6 06 2009

TV functions as the modern equivalent of the fire that thousands of generations of people sat around each evening for as long as we were us. My guess is that a lot of storytelling always went on in that setting. Most of the stories were probably told by the elders. The stories would be funny or dramatic or sad or uplifting, and many times they would be instructive about how to live in the surrounding society — even if the lesson was only implied. And other members of the family could tell stories too, even the children — getting to be the center of attention and feel important in the family in the process. Storytelling explained the world and passed cultures on in a warm, community-building way.*

Commercial TV, as practiced in the United States since the 1950s, took all that away from us. A brand new kind of mesmerizing ever-changing light for the family to stare at in the evening darkness, it might have been a worthy replacement for the old ways, except for the differences in motivation of the old and new storytelling. American TV has always told stories that were motivated by one single desire — the desire to grab and hold your attention in order to sell you stuff. That means that every aspect of the storytelling art became meretricious. There is little or no “art” per se, left, in fact, because creators don’t get to make decisions freely about what will be in their stories. Choices are dictated mostly by the need to sell, sell sell!

The worst aspect of this is that TV stories have increasingly tried to show the most extreme aspects of everything, because that’s what the manipulators behind them know will grab your attention. That’s why we have so many shows about inherently disgusting things, like serial killers, and how to figure out who killed decomposing dead people. (“CSI” comes to mind.) Cumulatively, this has the subliminal effect of making people believe that crime is much more of a danger to them than it is. We become nervous, ever-watchful, and ever more eager to buy guns to defend ourselves from the unlikely “dangers” that have been made to seem to surround us on every side.

TV stories also routinely misrepresent society, because no-one will be in a buying mood if he’s reminded that he lives in an economically perilous society that cares nothing about him.  So all stories on American TV take place among the upper middle class or the wealthy. Poor people are never mirrored positively, and the reality they live is therefore marginalized. On TV they are nothing, zeroes. That is not good for their self esteem. And their excision from the TV world also subliminally mirrors our society to us in a falsely positive light, promoting right-wing politics.

In the last and worst place, by taking over all storytelling, traditional, non-Internet TV took away from children, and in fact all “everyday” people, the chance to shine in an extended, creative way by successfully telling complete stories. There are only so many pleasures to be had in the course of a human life. We couldn’t afford to lose one that cool.

Now, luckily, the age-old gathering around the fire has been rekindled in the form of the Internet. On sites like YouTube, Twitter, and untold millions of blogs, we can all participate in telling stories again. True, the people who want to “drive” us (as they are tellingly fond of saying) to their selling sites still predominate, but before we could not turn away from their offerings without turning off that hypnotizing central light — a very hard things to do. Now we can flit away in a moment to another web page or video. It is a golden age of information, interaction, and participation.

But unfortunately, in the USA at least, the “driving” power of greed is immense and ever-renewing. We’re seeing ever more elaborate ways being developed to track us as we navigate the Internet, so that, though we may now escape junk programming as we never could while watching TV, we cannot escape advertising**. In addition, watch for sites like YouTube to be increasingly morphed toward the top-down model of program creation. The history of American electronic media is a story of ever-increasing narrowing of the fare that the people who run the media will offer us. (Listen to commercial radio — a selection of stations — for a few days, and you’ll get the idea. In the early years of broadcast radio it offered everything from farm reports to soprano recitals.)

This narrowing reflects the practice of “programming to the lowest common denominator” — meaning only providing stuff that the most unsophisticated viewer could love, on the assumption that everyone else will turn off half his brain and watch it too, rather than have nothing to watch at all. The great virtue of this approach for content producers is that they only have to produce the entertainment equivalent of burgers and fries, yet they will still get big audiences.

For the foreseeable future there will be tremendous pressure from powerful interests to control the Internet and narrow its options so that this time-honored approach can be used on us again. I will fight against that, and I hope you will to.

The best way to do so, IMHO, is to support net neutrality.


* See this review of a really interesting book:

Review: How storytelling shaped humanity

  • 25 May 2009 by Kate Douglas
  • Book information:
  • On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction by Brian Boyd
  • Published by: Belknap Press
  • Price: $35/£25.95


** That is, unless you use Firefox with the add-on called AdBlock installed, in which case you don’t have to see much advertising at all.


