Friday, April 19, 2024

Art, Context, Prestige Hierarchies, And The Struggle To Pay Attention

I saw a work of art in a museum. Content-wise, it could have been a YouTube video, or even just a blog post. And if it had been, I wouldn't have watched/read/clicked on it. But it wasn't; it was in a museum. I stood still and spellbound for about fifteen minutes engaging reflectively with its content.  

This happened at MOMA in NYC, where I am visiting as part of a trip to see family and old friends. It is a high-prestige context. The art was a multimedia work about "the unspoken labour force that digitises books for Google" created by Andrew Norman Wilson. Essentially, it was a voice-over narrative about Wilson trying to engage with the people in this labor force during his time as a contractor working for a company working for Google, and how he got in trouble for it. Alongside the voice-over there were large, simple, projected images of the Google complex where it all happened.

The work drew me in and I stayed to hear the whole story about what he was trying to do, and how Google responded, and how Google Legal got involved. It was interesting, and in the museum it was situated with other works of art engaging AI, systems of control, and 21st century capitalism. Very effective. I thought to myself "I am so glad I came to MOMA and had this cool and informative art experience."

Then I thought about context. The voice-over was a simple narrative. The images were recorded and projected onto a screen. The content did not need a museum at all. But if I had seen a link about this, it would have looked to me like a million other links about a million other similar topics and I probably wouldn't have clicked. Even if I had clicked, I wouldn't have sat quietly, listening, paying the kind of attention you pay in a museum.

For better and for worse, for me the museum context makes the work into a different kind of thing, involving a different kind of attention.

It is "for better" because the kind of attention the museum facilitates is so important. I am not knowledgeable about the theory of this topic, which I'm sure is out there, but from a personal point of view, there are a lot of art things I just can't engage unless I slow way down and pay "art attention." But slowing down mental attention is hard, and paying art attention is hard. I can't just turn that on and off. Sometimes art is novel, challenging, or disturbing. Sometimes art seems boring, and you're wondering what you should be getting out of it. For me, museums -- like opera performances and things like that -- create the context I need in order to get into the frame of mind to engage a thing in an art-mode, and not merely an entertainment-mode. So Yay MOMA.

But it is "for worse" because not only is the infrastructure for something like MOMA massively expensive, its expense and prestige reinforce the worst hierarchies about whose voices get heard and who we're paying attention to. Think of what a small percentage of artists get into a gallery at all, never mind a big New York museum. Think how wealth, class, etc. create the kinds of conditions you need to make art and to make it in the kind of way that it will be selected for a museum.

In this case, the art was a story about Google's hidden workforce -- as the artist explains, this workforce is largely made up of people of color, and unlike all the other workers at Google, these workers get no perks: they can't ride the shuttle, or eat in the free cafeteria, or go hear famous authors and get signed copies of their books -- perks the artist is eligible for, even though he is not even a Google employee. While the artist initially tries to involve the workers in the art by engaging them in conversation, that gets shut down immediately.

In this case, the artist is a well-educated guy, tech savvy enough to have a job with the Google perks. I found myself thinking that there are probably podcasts and blog posts where I could learn more about Google's "hidden workforce," and from people closer to what is happening -- like workers themselves, or labor activists, rather than artists in MOMA. 

But I will struggle to pay the right kind of attention in the absence of the context that creates art attention.

Of course, it's not news about museums being filled with art by white men, and you can tell MOMA is trying to change that. And this isn't a criticism of the artist, whose work I certainly appreciated. It's just a personal perspective on the well-known dilemmas arising from the fact that what you want to pay attention to and what you ought to pay attention to are often not the same things.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Philosophical Melancholy and the Title of this Blog

People ask me, what's up with the title of this blog? It's a good question. I used to have a sidebar link to a post explaining the title, but then I changed the subtitle, and didn't like the layout look, and I lacked the mental energy to do something else. 

The title of this blog comes from a little known and under-appreciated novel co-authored by Don DeLillo called Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman to Play in the National Hockey League. DeLillo is the author of a bunch of "serious" novels like White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld. My favorite of those is White Noise, because it is both funny and apocalyptic, because it centers on a professor pioneering the field of "Hitler Studies," and because the plot concerns pharmaceutical treatments for the fear of death.

Amazons is not a "serious" novel in that sense people mean when they deal in culture hierarchies. It is told from the point of view of a fictional narrator Cleo Birdwell and the subtitle really says it all: it is an "intimate memoir" of "the first woman" in "the NHL"-- Cleo has lots of sex with lots of different guys, because she wants to, and because she enjoys it, and she spends a lot of time deflecting the ridiculousness that often arises when a woman does a thing.

