Anywhere out of the world! A confession.

May 16, 2012

 

“Tell me, my soul, poor chilly soul, how would you like to live in Lisbon? It must be warm there, and you would be as blissful as a lizard in the sun. It is a city by the sea; they say that it is built of marble…”

My soul does not reply.
 

Now is the time to spill my bile, or spleen…

When I was done with school, I was resolved to get out of this world, the Western world, and so I went on a trip for six or seven months through south-Asia.  I wanted to get away from the radio, TV, magazines, advertisements, the culture of “achievement,” and all that was part of my upbringing.  Of course, they had it there too, but it was in a language I did not understand, so it was merely interesting.

I was filled with critical theory and radical politics, unconnected with any practical organization or activity, and disgusted with my petty bourgeois, intellectual culture.  It was a good trip.

During the ensuing thirty years, I struggled to fit into this society of ours, and did it quite well, being a conformist at heart.  I spent a lot of time thinking about how to balance ideas and values that I retained with life in a society that seemed to contradict all of them.  Like many of us.

Today, I have never felt so out of tune with the world that faces me (I speak from my very narrow perspective and experience only), and I find that my earlier feelings of disgust are returning.  Perhaps its due to the fact that my children are out of the house, and I am free of many practical obligations and responsibilities that children bring, freeing me to return to my untethered philosophical aloofness.

Google, Facebook, billions and billions of dollars!  Endless news, speculation, and expectation of the next big thing, i.e., the next great business coup that will reap fortunes for some, and produce more…avenues for buying, selling, and consuming goods and our leisure time for the rest of us.  Well, as I have often said, I prefer a world sunk in the intellectual and spiritual doldrums of consumerism to one in which people dream of how to become the Master Race, dressed in smart black uniforms. 

There is no escape from culture, from style, from the structure of our society.  Once you have asked the question of how to escape, you have proven that you are so much a part of it that it is carried inside you always.  And to what would you escape?  To a life that is more … real?  Gimme a break!  Keep calm, and carry on is all you can do.

Here is the complete prose poem, Anywhere Out of the World (N’importe où hors du monde) by Baudelaire, in English and French:

     Life is a hospital where every patient is obsessed by the desire of changing beds. One would like to suffer opposite the stove, another is sure he would get well beside the window.
     It always seems to me that I should be happy anywhere but where I am, and this question of moving is one that I am eternally discussing with my soul.
     “Tell my, my soul, poor chilly soul, how would you like to live in Lisbon? It must be warm there, and you would be as blissful as a lizard in the sun. It is a city by the sea; they say that it is built of marble, and that its inhabitants have such a horror of the vegetable kingdom that they tear up all the trees. You see it is a country after my own heart; a country entirely made of mineral and light, and with liquid to reflect them.”
     My soul does not reply.
     “Since you are so fond of being motionless and watching the pageantry of movement, would you like to live in the beatific land of Holland? Perhaps you could enjoy yourself in that country which you have so long admired in paintings on museum walls. What do you say to Rotterdam, you who love forests of masts, and ships that are moored on the doorsteps of houses?”
     My soul remains silent.
     “Perhaps you would like Batavia better? There, moreover, we should find the wit of Europe wedded to the beauty of the tropics.”
     Not a word. Can my soul be dead?
     “Have you sunk into so deep a stupor that you are happy only in your unhappiness? If that is the case, let us fly to countries that are the counterfeits of Death. I know just the place for us, poor soul. We will pack up our trunks for Torneo. We will go still farther, to the farthest end of the Baltic Sea; still farther from life if possible; we will settle at the Pole. There the sun only obliquely grazes the earth, and the slow alternations of daylight and night abolish variety and increase that other half of nothingness, monotony. There we can take deep baths of darkness, while sometimes for our entertainment, the Aurora Borealis will shoot up its rose-red sheafs like the reflections of the fireworks of hell!”
     At last my soul explodes! “Anywhere! Just so it is out of the world!”