4 06 2009

Here’s an interesting discussion of the current anti-vaccine brouhaha:

A comment made by one of the participants in that discussion reveals what I consider to be one of the two foundations of the anti-vaccine animus:

“Ever heard about Monsanto ? Go search Youtube. How about all the banned pesticides of the past ? They are still in our environment.  Too late to turn back the clock now. Where were you and when we needed someone to fight the toxic Big-Agri and Big-Pharma.

This isn’t crazy talk…  These are concerned parents.  Unlike Doctors, they can’t be bought and sold by Drug company sales representatives.”

I think the above is hopelessly muddled, for the following reasons.

First,  it seems reasonable to listen to scientists with at least a degree of respect when they talk about their areas of expertise. One need only look around our world and think about how people lived before the scientific method began to be routinely used in order to see that science WORKS.  So when scientist in a field unite in stating scientific fact Y, I think it is only rational to accord a strong presumption of correctness to what they say.

Unfortunately, in some contexts in this century there have been such scary cases of APPLICATIONS of science going wrong that now lots of people are suspicious of anything scientific.

But look at the differences between pesticides, the great recent American example of science doing harm, and vaccinations:

1. It’s extremely likely that there is and was hugely more money to be made from pesticides than there is from vaccinations, so there was more incentive to lie or engage in wishful thinking about them when initial decisions were being made as to whether to deploy them.

2. Pesticides and their use were exclusively mediated by business. That is, pesticides came into use in a big way back in the 1950s when there was no EPA to question their safety. Everyone who made the initial decisions about pesticides and where and how to use them had the prospect of certain or possible profit from their use, so of course they had a big incentive to ignore dangers and evidence of dangers. In short, they went for the pesticides full tilt, with eyes firmly closed. We see this phenomenon of profit-induced blindness routinely in all kinds of business everywhere.

Vaccines, by contrast, have been in use for 100 years, are evaluated by professional scientists, and are used in the context of the practice of medicine, where a high level of concern for patients is taught and constantly reinforced in the profession. This  is very likely to outweigh whatever small profit a doctor may make in advocating and giving vaccines.

3. Every danger has to be evaluated on its own. It’s fuzzy thinking of the worst kind to say, “Science/technology caused harm in past situation X, so from now on I will assume that it will always cause harm in every application, even when trained experts, applying the scientific method, have reached the conclusion that it won’t.”

But there is another,  more fundamental  illogic at play here on the part of at least some anti-vaccination parents. Americans are taught (in my view erroneously) that all Americans are powerful, that there is a solution to every human illness and species of misfortune, and that you and I are just as good at finding those solutions as the experts. If there ever was a recipe for WISHFUL THINKING, this is it.

Let’s say, against this background of unexamined cultural assumptions, that you are one-half of an affluent American couple, and one day you are told that your child is autistic — and you are also told that the cause of the autism is genetic and nothing can be done for your child. Are you likely to accept this truth and start learning to live with autism?

Not bloody likely! All your experience from other contexts has show that you know how to get things done in the world, have the money to get things done, and are articulate enough to convince others to join you in doing something.

You will move heaven and earth to find  a cure for the autism — and therefore to “discover” a cause for it that you and parents like you have the power to affect. Further assertions by experts  that the autism is as has been described to you will fall on deaf ears. The Great American Strain of Anti-intellectualism virtually assures that.

No-one wants to admit defeat. And here in the USA we find doing so positively un-American! The confluence of this ingrained cultural assumption with the skepticism about technology that’s grown up in recent decades is enough to explain the anti-vaccination agitation.


20 05 2009

A lot of my posts in this blog address large issues, American culture being the next to largest — and the whole human condition, even, being by far the largest! Usually when I write about these things I see highly unappealing facts. Generally I’m right. Those are the facts.

My recent post “The Bullshit Science”, for example, I think is 100% spot on. If you look at the world around you carefully, and think of that paradigmatic monkey troop, matastasized to cover the earth, you’ll see what I mean.

But I fear that I am right mostly only on the macro level. Lived out in the interstices of the complex social arrangements dictated by our instinctive struggle for status and our distinctively human fear of death is another world I consistently miss.

It’s the world of love and emotional connectedness — family love, romance, community loyalty, the pleasure of struggling together to make an organization work. And also in there is the world of fun, adventure, excitement, and wild abandon. And lets not forget the quieter pleasures of hopeful planning and enjoyable creativity.

