A Triumphant View of the Internet

There’s no shortage of takes about how Internet culture is ruining real world culture. I’m sure I’ve written my share. The Game: A Digital Turning Point by Alessandro Baricco (translated from Italian by Clarisssa Botsford) takes a strong opposing view and it convinces. I can never go back to my skeptical and lazy quick takes, having read this argument by an Italian novelist, sreenwriter, playwright, essayist and creative writing instructor. Everything about Baricco would lead you to assume he’d harshly critique online culture and yet, he sees salvation in it.

Your Professor, Alessandro Baricco

It’s nostalgia for the twentieth century, not online culture, he argues, that is truly dangerous for humanity. He makes this argument as gently as he can:

“I hope people who feel nostalgic don’t get me wrong. The twentieth century was many things, but over and above everything else, it was one of the most horrific hundred years in the history of humankind, perhaps the most horrific. What made it unspeakably devastating was the fact that it wasn’t the result of a failure of civilization or even an expression of brutality: it was the algebraic result of a refined, mature, and wealthy civilization.”

To hammer the point home, he recaps:

“A country that had been the cradle of our ideas of freedom and democracy constructed a weapon so lethal that, for the first time in their history, human beings possessed something they could use to destroy themselves. Finding themselves in a position to use it, they did so without hesitation. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the evil fruits of revolutions, by means of which the twentieth century had dared to dream of better worlds, led to immense suffering, unprecedented acts of violence, and terrifying dictatorships. Is it clear now why the twentieth century is not only the century of Proust but also our nightmare?”

Baricco traces the digital revolution from its origins in the video game Spacewar! (play it here) through the development of the first web pages, online commerce, social mediaand the epoch of big data and artficial intelligence we’re entering now. He structures his book as a topography of this new world — a sister to physical reality where some old elites have been replaced by new elites and some old elites have seen their power distributed among the masses.

Admittedly, some of this argument rhymes with the tech triumphalism of the 1990s, when we some believed the internet would be a great democratizing force. If Wal-Mart was culture’s bogeyman then, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple are now.

Baricco is no Utopian. He describes a new world, better by comparison to the blood-soaked one it replaced, though not perfect by any means, or even fair. The digital world is, as Baricco describes, a game with myriad, complex and changing rules. Games have winners and losers. Well-made games do not have obvious and surefire strategies for success. It’s like the stock market — if a strategy existed for producing steady gains with no losses, everybody would utilize it. Well-meaning, well-qualified and hard working people can lose this game, just as they frequently lost all of the games we played before.

A trap for the nostalgic is to insist that pre-digital experiences like seeing a play or symphony in person or reading a physical book or visiting a museum are somehow more real than their digital counterparts. “Listening to the Vienna Philharmonic live at the Musikverein is not the same as watching it online, but for most of humanity it is a choice between nothing and something really quite exciting. It’s not hard to choose,” he writes.

Those of us, and I include myself in this, who feel dislocated from their pre-digital dreams and ambitions would do well to remember that, though it may be harder to publish a book or to produce a play these days, “In its way, the Game showed far greater promise: it opened up all the gates and widened access to theaters, museums, and bookstores. A significant number of new faces started to circulate in places where they had never been seen before.”

Baricco stresses the benefits of open-mindedness and to recognize the futility of stubbornly insisting on old ways of doing things — there is no bulwark against what’s happened, what’s happening or what’s to come. Society will not consent to going back and for good reason. To survive, practitioners of arts and humanities will have to succeed in a game where skills can only be learned by playing.

Interestingly, he recommends that education, which has been sloweest to adapt, needs to change the most. This change, which had been resisted as Baricco wrote, has been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our son, 10 years old, grew up digital. As Baricco recalls his own child trying to interact with a photograph in a newspaper as if it were a touchscreen, we remember our son, around 3 years old, try to swipe the television to another channel and showing visible disgust at a screen so stupid as to ignore a users touch. He has been remote learning entirely since the Pandemic broke in March 2020 and while this arrangement isn’t for everybody, he has thrived.

Of course, he wants to go back to a physical classroom but as I’ve watched him succeed at computer-enabled scholarship, I realize that we can’t, and shouldn’t ever go back to education as it was. Remote learning is a skill and our son’s practice of it means that he can now access the best teachers in any discipline, no matter where he lives and where they do, if they have an online practice. Why settle for the best guitar teacher in town if the best in the country or world is available?

Further, as I watch friends and family in their 40s and 50s earn professional certificates and degrees online, I think that what our remote students are going through now might pay off massively later in life. In March, Google will launch its first low cost, online professional certifications. For a lot of adults, online learning isn’t natural. I dipped my toe in only recently, because of a professor friend posted a lecture series about Kafka’s The Trial to Udemy. I suspect that many seeking the Google certifications will feel some anxiety about it. Today’s remote learners won’t. For them, an online course will have no more or less value than a book does to me when I read it between covers or on the Kindle app.

