broken record of our own sad age

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“We see again, in our own sad age, the stark extremes of political inflexibility and anarchic revolt, insuperable backwardness and a gaudy cult of progress.” -from Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra

“Karaoke supports less the democratic idea that everyone can have a shot if they want one and more the democratic practice that everyone wants a shot if there’s one on offer.” -from Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugrešić

-Yes… why not for the president of the United States as well? Or the “untied” states while we are at it?

Is there something more apt to describe where we’ve landed than Dubravka Ugrešić’s term “karaoke culture”? We have a reality TV star and national joke as an American president. He epitomizes the dumbing-down of culture, is the zenith of anti-intellectual, anti-Obama backlash and embodies the ‘problem of ideological manipulation’ that Ugrešić chronicles in her book – and others have explored at great length and in a more historical and philosophical context.

Ugrešić’s eerily prescient book, though, looks at the all-consuming, short-attention-span digital culture that saturates our lives and gives us the recipe for the toxic concoction in which we’re now dissolving:

 

  • The internet and other digital platforms/channels

 

    “The Internet is the final, most explosive powder keg strewn on the eternal flame of our fantasies. The Internet is the cornerstone of both the new democratic revolution and the computer user’s evolution into a free man, a man forever transformed (Never again a slave!), eyes fixed ahead on the screen (a “window to the world”), whose hands self-confidently control an emancipatory mouse: a proletarian-man, an amateur-man, a man finally worthy of the name.” – from Karaoke Culture

 

  • The rise of the “amateur expert” whose opinion is suddenly as valid as an actual expert

 

“Amateurs, Keen claims, devastate systems that are based on expertise and destroy the institutions of author and authorship, information (newspapers are slowly disappearing, blogs are taking over), education (Wikipedia, the work of anonymous amateurs, has replaced encyclopedias, the work of experts), and art and culture (amateurs create their own culture based on borrowing, expropriation, appropriation, intervention, recycling, and remaking; they are simultaneously the creators and consumers of this culture).”

“Maybe the problem is one of ideological manipulation? Today AA (the Anonymous or Amateur Author) is as untouchable as the teenager comfortably lounging on the tram seat. At sixty-years of age you stand next to him with bags full of groceries, struggling to keep your balance. Your legs hurt, and your single obsessive thought is how to give the uppity little schmuck a well-deserved slap in the face. You know it’s never going to happen, but the fantasy is good for your soul. If a little open hand communication isn’t an option, maybe a gentle word might help. But that’s not an option either, because, armed with his iPod and iPhone, the kid is both physically and mentally untouchable. And in any case, the kid is innocent, because he doesn’t see you. You don’t exist in his world. But he exists in yours.”

-from Karaoke Culture

 

  • The info overload plus short attention span that make this possible

 

“Scientists tell us that our brain’s ability to adapt to new experiences is called neuroplasticity. They claim that from an evolutionary perspective this elasticity can be useful, but that it also means that left unused, brain function simply atrophies.”

“At this very moment my neuroplastic consciousness believes that God is an octopus and that his name is Paul. Because that’s what happens when you’ve more-or-less become an Internet junkie.” -from Karaoke Culture

 

  • Alt facts: Using the dissolution of Yugoslavia as a case study for what we now see. We smugly thought former Yugoslavia to be so uncivilized and backwards, and patted ourselves on the back for our oh-so-democratic and stable ideals. But what do we face now but the makings of the same kind of thing only on a grander, more fractious scale?

