 hours, I have to write more than 40 pages. One of the papers, about the future of the intellectual in the age of the blog, is worthy of publication on The Halcyon Days, but the others are exceedingly, brutally dry. They are, like certain cuts of meat, too tendinous and gristly for human consumption. I feel kind of bad for the underpaid graduate students forced to grade this stuff. At least mine’s grammatically correct.

For the next week, activity on HD will be minimal.

Now for some quotes. The bottom one is me.

– – –

“…a large percentage of bright young men and women locate the impetus behind their career choice in the belief that they are fundamentally different from the common run of man, unique and in certain crucial ways superior, more as it were central, meaningful—what else could explain the fact that they themselves have been at the exact center of all they’ve experienced for the whole 20 years of their conscious lives?—and that they can and will make a difference in their chosen field simply by the fact of their unique and central presence to it…”  – David Foster Wallace, “Mr. Squishy”. Oblivion: Stories.

– – –

“I read,” I say. “I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with all due respect. But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk.” – David Foster Wallace

An Excerpt from My Upcoming Kindle Release

Here’s an excerpt from a longish (~2500-3000 word) essay I’m writing for publication as a Kindle Book. It frames current belief in the college degree vis-a-vis traditional monotheistic religions’ value systems, and critiques it thusly. Do enjoy:

Other doctrines with similar promises of deliverance (from evil, which is defined by each organization) have since emerged alongside the political -isms. These doctrines, much like those of monotheistic religions, moralize participation. No neutral “other” category exists if a doctrine’s raison d’être is predicated on establishing the supremacy of the doctrine’s adherents with respect to unbelievers.

And this brings me to my absolute favorite organizational whipping boy: the university system. If we want to use Atran’s three factor framework, evaluating the university system as one promising salvation, defining itself in terms of good and evil, and defining aforesaid good based on subscription to, somewhat mechanistic participation in its doctrine, it becomes clear that in many ways our longstanding infatuation with the university, its straw-man promises of material prosperity and intellectual richness, deliverance from poverty and dullness, resembles the unquestioning religious fervor and generalized dogma of monotheistic traditions Atran warns against. Drinking the Kool Aid is what we’re programmed to do. I’m just here to make it sour.

As soon as I am out of school, it’s getting a good edit and going up for sale. It will be $2 or $3, and will be available free to those who want a .PDF copy emailed to them.

An Extremely Random Thought on Time

Like previous extremely random thoughts, this one came to me after a long morning of reading, taking notes on abstruse organizational theory readings, and in a state of fuzzy gossamer-thin sleep-deprived consciousness. Do enjoy.

– – –

2/5/2011

Thought:

Time is a currency which most people spend. I want each of my nows to be investments.

Although, one never uses the phrase “Time well-invested.” But it’s not as though people claim their money as “well-spent”. They claim it to be “spent wisely.” Can I invest time wisely, not merely well?

In Defense of Darkness

My post “JDR Makes A Film” received the comment below:

– – –

This was disappointing. A worthless, somber look at a day that brought many neighborhoods together and gave joy to countless curiously eager and vigorous young people. You missed a great portion of the people’s positive spirits during today’s citywide snow day.

Sorry, I just really didn’t like it.

– – –

This individual, who left neither a functioning email or their name–choosing instead the nome de plume Disappointed–might be a bit, how to say it, misguided in their expectations. What I mean by “expectations” is this: in order to be disappointed this person must have possessed some hope or aspirations for what the video was supposed to be, and that, in posting the video I posted, I let down this individual. I, by implication, failed this person somehow.

And this brings up a sticky issue. Continue reading “In Defense of Darkness”

The Echo Chamber

Inside the echo chamber.

Shouting match with the walls.

Friends, a blithe coterie

singing merrily inward.

To and from each other.

To no other but themselves.

 

Go forth they say:

Collaborate. Create. Succeed.

Make Possible. Live Expansively.

Fund and Incorporate. Drive and

Innovate. Rise above.

Embrace uncertainty.

Seize. Attack ferociously.

Make it bleed. Sustain. Run lean.

Continue reading “The Echo Chamber”

That Kind of Writing to Which I Aspire

For a class, I am tasked with writing a 20-25 page paper about an intellectual. My choice is one of my all-time favorite authors, one whose prose has influenced my own cognitive processing more than I’d ever like to admit.

For a class, I am tasked with writing a 20-25 page paper about an intellectual. My choice is one of my all-time favorite authors, one whose prose has influenced my own cognitive processing more than I’d ever like to admit. If I could be a tenth the writer David Foster Wallace was, I could die happily. The tragic irony of that phrase.

An excerpt from a story in the book Oblivion:

The truth is you already know what it’s like. You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.

But it does have a knob, the door can open. But not in the way you think…The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul. And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t? It’s called free will, Sherlock. But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or to laugh, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali–it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.

So cry all you want, I won’t tell anybody.

 

Didact: An Excerpt

An excerpt from a larger work currently in progress.

An excerpt from a larger work currently in progress.

It is difficult to tell exactly why she fell in love with him. Most likely, it was his stories of his summers in New York, his associations with dangerous people, long nights of drugged-out blissful haze, and her mental image of a young man in moccasins and flannel undulating to the sad sad song of another young man in moccasins and flannel, this one standing behind a microphone and positively going to town on a vintage acoustic in acute need of new varnish. All lies of course, told to impress her. But how they just danced out of his mouth: they, like the scruffy bohemians populating his stories danced out unashamed, absurdly intricately adorned–each bit with a long backstory–into the black of his bedroom on the winged feet of Hermes, charidotes–bringer of charm.

It was difficult for him to fully realize the young man he wanted her to. Both in his stories and in real life. His characters were vibrant and real and painfully human, all lost and in need of what ancient Greeks called hodios, the patron of travelers and wayfarers.

It was not difficult, however, to keep spinning these stories for her. Nor was it too hard for him to take on some of the character traits of his creations. That’s why he dated a Midwesterner, who knew nothing of New York, of the shabby-chic bobos he claimed to know, of the run-down exposed-brick studio apartments in the Village that cost more per month than she ever hoped to make in a summer as a lifeguard at the community pool. Truth is, she reveled in his stories as much as he fetishized her apparently totally earnest recollections of banal small-town life in the bit just north of Chicago’s hinterland in Wisconsin, which by his best estimates ended just short of Madison.

We are the stories we tell ourselves and to others. She imagined him to be mysterious and literary and fiercely protective of his ideals, and he imagined her as the squeaky-clean inviolate brunette that sets all the town’s males’ hearts aflutter. Each was the other’s perfect. Stories, you know. Gussied up a bit. Just for show. That killed him, just a smidge, realizing that she never will know him. Who needs honesty when better is the enemy of the merely good?

An Extremely Random Thought

This is the product of a day of reading… which is to say that I was extremely prone to believing my thoughts to be particularly insightful. I wrote it in my Moleskine notebook, excited as all getout. You be the judge.

– – –

What if all mass is fluid, its solidity an illusion–a function of a given matter’s viscosity?

Glass windows warp over time: their bottoms fatter than their tops.

Stacks of gold bars were found in pharaohs’ tombs; melded together over thousands of years, discovered now as one solid mass.