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second-best since Cantor

Category: internetting

Sharing ecology. Social objects.

Epistemic status: Wrote this in mid-2016 but I don’t think I posted it anywhere. It appears to be a semi-hasty first draft (These are a few of my…). At the point where I mention the Great Depression, I found a note from my 2016-self: ‘TK THIS GRAF IN PROGRESS; CONSIDER CUTTING NEXT GRAF OR 2 AND REDOING APPROACH TO THE ENDING ALTOGETHER, MORE IN KEEPING W/THEME OF THE PIECE.’ I’ve disregarded that note for the moment, because revising and rewriting this essay would mean sinking back into these feelings, and right now that thought turns my stomach. Maybe someday. –wgh.

I recently wrote a book about my favourite band, and found myself reliving — and longing for — the early days of my fandom. The band’s reputation rests on their improvisatory live performances, and for their first 20 years fans eagerly traded amateur concert recordings on audiocassette, with the band’s blessing. Walking into an acquaintance’s house and finding a shelf full of Maxell XL-II tapes, each with a handwritten ‘j-card’ listing tracks, segues, guest appearances, and improvisations of note, meant you’d found a fellow obsessive, and probably a friend.

That’s over now. My tapes gather dust in our attic, and I listen exclusively through iTunes and streaming sites. ‘In my day’ you’d arrange a trade with a stranger online — I’ll send you a 1st-generation tape of Amsterdam July 1997 for a clean copy of those two classic Red Rocks shows on your tapelist — and send the tapes bubble mailers, then post a Good Trader Alert to the newsgroup. We shared physical objects which resided in our homes, and our relationship to the music was artifactual, sacramental. You could be ‘in the presence’ of the music in a literal way.

Now, when you want the show, any show the band has ever played, you find the link in a single handy spreadsheet and download it from ‘the cloud.’ This has reduced but not quite eliminated audience taping, but it’s entirely done away with the fan trading network which was the backbone of our community. Once I shared the music with you; now a computer somewhere on Earth shares the music with our computers.

Everything is always available. There’s no need for us to share. There is no one to thank.


Free public wi-fi, streaming HD video, same-day book delivery, timeshifted TV, effectively unlimited free email: the benefits of these technocommercial advancements are so obvious that we needn’t talk about them, and so never bother thinking about them, and so tend to assume that these glorious advances and their glorious advantages are the Way of Things, steps already taken and so either fully accounted for or simply beyond counting. They can have no cost, this non-reasoning goes, because honestly why talk about cost when we finally have nice things?

But of course there are costs. There always are.

They manifest subtly at first.

In recent years the words ‘own’ and ‘ownership’ have acquired new senses: to ‘take ownership of your trauma’ means to acknowledge and make peace with the fact of a bad thing having scarred you emotionally, and to ‘own your privilege’ means to recognize the ways in which you benefit from your social class, and then pantomime remorse. ‘Ownership’ here means something like ‘reckoning,’ usually melodramatic.

And of course there was President G.W. Bush’s ‘ownership society,’ an idea which combined deficit spending (instead of ownership) and further atomization (instead of society).

When I was a kid in the 80s, ‘ownership’ seemed to me much less complicated: owning a thing meant being able to hold it, touch it, and — within reason — do what you wanted with it. If you owned a Nintendo game, for instance, you had a plastic cartridge full of subtle electronics which you inserted into a plastic and metal console in order to play. To share the game meant walking it down to Scott’s house and playing it over there; at the end of the day you brought it home. It was ‘yours’ the way your sneakers were yours. If it broke, it was lost to you, but you usually knew why.

Sharing music meant lending a compact disc or dubbing a cassette tape, and woe betide the would-be pirate who wanted music that didn’t fit cleanly on either side of the tape. Sharing a drawing meant sending it by mail; sharing movies meant inviting Jimmy and Craig over to watch them at your house on a weekend.

This was, I don’t need to tell you, a pain in the ass; and I’m assured that things are Better Now. To ‘share’ a movie with a friend in 2016, you simply point her to where you got it. Same with music and games. Easy breezy: your precious objects never actually leave our hands, and you can share without giving. ‘Generosity’ doesn’t come into it; when your neighbour asks to borrow your copy of the Game of Thrones finale, you either divide it by mitosis (copying the file) and pass along a copy, or maybe email her a .torrent file so she can grab it directly from the 16-year-old who pirated the episode in the first place.

Failing that, of course, you can just give your friend your Netflix or hbogo.com password — both companies have accounted for such ‘violation’ in their business models. The miracle is that she gains while you appear to lose nothing at all.

