PUTTING TOO MUCH WEIGHT ON THE NEWS


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NEWS AS A PERSONAL NARRATIVE

For most of us, reading the day’s news is one of the first things we do after awakening. We grab a cup of coffee and go online. Many of us also glean what’s happening from social media. In this way we attempt to construct a narrative that allows us to feel responsible and informed. We’re trying to act like adults.

We’re also trying to protect ourselves from being blind-sided by some new tragedy. Social pressure leads us to want to be among the group of those who have been informed about the latest developments. Otherwise we would seem like those poor souls who are out of the loop. The process begins in Junior High. You don’t want to be caught dead not knowing about the latest trends in fashion and music.

The “legitimate” news sites all cover the same ten or fifteen stories of that day. They are considered legitimate because somebody gets paid to research and write the articles. They attempt to provide “balance,” whatever that is. On the other hand, Social Media is a hall of mirrors, a closed system which seems open to its users but is really the best example of confirmation bias in action anyone has ever devised. Instead of being a forum for discourse, it’s a pep rally. Hooray for our side. Your “friends” read your posts and you read theirs. You share and like memes which are created by others. In this way you act like boys trading baseball cards at the playground. It’s a form of self-expression based on identifying with something bigger than you.

In Playwriting, they suggest that if a fact is presented in the first act, it must matter by the final act. We have all seen plenty of movies and TV shows, and we’re hip to foreshadowing. We know how to infer causality. We can even imagine reverse engineering plots in order to make a neat story with a tidy ending. What we can’t comfortably deal with is unscripted reality. So we imagine meaning where there is none.

We become irritated by news that doesn’t suggest a plot or a probable outcome. If we can’t tell the good guys from the bad, or get an emotional release from the climax, what’s the point in consuming this entertainment called “news?”

There are computer programs that help struggling authors write by suggesting the elements of creative writing. Plot twists, character traits, motivations, climaxes, resolutions. They are like those programs that help you do your taxes by asking your questions about your financial affairs.

We use these programs and forums in order to make sense of today’s world and because we’re lazy. Thinking and writing are hard.

At least lately, there is a palpable sense among most of my social media “friends” that the world is on the brink of collapse. Hurricanes, Global Warming, nuclear threats, an insane President, earthquakes, Planet X, solar storms, predictions about an imminent stock market collapse. People share a generalized fear that the world is out of kilter and wobbling uncontrollably.

I, however, think that this is normal for the conditions we’ve created. 24/7 news access and the ability to comment on it via social media have made Nervous Nellies of us all. When I was young, my family watched Huntley and Brinkley in the evening, after supper. The dishes washed and put away, the children in their pajamas, we would cluster in front of the TV and watch sober, middle-aged white men tell us what was happening, often in somber tones. Walter Cronkite was grandpa, providing assurance that all was under control, and that tomorrow would be no crazier than today had been. But now, those avuncular guys are gone. Now, we’re on our own.

Oh sure we have some assistance in selecting which memes we will like or share. We have Fox and Friends or NPR depending on our political bent, but the main stories of the day have been agreed upon by all the legitimate news sources, and it’s only up to us to judge their importance and their concordance with our beliefs. Is today the day I believe I should quite my job, cash out and run away? My general sense is that things are out of control and getting worse every day. Can I hang on much longer?

I think the reason we have the arrogance to construct these narratives is because we feel we have been abandoned by the experts we used to trust to do this work for us. Nobody trusts politicians anymore. Anybody who wants to can start a YouTube channel for free and use his smart phone as a camera. Nobody wants to be Chicken Little, believing every rumor and running about clucking in terror. So we reluctantly construct a narrative that seems to embrace or at least explain the main news developments of today.

But we are often dogged by doubt. I forget, is ISIS real or a construct of Israel and the Saudis? Which events were false flags? Is President Trump a successful businessman or a mentally-ill loser? Should I be buying Bitcoins? Is it time to upgrade to a better phone?

No matter which decisions we make and which we postpone making, we will never feel safe or assured that we have not completely gotten it all wrong, because we’re relying on a self-constructed narrative with occasional input from a peanut gallery of social media “friends” who also have no clue. Whether you’re a teenage girl agonizing over which shampoo to buy or a retired geezer wondering whether to start ticking off the items of his bucket list, we’ll still be fraught with anxiety because that’s what this whole news/social media thing was designed to do in the first place.

