“We normally characterize an optimist as someone who sees his glass as being half full rather than half empty. For a Stoic, though, this degree of optimism would only be a starting point. After expressing this appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass; It could, after all, have been broken or stolen. And if he is atop his Stoic game, he might go on to comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are; They are cheap and fairly durable, impart no taste to what we put in them, and – miracle of miracles! – allow us to see what they contain. This might sound a bit silly, but to someone who has not lost his capacity for joy, the world is a wonderful place. To such a person, glasses are amazing; to everyone else, a glass is just a glass, and it is half empty to boot.”*
-William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life, The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
“The fundamental thing is that you can’t escape the attention economy.”
– Michael Goldhaber
So as I was snowshoeing around my backyard, writing this post in my head, I had a good chuckle at myself. I could tell, just outlining it, that it was going to be a long post and that meant automatically in this era a certain chunk of people wouldn’t read it.
This is not meant as a slight against those folks. They feel like they don’t have the time to read it. Or that’s what they’ve been led to believe. Or that’s how their brains have been conditioned. I know, because I was there too.
To begin, a bit of context. Let me speak to how I’m currently consuming my media – or what also passes for reading online these days.
I currently use an RSS/feed reader, News Explorer, wherein I’ve got a bunch of site subscriptions. For the most part, they’re old-school single-person blogs, but there’s also a few literary and essay sites in there. I used to have mass-media news sites, but it just got so ridiculously out of hand in terms of post quantity every day so those got axed. All told I’ve got about 40 sites I’m subscribed to. On any given day, I’ll get from 25-50 new articles that show up, depending. I have the app on both my desktop and my phone so it syncs and I can ‘favorite’ things to read later. Once or twice a day I’ll go through and check out what’s there, favorite stuff to read later. Anything friends or people I’ve actually engaged with in-person or via email is an automatic read. Sometimes I’ll stop and read a whole article if I’m feeling like it. Often, all these articles have links to articles within them as well that sound interesting too. I’ll sometimes click through and open those up in Safari, and if I want to circle back, I bookmark them to a folder I’ve got there called ‘Junk Drawer/Read Later’.
Lately I’ve also been using ReadUp, and in a similar fashion, I can go through that and ‘star’ articles that I think seem interesting for later reading. These articles too, often contain links to further articles that could be of interest. See the note about Safari above. I also have friends and contacts that will send me links, and links that are in some ways work-related that I’ll get via email newsletters or via work social-media accounts.
I don’t have any personal social media accounts, so I don’t get any links there, but even still, given all the above, I can easily rack up a ‘to read’ list of anywhere from 150-200 articles within any given day. That’s a lot – if not impossible – to keep up with. Which is why I don’t.
There are certain sources I read everything from, regardless, but for the most part in the interest of sanity, I realized the best way to manage it was just to let it all go. I do read a few articles each day, but every day or two, I go through and nuke all those links/articles I’ve saved/favorited. I don’t have time to read the whole Internet – there’s far more there than I could ever get to and I’m ok with that. Still, sometimes weird things happen and stuff that is meant to find you, will.
This is the system I’ve developed to help me ‘pay attention to what I pay attention to’ when it comes to the Internet.
Two days ago I read an article on ReadUp (it made the cut) and it left enough of an impression that I wrote a post about it. As a rare treat, the woman who wrote it, Lisa Richardson, actually read my post and emailed me and we had a lovely exchange. At the end of her first email, she shared a link she had just read that morning and thought I’d appreciate…wait for it – I Talked to the Cassandra of the Internet Age. I remembered it immediately and told her so. Surely the Universe had sent me a sign.
You should definitely go read the whole article, I won’t spoil it, but the TL;DR (if you’re paying attention, you’ll get that joke) is that years ago – in prehistoric times internet-wise – 1997, physicist Michael Goldhaber wrote an essay in Wired magazine outlining almost to the letter, all the issues we’re struggling with now with regards to the pitfalls of the ‘attention economy’. Thing is, not many folks paid attention back then. Upon reading, it kinda makes me wonder who we’re not paying attention to right now.
