app (n.) 1. originally from computer software app*lication; 2 (n.) bio smartphone and tablet app*endages, most commonly specimens of Homo sapiens.
When extraterrestrials finally arrived on Earth circa 2021 for a look around, they discovered that the dominant life forms were evolved digital communications devices. Subsequent investigation suggested that these creatures had only recently emerged on the scene, and at first the aliens couldn’t see what had given rise to them.
But then one team noticed tiny bio appendages dangling from many of the endemic Smartphone and Tablet spp. Even as the digital beings had developed, their evolutionary antecedents had shriveled to largely vestigial organs, more decorative than functional. Later investigations revealed that a pre-Homo app specimen of Homo sapiens, one designated Collin Piprell according to prevailing naming conventions, had foreseen these developments in something he referred to as a central irony of their age.
Other Earthly species had already undergone parallel developments. One such example was Haplophryne mollis. “When scientists first started capturing ceratioid anglerfish, they noticed that all of the specimens were female. These individuals were a few centimetres in size and almost all of them had what appeared to be parasites attached to them. It turned out that these "parasites" were highly reduced male ceratioids."
Female anglerfish with atrophied males attached.
Bingeing writers and binge writing. Traditionally, writers have been notorious bingers. And, aside from any occupational enthusiasm for booze and suchlike, we get binge writing, where instead of turning caffeine into books, as some would have it, writers instead turn whiskey into piss and engage in binge writing in the intervals between their alchemical endeavors. (I first encountered the expression “binge writing” listening to a Letterman interview with Hunter S. Thompson. See "What is writing?")
Binge viewing. The media has given much attention to the rise of binge TV series viewing. With entire seasons and entire seasons readily available on DVD, couch potatoes no longer have to wait till next week for the next episode of 24, Breaking Bad, The Tudors, whatever. Hell, no. They can go for hit after hit of suspenseful conclusion segueing into the start of the next cliffhanger, and the next, and the next right up till it's nearly time to get up and go to work anyway, so why not watch just one more?
Binge reading. More recently we've seen the emergence of so-called binge reading. Probably spoiled by the DVD TV series syndrome, binge readers are unwilling to wait a year or even six months for the next blockbuster novel in a series. They want the damned thing now, now, now. So publishers are beating on their favorite series authors, telling them to get the lead out and churn those novels. That's money we're talking, eh? See, e.g., "Impatience Has Its Reward: Books Are Rolled Out Faster." I've read somewhere that the fantasy writer George R.R. Martin has had fans get so irate at the pace with which he coughs up the next book in his series that they've issued death threats. Here's something from an interview:
It is great that so many people are eager for the next book and certainly these are the people who are paying my bills and allowing me to have a house across the street from my other house. But at the same time, sometimes I just wish they would stop pressuring me about it. It will be done when it's done. I'm working on it. I don't know what else I can say: I'm a slow writer, I've always been a slow writer, and these are gigantic books…
A favorite comic sci-fi writer, Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe fame, produced a few novels that were near genius. The last few were anything but. Reading them, I kept getting this image of some publisher holding a gun to his head and saying, "We're talking big money, laddie. So write us another book. Like now, you should write it. "
Binge pontificating. Isn't all that reminiscent of the "publish or perish" blight, where academics had to generate some kilos of books and papers to win associate professorships or tenure or whatever? And look what that did to the general quality of academic publishing. Yow.
Binge realities. But now we're bingeing on breaking reality, which is a dangerous thing, since a reality has to sit and steep a while before anyone knows whether they've got the genuine article or not. Here in Bangkok, e.g., we've been teetering on the edge of chaos since late December, where events unfold day by day as though we live in a cleverly designed TV suspense series, where the conclusion of each episode leaves you dying to see what happens next, this always being a big surprise. And it gets to be like binge-viewing whole seasons at a time on DVD -- instead of waiting for the morning newspaper to get your next fix, you become addicted to minute-by-minute Twitter feeds, witness to the unravelling of our world in real time.