To borrow terms from computer science, this is ‘sharing’ as reference-passing1 rather than object-passing. The shift is meaningful, its benefits are clear, and we will be paying its hidden costs for a long time.

As Richard Stallman and his cohort have been pointing out for decades, our ‘possessions’ are increasingly rentals — beyond the simple fact that we’re not permitted ‘inside’ the digital tools we rely on, the ongoing shift from local (desktop) computational resources to online services, invisible server-side processing, and remote storage means that it’s typically ‘more convenient’ in the short term to have easy access to digital resources we don’t control than to actually ‘possess’ them. It’s nice not to need to synchronize multiple copies of your email archive, isn’t it? Easier, certainly, to let Google have it, and simply view your messages on a webpage (‘in the cloud’). All you have to do to get access to your most intimate thoughts is this: when the Alphabet corporation of Mountain View CA asks for the magic word, you type it — and it would be helpful if you handed over your phone number too, just in case.


This isn’t about Ludditism, mind you. We’re doomed, yes, and it’s our absolute dependence on biologically incompatible industrial infrastructure that’s doomed us, but: Cloud computing really does make modern life easier; accessing your entire music collection from your phone really is a miracle; not having to worry about server maintenance makes running a website not only easy but possible in the first place. I like being able to stream every Phish show to my phone. No, that’s not strong enough: 18-year-old me would have murdered his friends to get access to the digital tools which 37-year-old me, taking them for granted, finds insufficiently convenient.

And yet.

And yet when we consider whether to buy gadgets or embrace hip new software service, the alternative to Gadget A or Online Service B is always Functionally Equivalent Gadget X or Interchangeable But Less Snazzily Branded Service Y — the alternative is never Doing Without — and the sole reason for this state of affairs is that if you and I Do Without, the companies which sell us things will make a touch less money.

Retail businesses can be divided cleanly into two camps: those that produce truly useful, essential goods, and those that benefit from consumer anxiety.

With a smartphone and earbuds, you can now talk to Aunt May in far-off Osbaldeston anytime, in realtime — but since everyone else is wearing earbuds too, you can’t talk to a stranger on your street. Your teenage kid doesn’t think twice about listening to music across cultural borders, but has also never even heard of ‘social music,’ and probably knows none of the music that kept your parents and grandparents alive. Turn-by-turn GPS directions make navigation trivial, and the only cost is that relying on that technology means you never form a mental map of your city; but then, why would you need that? Why would you need to talk to a stranger, or learn your grandparents’ emotional language? What’s so great about being able to imagine a city without looking at a cartoon map of its streets?

If you’ve ever looked at your year-old iPhone and felt, deep in your bones, that it was time to pay a couple hundred bucks for an upgrade, then the people selling you pills are the ones who made you sick.


The redefinition of ‘sharing’ from transferring to copying is an inevitable knock-on effect of ubiquitous digital networking. When copying is cheaper than transferring, you copy; that’s why every Harvard freshman cheats. (And the faculty blame the kids and their parents, never themselves or the institution.)

But that redefinition, plus the creeping status anxiety and ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) engendered by a gadget/tech culture that’s easy to enter but difficult to leave, plus the ubiquity and pace of ‘social’ media, creates a toxic dependence on corporate media — meaning not only Sony, NBC, and HBO but Google and Apple and Twitter too. There’s social pressure to pay constant attention, and most of what there is to pay attention to is advertising. And while corporations carefully pressure their marks (us) to ‘create,’ to feel ’empowered’ (or else!), they also beam out the false but convincing message that the path to empowerment is consumption, and creativity outside the corporate-media envelope is somehow suspect. Fulfillment can’t be sold, only shared, so marketers forcibly and falsely equate fulfillment with satisfaction — the palliative, the rush of sensation — and ‘sharing’ is reduced to word-of-mouth advertising.

The late Prince famously said that his enormous back catalogue was the result of a kind of odd pragmatism: when he got the urge to hear a certain kind of music, his tastes were specific enough and his process refined to the point where he was better off just heading into his studio and making the music himself. We are told that in the Digital Future of Today it’s that easy for all of us. But when was the last time you recorded a song, actually edited a home video or article (‘sharing’ increasingly also means ‘sharing your first draft’), or built a Lego project from scratch instead of buying a kit? The instant sugar hit of recognition and pseudoconnection that comes from engaging with a brand, a franchise, a ‘magical revolutionary device,’ will almost always overpower the more complex, delicate experience of doing it yourself — and the conscious choice to DIY is short-circuited by the saturated colours, beveled edges, high framerates, and deep bass frequencies of the mediasphere.

