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In Harness

July 31, 2009 — 16 Comments

One emotion I felt most often during the election was pity. That someone relatively intelligent, educated, would have to wake up one morning and write a piece like this.

Talk about a reach for your revolver moment. It just seems like it would be the worst thing ever. He might be a columnist, but he was compelled, unlike everyone else, to squeeze out a rationalization for what was objectively an embarrassing failure.

I feel the same way about most of the internet. We’ve sort of bought into this myth lately that there is this coterie of bloggers who hit the lotto. They have the life. They wake up, work from home and write whatever they want. But the thing is, if they were really in control, why do they all write about the same story within minutes of each other? They’re really in chains. Chasing controversy that turns out to be fabricated, pontificating on topics they couldn’t care less about. They’ll admit it sometimes, unintentionally, when you question them about why that had to be written. We know what they’re really trying to do but we still need to go on the record about it.

Seneca would call these nice people slaves. He’d say, each time you see their byline next to a story try sadness, not envy. They won it at the cost of life.

I saw a link to some article about Apple banning Google Voice from the App store earlier this week. All I could think was I’m so glad I have no idea what they’re talking about. Plug in any scandal, hot topic, a famous person’s life story. The same.

Not caring – being without the burden – is a kind of real peace; it means having the chatter at just the right volume that you can’t make out the individual words.

Like an Addict

July 22, 2009 — 35 Comments

There is an interesting connection between religion and addiction. Aside from what we think about religious hypocrisy, the correlation between spiritual belief and addiction is one of the most consistently replicated findings in the study of drug use. More notably, 12 Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous more or less force their members to accept the existence of a higher power. Why is that?

Scientists think it’s because religion has what are called “prudential values.” In other words, they hold some authority over their believers, stepping in between them and their whims. The specific religious rules vary drastically across different faiths, yet there exists a common thread in the concept of belief that makes people less likely to abuse drugs. I think this connection is important and under-explored.

For example, when I sent out the first email in my Reading List, I had only one instruction: Don’t email me back to think aloud. What I got was just that. Rambling emails, people showing off how smart they are, almost no genuine questions. In fact, one person actually wrote THINKING ALOUD -just like that, unironically and in complete seriousness. What makes people do this?

I think these people are addicts. Or at least, wired similarly. They lack the ability to understand anything outside their own reality, that there is some ‘way’ to behave other than whatever they feel like. This is different than a malignant narcissist who manipulates others to to be like them, this almost a wide-eyed innocence, disbelief that other people don’t act like they do.

I think the reason religious people become addicts less often, or that recovering addicts liken their sobriety to a born-again spiritual awakening is because the two are rooted in humbleness. There is an implicit self-awareness that comes with accepting your place as somewhere other than at the center of the universe. You see with Penelope Trunk or awful bloggers an incredibly resilient refusal of this idea. They desperately lack prudential values – like self-restraint, or that maybe you just don’t say every single thought that pops into your head because it may be wrong, stupid or not in your best interest.

I don’t think you need to find this in religion. You can get it from many sources but you must have it. It’s critical to understand that you don’t always know what you’re doing, that learning requires deference and curiosity. There is certainly no way, as a young person, to coexist or succeed among older maturer adults, without it. Draw from a sense of shame or pragmatism or ancient wisdom or the fucking Bible – anything – so long as you can walk away with a sense of perspective that things matter other than you and that there are consequences when you behave otherwise.

All Is Just As Well

July 9, 2009 — 8 Comments

There is this song that I like by Jackie Greene with a refrain in it that repeats “Oh, it’s just as well.” I think we should all be so lucky to have that be the chorus line after each event in our own lives. That our reaction to each occurrence is agnostic.

Marcus called it the Art of Acquiescence. Lincoln thought it that it was the one truly appropriate response for all situations. But this is too often misconstrued as “accepting” bad things that happen to you. Really the least important and easily accomplished half.

The idea is to take both the bad and the good equally, in stride. The subtle but critical difference between resilience and robustness is that resilience is about withstanding pressure while robustness – that is: vigor, strength, health – is the ability to withstand change.

