Posts tagged society

Twenty sixteen ramblings

It took me forever just to write this short sentence about 2016, such a year it was. Surely it wasn’t the worst year in human history, as many hyperbolic posts on social media would have me believe, but it wasn’t just a fine year in which, by coincidence, too many esteemed celebrities died. For 2016 was a year of horrible politics, the kind of hair-raising, chilling politics one thought was in the fringe; remote ideas unable to overcome a common sense shared by a large majority. Brexit and the election of Donald trumped whatever confidence one could have that our neighbors in Western Civilization (if such a thing ever existed) wouldn’t send the Gestapo on us just because.

One can try to frame those bad things that happened in 2016 as dark jokes, as Charlie Brooker does so eloquently in his 2016 Wipe end of year rant, but there is no entertainment to be had.

2016 shattered the belief, even in a faraway corner such as Portugal, that the nicest people one knew wouldn’t become racist, classist, sexist trolls once they opened Twitter or Facebook or a newspaper’s website. I really started to question the benefits of hyper-connectedness, much before I even heard a friend, hooked on confirmation bias, state that vigilance against ‘fake news’ is all about censoring the 'real news’ fake news sites provide. To which I say, it’s all real for all I care, because real or fake, local or international, it’s all horrible. The comments do feel real and make me wonder: should I drop dead because I’m from Southern Europe in a country where they have a Socialist government? Should I drop dead because I’m in academia? Am I an insect, a leech, because I was for a couple of months on benefits before being a public servant with a meager paycheck and a temporary contract? 

In 2016 it often felt as if harassment was being legitimized, then vindicated by politics. And as a cis-hetero white male, what to do? Speaking out with the best intentions is often framed as illegitimate _splaining, a ridiculous way to frame things in a year in which we found out arguments don’t matter, much less the writer. I’ll just leave this here:

Judging people whose lives and actions you don’t know anything about is wrong.

(Except in traffic. Tailgating assholes deserve judgement.)

In Portugal in 2011 we had a very nasty election in which the prevailing right-wing turned old against new, public workers against private workers, rich against poor. Our current government is, against all odds, managing to heal these divides bit by bit, against all the fanaticism of a media thirsty for some kind of war. However in 2016 all those rifts exploded everywhere, across every single line that could become contentious — race, nationality, gender, sex, religion. That Dark Enlightenment which openly articulates a desire to go back to absolutism, as recently as a couple of years ago was just a lunatic twinkle in some solipsists’ eye (long live King Thiel I). Then comes 2016 and it seems to have become public policy from the United States to Brazil, from Hungary to Russia, from Turkey to the Philippines. Can we trust each other? It’s as if while our societies were made deeply afraid of the Islamic State, our own next door neighbors became as radicalized, only about things other than religion, and mercifully still only wielding tweets and votes rather than explosives.

Is this social media’s endgame? Filter bubbles and confirmation biases so heavy they implode into black holes of hatred?

Is that why we haven’t found alien civilizations? They go extinct because they invented nuclear weapons, poison their climates, and then invent Facebook? That which extra-dimensional archaeologists call the Technological Sandwich of Doom? 

Then fuck social media.

Fuck it. Fill social networks with bots and IFTTT recipes, feed Facebook and Twitter back to themselves until they too implode in a blackhole of bullshit that vacuums all the fake news, along with a few media conglomerates just for safety.

Ahem.

Progress?

Hence the despair, often feigned, but often real, at the deaths of beloved celebrities like David Bowie, Prince, or Carrie Fisher. Those were artists and performers of The Future, therefore a literally dying Future, crashing our old but reassuring collective belief in a Whig sense of Progress. Without Bowie or Prince, who or what stands for A Better Future?

Vaporwave? C'mon.


So it was bit weird to be living in Portugal while 2016 happened. Internal politics were the opposite of whatever happened in international news: in 2016 we had a Socialist government supported by Communists and Trotskiites in parliament and by a hyperactive right-wing President (and former TV personality!) who has so far been doing the utmost to be decent and respectful of differences. Such good karma visited Portugal that its football national team even won the Euro, in the bestest! imaginable victory (winning < against France < in France < without Ronaldo < with a goal scored by Éder, who has the footballing ability of Ronaldo’s right kidney).