Most of this came to him in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, had a revelation. He was obsessed at the time with what he felt was an information glut — that there was simply more access to news, opinion and forms of entertainment than one could handle. His epiphany was this: One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. To describe its scarcity, he latched onto what was then an obscure term, coined by a psychologist, Herbert A. Simon: “the attention economy.”
These days, the term is a catch-all for the internet and the broader landscape of information and entertainment. Advertising is part of the attention economy. So are journalism and politics and the streaming business and all the social media platforms. But for Mr. Goldhaber, the term was a bit less theoretical: Every single action we take — calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen or, today, scrolling through our phones — is a transaction. We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something. This is a zero-sum proposition, he realized. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.
– Charlie Warzel, The New York Times
After reading the article, I wrote back to Ms. Richardson, conveyed my story, thanked her and also mentioned that it immediately reminded me of a post I’d written a little over 2 years ago, Using My Attention with Intention.
I’d noticed my own tendency to read only shorter pieces, avoidance of long articles, and deteriorating attention span. Though I’ve been attempting to rehabilitate my reading skills, I’ll ironically point out that old habits die hard. In the case of the article I discuss below, I read it 3 times. The first two I would resort to skimming, looking for hooks and trying to get to the end so I could get on to ‘next thing’. Part of my efforts have been working on stopping, slowing down, and staying with the writing. Too often these days we are in a hurry to ‘get elsewhere’ either virtually or physically and don’t pay attention to the one thing we are actually doing.
– Me, February 2019 – I seem to think about this stuff a lot in February.
The good news is, looking back, over the past 2 years I have been very successful in my endeavor to use my ‘attention with intention‘. I’d say this is due to a number of factors. Working from home, finally jumping off social media (for good), and practicing a lot of what Cal Newport talks about in Digital Minimalism. A regular practice of meditation has been huge in this regard. Sam Harris makes this perfectly clear in his audio clip from his Waking Up app:
In his recording, “Don’t Meditate Because It’s Good for You,” Harris says that meditation is a profound life process, analogous in some ways to reading—“one of the most important skills our species ever acquired.” Meditation, like reading, has “sweeping implications” for human life, so that over time, “almost everything we care about depends on it.”
In reality, our daily working lives find ourselves “always meditating on something”— habits, worries, desires, obsessions, expectations, insights, prejudices and the like. He emphasizes: “We become what we pay attention to,” so that we are effectively changing our brains in each moment. Mindfulness is “the ability to notice this process with clarity and to then prioritize what you pay attention to.”
“Why not focus your attention on things important to you,” he asks, rather than on a host of “trivial things that clamour for it?”
We’ve come to the point – or past it – that Mr. Goldhaber wrote about in his initial WIRED article, in that our attention is now a commodity and it is being bought and sold by the likes of social media, news outlets and advertisers. Interesting that those of us talking about the ‘attention economy’ and its associated perils are pretty much relegated to using the very tools, platforms and devices at the core of the economy itself. It would seem we have no choice. However, even Mr. Goldhaber acknowledged this.
“It’s not a question of sitting by yourself and doing nothing, but instead asking, ‘How do you allocate the attention you have in more focused, intentional ways?’”
– Michael Goldhaber
It took a lot of my attention to sit and write this and compile all these quotes and links. Arguably I’m doing it to get attention – as outlined by Mr. Goldhaber in his WIRED article. We all are. We all need attention – though the amount varies by person. I guess what all this has me thinking is it possible anymore to pay attention to the right things given the state of the ‘attention economy’ today. Are we even able to accurately determine what those things are?
“Rule Number One is to pay attention. Rule Number Two might be: Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”
The best part of all this, is searching out Howard Rheingold – whom Mr. Goldhaber cited in his WIRED article, I found his twitter page and therein was a link to a clip from Thelonious Monk from 1966, playing Blue Monk. If you’ve read this far, you deserve to be rewarded. Whatever you do, give at least the first 12:10 of this your full attention.
