Category - commentary

Acerbic observations on the state of the world, art, politics, and culture.

Dispatches from the Outskirts:
Whither Facebookistan?

Bang bang, and here we go again… 

A gun goes off, people – children! – are killed and wounded, and the cycle of social media outrage – over the act, over the response or lack-thereof, over the unfathomable tragedy of it all – resumes, along with the meaningless deluge of “thoughts and prayers” that pours into the digital ether all over again.

The last time this happened (well, no, not the last time, because amid this week’s news comes the revelation that Parkland was, what, the nineteenth gun-related multiple-death incident this year?!?!),  in the aftermath of the Country Music Massacre in Las Vegas last October, I started to scroll through the countless expressions of futility and declared that “The Moment That Facebook Became Insufferable.”

Then I went into a self-imposed exile from “Facebookistan.”

It didn’t last.

Too much has already been written about the irresistible lure of our devices and the impact their mere presence has on our focus, our concentration – our very consciousness.

I can’t find the source now, but I’ve read several times about a recent study where one group was asked to leave their phones in another room while the other group kept theirs beside them; the group that left the phones outside demonstrated better focus and concentration because they were less inclined to glance at their gizmo in search of some random new input.  The other group’s attention was, how shall we say, more fragmented.

I know the feeling.

Dozens of times every day – especially when I am trying to write something, or in the midst of editing photos, or learning/practicing something on guitar… I will fill a momentary void by flipping over to my browser; all I have to do is enter the letter “f” and Facebook appears…

When I went into my self-imposed Facebook exile back in October, I did two things that I thought would make all the difference: First, I removed the Facebook app from my iPhone; second, I  removed the permanently pinned “Facebook” tab in my browser – which was, until then, the first tab in the line-up of ten permanently pinned tabs I keep open.  That way (I told myself) I was keeping Facebook at arm’s length.  This, I now realize, was the alcoholic’s equivalent of locking the liquor cabinet but keeping the key.

Then I tried to adopt a routine of only posting things to my own website, and using a social media plugin to “toss” those posts “over the wall” into “Facebookistan.”

But jeez, who was I kidding?

Looking back over the past few months I realize how I let my weakness prevail: What I didn’t do was remove the Facebook app from my iPad.  I must have fooled myself into thinking that was safe because I don’t have the tablet with me all day like I do the phone.  But whenever I did open the tablet, like on a break at work, too often the first thing I did was open the damn Facebook app.

Turns out was my ‘gateway app.’

And while I no longer have the Facebook app on my phone,  after a few weeks I got into the nasty (and very inefficient) habit of opening Facebook in the phone’s native browser – all the while telling myself the compulsion was under some kind of control because I wasn’t using the app.  And as I said, even though the permanent tab is gone from my desktop browser, Facebook is still just one or two clicks and the letter “f” away…

There is a pernicious cycle at work here: even when something is posted “indirectly” as I was doing, the immediate impulse is “has anybody seen it?”  “Does it have any Likes yet?”  “Are there any comments that I can reply to?”  And before I knew it, the whole damn sickness had crept back into my life.

My favorite line in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (of which I have been an inconsistent member for over 30 years) is the line that says,

“half measures availed us nothing.”

I took that mandate deeply to heart 30 years ago when I stopped puffing and sipping and snorting.   I probably owe my continued existence to my adherence to that one clause.

Now, to the extent that it is fair to say that the Internet/Social Media/Facebook engagement bears many of the qualities of classic addiction, I’ve got an even better sense or just what that “half measures” business is really about.

I tried “half measures” with Facebook – much as the alcoholic tells himself “hey, I can have a beer now and again” or “this glass of wine with dinner is no problem…” – and like that alcoholic, over the course of a few months, I now find myself once again lying face down on the floor of the digital saloon.

It is a strange time we find ourselves living in. In the 20th century, “celebrity” – a public persona – was the exclusive enclave of people who had achieved some demonstrably high level of achievement.  In the 21st century, anybody with a keyboard and screen has a platform and access to a potential audience of billions.  Before there was Facebook or Twitter, only the most deserving  (or the most notorious) lived in the fishbowl of celebrity. Now we all have a public persona.  Some are better developed than others.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had an interesting email exchange with a friend with whom I also often interact on Facebook.  Let’s call him “Ken” (because, well, that’s his name..).