 

“The metaphor of the “broken telephone” can be used in regard to all countries of the former Yugoslavia. Having entered every sphere of life, the language of the “broken telephone” is omnipresent: in the media, institutional life, politics, the way people think, their interpersonal relations, their everyday lives. As a result, many crimes remain un-investigated, many victims have been rendered silent, many criminals declared heroes, many thieves business people, many idiots intellectuals (and the odd intellectual an idiot), many perpetrators victims, many victims perpetrators, many crazies normal, and many normal people crazy. As we speak, Radovan Karadžić is playing “broken telephone” at the Hague Tribunal. He brushes off words as if they were pesky little thistles. Every word of the indictment that sounds like ravish, he coolly transforms into lavish.” -from Karaoke Culture

 

  • Suspension of disbelief: “I can’t really believe this is happening” and… yet it escalates

 

 “Unlike my neighbors, I didn’t take the alarms too seriously. Today I wonder where this “lapse” came from, this arrogance that doesn’t take danger “too seriously”? At the time I firmly believed that the majority of people wouldn’t follow their caricature-like leaders, wouldn’t destroy everything they’d spent years building together, and wouldn’t cast their childrens’ futures to the wind. Maybe this belief was to blame for my “lapse.” I refused to believe what my impaired vision had witnessed over the preceding few years. And so it was that in September 1991 I refused to believe the evidence that was right in front of me. Maybe it was actually down there in the cellar, with a small human sample for company, that I should have allowed the dirty little thought to sink in: that many people were actually turned on by the war. New, sudden thrills filled the vacuity of their lives; overnight, personal frustrations found an outlet, personal losses could be made good, personal intolerances hung out to air. There, in the cellar, an older neighbor with rat-like features scurried into my “deformed” field of vision. People said he had illegally moved into the five-bedroom apartment of an old woman who died soon afterwards. The square meters of the apartment thus became his. That very first day in the cellar, he appeared wearing a red armband, a pistol buried in his back pocket. Nobody asked him about the armband or what it meant, or where he got the pistol; we listened intently to his garbled instructions. The very next day the neighbor had a deputy, complete with matching red armband and pocket pistol. The young deputy was unemployed and married to a diligent and hard-working neighbor. At some point her biological clock had started ticking, so she found the young man and bore him three children, after which he’d served and exhausted his purpose. The armband and the revolver gave the jerk his dignity back. Until then, he didn’t even know what dignity was.” – from Karaoke Culture

 

  • Media war and complicit silence. The media smear campaign, vilifying people who are not the real villains. Everyone who should know better remains silent.

 

“When the media lynching had reached its most vicious height, a neighbor stopped me and asked: “Well then, neighbor, when are you getting out?” The “out,” I assumed, referred to when I was getting out of Croatia. “Why should I be getting out?” I asked. “Well, you keep writing those lies about us.” “And you’ve read what I write?” “Why would I? Are you saying that everyone else is lying!?”” – from Karaoke Culture

 

  • Sexism. Sexism. Sexism.

 

“My sensitive literary nature can’t resist exhibiting a selection of the insults (which refer both to me and the witch’s cell) proffered by Croatian journalists, writers, and critics, the literati among the literate. I recognize that any psychoanalyst could here accuse me of taking exhibitionist pleasure in the repeated—and this time voluntary—exposition of public insults. But you know what? “Victims” also have a right to narrative pleasure—particularly so if narration is their profession. All in all, in my fellow writers’ scribblings I am described as: A woman with “deformed vision”; A woman who has no understanding for a “people celebrating its own state and freedom of speech”; A woman who has “neither taste nor sense of proportion”; A woman who has opened her mouth “in the wrong manner, the wrong place, and at the wrong time”; A woman with a “limited perspective”; A woman writer with a “specific talent,” whose writing is “scrappy knitting”; A “murderess of the Croatian nation who kills with her pen”; A “broad persecuting Croatia”; A broad who “big mouths, gossips, and denounces”; A woman worthy of “contempt”; A woman in need of a Croatian bonfire “to warm her heart”; A member of “one of the organizational nuclei of international resistance to and defamation of the Croatian Homeland War”; A member of a crew of “slightly unhappy, and at any rate frustrated women”; A “dirty liar”; A “Yugonostalgic”; A “national Daltonist”; A “salon internationalist”; A “spleenful and spiteful surveyor of freedom”; A “squealer offering recipes for freedom from the long-tainted kitchens of the European pseudo-left and pseudo-right”; A woman with “mental problems”; A woman who is “mixed-up”; A woman who “drops her dress in a storm”; A woman ready to “sell her homeland for a hundred German marks”; A woman who for “a little cash, but with obviously great joy, denounces and spits on her homeland”; A “plume of the failed communist regime”; An “informer for the European Community”; A “carefully chosen interlocutor of Brussels and the European Community”; A woman of “dubious repute”; A person “not in the least subjected to harassment”; A “homeless intellectual”; A “grande dame of Croatian post-communism”; A self-immolator (who if she returns to Zagreb “needs to be immediately surrounded by a dozen fire engines, have 300 hoses aimed at her, and whose every word needs to be doused in water”); A “furious woman”; A “Yugo-nostalgic sicko”; A woman who was ready for “a better psychiatric clinic”; A member of a group of “exalted daughters of the revolution”; A “traitor to the homeland”; A “lobbyist who has lost her voice”; A woman “conspiring against Croatia”; A “feminist”; A “feminist raping Croatia”; An “anti-Croatian feminist”; A member of a group of “self-centered middle-aged women who have serious problems with their own ethnic, ethical, human, intellectual and political identities”; A “public enemy”; A woman with a “miserable destiny”; A woman who has “committed moral…” -from Karaoke Culture