Not that everything was rosy. Job precarity remains the norm, salaries remain miserable for the bottom 90%, and the government’s left-wing peers are still focused on employment rather than what comes next. Porto is being Disneyfied and Disrupted beyond recognition by an unholy alliance of AirBnB, speculators local and foreign, and, again, a local citizenry more than happy in screwing over their neighbors whenever the time comes to renew a lease, or to price the food in their artisanal gourmet tapas bar restaurant bistro. But hey, at least we’ve got a brand new city centre which the tourists and the petty bourgeois can enjoy mostly free of locals, as the city lost 10% of its inhabitants in just these last four vigorous years. That an untold number of businesses in the periphery had to close is something almost nobody notices. 

Yay for growth!

May the tourists never cease touring the brand new hotels standing on the ruins of our heritage. Nobody can make a living here, but those TripAdvisor rankings are unmatched.

Vemödalen (the fear that everything has already been done) from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (via Studio Daily)

While too many forces — most of all family and advertising — try to pass the idea each one of us is special or different and that we should 'express ourselves' or something, it’s always worth reminding that we are not so special. Nobody is; and there is a very real sense of safety in numbers in embracing the possibility of being trite and the clichéd, and in recognizing people similar to us most certainly had the same ideas. This seems like a recipe for conformity, but therein lies the real challenge: not in expressing our (not so) unique selves, but in maintaining critical freedom from the twin desires of fitting in and of being unique.


While we’re on the subject, here’s an amusing scientific paper titled The hipster effect: When anticonformists all look the same (PDF). And so it may be asked, why shouldn’t anticonformists look the same? And why should we care — as long as the anticonformists are true anticonformists?  (via Boing Boing)

The Innovation of Loneliness by Shimi Cohen, after a TED presentation by Sherry Turkle. I wouldn’t normally post this sort of thing. I tend to find motion infographics simplistic and distracting, and as for TED talks, once genuinely interesting, these now often resemble sales pitches (to say nothing of the full-on sleaze of TEDx events) for books that tell you What You Already Suspected: e.g. social networking increases feelings of isolation, loneliness, and therefore are not good for you.

As clichéd and trite as this idea now is, clichés tend by definition to be true and some do deserve sustained repeating and, indeed, ‘sharing’ on ‘social networking’ platforms. So, even though we know better, we can’t help but look at our 250 ‘friends’ on Facebook and feel we should be more ‘engaging’, that a lack of response to the stuff we ‘share’ (I promise I’ll stop with the irony quotes) must mean nobody actually cares about us. We make the mistake of confounding our unreplied (or worse — unreplied but ✓seen*) messages and unliked posts with a qualitative assessment about ourselves — the same mistake many artists make when they mistake themselves for their work.

Facebook, if I may add a few more of my trite thoughts about it, is not your old High School cafeteria, despite often resembling a virtual version of it. If you are, as I hope, someone with a sense of etiquette and democratic values, I believe that instead of feeling rejected and worthless because someone ✓sees your messages and declines to reply, perhaps it makes better sense for you to unfriend that person. (The same goes for cellphone texts, by the way.) Or at least to organize them in a ‘doghouse’ group where they are still ‘friends’ with you but blocked out of your stuff, which is perhaps worse. (I don’t believe this is too harsh. What would be said of someone who blatantly ignores ‘friends’ in face-to-face situations? Or should we consider that, as Facebook is not a virtual playground, elementary social customs and rules of etiquette do not apply?) Same thing goes for people who go and bully you publicly in comments to your posts, something a grown-up never would in real life. Ask yourself: are these people good for you? Should they see your stuff? Should you be looking at photos of all the sushi a non-responder had for lunch?

If one wishes further motivation to take socialization offline, one can also open the doors of paranoia and consider the power companies such as Facebook, Inc. have in mediating people’s interactions. (Can we completely and unarguably dismiss the possibility some FB, Inc. researcher is running cruel psychology experiments on some of its users, subtly changing the content of instant messages, labeling unreceived messages as ✓seen, etc. in order to provoke and study the reactions of the recipients? This may of course seem delusional, but in the light of recent NSA spying revelations we know that if something is technically feasible someone will do it. Think about the crimes of pharmaceutical research in impoverished countries, and how intentionally causing friends to argue because of miscommunication would be child’s play — even though one can guess it would cause a lot more outrage. Are there moratoria against such tampering with communications and against running such experiments in transnational networks? Would it be possible to enforce such a moratorium?)

