Looking ahead, seeing behind

Stuck in the moment, nostalgic for the past.

How do people run life at a dizzying pace while also wanting society to replicate the 1950s? 

Technology facilitates progress yet turns back the clock on thinking. Mobile phones allow anyone with an account to amplify misinformation and weaken the willpower to do good. Even the inactive can recharge into fully blown acolytes.

Reality TV is phony, but it can become all too real with astonishing rapidity.  It turns amateurs into professionals, laymen into experts. Evil spreads by way of stupidity, invading human brains the way viruses enter human bodies.

Instead, what we need are more ideas that redirect the running memes in our head and compel us to emerge from our cocoons. The bubble has already popped.

The world we inhabit is the one we think we make.

Like science, it is worth questioning everything that tries to demand certainty. Stuck in a state of ripeness, we are always opening up without ever falling behind.

The oppression of speed

giphy-1
gif via @Waywardteacup

According to German critical theorist Hartmut Rosa, accelerated technological developments have driven the acceleration in the pace of change in social institutions.

Noticeable acceleration began more than two centuries ago, during the Industrial Revolution. But this acceleration has itself accelerated. Guided by neither logical objectives nor agreed-upon rationale, propelled by its own momentum, and encountering little resistance, acceleration seems to have begotten more acceleration, for the sake of acceleration.

To Rosa, this acceleration eerily mimics the criteria of a totalitarian power: 1) it exerts pressure on the wills and actions of subjects; 2) it is inescapable; 3) it is all-pervasive; and 4) it is hard or almost impossible to criticize and fight.

Read To be more creative, embrace the art of doing nothing

Slow media in, Zombie scrolling out

giphy
via giphy

The tranquil flood of information died after CNN introduced the 24-hour news cycle. But the internet brushed on a new type of disorder onto the information canvass that prevents us from thinking straight.

We consumed mindlessly, eating more than we could chew. Our brains got overloaded, dulled out, memories stymied by Google and images that told us everything we needed to know.

The good news is that while no one reads anymore, those who do are choosing quality over crap. Premium content is back because it’s trustworthy, well-written, detailed, and shareable.

Of course, the non-traditional sources are there like me. I blog to step back from the chaos and to absorb its connections. I refuse to let the Kardashians and other buffoonery colonize my brain. Blogging is like self-medication, but you can easily do it with a private journal or spending five still minutes reflecting on the day behind or ahead.

The Pilgrims didn’t have to deal with attention seeking missiles, misinformation, and click-baiting darts. Otherwise, they might have stayed home assuming the worst. Now offers the chance to dance with the intrusions by putting novelty aside and embracing the imagination for periods at a time.

“We think we understand the rules when we become adults but what we really experience is a narrowing of the imagination.” — David Lynch

Less news equals more news, squashing stimuli along the way.

“Musician, artist, thinker” Brian Eno talks Bitcoin, how ‘simplicity can produce complexity’, and more…

"Musician, artist, thinker" Brian Eno talks Bitcoin, creativity, and more...
Image via © Gabby Laurent/FT

The Financial Times sat down with “musician, artist, thinker” Brian Eno in the studio of his Notting Hill home. Here are my favorite snippets from the interview:

On the transactional value between art and bitcoin:

It is not so different from bitcoin. Art is the ultimate cryptocurrency. What the art world is doing is engineering the consensual value of something, very quickly. It only needs two people, a buyer and a seller.

On fusing music and art vocations:

I had this real struggle inside me, on whether to do music or art. I worried about it a lot. And then one day, I decided I didn’t have to do one or the other, I could do both. I glimpsed the possibility of making each one more like the other, a sort of fusing together.

On ‘how simplicity can produce complexity’:

When I first came up with the idea of utilitarian music, it was very, very unpopular. It meant muzak. It was music reduced, stripped of its fundamental cultural importance. And that was my biggest hurdle. Artists were supposed to want people’s 100 per cent attention.” What interested him instead was, “what was the least that I could do with music; how much could I leave out? What if I made music that was just like an atmosphere?

He criticizes pop musicians for being too close-minded, using the metaphor of a light bulb: “nobody looks at the bloody bulb. And that is what has been happening in music. We’ve been looking at the bulb.”