When I See

July 5, 2009 — 15 Comments

When I see a restaurant with a flash heavy website, I see a web designer who tricked a company into paying for stuff they never needed. When I see roadblock ads and site takeovers and big network buys, I think about the lies the ad rep told the executive just trying to get people to hear about his product. I think about his 40% commission. When I read stories on blogs I can hear the few-thousand-dollars-a-month publicist breathlessly selling this inevitably defunct company he signed two days before. And every time someone calls themselves a ‘social media expert’ I know that what they really did was play some company’s genuine desire to stay on top of things into a bullshit job where they don’t do anything.

I see all sorts of web and PR companies that I could start and maybe turn into something. I know I understand the terrain better. But to do it, I’d have to traffic in the same deceptions and lies as everyone else. Fleecing real businesses out of their money for promises you can never deliver. Going door to to door rounding up clients you couldn’t care less about. Taking credit for things that happened on their own, pretending that what you read on a tech blog was “research.” Waking up each morning knowing that you’re trading off ignorance and the survivorship bias.

There is a lot of money in it, for sure. It’s seductive. You’re supposed to envy those people and their ambition. But it doesn’t matter about that. Or the coolness of doing your own thing. The cost of going down that path is enormous and you can only make the choice once. After it’s paid you can never earn enough to cash out.

So what I can’t see, when I look at myself, is ever becoming that person.

Practical Knowledge

June 28, 2009 — 13 Comments

The Greeks believed in the telos, the idea that all things had a purpose. The way that this purpose was achieved, the way each objective was served, was with techne. Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato would sit and study something – like a chair – to discover its telos and the techne through which it is accomplished. This process, this intuitive understanding of what something is and why, was known as phronesis. It is the method of real analysis and the mark of wisdom.

This is what we miss from blogs. We have plenty of discussion and speculation, but rarely any understanding of the issues at their most basic level. This happens because too often writers look only at the numbers and theory and never the underlying human transaction. I’m guilty of this too, this internet autism. I remember the time I spent days looking online for a college professor’s info before I thought to try a phone book.

The debate about magazines and newspapers is a good example. Whether newspapers have a grim or bright future is irrelevant, but take note of how brazenly bloggers throw around the idea of going printless. They’ve examined a small part of the equation – that printing is an expensive economic model while digital is cheap – and assume it’s all they need to know. What they’ve lost is that maybe the true telos of printed news isn’t delivery but disposability. Ironically, the experts who coined the “attention economy” lack the human empathy to conceive what it’s like to walk through an airport and pick up something to read, or to pay $80 a year to get the Wall St Journal delivered, even if you only read it maybe two days a month. Not once did they think of a doctor’s office or a waiting room, the places where print media best fulfills its purpose.

Watch Jarvis throw around things like the death of real estate agents or the death of lawyers. He misses the currency that these professions trade on: unfamiliarity, convenience, deference, negotiation. That if you were a busy person looking for a new house, you wouldn’t pay someone to put together a list of those that fit your criteria, drive you to each one and handle the paperwork? And why shouldn’t they get paid proportionally to the size of the sale? Zillow, as great as it is, doesn’t change the most basic underlying condition: that staring at a city of houses and finding the right one by yourself is a daunting prospect. It makes it worse.

It’s funny because on the one hand, these types are incapable of seeing beyond their own reality. On the other, they don’t intuitively understand that reality either. They never sat down like Aristotle and examined the aims and objectives. They used the “what” to distract themselves from the “why.” Like Plato wrote, they grope around in the dark, confusing cause and effect and ascribing both where they don’t belong.

Good analysis requires understanding. Understanding requires thinking beyond the superficial notions of what we think things are and looking at the assumptions and facts that undergird them. To understand news, look at the human and economic conditions that contributed to their evolution. Before you throw out revolution predictions or herald new epochs, ask yourself: which of them have changed? And evolution is a good frame of reference because what often happens in biology is that mutations introduce radical changes which are then worn and shaped by their environment, leaving us with small, incremental progress.

The important thing isn’t that most blogs are worthless. They’re just a good example of how important the right kind of information is – that the type of knowledge that translates into real insight is the type that delves to the core of the issue. And that since the Greeks, we’ve been struggling with charlatans who lack the ability to get there. We would all be better served to break things down, to discern a telos, isolate the techne, and build towards phronesis.