For Your Consideration – 7

“Welcome to the Future Nauseous”: Some jargon and neologisms, but interesting perspective.

“We aren’t being hit by Future Shock. We are going to be hit by Future Nausea.  You’re not going to be knocked out cold. You’re just going to throw up in some existential sense of the word. I’d like to prepare. I wish some science fiction writers would write a few nauseating stories.”

“The World Is Not Enough: Google and the Future of Augmented Reality”:

“It is The Future. You wake up at dawn and fumble on the bedstand for your (Google) Glass. Peering out at the world through transparent screens, what do you see?”

“Speaking in Memes”:

“We’ve developed a kind of meme literacy, a habit of intuiting in real time the potential virality of a speech act — to hear retweets inside words.”

“A Sense of Place”:

“The digital and the physical world are interacting ever more closely. The rapidly declining cost of communications and computing power has already wrought huge changes in the way people go about their daily lives. Digital maps and guides will affect the way people behave in the physical world and bring about yet more changes. The digital and the physical are becoming one.”

How We Talk About Media Refusal, Part 1: “Addiction”:

“This is the first of a series of three posts I’ll be doing in Flow about the topic of “media refusal,” which I define as the active and conscious rejection of a media technology or platform by its potential users. In these posts, I’ll be discussing how popular discourse tends to frame practices of media refusal and what implications these frames might have for the way we understand our participation in media culture.”

“What Words Are Worth”:

“The humanities, encountered primarily in the high school and college years, teach students to recognize a significant question, to make crucial distinctions in the articulation of its terms, to draw consequential conclusions, to assess conclusions in human terms, and to communicate the procedures and results of inquiry. These are all elements necessary for the making of right meaning, and meaning is a singularly powerful shaper of deeds.”

Literary Miscellany

In a recorded interview discussing the merits of Longfellow’s poetry, Dana Gioia, a fellow poet and former chairman of the NEA, made some arresting observations regarding the power of lyric poetry. He noted that great lyric poetry, of the sort Longfellow wrote, could weave “a spell of words around the auditor which goes right to the heart” — a reminder that the desire to “get” the meaning of a poem in other than poetic terms can be misguided.

Gioia then went on to tweak Franz Kafka’s metaphor — a book is the axe with which we break the frozen seas within us — for the purposes of understanding what poetry can do:

“A popular poem is this kind of … icepick that cracks this sort of … this composure we have around ourselves and affects us deeply and mysteriously in ways that we might not be able to articulate but that we can feel — our intuition recognizes as genuine.”

This resonated with me and I thought it worth passing along. Poetry, or the poetic imagination, as I have elsewhere suggested, can be a powerful supplement to the dispositions and habits seemingly engendered by technology (huge generalizations there, I know, but I’m going to have to let them lie). Read more poetry.

And while we are on poetry, here are two lines that have recently caught my attention, particularly in light of discussions of self-consciousness and authenticity. The first is from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock”:

“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;”

And the second from Emily Dickinson, who elsewhere wrote, “Of Consciousness, her awful Mate The Soul cannot be rid”:

Me from Myself — to banish –
Had I Art –
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart –

But since Myself — assault Me –
How have I peace
Except by subjugating
Consciousness?

And since We’re mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication –
Me — of Me?

Lastly, I’ll use this venture into the humanities to note the passing of the great scholar and critic, Jacques Barzun. He was 104. As Alan Jacobs tweeted this morning, it is striking to consider that Barzun could remember the First World War. I noted a passage from Barzun not that long ago.

Freedom From Authenticity

Last night I listened to a recording of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address.  I know, I know. Wallace is one of these people around whom personality cults form, and its hard to take those people seriously. If it helps, there’s this one guy who is really ticked at Wallace for what must have been some horrible thing Wallace did to him, like having had the temerity to be alive at the same time as he. I also know that Wallace could at times be a rather nasty human being, or so some have reported. That said, the man said some really important and true things which need to be heard again and again.

These things as it turns out, or as I hear them now, in this particular frame of mind that I am in, have everything to do with authenticity. This is not because Wallace is talking directly about authenticity and its discontents, but because he understands, intimately it seems, what it feels like to be the sort of person for whom authenticity is likely to become a problem, and without intending to propose a solution to this problem of authenticity, he does.

Authenticity becomes a problem the second it becomes a question. As William Deresiewicz put it, “the search for authenticity is futile. If you have to look for it, you’re not going to find it.” Authenticity, like happiness and love and probably everything that is truly significant in life partakes of this dynamic whereby the sought after thing can be attained only by not consciously seeking after it. Think of it, and now it is a problem; seek it, and you will not find it; focus on it, and it becomes elusive.

So authenticity is the sort of thing that vanishes the moment you become conscious of it. It’s what you have only when you’re not thinking of it. And what you’re not thinking of when you have it is yourself. Authenticity is a crisis of self invoked by a hyper-selfawareness that makes it impossible not think of oneself. And I don’t think this is a matter of being a horribly selfish or arrogant person. No, in fact, I think this kind of hype-rselfawareness is more often than not burdened with insecurity and fear and anxiety. It’s a voice most people want to shut up and hence the self-defeating quest for authenticity.

What does Wallace have to say about any of this? Well, first, there’s this: “Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive.”

This is what he calls our default setting. Our default setting is to think about the world as if we were its center, to process every situation through the grid of our own experience, to assume “that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” This is our default setting in part because from the perspective of our own experience, the only perspective to which we have immediate access, we are literally the center of the universe.

