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Archive for the ‘Cultural Criticism’ Category

I came across something in our bathroom the other day that has occupied my thoughts off and on ever since. It was a little dispenser of dental floss.

It isn’t the floss itself that is of interest to me but that the container has a toll-free number printed on it. You can call the company’s Floss Hotline twenty-four hours a day. But here is the question: Why would you need to? I keep imagining some guy calling up and saying in an anxious voice, “OK, I’ve got the floss. Now what?”

As a rule of thumb, I would submit that if you need to call your floss provider, for any reason, you are probably not ready for this level of oral hygiene.

My curiosity aroused, I had a look through all our cupboards and discovered with interest that nearly all household products these days carry a hotline number. You can, it appears, call up for guidance on how to use soap and shampoo, gain helpful tips on where to store ice cream so that it doesn’t melt and run out of the bottom of the container, and receive professional advice on parts of your body to which you can most successfully and stylishly apply nail polish. (“So let me get this straight. You’re saying not on my forehead?”)

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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Jaron Lanier … argues that digital networks that make information appear to be “free” have had the effect of making it harder for people to be compensated for their talents. We become laborers who cheerfully contribute to the value of the network (consider the staggering array of talent on display on YouTube), but that value accrues to whoever owns the network. Our desire for recognition from other people makes us post our best efforts online, and it is the ideologists of “free” who become billionaires while promoting the spirit of sharing.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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Joint attention is an actual experience that we have. By contrast, the attentional commons is best understood as a purely negative principle, by analogy with the “precautionary principle” invoked by environmentalists. The point of being aware of the attentional commons is not to make it happen but to refrain from damaging it; to be aware of the valuable absence that creates space for private reverie, and indeed for the possibility of those episodes of joint attention that arise spontaneously and make cities feel full of promise for real human contact.

What this boils down to: Please don’t install speakers in every single corner of a shopping mall, even its outdoor spaces. Please don’t fill up every moment between innings in a lazy college baseball game with thundering excitement. Please give me a way to turn off the monitor in the backseat of a taxi. Please let there be one corner of the bar where the flickering delivery system for Bud Lite commercials is deemed unnecessary, because I am already at the bar. The attentional commons is an idea that I hope will catch on among those who are in a position to make such sanctuaries happen: building managers, commercial real estate developers, and interior designers. Here is a modest proposal: Could the Muzak be made opt-in rather than opt-out? Once every twenty minutes, somebody in the room would have to deliberately hit a button to restart it, and thereby actively affirm “Yes! We want some emo in here!”

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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We are being flooded with matter about which nobody gives a damn. But the really frightening part is that the attitude begins to rub off. No home can be built without that love of detail which is the hallmark of care, yet we seem to be getting less and less able to bother. People cannot be fed without detail, children cannot be taught manners without detail, wives cannot be kept happy without detail. But in our superspirituality, we expect that a handful of good intentions and a headful of bright ideas are quite enough to make a home. The truth is, though, that matter will break us unless we love it for itself and start paying some very careful attention to its demands. We are not angels; there are no disembodied intelligences in my household, we are all things here, from the raisins in the cake to the father at his table. For the likes of us there is no middle ground between care and catastrophe.

— Robert Farrar Capon, Bed and Board

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Some argue that the schools have neither the time nor the obligation to take notice of every discarded or disreputable scientific theory. “If we carried your logic through,” a science professor once said to me, “we would be teaching post-Copernican astronomy alongside Ptolemaic astronomy.” Exactly. And for two good reasons. The first was succinctly expressed in an essay George Orwell wrote about George Bernard Shaw’s remark that we are more gullible and superstitious today than people were in the Middle Ages. Shaw offered as an example of modern credulity the widespread belief that the Earth is round. The average man, Shaw said, cannot advance a single reason for believing this. (This, of course, was before we were able to take pictures of the Earth from space.) Orwell took Shaw’s remark to heart and examined carefully his own reasons for believing the world to be round. He concluded that Shaw was right: that most of his scientific beliefs rested solely on the authority of scientists. In other words, most students have no idea why Copernicus is to be preferred over Ptolemy. If they know of Ptolemy at all, they know that he was “wrong” and Copernicus was “right,” but only because their teacher or textbook says so. This way of believing is what scientists regard as dogmatic and authoritarian. It is the exact opposite of scientific belief. Real science education would ask students to consider with an open mind the Ptolemaic and Copernican world-views, array the arguments for and against each, and then explain why they think one is to be preferred over the other.

A second reason to support this approach is that science, like any other subject, is distorted if it is not taught from a historical perspective. Ptolemaic astronomy may be a refuted scientific theory but, for that very reason, it is useful in helping students to see that knowledge is a quest, not a commodity; that what we think we know comes out of what we once thought we knew; and that what we will know in the future may make hash of what we now believe.

Of course, this is not to say that every new or resurrected explanation for the ways of the world should be given serious attention in our schools. Teachers, as always, need to choose—in this case by asking which theories are most valuable in helping students to clarify the bases of their beliefs. Ptolemaic theory, it seems to me, is excellent for this purpose. And so is creation science. It makes claims on the minds and emotions of many people; its dominion has lasted for centuries and is thus of great historical interest; and in its modern incarnation, it makes an explicit claim to the status of science.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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Further, such squeamishness [engendered by subjectivism] creates a certain normative vacuum in our public spaces. In walking off the field of our shared moral and aesthetic life, we cede that field to corporate forces, which are not at all shy about offering up a shared experience: the emo coming out of the sound system. That’s what we end up with. The way anonymous others leap in on our behalf and install these systems, without anyone taking responsibility for them, makes the shared experience unavailable for discussion. It can’t be subject to disputation, and this is why it feels suffocating.

The taken-for-granted presence of the Muzak system spares us the exposure that comes from bringing forward one’s own taste for others to respond to…. And this process is self-reinforcing: the saturation of public space by the inevitably lame manufactured experience spurs us to plug in our earbuds, reinforcing our self-enclosure.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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But within those limits, possessions really do become the prime evidence of what we care about. The woman I delight in becomes my wife. The man I care about becomes my friend. The food I like becomes my dinner; favorite china, my china; a desired guitar, my guitar. All, to be sure, in so far as possible: but save for that limitation, if I care, I seek to possess. I do, and I should. Covetousness, greed, the lust for ownership, is only—is precisely—the perversion of care. It is the love not of things or people, but of having. It makes a good, not of goods, but of gain; and, in the long run, it makes a man quite unable to care for the real goods at all.

[What] follow[s] from this: if care is shallow, possessions will be discarded. (They slip away, too, and they wear out, but that isn’t our doing.) The man who buys a boat will soon enough find out whether boating is one of his real cares. Our possessions make demands upon us; they form us as much as we form them. Most of us have an attic or a basement in which we bury the remains of our former fascinations. We once felt deeply about photography or golf, but over the years we learned differently. Closet and dump now hide the corpses of our shallow cares. With mere things, of course, the learning process is quite painless; all we lose is some time, a little money and perhaps a small quantity of face. But when it is our care for people that proves to have been trifling, the results are usually tragic. The discarded home-movie outfit is one thing, the discarded wife or child quite another. In either case, however, possession proves or disproves care.

— Robert Farrar Capon, Bed and Board

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