Category - commentary

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

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




Dispatch from the Outskirts – Nov 13:
Zuckerberg, Meet Hindenburg

How do you say that in Russian?

I’ll just leave this here.  My sister sent it to me about a week ago.

Is your favourite technology actually pathological?

…what caught my eye in Regis’ book was his description of the Zeppelin as an example of a ‘pathological technology’, and his definition of that suggestive phrase. For Regis, there are four things that make a technology ‘pathological’. First, they are oversized in terms of their absolute size or effects. Second, ‘pathological technologies’ cast such a powerful spell on people that all rational evidence against them or to their contrary is rendered null and void.

Third, their risks and even their blatantly dangerous downsides are systematically minimised and underplayed. And fourth, a technology should be considered pathological when there is an extreme mismatch between benefits and costs.

It strikes me that many of our modern technologies fit this pathological profile. The likes of Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Reddit and Twitter create addictive feedback loops that keep us liking, swiping and in a state of ‘continuous partial attention’.

We now return your ‘partial attention’ to its regularly programmed distraction…

Dispatch from The Outskirts 11/05
WTF Is Going On In Saudi Arabia?

While y’all were getting all indignant (again!) over whether or not it’s “too soon” to do nothing (again!) about guns in the U.S., another seething cauldron or insane started boiling over…

“In sum, we know that Donald Trump is an existential crisis here in the US. But if you have any extra bandwidth, maybe pay attention to this. Because the Saudi-Iran conflict is reaching the boiling point, and if that fuckwit Jared doesn’t get indicted first, he’s going to lead us into yet another endless ground war in the Middle East.”

No, But Seriously! WTF Is Going On In Saudi Arabia?

Dispatches from the Outskirts, Nov 3 Edition – The Social Media Dilemma

What are you supposed to do when the elixir is sweet, but the bottle it comes in is toxic?

That’s how I feel this morning, reading this coverage of the Senate’s hearing with the representatives of the three biggest ad-based web platforms – Google, Facebook and Twitter:

“Russians have been conducting information warfare for decades,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in his opening remarks. “But what is new is the advent of social-media tools with the power to magnify propaganda and fake news on a scale that was unimaginable back in the days of the Berlin Wall. Today’s tools seem almost purpose-built for Russian disinformation techniques.”

I will confess (as will surprise absolutely no one) that despite my cute “no Facebook” cover-and-profile photos, I am not fully recovered from my Facebook addiction.  It’s made a huge difference taking the mobile app off my phone, but I still have it on my iPad, and the browser version is only an “f” key away. So, yes, I’m still looking in several times a day.  Like an alcoholic who keeps venturing in to the tavern…

My little sister is coming to visit

And when I do look over the wall, I see all kinds of things that I find appealing.  Like this post from Mary Gauthier about hanging out with Sarah Silverman. Or this thread from Rod Picott about the end of the baseball season (I even contributed a comment to that one).  Or this delightful photo my sister posted from our family photo albums as she prepares to visit Tennessee over the weekend.

All of that feels harmless enough.  But the whole time I’m wading through this digital swamp I can’t seem to shake this nagging feeling that something is just not right about all this.  There is something lurking beneath the surface, something deceptive, almost pernicious.  It’s the feeling you get when exchanging light-hearted digital banter, but slithering around our feet is a big-mouthed s culture-devouring beast.

In addition to reading the above linked “WIRED” commentary on the Senate hearings, I also listened yesterday to Terry Gross’s interview with  feminist writer Lindy West – who recently bailed on Twitter after being subject to entirely too much vicious trolling.  She nailed the essence of my own dilemma when she said:

My presence on Twitter felt like an endorsement of Twitter — and I do not endorse Twitter. I think Twitter has done nothing to protect this country against this catastrophe that’s befallen us, and I just couldn’t be a part of it.

But at the same time, I don’t get to be a part of these really, really important and often beautiful national conversations that are happening right now…I feel very behind…

I really loved being able to communicate with people, and learn from people and, you know, riff, joke around with people. And so in that way, I guess the silencing campaign succeeded. You know, I’m not there. I’m not part of that conversation. But it’s – my mental health and my personal life are much, much better not on – not being on Twitter.