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Reverie


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For the last couple of years, I have been waking up in the middle of the night.  I used to blame my bladder, but lately that poor inflexible bag isn’t even the culprit. I simply don’t sleep like a kitten anymore. Now I nap fitfully like an old lion, one eye half-open while my snaggle-toothed mouth flaps with my breathing.

 

During these times of nocturnal wakefulness I flip open my laptop. In the place I’m currently living, my landlord turns off the wi-fi from around midnight to dawn, so I’m not able to indulge in my Facebook addiction, the one where I scroll endlessly up the Meme River, looking for something that might interest me long enough to double click. I have come to believe that my landlord is doing me a service by depriving me of the Internet for this interval.

 

Most of the flotsam and jetsam I encounter are political posts,which bore and depress me. I don’t care much about the elections back home. I don’t even care about the lack of elections here in Thailand, which has enjoyed the relative stability of a military dictatorship for the last two years. I like coming across pictures with clever captions, and think that I’m especially good at coming up with them. By simply right-clicking, I can steal any picture I find on the net, then write a clever caption, but without pasting the words over the image, an act I consider inelegant and boorish.

 

Since my chromebook is barely a computer at all without wifi, I am forced to use it only as a typewriter. That can be a good thing. I am suddenly allowed to concentrate on one thing, instead of being teased and tempted by the torrents of online nonsense. Now, alone with the contents of my own head, I am free to pursue a series of thoughts that develop a common theme. I can write an essay!

 

These midnight moments are what has been called “reverie.” The word implies contemplation. It often happens at night, when the rest of the household is asleep.

 

Maybe someday soon it will be illegal to entertain your own thoughts without instantly sharing and mixing them with the thoughts of others. The conspiracy theorist in me can imagine such a future.

What Passes for Discourse Nowadays


 

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When I was a kid I used to turn on the TV so early that they hadn’t started regular programming yet. They used to show Industry on Parade newsreels. “Aluminum, Friend to the Housewife.” Even back then I knew what this was. It was propaganda. Advertising created by someone who would profit from selling aluminum pots and pans.

 

Then, when I went to grade school, we kids would buy bubble gum packs that came with baseball cards. We would then trade these cars on the playground. We guessed at the relative value of each card, and privately gave them value based on the inferred personality of the player. I’m a Don Drysdale kind of guy, but Billy over there is into Curt Flood. Again, we weren’t creating these cards, we were purchasing them and then imagining that this process would help us become like the men people pictured on the cards. Sympathetic magic.

 

College kids hope that certain bands on their playlist will attract the right kind of friends or mates. My record collection was more important to me than anything else I owned, because it expressed who I was, in case anybody cared to know. On the first warm day of spring I placed my speakers in an open window and blared out Crosby, Still and Nash singing “Four Dead in Ohio!” I was the kind of guy who hated Nixon.

 

Nowadays, on Facebook, people share political memes that attack certain candidates. We think of this as self-expression. Sure, the recipients of our posts are our “Facebook Friends,” so it’s basically preaching to the choir, but that’s OK. Sharing pre-manufactured memes that come our way is no more an example of creativity or self-expression any more than is collecting baseball cards or downloading other people’s musical output. We are buying into the idea sold to use by product manufacturers and their agents, advertising agencies, that we can be defined by our consumer choices. I’m an Apple person. Me, I’m strictly Microsoft. I’m better than both of you, I’m open-source Linux.

 

But what do any of us really know about these things we do not create but simply share. Remember, Facebook was created as a social tool to help college students find like-minded friends. So far all this sharing of “news stories” from various sites is neither research nor essay writing. These sometimes powerful and clever memes are not being produced by amateurs. They are the work of paid writers and graphic artists.

 

When we share a post that says “Share if you’re proud of your son,” or comply with the command “Share if you love Jesus, keep scrolling if you don’t care that he died for your sins,” we’re endorsing an ugly form of literary bullying. Someone is benefiting monetarily from our blindly playing along with this. This sort of activity has largely replaced reasoned debate and considered discourse. We never had a surfeit of those to begin with, but I’m afraid that today one ugly picture of Hillary scowling on Facebook could matter more than anything she may or may not have done or said.

