School’s Out Forev… Oh Wait, We’re Back

So I’m back in college. This is an unexpected turn of events, but (not counting a brief and semi-disastrous stint in a graduate English program) my somewhat meandering 20180823_172911professional arc has passed through a place where it actually makes concrete sense to go back. And on August 16th I found myself back in a classroom with people who are almost literally half my age. Let’s just say this 21st-century classroom is a lot different even than the 21st-century classroom I was in when I was 18.

In a sort of sequel to what I saw on campus during my brief tenure working at a college, here’s 5 bits of advice (read curmudgeonly opinionating) that I’d offer my classmates this time around.

  1. Close your laptop. This means you, guy who sits in front of me and plays solitaire through half the class. I mean, at least you’re not looking at pornography, at which point I’d have to whack you over the head with my textbook (see point 3 below). Anyway, you or someone you know has paid upwards of $2000 for you to sit in this course, which breaks down to this hour costing around $70. If you want to pay someone $70 for wifi and a place to sit for an hour, I’ll clean out my garage and get a Square swiper. Bring a friend.
  2. Seriously, close your laptop. Do the research. It’s not helping you learn and it’s likely inhibiting you from learning. Take notes on paper. You’ll remember them more clearly.
  3. Spring for the real textbook. This semester has been my first exposure to the abomination that is the eTextbook. At least the version I’m using from McGraw Hill seems to actually function as though reduced comprehension were an intended goal from the outset. For one, it greys out what it considers unnecessary text. Useless stuff like the intro paragraph to each chapter that frames everything you’re about to read and offers an outline. It’s a built-in layer of disengagement.
    McGraw Hill also offers something called Smartbook Learn Smart (Which, give me a break with the redundancy. If you have to insist twice in three words that your gadget is “smart”, well, color me dubious.) It’s basically a series of quiz questions that pop up while you’re reading. To keep you engaged, I guess. Some small quibbles, though. Like the questions run out before the chapter ends so you can “finish” without finishing. And there’s that issue of literally, in the book itself, teaching to the test. It actively trains your brain to glean just enough facts to escape its clutches. All told, it’s shallow comprehension and minimal retention. And it’s a pain in the ass to navigate, hence the longing to escape. You can keep your keyword searches and just let me scan the chapter. Learning happens in the fringes, too.

    1. This brings up a broader point about college as a whole. It’s a great place to learn and it’s filled with smart people from which to do so. But, the university as an institution cannot deliver learning. What it delivers institution wise is a GPA, which is a shorthand for performance that can be strikingly divorced from what you actually leave college knowing. It’s been my experience as a hiring manager out in The Real World that GPA doesn’t mean much on a resume. It really only matters to grad schools. Do what you have to do to keep your scholarships/athletic eligibility/position yourself for more education or whatever, but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll be out there building a life from what you learned long after anybody cares about your transcript.
  4. Don’t bother taking a picture of the white board with your phone at the end of class. If you can even find that photo in the avalanche of selfies and other ad hoc photojournalism of your college life, it’ll just be a meaningless bunch of scribble on a wall. Take your own notes. See point 2 above. And, because I love pointing people to Wendell Berry, give this a read. Especially the last 10 paragraphs or so.
  5. Ask questions. Forget the stuff about “No such thing as a stupid question” and “If you have a question, someone else probably does, too.” Filling in gaps is the lowest purpose a good question can serve. If not more importantly, at least more conscientiously, questions make professors feel like they’re in a room with fellow humans who care about what’s going on. Having done a stint in front of a classroom, engagement is one of the best services you can offer any teacher. But, also, asking questions disrupts the lecture in important ways. It opens the door into a different part of your professor’s brain. Not the part delivering prepared material, but the live creativity. Considering that your professor got their job for a reason, this is probably my only really good advice. Try to access that part of any professor’s mind as often as you can.

Outside the classroom, I can’t really help you. I’m doing by best to keep up with a marriage, two rowdy boys, two even rowdier dogs, the job for which I’m going back to school to do better, a first-floor renovation at my house, and occasionally writing something so I don’t get kicked out of my writing group. I can not even imagine the world of a true college freshman anymore so I won’t pretend to have anything worthwhile to say. But in that classroom, we’re on the same page together. Think about making it a paper one.

Please, God, Don’t Let Amazon Come to My Town

Big news this morning is that Amazon wants a second HQ in North America. I see a lot of people speculating about possible locations and I see a lot of giddy anticipation. 50,000 jobs! Average salary above $100k! Who wouldn’t want that to come to their town?

I don’t.

Having worked for the behemoth and been to Seattle a handful of times, I can tell you one thing. Amazon coming to town is great for Amazon and it’s actually pretty terrible for the people who already live there. Here are a few things to expect:

Instant Gentrification
That much of an artificial jump in the average income for a city will have catastrophic effects on property values. Well, to be fair, it’ll only be catastrophic for the poor who will no longer be able to afford the taxes on their homes if they own them and who will no longer be able to afford rent from landlords who can suddenly quadruple their ask because 50k new workers who can afford it will gladly pay to live close to work.