If the day-to-day events aren’t put in a context of national, regional, global and cosmic change and development, then current affairs is only gossip. My old friend Tony Alcock, a classicist and linguist of no mean accomplishment, says he doesn’t want to read about it if it isn’t at least 300 years old. From that sort of perspective, CNN is little more than the modern equivalent of neighbors jawing over the back fence. And the Twitter universe? Spare me.
Still, in these troubled times I admit I can't stop checking the feed to see what's happening. Among other things, I fear the onset of binge tribalism. Maybe I should just retreat into that Breaking Bad TV series someone lent us.
Here's a nice take on bingeing from techradar.
“[E]ssentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
First published in 1973, Susan Sontag's On Photography speaks to us with even more force today about what cameras and the mass reproduction of images have done to our appreciation of ourselves and our worlds. And she offers this insightful spin on our lemming compulsion to photograph our experiences again and again and then share these images with as many people as possible:
"The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust. And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied: first, because the possibilities of photography are infinite; and, second, because the project is finally self-devouring. The attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion."
Though Sontag couldn't have foreseen how this effect might be exaggerated by the fact that cameras would become ubiquitous, she saw how the process was already having profound effects on our world. In her conclusions to On Photography, she says that
"The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals."
Recent items I've posted on this site -- "Colonialized: The Peak Experience" and "McStuff and the triumph of democratic mediocritization" -- offer related reflections upon my own experiences of Hong Kong's Victoria Peak, the Mona Lisa, whale sharks, the universe and my self.
The above image is attributed only to "anon" on the Internet.
The Peak Experience.
In a recent post, I reflected on the strange compulsion to record every iota of our individual and collective experience and then share it with everyone else, each of whom is trying to do the same. How can anyone enjoy an unmediated experience of night-time Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, for example? (“Colonialized: The Peak Experience”)
There I stood at the rail on the viewing platform, getting a many-elbowed massage from others who had mounted an assault on the Peak Experience. I stood my ground, trying for a contemplative appreciation of what should be an amazing sight, wishing all the camera flashes weren’t destroying my night vision and wondering how these ranks of lemming photographers thought their cellphone flashes were going to further illuminate the city lying hundreds of meters below.
The Mona Lisa Experience.
Some years ago I was wandering about in the Louvre when it suddenly occurred to me: This very museum was home to one of the most widely recognized of all the great works of Western culture. Best have a look, I thought. Take an up close and personal peek at this phenomenon.
But there was no getting close to this thing. It was railed off and surrounded by a mob. As with views of the Hong Kong colonial light-creature (see earlier post), furthermore, you had to stand tippy-toes to see over other admirers standing four and five deep, not to mention risk blindness from the barrage of photographic flashes. The Mona Lisa’s famous smile, from what I could see, which was very little, looked more like a wince.
So scratch the Mona Lisa. Sara figured her YouTube Victoria Peak Experience beat “the real thing,” and I got more juice out of magazine repros of the Mona Lisa than I ever did from the real McCoy.
A cultural icon? Sure. McMona Lisa.
The Whale Shark Experience.
Swimming with whale sharks can be awesome. It’s best, I’d say, when the encounter is unexpected and you’re sharing it with a couple of other divers at most. It’s even better when these divers don’t have cameras (or, at least in the old days, when they’ve run out of film). But maybe that’s just me.
Too often these days, especially on liveaboard dive trips dedicated to finding whale sharks, you get gangs of divers all plunging into the water together going flash-flash, often getting mainly pix of other divers going flash-flash. The shark lurks in the background, figuring it’s past time, if only it can find a way to break clear of all its groupies, to migrate back to deep water.
Hey, but progress marches on. Several years ago, enterprising sports-diving entrepreneurs, not wanting to leave the Whale Shark Experience to chance, started using spotter planes around Western Australia’s Nigaloo Reef. Having drawn a bead on the sharks, they radioed fast boats which then sped off to dump loads of divers as close as possible to the sharks, no doubt massively freaking out all but the hammiest of these creatures.
