Overweening Generalist

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Another Ramble on Digital Media and Mental Hygiene

[I'd previously assayed something here. - OG]

There's been some interesting research and discussion lately on the topic of solitude, and "alone time," and not "loneliness as a social problem." One thing that strikes me when I read this stuff: Yep, I am one of those who loves to/can "tolerate" much more time alone than most people. And yet I'm a social animal too; furthermore, I am not usually one to cite Aristotle, but I think he was probably fairly close to being "right" in his Nicomachean Ethics when he asserted that we are inherently social beings, and we need friends, but that true friends are rare indeed and we probably can't have that many. If you have three you're doing well; if you're doing inordinately well at having true friends, you might have seven, but that's rare.

Rather than give Aristotle's or my own definition of a "true friend" I will leave it to The Reader to ponder; no doubt you have 4000 "friends" at Facebook...so Aristotle is a complete moron! (And the OG too!) 

Or: could it be that maybe we need to think about what "friend" means? 
So, I go back to the recent research on being alone. Do you do it well? Being alone, I mean. Do you flip out after two minutes and grab for the connection to the outside "social" world? A lot of the research shows that learning to enjoy your alone time enhances the time when you are with others, including acquaintances and your 3, 7, or 4000 friends. Your ability to be alone has much to do with your feeling of personal integration, which semantically harmonizes with one sense of the term "integrity."
The great schoolteacher and critic of schooling John Taylor Gatto writes about the manufacture of a restless anti-solitude in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th. In Dumbing Us Down Gatto saw the schoolchild's "mastery" of individual solitude as an essential goal. Morris Berman writes in his Twilight of American Culture of rampant cultural consumerism and quotes the literary critic George Steiner on a "systematic suppression of silence." In Dark Ages America Berman says "We ache for silence [Well, some of us do] because our environment is saturated with fatuous commercial noise." William S. Burroughs thought silence was only terrifying "to compulsive verbalizers." 

Are some of us literally scared to be alone with our own thoughts? 
I confess I've had it up to here with all of the books that evangelize how the Internet is going to change everything for the better, especially now with Net 3.0 (or whatever the PR people have us saying/believing about it), the "crowd-sourcing" and "social networking" that, really, seems to only have upsides. But I see lots of downsides. Yes, ironically, I'm saying this on "my" own blog.

So yes: Egypt and how Facebook and Twitter supposedly enabled the downfall of tyrannical Mubarak. But totalitarian governments gravitate to this stuff too. Dig this, from a book review by Chris Lehmann, in the March 21st edition of The Nation:

Tomaar, a Saudi website promoting philosophical inquiry outside the confines of Muslim orthodoxy, attracted a mass following soon after it was launched, especially as its discussion boards expanded to include the question of politics and culture in the Arab world. In short order, though, the Saudi government denied access to the site on all servers used by its citizens. When Tomaar’s webmasters devised a straightforward workaround via a third-party Internet connection, that stopped working as well—and the US-based service provider abruptly canceled the site’s contract, condemning it to a series of improvised connectivity patches. Even so, it still suffers regular denial-of-service attacks—the same tools that have been used to disable the site for Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks operation. Nothing in the battery of attacks on Tomaar points directly back to the Saudi government—another sign, in all likelihood, that authoritarian webmasters have grown as adept in covering their tracks as they are in disrupting web service. As Morozov notes, “cases like Tomaar’s are increasingly common, especially among activist and human rights organizations. Burma’s exiled media—Irrawaddy, Mizzima, and the Democratic Voice of Burma—all experienced major cyber-attacks…; ditto the Belarussian oppositional site Charter97, the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta (the one that employed the slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya), the Kazakh oppositional newspaper Respublika, and even various local branches of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.”
* * *
It has never been the case that authoritarians are allergic to information technologies. Quite the contrary: as pioneers in the production of mass propaganda, they love mass media, and maintain an intense interest in later-generation digital technologies such as GPS and Twitter location that permit them to plot the real-time whereabouts of online dissidents. Yet one never encounters these uses of digital technologies in Shirky-style broadsides on cyber-liberation; in them, digital technology by definition unleashes and pools human creativity and generosity, because that’s what we Western progenitors of these technologies like to imagine them doing.
As the Tomaar episode also shows, American Net companies—hailed in State Department speeches as the vanguard of the freedom revolution—are often fleet of foot when political controversy threatens to roil their plans for overseas market expansion. It’s not hard to see why that should be the case: their shareholders expect them to be profitable, and in many stops along the global marketplace, freedom and democratization stand directly athwart that prime directive. To take just one example, last year Facebook pulled the plug on a group maintained by an activist in Morocco named Kacem El Ghazzali, which promoted discussion about secular education in the theocratic country. When El Ghazzali e-mailed Facebook engineers in Palo Alto requesting an explanation, they deleted his profile on the site for good measure. Eventually, Facebook relented and restored the education site, once the episode got press attention in the West, but El Ghazzali was left to rebuild his Facebook profile on his own. In Egypt, as the New York Times recently reported, Facebook shut down Wael Ghonim’s page because he had violated the company’s terms of service by using a pseudonym to create a profile as one of the page’s administrators. Hence, as Morozov observes, “contrary to the expectations of many Western policymakers, Facebook is hardly ideal for promoting democracy; its own logic, driven by profits or ignorance of the increasingly global context in which it operates, is, at times, extremely antidemocratic.”
The trenchant review of books by Net-evangel Clay Shirky and the more sober-minded Evgeny Morozov is here.
I'm not trying to argue that social networking is all bovine excreta, clearly it is not; what I am merely suggesting is that there ought to be some sort of meta-level of discussion between you and - let's face it - your three to seven (or I'll be charitable) twenty friends about how this technology can better be used to express your own values. I think we desperately need discussions - not led by a celebrity on TV - about our values and all this incredible potential communication power at our disposal. I see - literally - far, far too many variations of this on the Internet: "I'm bored. Someone text me?" Now, if this isn't pathetic in at least nine ways I don't know what is...I thought that part of becoming an adult was learning how to manage your own nervous system so that boredom would be a rare occurrence?