This is a new spin on old news: the American public’s tendency toward absolute passivity before the screen has been a problem since the first television beamed out the first time-killing inanity, if not before. (During the Depression, 65% of the American population went to the movies each week.) Never mind that sitting for hours in front of a screen is bad for you, a fact everyone has known and seen firsthand for decades; thinking for hours through a screen is bad for you too. It fundamentally changes how you see, how you want, how you experience Others.

Americans’ democratic rhetoric has never quite hidden our desperate yearning for a strong hand, ideally an invisible one, guiding our choices. Consumerism, conformism, identitarian narcissism — these are such longstanding concerns you can watch expensive cable dramas about them. Madison Avenue didn’t invent the insane notion that happiness means inactivity (‘kick back and relax’), slaves did. And yet Being Able to Accomplish More is the core sales pitch in modern life: enhancing your productivity, being a ‘more effective you,’ decreasing your footprint while ‘increasing your impact’… Accomplishing more while doing less is the essence of the American Dream, which is one reason Silicon Valley’s rapacious technophilia has so thoroughly colonized the contemporary American imagination.

Yet it bears repeating: our tools also constrain our ability to create, coarsely (you can’t do calligraphy with a hammer, or drive nails with a watercolour brush) and more subtly. Tools come with ideas attached, with cultures of practice, social histories, private associations…and many of the ideas attached to our modern digital tools are poisonous to our long-term health. The idea that sharing means referring to Something Neat rather than making something of our own and passing it along. The idea that your urge to hear music is best satisfied by turning on the radio-equivalent rather than picking up a guitar (or even an iPad drum machine). The idea that, because pseudostate corporations can provide essential social services more efficiently in the short term than the actual state, they should do so. The idea that the best of you is what you can broadcast to the world right this instant. The idea that a company that inserts advertisements into your email while pretending not to care about their contents is, in any way at all, ‘on your side.’ The idea that ‘self-sufficiency’ is corrupt and valueless simply because it’s a myth.

The idea that it’s important to find out what other people think about your new favourite show before you ‘support’ it by watching.

The idea that it’s better to let the machine remember for you.

The idea that you can form a human connection with a username.

The idea that ‘curation’ is ‘creation,’ rather than ‘acquisition and accumulation with better branding.’

Blah, blah, blah.

(And now a moment for us: If you’re not blocking them with a clever bit of Javascript, please click one of the ‘Share’ buttons on this page so we can both get a sense of self-worth from this piece.)


We began with ‘sharing’ but have ended up on ‘creating’ and ‘curating,’ which makes sense: in the jungle of the ‘social’ Web, your taste is your identity and everything is a remix, and pointing out that these are deranged wrong ideas — pure ideology, good for business and bad for everything else — is uncool, i.e. irrelevant. The redefinition of ‘sharing,’ the weird felt obligation to point out that we don’t agree 100% with everything we retweet, our gadget anxieties, our self-satisfied consumerism, our literally childish equation of fulfillment with momentary satisfaction, our march toward an imagistic attention-deficit politics divorced from actual economic or cultural or indeed climatic reality…these are contemporary manifestations of our century-long movement toward absolute dependence on a corporate-cultural complex, and if that sounds creepily like ‘military-industrial complex’ then give yourself a gold star.

Our technological dependency makes us dependent in turn on the corporations who sell the technology, and those corporations spend billions to make sure we not only depend on them but feel sympathy for them, expend emotional energy caring about their wellbeing — think of how many hours supposed adults spend arguing with each other about Google’s ‘rebranding’ as Alphabet or Apple’s choice of default system font or whether the repulsive multibillion-dollar oligarchy called the NBA should sully the ‘purity’ of its player uniforms with advertisements that already blanket every unused square inch of every NBA arena. So far, so distracting…but when we treat corporate interests as emotionally equivalent to human interest, we silently accept encroachments on our inner lives, steep cuts to our imaginative autonomy, which we’d never countenance if our acquiescence hadn’t been bought. We learn not to mind Google reading our email, which means the NSA reading our email (and Google providing tools for them to do so), etc., etc., etc.

We’ve outsourced our taste to record labels, our imaginations to movie studios, our memories to email providers, and our creative urges to whatever shiny thing crossed our field of vision most recently; what’s onscreen is real — ‘friending’ a user account is making friends, ‘liking’ something is liking it, a selfie is a memory, the show’s better than the book — so what’s real is onscreen. Who has time for anything else?

And outside the window, just offscreen, the seas rise and the world dies.

We’ve lost (ourselves) and the timing couldn’t be worse.

But surely I don’t need to tell you that. Everything is a remix, after all; you’ve heard all this before.


