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Archive for the ‘Cultural Criticism’ Category

[Note: BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent; BUMMER Platforms = Facebook, Google, etc.]

The ability to theorize about what someone else experiences as part of understanding that person is called having a theory of mind. To have a theory of mind is to build a story in your head about what’s going on in someone else’s head. Theory of mind is at the core of any sense of respect or empathy, and it’s a prerequisite to any hope of intelligent cooperation, civility, or helpful politics. It’s why stories exist.

You’ve heard expressions like “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” You can’t understand people without knowing a little of what they’ve gone through.

Most animals get by without theory of mind, but people need it.

When you can only see how someone else behaves, but not the experiences that influenced their behavior, it becomes harder to have a theory of mind about that person. If you see someone hit someone else, for instance, but you did not see that they did it in defense of a child, you might misinterpret what you see.

In the same way, if you don’t see the dark ads, the ambient whispers, the cold-hearted memes, and the ridicule-filled customized feed that someone else sees, that person will just seem crazy to you. And that is our new BUMMER world. We seem crazy to each other, because BUMMER is robbing us of our theories of one another’s minds.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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Often this kind of pride is in tension with one’s own self-interest, considered narrowly—one is urged to consider the “opportunity costs” of fixing one’s own car. “Time is money.” This dictum is usually accompanied by a dim view of pride, as being at bottom a failure to appreciate one’s true situation. (Thomas Hobbes regarded pride as a kind of false consciousness.) The idea of opportunity costs presumes the fungibility of human experience: all our activities are equivalent or interchangeable once they are reduced to the abstract currency of clock time, and its wage correlate. But, against the ever-expanding imperium of economics, we do well to insist on what we know firsthand, namely, the concrete heterogeneity of human experience—its apples-versus-oranges character. From an economistic mind-set, spiritedness or pridefulness appears as a failure to be properly calculative, which requires that one first be properly abstract. Economics recognizes only certain virtues, and not the most impressive ones at that. Spiritedness is an assertion of one’s own dignity, and to fix one’s own car is not merely to use up time, it is to have a different experience of time, of one’s car, and of oneself.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Americans have always had a strange devotion to the idea of assisted ease. It is an interesting fact that nearly all the everyday inventions that take the struggle out of life-escalators, automatic doors, elevators, refrigerators, washing machines, frozen food, fast food, microwaves, fax machines-were invented here or at least first widely embraced here. Americans grew so used to a steady stream of labor-saving advances, in fact, that by the 1960s they had come to expect machines to do pretty much everything for them.

The moment I first realized that this was not necessarily a good idea was at Christmas of 1961 or ’62 when my father was given an electric carving knife. It was an early model and, like most prototypes, was both bulky and rather formidable. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, but I have a clear impression of him donning goggles and heavy rubber gloves before plugging it in. What is certainly true is that when he sank it into the turkey, it didn’t so much carve the bird as send pieces of it flying everywhere in a kind of fleshy white spray, before the blade struck the plate with a shower of blue sparks, and the whole thing flew out of his hands, and skittered across the table and out of the room, like a creature from a Gremlins movie. We never saw it again, though we used to sometimes hear it thumping against table legs late at night.

Like most patriotic Americans, my father was forever buying gizmos that proved to be disastrous-clothes steamers that failed to take the wrinkles out of suits but had wallpaper falling off the walls in whole sheets, an electric pencil sharpener that could consume an entire pencil (including the metal ferrule and the tips of your fingers if you weren’t real quick) in less than a second, a water pick that was so lively it required two people to hold and left the bathroom looking like the inside of a car wash, and much else.

But all of this was nothing compared with the situation today. We are now surrounded with items that do things for us to an almost absurd degree-automatic cat food dispensers, electric juicers and can openers, refrigerators that make their own ice cubes, automatic car windows, disposable toothbrushes that come with the toothpaste already loaded. People are so addicted to convenience that they have become trapped in a vicious circle: The more labor-saving appliances they acquire, the harder they need to work; the harder they work, the more labor-saving appliances they feel they need to acquire.