Amazons was written in the 80s and maybe it would be cancellable now. There is some racial stereotyping when a bunch of wealthy Saudi businessmen buy up her team, and Cleo is not above the occasional lie or other bad behavior in doing what she wants to do.

However, there are many reasons I love Amazons and one of them is this: how often does a novel depict a woman doing what she wants to do, and having a great time, and not getting in trouble for it? Like, never?  

At one point in the novel, Cleo's boyfriend Shaver gets ill and his treatment is to be placed in a "Kramer cube" -- a new innovative treatment that involves 24-hour sleeping, coma-like but at home, in a clear glass box, for a few months. This is convenient for Cleo, who dresses Shaver in some cute pyjamas then gets to run around playing hockey and having adventures while still feeling there is someone there for her at home.

At one point a magazine does a feature on Cleo and a nosy reporter comes to do a photo-shoot-and-interview. The reporter is, of course, excited by the whole Kramer-Cube-With-Shaver-In-It, especially because of the cute pyjamas. In the way of lifestyle magazine reporters, she wants details. "What's next for you two?" she asks. And Cleo says, "I don't know. I haven't thought beyond the Kramer. The Kramer is now."

I often say that studying philosophy can be bad for my mental well-being. One reason is that it gets me in the habit of asking questions about everything, especially "why" or "what next" questions. Once I'm in that habit, I apply it to everything. That is bad, because for a lot of things in life, you just have to do the thing, and feel the feelings, and find a way to get into it. Too much analyzing always leads me to a rational dead end and then to the emotional dead ends that come along for the ride. It's a special melancholy induced by doing philosophy.

Hume knew all about philosophical melancholy and described it perfectly in 1748: "Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? ... I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty. Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther."

That is to say: thinking is depressing, and you can't get out of it by thinking. I love Hume's description of the antidote for philosophical melancholy: "I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends." For me, one difficulty of philosophical melancholy is that when you're in it, you may not feel like doing any of those things. But you have to do them anyway. Then sometimes they make you feel better.

When Cleo says, "I haven't thought beyond the Kramer. The Kramer is now" -- for me that sums up the opposite of philosophical melancholy. Stop asking questions and analyzing everything. Just enjoy your cute Shaver in his cute pyjamas in his Kramer cube while you can.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Fear, Dread, And Vulnerability: I Loved The Shards Until I Didn't (With Spoilers)

Bret Easton Ellis's new book The Shards is simultaneously an ode to the 80s, a reflection on closeted gay teen-dom, a psycho-cultural exploration of fear and dread, and a horror story with imagery you'll wish you never encountered. It has been described as a "fever dream" which is just what it is: a gripping but squirm-inducing ride through the L.A. of what Ellis considers the last days of "empire" -- when he and his rich Wayfare-wearing friends could plausibly feel on top of the world.

If you know Ellis's work, some of that will sound familiar. He is the author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho -- violent stories set against backdrops of high capitalism where you're intentionally left wondering: what even happened there?  

The Shards is auto-fiction, so the narrator is Bret Easton Ellis as a student at Buckley -- an expensive private high school. On the surface, high school Bret is a regular cool guy: he hangs out with the quarterback of the football team and the homecoming queen -- the two most popular kids. He is dating a pretty, rich girl who is into horses. They party, spend money, and take a lot of drugs.

Under the surface, Bret is alone and living a lie. He is secretly having sex with two guys in his class and terrified people will find out. His parents are on an extended trip to Europe trying to repair their marriage, and a perverse serial killer is loose in LA, mutilating animals as part of some horrific death ritual. A guy Bret is having sex with dies -- was he actually murdered? As time goes on, Bret desperately clings to the imagined security of his friend group, even as that group is falling apart. Below the surface, he is consumed with fear and dread.

About half way through, I was like "This books is genius." Partly, I found the contrast between surface-Bret and fear-and-dread-Bret so vivid, real and relatable. Not that I am living in fear of a serial killer, obviously, but who hasn't experienced that sense of going through the acceptable social motions even while things are crumbling, enraging, or horrifying?

At one point, desperation-Bret decides he will conquer his fear and dread, and avoid becoming numb, by recommitting to playing the social game, becoming, as he calls it, the "tangible participant" -- the high-schooler who shows up to help with homecoming, who reassures and has sex with his nervous girlfriend, who adopts a surface attitude of entertainment and fun.