  1. It’s no coincidence that our art reflects this ideological shift with an aesthetic shift toward relentless referentiality — the bored cynic who first got rich painting soup cans wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised by a cash-in like Captain America: Civil War, which (like dozens of comic book crossover (non)events before it) exists primarily to answer the question ‘What if Spider-Man fought Cap and made a weirdly specific Star Wars joke and we saw Crossbones in an early scene for some reason and The Vision wore a sweater and Stan Lee called Tony Stark “Tony Stank”‘ with a resounding KA-CHING!! From Lost and Family Guy to every Dreamworks movie ever made, from TV-Game of Thrones‘s inept citations of its bestselling source novels to the torrent of swill that is Disney’s ‘secret origins of fairy tale characters’ sequence, from the cloddish point-missing of Sopranos ‘death pools’ to the tiresome pedants who ‘fact checked’ Mad Men by craftily googling every date that appeared on what ended up being nothing more than a (brilliant) work of fiction, the demeaning game of spot-the-reference has become a staple of what credulous academics call ‘active media consumption.’ We could go on, but shouldn’t. 
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Cyberpunk.

The unevenly distributed future as seen (through mirrorshades, darkly) from ‘the street,’ which famously finds its own uses for things. The cyberpunk vision of walled corporate technogardens and infinitely plastic transhuman bodies is essentially already here; insofar as the stories were (hyper)really about inequality, gentrification, surveillance, centerless systems of control, nightmarish cosmopolitanism, cyberpunk is already our condition — has been since the bomb. The genre’s Japanophilia/-phobia now seems dated, maybe because Japan presently scans as faded or arrested power; otherwise, thanks to its abstract rendering of tech as social phenomenon, cyberpunk remains terrifying today, a necessary vision.

Apple Computer.

The tally: Apple IIgs, ImageWriter II. Windows 95/98 interregnum. 12″ Macbook. 15″ Macbook Pro, another, another (this one). Three or four iPhones, three iPads. Their devotion to ‘user experience’ misreads as fanaticism, but their products really are that well and carefully made, that different in concept from the Valley norm. Jobs’s weary, unapologetic explanation for Apple’s behavioural oddities remains straightforwardly correct: ‘We don’t make junk.’ I think of Apple as a quintessentially Weird American organization, privileging ‘vision’ over short-term biz dictates. Jobs was a principled, terrible man; in a sane world, Woz would be a saint.

TV ‘criticism.’

Add Rick and Morty to the list of shows for which the Iron Law of TV Criticism holds:

The amount of valuable criticism written about contemporary TV is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

I’m the real victim here, of course.

Update, 9:46am… Wait, a found the review of a well known ‘TV critic’ who…wait never mind, it’s stupid bullshit.

Epistemic status; attention conservation warning.

Reading Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex (one of the best blogs out there, no question), I’m reminded of a feature of his blog that I wish were more widely adopted: the epistemic status note at the top of a post.

A recent example:

Epistemic status: idea for one’s toolbox of ideas; not to be followed off a cliff

Another:

Epistemic status: So, so speculative. Don’t take any of this seriously until it’s replicated and endorsed by other people.

You might think this is humourlessness, or the author assuming his readers’ humourlessness or poor reading comprehension, and some idiot is probably getting ready to use the phrase ‘Swiftian satire’; please don’t. What Scott is doing is suggesting one or more reading frames for his readers, in order to shape both their approach to the posts and the discussions that follow. But crucially, this isn’t about content — it’s just additional information about how strongly certain claims are intended to be taken.

This is the most important thing, I think, and the strongest indication that Scott’s site is ‘grownup’ in a way most modern-USA ‘intellectual’ discourse simply isn’t: he assumes that the point of his writing is to generate and contribute to robust adult communication, and avails himself of the right tools for that job. Moreover, he does not assume that his readers will agree with him (and they often don’t) — only that they’re willing to read in good faith and assume that he’s writing in the same spirit.

This isn’t quite the same as a content note: if you look at, say, shakesville.com, the ubiquitous content notes often (usually?) function as neutral guides to topics under discussion, but surprisingly often serve as editorial prefaces, e.g. a (hypothetical) discussion of rates of gender-detransition might be framed with a ‘transphobia’ content note. The purpose of such notes isn’t to increase reader flexibility, and they don’t assume readers’ good faith — they’re there in part to shape the readers’ attitude toward the content itself. They aren’t just warnings to stay away, of course: most readers will read the posts regardless of the content notes. For those readers, the content notes are just guides to reception posture at the level of content.