Wallace also issued this warning: “Worship power you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

So then, worship authenticity and … 

But, Wallace also tells us, it doesn’t have to be this way. The point of a liberal arts education — this is a commencement address after all — is to teach us how to exercise choice over what we think and what we pay attention to. And Wallace urges us to pay attention to something other than the monologue inside our head. Getting out of our own heads, what Wallace called our “skull-sized kingdoms” — this is the only answer to the question of authenticity.

And so this makes me think again of the possibility that certain kinds of practices that help us do just this. They can so focus our attention on themselves, that we stop, for a time, paying attention to ourselves. Serendipitously, I stumbled on this video about glass-blowing in which a glass-blower is talking about his craft when he says this: “When you’re blowing glass, there really isn’t time to have your mind elsewhere – you have to be 100% engaged.” There it is.

Now, I know, we can’t all run off and take up glass blowing. That would be silly and potentially dangerous. The point is that this practice has the magical side effect of taking a person out of their own head by acutely focusing our attention. The leap I want to make now is to say that this skill is transferable. Learn the mental discipline of so focusing your attention in one particular context and you will be better able to deploy it in other circumstances.

It’s like the ascetic practice of fasting. The point is not that food is bad or that denying yourself food is somehow virtuous or meritorious. Its about training the will and learning how to temper desire so as to direct and deploy it toward more noble ends. You train your will with food so that you can exercise it meaningfully in other, more serious contexts.

In any case, Wallace is right. It’s hard work not yielding to our default self-centeredness. “The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace explained, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” I know I’ve cited that line before and not that long ago, but the point it makes is crucial.

Freedom is not about being able to do whatever we want, when we want. It has nothing to do with listening to our heart or following our dreams or whatever else we put on greeting cards and bumper stickers. Real freedom comes from learning to get out of our “skull-sized kingdoms” long enough to pay attention to the human being next us so that we might treat them with decency and kindness and respect. Then perhaps we’ll have our authenticity, but we’ll have it because we’ve stopped caring about it.

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A transcript of Wallace’s address is available here.

The Road Makes All the Difference

“There is a subtle but fundamental difference between finding direction … and ambiently knowing direction.” This was Evgeny Morozov’s recent encapsulation of Tristan Gooley’s The Natural Navigator. According to Gooley, natural navigation, that is navigation by the signs nature yields, is a dying art, and its passing constitutes a genuine loss.

Even if you’ve not read The Natural Navigator, or Morozov’s review, your thoughts have probably already wandered toward the GPS devices we rely on to help us find direction. It’s a commonplace to note how GPS has changed our relationship to travel and place. In “GPS and the End of the Road,” Ari Schulman writes of the GPS user: “he checks first with the device to find out where he is, and only second with the place in front of him to find out what here is.” One may even be tempted to conclude that GPS has done to our awareness of place what cell phones did to our recall of phone numbers.

(Of course, this is not a brief against GPS, much less against maps and compasses and street signs. These have their place, of course. And there are a number of other qualifications which could be offered, but I’ll trust to your generosity as readers and assume that these are understood.)

From the perspective of natural navigation, however, GPS is just one of many technologies designed to help us find our way that simultaneously undermine the possibility that we might also come to know our way or, we might add, our place. Navigational devices, after all, enter into our phenomenological experience of place and do so in a way that is not without consequence.

When I plug an address into a GPS device, I expect one thing: an efficient and unambiguous set of directions to get me from where I am to where I want to go. My attention is distributed between the device and the features of the place. The journey is eclipsed, the places in between become merely space traversed. In this respect, GPS becomes a sign of the age in its struggle to consider anything but the accomplishment of ends with little regard for the means by which the ends are accomplished. We seem to forget, in other words, that there are goods attending the particular path by which a goal is pursued that are independent of the accomplishment of that goal.

It’s a frame of mind demanded, or to put it in less tech-derministic terms, encouraged by myths of technological progress. If I am to enthusiastically embrace every new technology, I must first come to believe that means or media matter little so long as the end is accomplished. A letter is a call is an email is a text message. Consider this late nineteenth century French cartoon imagining the year 2000 (via Explore):

From our vantage point, of course, this seems silly … but only in execution, not intent. Our more sophisticated dream replaces the odd contraption with the Google chip. Both err in believing that education is reducible to the transfer of data. The means are inconsequential and interchangeable, the end is all that matters, and it is a vastly diminished end at that.

Natural navigation and GPS may both get us where we want to go, but how they accomplish this end makes all the difference. With the former, we come to know the place as place and are drawn into more intimate relationship with it. We become more attentive to the particulars of our environment. We might even find that a certain affection insinuates itself into our experience of the place. Affective aspects of our being are awakened in response. When a new technology promises to deliver greater efficiency by eliminating some heretofore essential element of human involvement, I would bet that it also effects an analogous alienation. In such cases, then, we have been carelessly trading away rich and rewarding aspects of human experience.

Sometimes it is the road itself that makes all the difference.

Shelley on Information Overload … circa 1821

Reading present day concerns into texts from earlier historical periods is a temptation that is often best resisted. It is, however, especially hard to resist while reading this opening paragraph of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry” from 1821:

“We have more moral, political, and historical wisdom than we know how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry in these systems of thought is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes. There is no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest and best in morals, government, and political economy, or at least, what is wiser and better than what men now practise and endure. But we let I dare not wait upon I would, like the poor cat in the adage. We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labor, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind? From what other cause has it arisen that the discoveries which should have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam? Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.”

Update: It occurs to me that there is an interesting parallel here to a line from TS Eliot that I like to throw around.

Eliot: “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Shelley: “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life …”