The Game is a fascinating study, has a refreshing take and I highly recommend it. I can’t do it justice here but hope I caught its flavor.

Everybody’s Orwell

My favorite bit of writing by George Orwell is not 1984, which always struck me as dry, though appropriately horrifying. If I had to pick just one Orwell for the rest of my life it would be Down and Out in Paris and London, which was the Kitchen Confidential of its time (a lot didn’t change over the course of a century, either). But, 1984 is the book everybody talks about and everybody claims vindicates everything they believe.

Twitter banned somebody you like? Orwellian. Got a speeding ticket from a traffic camera? Orwellian. Google Home knows you like pizza? Orwellian. Whether it’s the government or a credit card company, we’re quick to toss around references to the totalitarian surveillance state that Winston endures as an involuntary citizen of Oceania in Orwell’s dystopia.

“I wrote this for you!”

I guess it’s helpful to remember that Orwell had a specific agenda. He was very liberal. He’d be to the left of Bernie Sanders today. He’s operating in the socialist tradition of George Bernard Shaw.

He was also a ruthless thinker, as hard on his fellows on the left as he was his opponents on the right. He was very worried about lefties in the west being duped by Stalin and tricked into accepting fascism in place of socialism. Thart’s what 1984 is about. If you told Orwell that your iPhone was Orwellian he’d laugh in your face and tell you to stop using the damned thing, then. The oppression of Oceania was not something you could turn off and toss in the bin.

I imagine he’d be similarly incredulous if you complained to him that Twitter wouldn’t let you plan a demonstration against the government. He might wonder why you’d think a multibillion company would take your side over the government that supports its coffers. Go out and print some flyers, he’d say. Get creative.

Mostly I think Orwell would find us pretty coddled and already duped.

The Indulgence of a Zinnfidel

The purpose of this blog is deliberately not political. I could write an 800 word column about current affairs every day and publish it here. Many mistakes would be made, no doubt, but it could be done. Instead, I’ve stuck more to musings about literature and to a lesser extent television, film and art. I haven’t even touched on music. When I get political, it’s largely about free speech and cultural issues surrounding the notion in an age where censorship is seen as something only a government can indulge in.

At the start of the year I plucked A People’s History of American Empire from my shelf. It’s a graphic novel adaptation of historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and it was refreshing in its skepticism, honesty and reminders of long forgotten attrocities committed by the U.S. that are all really tied to an ongoing notion of Manifest Destiny.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, two whistleblowers who revealed vast wrongdoing by the U.S. government, starting with Chelsea Manning’s leak about U.S. war crimes in 2010 and followed by Edward Snowden’s revelation of a massive and illegal government surveillance and data collection observation. Assange is in jail in the United Kingdom, fighting extradition to the U.S., where he would be charged under the espionage act. Snowden lives in exile in Russia and would face Espionage Act charges were he to ever return home.

It’s a common American refrain that the accused should be willing, if not eager, to face trial, if they believe they acted rightly. But the Espionage Act would prevent either from using the substance of their information leaks as a defense for their actions. A jury would not be able to fully consider the argument that they broke government secrecy laws only to expose larger and more eggregious crimes by the government. When you’re charged under the Espionage Act, your defense is immediately hobbled. Chelsea Manning went to jail. Refusing to participate in an unfair trial seems reasonable though such a refusal is, also, a crime. The accused, in these circumstances, are practically left with the choice of accepting punishment they don’t deserve or continuing to commit crimes to avoid unfair persecution.

A People's History of American Empire by Howard Zinn

Let’s let all that rest. The reason I’m bringing it up now is that Zinn is friends with Daniel Ellsberg and in his book he recounts Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the complete history of the U.S. and Vietnam, including how the Gulf of Tonkin incident was staged by the U.S. as a justification for war. Ellsberg brought the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971 and the paper resisted government orders and injunctions not to publish them. It was a principled choice that might not fly today, in a world where digital advertising agencies and social media platforms now dictate news content with an eye only towards their own bottom lines and friendly government relations.

Another interesting point is that Ellsberg was indicted and put on trial but that the charges were ultimately dismissed because President Richard Nixon had ordered his cronies to break into Ellsberg’s property, seeking information to discredit him. Imagine that — a judge finding the actions of the executive branch so inappropriate, illegal and alarming, that a prosecution was halted. We seem farther from that kind of thinking today.

At this point, I’d like to see Assange and Snowden pardoned. Both, for all they may be criticized for, revealed information that self-governing citizens have a right to know. We have a lot of work to do to get there, though, and I think it’s going to require a turn back towards older forms of radical thinking where we collectively defend what’s right, rather than what’s written into the law.