I was reading the post Speak the Wild Words and it’s good, you should check it out. This stuck out to me:
Craftivism is a kind of anathema to slacktivism, which is the more common path of protest these days – yelling loudly into Facebook to try and effect change. Craftivism, is quieter and gentler, it generates art and artefacts, and is about creating a better world, note by note, stitch by stitch. It’s about putting something into the world that is more than just your rage or your despair – something that people can approach with curiosity, and engage with.
– Lisa Richardson
One of the things that drove me off the social medias repeatedly on-and-off until I finally dumped ’em whenever-back-when was the constant stream of activism and advocacy posts – that were in many cases just “yelling loudly” into the void. Even if I agreed with whomever it was and whatever they were championing – it never really struck me as the most effective way to go about changing things – I think the comment threads attached often attested to that very point. Except for the very early days, I certainly never posted that kind of stuff, mostly because I didn’t particularly want to deal with the backlash and/or moderating other people’s bad behavior in my comments.
After getting off social media, I still felt strongly about certain things but increasingly felt that beating people over the head with those ideas was just not the way to go. Since then I’ve sort of been experimenting with and trying to find a ‘name’ for whatever it is that I’m trying to do those ends. Things like reading more, thinking more critically, trying to be present and do the ‘right thing’ – an often moving or seemingly mysterious target.
The above article’s discussion of ‘craftivism’ lit a bulb in my head. Though I’m not really creating anything tangible – no “art and artefacts,” what I am constructing is a life – the best one I’m able – and doing that seems the best way to champion what I think is important or feel strongly about. For me the concept has become one of ‘lived activism’ or ‘living advocacy’. Or ‘lived advocacy’ or ‘living activism’ or whatever. I’m realizing now that whatever it’s called really isn’t important at all. As my main man Brad Warner likes to say, “Buddhism is a philosophy of action.” So in one sense, it’s very much that.
My guess is someone already has created an academic term for this. In my case it’s mostly a mash up of Stoicism and Zen, with some Jocko Willink sprinkled in – no doubt there’s components of other things in there. Obviously, bikes.
In the simplest terms it boils down to ‘practice what you preach’, but in my case I’m leaving out the preaching and just practicing. In this way, I’m advocating to those I come into contact with – family, friends, strangers – all merely by example. That’s good enough for me. And I think it’s likely to have a deeper impact on one person I interact with than 40 people who read something on a social media post in a feed with 50 other peoples’ hollering – no matter how good the video I choose to embed is.
I know what you’re saying. “But my dude, you’re posting it here.” Yes. The difference is that posting it here is almost solely for the purposes of working it out in my own head. This is just my mental sandbox. I know that at any given point there’s probably only 5 people paying attention. I’m not “yelling loudly” into the void. If anything, this is the internet equivalent of going “Pssst…” and then passing someone a note.
It’s more about the real-world execution. My going for a snowshoe at lunch with my dog and then telling you about it in person via passing conversation is going to tell you everything you need to know about how I feel about the Environment, animals, and the importance of getting outdoors on one’s physical and mental health. Subtly, with less yelling – and less competing for your attention.
By way of shout-outs – I found the article I mentioned above via a platform I’ve lately rediscovered – ReadUp. They’re looking to change the way folks read and interact with others about what they read. Check ’em out if you’re so inclined.
A few weeks back, in order to read an article on the New York Times website, I did what I’m often loathe to do and signed up for a free account. As a consequence I now receive their daily digest, The Morning, in my inbox and it’s been a really pleasant surprise. I find it’s really well done and presented – almost to the point of making me feel guilty for not paying for a NYT subscription – but I haven’t yet. It does make me wonder though if other news outlets have anything comparable – I’d love to find a version that’s as well done from a Canadian news outlet. If you’re aware of one, ping me.
So far the only drawback I’ve found is that there’s no easy way to share segments of the email – I usually have to resort to forwarding the whole thing to someone – perhaps maybe this is part of their plan to get more subscribers.