Scott’s ‘epistemic status’ warnings guard against unproductive forms of argument but are agnostic as to reader perspectives; Melissa’s, I’d argue, militate subtly against specific perspectives. Both are intended inclusively, I think, but my sense is that they don’t both function that way, at least not to the same degree.

The great and knowledgeable Cosma Shalizi includes ‘attention conservation notices’ atop his long posts, which are somewhat more complicated (or at any rate pretentious) than normal content notes/trigger warnings.

In theory, credentials serve as persistent epistemic status warnings: ‘I have a PhD in area XYZ, so I can be expected to know A, B, and C.’ But life is complicated and dumb.

But again: why would you take my word for any of this?

The Goodreads problem synopsized.

You must have a sense of how people respond to your work, but you mustn’t fixate on any one response — learning to manage variation in tastes is an important skill for anyone doing creative work.

It’s harder than ever to escape people’s responses to your writing; to ‘be online’ (to live online) is to be constantly, destructively aware of the ultimately irrelevant. Yet you should never get drawn into a lengthy exchange with a reviewer of your work, paid or volunteer, except to clarify errors of fact.

There is no good solution, other (I suppose) than doing good enough work that you can confidently ignore reviews altogether.

The OSX Terminal.

The vast majority of Mac owners probably never fire up Terminal.app, which is a pity: some of OSX’s power comes from its BSD underlayer. The command line is your way the core of OSX, and even with underrated tools like Automator available, some tasks are only feasible right at the command line.

Folks who code on Macs, meanwhile, have long known Apple’s Terminal as a nonideal CLI.

Craig Hockenberry begs to differ, offering the most detailed rundown of Terminal’s handy GUI integrations, clever keyboard extensions, and assorted hidden features that I know of. That’s 9,000 very useful words from 2014.

See? The Internet isn’t just a sociopathic hellscape! Only mostly.

Pierce.

Does this look like wordcount padding to you?

In the clamor of a presidential race, which this year is even more distracting because of a clamorous and vulgar talking yam, a lot of important information gets drowned out that ought to be part of the presidential race in the first place.

That’s Charles Pierce, beloved of leftish readers who prefer articulate but shopworn outrage to analysis, drowning out some important information with a rush of cliché over at his blog ‘shebeen.’ Annoying as I find the ‘yam’ bit, it’s the misused ‘in the first place’ that puts me off. Surely a quick reread should’ve flagged that clunker?

Sensible people insist Pierce is a Great Writer in his mode, but his Esquire Politics blog has been trash all year, and paragraphs like the one quoted above are the reason why. Every single fucking post is riddled with ‘clever’ nicknames like ‘the vulgar talking yam’/’He, Trump’ or ‘Tailgunner Ted Cruz,’ tired rehashes of years-old jokes, and threadbare secondhand verbiage out of the Sclerotic Greyhair anthology. There’re ten thousand leftward bloggers like him, frankly, and dozens of them are reaching for new insights and new prose without any noticeable loss of perspective. I’ve linked admiringly to Pierce in the past, when his brand of overwrought doomsaying has suited the emotional tenor of some darker-than-usual cultural moment. But at this point he’s stamping about the ol’ shebeen like a more historically informed and somewhat less self-important Keith Olbermann — remember how K.O. got off a couple of memorable ‘viral’ speeches on his TV show before abruptly reaching the limit of his insight? — which is a damn shame considering Pierce’s actual talent and skill levels.

He was necessary reading once, back when he couldn’t be reduced so easily to a formula.

I say all this because Pierce talks constantly (and with extraordinary condescension) about the decline of rationality and sense in the USA — this from a man who in 2009 wrote a book called, wait for it, Idiot America — yet as near as I can tell, he long ago joined the parade of hurt/comfort pundits whose main job is to point at an extremely obvious outrageous affront to leftesque sensibilities (dumb people with guns! the politics of the image!) and recite a comforting litany of complaints (our nation is in decline and you and I are in no way to blame!), the balance of outrage and been-there-blogged-that worldweariness calibrated to go well with, say, a sugary milky caffeinated drink from your local fast-coffee chain. The ~left blogosphere has made this sort of pageview-trawling pseudoanalysis its primary sport for years and years now.

And while you might well think that the Real Problem is the rise of right-wing talk radio (which has been a major cultural force in this country for a quarter-century, you knob) or Citizens United or the lack of safe spaces or Lin-Manuel Miranda not getting enough awards or whatever issue you fill your Outrage Moments with…the fact that the tribe which identifies itself as Educated and Informed and More or Less Left But Also Totally Jazzed About the Fruits of Hypercapitalism — know anyone like that? — just can not be bothered to communicate with any of the other tribes, the fact that our Elites are doing their best to turn not only their neighbourhoods but their entire mediated existences into gated geographic/cognitive communities (the Safe Space as model of the Self), is exactly isomorphic with the ‘epistemic closure’ which was such a big deal amongst Righty crankfluencers a few years ago.