I rode a lot of taxis in Seattle and one thing I learned is that working class people had to live 1.5 hours away from the city just to afford housing. That amounts to an extra three hours per day away from home and family just to get to and from work. This is an enormous burden to put on the community and family structure of all the invisible people who will clean the offices, cook the food, drive people around, and all the other jobs that will pay far less than $100k.

Crippling Cost of Living
When Amazon gave me the choice to move to Seattle with my current salary or be laid off (‘reduced in force’ was their charming euphemism), I would have had to take a nearly 50% reduction in real pay just to afford the cost of living increase. So, unless you get one of those jobs that pays above $100k, you’re going to suddenly find that having Amazon in town takes a good bit of the zing out of your paycheck.

An Opportunity Mirage
Those 50k jobs are a great press release item and I’m sure a highly effective bait to dupe money-blinded city councils and state legislatures into shelling out huge tax incentives so that billionaires technocrats can be expand their earthly footprints. But, the boost to local employment will likely be much smaller. Amazon will recruit at least nationally, more like globally, and while the tax base will increase which will be good for the state and city books, a huge chunk of those taxpayers will be people who were already well off who just relocated to be well off here instead. Some of this may trickle out as benefits to the working classes because the state and city will have more revenue to work with, but somehow that seems like a thin hope. I would imagine more displacement than mobility and a doubling or tripling down on income inequality.

*      *      *

Those are just a few concerns that have mostly to do with economic quality of life. I can’t even begin to imagine how the political climate will change with that much money and influence riding in, though Google’s recent silencing of dissent does not paint a rosy picture. The entire success of Amazon is built on the spurious foundation of abstraction–abstracting people from their communities and making them ‘human capital’ that simply roams the face of the earth in search of the next job, abstracting the actual human toll of having so much stuff available to buy so cheaply and at such convenience off into the slums and backwaters of the globe where conveniently out-of-sight-out-of-mind people will work for peanuts, abstracting satisfaction from anything satisfying and re-centering it on the mere act of consuming. This is nothing short of the disintegration of what it means to be human.

The tech sector thrives on disruption. They like to call it creative destruction, which is really an appalling contradiction in terms. I wish that people would look beyond the explosive growth in Seattle and the profusion of skyscrapers on literally every street corner–a radical transformation of the aesthetic character of the city to match the grotesque transformation of the economic character–and see that when the thing being destroyed is a community so that a new community can replace it, there is no amount of good done to the ‘winners’ that can compensate for the wrong done to the ‘losers’.

Please, God, please don’t let Amazon come to my town.

On Tools

On Tools

When you have small boys, you get a window of time when they want to help out with everything (besides laundry and dishes and room cleaning, but, surprisingly, yes sometime to dog-poop-picking-up). When you have an oldish house that you and your wife are slowly renovating–she the design and you the labor–you therefore get a lot of help when you’re sawing and nailing. Of course, saws and tiny fingers do not always make the best playmates and this goes probably quadruple when you’re talking power saws. An electric saw poses a danger even to adults (ask any ER nurse), but they also tend to terrify kids because they’re extremely loud. This all poses a bit of a dilemma because that window when your boys’ highest aspiration is to be a good project helper is a precious time to pass along not just the know-how of completing a carpentry job, but also more broadly the value and pleasure of working and building something.

The solution to this dilemma, I think, is to slow down. Why did we start using power saws in the first place? IMG_2885They were fast and they left a cleaner, more squared edge (although that cleaner, more squared edge really only applies in comparison with a rushed or inexperienced cut with a hand saw). But, in speeding up our work and removing some of the necessary skill, we also removed some of our available company.

A while back, my parents gave me a de-lectrified miter saw they found at a garage sale. It has its limitations. It can only accommodate a 2×4 or a 2×6 at most and it doesn’t always cut smoothly (though that could be user error). But, it does cut straight and fast enough. As I used it earlier in the spring to saw lumber for a bookshelf and my two-year-old squatted right at my elbow to watch, even held the handle and ‘helped’ me make a few cuts, I also couldn’t help but notice that this little hand saw had torn down the barrier of fear that used to keep my boys far from my work (and often crying at the hideous screeching whine).

His presence and interest increased my enjoyment of the task immeasurably and the extra time it took felt golden.

 

Anonymous Is Not Your Friend

Anonymous Is Not Your Friend

Every once in a while, Anonymous pops up on social media being feted for publicizing some list or other of dirty deeds and ghastly associations which they’ve uncovered on a server somewhere. The last one I saw claimed to report members of law enforcement who were also members of the Ku Klux Klan. The general consensus when these unveilings circulate is one of celebration. People seem delighted that this faceless entity (if it can even be called an entity, disorganized as it is) has the power to drag bigotry out into the light where it can be properly brought to shame. As for me, I’m skeptical.