Eno illustrates the complexity from simplicity theory on paper by drawing out what it isn’t. He draw a pyramid and inserts lines from top to bottom:

This is God, or the Pope, or the orchestra conductor. And information flows this way only. There is no feedback, other than something dramatic like a revolution.

The symphony: it is inspired by the divine; it enters the composer’s head; he writes it down and passes it to the conductor, and then the leaders of the orchestra, then the section principals, and then down to the rank and file. There is this idea that the music is already in existence, in the mind of God or the composer, and it is our purpose to realise it.

Now, as a working musician, I know it doesn’t happen like that. I have seen a lot of music come into existence. It is a mess. It is a lot of complex things bouncing off each other, until suddenly something beautiful and intricate exists. It wasn’t in anybody’s mind. Nobody had conceived it up to that point.

“Musician, artist, thinker” Brian Eno talks Bitcoin, creativity, and more…
Image via © Gabby Laurent/FT

On the left’s provincialism and the urge to speak out against the rise of nationalistic tribes:

“But now there is engagement with politics. I have so many American friends, they were so apolitical. Politics was something you never admitted to doing, like masturbation. But that has changed now. We all thought these [Trump and Brexit supporters] were this little bubble of weirdos. But we discovered that we were the ones in the little bubble.”

If you’re interested in more Brian Eno reads, peep the below:

The pointlessness of constant self-grading

The pointlessness of constant self-grading
  • Five-star ratings
  • Gallup polls
  • Followers and social media ‘clout’

We obsess with gauging the temperature of our present reputation. The numbers are public, ticking up or down like stock prices.

The internet is the grandest stage of them all where we endeavor to present our best self. We strive to prove our self-worth, using likes and follows to pepper our egos.

A reputation is never finished. There’s always one more person to attract and appease.

Yet, the perpetual chase of approval remains illusory. There is no need to install an elaborate series of checks and balances on fame’s usefulness.

Our mood, needless the temperament of others, is as fickle as the weather.

Vigorous grading is not good for the person, nor the whole.

Types of cognitive bias

B9C6CDF9-9656-4280-8A5D-126F4E88F1AE

The race to the bottom begins when what you think you know, you know. I am once again reminded of this Seth Godin quotes from [easyazon_link identifier=”1591845335″ locale=”US” tag=”wells01-20″]All Marketers Are Liars[/easyazon_link]:

The best stories don’t teach people anything new. Instead, the best stories agree with what the audience already believes and makes the members of the audience feel smart and secure when reminded how right they were in the first place.

The stuff we want to hear sticks.

Confirmation bias and stereotyping are just the appetizers. Beware a blind spot, or better yet, the ostrich effect.

Biases are shortcuts. The truth never expires.

ORIGIN: The notion of cognitive biases was first introducted by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 1970s. Their research paper, ‘Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases‘ in the Science journal has provided the basis of almost all current theories of decision-making and heuristics. Professor Kahneman was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2002 after further developing the ideas and applying them to economics.

The paradox of jumping through hoops

the paradox of jumping through hoops

We chase the ephemeral pixels when boring is the most interesting.

We jump through hoops to please others when it is disobedience that leads to innovation. ‘Think different’ is a clarion call for doing better, assuming the maintenance.

We obsess with material goods when the fulfillment of life hinges on love and experience.

The paradoxes of human psyche go back to mimetic desire — we want what other people want. Emulation is vague, snagging attention but grasping for comprehension.

Around the racetrack, we go.

Maria Popova: I loathe the term “content”

mariapopova_2-1.png

Brain Pickings blogger Maria Popova sat down with WordPress in the Own Your Content series to discuss evergreen ideas and rethinking the meaning of content.

Popova writes about timeless topics. “I am drawn to ideas that remain resonant across time and space, across cultures and civilizations.” If you read her blog, you know that she excels in digging up little-known gems from primary sources and combining them in an interesting way.

Her talent reminds me of what professor Kenneth Goldsmith of the University of Pennsylvania said about education in the internet era: “an educated person in the future will be a curious person who collects better artifacts. The ability to call up and use facts is the new education. How to tap them, how to use them.”

Maria excels in making old content relevant again. Following her blog is a direct line to her insatiable curiosity.

