Saturday, July 16, 2011

Following up (16 Feb 2009)

Catching up in my RSS reader, I've come across a few things that would have been nice to mention in previous posts. So I'll mention them now, and make this sort of thing a regular feature. (Please let me know if this is worthwhile or not.)

1. A few days ago I wrote about the Amish in response to a Kevin Kelly post about their relationship to technology. This Boston Globe piece by Jonah Lehrer from January (Andrew Hearst's link reminded me of it) about overstimulation in the city seems relevant to the exploration of technological withdrawal (in both senses of the word). Lehrer reports on research that has found that the overstimulation we face in urban environments hampers our mental functioning.
After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it's long been recognized that city life is exhausting -- that's why Picasso left Paris -- this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.
Just as the urban envornment dulling, nature is an essential refresher for our minds. Apparently, the mind needs trees. I personally find this sort of hard to accept -- I felt half-alive until I moved to New York City, and the thought of going camping seems like living death. Lehrer notes that "the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory -- the crowded streets, the crushing density of people -- also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the 'concentration of social interactions' that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists." But it seems that the city is a machine not merely or innovation but for creating impulsive individualists, the anti-Amish.
Related research has demonstrated that increased "cognitive load" -- like the mental demands of being in a city -- makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad, or indulge in a unhealthy snack. This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.
Does innovation in practice, in capitalist society, simply mean the production of impulsiveness? Is there another way to incite innovation without the capitalist structure of mandated competition? Is that need for innovation what produces cities? These seem to be the questions the Amish present to us, and it boils down to this: Should society reject unfettered innovation in an effort to preserve a certain harmony among a given community? Or is it better to promote a maximum amount of innovation, even if it has deleterious consequences for the community? A general thrust of Marxist theory is that technology will improve to the point where it will rescue authentic individuality from the depredations of class struggle. It's one of the chief attractions of his philosophy, this ideal of finding individual integrity at the heart of community. As Kolakowski describes it in Main Current of Marxism, Marx believed that "The abolition of dependence on alienated forces will restore to man his social nature, i.e. the individual will accept the community as his own interiorized nature. But the community, consciously present in each of its members, is not intended to be a merging of personality in an anonymous, homogenous whole." But that sounds a little like the Amish, when they are idealized by outsiders. But rather than the faith in technology to galvanize proletarian struggle and achieve an individuality never before realized, the idealized Amish glamorize the rejection of technology altogether as a way of escaping alienation and preserving an individualism not yet lost. Both seem like fantasy projections of the alienated soul trapped in the egoism of capitalist subjectivity.

2. In the NYT, media analyst David Carr wrote about the same insane CNBC clip with Nouriel Roubini and Nassim Taleb that I mentioned in this post. Carr notes that in the recession, "Being a financial news anchor must seem like owning an ice cream parlor where spinach is the only flavor on the menu." This is because tehy are not in the business of reporting news but of conveying hope and good feelings.
The news media in this country are often accused of being contrary and pessimistic, but rarely is that the case. Amid carnage, economic or otherwise, reporters are trained to look for “glimmers of hope,” “signs that the worst is behind us” and “miraculous tales of survival,” especially those that involve a baby — or in this case, a 401(k) — somehow making it through a hurricane, tornado or mudslide.
This makes it pointless to try to keep oneself informed by watching commercial TV, which has long since figured out that it is profitable only to entertain audiences, not inform them. Pessimism doesn't help a show's sponsors.
What strikes me as insane is the cynicism. Carr talks to all these business jounralists who all note how awful the cheerleading coverage of the stock market is, yet nothing has changed. And TV stock pickers just seem to act as though what they are doing is performance art:
To engage their audience, business journalists need to act like things are changing all the time. As it turned out, what didn’t change much was the fundamental lessons: have a diversified portfolio, don’t buy more house than you can afford, don’t take on more debt than you can support, or trade on the margin.
But that’s not what we want to hear from the experts. “You aren’t doing your job right if you don’t have an in-box full of hate mail,” said one financial columnist who didn’t want to be identified. In this market, who does?
Maybe audiences should not need to be engaged about finance; their "skin in the game" is encouragement enough. In fact, if the news outlet is trying to engage you, you have to be skeptical about the bias in the information you are getting; they are trying to reach spectators, not participants. That is why the WSJ seems so dubious these days. I knew it had changed irredeemably when A-Rod's picture was on the front page the other day.

3. I wrote some theses about Hipster Runoff a week or so ago. This seems insufficient. So I'm planning to start a side project offering some exegesis of Carles's ruminations, in the same spirit as Marmaduke explained. I hope to get the first few entries up some time this week.

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