When I read that, I happened to be on a trip to an academic conference, to talk about philosophy, while Israel is killing and starving Palestinians, microplastics are in everyone's wombs, and even everyday food is made possible only by a system of exploitation and violation. I thought: will I try to be the "tangible participant"? Introducing myself, asking friendly questions, complaining about the local public transit?

As I made my way through the story, I thought to myself that The Shards is unlike Ellis's other books. While those other books also involve drugs and capitalism and a narrator's numbness in the face of horrific situations, The Shards also shows its narrator's vulnerability. High school Bret is a bit insufferable in his wealthy comfort: the "Nicaraguan maid, Rosa" makes his lunch and he often considers whether to drive the family Mercedes or the family Jaguar. But while he describes himself as "numb" to the outside world, the narrative also shows a high school kid on his own, socially terrified, and not taken seriously. To me, the numbness of Ellis's earlier book narrators lacks Bret's essential vulnerability.

However, these reactions to the first part of the book were incompatible with the plot lines as the story moved toward its inevitable violent conclusions. Maybe you remember how American Psycho leaves the reader unsure whether Bateman committed the murders, someone else committed the murders, or maybe the murders never really even happened. Late in the game, Ellis tries to make that happen here, too -- suddenly casting doubt on the story Bret is telling.

Doubt is fine and I love an unreliable narrator, but to me the way it's done in The Shards doesn't fit with the rest of the book, because the alternative story line requires the "other Bret" to react in completely different ways from the Bret we know from first part. It would work if Bret were only numb. But he's not. He's fear-and-dread Bret. That's what makes the book so good. But fear-and-dread Bret just doesn't fit with the Bret of the alternative narrative final dénouement.

I found that disappointing, but if there is a next Ellis book I will definitely read it. I know that he is a guy with problematic opinions and that his novels can be read as misogynistic and gross. But I keep coming back -- not because I love excess and blood, but because non-moralizing observation of our social situation is so unusual and he does it so well. Are the stories romps through drug-filled excess? Are they indictments of consumerist society? Are they indictments of us for wanting violence as entertainment? Are they about the author's experience? They don't really answer any of those questions. You have to figure it out yourself.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Storytelling As Seductive Indoctrination: I Am Right In Narrative’s Crosshairs

Recently at the dentist I opted to watch a Netflix show about animal babies in the wild. Usually I avoid TV, as it makes me antsy and unsettled, and that’s the last thing I need when people are putting things in my mouth. But when I saw “Wild Babies” on the menu, I thought it might be cute and disctracting.

I guess I expected the nature show format of my youth but with fewer killing and eating scenes. The format of my youth was hushed, long-ish scenes with nothing much happening punctuated by violent death; the title “Wild Babies” made me think it might be for kids, and therefore on the gentler side.

It was not the nature show format of my youth. While I didn’t see any death, the show was crudely narrativized in the grossest, dumbest way through careful editing and a constant voice-over. We encountered a cautious baby girl lion had to decide whether to follow her daring and rambunctious older brother lions away from the safety of the den while their mom was away. An outcast baby seal had to struggle to integrate into the in-crowd of other baby seals, or risk being someone’s next easy meal. It was like the ridiculous story construction of reality TV but with “wild baby” animals.

You don’t have to take my word for it. The website for the show says “since cliff-hangers are through lines in the series, you’ll be desperate to learn what these adorable creatures get into next.”

I was disturbed and even a bit appalled. The narrative seemed to me not only anthropomorphic and structured to meet our “cliff-hanger” needs, but also culturally forced into a 1950s sit-com version of what a “story” is. I grew up watching The Flintstones and The Jetsons, only vaguely aware these were all re-packaged Honeymooners. I never thought that in 2024 I’d have to watch those same stories imposed on pangolins.

The experience reminded me of this excellent New Yorker article from last year about how everything is now a story and how weird that is. To change hearts and minds, we need stories — not data and logic, but narrative. To be effective in the marketplace, a brand needs a story. To get elected, politicians need a good story. Stories are seductive: you follow effortlessly, and you get swept up. But narrative imposes its own structures. The New Yorker article asks, “What is it that story does not allow us to see”?

The problem of narrative has bothered me for a while. I am a fan of Murakami’s writing, but the lack of a satisfying narrative grates on me. Things just happen and then they stop happening. I feel annoyed, but I feel stupid for feeling annoyed. Life is things happening and then they stop happening. Patricia, why do you need the book to be about something?  