It also seems obvious to me there are times when the palpable anxiety of silence probably ought to send us fleeing for the social connection, someone. But that moment? I hope the reflection upon it can become instructive. There's a line in the poet Mari L'Esperance's book The Darkened Temple that I found striking: "silence ticking like something alive." The kind of silence amidst a period of personal anxiety that gives one night sweats. Reach for a loved one! Anyone!

If you've fallen into something like what Catherine Deneuve's character faces in Polanski's Repulsion then I'm afraid you've gone too far. Ditto John Turturro's writer in Barton Fink. Move along! The jury's still out - way out - on Teshigahara's Woman In The Dunes.
But overall, I can't think of a better place to start with this Project of thinking about our new magickal tools and our values than when you're by yourself, alone, solitary, in (relative) silence, tranquility, stillness, quietude, whatever you wanna call it. I'm not talking about imitating a Tibetan monk and going silent in meditation for three months - that's clearly off the charts - but how about 15 minutes? 

If I've sounded some notes of the Scold in this post it's because I'm clearly troubled by this mad world and have merely proffered my thoughts on steps towards a meliorism; if I took you away from some valuable Dancing With The Stars or Twitter or Facebook or World or Warcraft time I truly apologize: this was three minutes you'll never get back!


Sue Howard said...

I prefer the "silence" metaphor to the "hygiene" one (which you used only in your title). RAW used "hygiene" in one of his articles on E-prime, and I tried it on a few people, who weren't impressed. I think it has weird (sort of clinical?) associations for many in the "mental" context?

(Btw, Eckhart Tolle and his followers seem big on "silence" as a metaphor. Tolle reached millions via Oprah's ultra-extrovert show.)

> "It has never been the case that authoritarians are allergic to information technologies."

Great line, and applicable not just to governments, I think. I've witnessed (in close detail) some relatively powerless authoritarians (leftwing - Chomsky followers, no less) use web message-boards/forums to conduct ugly witch-hunts, with the type of "success" (eg reputation-ruining) that wouldn't have been possible without the subtle ways of controlling such debate (one can see people being removed from meeting halls, but not from online debates, etc).

I think the new social networking technologies offer possibilities for "mob mentality" of a type which "retrieves" (in the McLuhan sense) village "rumour" campaigns, and a lot of other ugly stuff (particularly where many people feel chronically frustrated and powerless to influence the corporate media, but have little time to do research of their own).

Of course, other factors no doubt limit the destructiveness of this particular tendency of the new media.

Great paragraph (starting with mention of John Gatto taylor), and another very thought-provoking read. Thanks, Michael.

michael said...

As the Dubliners exclaim in Ulysses: "Jays!" Sue! You give good comment.

The "hygiene" word is antiquated and, I thought, ironic and funny, but the historical echoes are perhaps too dense. I wish some contemporary Raymond Williams would trace the meandering semantic shifts of the word, but from what I can see, at least in Unistat history, it became a Big Gvt/funny word in the post-war period, when all kinds of short films were made to "educate" children in schools about VD, unwanted pregnancies, and the extreme dangers of sex before marriage: all surrounded by the word "hygiene."

The way I meant it was something like Hemingway's "bullshit detector" or even Chomsky's "intellectual self-defense." I'm afraid, though I like the daft obtuseness of the term, I'll have less success with it than RAW did.