Not too long ago, I happened to catch part of a documentary about Anne Braden on KET. Anne and her husband landed themselves in a bit of hot water back in the 50s when, on behalf of a black family called the Wades, they bought a house in a Shively, a white neighborhood in Louisville, KY. The Wades had been stonewalled in their attempts to purchase a suburban home on their own. As you might imagine, things got hot and were pretty quick about it.

carl-and-anne
Carl and Anne Braden

Someone(s) burned cross in the front yard either the night the Wades moved in or some night shortly thereafter. Before long, someone actually bombed the house, put dynamite right under the window of the room where the Wade’s young daughter slept. God’s mercy, the family was out at the time and nobody was hurt.

What brings this to mind when I think of Anonymous sifting the ether to expose Klan affiliations is the obvious issue of racism, but also this. The 50s weren’t just a time of racial upheaval, this was also the McCarthy Era. Communists were lurking inside ordinary-looking Americans like lit dynamite ready to explode and rip apart the fabric of our society. The Braden family were witch-hunted as such. Anne’s husband Carl was tried and jailed for sedition for buying a house that persons unknown tried to blow up because of the skin tone of the inhabitants. There was a right and a wrong way to think and the halls of power were at work to get everyone thinking in line.

One might think that their mutual opposition to racial animus puts the likes of Anne Braden on the same side as those whomevers in Anonymous, but this couldn’t be further from true. The Red Scare was driven by an institutional fear of ideas that thrived on the clamor of people accusing each other. When you look at 50s as a time when the relatively secret wheels of government power churned in an effort to make mincemeat of scary thoughts, it seems plain to me that Joseph McCarthy’s legacy runs right to Anonymous via a straight, unbroken line.

On the subject of Klan affiliation, Anonymous opposes what I oppose. But, they are not my ally. Their chosen methods make them a foe of another stripe. When power is exercised behind the blank slate of anonymity, that has all the totalitarian trappings of a police state. By delving into citizens’ private lives and policing privately-held beliefs, dredging up some muck to be brought to shame and, I’m sure they hope, retribution, these digital thought police are a disgrace to liberty (and this is not even getting into the fact that just posting a found database with no context or actual reportage shows a complete lack of journalistic integrity that makes a gossip and a mockery of the standard of press a free society requires). But, Anonymous gets away with it because they have cherry-picked an easy ideology to attack. They exploit our cultural blind spots to make alarming power plays.

Consider the Nazis. Nobody would say now that hunting down Jews and their sympathizers was a noble thing, but within the bubble of Nazi Germany, it was the height of national pride to do so. I mean, they threw some pretty damn extravagant parades to celebrate some pretty damned egregious acts. Point being, it’s hard to see your gross totalitarianism when everyone agrees with you. And to act so from a place of hiding is beyond bad, it’s frightening.

 *     *     *

Let’s take a full stop here. Racism is a moral wrong. I personally anchor this thinking in the belief that the same God made us all and that gives us a terrific depth of dignity not to be mocked. I do not in any way believe that we as people should leave racist ideas unchallenged, especially in places of authority like the justice system. I do in every way believe that we as people should listen to our neighbors when they’re hurting and angry and join with them in seeking reconciliation. I shy away from using the word justice here because that term is so fraught and so righteous that I pale to think of human attempts to exert it. Let justice roll, but don’t ask me to roll it. I’m unqualified. I like the idea of reconciliation better because it implies a mutual work on all sides. But! I believe this mutual work should start in the camp that’s hurting least, because the camp that’s hurting most needs people to listen and care.

 *     *     *

Back to faceless hackers. You might say that ordinary people need the protection of anonymity to stand up to tyranny, and that may seem true. But, can individual acts of tyranny actually resolve institutional acts of tyranny? Put another way, if the people succeed in changing the balance of power in their favor, will they then give up their own tyrannical power or will they double down to ensure that the world stays as they like it? I’m not a trained historian, but I know enough about my own human nature to bet on power preserving power, not virtue.

What it comes down to is this: privacy is threatening. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? These days, we all do. Our always-on, always-wired-in world has given us a vision for much more darkness than we could have ever imagined even 20 years ago. Not only has the Internet revved the news cycle up to redline levels of horrors per minute, but it has given people a space to air out the darkest corners of their hearts and minds. Complete depravity is but a comments section away. Seeing the havoc in the human heart on full display shouldn’t necessarily be surprising—especially for those like me who take something like the Sermon on the Mount at face value—but it is certainly bracing. I understand the impulse to stamp out the flames. Privacy is threatening.

So, we need to have courage. We need to have the secure conviction that resists fear. To begin with, we need known people working to know each other. We need to have compassion and persuasion in our arsenal. About that word. Arsenal used to simply indicate a wharf, a place to dock and repair boats. It literally means a house for craft or skill. These days, though, we use the word indicating a place to make and stockpile weapons. This seems to illustrate our tendency to weaponize all craft, to make our human arts into instruments of power and victory. I imagine this drift in meaning might have come as ships became more instrumental in conquesting war, fighting abroad, and the industry of shipbuilding came under the claim of warmakers. Maybe it’s that we can’t travel without fighting because we find contrary cultures so threatening. In any event, it’s a shame that we feel the impulse to weaponize every tool we have for handling injustice and disagreement.

