The Internet’s tangled web

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Science without conscience is the soul’s perdition. – Francois Rabelais

Friends, an important book on technology is discussed below. This was forwarded to me by my friend Don Handley, who lives in Thailand: You may be well aware of this issue, but I like the way the book’s author, Jaron Lanier, puts it:

From Don Handley: “Below are the final few paragraphs from Maureen Dowd’s opinion column yesterday [May 27, 2018] in the NYTimes called Grifters Gone Wild.  I feel conflicted about my ongoing use of Facebook and Instagram, and even more conflicted after reading this opinion piece yesterday.  I guess my alternatives are to use email to stay in touch with friends and the Blogger blog to post my photos to instead of Facebook and Instagram:

Dowd writes: Jaron Lanier, the scientist and musician known as “the father of virtual reality,” has a new book out, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” He says that the business plans of Facebook and Google have served to “elevate the role of the con artist to be central in society.” [While of course doing much more…RH] “Anytime people want to contact each other or have an awareness of each other, it can only be when it’s financed by a third party who wants to manipulate us, to change us in some way or affect how we vote or what we buy,” he says.

“In the old days, to be in that unusual situation, you had to be in a cult or a volunteer in an experiment in a psychology building or be in an abusive relationship or at a bogus real estate seminar. “But now you just need to sign onto Facebook to find yourself in a behavior modification loop, which is the con. And this may destroy our civilization and even our species.” Lanier worries, now that tech has lost its halo, that there is nothing optimistic to replace it. “We don’t believe in government,” Lanier says. “A lot of people are pissed at media. They don’t like education. People who used to think the F.B.I. was good now think it’s terrible. With all of these institutions the subject of ridicule, there’s nothing — except Skinner boxes and con artists.”

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Personally, I’m going to erase my limited presence on Facebook and other social media platforms. But is it too late?  Has the “con” and the “addiction” gone too far and blinded the masses? Also, by nature I must retain my belief that technology is inherently benign and can be controlled for the common good, but my gut says if you allow greed and con artists unfettered access to one of the most powerful platforms and tools in the world, they will corrupt it – and our culture – as sure as fire burns.

“Do no harm” is the right idea, but the smart people who run Silicon Valley collectively represent the other side of an enduring debate that highlights the gap between the “two cultures,” most recently sparked by C. P.  Snow’s book, The Two Cultures, in 1959. The two cultures concept is a fuzzy description, but generally it represents the scientific and the non-scientific.

From Wikipedia: Snow said:  “A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare‘s?[5]

“I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.[5]”  

Unfortunately, both the public body and our governing class are only now coming around to the immediate issues surrounding Facebook. While not grappling with the larger consequences, we are simultaneosly gutting education – the only hope that the “two cultures” can be reconciled in a beneficial way – accomodating both sides of our human nature.

The governing class is poorly equipped to deal with this clash of cultures. At the same time, we have a president – a Supreme Con Artist on Twitter – who leads a movement to discredit experts and intellectuals, wherever they are found within the two cultures.

Clearly, it’s a setup for a potential, unintended cultural tragedy. We desperately need a combined body that represents the two cultures to come to some sensible conclusions and recommendations. It’s imperative that discussion begins and is ongoing.

We need enlightened gatekeepers to filter out and better control the corrupting influences of the Internet. The legitimate media is trying to counter balance the malignancy that’s attacking our culture, but the “con” loop is constantly perpetuating its own world of self-interest.

Too little, too late is a real danger. May Lanier’s book shine a light on the way forward.

 

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Achan Sumano of the Double-Eye Cave

 

47460025 copyAchan Sumano in the Double-Eye Cave in Thailand, where he has lived for more than 20 years. He practices Buddhism in the tradition of the late Achan Mun and Achan Chaa of the Forest Meditation Center near Ubon, Thailand. Photograph by Roy Hamric

“Viewing TV, reading newspapers, and staying on top of the dramas happening in the world causes a lot of anxiety and frustration to short circuit our ability to respond appropriately to events in our personal lives. In our intimate relationships, more so than any other, there is a need to function with spontaneous penetrating wisdom, with humanity, with love and with compassion. Penetrating wisdom is a critical aspect because it can see through circumstances. Wisdom recognizes the need for compassion beginning with compassion for ourselves. I regard family and intimate relationships as the ground for training ourselves to act and live as whole, kind-hearted human beings. In the family, in marriages and partnerships, we soak up massive amounts of pain from disappointment, frustration, jealousy, misunderstanding, etc. As painful as this is, all of this is needed to cultivate wisdom…” For more, see here.