Anyway, in this case I’m just going to copy and paste a segment of it here. In an effort to properly credit – the byline at the top of these says they’re written by David Leonhardt. You can view past editions there. The segment from today’s edition that caught me is as follows:
You Should Try a ‘Shultz Hour’
When George Shultz — who died Saturday at 100 — was secretary of state under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, he developed a weekly ritual. He closed the door to his office and sat down with a pen and a pad of paper. For the next hour, Shultz tried to clear his mind and think about big ideas, rather than the minutiae of government work.
Only two people could interrupt him, he told his secretary: “My wife or the president.”
Shultz told me that story when I interviewed him a few years ago, and it has stuck with me, because it’s even more useful advice today than it was four decades ago. These days, we are constantly interrupted by minutiae, via alerts and text messages. They can make it impossible to carve out time to think through difficult problems in new ways or come up with creative ideas.
Letting your mind wander, Sandi Mann, a British psychologist, has said, “makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” The Dutch have a word for this concept: niksen, or the art of doing nothing. (And here’s a GQ interview in which the journalist Manoush Zomorodi argues that boredom could open the mind to creativity, problem-solving and more ambitious life goals.)
Shultz’s biggest accomplishment in government was precisely such a fresh idea: a recognition — which most other Reagan advisers lacked — that Mikhail Gorbachev was serious about reforming the Soviet Union.
It’s difficult to define what doing nothing is, because we are always doing something, even when we’re asleep.
Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist who studies boredom and wrote the book “Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World,” likens niksen to a car whose engine is running but isn’t going anywhere.
“The way I think about boredom is coming to a moment with no plan other than just to be,” she said.
Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain, added that niksen can be “when we’re not doing the things we should be doing. Because perhaps we don’t want to, we’re not motivated. Instead, we’re not doing very much.”
More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.
Though I don’t have a specific schedule or time block as Shultz did, I have been spending more and more moments each day ‘thinking’. In some cases it’s about nothing. Or just letting whatever comes up be expanded upon. I don’t write anything down – perhaps I should – but more often than not, I’m just sitting. I often chuckle at myself thinking, “dude, you’re just sitting here staring into space, you should do something,” but often the result is that afterwards I feel better and my mind is clearer and more able to focus on what ever it is that I have to do. It’s like maybe, I just needed to get that doing nothing out of the way.
It certainly sounds better than I was just being lazy, so I’m going to stick with it.
I’ve been asked at several points in my life by acquaintances and friends why I don’t write about past events, periods of life, etc. Was just reading this bit in The Paris Review by Karl Ove Knausgaard from his new book The Land of the Cyclops and it made sense to me.
As such, history always lies, it turns what was inconsistent, all over the place, perhaps even meaningless, into something consistent, systematic, and meaningful. The situations and events that occurred, the people who were there, and the discussions between them were of course real, it is not the case that writing about something is the same as lying or distorting, but the moment that reality is written down it is given a form that is basically abiding and unalterable, which pins it down in a certain way, whereas what was significant about it was that it was all over the place and could not be pinned down at all. To write about a situation is to take out part of its potential, at the same time as its remaining potential disappears into the shadows of the unsaid, the unthought, and the unwritten, in the valley of opportunities lost.
I have been listening to the audio version of an old PBS series with Bill Moyer interviewing teacher and philosopher Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. To say it’s been a game-changer for me would be a massive understatement. What an absolute beauty of a man and intellect. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a student of his, but I feel fortunate to have his books and items like this series still around. What an absolute delight it is to listen to these men in conversation.
BILL MOYERS: What does it mean, to have a sacred place?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is a term I like to use now as an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour a day or so, where you do not know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe to anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you, but a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. And first you may find that nothing’s happening there, but if you have a sacred place and use it, and take advantage of it, something will happen.
BILL MOYERS: This place does for you what the plains did for the hunter…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: For them the whole thing was a sacred place, do you see? But most of our action is economically or socially determined, and does not come out of our life. I don’t know whether you’ve had the experience I’ve had, but as you get older, the claims of the environment upon you are so great that you hardly know where the hell you are. What is it you intended? You’re always doing something that is required of you this minute, that minute, another minute. Where is your bliss station, you know? Try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the records, the music, that you really love. Even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects, I mean, the one that you like or the book you want to read, get it done and have a place in which to do it. There you get the “thou” feeling of life. These people had it for the whole world that they were living in.
