Tag Archives: society

Notes From an Alien Shore

A few weeks ago I happened to ask two friends a question that had been on my mind a good deal lately. Both conversations went very much like this (I’ll call the friends “X” for simplicity):

ME: “Do you ever wonder what we are? What we really are?”

X: <Silence/blank stare>

ME: “I mean, think about it. We’re not our bodies, that’s obvious. But we’re not our minds, either, that’s just the organ that does the thinking. A Christian would use the word “soul”, but that just raises more questions, as does the notion that we’re a splinter of some kind of supreme being. So what are we?”

X: Honestly, I try not to think about that sort of thing.

Admittedly, two people is a narrow sample. But that fact that two intelligent, thoughtful friends should give me exact, identical answers really made me think.

I ask myself questions like the one above all the time. Questions of existence, of reality, time and space, life and death, meaning and ethics, good and evil; questions of everything that concerns our existence and what it means to be human…these occupy my thinking for large parts of every day. Metaphysics matters.

I also have a quirk in that I tend to consider everything from basic principles, taking little on trust or as given. So much of what we’re taught or presented with is false, biased, or founded on incomplete and/or sloppy assumptions that anyone interested in investigating the real must go back to the beginning or risk building on sand, or shaky foundations at best.

Moreover, to see reality at its clearest, I believe it’s critical to be free of any and all ideologies, especially political or religious belief. The moment you assume an ideology or a belief system is the moment you stop seeing reality as it is, but begin instead to filter it through the lens of your ideology, to try to make the actual territory of the real match your map. As someone once put it, “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.” So the answer is to just not be as anything—be you, a naked flame of being with no philosophy or ideology. Simply observe and think.

I do this with everything. When I was a decorative painter—a career I pursued with considerable success for twenty-five years—I took no classes but taught myself everything about colour, materials, and technique from scratch. Once I’d mastered the basics, I looked for new ways to achieve certain effects, as well as creating an array of paint effects nobody had ever seen. I mixed most of my own materials rather than buying off-the-shelf. The result was that within a decade or so I’d not only mastered the craft and was in high demand, but the look of my finishes was entirely different to the generic, cookie-cutter “faux painting” that my many competitors were practicing. This gave me a huge edge.

More recently, I’ve taken a similar approach with writing, approaching the craft from the standpoint of what works and gets results, and eschewing the mountains of stupid, fashionable rules and diktats endlessly touted at writers’ workshops and on countless blogs and Twitter feeds. Of course it’s important to know these “rules”, and a small minority of them are useful, even vital; the rest just need to be buried and forgotten.

It always struck me as odd that people talk about reinventing the wheel as though it were a waste of time—nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes you invent a better wheel; sometimes you come up with something that makes the wheel like as useless as a bag of rocks.

On a related note, we were recently given a bag full of DVDs of new and recent TV shows by an actor friend; apparently these things are passed around to people in the Screen Actors Guild so that they may consider them when dvds2-crop-smvoting for Emmy nominations. The shows include a wide variety of stuff, from The History Channel to offerings from Amazon, from American Crime to Portlandia; the last three episodes of Mad Men are in there, as well as the whole mini-series of Wolf Hall (a historical about Henry VIII, and the only one of any interest to me).

Since I don’t watch any TV at all, the huge majority of these were new to me. After enjoying Wolf Hall, we attempted some of the others, like an episode of Mad Men, and now, American Crime.

In trying to understand what people get out of TV shows like these, I’m thrown back to the gulf I sense when trying to discuss existential truths that concern me deeply only to discover that people I care for and respect would rather just not go there. I feel—and I suspect many writers will share this feeling—as though I’m living among aliens, where I barely grasp the parameters of the society and what makes it tick.

Is it even possible to understand why people behave the way they do without buying in to pop culture? Sometimes when I see people talk (and certainly when they argue), it seems to me that rather than processing and responding with thought and intelligently, they’ve learned to interact with others from TV soaps, and are just throwing out stock phases, learned reactions, mannerisms, expressions, postures. No wonder the world is the mess it is.