Not what I’d call close encounters with untamed nature.
Since then, however, commercial imperatives and the triumph of the “fair’s fair, down with elitism; let’s democratize every damned thing there is” meme has gone way beyond the Nigaloo Experience.
Take Macau, for instance. An enthusiasm for glitzy casinos on the part of mostly non-locals has already all but erased the charming Sino-Portuguese colonial architecture and distinctive local way of life. And the boom continues. The 2,900-room Venetian, e.g., the Las Vegas Venetian’s sister development, boasts the largest gambling area in the world. Hell, it keeps a captive Venice on the third floor, complete with canals, gondolas and gondoliers, even a faux sky that remains benign no matter what the weather outside. This is a new, improved Venice with no rain and no floods and shiny big name-brand boutiques on all sides.
So how do you beat that? Easy. Toss some whale sharks in a big aquarium and invite happy crowds of adventurers to come goggle at them. New casino-related projects include funparks complete with whale shark enclosures so visitors can have a big adventure snapping photos of this largest of all fish species, beautiful creatures that, till recently, had remained rarely sighted and mysterious.
“Twenty years ago, scientists did not know much about what whale sharks ate, where they spent their time or how they reproduced. Historically, seeing a whale shark in the wild was a rare experience, even for veteran divers. Jacques Cousteau reportedly encountered only two whale sharks his whole life.” (“How to Love a Whale Shark,” Scientific American)
But now every Tom, Dick and Harry with the price of a Macau vacation can snap any number of whale shark photos and show them to friends back home who have already seen them a hundred times before on TV and YouTube. Borrr-ing. (Casino developers in Singapore are planning something similar.)
Never mind. Democratization and anti-elitism rools, OK! And who am I to suggest these experiences soon become degraded for both those privileged with the time and money to do it right and for those on a budget. Not to mention for the whale sharks.
Untamed nature for Everyman? Sure. McWhale Sharks.
The Me, Me, Me Experience. Where are we really going with all this? Good question. We’re already photographing every square centimeter of Mars and much of the rest of the solar system. Which is nothing, considering the fact there are untold billions of galaxies in our universe, and each galaxy includes billions of stars and quite a number of solar systems.
The Hubble telescope, for one, is peering into deep space to find that even the apparently emptiest bit of our sky harbors thousands upon thousands of galaxies, more of them the deeper you peer. This video shows what some are describing as the most important image ever recorded in human history.
Whoa. McMe. I guess that puts all those galaxies and stuff in perspective, eh?
The Afterthought Experience.
We’re witnessing the triumph of the “fair’s fair, down with elitism; let’s democratize every damned thing there is” meme. Meanwhile we distance ourselves from our own experience in the ongoing commodification and mass distribution of everything including ourselves.
“Does that make any sense at all?” Sara asks me.
“It probably needs more editing,” I tell her. “Plus I think I might have something like a hangover.”
"Selfie," a recent neologism, appears destined for the standard dictionaries.
"Mediacratization" is of my own coinage, a portmanteau of "mediate" and "mediocritization" hot off the press, and probably doomed to oblivion. "Mass mediacratization begets mediocritization," an aphorism for our times, and, again, hot off the press.
Related insights from Susan Sontag: "Tourists in our own and each others' realities."
"These tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa" (The Guardian)
Jonathan Kang, Kuroshio Sea of the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa, Japan
Whale shark images by Ashley J. Boyd. (Boyd, an Australian resident in Thailand, was long one of Southeast Asia’s leading underwater photographers. A highly qualified diving instructor and teacher of underwater photography, Ashley has logged close to 4,000 dives. His photographs have been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and postcards, while his underwater video has been used in advertising and TV. He has collaborated with Collin Piprell on dozens of articles and three books (all of them now out of print):
The other morning on the BTS Skytrain I found myself bemused at the sight of nearly every one of my fellow passengers in thrall to digital devices. Each was oblivious to all the others as they pawed away at Facebook pages, e-mails, tweets, games, music and phone calls. One young renegade was actually reading a book.
