Monthly Archives: June 2010

Jaron Lanier on June 17!

“Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.” —Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget,” Knopf, 2010

The New York Times’ “Your Brain on Computers” series last week gave me a sense of relief. So I wasn’t the only one who’s noticed that, well, everyone and everything in the last five-odd years has gone completely and utterly cuckoo.

Example: people spend wads of cash on concerts, only to spend the entire event ignoring the action onstage while they text, Twitter, phone, and email. They only time they pay attention to what they’ve paid good money to see is when they take photos of it, so they can immediately turn their experience into an uploadable commodity, with which they brand themselves online. “Hey everybody, here I am! My life is more exciting than yours!”

Nobody seems to notice that this dilutes the energy of live performance in the first place and makes the whole affair banal and rather depressing.

But just standing there and enjoying the music without gadgetizing it somehow? Nowadays? Unthinkable! The gadgets are what make live events “real,” because this is how people understand reality. Instead of “Be Here Now” we have “Be Nowhere All the Time.” At this point I’m nostalgic for two years ago.

Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget” addresses and affirms my discontent on so many different levels, I feel like grabbing a highlighter pen and dousing every word with it. One of the original architects of virtual reality, Lanier is not only deep in the pudding of Silicon Valley ideology (and yes, Virginia, you’d better believe there is a Silicon Valley ideology), he’s a hell of a writer.

You Are Not a Gadget unpacks what I’ve suspected for years: that the nerds who have made the world over in their image are driven by vast, sweeping theories of what people are, what reality is, and why we’re here on earth.

But unlike the ideologies that politicians espouse, nerd dogma reprograms the very architecture of how we think. We’re far more susceptible to it because we’re not even aware it’s in us.

Jaron Lanier will be speaking this week, June 17, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum here in San Francisco. It’s going to be an important and fascinating talk, and it’s free. Please join me!

Citizenship Fatigue

Your Honor, it’s not that I don’t want to be well-informed and engaged. It’s not that I want to be oblivious or whinge about my “bandwidth” or take the New Age cop-out of “news fasting” in order to salvage my personal sense of serenity.

And God forbid I become one of those “the news is so depressing” people. It’s the news’s job to be depressing, and in past decades, the shoddy way it’s reported or the trivia that passes as news adds myriad and multi-colored depths to anyone’s Dark Night of the News Junkie Soul.

It’s more that, in this hyper-democratized media whirlwind called everyday life in the 21st century, I feel the need to respond thoughtfully and thoroughly in some way to just about everything I read.


Being a writer is a bit like being a doctor. You can never really clock out from the responsibility, and you never want to anyway. You feel surrounded on all sides by crappy writing, sloppy thinking, half-baked editorial standards, nonexistent respect for basic grammar and spelling — and that’s just the actual “content” being thrown at or sold to you! The comments posted below any given article are typically a blizzard of aggressive stupidity, made more aggressively stupid by otherwise reasonable, mild-mannered people needing to publicly mourn the loss of civil dialogue by calling everyone else idiots.

Where does a writer find herself in all this?

Virtually speaking? Everywhere.

Raise your calm, even-handed voice! cry the civil society advocates. Fed up with a lack of intelligent exchange? Then simply start one yourself! It’s that simple!

Is it? I don’t even look at YouTube comments anymore, I know what my reaction will be. Like some digital Dudley Do-Right, I’ll be clacking away for hours, backgrounding and fact-checking my evidence that, no, SavageIdaho44, Barbra Streisand was not a KGB mole from Jupiter, and anyway, who’s in a position to pass judgement until they’ve watched Color Me Barbra in its entirety?

Then there’s the “Stupid Me” factor that unfolds slowly, year after year, with maturity and wisdom. You just realize more and more that you don’t know shit about anything, and you start to feel reeeeeeally guilty about it. Oil spill in the Gulf? What do I think should be done? OK, um — domestic drilling, how many drills do we have? What percentage of our oil supply is domestic? How did this happen? Was I supposed to be aware of how this could happen? What’s the regulatory background on this? What’s the political background? How does an oil drill work? How do you fix one? How old are most drills? Was I supposed to know that? Man, I’ve really fallen off the map with this issue…I swear, I just trying to survive from day to day…ugh…Stupid Me! Stupid Me! Stupid Me!

Meanwhile, nobody around you seems taken aback by an event like this; it’s as though they’ve been discussing that bum drill for years over Sunday coffee, as though it were some Victorian radiator hissing in the corner. “Marge, I tell ya, any day now that thing’s gonna blow, and believe you me there’ll hell to pay…”

Suddenly, everyone majored in Oil Spills in college. Everyone knows what went wrong, who’s to blame, what should happen, what the charts and the graphs mean, all the actors in the play. But at no point does anyone ever impart that they had to actually sit down and spend some time figuring it all out.

For me, there are the bits and pieces I pick up in the coffee room or by glancing at newspaper headlines. I have never, Your Honor, sat down and just crammed on the Gulf spill crisis like a good citizen, assiduously comparing the Beeb against Fox, bookmarking the Guardian and the Economist and the Monitor and the Financial Times, knitting my studious brows so that I could assert the major bullet points at my local house of public drinking or my town hall.

Because if I started, I would not be able to stop. My sense of total, all-consuming impotence and ignorance would drive me to a state of X-treme citizenship for which there seems to be no cure but quitting one’s job and clackety-clacking all day in the eerie blue glow of cyber-alienation. There are no boundaries, no limits, to the ways and means I can inform myself, 24/7, of everything, everywhere, forever. Feeling I have a handle on one issue will just make me obsessed with another.

I throw myself upon the mercy of the court. I’m on Auto-Citizenship Drive. I have so much to say it hurts.

Go ahead and sentence me to Community Service. I might actually learn something.