Alan Watts At 101

See here for a deep appreciation of Alan Watts written by David Chadwick:

“This January, the English-born Watts would have been 101 old. He’s best known for his important role in the popularization of Zen in the West. His twenty-six books, and his popular radio and television broadcasts, introduced Americans of the 1950s and 1960s to a Zen that was authentic yet contemporary and accessible. In the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted with practitioners from the early Zen Center days, Watts was the most frequently cited inspiration.

“Yet he was no sectarian. Watts wrote of the perennial philosophy—the unifying core of religion and profound inquiry in all quarters and eras. His approach to wisdom was curious and inclusive, embracing psychology, the natural sciences, art, music, dance, humor, and the enjoyment of nature, of sex, of life.”

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Turning the Wheel

1374180Pharadon Phonamnuai on the essence and fun of planting trees in Chiang Mai.

http://www.bangkokpost.com/lifestyle/social-and-lifestyle/771044/turning-over-a-new-leaf.


Thomas Merton On An Image

Mount Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling

Mount Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling

Thomas Merton, during his Asian pilgrimage, waited for days to see and photograph Mount Kanchenjunga, but it was covered by clouds. His visual sense was acute. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he wrote“Nothing resembles substance less than its shadow [words, drawings…]. To convey the meaning of something substantial you have to use not a shadow but a sign, not the imitation but the image. The image is a new and different reality, and of course it does not convey an impression of some object, but the mind of the subject: and that is something else again.” I discuss his pilgrimage and his photography in an essay under “On the Record,” which is listed in the column on the right. Merton died in Bangkok in December 1968.


Bedside Books

Two more books completed on the classical world of Greece and Rome: Celebrity in Antiquity: From Media Tarts to Tabloid Queens by Robert Garland; Duckworth, 2006.

With the growth of cities and states, renown was bestowed on those who stood out in various ways: by the exercise of power, their beauty, their role as soldiers, their exploits on fields of sports or survival in physical contests of strength, their ability to speak or do science or philosophy, or their virtue. In the Greek and Roman worlds, such people were fodder for books, pamphlets, broadsides, letters, graffiti, statues and paintings. Garland is adept at capturing the traits of such figures, their characters, and making deft comparisons to present day celebrities. He firmly establishes the premise that history does repeat itself over and over, and, yes, we learn nothing from it, or too little to make a difference.

Caesar (circa 50 BC) was the Great Populist of his era, a genius at rallying the plebs, the lower classes, who looked to him as their patron, who protected them from the equestrian class, the “equities,” (think political, financial power brokers). He was one of the first to write his own autobiography of military exploits (in a most generous light), though he cleverly used the third person. His assassins fled the city and country, while the people canonized him into posterity.

Alciabades

Alcibiades

Alcibiades (450 BC), a prominent Athenian statesman, orator, and general, was renown for his aristocratic charisma, his bad boy image, his bisexuality (as was Caesar), his lust for courtesans, his beauty (Plato said he proposition Socrates who turned him down), his lack of scruples, his scandals, his drinking in the morning, his style of effeminate dress, and the decoration of his military shield with the word “Eros.”

His private life became a subject of public obsession until finally he fell from grace, but not before setting a pattern of privilege – and public forgiveness – for people who possess an ability to hold the public eye through sheer force of talent, personality and presence.

Sports, the theater and the arts were the pathway for ordinary people to rise to celebrity status in the ancient world. To be the most successful actor, wrestler, runner, chariot driver, courtesan, or musician led to great wealth and fame.

The symbiosis between sports and entertainment celebrities and the elite and governing class was exemplified by the Emperor Nero, who lusted to be recognized as a sports and entertainment figure. Ruler of the world wasn’t enough.

Garland writes: “Such was Nero’s eagerness to acquire celebrity status that his portrait head on coins for the year AD 64 may actually have been influenced by the hairstyle of actors or charioteers…there was more to Nero’s craving for public attention than meets the eye, for it enabled him to present himself to his subjects as a popular idol. The goodwill of the plebs was in fact vital to him, as he received little support from the army, or from the senatorial class or the equestrian order.”