More than bemused, I was struck by the sense I was living in a science-fiction story. But then, resisting the impulse to check my own iPhone, which was tucked inside my computer bag, I was struck by a thought. (The kind of thing that can happen when you divorce yourself, however briefly, from the digital web.*) I had a sudden recollection of the London-Oxford train, circa late 1970s, bearing its ranks of dark-suited, bowler-hatted men from the City, each absorbed in his own copy of The Times of London.
Not totally absorbed, mind you. Occasionally indignant squalls would thrash through the forest of newsprint in face of the rogue colonial invader (me) in his torn Lee corduroy jacket and scruffy jeans, who would like as not be reading a volume of essays by some notorious Continental thinker, some crackpot wog from the other side of the Channel.
Then, as on the BTS now, I sometimes felt myself a dilettante anthropologist at large in another world. But where the London-Oxford train was merely amusing, why did I find the Skytrain scenario also chilling? Was it an apprehension of what these ever-accelerating changes might portend for a more distant future that suddenly seemed not so distant after all?
Or maybe I just felt excluded. I should have whipped out my own smartphone and got engaged, eh? Like, get with it, man. I could’ve plugged myself into a Heidegger lecture. Sure. Or browsed the Web for a photo of British business people on a commuter train that I could use to illustrate a blog post that no one would ever look at.
Hey! What a good idea.
Related expressions of unease:
People with phones on BTS from the Bangkok Post.
Businessmen on train from the Independent.
* Getting struck by a thought may not be without its dangers. See, e.g., The Apocalypse (http://thisistheapocalypse.com).
Below us lies a massive growth of porous luminosity, its cellular steel and glass exoskeleton inhabited by various species of soft light. A colossal marine organism has emerged to colonize the harborside. Brighter creatures enjoy mutualistic relations with the colonial host. Some of them, Logo spp., are neural parasites that prey on humans.
Sara and I stand atop the Peak Tower with a bunch of other creatures, not yet colonial but through the wonders of digital technology fast evolving that way. We stand four or five deep at the railing, cameras and phones held high overhead, obsessively flash-flashing at the softly throbbing creature below us for some important reason that no one knows, driven by a primordial imperative to record innumerable images of this thing we’ve been led to, and then share them by means of social networking until, ideally, every sentient being in the universe has witnessed the giant light-creature on the shore.
Lo, and verily. And eventually, as we did once before this day, we come to stand in a queue of thousands to enter the tram, this time to be delivered back down from the Peak for reabsorption by the light creature. As we descend, it becomes progressively less apparent that this thing is in fact one organism.
During our precipitous descent, we catch glimpses up through bright high-rise canyons where members of the colony dwell.
Sara later reveals the fact she had already experienced the Peak Experience on YouTube that very morning. And then, just to rub it in, she say she did this thing without suffering interminable waits in line for the tram and pushy mobs on the viewing platform.
“Jasus, jasus,” I tell her. “We could’ve stayed in Bangkok and saved the airfare, not to mention the hours spent standing in queue.”
“Yes,” she says. “But it freshens the mind to visit different places.”
And to record every square centimeter of the buggers, and take the same photos millions of other travelers have and try to share these experiences with someone, except that everyone has already experienced them, at least on YouTube.
“Did that video really convey the Experience?” I ask her.
“No. It was much better. They took it when there was some special light show.”
Whatever. As Sara pointed out, there was plenty more to enjoy in Hong Kong.
See "McStuff and the triumph of democratic mediacrization" for more on these ideas.
Related insights from Susan Sontag: "Tourists in our own and each others' realities."
Notes. The illustration doesn't begin to do justice to the Victoria Peak Experience.
The other shot is from the Kowloon side of the harbor on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carleton, atop the ICC Building. The Ozone is reportedly the highest bar in the world. (I believe the tall building in the top left corner of the first photo is the ICC Building.)