Why, for instance, would any sane person want to watch something like “American Crime”, which is so drenched in realism that no shred of escapism or joy is left to the viewer, so that the only possible reaction one is left with is to just end it all now? The question baffles me.

And don’t get me started on reality shows or celebrity chef contests. What possible pleasure anyone can take in watching real people put in often humiliating conflict situations, subjected to extreme stress, and then publicly defeated or even ridiculed, I can’t imagine. The Roman games were at least honest.

Fnally, take a simple predictive Google search. The trending popular searches which flash up as you click in the box are almost invariably to do with celebrities, sports, TV shows, or something so mind-numbingly banal as to leave me shaking my head. It’s glaringly obvious that the overwhelming majority of us aren’t much preoccupied with the mysteries of existence.

I am, it seems, legend. Perhaps I’m not even real.

Are you?

 

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The road Most Traveled: Good Intentions, Catastrophic Results

A Federal judge has just ordered Apple to unlock the phone used by one of the two San Bernardino shooters so it could access the phone’s records. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said the company will fight the order, stating that it has neither the ability to bypass its own strong encryption and that this would set a dangerous precedent. Although I’m not an Apple user, I’m 100% with the company on this and applaud their decision.

The question here is a simple one of the road to hell. It all begins, as usual, with good intentions: we want to stop terrorism. But as Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a back door. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

Yet we continue to jog blissfully into an Orwellian future in which the state (the UK is no different) not only insists but has also persuaded a good many of its citizens that their lives are in dire and imminent danger from foreign threats, and that any violation of privacy or individual freedoms is secondary to fighting that threat. Politicians of course make huge capital on this, and the media does nothing to bring some perspective and reality to the actual real threats to our daily lives, which for most people are to do with poor education, debt, poverty, ill health, unaffordable housing, the criminal cost of healthcare, and long-term insecurity—not terrorism.

The US has been in a state of perpetual war for over thirteen years, and continues to be. Its misguided foreign policy actions have destabilized a huge region of the world by trying to impose Western notions of government on nations utterly ill-equipped to embrace democracy (you have to have an Enlightenment before you can consider democracy, and when you still think tribally, corruption and self-interest are going to quickly corrode and ruin any attempt at forging a new state).

Saddam was undoubtedly a brute, and Bashir-al Assad (still in power today) not much better; Gaddafi was mercurial and unreliable. But although some individuals and/or sections of those societies were persecuted during these leaders’ rule, the vast majority of people in Iraq, Syria, and Libya had jobs, food, and a reasonable, often happy and secure standard of living. Today they’re straggling across Europe by the millions like beggars, taking handouts and desperately looking for places to settle—and that’s if they haven’t drowned in the Aegean or Meduterranean after having been fleeced by a whole new class of local criminals our good intentions have benefited: people smugglers. In the process, the rest of Europe is being destabilized.

I fully understand that government has a primary mandate and responsibility to keep its people safe. But in reality, the risk from terrorism is infinitesimally small: if you live in the USA, your chance of dying in a terrorist attack is about 5,000 times less than that of being shot by a US citizen (and even that’s not something that keeps most of us awake at night). The simple act of getting on a plane has already become a tedious, time-wasting hell despite the fact that study after study has shown TSA checks to be up to ninety-five percent ineffective at detecting threats. If you live in a city, your actions while out in public are already recorded on countless cameras; your cellphone and the plastic in your wallet provide extra layers of tracking and monitoring. But government insists it needs a further backdoor into everyone’s lives, and argues tooth and nail that any level of  inconvenience and curtailment of individual privacy and liberty is justifiable.

Every day we see evidence of how the well-intentioned use of electronic records ruins lives. The undiscriminating and poorly-thought-out register of sex offenders is one: is it—to take just one example—really okay that because an eighteen-year-old had consensual sex with a seventeen-year-old, he should be viewed as a sexual predator in the same data bucket as a child molester? How many of my readers didn’t have underage sex of one kind or another in their high school or college days? And let’s not even talk of the teens whose lives have been upset by the (silly, but, hey! these are kids) practice of sexting one another.