I propose we de-escalate a bit. When it comes to handling distasteful and even horrific ideas, let’s make our arsenal back into a house of craft. Not the craft of war, but the craft of peaceableness. I’m borrowing that word from a hero of mine, Wendell Berry, because I like it so much. It doesn’t presume that the success of peace is guaranteed or even always possible, but it it puts the weight on us to make peace an option. As scary as that is in the face of the horrors of the human heart, it’s pretty sound advice. If two parties are armed for war, war it will be. Inevitability. If one party is willing for peace, there is actual possibility. When it comes to opposing racism, we must resist the pull of war in our gut. War we have. Making peace, the art of reconciliation, is a much more complex path. It is choosing vulnerability while insisting on dignity. It is a high calling and it is risky, but it is good. And it takes far more courage than hiding behind spoofed IP addresses, proxy servers, and nameless names.

Short Read: institutions and bigotry

This comes in response to a few essays I’ve read in the past couple of weeks.

If you can, with a straight face, talk about statewide corporate boycotts, high-profile cancellations, etc—all basically 21st century siege warfare—as legitimate tactics to oppose bigotry, if you can speak of using force to oppose beliefs you find distasteful, then perhaps the definition of the word ‘bigot’ has been lost. Or, perhaps literally everyone on earth is a bigot, but the word only sticks to beliefs and actions that are in the minority, or at least not your own. Either way, regardless of how righteous one may feel, using force in the marketplace and using propagandic labeling of to-you unsavory beliefs looks to me awfully akin to enacting legislation to hem in to-them unsavory beliefs. Self-righteousness blurs a lot of hostility.

Waging a culture war—which it still is, it doesn’t stop being so just because the side you’re on is winning—at an institutional level, be it that of the economy or of the government or even that of social media, is a fertile breeding ground for self-righteousness. Institutions can not be relational; they are by definition anonymizing, abstract fronts that conceal personal action behind the blank face of the institution. Relationships between actual people go a long way to defusing self-righteousness because only people can be so humble.

The most nauseous impulse I see on display is this push for conformity to a side. ‘You must assimilate into our camp wholesale if you agree with us at all, and our enemy is that camp and they can do nothing right.’ This attitude has been festering in our insanely litigious grievance culture for a long time. It puts a serious damper on our ability to disagree and stay friends by breeding, in either side, the fear of what might happen if we happen to be the one who’s out of step with the majority around us. Constantly vying with threat of social and economic violence is just no way for any of us to live, either as the aggressor or the harried.

The Imagination Engine, pt. IV

on the inside

Part I   |   Part II   |   Part III

Acoustics, Pleasure, and Resisting the Sale

In order not to descend into full-Orwellian fatalism, let’s look at one musical instrument and what it says about the world technology would make for us, the world so aggressively sold to us. Not long ago, I came across a video advertising what amounted to a slender silicone pad that you could stick to the front of a guitar and so turn it into some electronic sound-looping synthesizer. Tapping one touch-sensitive region would record bits of your guitar playing while other buttons would add in percussion and other digital sounds, effectively turning the whole rig into some cyborg blend of instrument and remote control. With this pad stuck to the sound board of his guitar (an important detail we’ll circle back to), the musician in the ad built the sound of an entire electronic bad around himself. It was an impressive display of technique that surely required a good deal of coordination. Something as old as music had been revolutionized for the 21st century.

From that shallow angle, both the performance and the machine were marvelous, truly marvels. This is the perspective that dives right for the pleasure centers of the brain and can stir a watching musician to want to be that impresario on the screen, but can also drive others to want to hear more of this new thing. Generating this kind of multi-tiered desire to both do and watch done is a social engineer’s dream. It both sells the product and builds an audience ready to further consume. This closed feedback loop both entices towards and normalizes a deeper technologic dependency[1]. This, though, is only the shallow angle. What is going on deeper down.

How to make a beautiful sound
Here are two things to consider: the quality of the music and the manner in which it’s made. Consider the physics of sound for a moment. Sound is the world brought humming to life with vibration. Anything can make sound because anything can be made to vibrate. The art of music and instruments is the care and study of the best materials and arrangements that vibrate in a manner and pattern that’s beautiful. Music is all about pitch and rhythm, yes, but great music is just as much about resonance and timbre. Great music is made on great instruments. A plucked string comes alive and its energy flows into the air as sound and that sound flows into the guitar, bringing the wood to life in its own inherent resonance. Strings, though, fly out of the factory a mile a minute. A fine instrument is a slow thing made of deliberation and choice. The species of wood. The direction of the grain. The architecture of the internal trusses and braces, like a wooden cathedral built to nurture and enhance the resonating wood. To see a luthier at work is to see the love in this labor. In many ways, a fine acoustic instrument is a beacon at the peak of what engineering can achieve. By engineering, I mean the process by which a long legacy of luthiers gathered and learned the materials available to them in order to craft better and better vessels through which the sounds in a musician’s mind could be brought into the world.