Antigone forever!

Molly Ivins on Donald Trump

This is a literary, rather than political place (so it’s a supeior place) but Molly Ivins was a literary journalist with great wit, so it’s fair to ask what she might have said about Donald Trump, had she not died in 2007.

In her papers at the University of Texas, there’s tantalizing mention of some of her notes about Trump in 2007. It’d be lovely if somebody from the university would put those online, as I’m sure they’d be of interest.

The internet mostly has articles where other writers fantasize about what Ivins might have said and while that’s fun, it’s not quite what I was looking for. It looks like, though Trump was a public figure throughout Ivins’ career, that she didn’t care much about him, which is just more evidence of her judgment and taste. I did find this but from The Texas Observer, where Ivins bemoans the lack of tough questions being posed to either Al Gore or George W. Bush leading up to what turned out to be a historically important election in 2000:

“Early in November, we had the grave matter of whether Al Gore is an alpha male thoroughly parsed for us — one newsmagazine made it the lead story. We were also confronted with George W. Bush’s ignorance of the names of three out of four leaders in world trouble spots, and this called for much double-doming and deep dissection. After Ronald Reagan, who didn’t know all the names of his own Cabinet members, you would think there was little excitement to be mined in that department. The disquieting news that John McCain has a temper has been thoroughly mulled over by all and sundry. All this follows months of discussion on burning topics like W. Bush’s alleged drug use thirty years ago, vast attention to Gore’s shifting from blue suits to earth tones, Donald Trump being treated as though any reasonable citizen would consider voting for him, the Warren Beatty candidacy, and much more that is of no help whatever in selecting the next Leader of the Free World.”

So, there you have it. Ivins dismissed Trump, then running as Reform Party candidate, as an irrelevant clown.

A Kid Posts About Kubrick

“Why is Kubrick trending?” I wonder, and fall right into one of Twitter’s traps, despite having watched The Social Dilemma just two short days ago. I click, thinking maybe some undiscovered work has emerged or somebody has found yet another clever way to link Dr. Strangelove to current events. Instead I get this:

The Twitter takes were harsh and cutting. There are the jokes about Kubrick somehow not living up to his potential, there are the screen grabs that prove that most of Kubrick’s output was an outright criticism of toxic masculinity, there are screen grabs of other headlines by Mendelsohn that reveal, to put it kindly, immature tastes.

Which got me thinking, he must be young. I found his bio on ScreenRant and for sure he is new at this and developing his style there and at CBR.com, putting out a mix of serviceable listicles and criticism. He seems to be enjoying himself.

“Jon Mendelsohn is a graduate of Ithaca College with a degree in film. Currently a writer for both CBR and Screen Rant, Jon is also a filmmaker and lover of anything and everything pop culture. When not writing or binge-watching Netflix, Jon loves to travel and find all the hottest foodie spots.”

He’s just out of school. He’s making films, thinking about films, talking about films and writing about them. He’s also coming up in an age where living wages for writing is rare, where the internet demands quantity over quality and where the traditional and vital relationships between editors and young writers is hard to come by.

Put another way, how many editors saved me from my own piss-poor, just out of school takes? Mendelsohn is trying to make his way through the world with some productive grit and creativity. The temptation to earn internet clout by citing Kubrick’s “toxic masculinity” as his artistic Achilles’ heel may be intense.

At my feet sits a bin of notebooks, written mostly between 1997-2000. Some of those thoughts went into columns and reviews I wrote for Lies Magazine. I had column one devoted to politics and one to jazz and blues music. That I considered myself an authority on jazz and blues is now embarrassing to admit. Politics is for everybody, but jazz and blues? That takes deeper understanding and I didn’t have it then and don’t have it now. Really liking Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown is not enough.

I’m always tempted to look in those notebooks but I know there’s embarrassment on top of embarrassment in there. Fortunately, they’re at my feet and not online. Even the stuff I put online, for publications or my old blog, seem not to have survived outside of the Wayback Machine, if they’re even there.

Young writers and critics and artists today are really operating without a net. They can publish on impulse and so their impulses have to be perfect. Hopefully, the day that a young John Mendelsohn tried to get a dead Stanley Kubrick to get over his hang-ups and realize his potential won’t be long remembered. If it is, let’s remember it for the risks young writers, thinkers and artists face these days. Mendelsohn has plenty of time to realize his potential and I’m sure he will, if he’s encouraged with care.

