Our present era is one in which the heart of culture is blowing hard upon a coal of fear, and the fascination is everywhere. By popular consent, horror has been experiencing what critics feel obliged to label a ‘golden age’. In terms of ticket sales, 2017 was the biggest year in the history of horror cinema, and in 2018, Hereditary and A Quiet Place have been record-breaking successes.
Fact-checkers know that in a digital medium, the web is a web. It’s not just a metaphor. You understand a particular node by its relationship in a web. So the smartest thing to do is to consult the web to understand any particular node. That is very different from reading Thucydides, where you look at internal criticism and consistency because there really isn’t a documentary record beyond Thucydides.
Do people in adulthood experience inner speech in the same way as children – or even as each other? Do most of us even have an inner voice – an internal commentator narrating our lives and experiences from one moment to the next?
When younger generations emerge to challenge the bygone revolutions of their forebears, it’s said to be in the service of a grand teleological arc, an earnest desire to do things better. But this has always struck me as an incomplete picture of how culture works. Sometimes brinksmanship tips toward true disdain, and desires to merely show someone up descend into fantasies of destruction. Can dark, trifling feelings produce uplifting art?
Or even memory towns. The plan is to help those with memory issue – Alzheimer’s and other age-related dementia – in “reminiscence therapy.” The hope? “Dozens of faux ‘memory towns’ will sprout around the U.S. in coming years. Amid a retail meltdown, the malls where teenagers used to hit up American Eagle and Orange Julius could morph into escapist domains for the elderly.”
For generations, the children of Rio de Janeiro – and those farther afield – have been defining themselves and their history at the National Museum. “A former colonial slave traders’ home that was later turned into a royal palace, the building itself was the site of key moments in the country’s history, part of the national narrative, and therefore a place of deep symbolism and pride.” Now it’s almost all gone.
The author says of her horror novel and new movie: “After Brexit is Britain going to be a kind of Hundreds Hall, a decaying place with a big wall around it, with an inflated idea of itself, endlessly trying to keep alive a mythical kind of world?”
Lewis Lapham: “The operatic protest blowing through the country’s internet portals raises the question as to whether the sound and fury signifies something or nothing, the telling of “mischief-making,” fairy-tale lies that is the life of our good and great consumer economy, or the voicing of competitive truth that is the vitality of a democratic republic. It’s hard to know which is which because over the past forty years we’ve become accustomed to pretending that democracy is a peaceful idea, something civil, orderly, quiet, and safe. It isn’t.”
Globalization, the digitization of knowledge, and the growing number of scientists all seem, at first glance, like positive trends for the progress of science. But these trends are Janus-faced, for they also encourage a hyper-competitive, trend-driven, and herd-like approach to scientific research.
By the 21st century, loneliness has become ubiquitous. Commentators call it ‘an epidemic’, a condition akin to ‘leprosy’, and a ‘silent plague’ of civilisation. In 2018, the United Kingdom went so far as to appoint a Minister for Loneliness. Yet loneliness is not a universal condition; nor is it a purely visceral, internal experience. It is less a single emotion and more a complex cluster of feelings, composed of anger, grief, fear, anxiety, sadness and shame.
The entire debate assumes a clear divide between the intellectual and bodily, the human and the animal, which is no longer tenable. These days, few of us are card-carrying dualists who believe that we are made of immaterial minds and material bodies. We have plenty of scientific evidence for the importance of biochemistry and hormones in all that we do and think. Nonetheless, dualistic assumptions still inform our thinking.
“In this installment of our ‘Annals of Obsession’ video series, we dive into the history and validity of personality assessments, from the less-known measures used by psychologists to … the ever-popular Myers-Briggs, created by a mother-daughter duo without any experimental training. Do these measures … tell us anything real about ourselves? And what is it about the human mind that leads us to keep seeking them out, in era after era and society after society, endlessly striving to organize the people around us into ‘types’ that may, or so we hope, help explain them all?” (video)
“The notion of mattering is intimately linked with the notion of attention. To say that something matters is to assert that attention is due it, the kind of attention that both recognises and reveals its reality. Something that matters has a nature that demands to be known, and the knowledge may yield other attitudes and behaviour due it. If I say that something doesn’t matter, I’m saying that it’s not worth paying attention to.”
Routinely exposing a population of 80,000 to a perfect barren in relatively safe circumstances should be seen as an ingenious experiment. After all, philosophers from Edmund Burke to Arthur Schopenhauer have recognised that qualities in nature can be appreciated as sublime only if they fall just short of absolute threat.