The beauty of this engineering is that it never got out of hand. The best of the tradition passed literally from hand to hand, from maker to musician, always staying connected to an essential humanity by always keeping a person as an essential part of both the making and the using. A body was always necessary and never engineered out.

The fruit of all of this labor, incidentally, needs no social engineer to normalize its place in the world. The glory of a well-made instrument in the hands of one who can draw out its full potential is self-evident. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

This sound was built from the resonance inherent to a thin slice of wood, and this indispensable piece of wood is called the soundboard of the guitar. To slap a big rubberized mat full of buttons atop the thing is practically a slap in the face of the long history of craft and of sound itself. It would be comparable to a singer stepping up to the microphone with a ratty pillow pressed against her face. Suffocating. To compensate, this machine runs the vibration of the strings through a processor to mimic the bodily qualities of the wood and amplify some of the digital mimicry. Only the guitar’s volume is preserved. Its character is lost.

Now, you could argue that the target audience for this gadget may well have sensibilities not swayed by the nuances of fine acoustics, and anyway, electrified music has its own charms. You’d have a fair point about the sensibilities, but I’d still quibble a bit about the charm. Resonance matters, even in electric guitars. If you migrate too far from the sounds innate to the materials in a musician’s hands, you’ll no longer have an instrument but a machine[2]. The sound will only ever be mechanical. Again, though, some people are into that. It’s a sound. All of this about resonance and character is the sound and fury of taste and it may signify nothing to some people. But, before you dismiss it all as the romantic pinings of a doleful aesthete, please consider this.

Minor irregularities further enhance the hand-crafted uniqueness
It is the tendency of technology to excise the human element, approximating what it replaces and telling us that quick, reliable consistency and bells/whistles are just compensation. Craft, though, by some kind of alchemy, makes things imbued with what I can only think of as something like soul. It’s the potential for human error that makes something made well and by hand so beautiful. We all know it could have come out poorly and we are in awe that it didn’t. This miraculous turn calls to us and we see its value immediately.

I’d guess that most people have something they’re passionate about, something in which they can spot the subtle differences between the work of skilled hands and the dispassionate manufacture of a machine (though, in deference to language, I’d rather call it something like mechufacture). I tell you, it’s those passions, the kinds that make us so discerning and concerned, that make us most human. Those passions instill in us the value of something handmade and from that value flows what you’d call a placed premium, the desire for less quantity because we feel more than compensated by the quality.

Technology works against that premium on quality by overwhelming it in a flood of quantity. Those social engineers so motivated will preach about their own quality, of course, but their real work is far more general. It consists of raising the sea level of desire itself, not just for one product but for all products so that we’ll want to pay less and less for anything in order to have more and more of everything. This incubates a culture of mass production that shifts, by technological automation, the work to fewer and fewer people and the profit to fewer still.

Consider, though, what it would look like if we trusted one another’s best human passions for the quality workmanship of real hands. Our stomach for mechanical approximations would sour and our demand would shift to the labor of our neighbors again. This would, of course, require more laborers and more patience for the slower work, but as demand for quality increased, demand for quantity would fall and surely we would settle into a new equilibrium. As for the demand for laborers, it just so happens that the forces of automation have been quite effective at leaving people outside the ‘labor force’. The slowness of human making has the intrinsic blessing of needing lots of human effort. This new equilibrium would also require rebuilding the various cultures of good making, but surely it would be something enjoyable to learn a craft rather than learn to navigate a spreadsheet, a cubicle maze, and a byzantine office politic. And, for those inconsolable spreadsheet lovers, surely there would still be a need for accountants.

The drift towards an ever more technological society isn’t inevitable, all it takes to reverse course is an awakening. As improbable as awakenings may be, this is one that we’ve already begun in our pet passions. We need only consider the pet passions of our neighbors, that they may be as justified as our own. In short, we need only trust that quality matters for deeply human reasons and so reorient our spending to reflect such a premium. The hardest work here is the work of contentment. To be more satisfied with a little good than with an abundance of fair is hard work indeed.

The Art of Lonliness
Before we finally put all this thought to rest, I want to return to this augmented guitar to consider how the music is made. The novelty of this product is that of the one-man band, conjuring images of Dick van Dyke laden with horns and drums, clashing cymbals between his knees. It’s an image as comic as it is impractical. We have to wonder if he’d be better off finding some friends to help him out.

It may be helpful here to mention another product in passing, also served up in a social media feed. A video camera loaded with motors, gyroscopes, and a motion sensor that can track action and film it automatically. Whence came such a lonely machine? In the social media world, the only life is the life displayed. Yet we are more isolated and buffered than ever. So, validation must come through digital notifications: hearts, stars, and thumbs[3]. Unfettered availability to be watched in the cloud—to know we really exist—and this growing lone-ness create a vacuum. We must fill a human absence to stay present in the ether. So was born the selfie. Then came the selfie stick to give our navel gazing the quality framing and dizzying angles that our stubby human arms preclude. This robo camera picks right up where a hand-held stick left off and even removes that last pesky human element. Namely you. It’s the perfect joke of this social era that, having lost the social skills that play well with others (skills like making time, effort, and social grace in our individual lives), we would be allured by ads in our feed for motion-sensitive robots with which we could further distance ourselves from people and still be ‘socially’ active.