On the flip side, the form requirements of story in contemporary western culture also piss me off. If you take a writing course, you may be taught that there has to be something unresolved, and that it should get resolved, and that a character should grow and change. And so many stories are like that, even though life is almost never like that. It verges on indoctrination. Whose purposes are being served by this relentless hidden messaging about the relationship of meaning to narrative closure?

One of the most striking domains where story now runs rampant is in statistics. In the lockdowns I used some online tools for learning baby data analysis, and right at the start was a lesson about how data is about story telling. First thing to do is figure out what story you want your data to tell. Then you can figure out how to tell it.

I realize I’m being naive, but: really? We’re all just fine with statistics telling the stories that the storyteller wants to tell? I often think about how in the 80s everyone used to talk about how there were “lies,” “damned lies,” and “statistics” — which I took to mean that quantitative information is slippery and can be used in various ways. That used to be cause for skepticism and cynicism, but now it seems treated more like a feature, not a bug.

All this is to say that I feel right in storytelling’s crosshairs. I am seduced by story — I seek out narrative and I sink myself into it like it’s a warm bath. On the other hand, I am suspicious and skeptical about its covert impacts. With those wild animal babies plot lines, I feel inoculated: childhood viewing of sitcom after sitcom rendered me impervious. But what about newer strains? What am I unconsciously absorbing about the nature of triumph, regret, and what it means for things to work out in the end?

Friday, March 22, 2024

The Personal Perspective And The Complex Dysfunctional Global Systems Perspective

For personal decisions engaging complex dysfunctional global systems, I lack a frame of reference. Doing nothing seems wrong. But given how many consumer choices are embedded in violent, murderous, polluting systems, what would disengaging completely even look like? In 2024, it’s not even clear what “off the grid” means, never mind whether it would accomplish anything.

The obvious answer is that it has to be somewhere in the middle. But where? My most recent confrontation with this question occurs in a choice about travel and the problems of flying and climate change. I have family in the Hartford, CT area I want to visit them in April. I won’t be driving -- because I don’t have a car, because I find driving stressful and exhausting, and because I don’t want to.

A non-flying transit trip between Toronto and Hartford is about a 15-hour trip if you wanted to go straight through (about twice as long as by car). I am too old to travel for 15 hours on transit straight through, so I would have to break it up and stay over. For example, to come home, I could take two connecting buses to get from Hartford to Albany one day (via Greyhound and Peter Pan), stay over in Albany, and take a train the next day. I would incur the cost of a hotel, but I’d be saving on airfare, so that part evens out.

Lest you imagine this is totally hypothetical, in 2022 that is exactly what I did. In some ways, it was OK. Yes, I had to walk through an abandoned warehouse area in Albany to get from my hotel to a dinner place, and yes, for some reason the Albany bus station and the Albany train station are a non-trivial taxi ride apart, and yes, for various reasons the trip lacked the surprise and human interest of the much longer 400-mile transit trip I took in 2019. But hey, I got to see Albany, NY.  

In other ways, it was not quite OK. For reasons to do with scheduling and traffic, my bus ride on the way down was about ten hours. It is a long bus ride. I realize people take much longer flights to go to far away places, but I also know I’m not alone in thinking a ten hour bus ride is not easy: on my visit, I met a guy who was vegan for climate change reasons, and even he was like “Whoa! A ten hour bus ride?!”

And of course, since the flight is like one hour, you’re essentially adding at least two travel days into your trip. Instead of a long weekend, it’s almost a week. I am lucky to have the kind of job where my time is often a bit flexible, and I can work on other weekend days to make up for it, but obviously there are things I’d rather be doing with those two days.

All this to say: from a personal perspective, flying would be vastly more convenient and pleasant, and not even really more expensive.

However, from a complex dysfunctional global systems perspective, flying is one of the main activities exacerbating climate change. When climate protesters say “This is an emergency! No business as usual!” I agree with them. While we obviously can’t address climate change on an individual basis, our individual activities will have to change somehow -- especially in the short term while we lack technological fixes.

Also, if governmental regulation, effective leadership, and collective action are lacking, isn’t it more responsible to step up? Even if we’re “doomed,” as some people say, the details matter. If the kids who are five today have slightly less hellish world when they’re fifty than they would otherwise, isn’t that an important goal? If Greta Thunberg’s mother can give up flying thus ending her career as an opera singer, presumably I can put up with a ten hour bus ride or two.