These everyday, near things are our salvation. They block our view of the larger Human Condition, which, seen as a whole (birth, struggle, death, nada) is truly awful.

Unfortunately, I am almost blind to the world of emotional connectedness, for reasons having to do with my family of origin–so there goes that ameliorating factor.

And I am not having much fun, and have never been any kind of an extrovert–so there goes another.

The only thing I have to shade me from the pitiless macro view is creativity, and I only have a wee bit of that.

So OK, I’ll admit it. Everyone sees the world though his own unique lens. As for me, you might say I’m a guy who can’t see the trees for the forest.


17 03 2009

From The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

“In a powerful passage, he blames his violent outbursts on the unbearable contradictions of modern life. Brainwashed into that each of us is an individual of inestimable value with an individual destiny, that there is no limit to what we can attain, we set off, each of us, in quest of individual greatness. Inevitably we fail to find it. Then we begin to hate immoderately and punish ourselves and one another immoderately. The fear of lagging [behind] pursues and maddens us…. It makes an inner climate of darkness. And occasionally there is a storm of hate and wounding rain out of us.”

— J. M. Coetzee in Inner Workings, paraphrasing page 63 of the novel


27 07 2008

The Uses of Snobbery

I plead guilty to being an intellectual snob. It comes from having been a poor outcast fat kid in the backwards backwoods of Texas long ago. I had to cling to SOMETHING to have value in my own eyes, and I chose the contents of books. The ability to read “hard” books and to become lost in them was the only thing I had going for me.

Compared to those contents, as illuminated by my imagination, the squalid surroundings and dimwit country culture of my small-town Texas childhood became dismissible. It was like being thrown into prison and coping with the noise and danger and ugliness and cruelty and excess macho nonsense of the other prisoners by dreaming about your life when finally released. Seen through the mist of those dreams, it was all dismissible, hence bearable.

There is lots in American culture now, 40 years later, that remains unchanged (after a brief abortive flirtation of the USA with being civilized that occurred in the 1960s). If you actually live within the soup of media-business-religion-sports that constitutes all the “culture” that the USA has, then you will slowly be de-brained. I understand that this lowest-common-denominator culture is the natural product of a country made up of persons of so many ethnic and national backgrounds that, other than a burning desire to make as much money as humanly possible, they have historically had very little in common. But I don’t have to join the de-brained brigade just because I was born here.

After a lifetime of being regularly fed drivel, I now watch no TV, read no magazines (celebrity, so-called “news”, or otherwise), consume only carefully-selected contemporary movies, go to no theme parks, read no best sellers, and listen to no radio but NPR.

But I still actually live in the American South. People here are friendly and polite in their personal lives and daily contacts. And this state I now live in is unique among Southern states in having a strong minority population (the Cajuns) with a distinctive culture that influences many aspects of life here. But the public reality that reigns in this place and time is still highly driven by the larger mass of US media ideas and images that flood in upon us daily, and by a good deal of local self-deluding nonsense about the glorious Old South. The result needs continually to be dismissed if one is not simply to despair for one’s country. I can’t turn on the main local AM radio station without hearing a local Homer or Jethro imitating Rush in order to book his own transient local fame. (The usual chorus of drawling dittoheads always obligingly call in to agree.) This city, Baton Rouge, has a paroxysm every time the LSU Tigers play a football game and doesn’t notice much else that happens publicly. In politics it is cruel, in art is is limited to country and rap and phony Cajun music, in public thought it is limited to a slavish love of business and business persons, and a widespread desire to try to guess what they might want before they want it, so they won’t get in a huff and take their many dollars to some even more accommodating Southern state.

Oh yes, the folks did stir from their torpor recently to get incensed when the state legislators voted themselves big raises—raising themselves from tiny salaries originally based on the fact that theirs was once a part time job to middle-class level salaries. Smart people I knew joined the brigade of the incensed. I didn’t point out to them that if you pay people with power peanuts you give them tremendous incentives to take bribes.

It would have been pointless, and gotten a lot of folks mad at me.

The USA has a history of driving its artists and intellectuals into exile. In the 1920s through the 1940s it seemed as if most such folks were to be found in Paris. Now they have found a precarious home in academe. For those of us who are unacademicized, there is only the internal exile of dismissiveness. One gets ones information through the Internet, and lets the drivel go.