The argument of course is that an honest citizen has nothing to fear from all this. Really? Try telling that to someone who’s been accidentally put on a no-fly list because of some data entry error or some other innocent reason (it happens). And although China’s new Social Credit System—a data-driven rating system similar to our own credit rating systems but with the emphasis on your status and trustworthiness as a citizen—isn’t likely to be replicated in the US  anytime soon, the reality is that all kinds of aggregated data, including your online browsing and shopping habits, are already finding their way into databases that can affect your ability to rent a home, get a job, obtain credit, and a great deal more.

Nor is it just government. PayPal has just clamped down on allowing account holders to use its system to pay for VPN (virtual private network) subscriptions, presumably on the grounds that VPNs, which are used to mask a user’s real computer identity (IP address), may be used for terrorist communication or other illicit activity. What about the many hundreds of thousands of people who use VPN for entirely legitimate activities such as researching sensitive subjects (journalists do this all the time), getting around censorship in countries under authoritarian rule, or simply  avoiding being tracked by advertisers. (PayPal are of course doing this not out of any noble motives but simply to forestall any possible future heat from government over enabling the masking of criminal communications).

Consider the slew of new voice- and audio enabled devices that are appearing in your home, like the Amazon Echo, which “hears you from across the room with far-field voice recognition, even with music playing”: do you really want that in your house? Even if it doesn’t come with a backdoor or a camera, what do we think happens to all the data it collects about our and our family’s daily habits? You don’t think that’s mined? Increasingly sophisticated AI can do that with ease and extract every ounce of commercially  valuable information about us.

You’ve already been carrying around a tracking device (your phone) for years. Within the very, very near future, your home is going to be bursting with microphone- and camera- equipped devices which are all connected to the net as part of the IoT, or Internet of Things. If you’re not concerned about this, you should be. Quite apart from any government surveillance, just about anyone can hack in to these devices. For a single, chilling example, the camera on the monitor in your childrens’ room is ridiculously easy to hack, its IP address quite possibly already on a website. Think about it.

Everything—everything—that takes place in your home and car will—unless tech companies hold a hard line, and good luck with that one—be available on production of a court order. Right now the bar is terrorism; but other, more everyday, criminal activities will soon qualify. How long before all that data becomes available to your ex’s divorce lawyer? What if your current prospective employers can one day gain access to the data mined from these devices? Because you can bet that it’s all going to be for sale, legally or otherwise. And don’t forget that security on the current IoT is just about non-existent (this is in fact a big concern with self-driving cars, which can currently be hacked with such ease that a person with a laptop can take control over the car with very little difficulty from anywhere in the world).

In conclusion, I believe that tech companies have an absolute responsibility to protect the rights and privacy of their customers at every level. Not only should devices not come with a backdoor, ever, but every possible measure should be taken to ensure that networked devices, from our phones to our cars, refrigerators, baby monitors, and home thermostats are protected against intrusion and hacking by strong encryption and security measures. The emphasis and primary focus should be on the inviolability of the consumers’ privacy and individual rights. And we should demand that of them.

After all, it is we, and our hard-earned dollars, that have made Apple, Google, and Amazon what they are today.

 

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The Lockdown of Boston

“The return of terrorism to the U.S.”, was a phrase used on NPR today, as the city of Boston was literally locked down by the authorities.

The return of terror? Two young nutcases with low-tech bombs?

I don’t for a moment want to minimize the horror of what happened in Boston. Moreover—as an Englishman who lived in London all through the murderous IRA terror campaign of the 1970s and 1980s—I’m relieved to see just how robust and solidly the people of Boston reacted to the event. My personal fear when the bombing occurred was that, just like after 9/11, this media-saturated nation so unused to terrorist attacks on its own soil would go into a tailspin of fear, bringing the fragile economic recovery to a screeching halt. Instead, Bostonians were out on the streets the next day, laying wreaths at the bomb site and vowing not to be cowed.

Today, the streets of Boston are deserted except for thousands—no exaggeration—of heavily-armed police, FBI, and other authorities looking for the surviving mad bomber. A major metropolitan area locked down to find one nineteen-year-old.