I shared with Ken my frustration over, “the effective integration of Facebook into my life” and this sense that it’s just a habit that can’t be knocked.  Ken wrote back,

I don’t struggle with FB quite as much. It’s a tool for me, one that I’m pretty good at using, and pretty good at staying away from when needed or warranted.  And I think I’ve gotten over the ‘likeitis’ wondering who or how many liked something witty.  At this point I know I’m pretty witty and folks are going to respond to it that way-and quite honestly I just don’t care anymore who or how many like anything I do or say.

That sounds much healthier than whatever is that I’m doing with Facebook.  But I also think I’ve come up with a clue why that is.  Bear with me, it gets confessional from here…

The word “struggle” in Ken’s message triggered the sardonic voices in my head, whispering “Facebook is life.  I struggle with life, therefore I struggle with Facebook.”

By ‘struggle’ I mean: I wrestle daily with fundamental questions about my identity, my abilities, and WTF am I doing here?  My father died at 37, my brother at 62, and yet, here I am at 67, still fumbling from one day to the next, trying to find some semblance of my own shit to hold together (and don’t even start me on the existential crises of the past two years, though I suppose they are all inter-related…)

I think Ken has the advantage of a much healthier perspective: He found his life’s purpose (he’s a brilliant instrumental guitarist) a long time ago and everything about his “public persona” flows from that.

I, on the other hand… still struggle to narrow it down, or even define my life broadly.  Consequently,  my “public persona” is a perfect reflection of that inner turmoil.

As as kid, I had all these creative things I could do: write stories, play guitar and sing, and at various times over the years make pictures (but only with the help of lenses – I discovered in the first grade that I had no talent for actual ‘drawing’, which is probably when my estrangement from the word “art” as a means of personal expression began…).

But for one reason or another that not even a lifetime of therapy has managed to unearth, those abilities languish, never fully developed or manifest. I still feel like there are all these things I can almost do. So I am probably not going to get an effective handle on any kind of “public persona” until, like Ken, I’ve got a better sense of what actual purpose I’m using all these “tools” for.

Until then, I rail against the futility of it all, particularly in the face of collective tragedy.

And so, like the Big Book says, I just have to admit that “I am powerless over Facebook and my life has become unmanageable…”  And then, I guess, seek the counsel of a Higher Power (or a new therapist?).

Meanwhile, we have come full circle:  another bullet-induced national calamity (deep in the midst of the broader calamity that befell The Republic a little over a year ago) and the cycle is back to its full, flaming, alcoholic fury: tens of millions of outraged citizens of Facebookistan spilling into their public personae while just trying to get a grip on imponderable madness.

But wait: Do I have any “Like”s yet?  Any comments??

Winter Footwear

I confess, I don’t quite get a lot of what passes for women’s footwear.

Which is what was going through my mind last Saturday at the Downtown Art Crawl, where I have a wall of my photography on exhibit at Erabellum,  a coop gallery in The Arcade.

The temperatures were in the low-20s that night, but one woman apparently thought that open-toed pumps were entirely suitable for the occasion.


But what do I know about women’s fashion (or women, for that matter….)

Let’s hear it for sensible shoes.  And David Lee Roth…

A Modest Proposal for “The Holidays”

… or whatever you want to call this time of year – also my first actually thought-out, direct-to-Facebook post in several months. I’m sure this one oughta win me lotsa new friends..


This is what I’m thinking about in the early evening of a cold Sunday in December:

First of all, this thing we call “Christmas” starts out as a religious holiday and as such has no business being on the “official” calendar of a nation that honors that other tradition called “the First Amendment.” But never mind, it’s a nice tradition (even if it does come in the dead of winter, and for some reason coincides with the not only the worst weather of the year but the worst traffic as well…).

Coming as it does on a Monday this year, I’m thinking the tradition could use an updating. Call it “XmasOS2017”:

For starters, the date is entirely arbitrary since nobody really knows when Jesus or Emmanuel or whatever his actual name was was actually born. It could just have well been in March or August. The only reason a date in December was chosen – back in something like the 4th century – was to co-opt the Pagan traditions around the Winter Solstice.