Most mornings, I get up around 4:30 and head into my basement where I do some yoga or exercise, meditate, read or listen to items like the audiobook above, make coffee, read and answer emails from friends, and prepare for the day. I purposely avoid cracking open the Internet or anything external until after I’ve done this, then headed upstairs to see my kids off to school and wife off to work.
Yesterday, while drywalling a new room in my basement, listening to Mr. Moyers and Mr. Campbell talk, the section above deeply resonated with me. Mr. Campbell definitely knew his stuff.
The last week or so, the renovations and the associated temporary restructuring of living spaces (one of my kids is now sleeping in my home office space) have made it difficult for me to get this time in, but I’m ok, knowing that in another few days, they’ll be done and I’m looking forward to getting back into the routine – back into my sacred space.
When I was a younger, dumber person – more inclined to evenings of considerable debauchery – my friends and I would consider any mountain bike ride that started before 1oam as ‘Dawn Patrol’.
Then at some point you have to start getting up at like 6 for work. And to get kids to school. Or to hurriedly rush a vomiting dog out the back door.
Then maybe you decide that in order to get a jump on things and/or keep your sanity as well as a moderate amount of joint flexibility into your twilight years you should get up early to meditate and do yoga, so you decide 4:30am is a good number because Jocko Willink says so.
At some point on weekends you’re already awake and there’s no work and the kids are still asleep so you decide to skip the meditation and yoga, because it makes you feel somewhat rebellious – in as much as a middle-aged dad who’s a slave to the Man can rebel – kind of way, and ride bikes. Invariably as the seasons change you end up riding in the dark, pre-dawn. The true Dawn Patrol.
You end up seeing a lot of things you’ve never seen before and come away changed. As a bonus you get back just in time for breakfast – sometimes you’re even back before anyone else gets up.
Heading out before dawn in the dark also means you get to ask yourself interesting questions like “how is it possible I’m this fucking cold and still enjoying this,” “is it possible for quiet to get even quieter,” or the more thought-provoking “where do I want to watch the sun come up today?”
Sometimes it’s a walking bridge. Sometimes it’s a field on a river flat. Sometimes it’s a town square. Sometimes it’s an empty intersection. The possibilities are endless, really.
Our Man, the champion of achieving transcendence via the mundane, Karl Ove Knausgaard, has a chapter in his book Autumn called ‘Dawn’.
“It isn’t the light in itself that feels good, for once it’s here, say at around 2:30 in the afternoon, we take it for granted. What matters is the actual transition. Not the light from the immobile sun, which shoots across the horizon as the earth’s sphere turns towards it, but the faint glow cast by this light in the minutes before, visible as a pale streak in the darkness of night, so faint it almost doesn’t seem to be light at all, merely a kind of enfeebling of the darkness.”
“Dawn is always the beginning of something, as its opposite, dusk is always the end of something, and when we consider that in practically every culture darkness represents death and evil, while light represents life and goodness, these two transitional zones between night and day become manifestations of the great existential drama we are caught up in, which is something I rarely think about as I stand in the garden gazing towards the growing light in the east, but which must still resonate in me somehow, since watching it feels so good. For darkness is the rule and light its exception, as death is the rule and life its exception. Light and life are anomalies, the dawn is their continual affirmation. “
Over a month now, I’ve been getting out before dawn at least once, if not twice on the weekends. At first it was about finding the best Hallmark Calendar spot to watch the sunrise from. A hill. Over a river. But there’s been other spots too. Sunrise over a strip mall is still the same sunrise as the one you watched 3 km away from the riverbank – well, that’s not really true – no two are the same. It’s the same sun rising, over the same planet – but even then, very little is the same – but you have to see both of them to figure that out. Or perhaps to figure out that you’ve really got nothing at all figured out.
