The Use of Abandoned Shells

September 18, 2010 — 21 Comments

Picture a movie poster for a film that wants you to think it’s artsy. (here’s one) It probably features the laurel leaves icon. These markers originally symbolized a handful of important film festivals. Then it became important for every city, even neighborhoods inside cities, to have their own film festival. There also the significant differences in the “winners” and the few dozen or even hundreds of “selections.” The festival laurels conjures to the viewer the implicit value associated with scarcity despite the potential vast gap between the connotation and reality.

This is what George W.S Trow called the “use of abandoned shells.” In a world of no context, invoking the image of great things is very powerful, even if those things are fractions of what they once were. As media has fragmented and become abundant, we become more dependent on symbols. We turn to markers that are hollow. Why? Because there are no alternatives. There is no new sense of scarcity—that this matters because it was one of the few that made it.

One of the potential promises of the internet was the idea that all the great stuff being created by people in every corner of the world would be collaboratively filtered and recommended to us. The reality has been somewhat different. Our filters have utterly failed us. Or, we have failed ourselves. It’s natural that algorithms that are supposedly more in tune with what we “like” would be incapable of judging the things we do not yet know we desire. Our resentment towards “editing” or “editors” undermined the skills and authority in the process of recommendation, leaving us with only algorithms (or aggregation without endorsement) And we celebrate algorithms because they seem great compared to nothing.

You write a book. Or release a movie. Record an album. Sell a product. A blogger at the Los Angeles Time’s reviews it, what does your blurb about it say? It says “‘A true gem!’ – LA Times”. You hide the qualifier. You shouldn’t need the superlative at all. Collaborative filtering should have got it to your audience.

The bill of goods we’ve been sold is unsatisfying. It’s false too. Because the reality is most blog posts came from press releases, planned announcements, conferences, “leaked” documents, spokespeople, filed lawsuits, launch dates, the interview circuit—pseudo events. This was supposed to go away when everybody was a reporter. We have more boots on the ground, authentic artists, the long tail…

There are hundreds of these hollow shells whose meaning has fallen away while the demand for their association has risen dramatically. We need them badly. This isn’t my opinion; this is apparent in how we continue to return to them despite championing their demise. It tells me that deep down we have trust issues. We love our blogs and self-publishers and yet we don’t believe them. We pretend to want an economy of abundance where all content is all of equal quality—everyone is an artist and deserves their muse. Secretly, we crave to hear what is good, what is worth our time, that someone smart looked at this and placed it in its proper context. We salivate for this and the marketers exploit and pander to it.

What these people are trying to do is trying to find some, any, stamp of approval. They desperately need something that says “this is not like those other things.” You’d trust just about any print publication before “as featured in the Huffington Post” but in a pinch it’ll do. Especially before you bothered competing on merits or the importance of the subject matter. The other day I saw a book that had been blurbed by people without titles after their names. It was not because their reputation was self-evident. The author knew what he needed and an empty allusion to it was better than nothing.

In case you think its just marketing materials, look closely. Reporters use what I think are best called “substance words” to give status to flimsy stories. The weaker the subject, the more blogs lean on words like exclusive, official, “documents show”, “we’ve learned”, or “sources say.” Nicholas Carr complained that in line linking is a cognitive distraction but he’s actually been tricked by the swindle; often it’s to evoke the image of direct sourcing when the connection between the speculation and the facts is tenuous.

Try to think about music as more than just a set of prescribed notes. It’s the interplay between the notes, the resonance of the various sounds coming together and a sense of a generative order. Now, try to think about it back the other way. It seems empty—not like music. Banks have rules to limit their exposure to risk. They may require investing in bonds above certain ratings, capping the amount of leverage traders can use or hedging assets in one industry with assets of similar value in another. This ideal portfolio becomes a kind of symbol of risk-avoidance, an allusion to the past when finance was comprehensible, when it is really a simulacrum. Welcome to the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. Or, an oil rig has safety reporting mandated by their lawyers or government regulations. Each of these guidelines is designed to the end of not having to think about surprises anymore. The notes are hit, the end state is experienced but in the middle is reality where shells become inadequate or meaningless or feigned. Just like putting laurel leaves on a movie poster.

So it’s hypocritical and bankrupt and a lame part of our internet culture. Why should that matter. For starters, it becomes a lot more common as media gets worse because crap needs to be dressed up. Critically though, it lays a subtle but pervasive distortion over our reality. Everyone is selling and conning and we hardly even know it. Our emotions are being triggered by simulations—unintentional or deliberate misrepresentations—of cues we’ve been taught were important. We read some story and it feels important, that the news is real and the principles of reporting took place, but it’s not. Each part of it was an illusion stacked on top of a slightly less illusionary notion until the final product floats as its own self-creation.