So how about – instead of a religious holiday on Dec 25, we declare a religiously-neutral holiday for friends-and-family gatherings and gift exchanges on the Monday following the last weekend in December? Then every year we’d have a three-day weekend at the end of the year.
I’m trying to think what to call it. How about…oh, I know…

(damn, why didn’t <I> think of that…?)

OK, that’s my contribution to the occasion. Now, please don’t lecture me with “…. but this is a Christian Nation!” Oy, don’t start me…

And in case your wondering, Thomas Jefferson pretty much agrees.

Dispatch From The Outskirts – Dec 12
The Beating A Not-Quite-Dead-Horse Edition

From the Department of “stop me if you’ve heard this before.”

Frankly, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to avoid the day-to-day Drumbeat Of Doom. No amount of putting my hands over my ears makes any difference.  It’s hard to enjoy Christmas music at the mall (irony alert!) when all you can hear inside your own head is the soundtrack from “Jaws.”

And despite my best (?) efforts to the contrary, I still find myself sucked into the vacuum. Empty feeling inside? Meet the infinite random trivial generator.  How’s that working out for you?  Not so well?  Scroll some more…

I know I’m not saying anything particularly original here.

And I take little solace when I see other voices – supposedly speaking with some higher authority  – echoing the themes that I’ve been expressing here for the past several months.

For example, a former Facebook executive who now confesses his personal guilt for  breathing the life into Frankenberg’s digital monster:

Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business, before recommending people take a “hard break” from social media.

A “hard break” from Facebook.  That’s what I’ve been trying to do since October. But it’s, umm… hard….

Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

Apparently this guy has a new job title, “Master Of The Obvious.” From which pedestal he further enlightens:

Your behaviors… are being programmed…”

And this from a guy who left Facebook SIX YEARS ago! Dude… you’re just now figuring this out??

Personally, I find much irony in Palihapitya’s comments – and the fact that these digital media outlets are publishing them. All these people are suddenly waking up to the realization that new technologies are unpredictably disruptive.

Gee, who’da thunk?

Right now, in the wake of all the revelations about the 2016 election, Facebook and Twitter are getting all the critical press.  But it’s not  just Facebook and/or Twitter. It’s the whole new digital environment, everything from smart phones to  Netflix to the incredibly shitty new NYTimes iPad app.

Why is anybody surprised that all of this new technology is re-wiring our brains, and, consequently, the whole fabric of society is being rewoven in disturbing new ways?

To observe these impacts now is like registering surprise that “this hammer, it keeps banging on nails!”  That’s what hammers do.  They bang on nails.

And that’s what new technologies do: they fuck shit up.

That is why even the gentle strains of Bing Crosby and David Bowie crooning together on “The Little Drummer Boy” sounds like the soundtrack from a forty-year-old shark movie.

The News…

… is increasingly dire and unfathomably grim.

Every time we hit a new low, we think it’s the bottom.  Until we reach the next new low.  Until we finally come to the conclusion that there just is no fucking bottom.

So here, have a rainbow.

Better yet, have two of them.

And don’t say I never did anything for you…


Dispatch from the Outskirts – Nov 20
Why Do You Think They Call it ‘Dope’?

Here is what my “addiction to the algorithm” has produced today:

What have we really created? What psychology might call a double infantile narcissistic regression….

Is it any surprise then that societies are regressing, too, when tech is creating algorithmic addicts stuck in infantile states having counterfeit relationships, not, let’s say, vibrant citizens and neighbours and friends and institutions and trust between them all? … by regressing us to fixated infants searching desperately for the next fix, a dopaminergic approach to human possibility makes us less capable of genuinely adult behaviour: really openly discussing, handling, managing, our many great problems, from inequality to climate change to predatory behaviour.

Or, as I keep saying to anybody who will listen: “Trump: Because the Internet.”

Follow the link for the ‘rest of the story’:

The Dopamine Economy: The Mad Men Created Consumers. We’ve Created Algorithmic Addicts