The more I’m out pre-dawn, the less I tend to think of the darkness as ‘evil’ or ‘death’ and the more I think of it as merely the opposite of light. This is no news to anyone who’s familiar with eastern notions of non-duality – the idea of “not two” or “one undivided without a second.” Obviously there’s a mathematical/astronomical formula that tells me exactly when the sun rises and ‘day begins’. Actually, it’s the app on my phone that tells me personally, but is that really when it happens? Really, it’s just one continuous moment endlessly spooling out. There is no distinction between the two.
One of the main revelations I’ve had with these rides is how much there is to see before dawn. It’s exciting to rediscover what the human eye can see – even in almost pitch black – if you let your eyes adjust. On a clear night, even if there’s only a sliver of moon, it’s astounding the amount of light it casts and on the night of a full moon, you can conduct yourself quite easily without any artificial light at all – even more so if there’s snow on the ground to reflect it. It occurs to me that my ancestors knew all these things innately and somewhere they got lost for me to find again.
Every now and then, I’ll sleep in on a weekend. I invariably end up regretting it. There’s so much to see – even in the dark – I feel bad wasting it – and days take on a whole new perspective when you’re able to literally watch them begin.
I am currently reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn (part of what’s considered (‘The Seasons Quartet’), it’s a book of many short chapters describing relatively everyday things – premise being it’s a ‘letter’ to his as yet unborn daughter, due in a few months. In the chapter titled ‘Beds’ he writes:
“The bed is placed in the bedroom, which is often the innermost room in the house or apartment, and in two-story houses the bedroom is usually on the upper floor. This is so because we are never as vulnerable as when we are asleep, we lie defenseless in our beds at night without knowing what is going on around us, and to withdraw from sight at such a time, to conceal ourselves from other animals and human beings, is an instinct that runs deep in us.”…
…“But if it were possible to see everyone who has retired to their beds in a great city at night, in London, New York, or Tokyo for example, if we imagined that the buildings were made of glass and that all the rooms were lit, the sight would be deeply unsettling. Everywhere there would be people lying motionless in their cocoons, in room after room for miles on end, and not just at street level, along roads and crossroads, but even up in the air, separated by plateaus, some of them twenty-meters above ground, some fifty, some a hundred. We would be able to see millions of immobile people who have withdrawn from others in order to lie in a coma throughout the night.”
My takeaway of that is regardless of race, creed, religion, gender or best-lineup-of-van-halen background, we are all vulnerable in so many similar ways – and that itself, is singularly unifying. Thanks for that, K.O.
After a stint of trying to read only one book at a time, I’m finding now that reading several books at once and sprinkling the head-brew with frequent doses of solitude outside is producing favorable results. I’m reading the Knausgaard intermittently as the chapters are very short and one can be absorbed within 10 minutes. I have it on the phone for quick hits here and there. I’ve already read through the whole thing once, but am going to keep re-reading it until – you guessed it – winter – when I’ll start Winter. I just finished reading Brad Warner’s book, Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen – it’s excellent and as I told Titus, reading Brad always makes me want to go back and re-read all his stuff.
Finally I’ve started on the brick that is Dune by Frank Herbert – I mentioned to the Mrs. that I’d been reading William Gibson sci-fi novels and enjoying them so she got this paperback last Christmas. I’m currently like, 1/37th of the way in. Prolly take me all winter.
Should be an interesting enough cocktail.
Also, the latest Brandon Semenuk is not-of-this-earth. The manual into the ‘payoff’ (didn’t want to spoil it) at the end made me laugh out loud. H/T to Stevil for the post.
In the past few months, I’ve been taking a lot more walks. I take a short one almost everyday after my morning zoom call/meeting with work, usually only 20-25 minutes or so, but I’ve been taking longer ones too. I’m fortunate that I can walk right out my back door into almost wilderness – unfortunately it’s being developed for houses – but there’s still some nooks and crannies you can sneak into and feel like there’s no one around for miles.
I often stop somewhere and sit and just look around. See how many things I can notice. Count various critters seen. Wonder about the type of trees or why leaves change a particular color. Lately I’ve stopped taking pictures, no matter how good the scenery – it’s really just about that moment.