When I try to reason this out, I feel like I have no frame for thinking it through. I expect I am not alone in this. It’s a judgment call, but based on what? If thousands of ghost flights — empty flights airlines use to retain their take-off and landing spots — are taking off all the time, it makes no sense to consider the impact of a specific action and try to calculate consequences. Individualistic rules like “don’t harm others” don’t really help. What does the recommendation to be a virtuous person entail in such circumstances?

It feels like the transit choice is necessary and vital from one point of view, and pointlessly painful from another. Where is my third perspective to figure this out?

Friday, March 15, 2024

The Fragile Connection Between Liking And Wanting Is Crucial To Our Survival

The most interesting thing I learned this week is that animals whose dopamine system has been rendered inactive will fail to seek food, and will starve to death if left to themselves," but will eat and swallow with pleasure if food is placed in their mouths.

I'm not always an animal-lover type person, but I found it a bit crushing to picture an animal whose life force had been so sapped that food was something they just couldn't be bothered with. Something about the poor little critter chomping gratefully if someone took the trouble, but unable to rouse itself for action struck me as the bleakest metaphor for existence ever.

I found that fact on Wikipedia when I went down a looking-up-dopamine rabbit-hole. I looked up dopamine because I was reflecting on how my motivation or mood seems to change in the evenings, even when I'm not feeling especially fatigued. Why would the sunset cause a mood change? Posing that question made me think of "sundowning," where people with dementia become agitated at sunset. Looking up "sundowning," I learned that one hypothesis is about hormone changes, and that hormones standardly change in accordance with circadian rhythms. One of those changes is that dopamine goes down in the evening.

If I understand correctly, the standard dopamine scheme is that pleasure causes a release of dopamine, which then reinforces the motivation to seek the behavior. In the framework, the “wanting” and the "liking" systems are distinct: pleasure is one thing, and motivation is another, and dopamine is the contingently existing link between the two. Pleasure from a reward and the motivation to seek it thus emerge from separate biological pathways.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like this explains a lot. A lot of our cultural "common sense" encodes a set-up in which the reason you seek out a thing is because you anticipate the thing will bring you pleasure. If it’s true about how dopamine works, things aren’t quite so simple. You can anticipate the pleasure and not have the drive, or you can have the drive without anticipating the pleasure. And the concept of a "reason" barely fits in there at all.

I was surprised to learn that drugs like meth and cocaine mainly hit the "wanting" while opiates activate both wanting and liking. Not surprisingly, addiction can mean elevated "wanting" alongside decreased "liking," if you’ve built up a tolerance for the thing you’re addicted to. So they really are distinct systems.

Distinct systems fits my experience better than the common sense/pleasure anticipation theory does. It’s often opaque to me why I have or lack the motivations that I do. I enjoy running outside once I get going, but frequently I have to push and drag myself out there. I’ve always wondered: shouldn’t my mind update via a feedback mechanism, where liking would cause motivation? Why wouldn’t it? Well — I still don’t know, but it’s a bit less mysterious now.

Obviously the next question is how you might improve your dopamine function so you can enjoy the resulting motivation and Life Force. A person doesn’t live by pleasure alone. Obviously, if you want to increase your pleasure/liking, you can do things you enjoy. But if you want to increase your dopamine/wanting you can … ?

Weirdly, official advice on the internet about increasing your dopamine is that if you want to increase your dopamine, you should — do things you enjoy. The thinking seems to be that since pleasure experiences release dopamine, a way to increase your dopamine is to do the things you enjoy. I get it, but like a lot of official advice, it doesn’t quite add up. If your dopamine system isn’t working well, all the pleasure in the world won’t help you, because it won’t create the motivation.

Other things you can do to increase your dopamine include exercising, eating healthy food, and getting enough sleep and sunshine. So I guess where all this ends up is that while you might think the reasons you do things have to do with your thoughts, plans, and intentions, a lot of it also comes down to animal nature. 

We humans and that starving critter are all in the same boat, just praying that our fragile dopamine connection between liking and wanting isn't wantonly destroyed, rudely hijacked, or just left to desiccate and decay.

Friday, March 8, 2024

I Think A Lot About The Marshmallow Test. Why?

A thing about me is that I often think about the marshmallow test. The marshmallow test is a test of delayed gratification abilities in which little kids are given a small treat, like a marshmallow, and told that if they wait a bit, they can have extra. One marshmallow now, or two later.