The most widely tested model, so far, is called Embeddings from Language Models, or ELMo. When it was released by the Allen Institute this spring, ELMo swiftly toppled previous bests on a variety of challenging tasks—like reading comprehension, where an AI answers SAT-style questions about a passage, and sentiment analysis. In a field where progress tends to be incremental, adding ELMo improved results by as much as 25 percent.
The history of quaternions includes a mathematician gleefully carving his ideas into Dublin’s Broome Bridge, spurious negative numbers, and a war among physicists.
When you let the algorithm go in Netflix Roulette, things can get interesting. “No one could have predicted binge-watching, which means that once again reality has outstripped our wildest, grimmest imaginings.”
What’s the issue when libraries are more used than ever, and for more reasons than ever? Uh, they’re seriously underfunded. “Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely the moment when they are most valued and necessary. Why the disconnect? In part it’s because the founding principle of the public library — that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage — is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our world. But it’s also because so few influential people understand the expansive role that libraries play in modern communities.”
If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?
What sorts of responsibilities would we owe to these simulated humans? However else we might feel about violent computer games, no one seriously thinks it’s homicide when you blast a virtual assailant to oblivion. Yet it’s no longer absurd to imagine that simulated people might one day exist, and be possessed of some measure of autonomy and consciousness.
In some cases, the questions that preoccupy philosophers are identical to the questions of psychologists and so are amenable to straightforward scientific research. Sometimes, though, the philosophical questions aren’t empirical—nobody is going to do an experiment to answer the question “What is art?”—but, still, one can study an interesting near neighbor, in the style of what’s sometimes known as “experimental philosophy.” For instance, you can look at what people (art experts, laypeople, four-year-olds) think is art.
Revisiting the Sixties leads to a sobering conclusion: everything has changed, and nothing has changed.
Self-help—the enemy of the uncalm—is, unsurprisingly, an American phenomenon. It evinces a sensibility well suited to a country where the self has always been the most relevant unit.
The moral philosopher Samuel Scheffler at New York University has suggested that the real problem with a fantasy of immortality is that it doesn’t make sense as a coherent desire. Scheffler points out that human life is intimately structured by the fact that it has a fixed (even if usually unknown) time limit. We all start with a birth, then pass through many stages of life, before definitely ending in death.
For all its sundry failings and inexcusable prejudices, conventional art history provided a fundamental framework for assessing quality. Grouping works according to such commonalities as place of origin, period and circumstances of execution, artistic intent, function and medium facilitated comparative judgments. In the last decades, academia largely rejected this sort of connoisseurship, because it was too often tied to “great man” narratives. Over the same period, professional art criticism was effectively obliterated by a journalistic obsession (both in the surviving print media and online) with glamour, scandal and money. While the art world was never entirely free from market forces, those forces are now essentially left alone to determine value.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: “Like all the words in our language, the identity labels we use are a common possession. Were everybody to follow Humpty Dumpty’s example [‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean’], we simply couldn’t understand one another. If Toni Morrison isn’t a black woman, the term isn’t doing any work. … ‘Lesbian’ isn’t much use if you’re looking for a partner on Bumble unless it signifies a woman who might be open to sex with another woman.”
In short, the algorithm is able to note differences between what it encounters and what it has seen in the past. Like most people but unlike most other algorithms, the new system Higgins built for Google can understand that it hasn’t come across a brand new object just because it’s seeing something from a new angle.
While freelance websites may have raised wages and broadened the number of potential employers for some people, they’ve forced every new worker who signs up into entering a global marketplace with endless competition, low wages, and little stability. Decades ago, the only companies that outsourced work overseas were multinational corporations with the resources to set up manufacturing shops elsewhere. Now, independent businesses and individuals are using the power of the internet to find the cheapest services in the world too, and it’s not just manufacturing workers who are seeing the downsides to globalization. All over the country, people like graphic designers and voice-over artists and writers and marketers have to keep lowering their rates to compete.
“People get hung up on how eccentric some of his ideas were, but the core of his claims remains relevant and important. That is to say: our aesthetic experience, our experience of beauty in ordinary life, must be central to thinking about any good life and society. It’s not just decoration or luxury for the few. If you are taught how to see the world properly through an understanding of aesthetics, then you’ll see society properly.”
Everything about the recent past, and the generalization of the op-ed form across the internet, suggests there is an inexhaustible fund of such figures, a reserve army of op-ed labor waiting in the wings. Twitter has helped turn the internet into an engine for producing op-eds, for turning writers into op-ed writers, and for turning readers into people on the hunt for an op-ed. The system will not be satisfied until it has made op-ed writers of us all.