But yes: silence. It has a long, fascinating history I've barely broached.

Your lines on the downside of McLuhan's retribalization were brilliant, and in reading MM I always wondered why he didn't spell that out...(it was implicit? or he thought it was?) From what I see on TV's Fox "News" (bald right wing propaganda that purports to be "fair and balanced," or they may have dropped that charade, not sure): the daily talking points memo that goes out and is repeated, repeated, repeated...until it's "true" (to its follower-morons), and then given all sorts of spin (the talking points starting with an initial condition of having serious "rumor" aspects to it to start with) is already a good example of a widespread village-life aspect of keeping the Bad Guys in line. No doubt there are many more examples.

Although I have not engaged much with the vicious Chomskyans you mention, I have seen this species on the "intrawebs," as Colbert calls it. (The lay-intellectual type probably has no idea that the incarnate Noam has a rep of being absolutely take-no-prisoners in debates with official "intellectuals"...and I've seen this said of him by people who admire him!)

I have yet to read more than a few pages of Tolle, but he seems to have a very diverse readership. A RAWphile you've read, "BS," is very knowledgeable about the latest heavy metal scene, and one time he played me a VERY heavy, fleet-footed and fast, triple-time double-bass cookie monster screaming band...and said he'd interviewed the guys and they were into Tolle!

This upside of the Evangelizers (and RAW was guilty of a bit of this, at times, but nothing like a guy like Clay Shirky...or Chris Anderson) needs a sobering equalizing take on the downside (but not abject pessimism). In general, I think, the more common/easy it becomes to be vicious, underhanded, nasty and without empathy, the more valuable kindness, easy good humor, charity and sympathy/empathy become.

michael said...

CCN: So, there's a lag time involved with social innovation and people's ability to respond to it. Things are becoming a little bit more reactionary, politically and socially. People are looking for targets to blame.

RAW: Everybody has their scapegoats or stereotyped groups.

CCN: Is it just a reaction to things becoming more unpredictable thouhg?

RAW: Yes, some people, since they don't have mathematical and sociological perspectives on the thing, they look around for who to blame. And depending on their upbringing and the biases that seem natural to them, they find some evidence to blame whoever they have a natural tendency to dislike anyway.

And we've got a country full of groups that hate each other...we're a country full of hatred at present.

There are lots of people who get along very well, but every group in the country has members who hate a couple of other groups and are encouraging everybody else to join them in blaming and hating some other group. It's incredible the amount of scapegoat groups, and you have a choice, depending on what you want.

You can pick out any group to hate, and you find out who hates them and write to them, and they'll send you a whole bunch of books to prove that your hatred is justified.

CCN: Well, what do you think this says about the human race? We have self-esteem problems, and we need somebody to beat up?

RAW: We need better education in science and logic. [laughs]
-from an interview 16 years ago (!)

ARW23 said...

I agree with Sue that the term "mental hygiene" can have a clinical sound/association. In order to get less of a clinical buzz, it helped me to exchange term "mental hygiene" with "practical pedagogy". As a matter of fact, "practical pedagogy" helped me clean the "clinical" aspect of "mental hygiene".

Apropos "sound of silence" and "solitude", I think the starting point for creativity is silence and a certain interior solitude - a sense of personal integrity and of one's ability to give him/herself to society. There are numerous examples of scientists and artists throughout the history whose gifts we enjoy daily. To name just one genius: Nikola Tesla who was silent, alone and married to the science his entire life; and gave us global gifts that we use every day such as electricity and wireless (to name just those two).

Very thought-provoking "ramble" Majkl. Merci!

"It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude.........Multitude, solitude: identical terms, and interchangeable by the active and fertile poet. The man who is unable to people his solitude is equally unable to be alone in a bustling crowd." - Charles Baudelaire

"....those who know the value and the exquisite taste of solitary freedom (for one is only free when alone)..." - Isabelle Eberhardt

"Loneliness is the poverty of self; Solitude is the richness of self." - May Sarton

michael said...

The case of Tesla is truly a great example.

Alfred Korzybski taught that much of our genius resides when the "Silent Level" is attended to. But it takes work! Try to not think of words, only images. This to me seems similar to zen and pot smoking and other mystical states. Korzybski pointed out that Einstein used daydreaming and mental imagery to breakthrough and come up with his Relativity.

"We have a mind pliable in itself, that will be company; that has wherewithal to attack and to defend, to receive and to give: let us not fear in this solitude to languish under an uncomfortable vacuity." - Montaigne, "On Solitude"

ARW23 said...

Another good quote:

"What a lovely surprise to discover how un-lonely being alone can be." - Ellen Burstyn