 

  • Anger: The anger, and helplessness, of the masses leads many to embrace the “strength” of dictators and totalitarianism.

 

“The urban public space has become a field on which to exercise repressed sadomasochism. The stronger have their way, the weaker suck it up.” – from Karaoke Culture

A fit vehicle for the weak, in their helplessness, to reach for not only self-exploitation but the exploitation and torture of others, rampant and venomous nationalism, and worse, as the book Age of Anger points out again and again:

“It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority and deference.”

Nietzsche:  ‘Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overwhelming of the alien and the weaker, oppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own form, incorporation, and at least, at its mildest, exploitation.’” -from Age of Anger

Shedding layers part seven: Books

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Cookbooks! Yes, why do I have so many cookbooks?

Long, long ago, in an era long before the internet existed and everyone had five devices to search for internet content, including recipes, people exchanged recipes on little designated notecards made just for recipes. Or they collected recipes and published them in books. Some were generalist in nature, some were very specific (for example, vegan desserts, which, contrary to what some might say, are not only sorbet related, or vegetarian Indian cooking).

I must have gone through many phases of wanting a collection of recipe books because… well, over the years I accumulated a whole lot of them. Everyone around me – grandmother, mother, parents’ friends, etc. – also had recipe books aplenty. It never struck me that is was not necessary. Back when I started my own collection, it was kind of necessary because, as I said, there was no internet then.

Moving from country to country, lugging hundreds of (and it used to be over 1000) books along with me, though, it all seemed like too much. Especially as each year saw the internet grow and its cornucopia of content overflow, it made no sense to carry around books I had cracked open maybe once – and never once used to cook with.

That said, I still have a stack of these books and these will be the next things with which I part as I go on shedding extraneous layers of my life.

Shedding layers part three: Everyone’s gone app shit

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I have not decided yet what item I will cast aside today. I know I will throw out a broken interval timer. I bought a new (identical) one online… but in the absence of the replacement, I found an app that works fine. Not sure why I didn’t think of that before. It must be generational and habitual.

I am not “too old” to think “app first” but am kind of on the cusp of that group of people that doesn’t look for apps or look to technology to solve inconveniences unless they have some connection to technology. That is, people who work in tech or who have a deep personal interest in it. I am a bit of both, but because I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it back when the 1990s dawned, it still isn’t always my first inclination or response in some situations. Of the people my age or older (with whom I am acquainted, anyway) who have no professional or personal interest in tech, most are pretty lost; many would not understand if I were to tell them, “There’s an app for that.” They would more likely roll their eyes but nevertheless sheepishly-though-defiantly say something defensive like, “God… everyone’s gone app shit!”