In other words: if you prefer your own tribe’s clichés to merely being in the world with members of any other tribe, you are part of the Idiot America that Pierce and his (mostly younger and dumber, therefore more forgivable though no more tolerable) cohort like to think they stand outside of. The system is rigged against you, just like it’s rigged against everyone who isn’t in charge of it, but you still bear a portion of the blame. Just like me and Charlie.

But you’re not getting paid to pass off your outraged gesticulation as critical insight. So your share of the blame is that much smaller.

That’s all.

‘Pitch me, baby!’ or: David Pogue’s ego blocks our view of a much deeper, much scarier cultural problem.

From the archives: July 2011. The last of today’s batch. My contempt for gadgetbloggers (also ‘Apple pundits’) is limitless, as you can guess. I used to love venting my spleen like this. Now I tend to feel bad about it, though obviously not bad enough to keep this to myself. –wa.

David Pogue, a freelance gadget columnist best known for his work at the NYTimes, recently spoke (for pay) to an audience of PR professionals. The talk was entitled ‘Pitch Me, Baby.’ Last week the NYTimes ombudsman described Pogue exhorting the publicity men to suggest column material to him:

In the presentation, Pogue jumps out of the gate with a Power Point page inviting the audience to “Pitch me, Baby!”” The presentation goes on to offer do’s and don’ts and emphasizes his own close reliance on pitches that come his way from professional public relations people.

On a later slide, he displays eight recent New York Times columns and identifies five as having come from public relations people. Pogue explains that, as a reviewer of new gadgets, there is no comprehensive database he can rely on to learn about new stuff. Hence he relies on companies and their hired pitchmen to tell him about new products.

Pogue’s basic advice boils down to two imperatives: 1) “Save me time,” and 2) “Don’t be a robot.” This means that public relations people should tailor the pitch to its audience (avoid spamming, in particular) and avoid jargon and other extraneous matter.

This strikes me as a violation of journalistic ethics, not to mention good taste. The NYT agreed; Pogue has been forced to curb his appearances at such little get-togethers. But I don’t care at all about that aspect of the article; my disgust at Pogue’s behaviour isn’t new, nor is it unique; nor is he different in that regard from, say, Judith Miller pawning off Cheney/Rove PR as reportage. We don’t use the term ‘corporate media’ for nothing.

The deeper issue, which doesn’t seem to be getting talked about this week, is this:

Pogue’s job consists of advocating for the business interests of large corporations. That’s it. Like so many other ‘tech columnists,’ he masquerades as an advocate for better living with/through technology, but it’s easy to see that he’s always been a paid shill, nothing more: he’s only capable of talking about technology on a corporate PR timeline, within a logic of consumption rather than creation. He’s an advertiser for The New (and Expensive).

If Pogue mattered, he’d be writing about amazing! new! corporate! technology! with an eye toward an actual alternative: i.e. instead of saying ‘Should we buy the new iPhone or the new “iPhone-killer?”‘ a serious critic would ask, ‘Should we buy this new tech at all?’

A simple thought experiment: if you’ve bought a new computer in the last five years, why did you do so? If you’re a grownup, chances are you didn’t do it in order to play the latest video games. So ask yourself: what does your new computer enable you to do that your last computer didn’t? If your last computer was less than four years old, the answer is probably nothing.

My first iPhone altered the way I traveled (thank you location-aware computing) and used email (thank you 3G data service). My new one lets me shoot video, take better pictures, and run the old apps faster. I can imagine needing to replace it when it breaks, but what in the world could I possibly want from a ‘better’ phone?

Pogue and his fellow tech writers would answer by listing the features of next-gen phones. But ‘Why should I buy this phone?’ isn’t a question about a phone, it’s a question about me; and Pogue and his ilk should know it. Their defense is always the same: Well, you don’t have to buy what we recommend. And that’s true, of course. But these idiots then turn around and write about ‘tech’ from the perspective of collectors, ‘early adopters,’ fetishists. And they orient the culture toward these perverse logics.

Pogue isn’t a commentator on the ‘gadget industry,’ he’s part of it. He’s a servant of his corporate masters, who provide him with free shit in exchange for free publicity. But in his capacity as an NYTimes columnist, he’s presented as something else: a servant of his readers.

The only thing he creates in this world is a misperception of the need to buy new things.