It takes conscious effort to go on Facebook and not get sucked too deeply into the ‘social’ lie. I try to remind myself it is in essence just a mix between a (rather unreliable) group blog and an address book with some (again, unreliable) instant messaging features. Socializing is what happens outside of Facebook, indeed, outside any mediation. Online platforms should at best handle the introductions, the reacquaintances, and at most, outward-pointing chit-chat. So it’s nice to watch the above video and remind ourselves such a distortion of reality — loneliness, lack of ‘engagement’ with ‘friends’ — is just the smooth running of ‘social networking’ platforms.

Hence my paradoxical sharing — don’t feel obliged to like or favorite this post, though. I’ll be fine.


* When I first saw a ✓seen timestamp in a message window I thought people at FB, Inc. were trying to engineer social behaviour — i.e. forcing avoidant responders to come up with something or look bad. I think they miscalculated to what an extent some people just won’t care about what others think.

If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so. If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards. You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist. But you cannot want a book about Success.

G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered (1915), as quoted by Jason Kottke.

Kottke is right to point out Chesterton wrote the last time social class inequality was as high as it is today. Like then, nowadays there’s a flood of literature about Attaining Success (a.k.a. Entrepreneurship), books but also blogs, podcasts both daily and weekly in audio and video formats, along with the acompanying conferences, workshops, incubators, seminars, meetings, camps, reality television and the odd TED talk, in both ‘real TED’ and totally unaccountable (eg. TEDx) versions. The artistic-minded can also expect a similar plethora of writings and speeches about Creativity. Success does seem to belong to the quacks writing about it, most of whom aren’t as articulate as a Malcolm Gladwell and provide nothing better than garden-variety homeopathy evangelists.

At any rate, literature about Success (and Creativity) does provide one with a good heuristic on spotting a phony. Just look at his or hers’ bookshelf or browsing/sharing preferences. As Chesterton points out, a lack of ‘technical’ literature (on the game of whist, on design, on computer programming, on writing, &etc.) is the mark of the mediocre.

I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

Tim Kreidler on The ‘Busy’ Trap. If you haven’t read this article yet you should, right now. You really have the time.

Misc. links Feb 16th - Apr 4th

The Rise of the Privileged Poor. It’s easy to dismiss some guy on TV complaining about being poor because he lives on a PhD grant as a pretentious, insensitive ignoramus (the powers know well who to pick to be on the news). Still, one can’t ignore the mental, emotional toll of perceived poverty — people get sick, shy away from relationships, postpone raising a family, in a word: people are hurting. Some should mind their complaints and how they might come across to others (there are certainly some to whom the ‘privileged poor’ sound as monstrous as the ultra-rich complaining about infinitesimal amounts of tax), but that doesn’t mean many complaints are any less real or legitimate. Those who tell the poor (either the ‘privileged’ with their Media Studies degrees, or the proletarian with family histories of unemployment and industrial decay) that they did this to themselves via lack of willpower and poor life choices (eg. ‘following their dreams’) are either deluded into thinking they actually achieved something for themselves alone, or are mechanized monsters who fail to appreciate their luck.

Peter Norvig on learning to program — in ten years. Expertise takes time, which is why it is unfortunate that time to develop expertise is so thoroughly unprotected in academia here (the mission of which should be precisely the opposite), as grad students often must go from zero to SWOT analyses and business plans in a semester. Everybody wants geniuses, nobody wants to ‘grow’ them, and then they’ll blame you for not being one (see above).

A transcript of a talk in which Clay Shirky explains why groups are their own worst enemies. Worth a read as Shirky deftly demonstrates groups can’t survive long without a set of regulations and moderation.

A Slate article about the sudden internet-disappearance of the programmer just known as _why. After the article mentions _why’s handle might be an Ayn Rand reference, it’s tempting to speculate his exile was an attempt to act the libertarian fantasy of letting the world going to hell after the ‘geniuses’ leave (or a critique thereof, I’d rather think). The results couldn’t have been more endearing, though: the Ruby developers’ community is fine, and _why’s multiple projects have been restored, debugged and made better. (Despite only having a very rudimentary knowledge of Ruby, I’ve recommended _why’s whimsical work here in the past, eg. Shoes, which seems like a good and fun GUI toolkit to dive into).

David Bordwell on ‘Pandora’s digital box’ and the sobering reality of digital preservation.

Much Ado About Nothing: Why Barry Levinson’s Diner might be one of the most influential movies in film history.

