January 2012 Archives

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Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You (New York: Penguin, 2011)

Eli Pariser uses the concept of a "bubble" to connote an isolated, self-contained attitude that willfully ignores contrary evidence from the outside world, but this phenomenon may be both more pervasive and less deliberate than it might seem at first. Unintentional biases may creep into our lives in ways that are less than obvious, with dangerously broad effects:

Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another's point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we're being offered parallel but separate universes. (p. 5, Introduction)

He also sees this taking effect via "prediction engines [are] constantly creating and refining a theory of who you are and what you'll do and want next:"

Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us--what I've come to call a filter bubble--which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information. (p. 9, Introduction)

The dangers of Google and other such systems should be quite evident here, despite their "don't be evil" protestations:

"If you are not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." (p. 21, Andrew (blue_beetle) Lewis, MetaFilter)

Our aggregated online personal information has great value--but the relationship's power imbalance is problematic:

It'd be one thing if we all knew everything about each other. It's another when centralized entities know a lot more about us than we know about each other--and sometimes, more than we know about ourselves. If knowledge is power, then asymmetries in knowledge are asymmetries in power. (p. 147)

This one-way transparency is rather like being in a Panopticon or a psychology experiment, where we live our lives under the unblinking eye of some Sauron-like technological surveillance regime:

...there's more than a little irony in the fact that companies whose public ideologies revolve around openness and transparency are so opaque themselves. (p. 229)

The negative effect on citizenship is worth mentioning, because "Ultimately, democracy works only if we citizens are capable of thinking beyond our narrow self-interest:"

But to do so, we need a shared view of the world we cohabit. We need to come into contact with other peoples' lives and needs and desires. The filter bubble pushes us in the opposite direction--it creates the impression that our narrow self-interest is all that exists. And while this is great for getting people to shop online, it's not great for getting people to make better decisions together. (p. 164)

If this power is used solely for surveillance and marketing, that's a sad commentary on our cultural values. As Pariser observes, "some of these problems are too important to leave in the hands of private actors with profit-seeking motives. That's where governments come in." (p. 237)

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Guillebeau, Chris. The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (New York: Perigree/Penguin, 2010)

Non-conformist author Chris Guillebeau stresses that being self-directed rather than other-directed is the key, as he asks the clichéd-yet-appropriate question "Why jump off the bridge just because everyone else is doing it?"

You can step back from the ledge, turn around, and walk away into new adventures that had previously been only fleeting ideas. You can also help other people walk away from the bridge, or you can rewrite the rules that brought you to the bridge in the first place. The possibilities are unlimited, but it all begins with the deliberate choice to think differently. (p. xii, Prologue)

I absolutely adore this quote:

"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones." (p. 8, John Cage, quoted in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 1988, p. 211)

Guillebeau is very pro-entrepreneurial, although he is largely ambivalent (when not negative) toward higher education for a wide variety of occupations ["Entrepreneur, rockstar employee, creative professional, or somewhere in between--the best job security is your own competence." (p. 102)]. He suggests developing a "small army" of supporters, and mentions Kevin Kelly's "1,000 True Fans" idea (something I learned from Wil Wheaton), and emphasizes charitable giving (such as Penny Arcade's Child's Play charity) for upwards of 20% of his income. Guillebeau has a deep love of travel, and plans to visit every nation on earth. Although he admittedly "wouldn't make a good tour guide," he writes that:

After receiving nearly 1,000 stamps in my passport over the past decade, though, I'm pretty comfortable with settling in and finding my way around almost anywhere. (p. 198)

His advice to wordsmiths is worth noting, especially for those of us who have problems with brevity:

I follow a classic rule of writing and editing: when writing, don't hesitate to include something; when editing, don't hesitate to throw it out. With the average blog post, for example, I'll typically write twice as much as I end up using after a rigorous editing process. (p. 217)


links:

If you visit Guillebeaur's website, his piece "The Tower" (PDF) is worth a read, particularly his reminder that "After our basic needs are met, we have an innate desire to build and create:"

Constructing a life oriented around creative development is an opportunity to fulfill that desire, while also providing something of value for others to appreciate. A structure created in a video game might be a fun diversion for a while, but in life, the people you influence will benefit from the time and attention you spend on building something real.

We must work on our lives the way we would work on any other project. Instead of knowledge, pleasure, or happiness, the purpose of life is to create something meaningful that will endure after we're gone.

One can hardly make an enduring mark while simultaneously following the herd.

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Hessel, Stéphane. Time for Outrage! Indignez-vous! (New York: Twelve, 2011)

Time for Outrage! Indignez-vous! was penned by 93-year-old concentration camp survivor Stéphane Hessel, a man with quite an interesting history. Captured as a Resistance member, Hessel narrowly escaped death at Buchenwald and other Nazi death camps, and later became a member of the committee that drafted the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As far as Hessel's book in concerned, his history clearly informs his story. "The basic motive of the Resistance was indignation," he writes:

We, veterans of the French Resistance and the combat forces that freed our country, call on you, our younger generations, to revive and carry forth the heritage and ideals of the Resistance. Here is our message: It's time to take over! It's time to get angry! (p. 6)

NYT calls Time for Outrage! "a thin, impressionistic pamphlet ... held together by two staples and released by a two-person publishing house run out of the attic of their home," snarking that "At about 4,000 words "Indignez-Vous!" can hardly be called a book." Democracy Now! observes that it "has sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 10 languages." Here is an expression of optimism from the DN! Interview:

I am very, very happy to see so many young people listen to, read my little book. And I hope that the 12 editors who put out Time for Outrage here are going to have great success, because the more U.S. young citizens live for democracy--and not for democracy anytime, but for democracy now--the better it will be for our countries.