So no, David Pogue’s recent bout of new-money tackiness isn’t a ‘journalism story.’ It’s not a ‘tech industry story.’ A paid advertiser got spanked by his bosses, who rely on paid advertising for their livelihoods. So what.

The actual story is that at this point, we can’t imagine ‘modern life’ without people like David Pogue. We are fucked.

Trouble online, trouble behind.

From the archives: August 2011. I’m not proud of this one but ‘as writing,’ but it was important to write it, and it hurts me to read it. So here it is. –wa.

I don’t get along with people online, and that’s the plain fact. It’s taken me a while to be matter-of-fact about it, but there it is. I spent a bunch of time discussing the situation in therapy a couple years ago, but never did arrive at a satisfactory solution.

OK. The the problem goes deeper than incivility.

The summer after 10th grade (1995) I spent five weeks at Johns Hopkins, taking classes in the Pre-College Program. (It’s different from the well-known precocious-child program, CTY.) I got my first C (in a molecular biology lecture) and worked hard to get a life-changing A (in a small, prescient ‘Explorations in Text-Based Virtual Reality’ humanities seminar). Both grades were portents, but I didn’t understand them.

The focus of the seminar was MUD/MOO/MUSH culture — ‘A Rape in Cyberspace,’ Barlow’s ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,’ Neuromancer, some Bukatman, some Dery, that kind of thing. One of the requirements was to spend a bunch of time exploring the Diversity University MOO (moo.du.org:8888). I did. I also signed up for LambdaMOO (lambda.moo.mud.org:8888).

I’d never used the Internet before.

Some days I would get up, read the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog or my newly-purchased Principia Discordia for a while, then head over to the computer lab for a 12-hour stint in Lambda. I missed meals. I even missed class (see above re: ‘my first C’). Tuition for the program came to $3,600 for five weeks. My dad mowed lawns to raise a few hundred dollars. A wonderful man in my hometown lent us the balance of the tuition and it took us a long while to pay him back; or else we never did.

I got some sun but not as much as I needed. I fell hard for a girl in the next dorm, who didn’t notice me. Then I fell for someone with the username ‘Sirena,’ and that’s one of the weirdest stories of my whole life, I think.

I learned to ‘speak in public’ on LambdaMOO but I learned plenty of other things as well; and I came to rely on it. When I went home at summer’s end I felt totally disconnected from my hometown. I told myself and my family and even my couple of close friends that I just missed Baltimore, had a great time ‘at college,’ had never been around people who shared so many of my interests, just needed a little time to adjust. Junior year ahead, yay. That kind of thing. All of which was true, I suppose —

— but it occurs to me today, for the very first time, that as much as I missed the people and the school and the freedom, I was also going through withdrawal from the online world where my new self was being born. I mean that literally.

The term we’re looking for is addiction, of course, more specifically a form of ‘Internet addiction,’ which in the late 90’s was a subject of no small concern in the press and in academia.

You never hear about it now. Once everyone does some activity all day every day it’s not an addiction, it’s just ‘part of life.’ Like TV, or worrying about work, or hating the government.


I check my email several dozen times a day, yet I fail to respond in a timely fashion to friends and acquaintances. I may in fact be the worst correspondent I know. Yet I don’t immediately forget about the ‘need to respond’: indeed, waves of anxiety about my Inbox full of unanswered emails continue to ripple for weeks and weeks. I am never, ever free of anxiety about these communications — but I avoid responding.

I’ve destroyed friendships — and strained family relationships — this way.

When I have spare time, I read websites and occasionally comment on them. Sometimes I do this even when I don’t have spare time. Altogether I spend hours (hours!) a day looking at webpages and retaining almost nothing. I take no great pleasure from this activity. Indeed it has the dry sterility of pure compulsion, like pulling the arm of the slot machine.

I’ve posted to this blog more than 3,100 times since 29 September 2003. In that time I’ve been banned from one website, slunk away from several others, and stormed off several more. I get into fewer ‘flame wars’ than I used to, but it still happens. I still feel anxiety about websites I’ve ‘stopped reading’; indeed, at the site where I’ve been banned, I continue to comment under a different name.

I feel contempt for such behaviour but haven’t found a way to stop it, as yet.

Since 2009 I’ve posted upwards of 150 reviews to the phish.net — but I’ve only posted one or two since June, during which time I’ve posted 50 comments in discussion threads and in response to the admins’ blog posts. I consciously avoided any such discussions until this summer. This correlation between ‘chatting’ online and posting more thought-out frontline pieces (reviews and articles) has held, in my case, for many years.