The test is famous because researchers said there were correlations between choosing “two marshmallows later” and, years after, getting the good things of modern capitalism like career success, academic achievement, and better SAT scores. Endless variations on the main study have been undertaken since the 1930s; the standard conclusion is that having the self-control to delay gratification is a useful and virtuous.

I’ve always been a skeptic about the marshmallow test. I was a shy, somewhat nervous kid, eager to please the adults around me. If I’d been given the test, I expect I would have been more motivated by social pressure than actual marshmallows. As I wrote on this blog in 2009, the original test set up was that kids who wanted the first marshmallow right away would have to ring a bell to summon a researcher. Are you kidding?! There is no way at four years old I would have rung a bell to summon a strange adult, even if 50 marshmallows had been on the line.

Also, is it even obvious that more later is better than less now? The thing about now is that it’s now: if you have your treat immediately, you are virtually guaranteed satisfaction: you’re having it at the moment that it looks delicious, there’s no risk of some diabolical behavior or random obstacles blocking your treat, and you can move on with your life rather than sitting there in the painful condition of "waiting for a treat."

Color me unsurprised, therefore, that as the years went on, studies showed the marshmallow test was more complicated than it may have appeared. As with the young Patricia, researchers found that children engage in “reputation management,” and were more likely to delay if a teacher knew their choices.

Furthermore, kids from wealthier socio-economic backgrounds were found to do better on the test. It was pointed out that one reason for that could be that if you’re from a richer family, the likelihood of “more later” was more likely to actually materialize. If the adults around you have more resources, they are more able to provide in a stable and predictable way, and to prevent unexpected diabolical behavior or random obstacles from interrupting your treat.

The socio-economic explanation obviously leads to a hypothesis almost diametrically opposed to the original one: that it’s not your inner character that matters, it’s your environment. The potential significance is huge. A few years ago the New Yorker had an article about the test, including how whole schools were being designed to promote learning self-control and delaying gratification. If it’s more the external environment than that intervention is a major investment in a completely wrong direction.

Since this is a blog post and not a philosophy article I will leave aside correlation versus causation and how-do-we-really-know-anything, and get straight to the personal: Patricia, why do you think so often about the marshmallow test?

I think one reason is that I am often amazed by the contrast class between things I can do and things I cannot get myself to do, which makes me wonder: if self-control makes me able to do the first things, why can’t I do the second things?

I do a fair number of things that appear to require self-control: I work by myself on large unstructured research projects with no deadlines; I go to the gym even when it’s freezing outside and cozy at home; in the course of my life, I have quit smoking, Diet Coke, and a range of other things we won’t get into here.

On the other hand, the things I cannot get myself to do is mystifying. I have never been able to prepare lunch at home to eat later during the day — now I can afford to buy lunch, but even when I had no money, I would eat like one donut or just skip lunch. I am trying to learn Italian, and I found this great site with Easy Italian News for practice: listening to it is reasonably fun, but am I doing it? No. I’ve been trying to form a new habit of bringing my own silverware from my office to the lunch place on campus, so I can avoid using all that plastic. Easy, but my success rate? Just reaching toward 20 percent.

I’m forced into the conclusion that for me, it's less like there is a self-control part that I direct at one activity or another and more like some habits take and some don't. It’s a confusing mix why. Partly, some things are engaging despite being difficult and some things are just boring and annoying. Partly, a habit is different from self-control. Partly, behavior is social not individual, which is why nagging the people you love is actually an important thing to do.

So I guess that’s why I think about the marshmallow test so often. It seems to test for a quality I feel I don’t really have. I don’t know if y’all have a similar experience, but that’s what’s going on with me.

Friday, March 1, 2024

The Tyranny of the Majority in Advanced Consumer Economies

In 2017 I went down the ethical cell phone rabbit hole. I didn’t do anything like buy a phone — mostly I just reacquainted myself with the ways the elements of a phone are embedded in dysfunctional, oppressive, and murderous global systems.

I learned there is a phone called a Fairphone that considers itself an “ethical cellphone.” I guessed immediately it wouldn’t be available in my area, and I was correct. The main reason is obvious: insufficient local demand.

“Tyranny of the majority” is a phrase in political philosophy usually meant to indicate the possibility that in contexts of majority-rule, minority interests will get steamrolled.

Conceptually, advanced consumer economies should be consumer paradises where it’s the opposite of majority rule. Everything we might need or want would be for sale, because the existence of people wanting and needing is what causes the market to provide.