In this sense, then, it naturally inclines toward what you call “evergreen” — which I take to mean enduring ideas that hold up across the years, decades, and centuries, and continue to solace and give meaning undiminished by time.

Yet, she also dislikes the word content as it compels merchants to race the bottom in the form of [easyazon_link identifier=”0804170045″ locale=”US” tag=”wells01-20″]attention-seeking missiles[/easyazon_link]:

I loathe the term “content” as applied to cultural material — it was foisted upon us by a commercially driven media industry that treats human beings as mindless eyeballs counted in statistics like views and likes, as currency to be traded against advertising revenue. Somehow people have been sold on the idea that the relationship between ads and “content” is a symbiotic one, but it is a parasitic one.

While tech may be the cigarette of the century,  the internet does provide space for writers like Maria Popova to demonstrate combinatorial creativity in the name of the hyperlink. If used properly, the internet can be a learning machine rather than a [easyazon_link identifier=”0553418831″ locale=”US” tag=”wells01-20″]propaganda tool[/easyazon_link].

Jazz as an instrument of global diplomacy 🎺

armstrong-sphinx.jpg
Louis Armstrong playing for his wife Lucille in Egypt, 1959 (image via New York Times)

From 1954 to 1968, the United States sent jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington overseas to help stem the tide of communism. Writes the New York Times:

Jazz was the country’s “Secret Sonic Weapon” (as a 1955 headline in The New York Times put it) in another sense as well. The novelist Ralph Ellison called jazz an artistic counterpart to the American political system. The soloist can play anything he wants as long as he stays within the tempo and the chord changes — just as, in a democracy, the individual can say or do whatever he wants as long as he obeys the law. Willis Conover, whose jazz show on Voice of America radio went on the air in 1955 and soon attracted 100 million listeners, many of them behind the Iron Curtain, once said that people “love jazz because they love freedom.”

America continues its cultural hegemony by spreading its talons of soft power around the world. Some say globalization is disguised as Americanization, and that black culture is American culture. In an era of populists and fake news, it’s interesting to ponder which musicians (Kendrick Lamar?) would serve as proper ambassadors today.

29kapl.large1 (1)
Jazz in Cairo (Louis Armstrong House Museum)

(h/t poastcards)

In our time

tom-barrett-318952-unsplash.jpg

Lost and rediscovered. Cycles of peace trigger concurrent spirals of tyranny. People gravitate to the donut hole, blind to the big picture.

History is a gif loop

It doesn’t matter what the books reveal about our worst tendencies. People want to experience chaos on their own. In short, men fall casualty to “thinking with their dicks.”

But therein lies the message of faceless ignorance. Through massive error, society wakes up from the maw of boredom. They want to feel more alive!

Yet, evil always unwinds to the awe of freedom. “Not even a congenital optimist can see a pony in this Christmas stocking,” writes Steven Pinker in his review of Trumpism in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

The truth never expires. Kindness scales. We escaped the ominous clouds, only yesterday.

The Wild West of data manipulation

200w_d-1.gif
gif by Ryan Seslow

Tech entrepreneurs are coming to realize their moral responsibility.

Outside parties were abusing stolen Facebook data to develop psychological profiles of voters. The data mining company Cambridge Analytica was central to the information warfare. They allegedly worked with Russians to stoke fears in the UK and America on immigration and other polarizing issues. So people got fake news and conspiracy theories in their feeds which led to Brexit and Trump.

28-year-old whistleblower Christopher Wylie who admittedly ‘made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’ at Cambridge Analytica is leading the charge against the product he helped build.

If data is the new oil, social platforms are the biggest propaganda machines.

Facebook is like an adult video game. People are obsessed with the sensational. And reality pays the price of fabricated events.

‘Move fast and break things’ may be a popular hacker’s motto but it’s shown to breed more carelessness than good. Thankfully, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube are facing up to the truth that while their tools bring us closer together but they also tear the world apart.

The damage has been done. The question now is how will they fix it? Some argue that the crackdown on Cambridge Analytic is just the start. Others like Om Malik are less optimistic. Pumping users and engagement are in Facebook’s DNA regardless of the consequences. Om writes:

Facebook is about making money by keeping us addicted to Facebook. It always has been — and that’s why all of our angst and headlines are not going to change a damn thing.