London’s Overthrow by China Miéville. A sprawling essay about the London zeitgeist, and the ongoing apocalypse of its citizens not being able to afford it. Parts of the essay can surely be applied to other cities.

High-definition video files of stock 35mm footage. Might come very handy for some projects.

The Mixtape Lost at Antikythera. Another incredible crypto-historical mixtape + essay by Rob Beschizza. (Previously.)

What is Love? A debate between Wikipedia and Haddaway.

Misc. links Jan 1st - 14th

This is the Future, today: Bruce Stering and Jon Lebkowsky debate the State of the World. There’s the coming war on general computation, the reason why I think everyone should learn how to code, as that would be the only thing protecting free speech from enclosure in a walled garden of infinite bullshit. The same general movements, in turn, might also explain why fashion and style got stuck in a loop since the 80s, as having things looking the same is the best way, it seems, to have people accept the radical changes underneath the surface (as a petty example, look at the ridiculously retro Fuji X1Pro — nice to have hardware exposure controls by the way). And in the meantime, it seems that all you need to become a world-class arms dealer these days is a laptop and an internet connection (but screw that — you could do it with an iPad probably). After being busted you can sell the film rights and still make a fuckload of money.

Getting paid for what you love harms your love for what you do. Well, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise: Everyone who ever followed sports a bit has seen promising players lose their motivation despite becoming millionaires, and perhaps because of it. But still, this shouldn’t be read by greedy ‘employers’ as an excuse not to pay interns, for fear of damaging their priceless intrinsic motivations (this “we won’t pay you because you will love us” seems a recurrent theme among sleazy internship ads here in Portugal). On the contrary, the article is right to point out that a removal of an extrinsic motivation can also be damaging.

Mark Pagel on why we are, as a species, stupid plagiarists.

James Meek’s In the Sorting Office. Economic liberalism as Dutch housewives earning a pittance as ‘freelance’ postwomen, allowing their ‘employers’ to provide physical spam services to mail order companies at competitive prices. Among other nasty things, all in the mail delivery microcosm. An upsetting read.

Pico Iyer about the point of writing in long and winding sentences. My reading tastes are pretty strange for the ‘mainstream’ portuguese reader, as I like really long and difficult books that allow me to feel like a tourist in that world during the months they might take me to read, and I like long, tree-structured sentences that force me to pay attention. The vox populi here immediately associates long sentences with the writing of José Saramago and the mainstream consensus again is that his works are boring and impenetrable (both untrue), even if said consensus can’t explain how his books sell so well, and even documentaries about him get so many viewers in a country where no portuguese films have any viewers, let alone documentaries — it’s as if portuguese are secretive hypocrites in their appreciation of the long sentence (and it might very well be the truth that reading Saramago is a bit of a guilty pleasure — after all, forcing an author upon students in high school is the best way to make him unhip for life).

Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia by Colson Whitehead is a long and entertaining account of the writer’s experience as a player in the Poker World Series in Las Vegas.

Eat, Pray, Love may very well be the worst movie of all time. I haven’t seen the film, read the book, or even watched the book author’s TED talk, but I find the notion of rich people going on ‘self-discovery’ vacations and attaining ‘an enlightment’ through self-indulgence without the slightest bit of self-sacrifice (i.e. do these people ever give away their fortunes, or stay in a refugee camp for life?), then lecturing everyone about it while making an arms dealer’s fuckload of money in book and film deals, to be truly an insult to the rest of humanity. So yes, I agree with the article, on the basis of the film’s repulsive premise and my realization things like Sex and the City at least are honest in their depictions of self-indulgence. Ennui is something that only afflicts the well-off, and if you can plug the big hole in your soul with — let’s face it as that’s what it is — a big pile of money made manifest in sex tourism and shopping abroad, good for you. Some of us are only lucky enough to use Tumblr.

The Ballad of @Horse_ebooks: endless Zen, avant-garde writing, and humour from a Twitter spambot.

The Physics Factbook. Might be useful.

Here’s a very realistic Adobe Photoshop ‘simulator’. It really captures my experience using Adobe software. Nice.

The Restart Page. Really, are we nostalgic about rebooting our computers now? What the hell is wrong with us? I’m almost ashamed to admit I did get nostalgic when I ‘rebooted’ the Amiga Workbench. But why? Why?

Again, because it deserves its own entry: Become a Programmer, Motherfucker. You really should. Here’s a list of free books to get you started.