 

DISCOURSE REVIVED


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Social media is not designed to promote debate. The audience one finds there is hand-picked, pre-selected. It’s preaching to the choir. Because Facebook is the way most people interact with others at a distance, its very popularity has come to diminish the role of discourse in what we imagine to be a free society. Indeed, many young people do not understand the role of argument or discourse, imagining that their manufactured beliefs and shopping preferences define them and their peers.

In much of the developing world free speech is at a minimum and a free press almost nonexistent. Democracy can’t function because loyalty is the supreme virtue, and extreme fidelity doesn’t allow much room for divergent opinions.

The country I came from used to pride itself on being a democratic republic, but today most people hate politics and would rather submit to a benign dictator if they could only find one.

Because I’m an expat and far from home, my main contact with others online is via Facebook, which was developed as a way to help college students find like-minded friends. It is all about peer groups, and finding your “peeps.” If you express an opinion that sets you apart from your peers, you will eventually be “unfriended.”

One of the explanations for Facebook’s financial success is that by being structured in this way, it can deliver advertisements to targeted groups, about which much is known because the members volunteer tons of information about themselves with every post and every reaction to a post.

This is fine if that’s all we want from communication, but I suspect that many of us, especially the more mature members would enjoy discussing complicated issues without the onus of being “popular.”

Could Facebook be modified to encourage rational discourse about complicated issues, rather than encouraging superficial and infantile reactions? Maybe this could be done with specific pages that would serve as forums to address specific issues. Politics. Banking. Theater. Literature. Music. Art.

Despite the trivial nature of most Facebook posting, its dominance could be tapped for the greater good. Politics doesn’t need to be a dirty word, and the lowest common denominator in the Arts doesn’t always need to command the greatest amount of attention. Facebook is just a tool, one that could be modified to be more effective for the greatest number of people. It could facilitate real, complex communication instead of simply pandering to the herd.

The Internet as God


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It’s almost impossible for me to imagine life without the Internet, but here comes a second day without it. I’ve reset the router a dozen times to no avail. My chromebook is useless without the ability to be online. These things I’m writing may or may not be retrievable. It assures me that all changes are being saved offline, but where? There is no hard disc, no real operating system.

I can use my phone to check Facebook and Hotmail, but the screen is so small that it’s like trying to drive while wearing swimming goggles. It can be done, but only minimally and at great effort. So this is why there is precious little written on Facebook. Everyone is using their smartphones, and writing something longer than twenty words is a real chore.

I suppose I have made the Internet into a god, and find myself totally dependent on him.

In fact, I just read a Facebook post that said God is like oxygen, you can’t see Him, but your very life depends on His existence. That got me thinking…this statement is odd in at least two ways. Why bother to posit something that you have no proof for, yet you’re convinced is the most important fact in your life? Also, if He is so important and all-loving, why would God hide from us? A cruel jest?

The Internet just returned!  Now I can post this blog. I guess it’s Easter, if I extend this metaphor. He is risen!

THE SLOW AND AGONIZING DEATH OF CONTENT CREATION


Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five , 1926 . Left to right : Louis Armstrong at piano holding trumpet , Johnny St . Cyr with banjo , Johnny Dodds , Kid Ory , Lil Hardin Armstrong . American jazz band . Louis Armstrong , jazz trumpeter , singer , born 4 August 1901 , died 6 July 1971 . Hardin Armstrong , jazz pianist , composer , arranger , singer , born 3 February 1898 , died 27 August 1971 .  Jazz band . Editorial use only

The world is awash in ways to deliver content, but content worth delivering is still in short supply.  Now that everybody has a phone that can take a good picture there are still precious few photos that will make a viewer gasp in wonder. Now that recording music or video is within the reach of anyone with a laptop, there are still few movies or music compilations to get excited about.

The fact that content is given away for free is hardly an inducement for anyone to devote him to life-long discipline in the creative arts.  Getting a Master of Fine Arts in a discipline will not lead to any sort of gainful employment.  There are no meaningful certifications in the creative arts.

We are in a strange place with our culture. I can hear Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five play Potato Head Blues on my cell phone, laptop, pad, and if I were to buy a blue-tooth enabled hearing aid, I could even listen to that snappy tune on that if I wanted.  I think I already own one pair of good headphones and three pairs of ear buds, enabling me to listen without being constrained to any one location.  I have the freedom to consume anything that is created nowadays, except that I am unaware of any such product. One could assume that alive today there are many artists as talented and driven as was Armstrong, but I have no way to knowing who they are.