That’s precisely how I feel about Facebook – that my presence there is an endorsement of a platform that is undermining the fabric of the our fundamental institutions, and that the relentless compulsion to open the app and “tune in” was somehow damaging to my mental health.

I say all this while fully grasping the ironies involved – not the least of which is using Facebook to declare how much I dislike Facebook.

There is also the fact that for most of my adult life, I have actively studied the history and evolution of communications technologies (why, I even wrote a book about it!), so I know that all this “social media” stuff is just something “new” that we have yet to fully grasp the meaning and value of.  And I get that by pushing away from it I am consciously participating in the next wave, the pitchforks-and-torches reactionary big-tech backlash we are now seeing unfold.

So yes, ironies abound.  But for now at least I still feel that getting an active handle on my “social media engagement” is a necessary element of my recovery.  And that in so doing, I am  shooting a tiny arrow of defiance at the ramparts of the big tech fortress.

That will have to do for now.

Oh boy, medieval imagery: We must storm the ramparts of Big Tech!


Bart Giamatti: “It Breaks Your Heart”

Once upon a time, a poet philosopher (and former Yale University president) named Bart Giamatti (and, yes, the father of actor Paul) served briefly as the Commissioner of Baseball.  A heavy smoker all his life, Giamatti died at age 51 after serving only 5 months as Commissioner.

Despite his brief tenure, Giamatti left a lasting mark on the game, In addition to being a scholar, a tough negotiator and a stalwart Defender of the Game (Giamatti oversaw the permanent exile of Pete Rose), Giamatti also wrote extensively about the game.  His writings were compiled in a 1998 book called A Great And Glorious Game.

Somewhere – it might have been at the Baseball Hall of Fame fame in Cooperstown NY, or maybe it was somewhere in Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary, I encountered the opening paragraph of that book.  Now that another baseball season has come and gone, that opening passage comes to mind once again:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

Last night, it stopped again.  The seasons now – like the games – seem to go on forever. Maybe it’s fitting that these interminable seasons, with their interminable games, stretch into November.  The World Series ends now just a few days before we return to “standard time”  –and the darkness descends before the afternoon is over.

Roy Campanella – the second black player in the Major Leagues, seen here with the first.

I used to be a big baseball fan.  I grew up with the “Mantle/Maris Yankees” of the 1950s and 60s.  I became a “closet Dodger Fan” in the 4th grade after reading a biography of Roy Campanella – the second black player in the major leagues.  I became an Atlanta Braves fan when I moved to Hawaii in the 1980s and Turner’s TBS was the only “live” television station.   TBS carried all the Braves games in those days, and I watched as they compiled one of the worst records in baseball through the 1980s.  But for that dedication the Gods rewarded me with tickets for the first World Series game ever played south of the Mason Dixon Line – Game 3 of the epic 1991 World Series between the Braves and the Minnesota Twins.

And I’ve always been a Cubs fan. I believed for a long time that all true baseball fans were cubs fans, because you always root for the team that has “gone the longest without” winning the whole thing.  And until 2016 that was the Chicago Cubs.  Somewhere there is a photo of me throwing a shoe at at TeeVee after the Cubs lost the 1984 NLCS to the San Diego Padres…

But somehow over the past few years I’ve become less of a baseball fan. I was still a Braves fan when I moved to Nashville, but Ted Turner sold everything Time-Warner and eventually the games stopped showing up regularly on TBS.  They were moved all over the dial.

And then… TiVo.  I think it was TiVo that wrecked my ability to watch long baseball games.  Because TiVo made it unnecessary to watch commercials.  And if you’re going to sit through a four-or-five hour baseball game, you’re going to have to suffer through a LOT of fucking commercials.

But I did watch as much of this year’s World Series as time would allow, and even though Houston was the team that “has gone the longest without” (like, forever), I was disappointed when the Dodgers couldn’t get out of the dugout in Game 7 last night.

And now the season is over, and the darkness descends.