Words I stumble upon that make me (think).

This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” [1946]

We needed to get the ball rolling in our search for the holy grail, but found that it was neither a magic bullet nor a slam dunk, so we rolled with the punches and let the chips fall where they may while seeing the glass as half-full, which is easier said than done.
- A great example of meaningless phrases (author unknown)

That beauty applied to some things and not to others, that it was a principle of discrimination, was once its strength and its appeal. Beauty belonged to the family of notions that establish rank, and accorded well with a social order unapologetic about station, class, hierarchy, and the right to exclude.

What had been a virtue of the concept became its liability. Beauty, which once seemed vulnerable because it was too general, loose, porous, was revealed as — on the contrary — excluding too much. Discrimination, once a positive faculty (meaning refined judgment, high standards, fastidiousness), turned negative: it meant prejudice, bigotry, blindness to the virtues of what was not identical with oneself.

The strongest, most successful move against beauty was in the arts: beauty — and the caring about beauty — was restrictive; as the current idiom has it, elitist. Our appreciations, it was felt, could be so much more inclusive if we said that something, instead of being beautiful, was “interesting.”

- Susan Sontag
Social media trap us in a tautological loop, in which we express ourselves to be ourselves to express ourselves, trying to claim better attention shares from the people we are ostensibly “connecting” with. Once we are trying to “win” the game of selfhood on the scoreboard of attention, any pretense of expressing an “inner truth” (which probably doesn’t exist anyway) about ourselves becomes lost in the rush to churn out and absorb content. It doesn’t matter what we say, or if we came up with it, when all that matters is the level of response. In this system, we don’t express our true self in search of attention and confirmation; instead attention posits the true self as a node in a dynamic network, and the more connections that run through it, the more complete and “expressed” that self is.
My computer, my phone, my mind—I don’t know what’s going on with any of these things. I don’t understand them; I just use them. (And perhaps one of the effects of not understanding them, of just using them, is not understanding the extent to which I am used by them.)
- Mark O’Connell: How to Understand Your Computer. The New Yorker, September 12, 2014
The Internet threatens final confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dictum that the culture industry allows the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” Champions of online life promised a utopia of infinite availability: a “long tail” of perpetually in-stock products would revive interest in non-mainstream culture. One need not have read Astra Taylor and other critics to sense that this utopia has been slow in arriving. Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (“Did you mean … ?”) Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). “Most Read” lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.

This is all just the research on multi-tasking as a stable mental phenomenon. Laptops, tablets and phones — the devices on which the struggle between focus and distraction is played out daily — are making the problem progressively worse. Any designer of software as a service has an incentive to be as ingratiating as they can be, in order to compete with other such services. “Look what a good job I’m doing! Look how much value I’m delivering!”

This problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework. (“Your former lover tagged a photo you are in” vs. “The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by use of the telegraph.” Spot the difference?)

Worse, the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on. (Does that sound like the upper-right corner of a screen near you?)

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both.

The Nature of Fun by David Foster Wallace (excerpt)



The best metaphor I know of for being a fiction writer is in Don DeLillo’s “Mao II,” where he describes a book-in-progress as a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebo-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.

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We already filter experience through software — Facebook and Google offer us views of the world that we can manipulate, but which also, in turn, manipulate us. The embodied language of websites, apps and networks writes itself into us.
- Vikram Chandra: Geek Sublime [Review by James Gleick]
Manchmal, in lauen Sommernächten, breitete er irgendwo auf einer frisch gemähten Wiese eine Decke aus, legte sich auf den Rücken und blickte zum Sternenhimmel hinauf. Dann dachte er an seine Zukunft, die sich so unendlich weit vor ihm ausbreitete, gerade weil er nichts von ihr erwartete. Und manchmal, wenn er lange genug so dalag, hatte er das Gefühl, die Erde unter seinem Rücken würde sich ganz sachte heben und senken, und in diesen Momenten wusste er, dass die Berge atmeten.
- Robert Seethaler: Ein ganzes Leben. Hanser Berlin, 2014, Seite 30f.
Je suis là pour recueillir des documents, les diffuser et éventuellement les provoquer.

Happy opit, Foucault

A Liberal Decalogue
Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
- Bertrand Russel
Originally appeared in the December 16, 1951, issue of The New York Times Magazine, at the end of the article “The best answer to fanaticism: Liberalism.” Also in The Autobiography of Bertrand Russel: 1944-1969.
Some of the surveillance was ostensibly devoted to terrorism suspects. But great quantities of the programs manifestly had nothing to do with national security. The documents left no doubt that the NSA was equally involved in economic espionage, diplomatic spying, and suspicionless surveillance aimed at entire populations.
Taken in its entirety, the Snowden archive led to an ultimately simple conclusion: the US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor, and analyze all electronic communication by all people around the globe. The agency is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.
- Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide. New York: Metropolitan Books [2014], p. 94
'It's now 5:00 p.m., which was the deadline I gave you. Of we don't publish immediately — in the next thirty minutes, thee I hereby terminate my contract with the Guardian.' I almost hit 'send,' and then reconsidered.
- Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide. New York: Metropolitan Books, p. 69.
[And what a crucial reconsideration that was.]
Digitalisierung heißt drittens, dass wir es mit einem neuen Überschusssinn der Kommunikation zu tun bekommen (Niklas Luhmann), der jenseits dessen liegt, woran wir uns in den Medien der Sprache, der Schrift, des Buchdrucks und der symbolisch generalisierten Kommunikationsmedien (Macht, Geld, Liebe, Wahrheit, Recht, Glauben, Kunst) bereits gewöhnt haben, ohne es deswegen auch bereits begriffen zu haben. Die Struktur unserer Gesellschaft beruht nicht mehr nur auf den Möglichkeiten des Redens (Referenzüberschuss), des Schreibens (Symbolüberschuss) und des Buchdrucks (Kritiküberschuss), sondern auch auf den Möglichkeiten der elektronischen Rechner (Kontrollüberschuss). Wir müssen uns eine Kultur zurechtlegen, die nicht mehr nur kontrolliert, was wir hören und sagen, aufschreiben und lesen, verbreiten und rezipieren, sondern auch kontrolliert, welche Art von Daten zu welchen unserer Praktiken alltäglicher und beruflicher Art Zugang erhält. Genügten dafür bisher und zuweilen mehr schlecht als recht Religion und Moral, Teleologie und Kosmologie, Vernunft und Aufklärung, so benötigen wir jetzt zusätzlich ein Wissen um Formen, Spiele und Systeme.