But most importantly, it’s a ponzi scheme that is running out of new investors. It’s more than just ironic to see products from new media depend on old media for credibility. After a time, the old symbols cease to mean anything. They’ve been taken for all they are worth. Apart from a handful of exceptions, there isn’t anything coming to take their place. Concepts like iterative journalism trade on bad incentives. They favor what is now, over brand, reputation or trust. (the root of the power of what they usurped). In algorithmic editing every featured piece is replaceable by another (and it in turn by another), leaving the aggregator with no authority to call its own. We’ve taken the infrastructure of context for granted and lost the imperative generate more of it.

Schemes & Scams Pt II

September 8, 2010 — 7 Comments

“The con man does give you something. It is a sense of your own worthlessness. A good question to ask: “Does this event exist without me?” If the answer is no, leave. You are involved in a con game. When the con man tells you that he is about to present you with “a wide range of options,” ask for one thing he will absolutely stand behind. Or beat him up. If he has some authority, you have the right to see what it is. If he is only describing the authority he sense in you, then do as you please.

The idea of choice is easily debased if one forgets that the aim is to have chosen successfully, not to be endlessly choosing.” Within the Context of No Context by George W.S Trow

Metaphors & Philosophy

September 1, 2010 — 4 Comments

Daniel Boorstin wrote that throughout history, philosophers have looked for new handles by which they could grasp the world around them. Technology and advancement became the source of new metaphors, new analogies, new explanations for who they were and why. The clock, for instance, became a vehicle through which they could explain a world that seemed to allow more and more autonomy—God as the clockmaker, who created life that could operate on its own.

The Epicureans, in 300 BC, developed the theory of atoms. Though they stumbled, primitively, on the physics of matter thousands of years before modern science, they weren’t what we’d consider today to be scientists. They were humanists. Epicurus used the theory to explain the degradation of the human body—why we age and die and what that means for our lives. Atoms helped explain dissolution. They explained infiniteness and placed man in his place, in the context of a world that was bigger and more complicated than he was.

Montaigne, for his part, loved to read about the recently discovered tribes of South America. He read whatever he could get his hands on, not because of some misguided notion about noble savages, but because the material showed the absurdity in all kinds of traditions. His essays are full of anecdotes from travelers and books that put the perspectives from the “cannibals” to good philosophical use.

Last week, I attended a dinner with a group of prominent people in the paleolithic health community. Though I’ve begun to question some of my initial skepticism towards the ideas behind it, it still struck me at moments how much focus and energy people are willing to spend on this field. To see grand theories reduced to comparatively minor personal actions just seemed like a misappropriation.

What I’ve started to wonder is what the ancient philosophers would have done had they know about evolution (which is also to point out how little our modern “philosophers” have done with it). Would they have obsessed over trivial improvements to our health or our sex lives? Would they have used it to justify or rationalize or pretentiously “discover” things we have always known to exist in human nature? I’m thinking of attempts to explain altruism or sex differences that are nothing more than common sense dressed up in jargon. What philosophers have done throughout history is to use the advances in science and technology to properly communicate better ways to live our lives. What we do now is fill up our time discussing the implications of theories in their least applicable way—or worse, apply them only in relatively meaningless settings.

I think they would have made much of natural selection as a metaphor. The concept of “shared ancestors” conjoins nicely with the philosophical notion of unity in nature, in addition to making a empathic case for humility and perspective. The same goes for themes like extinction, random mutation, tit-for-tat, and so on. Philosophers, especially the Stoics, registered early warnings against the Naturalistic Fallacy and and I think it goes without saying that they’d have benefited even more from knowing what makes us act the way we do. But the difference in practice: they wrote to contemplate death, not whether drinking or not drinking helps you live a little bit longer.

Ironically, paleolithic lifestyle advocates are guilty of the same inconsistent application as the scientists they criticize. Just as biologists originally accepted that other species were shaped by evolution but not humans, and then that all human organs were but not the brain, paleos seem to only question whether our eating and exercise habits are natural. But what of the rest of modern life? Maybe jobs or cities are well-intentioned but toxic inventions. That we subject ourselves to barrages of information that our minds can’t possibly break down properly, for instance, is an obvious missed metaphor for a movement that came to the same conclusions about food.