So I’m always a bit surprised to crash into the obstacles created by the fact that I often want what other people do not want, and do not want what other people want, which tends to lead to my things being simply unavailable.

The fairphone is a sanctimonious example — mostly I’m talking about garden variety things people spend money on. I would like a portable way to listen to high quality terrestrial radio — surprisingly difficult to access beyond the context of a car. I would like to hail a taxi on the street — in my city, this used to work great, and now it doesn’t, because obviously. I would like clothes that have a bit of stretchy fabric for my body shape but aren’t athleisure-wear — not easy to find. I would like to go out dancing at like 6:30pm, not midnight, but that is evidently not something enough other people want to do.

In the 90s, I noticed that there were TVs available for under $100 and I thought OK great, when my mom’s TV gets old that won’t be a problem. But by the time her TV got old, capitalism had moved on: now the only TVs available had some new and better tech than the old “cathode ray” and now they all cost hundreds of dollars.

It’s always striking to me when the law of supply and demand is held up as one of the more fundamental, universal, or well-established laws of economics and human behavior, because we are surrounded by things — especially in technology — that get less expensive the more people want them. If everyone wants a laptop, laptop prices will go down.

Note that I do not mean that examples falsity the law of supply and demand. It’s the presence of what Mill called “disturbing causes”: the more people want a thing, the more money the producers of the thing can invest in new methods and technologies and the more affordable the thing can be. Except - as with the TVs — when “the thing” becomes a different thing altogether, and everyone buys that, so that is what’s available.

Anyway, I’m not saying there is any problem to be fixed, and I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that from an abstract point of view, it’s striking that a system based on the idea that each person should be able to choose what they want for themselves is also a system where “what everyone else is doing” determines a lot of the texture of your experience.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Directing Your Attention Versus Experiencing Whatever Happens to be Happening

 Like a lot of people, I often feel like my mind is running in the wrong gear. There’s too much whirring and burbling in situations where that isn’t needed. I usually self-medicate with exercise, alcohol, novels, and plenty of down time — all of which work great for me, so please, no advice in the comments.

We all know the Psychiatric Help: Five Cents answer to this problem: meditation. In putting it that way, I don’t mean to imply that meditation wouldn’t help me. It probably would. I am, however, implying that where we are in the culture is a rare moment when gurus of science, wellness, therapy and fitness all agree: really, you should meditate.

My experience with mediation is limited. I go to yoga classes, but they’re usually at the gym, so while we’re “meditating” at the end, there’s often like one person bustling around leaving early, wrecking the vibe, and weirdly sad music on the playlist, making me ponder whether I’m the only one thinking “wait, isn’t music distracting?” and then wondering if I’m missing the point.

To learn more about meditation, I recently downloaded one of the mediation apps and selected a “beginner” series. During the second instalment, I was surprised to hear the narrator make a case for the importance of directing your attention. He said that concentration — being able to direct your attention — is like a muscle, and strengthening that muscle gives you the power to choose what to pay attention to. And nothing is more important than the fundamental ability to pay attention, he said — because what you pay attention to becomes your life.

I realize I’m engaging in the kind of overthinking philosophers are trained and socialized into, but I couldn’t stop myself from being weirded out by the idea that you can always choose what to pay attention to. Because it does seem true, in a way, that what you pay attention to becomes your life. But in that case the idea that you are choosing and directing it seems disturbing. It seems like then you would have to constantly decide what to pay attention to, which is dangerously close to constantly deciding what is worth your attention, which seems overwhelming, overly rationalistic, and in some way just wrong.

I don’t really know anything about eastern philosophy and the general traditions in which meditation is a central activity. So I’m sure there are people who know more than I do about how attention and meditation and focus all fit together and how I may by misinterpreting the fundamentals.

What I want to discuss instead is how the idea of choosing what to pay attention to got me thinking of the cultural expansion of the category “things we control and determine” and the shrivelling of the category “experiencing of whatever happens to be happening.”

I actively enjoy experiencing whatever happens to be happening for its happening part, even when the thing itself is not my fave. For example, I used to love listening to the radio. Part of what I loved about it was listening to “what’s on.” What’s on the radio is on now, and we’re all listening to it. We didn’t choose it, but we’re all out here experiencing it. Because it’s what’s on. I have the same feeling about the NYT crossword. I like to do today’s puzzle. Because it’s today’s puzzle. I don’t want to go into the archive and find a puzzle on a theme I might prefer. I want to do today’s, because today’s puzzle is what’s on now, and we’re all doing it.