I usually don’t believe in second-guessing police and intelligence forces—they have a phenomenally difficult  job to do, and typically do it pretty well. The decision to lock down the city, shut down transport (not to mention cutting off cellphone service immediately after the bombings)… I can’t imagine these decisions were made lightly.

On the other hand, I think we might consider whether this isn’t (i) overreaction, and (ii) a sinister, Orwellian glimpse of a post 9/11 security state in full action.  My point being that this is one individual at loose here, not a platoon of terrorists. One kid—admittedly armed and desperate, possible even carrying explosives—but still, one kid.

What kind of message does the willingness on the part of the authorities to shut down a city to hunt down one single person send? We can glimpse some of the reasoning: doing this might save lives, prevent a hostage event, make it much harder for the killer to flee…but still, is this a proportionate reaction? Or does it project an image of hysteria, amplifying an already tragic event and—with the all-too-eager help of the news media—turning it into a full-blown national crisis which will rock the nation’s already-fragile psyche? Now this precedent has been set, we can expect it to happen again.

I read not long ago that one of the morbid calculations that regulatory bodies have to make is the dollar value of a human life—a necessity when trying to decide whether to, say, build a pedestrian overpass, ban a chemical, etc.; in short, a cost-benefit analysis. Just a few years ago, that figure—the dollar value of a life—had been determined at around $8M; with the recession, it’s dropped to something closer to $6M, I believe.

Now let’s consider what it costs to shut down a city like Boston for a day. The business and production lost, the damage to personal incomes, etc. I can’t imagine it’s anything less than many billions of dollars. So in terms of pure cost-benefit, locking down the city seems a non-starter.

I can only think, then, that this has been done for two reasons: first to reduce the chances of the killer getting away to as near zero possible; and second, to send a message that the authorities will stop at nothing to catch anyone who commits an act of this sort.

These last are very powerful arguments, and I both understand and applaud them; I know for sure I wouldn’t ever want to make a decision like that. Still and all, I can’t help but feel that it sets a terrible precedent and—worse—underscores the idea that we’re all in danger, all the time, now that “terrorism has returned to the U.S.”. I think the authorities over-reacted.

If terrorism is ever to be defeated, it won’t be because of the application of overwhelming force by the state: it’ll be by people, by individuals, by every single one of us refusing to be cowed, refusing to live in fear. If they blow up a plane, get on a flight the next day; if they bomb a subway car, get on the subway; if they destroy a building, rebuild it taller, and don’t be ten years over it. And let’s stop dignifiying them with the name “terrorist”—these people are, and have always been, mad bombers, no more.

Terror is a state of mind.

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Why We CAN’T All Get Along

A couple of days ago, as the US Supreme Court prepared to visit the interminably vexed question of gay marriage, I had an interesting exchange of views with a Facebook friend I deeply respect, Michael Potts, Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C.  A Christian of a powerful intellectual bent, Michael expressed the view that “we can’t go on the way we’re going without the culture war turning into something more than a metaphor”, and that the eventual solution might be a move towards setting up semi-autonomous communities of like-minded individuals.

The same idea—taken a bit further—has been floated by a number of individuals, including some libertarian billionaires. Their proposals essentially envision de facto city-states with their own governments and laws, sometimes with the goal of creating tech hubs just outside US territorial waters so as to circumvent the US visa requirements which are increasingly threatening to put a brake on a strongly resurgent tech industry. Other groups driven more by ideals than business considerations just think it would be really cool to experiment with new types of social order, and I confess the idea holds great allure. Most of these ideas involve seasteading, the locating of these new communities on manmade islands or even simply recycled oil rig platforms.

There are strong arguments both ways. At the same time as I think our only hope as a society, even as a species, is to learn to compromise, reach accommodations, and work together with a shared vision, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that this is a lost cause. It seems to me that conflict and struggle are so deeply hardwired into our primate psyche that there isn’t a hope in hell—absent forced external tampering or thought control, and none of us want that—of ever resolving our deepest differences. Not, at least, within a pluralist, democratic system, and least of all within a dog-eat-dog capitalist society with free speech and free media. And we know how well the alternatives worked.