This is what Seneca said when he criticized how people tend to read. What does it matter whether Odysseus was in Italy or Sicily when he was hit by a storm, or whether early man ate many vegetables, when we have worse storms in our own lives. The key is to read and learn and study in a way that the words can become works. To use whatever you study, be it science or health or literature or mathematics and, use it to address the larger issues that we face. He meant that what mattered was what made you a better person—not physically or rhetorically, but spiritually and emotionally. And to be careful of the line where curiosity and self-improvement transition into wankery.

Projecting Rules

August 25, 2010 — 7 Comments

One thing I’ve noticed that happens on feminist blogs is that they have a peculiar way of phrasing their questions. A common one I’ve seen (or been asked) is that they’ll ask “how is this empowering?” or “is this subversive?” Of course, this is to demand adherence to a standard which no one ever agreed to meet. In other words, to continually set yourself up for disappointment and frustration.

Consider the logic in applying the “Bechdel Test” to Christopher Nolan movies, or to any movie for that matter. The fact that it’s often also called the “Bechdel Rule” is illustrative. Essentially, this is to assert an arbitrary benchmark, apply it retroactively and then angrily wonder why it wasn’t respected. Such behavior is voting on reality.

This is different than disliking something or having an intellectual issue with some practice or form of art or whatever. One is to disagree, or perhaps better yet, propose an alternative. The other is an entitlement that will always leave you perturbed and upset because you’re expecting to see your personal views reflected back by the world around you. The difference between the two is the difference between asking “Why” or “How come?” and “Why are you doing this TO ME?”

There’s no reason to live like that (unless your goal is to gin-up pageviews). It’s miserable and exhausting. And when we look at most of the sources of frustration or disappointment in our lives, there’s a good chance that this kind of attitude is behind it. Each time you can get rid of it, you feel a little bit better.

Empathy & Perspective

August 18, 2010 — 9 Comments

One of the critical functions of empathy is the ability to understand foreign situations—the things outside your self. This paves the way for pragmatism. As opposed to most “strategy” which is idealism or retroactive wishful thinking.

-Yahoo doomed themselves when they became a media company. Ok, now what?
-The record industry responded poorly to technology, we get it, what now?
-I knew the war in Iraq was going to be a mistake! And…?

Much of the discussion of these types of problems is best categorized as flippant analysis. Simplified is another word. I tend to interpret it as condescending too. It all stems from an inability to understand and place yourself in a reality you may not approve of or even care about. That is, to empathize.

Yahoo is a 20 billion dollar company. What are they supposed to do? Quit? The people in the situation are real, they wake up everyday and show up at an office and are expected to do something. They have quarterly filings, signed contracts, relationships and expectations. What are they supposed to do? In our lives, we’re much more likely to find ourselves as one of these people—just trying to maintain in a situation whose constraints we had nothing to do with—not the rebel billionaire with a chance to make things over completely.

Edwin Hutchins found, in his book Cognition in the Wild, that however organizations ultimately come to be organized determines how they think and process collectively. The factors and the personalities that formed the organization, in other words, formed and are the terrain. They matter more than just about anything else.

Since Kuhn philosophers of science have wondered if it’s even possible for a generation educated in a new paradigm to understand the assumptions taken seriously in the paradigm that came before. In a way, this is exactly the kind of gap empathy is aimed to bridge. Can you (or are you willing to) temporarily internalize a perspective you know to be flawed in order to understand the reality of someone else? This is what Hutchins wanted us to see, that to grasp why an entity makes a decision has as much to do with the choice itself as the way the group is structured. We’re missing a large part of the equation if we pretend the only thing that matters is the merits of either side of the decision.

It appears that this was the case with Cicero. Although wonderfully articulate and astute, he constantly misread the political situation because he was clueless to what went on in other people’s heads. His calculatedness, his ideals, his vision, it was always turned upside by some action he had not anticipated—as though it was some shock that Caesar had become convinced that only bold action could save Rome or that Octavian would eventually tire of being a pawn.

Because it doesn’t really matter what you think. It matters how they thought. People often confuse concept empathy with the concept sympathy. As they relate to emotions, sympathy is to agree, to share and to approve of how someone else feels. Empathy is the art of acknowledging those feelings without having to take them on yourself. Maybe this occasionally means thinking “it’s just too complicated for me to reduce to a couple sentence summary” or “I can only imagine the headspace that guy must be in” and leave the pronouncements to the charlatans and fools.

Finally, empathy gives you the perspective to “start from where the world is, as it as” as you look to change it into what you want it to be.