Obviously it’s still possible to enjoy experiencing whatever happens to be happening, but I feel like it’s become culturally more challenging — like there’s more friction to it, and it’s harder to opt into, because everyone else is opting out of it — people are crafting their playlists, following their followees, editing their photos, etc. etc. Even friendship has been infiltrated by the power of control: what are you adding to my life, or should I just drop you?

Recently I was in an audio store, and I tried to explain that I wanted a stereo component where I could listen to the radio. No — not through the internet, where I can choose any of a million feeds, just in the regular way of listening to whatever happened to be happening in the area where I can get a radio signal.

I learned this is called “terrestrial radio.” I also learned someone asking for terrestrial radio will be treated as ignorant. The salespeople kept explaining to me again and again that over the internet is better: better sound quality, you can choose any station, it’s the same, only better, was I really so stupid and stubborn as to want the technology of the 1950s?

The good news is I got my terrestrial radio stereo component. The bad news is, my favorite station folded — because no one is listening to terrestrial radio, because don’t you know it’s better over the internet?

Anyway, I’ll have to stick with it meditation-wise, so I can better understand the relationship between directing your attention and still being open to experiencing whatever happens to be happening. Because experiencing whatever happens to be happening is great, and sometimes feels more like relinquishing control than it does like an active choice.

Friday, February 16, 2024

If Human Emotions Are Based On Rationality, I Feel Like An Alien

 Content warning: suicide.

When I was in graduate school, I TAed a course on Contemporary Moral Problems. I can’t remember what the “Problem” was that we were discussing, but at some point our textbook author made the argument that whether or not to kill yourself was a question that could be approached in a rational manner. For example, he said, there are good reasons to kill yourself and bad reasons: a toothache is obviously not a reason to kill yourself.

I remember being taken aback, because in my experience, a toothache is just the kind of thing that makes you want to kill yourself. In saying this, I  do not mean to be treating suicide lightly or simply. I just mean that my own moments of despair most often occur in response to the kind of relentless, slow-burn, non-dramatic things that make life seem grim and pointless. Things like toothaches.

I didn’t study philosophy as an undergrad, so this textbook passage may have been my first time face to face with the philosophical idea that emotions could be objectively appropriate or inappropriate to a situation. It’s an idea that struck me as bizarre, and, to some extent, still strikes me as bizarre. If being a well-functioning person means being sad when bad things happen and happy when good ones do — well, that makes me feel like a bit like an alien.

I mean, of course I want good things and conversely, but for most of everyday life I am much more likely to be influenced by a mood than a thing in the world to which there is an appropriate response. My moods are highly influenced by things like exercise and fresh air and the right mix of people-time and alone-time — things that seem ambient and animalistic and not rationally assessable as causes.  

For some emotions like fear, I suppose I can see it: if you are afraid of a shark attack while walking around downtown, I guess you could say the fear is misplaced and inappropriate to a situation. But I feel like when you try to make a theory out it, things get weird.

For example, speaking of philosophers who believe that emotions are a form of cognitive judgments, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says “On a common interpretation of their view, my anger at someone is the judgment that I have been wronged by that person.” Then you might be correct or not about that.  

Wow, because this seems to say the emotion is a judgment and I would almost say it feels like the opposite: that my feelings of anger and my judgments about whether I have been wronged run on two separate tracks with occasional but obscure points of intersection. Often, I’m not clear whether I feel anger, irritation, hurt feelings or some other negative emotion, and frankly, I often don’t care. In a vast range of cases, there’s no point to doing anything. In those case, I am much more likely to pursue a strategy of emotion-dissipation through distraction. When there is something to be done, the thought process of what that would be barely feels like it engages the original emotion.

I also don’t get how emotions could be “appropriate” in an everyday way to our global situation of climate disaster and injustice on a truly massive scale. I suppose you could say that certain emotions are inappropriate to our situation — people who know what’s up, but just don’t care, aren’t they doing something wrong? Yes — but to me that seems more like a failing than a miscalculation.

Anyway, maybe my textbook author was thinking of a toothache in middle-class US terms — as a temporary problem you can easily address by spending some money and having some short-term pain. Obviously, I also do not want people to kill themselves over temporary, solvable problems.  What a person needs in that situation is partly other people who love them and can say “don’t worry, it won’t last forever!” And even more importantly: good universal health benefits for everyone.