I remember back in the early oughts talking to some fellow who was worried about the “black helicopters” and the UN’s “New World Order,” a popular right-wing meme about the Antichrist forcing free nations into a single world government. I pointed out that the maps of Eastern Europe were being redrawn every few months, it seemed, in the wake of the collapse of communism, and that the exact opposite was happening, with people everywhere who’d been welded together under strongmen like Tito wanting instead to secede and govern themselves.

The internet has of course added fuel to this particular fire, both directly and indirectly, with traditional media forced to ratchet up controversy and partisanship to compete for a shrinking audience. And while I—an extreme social liberal on many issues—would like to think that we can reach accords on the issues that divide us, and daily hear Rodney King’s impassioned words, I know the chances of this ever happening are close to zero.

The irony perhaps is that while we of social liberal or true libertarian bent (as opposed to the neo-libertarian conservatives) are willing to let others live the way they want and not impose our ideals on them or dictate their lifestyles, it’s just about impossible for a devoted Christian to take that stance. Much as it drives me nuts, I refuse to take the easy way out of the rabid atheist and absolutely dismiss their worldview. While deep religious faith  may to me be at best a comforting crutch and at worst delusional,  to others it’s part of who they are. And you can’t demand respect without giving it, however grudgingly. We can disagree with someone without making them the enemy.

In conclusion, I’m going to quote Christian White, one of the protagonists of my recent thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules,” who finds himself pondering these same issues in the hills of Afghanistan after a narrow brush with death, and has just been reassured by an Afghan friend that “God is good”:

There were times when he’d have given body parts for real faith, for the comfort and unburdening it would bring. As a consequence, he thought about faith a lot, to the point where sometimes he felt downright stalked by God, as if God really needed him to believe, wanted his pathetic soul.

But try as he might, whatever powerful feelings he might have in the throes of fear and need (and didn’t everyone have those? Didn’t finding yourself in a foxhole turn everyone into a believer?), he couldn’t overcome his rational doubts. And you couldn’t fake these things, couldn’t fake belief. Oh, he knew plenty of half-assed believers, people who used church as a social club and mouthed religion as a good gambler might hedge a bet, and they seemed content enough. Not him. You didn’t try faith on like a pair of shoes, walk around in them a while to see if they fit before committing. If it wasn’t genuine and from the heart, it was hollow. And any God worth believing in would see through that.

Yeah, we’re never going to get along. It might well be time to experiment with some new social structures, because the current ones, and maybe even the whole edifice of western democracy, is threatening to burst at the seams. Expect a strong backlash from governments when the first city-states become viable.

Your comments are welcome.


Related

Floating semi-autonomous communities

My own earlier post about tolerance and America’s culture wars

Michael Potts’s excellent, thoughtful blog  (As a sample, check out this terrific post in which he addresses Christian misconceptions about Goth culture )

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An Even More Inconvenient Truth

Have you seen the short, unsensational YouTube video with the graphs of wealth distribution in the US, comparing what Americans believe the wealth distribution is, what they believe it should (in fairness) be, and what it actually is? You should: it’s both eye-popping and sobering, and I’ve linked it at the bottom of this post. For the moment, the takeaway is that one percent of the population owns fifty percent of the nation’s stocks, bonds, and mutual funds—effectively, the nation’s wealth, and, more importantly, the tools to greater personal wealth. The figures are verifiable, and almost five million people have seen the video.

It’s no secret that the middle class is shrinking and doing less well. Nor is it surprising: in a society whose economic model resembles nothing so much as a wealth transfer system for lining the pockets of the rich and near-rich, and where democracy is patently and unashamedly for sale, the American rags-to-riches dream, though still attainable, is only going to work for a tiny minority. For the rest, it’s the soup kitchen or multiple part-time jobs, with few or no benefits.

There are, at present count, somewhere around 600,000 homeless in America. To house them all in “efficiency units,” small but well-appointed 200- and 300-square-foot housing modules of the sort now being built for real rents in places like New York and San Francisco, could probably be done for around $35Bn. The cost of one and a half Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, that’s really not a lot; in fact, a few of the very wealthiest Americans, certainly any pair of the first ten or so, could cover the whole sum and still have enough left over to live beyond most people’s wildest dreams.