Sophists and philosophers, for a brief time, were celebrities. Many gave public symposia and workshops, making great sums of money. Socrates did not. But he attracted a fascinating number of followers, from both the aristocratic and lower classes, who attended his informal gatherings.

Alcibiades said: “Whenever I listen to him, my heart beats faster than a Corybant [a Whirling Dervish]…and I see that he has the same effect on many others.”

Another branch of charismatic celebrities that extends into the present day were the hucksters of every stripe and character. Alexander of Abonuteichos set up a lucrative, prosperous “oracle shrine” around 250 AD. Lucian scourged him as “equally adept in lying, guile, perjury, malice, plausibility, audaciousness, cunning, determination, con-artistry, and hypocrisy.” Alexander predicted the future, performed healings, and promised blessings in the hereafter after conveying secret mysteries.

Empress Theodora

Empress Theodora

The greatest show business celebrity ever to rise to the top was Theodora, who as a youth appeared in the theater performing sexual acts and was a notorious prostitute, yet she donned the royal purple robe to become Empress Theodora (circa 540 AD) after Emperor Justinian took her as his wife.

Her story was known throughout the classical world, and she had a devoted following of plebs much greater but akin to Eva Peron in her day. Theodora was a sexually liberated woman who used her beauty, wit – and intelligence – to rise above the rawest demimonde of poverty she was born into to be crowned empress. Justinian was devoted to her throughout his life.

Rome: The Autobiography edited by Jon E. Lewis; Robinson, 2010.

This is a rich collection of original writing by key figures, historians, aristocrats, literary artists of the day and common folk, ranging from 753 BC to 565 AD Why did these two cultures flower so grandly and others languish? I have no answer, and – other than platitudes and conjectures – neither does anyone else.

History is an amalgamation of discreet acts and lives that collectively extend beyond the individual and allow us to look at ourselves. Assembled wisely, it can tell us a story about human nature. Classical Greece and Rome offer us a story writ large over time. Take Socrates’ life, for example. It was exemplary, yet a judge and jury saw otherwise. Alcibiades was a compelling, clever sophist, out for himself. Socrates was a philosopher, out for the greater good.There’s a lesson in their lives.

In a vastly different way, China experienced equally admirable growth in governance and culture during the same period, but elsewhere there are no real comparisons, except for the Middle East (and I’m silent here, totally deficient to say anything about its history; an embarrassment considering the state of the world now). In an ideal world, reading Greek and Roman history would be a component of the moral dimension of public education, at first offered very simply, from the earliest grades, to more detailed study through high school. It provides a missing reality, devoid of myth. It prepares one to know the world as a dangerous stage, impossible to fathom only through the lens of contemporary culture.

On a larger scale, if one has to have a descriptive God, a sweeping take-away from my classical reading is the fitness – the absolute rightness – of the God described in the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament offers solace, but who or what is it? It offers much less in the way of a true picture of life on Earth. It’s little wonder the gods of the classical world were swept away by the God of the New Testament; people were grasping for a saving grace from the world they knew, which is our world too.

Listen to and look at the words and acts of the God of the Old Testament. He gives fair warning of what’s in store for the children of light. The Old Testament God appears as a worthy stage manager, preparing the audience for the tribulations of life. Reocurring themes of apocalypse are bows to human nature’s intractable flaws.

Even with the progress in standards of living, life on Earth can be Hell – or a constant struggle – for people during their brief time on the planet. Heaven, perhaps, for a lucky few. Some survive life’s journey more or less intact, but many are culled in the swirl of fate, trial, pain, despair, sorrow, and, for some – an eagerness to exit the travails.

Greek and Roman history tell us that material progress and technology – our cleverness – are not enough to provide happiness or change human nature. That should be enough of a cautionary warning for humankind to do much better than we’re doing, but it isn’t.


Robert Stone On Stephen Crane’s Red Universe

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Upon Robert Stone’s recent passing, Madison Smartt Bell wrote at The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog that Stone “was one of the most widely read people [he had] ever met. . . . All his knowledge never settled into wisdom’s contentment—his streak of anger was too broad for that, and he learned all he knew in order to make art out of it, art with a furious energy.”

See Stone’s penetrating essay on Stephen Crane in Brick Magazine here.