Habit-wise, I am still in the habit of finding gadgets. While I very rapidly moved online to do anything and everything that could save time, help me avoid too many trips to stores and offices and help me locate the exact things I want from all over the world (you know, do all the stuff that the internet enables), some things don’t pop into my head immediately. Even though something basic like an interval timer should spring instantly to mind as something with multiple app options available, I clung to a little doodad thing because I already had it. But if I carry my doodad device AND my phone everywhere anyway, does it make sense to carry so much stuff around to perform ALL the tasks I need? No. I will keep the new timer around in case, heaven forbid, I go out and my phone runs out of juice. (I admit to believing heartily in redundancy, even where it’s not absolutely essential. I spent a couple of years working in an air traffic control center, where talk about redundancy was constant. And you’d want it to be, wouldn’t you?)

Shedding layers and moving forward also means adopting new habits, thinking in new ways. Improving even on things that already work well. Streamlining, simplifying. Whatever you want to call it.

Data protection, use, rights and apathy

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Do we have any idea what we are giving up in letting our data run free? Not really.

Watch the frightening documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply and start to get the idea. In our race to have speed, convenience, access and mobility – among other things – we are willing to sign away rights, privacy and protection for ourselves without even knowing it. Or in lacking the attention span or interest to follow things like privacy rights or something like the net neutrality debate in the US, we lose choice and transparency.

As John Oliver explained on his fantastic and revealing weekly HBO program, Last Week Tonight, discussing the net neutrality subterfuge, companies can bury all the information they are required to tell consumers but don’t really want them to read or understand in EULAs. Much of the time, these terms and conditions are innocuous but some are quite malicious, misleading and violate user privacy, leaving most users uninformed and having given blind consent.

At 9:50:

“The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil put it inside something boring. Apple could put the entire text of Mein Kampf inside the iTunes user agreement and you’d just click ‘Agree’.”

It’s one thing to just complain and worry about data collection and use – but what kinds of solutions may exist? Craig Mundie’s piece in Foreign Affairs addressing the issue. “The time has come for a new approach: shifting the focus from limiting the collection and retention of data to controlling data at the most important point — the moment when it is used.”

Some kind of change has to happen because “… there is hardly any part of one’s life that does not emit some sort of “data exhaust” as a byproduct. And it has become virtually impossible for someone to know exactly how much of his data is out there or where it is stored. Meanwhile, ever more powerful processors and servers have made it possible to analyze all this data and to generate new insights and inferences about individual preferences and behavior.”

Interestingly, Mundie cites the introduction and eventual ubiquity of credit cards as the truly disruptive technology that opened the consumer-data floodgates. Did anyone imagine that the truly disruptive technology – well before the internet – was the credit card? They open so much access for financial institutions to create credit reports and scores and to basically control a person’s life based on their spending and saving habits, to keep tabs on her location, habits, tastes, propensities – it’s a gold mine of data that financial institutions could sell to retailers – so much opportunity for consumer exploitation. Consumers, though, have trusted that this would not happen because of data handling and storage regulations.

But once the floodgates were open, and regulations in place – the internet came along. But data privacy and rights have not changed to keep pace with how industry and technology have changed.

The part that is most alarming for me when I think about it is that whole business models and companies are built on this virtually free access to, collection of and manipulation, analysis, sale and packaging of data. How many of us are actually employed in industries whose bread and butter is somehow a link in that data collection and use chain?

Are the trade-offs of allowing all this data collection worth it? The Mundie article cites the public good as one reason not to entirely do away with data collection (but to limit/change it). One example is in a case when vast data sets yielded key findings in medical research, which can benefit society as a whole. But does that supersede the right of the individual not to have their own personal data used in some way to which they have not expressly consented? (Opting into a serpentine user agreement as a layperson does not really signify consent in my mind.)

Solutions that Mundie proposes are interesting but fail to take into account personal laziness. People like talking about having their privacy violated, but if taking control meant, as the writer suggests, “It would also require people to constantly reevaluate what kinds of uses of their personal data they consider acceptable” and one would have to take personal responsibility for context and assessing the value of how their data were used, almost no one would do it.

People do not want to evaluate at all – which is why they just say yes or no in the first place – expedience, convenience. Damn the consequences.