Stay with me, because this isn’t about the anonymous homeless multitude: it’s going to get personal. I’m going to be talking about you and me.

Unfortunately, the ranks of the homeless in the US (and elsewhere, for that matter) are likely to grow rather than diminish. Despite the delusional optimism of articles like the recent one in the Huffington Post which suggests that the post-war/baby boomer generation is about to reshape the social order, when you’re playing against a stacked deck the chances of that happening (without violent social upheaval, and none of us wants that) are close to zero. Instead, as this generation enters what would once have been the Golden Years—now more like the Tin Years—a society that promotes eternal youth and beauty is going to have to deal with the grim reality of its aging population.

Consider. A large proportion of the boomer generation, the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, has nowhere near the savings to sustain them, even if they don’t require expensive healthcare—which a great many of them will. Ask a financial planner today how much you should have set aside for when you retire, and they’ll tell you anywhere between one and two million dollars.

Million?

Yes, million. Because whereas we once had the decency—thanks to widespread smoking and simpler medicine—to keel over within a decade or so of retirement, we boomers are living an average of fifteen years longer than our grandparents. To make matters worse, those of us who don’t have savings or families that can afford the $4,000 or more a month to park us in some generic assisted living facility are, to put it mildly, in trouble.

This is a crisis as serious as any asteroid strike or tsunami for those affected—and that’ll be tens of millions of people in the US alone. Vast numbers of people are living on razor-thin safety margins, and their kids are likely doing even worse. Unless you’re one of the dwindling group who’ve carefully set money by and own a good home, had the luck to father a doctor, have a USPS pension or one from the golden age of GM, and aren’t bankrupted by healthcare costs before Medicare kicks in, well…as entitlement programs begin to pop their rivets under the strain of a huge demographic bulge—the majority of whose constituents suffer at least one chronic disease—your future is looking rocky.

I know, this is a grim topic. But it’s important, not least because the vast majority of us will be affected, but because there’s so damn little straight talking about it. Nobody wants to look the issue in the eye, let alone do anything about it.

And it gets worse.

However unhappy our circumstances of our dotage may be—and I truly hope they aren’t, and that your sunset years are happy ones—the combination of a predatory healthcare system and the tyranny of people who think their beliefs and moral values trump ours conspire to deny us even the degree of compassion we afford our pets, namely a gentle, painless exit. Unless you live in one of the very few places (such as Oregon) where you have at least a notional right to death with dignity, you’re stuck with being kept alive by heroic measures long after your sell-by date whether you like it or not. Don’t assume that your DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order will make a damn bit of difference, either, because the realities of the ER are such that unless it’s waved in the doc’s face by a firm and clear-minded friend or relative, you’re going to be kept alive whether you like it or not.

What’s to be done? Well, you can vote, for one thing. You can lobby, write your congressperson, and make your voice heard. You can talk to people and spread the meme. If you’re a writer, you can write about these issues*. If you have some savings, you can consider getting together with a few friends or couples, pooling your resources, and buying a large house, even setting up some sort of elder commune, and taking care of one another, an idea whose time has certainly come and which, correctly planned and executed, can offer a viable model. But whatever you do, don’t just put off thinking about this stuff because it’s unpleasant.

I wish you well. I wish you a golden old age surrounded by loving family and friends, in a better world. It could happen. But it’ll only happen if we have the will to bring it about.



The video of US wealth inequality can be found here. Watch it.

*My own thriller/adventure novel, “Sutherland’s Rules,” despite being a rousing, upbeat romp, features older protagonists dealing with their own declining years.

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The Samsung Galaxy S4: A Brief Rant

The Samsung S4? I can’t begin to fathom why anyone would get so excited over a telephone.

I’m sorry, a device. I know it’s so much more than a phone, that it’ll work as a TV remote, respond to crazy air gestures, possibly even tell you your weight and fortune. But it’s a gadget, people, not the Second Coming.