A recent study has identified another beneficial ingredient of walking: the emotion of awe. … The researchers believe awe reduces self-preoccupation, promotes connection with others, and fosters pro-social behavior. It does make sense that feeling the vast scale and mystery of nature’s processes might make the human brain less consumed by worries about housing markets and doctor’s appointments. … You don’t need to have Yosemite in your backyard to find awe. A single tree is awesome, in the word’s true sense. It’s a towering plant that grew from a sprout, making wood out of sunlight, spreading tendrils through the ground beneath you, at speeds slower than stillness but with sidewalk-buckling force. It stands there every night, and every day, performing this mysterious and unstoppable work. There are billions of them, and if you give them enough time they’ll cross continents.
I often look around and find myself thinking, “so much of what is here is older than me. So much will still be here when I’m gone.” It doesn’t come from a morbid place, but one of, well, awe. That these things are so complex and resilient and incidentally, don’t give two shits about me and my trite problems. It’s very humbling and liberating. Having just finished reading David Suzuki and Wayne Grady’s Tree: A Life Story has probably helped. Never mind that I didn’t understand half of the biology – it still gave me new insight into the complexity of the earth and its creatures as well as the interconnectivity of all things. It couldn’t have been a better primer for autumn walks.
Just finished reading The Medium and the Message by Marshall McLuhan. A few sections struck me in particular:
Moderator: What do you suggest as alternatives that we offer instead of the search for identity through violence?
McLuhan: Dialogue. The alternative to violence is dialogue, which is a kind of encounter interface with others, people and situations. Yes, we live a world in which we have so much power. In the old days, you could fire or pull a trigger on a revolver and hurt people, but today, when you trigger this vast media that we use, you are manipulating entire populations.
The hidden aspects of the media are the things that should be taught because they have an irresistible force when invisible. When these factors remain ignored and invisible, they have an absolute power over the user. So yes, the sooner that the population, young or old, can be taught the effects of these forms, the sooner we can have some sort of reasonable ecology among the media themselves.
What is desperately needed is a kind of understanding of the media which would permit us to program the whole environment so that literate values would not be wiped out by new media. If you understand the nature of these forms, you can neutralize some of their adverse effects, and foster some of their beneficent effects. We have never reached this level of awareness.
Moderator: “Professor McLuhan, you spoke about us going outside for our privacy and coming home for the social aspect. I’d like to hear you comment on that in relation to electronic man’s new thirst for meditation, contemplation, mystical experience.
McLuhan: Well, as you know, transcendental meditation has become exceedingly popular. All forms of mystic meditation have become very popular in our television age. We have gone very far to the East since television. Just as an exercise in awareness and so on, meditation has grown and come in very big since television. I’m not sure that that is good or bad at all, it just has happened. Do you think of it as a very significant event?
Moderator: I think of it as very significant, yes. It seems to me almost like a nostalgia for a return to that private self, without going outdoors to find it. Return to an inner union with God, with yourself, which electronic man seems to need and is looking for in this way.
McLuhan: Jane Austin, of all people, has quite a big comment on that inside/outside. She said that people go outside to be alone just to prove their inner resources, that they don’t need people. We can make it alone, and that the romantic movement was based upon this psychic development.
Jane Austin has quite a bit to say about that. I was amazed to come across it in her work a few months ago. But there’s another American writer, Hawthorne, who regarded this American habit of going outside to be alone as an undermining of democracy. He said this is sheer aristocracy, this is putting on the aristocratic thing and it is going to undermine our whole democracy. Hawthorne regarded it with great alarm. The moralist, by the way, is always a person who never studies effects so much as studies the content of situations, studies the figure and not the ground.
This, I think, is of great concern to advertisers, who are here tonight in some numbers. Advertisers need to study figure, not the ground. They tend to count noses rather than to estimate the pressures under the noses. The form of gnosis.
It occurs to me that almost anything McLuhan says about tv works if you replace ‘tv’ with ‘the internet’