"The solitude of writing is ... quite frightening. It's close sometimes to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch." Nadine Gordimer
"It's nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums to get rid of." Shirley Hazzard
It's often said that the writing of novels can be a symptom, maybe even a cause, of insanity.
Perhaps a person does have to be mad to write novels, to spend so much time alone spinning realities that no one shares till, God grant, readers enter the process. (Novelists who make enough money are of course exempt. In fact a lucky few, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown among them, are considered very clearly sane indeed.)
Not so widely recognized is the danger reading novels was once thought to pose to one's mental health.
Bangkok-based crime writer Christopher G. Moore has recently posted an interesting item regarding changing conceptions of madness over the years. His post included this 19th-century flyer.
"Novel reading" is listed among ways one could gain admittance to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Directly beneath that appears "nymphomania." That was probably only for reasons of alphabetical order, yet there is a more substantial connection between reading novels and nymphomania. Some nineteenth-century authorities believed that reading novels, in itself dangerous to your mental health, might also contribute to nymphomania. Here's a poignant note from a case study reported in Nymphomania: A History, by Carol Groneman (reviewed in the New York Times):
'Mrs. R., described as a short, stout, recently widowed twenty-year-old woman with a lively disposition, came to Dr. Bostwick out of desperation. She explained, "If I can't be relieved of this agonizing condition, I am certain that the struggle between my moral sense and lascivious longings must soon send me to the grave." She blamed reading novels and attending gay parties in her youth as the cause of "my imagination [being] wrought up to the highest point."'
Ms Groneman also reports a case where a woman so afflicted was advised by her doctor to give up writing novels.
As Chris Moore suggests, however, fashions in madness come and go. Given the number of people who appear to be at work or about to begin work on novels these days, those inclined to conformism might fear that not writing a book was a sign of serious abnormality. In an article entitled "Writers should take a year off, and give us all a break," Colin Robinson says this:
'According to Google, some 130m titles have been published since the first books took form on the desks of monks. This overwhelming catalogue is today being supplemented at a rate never before seen in the history of the book. Another industry statistician, Bowker, reports that nearly 1.8m new titles were published in 2012, an increase of half a million in just three years.'
Not so long ago, Julian Barnes could offer this advice: "It's easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren't writers, and very little harm comes to them."
No longer true, eh? It is no longer easy not to be a writer, and ever-larger portions of our populations must face concomitant threats to their well-being, large dollops of money rarely being one of these.
In conclusion, I'll offer a contrarian perspective from Graham Greene:
“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
Sometimes I like to work in coffee shops. Spending too much time alone in my office back home can leave me bushed. It’s also true that some cafés, at least, offer just the right type of distraction. The establishments I favor tend to have regular appearances of eye candy upon which I might rest my weary eyes — much like a nanny app that keeps me looking away from my computer the way I’m supposed to, warding off the dreaded “computer eye syndrome.”
But resting my eyes this day is proving a challenge. The woman at a table across the aisle is holding a baby that doesn’t look old enough to have gone over the wall at the maternity ward. She fusses around with it looking nearly as pleased as if this item were the latest iGadget from Apple. The same mother also has a toddler who gets down off his chair from time to time to march around squeaking loudly in squeaky shoes, thereby eliciting admiring smiles from his mother but not from me. A couple of Thai women also beam at him every time; mind you, Thai women reflexively dote on anybody less than a meter tall no matter what other qualities that individual might display.
Meanwhile, farther along against the wall opposite, we have two women, one of them from the Whitney Houston school of conversation and in my opinion more suited to calling hogs, preferably in some Midwestern American cornfield far removed from here. And at the table just in front of me, a beautiful Thai woman is interviewing a beautiful Indian woman for a job in art management or something. They both speak immaculate English, the Indian much too loudly, maybe to compete with the Whitney Houston clone. No doubt infected by years of art studies in countries around the world, she also waves her arms about until you have to look closely to make sure she isn’t in fact Italian. As they both became progressively more enthused by things artistic, the Thai, who has also studied abroad, becomes uncharacteristically animated, given her native cultural background, and this appears to incite the Indian job applicant to ever greater heights of gesticulatory excess, which in turn has a reciprocal effect on her putative employer till the two of them together suggest an outbreak of epidemic epilepsy. This is all pretty fascinating, nearly impossible to ignore, and eventually I get to thinking that working at home isn’t as bad a prospect as it first seemed. So I chug my tea and hit the road.