So while 600,000 Americans are homeless; while the Middle East inches inexorably towards a meltdown that will affect us all; while the sequester that nobody wanted but the public couldn’t be bothered to wrap their heads around begins to squeeze jobs, lives, and institutions; while bankers who should be rotting in prison get fresh bonuses and are once again happily dealing in collateralized mortgage obligations (which everyone has mostly forgotten about despite the fact that they brought about the recent Great Recession, and no, there never were any real regulations passed because the legislators are all in the industry’s pockets anyway); while all this goes on, almost half a million Americans watched Samsung’s online product launch event.

Are we insane? Oh, yes.

We’re insane because we use phrases like “sports hero;” because we spend $4 on 500-calorie desserts disguised as coffee drinks; because we allow the food, banking, and so many other industries to largely police themselves; because we think nutrition is complicated and, besides, refined, prepackaged garbage tastes better; because we think a global population of 7-going-on-9 billion people is okay;  because we think celebrities matter; because we surrender our privacy and freedoms to politicians who keep beating the War on Terror drum; because we continue to reward aggressive alpha male behaviour and inflexible thinking at every opportunity; because we think the arrival of yet another ephemeral bit of electronic wizardry is an event of vast import.

Oh yes. We’re insane.

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In Praise of the Slow: A Meditation on (Free) Time

The first in a series of essays in which I air aspects of my own strongly-held, evolving, and sometimes contrarian worldview. Indulge me–this is about so much more than TV.

 

Fit the First

I hate television. Fortunately, my wife isn’t too fond of it, either. My dislike of the medium is so strong that I find it difficult to be in someone’s house with the damned thing on. It’s a social catastrophe, at once degrading conversation, distracting people, and filling everyone’s head with a stream of endless chatter, as if the chatter of our own minds weren’t already enough to contend with. The invasion of every public space—gyms, waiting areas, bars—by the plasma screen upsets and offends me.  Are we insane, that we allowed this to happen?

Why do I dislike the medium so much?  Let me count the ways.

First is the near-catatonic passivity of both body and mind that television induces in the viewer. Whereas reading or listening to radio or audiobook engages the imagination in active creation, TV puts those faculties to sleep and, I believe, dulls them by negative reinforcement. Worse still, since we humans are primarily wired for visual input, so that around 70% or more* of our sensory information comes through that channel, the images we see on television, especially those of high emotional content, such as soap operas, angry mobs, murder, mayhem, and political rhetoric, tend to slip past our conscious filters and embed themselves deep in our psyche. It promotes fear and perpetuates stereotypes.  Television is the perfect mind-control tool.

Other gripes, such as the low quality of most offerings and my monumental disdain for advertising, pale by comparison. Nor do I for a moment buy the defense that educational content such as the History Channel’s offerings or Sesame Street in any way redeem the medium: the former is padded and extended with useless filler and silly, unnecessary dramatization (read a book instead, dammit!), and the latter simply teaches innocent young minds that the idiot box is their friend and surrogate mummy.

So the fact that we’ve allowed the internet to be turned into something largely indistinguishable from television is—to my mind—a profound tragedy and an affirmation of our collective disinterest in any kind of societal growth. We are clearly not serious about building a better world or improving our minds and knowledge. We’d rather just watch YouTube.

Fit the Second

Although we have neither a cable nor a satellite connection in the home and we don’t stream, we do we have a TV, which we use to watch movies on DVD and VHS media. In recent weeks, we’ve been enjoying a run of classic and cult movies from the 1960s and early 1970s (many of these are part of the excellent Criterion Collection). I want to talk about three of these: Blow Up, Solaris (the Tarkovsky original) and If.

Apart from the power and heft of the films themselves, one thing that struck me in each of these was the pace at which people’s lives (I’ll come back to this shortly) flowed just two generations ago, and, not coincidentally, the depth in which our inner lives are examined in these three films.

Even though the lead character (played by David Hemmings) in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up lives life in what then would have passed for the fast lane, he doesn’t lack for down time. In the film, set in the swinging London of the mid-60s, Hemmings plays a young photographer who realizes that a series of pictures he took on a whim in a London park document a mysterious murder. When he tries to cut through the distractions and banality of the everyday and arrive at the truth, he finds himself thwarted at every turn until, in the end, the antics of the traveling mime troupe with which the film opens becomes a metaphor for our lives.