More to chew on here…

 

A place called home

Processed with VSCOcam with c8 preset
Photo by Wells Baum

My dad couldn’t wait to leave Youngstown, Ohio growing up. There was a vast world out there he wanted to explore. He preferred to exit a place he couldn’t change in exchange for one where he could find more creative stimulation and meet different folks.

It didn’t take long for his away to feel like home, as was the case with my own upbringing. After my family moved from Dallas to New York, ‘Big D’ felt small and insular in retrospect. However, it was only upon visiting Youngstown to see my grandmother years ago that I witnessed a more parochial side of America.


In big cities, you’re just another unknown. In small towns, you can’t even hide; your family reputation precedes you from the coffee shop to the church. Being a somebody instills the false notion that everything is going to be ok because your relatives and neighbors share similar interests. But like-mindedness traps people into fitting in without questioning the status quo.

I understood why my Dad felt the urge to leave his hometown to seek new challenges. As Tocqueville observed, “Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too unpleasant?”

But small towns like Orange City, Iowa are proving to be more elastic. Locals who left town in search of big city dreams are returning and bringing their changed perspectives with them. That doesn’t mean traditional values are withering, but it does mean that the provincial can come to tolerate ethnic and religious disparities without isolating the other. It’s worth noting that cities carry their own biases; in gentrified cities like San Francisco, the homeless sleep in newspapers just outside the homes or billionaires.

Democracies are supposed to be noisy, pluralistic places that progress through open dialogue. While the internet accelerated communication and appeared to knock down borders, it also led people back into tribes. The only way to salvage openness is to experience the world beyond your original birth place (urban or rural) and then come back with an appreciation for discussing differences face to face.

A tolerance for dialogue and discomfort makes territories on a map more arbitrary than they already appear.

Tech is ‘the cigarette of this century’

ludovic-toinel-349299.jpg
Photo by Ludovic Toinel

Technology undermines human willpower by stealing our attention and supercharging information distribution. We are stuck in a gif loop of variable rewards while bombarded with trivial “breaking” news.

We can’t escape the ‘hypnotic effect’ of digital stimuli because it’s got us hooked. We are stuck in destabilizing habits that resist self-regulation. Like lemmings, we keep coming back for more. Writes Nir Eyal:

“Ubiquitous access to the web, transferring greater amounts of personal data at faster speeds than ever before, has created a more potentially addictive world. According to famed Silicon Valley investor Paul Graham, we haven’t had time to develop societal “antibodies to addictive new things.” Graham places responsibility on the user: “Unless we want to be canaries in the coal mine of each new addiction— the people whose sad example becomes a lesson to future generations— we’ll have to figure out for ourselves what to avoid and how.”


Profiting from all distraction are companies that offer free services in exchange for advertising. Facebook, Google, et al. have turned their users’ eyeballs into lab experiments for clicks where humans get lost in a zoo of status updates and amplification. We show zero restraint to our technology vices, what professor Ian Bogost calls the ‘cigarette of this century.’

How do humans push back against addictive technology?

Computers intend to make our lives better, what Steve Jobs called, “bicycles for the mind.” What he didn’t foresee is the rapidity of change. Even radio and tv took time to evolve. What we’re experiencing now in the internet-era is hyper-speed beyond human comprehension.

Making precedes meaning

200w_d (2).gif
gif by Wells Baum

We can only construct with the tools at our disposal. Before cameras, artists painted pictures of the world. However, it wasn’t necessary to paint with exactitude; like writing, images were fabricated in the mind’s eye before putting color to the canvas, ink to the paper.

We never know what we’ll get until we put it down first: making precedes meaning. First, we do something and then we interpret its significance.

Conversely, the digital world is all about identifying objects for us. SnapChat, Google, and Apple use artificial intelligence to tell you what’s in our pictures, providing a shortcut to meaning. They are our third and fourth eye. Vision exceeds a one-way street.

But there are no absolutes. Consciousness manufactures data. It is our responsibility to convert the external world through our various lenses, reality and irreality. We make what you see. To quote Hemingway, “All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”