Yeah, yeah. I know. Sara keeps telling me these joints aren’t built merely for my own pleasure, and there’s no rule that says everyone has to conform to my specs of what’s fittin’ and what ain’t. I have my own office at home, where I can be as disagreeable as I like without encroaching on the happiness of others. I know.
"The squeaking soon cast a pall over the caf” Vincent Van Gogh, Night Café, 1888. Oil on canvas, 2′ 4 1/2″ X 3′. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven (bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark)
"Cool people awaiting the invention of the MacBook Pro." Benny Andrews (1930-2006) New York Cafe, n.d., lithograph, 13 x 17 1/2 in., 1986.
Government surveillance is a public service; E. Snowden is a self-serving traitor.
Government surveillance is evil; E. Snowden is a heroic champion of our individual freedoms and dignity.
The truth may well lie somewhere between two poles. At least if you acknowledge that we conduct healthy societies and polities in the tension between ideals of perfect security and perfect freedom, perfect harmony and a Hobbesian state of nature, imperatives of the collective good and those of individual self-expression.
Like it or lump it, feel as indignant as you like, this is the human condition. We live our lives in that tension, always for better or worse at any given time, approaching one pole till contrary forces swing the pendulum back towards the opposite pole, and then back again. For your average citizen — unless you’re currently engaged in the business of either storming barricades or erecting them — the trick may lie in recognizing this and relaxing a bit.
From this perspective Snowden and the NSA are merely fulfilling roles in a perennial drama, like re-enactments of some myth of the origin. Except that it would be nice to think that, however slowly, the larger historical plot is gradually approaching some more ideal situation. Though this approach itself, fated never to arrive, is probably the best we’ll ever manage as individuals or collectives.
In any case, governments and security agencies are never going to be able to do their jobs without secrecy and without cutting ethical and moral corners from time to time. I believe that is simple fact. Though it doesn't mean they should be given carte blanche to carry on as they will. These operations will always (one hopes) be opposed by civil libertarians who appeal to laws and individual rights. Where their activities break the law, they'll have to face the consequences (which may even include changes to the law). Sometimes, as with Snowden, their activities will cause much inconvenience and real damage to government operations and, arguably, to the country as a whole.
At the same time, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, modern communications technology and the prevailing politics of fear arguably entail a totalitarian logic, and may well incite ever-more radical attempts to thwart concomitant social and political developments. (Whoa. That’s a mouthful.)
Might this in part explain Snowden’s motives? Glenn Greenwald's Guardian interview indicates it does.
The drawing is from the excellent website xkcd.
I'm probably over-reacting, but it's already getting harder these days to take pride in thinking of yourself as a writer, since so can anybody with the price of a computer and an Internet connection. You aren't even permitted to die penniless and hungry in proper romantic style, since everyone will merely ask why you did that. Why didn't you just take steps to flog your stuff?
Even if you decide you are going to flog your stuff, you aren't permitted the dignity of having others do it for you. You're expected to cruise up and down the digital highways and byways hawking the shit at the top of your lungs, just as though you were offloading fresh fruit in the soi outside, here. F*** me. And nobody's going to hear you anyway, what with all the hordes of other 'writers' going up and down, some of them with PA systems on their digital pickup trucks, hawking fish and fruit and f*** knows what, all of it having just scored Amazon's Breakout Bananas of the Month Award, or some such.
I could go on.
Hey, can you imagine? Collin's censoring my f****** deathless prose, just as though he were an upstanding citizen, something we all know is not the case.
Because he’s just another writer. Worse, he’s a writer who refuses to get out there in the street and do the necessary.
Image by Hugh MacLeod used with permission.