This camera and this guitar make it more fun to play with yourself, pushing the individualism that animates so much of the technological revolution to new exponents. And they are both socially engineered in a way only possible in a digital world of ‘personalized’ feeds (made more personal by reducing each person to choices easily mapped by an algorithm). Immersed in technology, more parades past us to reinforce that universe and stir our lust for its potential. What, the advertisers would have us ask, would we have ever done without them? Who would even imagine that world anymore? I guess that means we ought to answer that question, imagine that world.

Without his band in a box, that guitar player would either have to go it alone with less, or call up some friends to add what’s missing. This latter option is what we commonly call ‘forming a band’. Framed in this way, we see that once again technology is proposing to stand in for another person. Isolation standing in for community. For the musician, this can initially present as a liberating bargain. He is allowed to make complex and layered music that he would otherwise be unable to make alone. Is this actually freedom, though? Or does it come with its own set of limits?

This isn’t even a real question; the limits are clear. First, there is a creative limit. An individual is confined to the workings of a solitary mind, with all its habits and ruts. It’s a closed system. A collective, though, is subject to the diverse whims and even mistakes of others. A happy accident, a wrong note on the part of one can send the others into a space they may well have never found alone. A closed system simply isn’t stirred by the creative diversity of an open one.

The second limit is one of complexity. Simply put, no matter the technology available, a single person can only do so much. Here, we can imagine Mozart at a piano. His mind, genius though it may be, still only has 10 fingers attached. But, Mozart with a quill in hand can compose music for an entire orchestra’s worth of hands and minds. The guitarist wielding this beat box is likewise limited to what his own hands can do with the software. All of his ideas must squeeze through a gate the size of his one body.

The third limit is one of pleasure. The musician working alone is limited to his own satisfaction, unless he has an audience, but then his pleasure becomes fraught with fear and maybe even self doubt. Will the audience love him? And will they love him enough? The musician working with the machine is no better off. The computer can’t feel, only do. If we really think about it, this further complicates pleasure with loneliness, playing a duet with a cold automaton. Perhaps this is why individualism is so given to narcissism. If nobody else can be counted on to love you, you have to double down on loving yourself.

Look, though, at people making music together. I would bet that the majority of music made today, ever made at all in fact, is done in garages and living rooms with nobody to hear but the musicians themselves and maybe some folks sitting around socializing or maybe making supper in the next room. Those musicians’ pleasure is multiplied by its very source because making music is fun for everyone (usually). Something happens when people take joy in same doing. It’s not perfect, but when it’s good, it’s pretty pure. The pleasure is exponentially greater than that of even a virtuoso playing alone just by the fact that the pleasure is shared.

The general bent of technological progress of all kinds, though, is one of separation. The human element is costly so technology proposes to defray that cost by separating people from work and from one another. This is an unsettling bargain. Not only does it degrade the quality of the thing, it imposes on it a harsh set of limits. Any sort of technological advance, regardless of its complexity, brings to an endeavor only a dumb, rote repetition. It is not creative, it does not collaborate, and in the absence of additional human input (which the individual is eventually too limited to further offer), it will not add any intricacy. Even if some software engineer comes up with a code to better mimic creative interaction, there will always be the ultimate limit of pleasure when a person is swapped out for a machine or even a computer. The pleasure that will always elude technology is the simple act of doing work together instead of alone, which can make even bad work bearable and makes good work something very nearly divine.

 

The social engineers dedicated to the ongoing march of technical innovation make all kinds of promises about the glorious horizons yet to be reached and always just around the next bend. Their road is paved with a kind of progress that is always new only because it is always killing the old. The digital revolution has profoundly increased both the capability and the sheer dazzling wattage of the inventions they boast about. And these inventions abound, praises sung by this chorus. Each new machine raises the stakes of a life that, even before their time, was very fast paced and in which a human presence was an expensive line item to write off as often as possible. Certainly speed is essential to maintaining enough blur to hide the widening cracks in the glittering facade of progress, softening the edges of its own unique tyranny if only by optical illusion. People are indeed expensive, relationally and economically. I do have serious doubts, though, that those costs can ever be written off. Any attempt to do only has temporary success. The human element always comes back as either tragedy or violence[4].

Therefore, must examine the power we grant ourselves with suspicion. I believe we will find that we have always been capable of much more than what we can manage well. We can only hide the costs for so long. We spent the Industrial Revolution trying to exceed our limits by mimicking nature with our own designs, replacing flesh and effort with wit and automated steel. As the Digital Revolution unfolds, we can see signs that the machine, the imagination engine has been left running long enough to bring us back around to our limits, this time dearly missing them and needing their touch on our conscience in order to return to health. This is our opportunity while the age of the screen is still young: to slow down.