The 1971 film Solaris (at the time dubbed ‘the Russian 2001’) will, to some modern viewers, appear glacially slow. It’s not: although the action appears to unfold slowly, the film is so rich in psychological content and imagery as to almost overload the psyche and push it into overdrive. With its meditation on human relationships (do we love the person or our concept of that person?), our aggressive instincts, the relationship between reality and consciousness, and the vast barriers to communication with alien species, this film made me feel I’d come home, rediscovered what it is to look inside and dwell there, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the endless bombardment of external trivia.

The last of this trio, Lindsay Anderson’s If, stars Malcolm McDowell as an anarchic adolescent antihero who takes on the British establishment. Although the film mostly concerns itself with the regimented brutality of the 1960s British social order and its suppression of and reaction to non-conformity, the strong surrealist currents in this movie (as in the former), the transitions between colour and black and white, and the power of the film’s apocalyptic final scene (unthinkable in today’s fear-saturated sociopolitical climate), and above all, the absence of high-speed action and external momentum culminate in a psychic impact that—like the previous two films—makes modern attempts to do the same laughable.

Fit the Third

We live in a world and at a pace where the inner life and dialogue, as well as the flexing of the creative imagination at a level beyond the superficial, is both difficult and discouraged. Television—along with the internet, the smartphone, and all the rest—has replaced religion as the opium of the masses. As long as we have these things we trundle along, perhaps not happily but at least tolerant of all social and economic ills. It’s not inconceivable that we’re rewiring our neurons and building new cortical pathways in our brains to such an extent that we’ve begun to evolve into a new species of human.

I can envision a near future in which millions would accept, and even welcome, indentured servitude as a means of keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads; but if all TV broadcasts, networked media, and game systems were to break down tomorrow, I think our social fabric would disintegrate. I don’t believe that a generation of adults raised in daycare and suckled at the terrible altar of the glass teat could cope with being suddenly thrust into a situation where they have time and are forced to explore their inner space, to reflect and think, and to communicate with others on a level beyond the banal.

An elitist view? Judgmental? Perhaps. But don’t get me wrong: I’m no luddite. My argument is not with technology but with the way we choose to use it. Hardwired as most of us are for short-term benefit (the technical term is ‘hyperbolic discounting’), we seem to have a tremendous gift for turning powerful technologies into either weapons, tools of mass control, or time-wasting frivolities.

If you find it difficult or are too young to remember a time before modern communications technology had become a central part of our lives; a world of just a handful of TV channels with limited broadcasting hours; without email, smartphones, or even answering machines; a world with half the population of today, and in which a person with even a half-decent job could enjoy a good middle-class life; a world in which ADD referred to an arithmetical operation; a world in which we actually spent time with ourselves and our thoughts; try the following.

Take a weekend alone somewhere without your phone or laptop or any device, and where there is no television—don’t cheat. Try to go into nature instead of a B&B, or at least spend as much time as you can out of doors and away from people; if you can go somewhere remote, all the better. Don’t even wear a watch. I’m talking about being somewhere you can watch the clouds go by, or a stream flow, or ants go about their business, for an hour or more without interruption or the ability to measure time.

At first, you’ll probably be bored, maybe restless. You may experience anxieties. The time will stretch weirdly: an hour will feel like four or five. Note these impressions without feeding or buying into them.

Before long you’ll find yourself easing into an internal state, reconnecting with your inner life in a way that you haven’t in a long time. For those of us who are writers or artists, that’s the wellspring, the place it all comes from; it’s hard to create without having at least some contact, however imperfect, with that place. For those of us who don’t regularly go there, perhaps haven’t since childhood, this reconnecting can—and will—be an amazing, maybe transformative experience.

So humour me, will you? Try it out, then come back and let me know what it was like. It’s eminently possible, whatever your current lifestyle, to claw back your time and reconnect with your inner life. It might take determination and will, but it can be done.

And the first step is to ditch your TV.

* Some researchers suggest the number may be as high as 80%

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