The Nation writes that Stéphane Hessel "urges a new generation to renew the struggle for social justice:"

In France today, Hessel calls on the young, many of whom have already marched through the streets with their inchoate fury at President Nicolas Sarkozy's "reforms." They resent the balance Sarkozy is achieving between benefiting the banks while depriving the unemployed, the old, students, immigrants and the poor. Hessel's call for a renewal of the spirit of the Resistance, albeit a pacific one, resonates in French traditions that immigrants embrace. It will do the same for youth in Britain and the United States, whom Hessel calls upon to remember their history and to defend its highest achievements.

Will his book help to prod audiences outside France into action? One can hope so.

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Lu Chi. The Art of Writing [trans. Sam Hamill] (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2000)

I'd been anticipating this books ever since Lapham's Quarterly mentioned it in their Arts & Letters issue. Translator Sam Hamill discusses how linguistic issues can be compounded by poetic license:

I've constructed a lyric paraphrase concentrating on what I perceive to be primary passages and images. In some places, I've condensed; in others, it has been necessary to make leaps or to slightly reorganize. (p. xxx, Translator's Introduction)

Hamill no doubt slaved over this passage:

Wanting every word to sing, every writer worries:

nothing is ever perfected;
no poet can afford to become complacent.
(p. 33, XIII. The Masterpiece)

He appears undaunted by Lu Chi's cultural prominence:

In the history of Chinese letters, Lu Chi holds a position similar to that of Aristotle in the West, but with one paramount distinction: virtually every Chinese poet since the beginning of the fourth century has gone to school on the Wen Fu, and most memorized it. He is revered by traditionalist and experimentalist alike. (pp. xxvii-xxviii, Translator's Introduction)

Other translations can be found here and here; Lu Chi is highly recommended.

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Richardson, Robert. First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process (Iowa City, IA: Iowa University Press, 2009)

In First We Read, Then We Write, Robert Richardson explicates Emerson's creativity through excerpts from his work; my favorite is perhaps this one:

The best single bit of practical advice Emerson ever gave--best because it is a cry from the heart, because it focuses on attitude not aptitude, and because it is as stirring as a rebel yell--is this: "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent." (p. 24, from Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, 8:400)

Times Higher Education writes that "Richardson the scholar becomes the ears through which we hear Emerson the writer," which is a fitting sentiment--and one that indicates Richardson's enthusiasm for Emersion.

The Library of America's four volumes of Emerson's works (Collected Poems and Translations, Essays and Lectures, Selected Journals 1820-1842, and Selected Journals 1841-1877) might be overkill for the casual Emersonian, but Richardson might well entice you into such an expedition.

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Maass, Alan. The Case for Socialism, Third Edition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010)

As if the title weren't obvious enough, Maass does indeed present a case for socialism as an alternative to capitalism; he specifies that this must be "real socialism" as opposed to "the hysterical caricatures of blowhards like Glenn Beck and others on the right:"

At its heart, socialism is about the creation of a new society, built from the bottom up, through the struggles of ordinary working people against exploitation, oppression, and injustice--one that eliminates profit and power as the prime goals of life, and instead organizes our world around the principles of equality, democracy, and freedom. (pp. 5-6)

His view on our current system is that "Capitalism does one thing very well--protect and increase the wealth of the people at the top of society in the short term:"

Meeting the needs of everyone else is secondary, which is why so many people's needs go unmet. From every other point of view--producing enough to go around, protecting the environment, building a society of equality and freedom--the capitalist system is useless. (p. 28)

"Socialism is based on a simple idea," Maass writes, "that the resources of society should be used to meet people's needs" (p. 73). This focus on people would work to "take profit out of the equation:"

Therefore, the resources of society could be commonly owned and controlled by everyone, with decisions made democratically according to what's needed and wanted, not how much money can be made. Instead of decisions about the economy being left to a few unaccountable people in corporate boardrooms, a socialist society would be one where proprieties and how to implement them are discussed, debated, and planned by all. (p. 77)

Thus, he continues, "Socialism will be far more democratic than capitalism." (p. 77) This emphasis on the foundational aspect of democracy echoes Howard Zinn's 'history from below' with its focus on the common citizen. Maass observes that "The socialist Bertolt Brecht crystallized the point in this poem:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years' War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

"Questions from a Worker Who Reads" (p. 115)

The fears that the overclass harbor about socialism (of mob rule, degenerated democracy) prompted Burkean conservatism in the wake of the French Revolution, and here Maass demonstrates his erudition:

Mark Twain gave the lie to all the pious lectures about violence in revolutions when he defended the French Revolution of 1789, with its principles of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, against those who dismissed it as a "reign of terror" incited by blood-crazed mobs:
There were two Reigns of Terror, if we but remember it and consider it: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions... [...]

A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror--that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

(p. 128, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court)

This reminds me of the free-market fundamentalists' willingness to blame socialism (or communism, not that they know the difference) for the crop failures and famines of China and Russia in decades past--while simultaneously turning a blind eye to every person who starves under capitalism for lack of money. We need to be scrupulously honest about all aspects of whatever economic systems we advocate.


links:

Interested readers can find an excerpt at Socialist Worker.

Seattle PI's review comments that despite "eagerly and gleefully...laying out a case for the evils of capitalism in our world of scandals and war and starvation and pollution, Maass ultimately fails in presenting socialism as a viable alternative:"

The book appears to be put together like a series of pamphlets or even blog posts and it lacks cohesion, leading to an awful lot of repetition. [...] The book, in its Third Edition, also contains a fair share of simple spelling mistakes that prove distracting as well. This, combined with a rather unsophisticated presentation of socialist principles that only briefly and brusquely provides historical context, makes The Case for Socialism a less than enthralling piece of work.

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