U.S. Think Pieces, 1-3 Months from now

Let’s get a jump on this. We all know what we’re going to be reading on The Vulture, Slate, Vox, Jezebel and the like in a few months:

My Emerging from Self-Quarantine Diary

Dealing With Your Co-Workers in Person Again

I’m an Introvert and Want to Stay Quarantined

The Ten Best Meals I Ate Alone Last Month

Why I’m Still Never Getting on a Cruise Ship

Brooklyn Parents Can’t Get Test Prep Money Back Over Cancelled Tests

I Fell In Love with My Home Assistant While Under Quarantine

Can We At Least Not Bring Back Office Parties?

photo by Brad Neathery

Plague Time Reading

Everywhere I turn, I’m seeing lists of movies to watch and shows to binge while under self-imposed (or, outside the U.S., government-imposed) quarantine. But this is really the best time for reading.

Haaretz has put together a list of novels for the novel corona virus, including Jose Saramago’s eerie Blindness, The Last Man by Mary Shelley, The Plague (natch) by Albert Camus and Love in the Time of Cholera (also natch) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

photo by Conor Rabbett

Personally, I’d spin a quarantine reading list in another direction entirely. I would avoid books about pandemics and seek out comedies, farces and fantasies. My current booklist includes:

Until the End of Time by physicist Brian Greene

White by Brett Easton Ellis

Algiers, Third World Capital by Elaine Mokhtefi

The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski by Noah van Skiver (ships next Tuesday)

My City Gone By, I Miss It So

I’m very late to reading 2013’s Goodbye to All That, a collection of 28 essays by women writers who have left New York City, including Emily Gould Cheryl Strayed, Emma Straub, Dana Kinstler… well, they’re all notable writers and they’re all gone. They do a collectively wonderful job paying homage to Joan Didion, who wrote the essay that named the collection.

I’ll cross 20 years living here in October. I’ve rented in Queens, Brooklyn, Union Square and now the West Village. Our son goes to school here. It’s very much home. But it is interesting to find out, in a seven year old book plucked from the radiator in the lobby where neighbors leave books for the taking, that the Great Lakes Bar in Park Slope shut down years ago, or that the Riviera Cafe on 7th avenue south, which I saw shut down, was there for much longer than I’d thought.

Somehow, we let the state close down Cafe Loup just because the owners owe some taxes. Nobody asked me, as a citizen, if I’d rather have Loup or their tax money, but the answer is Loup! Also, I was assured that Cedar Tavern would come back after it shut down a few years back.

It’s odd to be finishing the book right when Gould is shutting down her independent publishing operation, Emily Books. Or to notice that none of these writers had time to lament the closure of The Awl, which published both my wife and me before it closed and is a badge of honor for us both.

“I wanted more from my city,” wrote Dana Kinstler and I can’t help but agree. In a city so expensive that then mayor and now president hopeful Michael Bloomberg once called it “a luxury good.”

It’s hard to not want more from a city that charges multiples more for monthly rent than a mortgage, taxes and insurance would cost elsewhere (but not elsewhere within a reasonable commute of the city) where the road is also paved badly and difficult to bicycle on.

Even for a die-hard New Yorker, this book makes you think “I’m not getting enough.” It also makes you wonder if the city can still be considered a literary city when it now has so few book shops. Thankfully, we still have The Strand, and Alabaster Bookshop but I half expect we’ll be taking donations to keep the remaining Barnes & Noble locations kicking before too long.

The founder of Brazenhead Books, the speakeasy used bookstore that you had to know some one to get into is “indefinitely closed” after the death of its founder. Les Bleus Literary Salon is also on hiatus after its founder, well, said goodbye to all that.

It’s fun to read the essays from different eras. The writers who came here in the 80s and early 90s really did get the more punk rock, club scene, performance art scene, cheap rent, cheap drugs, cheap bars experience the rest of us didn’t. But there’s also a bygone era of dotcom commerce with two distinct publishing and media booms, both long gone. Still, you’re reminded, that each generation of New York’s visitors finds something new, makes something new and leaves little but other people’s nostalgia for it behind.

So far as moving goes — there is a provincialism in provincial places. I know that, I was raised in New Mexico. But there’s provincialism in big provinces, too. “City hicks,” is a term I’ve used. Technology says we can live any place and there are no longer a lot of book stores anywhere.

Though, London looks cool, if expensive.

ETA: I did write my own “Goodbye to all that,” though I haven’t left. It’s here in McSweeney’s.

George Steiner, An Appreciation

Very sad to read that George Steiner died at 90 years old. Perhaps more than any critic, Steiner was able to cover vast philosophical, literary and historic ground in concise and readable prose. His essays, particularly the four that make up In Bluebeard’s Castle simultaneously open up the world while filling the reader with lament about how little we know and how much there is to study in so little time.

Steiner approached the world with an artist’s sensibility in times increasingly dominated by the soft and hard sciences. He was a deep reader and a generous explicator. In a world adrift in the shallows, we needed George Steiner.

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.