With our fist on the throttle and the devil at one ear, we are convinced that a hungry lion is at our heels. Slowing down, then, is an act of resistance. It’s the choice to stop listening to that devil long enough to consider what he’s already said. Yes, there’s a hungry lion at our heels and it will catch us eventually. This is not a surprise. But, you can try to outrun the lion or you can try to out think it. We can continue our knee-jerk flight, and, by wholesale surrender to progress by any means necessary, try to keep everything that resembles concession to our limits, to say nothing of death, at bay. Or we can simply admit that life is limited and therefore precious. Far too precious for the mere cycle of appetite and accumulation, a cycle which technology cranks faster and faster, highly efficient and de-humanized. Imagine, instead, a better engine. Crafting and enjoying better things in human ways with the time we do have.

To savor, not abhor, our limits hinges on a kind of satisfaction that can’t be sold to us, nor even engineered. We are only sold what must be bought again and again. We are sold dissatisfaction. Our resistance to the sale is a Sabbath from demand born at this sight of the absurdity of all demand. Ultimately, slowing down is our defiance of the myth of the best, of having it all, as we allow what is good to be good enough.

*     *     *

[1] Technology has this creepy knack for sculpting around itself the world in which it best fits. It makes the social engineering surrounding it almost too easy. Like convincing people they need air.

[2] Machines are beholden to some power source, which puts their use ever dependent on and therefore to some degree in service to the dirty process of producing fuels and electricity. This puts a limit on the musical machine because its life is not in itself but in the power cord. Cut the cord and the sound takes a serious downturn.

[3] Funnily enough, this list of digital affirmations is already outdated. Social media is always working to make our passage into their alternate universe more seamless, always trying to better ape what nature just does. The palette of emojis expanding well beyond even comprehensibility in trying to match the nuance of real life.

[4] One interesting quirk of the digital revolution is that we are more exposed than ever to the multitudes of tragedies and violences suffered and committed by those written-off human elements we were once ignorant of.

The Imagination Engine, pt. III

The Imagination Engine, pt. III

Part I   |   Part II

Surface Tension and Mythology

Ours is the generation of the screen. The digital landscape is our new Promised Land, a land flowing not with milk and honey, but with ego and escape. Its demographic-spanning population reveals the broad appeal of this. The entry points and the popular neighborhoods may change, but everyone seems to be living a life online now[1]. The digital era is often hailed as the Information Age, and this is apt. Information is the currency of online life. What was the last piece of information you learned of that you didn’t first learn about online, or from someone next to you who happened to look at their phone screen before you could look at yours? The digital world is the primary source of news, data, entertainment, gossip, belief reinforcement, and anything else the mind can crave. It’s no wonder then that we find social engineers here, hard at the work of conscience-formation.


Soap in the Drink
Social media is a key component of these formation efforts. It is designed as a social engineer’s paradise, being a place where people voluntarily open their minds to a barrage of information many, many times a day. Begging to be informed. Hungry to be formed. For most people, social media is the gateway to the digital world, the hub of shouting, bragging, and broadcasting from which we venture out into the other realms of the coded universe. Blogs. News outlets. Alternative news outlets. YouTube. We may frequent, and frequently abandon, many places in the digital world, but we always start from and come back to our preferred social media hubs, and so these places are exactly where a social engineer would come to advocate[2] for a less human world.

Think for a moment about dish water. Water has a tendency to stick together. It can actually form a dome above the rim of a glass if you pour it very carefully. This raised curvature of water is called a meniscus and it happens because of surface tension. The molecules attract one another. Add a drop of soap, though, and the whole thing spills over. The soap, a solvent, actually gets between the water molecules and they lose cohesion. It’s a bitter-tasting loss of integrity, and exploitable[3].

We are like water. When we are physically present with one another, sometimes even in disagreement, there is a certain cohesion. We are if not more empathic towards one another, then we can at least agree that empathy and kindness are both virtues worth working towards. But, when you put something between us—territories, battle lines—it all begins to fall apart.

We are exactly so buffered out on this social media frontier. We interact exclusively with technology, with machines between us. In this way, social media acts as a solvent. There is no such thing as human interaction online because even the with most direct input, the human component is distilled into a font or reduced to an image. All mere pixels on a screen. So buffered and apparently enjoying it so, we are lubricated[4] to accept a world even more pervaded and shaped by technology. We think nothing of the mechanical disdain for people because our own contempt has grown to match it.

Yet this technological watershed is effusively promised us. Mobility! Empowerment! Convenience! These are the old, old enticements of any technology, trotted out again in the ether. Convenience, admittedly, is good dope and the fact that barely any part of our day isn’t somehow altered by technological interaction shows that we may just be a bit addicted to it. This poses a problem because the junkie needs a sober sponsor to steer them through recovery. Well, they first need to admit they have a problem and that in itself may seem a stretch, but we have to be optimistic about something. Who is sober enough to guide the modern world away from of our automated, electrified society? With the old guard technology—the cars, the robotic assembly lines, even the computers—the answer is probably nobody.