There is almost nothing, no matter how ridiculous, that won’t find a receptive audience so long as it promises to provide some kind of relief from effort. I recently saw advertised, for $39.95, a “lighted, revolving tie rack.” You push a button and it parades each of your ties before you, saving you the exhausting ordeal of making your selection by hand.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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[Note: BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent; BUMMER Platforms = Facebook, Google, etc.]

A thought experiment can help expose how weird our situation has become. Can you imagine if Wikipedia showed different versions of entries to each person on the basis of a secret data profile of that person? Pro-Trump visitors would see an article completely different from the one shown to anti-Trump people, but there would be no accounting of all that was different or why.

This might sound dystopian or bizarre, but it’s similar to what you see in your BUMMER feed. Content is chosen and ads are customized to you, and you don’t know how much has been changed for you, or why.

Another way to see the problem is to think about public spaces. If you share a space with people who aren’t looking at their smartphones, you are all in that space together. You have a common base of experience. It can be an amazing feeling, and it’s a big reason why people go to clubs, sports events, and houses of worship.

But when everyone is on their phone, you have less of a feeling for what’s going on with them. Their experiences are curated by faraway algorithms. You and they can’t build unmolested commonality unless the phones are put away.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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Florida’s contribution is to update our view of these mini-Einsteins by taking a pop-existentialist view of their “creativity.” It is a view that is familiar to most of us from kindergarten: creativity is a mysterious capacity that lies in each of us and merely needs to be “unleashed” (think finger painting). Creativity is what happens when people are liberated from the constraints of conventionality. According to this hippie theory, the personal grooming habits of Albert Einstein are highly significant–how else does one identify a “bizarre maverick operating at the bohemian fringe”? The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra). Identifying creativity with freedom harmonizes quite well with the culture of the new capitalism, in which the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling in any task long enough to develop real competence. Such competence is the condition not only for genuine creativity but for economic independence such as the tradesman enjoys. So the liberationist ethic of what is sometimes called “the 1968 generation” perhaps paved the way for our increasing dependence. We’re primed to respond to any invocation of the aesthetics of individuality. The rhetoric of freedom pleases our ears. The simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople for the corporate counterculture, and if we’re not paying attention such usage might influence our career plans. The Tterm invokes are powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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[Note: BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent; BUMMER Platforms = Facebook, Google, etc.]

Of course there were assholes in the world before BUMMER, but it wasn’t as hard to avoid being one. On BUMMER you have to fight gravity just to be decent.

The online asshole-supremacy problem could be solved rather easily simply by dumping the BUMMER model of business. One possibility is that people could earn money more often and more fairly from what they do online…

What we need is anything that’s real beyond social pretensions that people can focus on instead of becoming assholes. In the meantime, there is something you can do personally. If, when you participate in online platforms, you notice a nasty thing inside yourself, an insecurity, a sense of low self-esteem, a yearning to lash out, to swat someone down, then leave that platform. Simple.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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When people are solitary wolves, then each individual has access to slightly different information about the world, and slightly different ways of thinking about that information. I’ve been talking about the relationship between the Solitary setting and personal character, but there are other reasons to keep the switch in the Solitary position. Consider a demonstration that is often enacted on the first day of business school. A professor shows a class a big jar of jelly beans and asks each person to estimate the number of beans. Averaging all the estimates usually results in a pretty accurate count. Each person brings different perspectives, cognitive styles, skills, and strategies to the mystery, and the average gets at the agreements between them. (This only works for single-number answers. If you ask a committee to design a product or write a novel, the result comes out like something made by a committee.)

Now suppose that the students could look at the jar only through photos in a social media feed. Different camps of people with different ideas about the number of beans would form and would ridicule each other. Russian intelligence services would add pictures of similar jars with different numbers of beans. Bean promoters would motivate trolls to argue that there aren’t enough beans and you must buy more. And so on. There would no longer be a way to guess the number of beans because the power of diversity will have been compromised. When that happens, markets can no longer offer utility to the world.

You can replace the jar with a political candidate, a product, or anything else.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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