After building a (very very minor) reputation as a thoughtful writer at whedonesque.com, I’ve all but scuttled it by turning into a persnickety, ill-tempered commenter. Unsurprisingly, none of my posts have been featured there since I started commenting more regularly.

The term isn’t brand dilution, but then what’s the term? Would I be happier if I knew?


A longtime netizen (remember that term?) told me this when I was banned from phishthoughts.com (for ‘trolling’):

You are a highly intelligent, very cerebral and I believe well meaning person but it seems that you have some form of internet Asperger’s which makes it impossible for you to determine what is and is not socially acceptable in many circumstances online.

I wrote him a long email telling him, essentially, that he had no idea what he was talking about and I was perfectly justified in what I said about the site’s owner and EVERYONE NEEDS TO THICKEN THE OLD SKIN, ETC., ETC. But I didn’t send it. My wife approvingly refers to this kind of thing as de-escalation and always looks so relieved when I choose not to carry on such exchanges. The look on her face breaks my heart. I realize, at such moments, that I don’t actually know how much damage I do to myself — or I won’t acknowledge it, or (worst of all, and most likely) I’ve decided I need to hurt myself ‘socially’ in order to continue living as I am.

Last summer I wrote this:

I think we should purge the books and sell them, to alleviate my guilt (not a writer, not a devoted enough reader, nothing special…) and maybe recoup a bit of money. My wife thinks we should keep the books around[…] And dust them. I try to explain that life will stop and start over, better, if she’ll just allow this one gesture; I mistake my self-indulgence for patience.

She evidently believes — insists — that life can’t start or stop, can only continue, so we might allow ourselves to do the same. I imagine that our future must resemble my past. The books, I’m certain, are signs of my…well, my irresponsibility, profligacy, compulsions, status-consciousness. My individual failings, you might say. Don’t I get the future I darkly deserve?

But what comes next is ours, not mine. `Mine’ is just for comfort — like the books. In our future[…]I’m glad my wife[…]made me keep the dreadful damned books way back when, and frustrated my urge to reduce our life to my story.

In grad school I went to a conference and met a young professor from some college out of sight/mind, and over the course of several joyful drunkening hours it became clear that we wanted to fuck each other, quite, but I was dating someone and she had to get back to her friends’ house where she was staying, and in any case it would have been an absolutely colossal mistake, quite, but unforgivable? Who knows? Probably yes and deservedly so I’d say (were the situation reversed). Well. One of those stories I hold onto in which I ‘miss an opportunity’ to have a conventional ‘good story’ but still come close enough to some inner horizon that the light goes strange and new (or very old) things are revealed. So how bad a story can it really be, what I’ve got now? She was a Buffy fan too and I definitely should have called her when I was single, later. But I wasn’t ever really single.

I mention it because, though I can’t find the email she sent a few days later in response to my own message, I’ve memorized these phrases:

  • ‘maybe too smart for your own good’
  • ‘extremely socially awkward’

I’ve used ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ as a term of derision.

I am ashamed. This is inappropriate and callous.

It would be, even if I were Oprah Winfrey.


Everyone wants his favourite band to also be The Very Best Band. This is really important to teenagers, who in this country have nothing else to do, but it stays important to nominal adults. Like me. Same for books/films of course. (Phish, Coltrane, James Joyce, Fight Club, etc.) Same for people, though I wouldn’t know. I can’t imagine what I’d be like if I didn’t map my tastes on to the cosmic quality scale.


The point being that there are two problems compounding one another: I compulsively fiddle about on the Internet, either getting into arguments or zoning out pretending to be interested in what Ezra Klein and Arthur Silber have to say about anything, but at the same time I have very serious trouble maintaining a civil tone and spirit of congeniality in online fora. I tend to monologue at people — ever notice how rarely I respond to the wonderful comments around here? When the conversation gets two-sided I lose control of something (maybe just the conversation), and I end up saying things I regret. ‘Being misunderstood,’ HORROR!, but more than that: no longer trying to understand the people I talking to. Not reaching out.

And that’s where I am this morning. Worried, if you’re wondering, that I’ll slowly lose friends and alienate readers and never stop doing the things I most hate about myself. And — you must know this is deeply related — worried, too, that I’ll never write freely because it will always be about me.

You want 100% employment? Assign every single citizen to border patrol. The true meaning of the nation-state right there, the geographic Self. OK, hold one guy back to make dinner I guess. One guy for laundry. And someone to make sure the cable bill gets paid.

My son will probably wake up soon, and my wife with him. The day will start. Real life will start. This…this is the shadow. If you walk toward the light it’ll hide from your sight, but not as a favour: your shadow will follow you wherever you go.