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 He structures his book as a topography of this new world — a sister to physical reality where some old elites have been replaced by new elites and some old elites have seen their power distributed among the masses.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.

“The Beautiful and the Good”

Just plucked Allan Bloom’s 1968 translation of The Republic off the shelf and read his introduction, where he explains that he has attempted a meticulous word for word translation of Plato’s text, without inclusion of modern words, which he believes can only be deviant from any meaning that Plato intended.

His prime example of this is that he does not replace Plato’s notion of “the beautiful and the good,” with something like “morality and values” or “discussing moral values,” or other such phrases popular in late 60s academia. Plato said “beauty” and he said “good,” and we should try to understand his meaning, Bloom argues.

Citing Nietzsche, Bloom argues that an attempt to do otherwise would turn our understanding of the Greek canon into a kind of archeological field where we have pre-populated the dig with artifacts of our own choosing.

What Bloom believes is controversial in 2020, but it strikes me as powerful: A careful reader with good intentions can understand the mind of somebody from a long ago culture with distinct social and economic conditions, even through the medium of a translator, if they commit themselves to the intellectual project.

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Seems like I’m here again…

There’s a lot that stands in the way of this kind of reading — the reader’s prejudices, the inability of the translator to overcome their own cultural biases and background no matter how hard they try, the inevitable gaps in our understanding about who Plato is, how he lived and what influenced him, would broadly define the chasm we must cross.

Bloom thinks it can be done and I think he has to be right, otherwise true scholarship and creative works that transcend autobiography would be impossible. This kind of careful, honest reading is a path towards empathy and a re-affirmation of the old, seemingly now abandoned belief that the old liberal arts education can serve as a pillar for the establishment of an open and civil society.

For some, this will seem a quaint notion at best and offensive at worst. People claiming objective and open study of canonical texts have intentionally or not, excluded entire cultures, diminished the roles of women and have called on the wisdom of ancients to justify the unjustifiable. For too many people, “civil society” has failed to function either civilly or socially.

But there are stakes here for human freedom. As Bloom points out, in The Republic described by Plato, society is protected by those who fight the wars. “There are no guardians above the guardians; the only guardian of the guardians is a proper education,” Bloom writes. Beyond just the guardians, Plato’s audience was a societal elite who would make decisions for everybody else. If you accept that such an elite cannot be eliminated, that it will always exist and propagate itself in one way or another, then the only way to control these people would be to educate them about the beautiful and the good and to hope that education will temper and inform their decision-making.

I wonder if our current crop of elites in the United States has been properly educated? It seems our President’s notion of “the beautiful and the good,” is banal, gaudy and self-interested but that its alternative is technocratic to a fault.

Deep reading with an open mind, along with the belief that we can understand the minds of others, seems more necessary now than ever.

Brian Greene’s Thermodynamic Miracles

I don’t read enough popular science, which is too bad because a few writers, like the late Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene elevate the form to art.  Greene has been a hero of mine since I wrote a feature about him for Forbes back in 2002.  Then, Greene told me of his admiration for Carl Sagan, one of America’s most important and effective public intellectuals.

In his latest book Until the End of Time, Greene charts the history of the universe from the Big Bang until today and then forecasts what might become of it all as the “entropic two step” that’s produced ordered forms like stars, planets, DNA and higher intelligence inevitably breaks down.  Now, Greene doesn’t share this conclusion, but along the way he’s almost convinced me that, since in an infinite universe all things are not only possible but will inevitably happen, that we’re all Boltzmann Brains anyway (kind of like Descartes’ brains in a vat).

In his latest book, Greene sets out to explain the fundamentals of physics, chemistry and biology to support a sophisticated materialist view of everything from intelligence to creativity and spirituality and along the way, hopes to give us a path to finding meaning and solace in a necessarily indifferent universe that will not only extinguish all of our lives, but will eventually extinguish all life and thought.

He very much succeeds but does so in the only way available – which is to celebrate the wonder of it all.   His conclusion is the same as Dr. Manhattan’s in The Watchmen – from all this chaos, chance and indifference, each of us has emerged as a thermodynamic miracle that makes it all worthwhile.

Get this book.  It’s ecstatically brilliant.

New Rules for Cultural Criticism

I don’t know what it was that had me reaching for my Voltaire a few months ago — probably something in the cultural air portending a dissolution of standards and, yes, a Closing of the American Mind that must be dealt with.

Forget Joe Biden, we need Voltaire.

New Rules for Cultural Criticism:

  1. Don’t speculate about real people’s personal lives, you’ll never get it right.
  2. Never wish a creative work out of existence. Criticize it all you want, denounce it if you must, but never seek to destroy it or isolate it from other people’s attention.
  3. “De-platforming,” or whatever the scolds are calling it these days, has more in common with red baiting, blacklisting, book burning and Victorian shaming than it does to liberation or empowerment.
  4. The first amendment is a subset, and a damned small one, of free speech and expression. It does not define the concept.
  5. It’s fine not to work on creative projects that offend you morally, but it’s bankrupt to try to hinder them if the creators wish to move on without you.
  6. While you can reassess works you liked in the past, you shouldn’t ignore what initially attracted you to the art.  While you don’t have to laugh at the same joke over and over, you can’t unlaugh at something.
  7. Everybody has standing to create anything and to comment on anything.  This is the essential human right from which all others derive.
  8. Don’t make lists of ten, they’re too predictable.

Marquez, Kafka and Original Sin

In Woody Allen’s Love & Death, Boris is awaiting execution for the murder of Napoleon, a crime he didn’t commit. “But isn’t that life?” he wonders. “Aren’t we all condemned to die for a crime we didn’t commit?”

I just read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1981 novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold and am so reminded of the sentiment. Our narrator returns to his home town to investigate the revenge killing of Santiago Nasar after a large wedding is ruined by the discovery that the bride, sister to the killers, is not a virgin. She names Nasar as the man she’d slept with before marriage. But it clearly never happened and so Nasar never suspects that anyone wants to kill him and when he finally realizes his danger, he has no idea why it’s happening. He dies, knived to death by butchers, holding his innards.

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Which reminds me of Franz Kafka’s novella The Trial in which Josef K. is informed that he has been charged with capital crimes and will be judged for them, though the accusations are never stated. Josef K. is also found guilty and sentenced to death. When he is butchered on a public street he can only think that they have killed him, “Like a dog!”

There’s a lot going on in both stories about the inhumane social and legal systems we subject ourselves to while living in a society. But the heart of it all is Woody Allen’s observation that we will all die, saints and sinners alike, as we were sentenced from the start for the crime of being born. This seems to put the search for some original sin into perspective, though the culprit is probably remorseless entropy.

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