Would Armstrong have been able to develop his prodigious talent if he had been unable to get paid for writing and performing? I imagine if he had to endure four years at University in order to get a teaching credential in music in order to lead a high school band, such an ordeal might have taken the wind out of his sails before he ever bothered to record himself and distribute it free on Youtube. Burdened by student loan debt and exhausted at the end of the day from preparing lesson plans and the onus to constantly proving his worth to school administrators, he might have soured on the whole music thing by the time he hit his prime.  Bix Beiderbecke only made it to the age of 28, so going that route would have surely been a fool’s bargain for him. Chopin and Mozart would have proved too difficult to get along with the school board or the PTA, and their only hope might have been to seek permanent disability status.

Maybe the reason I don’t know what to get excited about in the arts today has less to do with my age than it does with the fact that we have created a world that actively discourages creativity. Rather than being a boon to artists, the Internet has proven to be the final stake through the heart, the last knot in the noose, the biggest clump of dirt thrown on the coffin.

The Gingerbread Man in Zombie Land


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THE GIFT OF ATTENTION

Lately, ever since I discovered Facebook, I’ve been finding it hard to give myself the gift of my own attention.  I am constantly trying to concentrate on five things at once, and so I end up unable to really focus on anything at all.  I am like a computer thrashing or hung up on an endless looping operation and no longer capable of doing any real work.

There was a time when I flipped on the computer in order to create. That time seems long ago, now that I am constantly receiving trivial inputs from multiple sources. I used to have ideas, some original, often synthesized from reading and prolonged thought.  Again, that was long ago and this is now.

Lately, I’ve found that I can write again if I simply close Facebook so that it doesn’t make a noise to snag my attention every time somebody “likes” one of my posts. These are called “alerts.”  They serve to rouse the somnambulant. Writers have always experienced the difficulty of sitting still long enough for the creative process to begin and then managing to stick with it long enough to realize a product.  Every excuse imaginable pops into a mind facing a blank page or screen. Hmm, I haven’t polished my shoes in a while. Wonder what those new lime-green Oreos taste like?

When I am afraid or unwilling to sit still long enough to develop some sort of one-mindedness, by the time I reach the middle of my day I  find myself exhausted and demoralized.  Better to fire myself up with a few cups of coffee early and then get as jazzed as possible before my blood sugar plummets and I become so irritable that I run screaming from my house.

When I analyze the emotion that led me to this place, I realize that I’m afraid of my own unhappiness.  I fear that if I don’t run fast enough through the tunnel of distraction, a real accounting of my situation will finally catch up with me and I’ll simply succumb.  I’ll die. It will kill me.

“Run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.  I ran away from a Little Old Lady and a Little Old Man, and I’ll run away from you, I can, I can.”

Running, especially running away, has a way of becoming a full-time job.  Part-time dalliances don’t pay off as well as concentrated efforts.  Gotta slow down.  Gotta choose my battles. After all, isn’t today a gift?  Aren’t I in reasonably good health?  If not now, when?  If not me, who?

Surely nothing good can come from a half-hearted effort.  If I try to read a book, talk on the telephone, play the piano and watch television all at the same time, I will excel at none of these. Last night I went to an enormous coffee house here on the top floor of a trendy shopping mall near a university. It was jammed with maybe two hundred students who were silently staring at their laptops.  No one was speaking.  It felt like church.

I remember skipping classes in order to hang out in the student union, drink coffee and socialize, but it was nothing like this.  As I recall, somebody kept playing “Leaving on a jet plane” by Peter Paul and Mary on the jukebox. I’m sure my friends and I were yapping on about something or other, but compared to that, this student scene forty-five years later was positively eerie. One might dare say creepy.

Maybe these were good students deeply engaged in their homework.  They seemed hypnotized. Someone deep in thought can look that way, but often someone who is thinking or reasoning deeply is moving about, sketching or talking to himself.  These people were staring at their laptops and making small movements with their mice. The only noise was mice clicks.

If all the young people are hypnotized, who is going to create the new products that can be streamed to a zombie audience?  Won’t they get tired to watching or listening to the products my generation?