But, the digital world is still a new drug. Perhaps sobriety can start here. Perhaps sobriety can spread from here, slowly stepping down our automatic acceptance and dependence on every new technology. Losing our taste for the rationalizing that has been so urgently encouraged. Perhaps this timely pause could open space to imagine health. If not a vicious detox from every machine, then at least fresh independence in how and why we choose to use and discard technology based on a more fulsome accounting of its effect on both ourselves and our neighbors[5].

For sobriety, then.


Selling the Greatest Myth of Our Time
Advertising has long been a cornerstone of any social engineering campaign. We so revile commercials because they are so blatantly manipulative, urging us to buy disappointment and inevitable hunger (which is kind of the point, because if we were sold actual satisfaction, we’d stop buying). A whole cottage industry has formed around excising commercial breaks from the experience of television. Social engineering has a brand new bag, though. The medium of social media has taken advertising out of the ghetto of commercial breaks and engineered it down to the cellular level. Ads now litter every social media feed (oh! The consuming overtones are everywhere, the vision of social media is that of animals at a trough). As we passively consume what the algorithm serves up, we swallow whole ad after ad, auto-playing their honed imagery to massage our open minds. We are constantly under this assault: that something might be better.

The age of the screen is built on a handful of ideas that it constantly strives to reinforce in our culture, lubricating our consciences for continual drilling down to a genetic depth some very fundamental restrictions on how we view ourselves, one another, and what we do. The first is that any technologically sophisticated way of doing something must be de facto an improvement. A car is better than a horse, a nail gun is better than a hammer, email is better than a letter. The justification is always that it is either more powerful (faster, stronger, etc.), cheaper (which leaves more purchase power in hand), or both. The second idea follows that anything that puts more capability in the hands of the individual must be the better way. Again, the vision is for more powerful people able to do more powerful things. A third, which might be better understood as the sum of the first two, is that anything that reduces human effort is the ideal. That this is predicated on reducing human presence is overlooked, I think, at great risk.

People in a position to benefit have long been at the work of normalizing this individualistic, tech-augmented vision for people. It’s everywhere. In the mythologies of digital pioneers working alone in their garages and dorm rooms to give birth to the pillars of the online experience. Outlining the code-era vision for justice, with men like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange lionized for finding and making unilateral decisions to expose dirty secrets they find distasteful simply because they had the digital prowess to do so. It’s in the new vision for romance as each individual is empowered to swipe through swaths of humanity on a screen as they make mating choices without risking the vulnerability that the ether offers to inoculate[6] us from. It’s even in the vision for the look of our cities and homes—those places where we yet can’t but be a real human presence. We are on the verge of self-driving cars, drone delivery, and we are already asked to install 24-hour surveillance devices in our homes so that we can buy things and access information with little effort beyond speaking to the ever-listening algorithm[7]. We are offered relief from even the tiny human chore of adjusting the thermostat. Effortless comfort at all times. What isn’t ‘smart’ these days? Our interface with the inevitable technotopic future is paved with the gilt bricks of self-augmentation and by them we are thoroughly insulated from the chafe of human interaction. This is the Promised Land. What could go wrong?

Part IV

*     *     *

[1] Perhaps it is a result of the persistent efforts of the Industrial Revolution to mobilize people and so scatter them—disintegrating communities for the sake of portable capital—that has made this digital world such a promised land. We have all left home and the people who know us. As we wake up to that void, we try to fill it with flat digital light. This would explain our tendency to populate our personal digital crowd, a list we have complete curatorial control over, with individuals not only from our present life, but from every phase of our past lives. Trying to hold on to all the places and communities we have passed through as an acknowledgement that all of our places and communities have been uprooted by now.

[2] Why advocate for a less human world? Because when we don’t rely on or interact with people, we rely on and interact with machines that we must somehow pay for. Their company is never free, and our desire for them facilitates our abstraction from a community into a ‘labor force’ as we fill the role of consumers working to consume. This is good news for those selling the machines, and also good news for all the various officials and dignitaries who gain some kind of power in maintaining this world. Hence the push to make it all feel normal.

[3] Solvents work by separating things, the way oil separates your car engine parts, allowing them to glide over one another without bursting into flames. This is handy in everything from washing your dishes to cleaning precision-crafted computer parts prior to electroplating them with conductive gold. The dirt just washes away.

[4] In a bit of irony, this lubrication actually increases friction. Social media trends toward de-humanized behavior precisely because all of the participants interact first with a machine. A screen. A keyboard or a touch pad. Especially in disagreement, we wade into this world with heated vitriol. Perhaps we are not as compatible with this so-called social lubricant as we would like to believe.

[5] And who, then, is our neighbor? Globalization must now cut the other way. Everyone considered a ‘capital asset’ must be considered an inseparable liability of human care as well.

[6] More like anesthetize us to

[7] Hand in hand with the vision of a world where the human machine barrier is utterly seamless is a vision of a world comprised entirely of data, just waiting to be gathered and exploited. People, like the dumb machines we invent, are little more than computational cycles who just need to be decoded. By God may we not compute.e3