1) I guess the graduation speeches were of quite the well-suited ilk this year—fitted more for the heart and less the diploma. Jonathan Safran-Foer spoke at Middlebury’s graduation (the transcript was then printed for the Times), and talked a lot about today’s ease of communication and, thus, today’s relational retreat. Entitled “How Not To Be Lonely,” he catalogues some of the cultural and social restraints of technology, something we love…to…talk…about, but what’s more interesting is the focus he takes on power of intervention and attention.
He remembers sitting in a park, next to a woman who crying in public. Not knowing whether or not to intervene, he certainly knew it was easier not to, and that this tendency not to was a habit being formed in him (and us). Quoting Simone Weil, though, he says that this is the loss of a gift, that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” He makes a case for the hard-work of love—a la Franzen—rather than the swift fingers of the “like” (ht EH):
THE problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.
… We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or — being “anti-technology” is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly “pro-technology” — but a question of balance that our lives hang upon.
Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.
We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders, of love more than likes. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.
Similarly, over at our one-stop Anxiety shop, the title says it all: “In the Soul’s Dark Night: A Digital Solace.” A key paragraph (ht JT):
Ever since my own birth, it seems, I have dreaded nightfall and the silence of the evening dark. As an adult, I have been granted some solace. The iPad is a perfect nightlight. It is the fatherly reassurance that Freud says we all crave. Mine comes from a man named Steve. I push a button and, as the argentine glow washes over my face, my dread begins to recede. The image of an apple appears; it has been bitten and I can not help but think of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. But in a moment the apple disappears, and – lo! – is replaced by salvation: orderly rows of apps, bright columns of faithful soldiers in my own private war against solitude and disorder and oblivion. The dread is gone.
2) Well, I believe we’re only ankle-deep in what will be a waterfall deluge of Snowden-talk. At Mockingbird we’ve found some good reading to be coming from The Guardian on the subject. The influx of opinions on the inner-life Snowden-the-Whistleblower was brought on, it seems, by a David Brooks piece, who basically connects the leak to the dis-connect of 20-somethings today. Snowden, to Brooks, represents a young America “unshaped by the mediating institutions” of today’s society. [Do you see a theme running?]
This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme.
It’s logical, given this background and mind-set, that Snowden would sacrifice his career to expose data mining procedures of the National Security Agency. Even if he has not been able to point to any specific abuses, he was bound to be horrified by the confidentiality endemic to military and intelligence activities. And, of course, he’s right that the procedures he’s unveiled could lend themselves to abuse in the future.
But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.
This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse.
Yeesh. And of course there are the rebuttals, here, and here. But let us look, again, at the state of steadfast demurral that the media and big-figure-thinkers (and bloggers) have taken in their short-breathed opinions of this man. The self-justifying camps have been staked and an object, not Edward Snowden, but Patriot Whistleblower or Infidel Dropout—or “Weasel”?—becomes the wedge for deepening an opinion.
3) NPR tracked down Mara Wilson (remember Matilda? Mrs. Doubtfire?) to talk about what it is about child actors that makes them unravel in later years. It may seem kind of obvious, but she says it has all to do with the pressure tacit in the continual primping and doting and success:
“I had a moment when I was a child where I was filming a scene, and a soccer ball hit me in the chest, and I had to keep on going with the scene even though I was hurt, because I didn’t know what else to do. And as soon as they yelled cut, I started crying. … Everybody on the crew burst out into applause, and that made me cry harder. My mom said, ‘No, don’t worry, they just thought that you were being professional.’ And that’s the kind of thing you have to do.
“You’re also in this environment where you realize that, ‘Hey, I can’t really make a mistake because making a mistake is going to cost time and money, and it’s not going to help out the production.’ So you realize, or you think, rather, as a child that this is something that can’t happen: I can’t make a mistake. I have to be perfect. I have to get it right all the time. And that’s not a healthy mindset for a child.”
… “You lose that praise. You lose what you had. And you are so used to it; it’s almost like a drug. And all of a sudden it’s like withdrawal. You just go off of it, and you feel very rejected. I write in my piece that a lot of kids feel very rejected and very uncomfortable. They’re going through puberty, but imagine if the whole rest of the world was basically saying, ‘Yeah, you know what, you are pretty useless. You are pretty ugly.’ And there’s a lot of that out there.”
4) This is a couple months old, but if you have trouble sleeping, read this. Actually, don’t. It’s all about science and performance enhancement, sleeping less and getting more. It sounds… too good to be true?
Should technologies such as tDCS prove safe and become widely available, they would represent an alternate route to human longevity, extending our conscious lifespan by as much as 50 per cent. Many of us cherish the time we spend in bed, but we don’t consciously experience most of our sleeping hours — if they were reduced without extra fatigue, we might scarcely notice a difference except for all those open, new hours in our night time existence. Lifespan statistics often adjust for time spent disabled by illness, but they rarely account for the ultimate debilitation: lack of consciousness. Now a life lived at 150 per cent might be within our grasp. Are we brave enough to choose it?
5) On a lighter–and super excited!–note:
And from the Onion: “Excited Man Only 2 Therapy Sessions Away From Resolving Issues”
6) Nick Werle of n+1 writes about the modern usage of predictive measures, and their uselessness in the face of what happens. Using the 9.0 earthquake-turned-nuclear catastrophe in Tohoku in 2011 as a prime example, Werle uncovers the misguided philosophy of “risk management”:
Increasingly, risk management experts and their predictive models of the world determine the “efficient” distribution of resources necessary to respond to existential threats. In some domains, this organizational strategy has worked well. Improvements in prediction have helped save lives from extreme weather, manage the spread of seasonal disease, and navigate the internet. But forecasting has not adequately protected against the ravages of catastrophic technological failure, ecological collapse, or financial panic. Despite our generalized faith in their power to predict, when systemic disaster strikes we continue to accept experts’ claims that the cataclysm was an unforeseeable “act of god” that no one could have reasonably prepared for. These excuses leave both the ideology and the techniques of risk management intact. Our success at forecasting which cities to evacuate in advance of an approaching hurricane convinces us that we can equally well predict a “sustainable” level of carbon emissions that will head off global climate change. But this extrapolation overestimates our ability to statistically manage reality’s irreducible complexity and to eliminate uncertainty. The result is a world well prepared for the regularly occurring dangers of modern life, but woefully fragile to the rare, extreme events that drive history.
7) Finally, Ira Glass thinks Christians get the short end of the media stick? Open Culture finds an interview with Ira, where he says, “As someone doing documentaries, I felt that what Christians really are is not being captured by the press.” Need I say? Okay, I will. We kind of wrote a book about this his sentiment…
P.S. Monsters in College! Next week!