   Cette vie est un hôpital où chaque malade est possédé du désir de changer de lit. Celui-ci voudrait souffrir en face du poêle, et celui-là croit qu’il guérirait à côté de la fenêtre.
   Il me semble que je serais toujours bien là où je ne suis pas, et cette question de déménagement en est une que je discute sans cesse avec mon âme.
   “Dis-moi, mon âme, pauvre âme refroidie, que penserais-tu d’habiter Lisbonne? Il doit y faire chaud, et tu t’y ragaillardirais comme un lézard. Cette ville est au bord de l’eau; on dit qu’elle est bâtie en marbre, et que le peuple y a une telle haine du végétal, qu’il arrache tous les arbres. Voilà un paysage selon ton goût; un paysage fait avec la lumière et le minéral, et le liquide pour les réfléchir!”
   Mon âme ne répond pas.
   “Puisque tu aimes tant le repos, avec le spectacle du mouvement, veux-tu venir habiter la Hollande, cette terre béatifiante? Peut-être te divertiras-tu dans cette contrée dont tu as souvent admiré l’image dans les musées. Que penserais-tu de Rotterdam, toi qui aimes les forêts de mâts, et les navires amarrés au pied des maisons?”
   Mon âme reste muette.
   “Batavia te sourirait peut-être davantage? Nous y trouverions d’ailleurs l’esprit de l’Europe marié à la beauté tropicale.”
   Pas un mot. – Mon âme serait-elle morte?
   “En es-tu donc venue à ce point d’engourdissement que tu ne te plaises que dans ton mal? S’il en est ainsi, fuyons vers les pays qui sont les analogies de la Mort.
   – Je tiens notre affaire, pauvre âme! Nous ferons nos malles pour Tornéo. Allons plus loin encore, à l’extrême bout de la Baltique; encore plus loin de la vie, si c’est possible; installons-nous au pôle. Là le soleil ne frise qu’obliquement la terre, et les lentes alternatives de la lumière et de la nuit suppriment la variété et augmentent la monotonie, cette moitié du néant. Là, nous pourrons prendre de longs bains de ténèbres, cependant que, pour nous divertir, les aurores boréales nous enverront de temps en temps leurs gerbes roses, comme des reflets d’un feu d’artifice de l’Enfer!”
   Enfin, mon âme fait explosion, et sagement elle me crie: “N’importe où! n’importe où! pourvu que ce soit hors de ce monde!”

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Getting and spending: Facebooking the Future

May 15, 2012

I just heard a report on the coming IPO of Facebook, possibly at a value of $100 billion.  What could justify such an enormous sum assigned to a social networking site?  It gives a price to earnings ratio of 100 or more.  That is, investors, if they give it that value, are betting that its profits will double every year for many years, so said the financial analysts.

Why would they assume this?  Because Facebook is pitching itself as the ultimate of advertising pitchmen, with a new system that integrates the members of its network, and all the information it holds about them, to create ads based on links between people.  That is, I buy a toaster, FB knows who I know, ads appear at those nodes for toasters and whatnot that I and they like.  We all become elements in the grand scheme of managed buying, selling, consumption.  Am I wrong to find this a bit dispiriting?

Remember the days when the Internet was new, and people were dreaming of how it would create a completely different sort of social network?  It has!  And it’s all based upon sales!

Wordsworth’s poem.


Cranky on Consumerism…

April 29, 2012

crank   (krngk) n.

– A device for transmitting rotary motion, consisting of a handle or arm attached at right angles to a shaft.
– Informal:   A grouchy person; An eccentric person, especially one who is unduly zealous.

Back to one of my favorite topics for complaint:  It seems that every time I look at the news, especially the business news, everything is about the Internet.  (Surprise!)  I just want to find out whether the UK and Europe are imploding and all I see are articles about startups and IPOs for outfits selling gizmos that help us spend money, waste time, and gain access to more information, most of which is of no use to us, except as a way to help us spend more money and waste more time.  In the NYTimes, one academic jocularly speculated:

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, he went on, you won’t have to shop at all. Your vast piles of shopping data would be instead collected, analyzed and used to tell you exactly what you need: a new motorcycle from Ducati, perhaps, or purple rain boots in the next size for your growing child. Money will be seamlessly taken from your account. A delivery will arrive at your doorstep.

And if we could just figure out how to have machines make all the stuff for us, grow our food, and tend our bodies without having to move, we could just plug in and live virtually!

Don’t get me wrong – I love stuff.  I just spent hours shopping for a new pair of shoes made of Tyvek – looks really cool.  But I wouldn’t be destroyed if all these opportunities were taken away.  Is it my age?  I had a roommate once who thought of nothing but making money and buying. “That’s what man is,” he, a resolutely unphilosophical person told me.  “Man is a consumer.  He buys things.

When I was thirteen, I got a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I recently discarded it, but I kept the A and Z volumes just as a reminder of happy times gone by.  I would start off looking something up, it would lead to something else, and something else again in another volume, and pretty soon hours had gone by while I ‘surfed’ the expanse of human culture, and I was left sitting on the floor surrounded by opened volumes.  Now I do it online.  I rather like doing it online, but I don’t kid myself that my experience is essentially any better.  Just faster, and more rich in media.  Some things I can find now with ease that I would have had to go far out of my way to get then…but that was part of the fun of it!  Something gained, something lost.  This is the way of life, but, not on the business pages.  How long before people start to get jaded?

A minority opinion, but not a solitary one.  The caveman at the left is the logo of Uncivilized Booksa small publisher of comics, that I discovered in Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD.  Yes, an actual store!  This comics artist, Tom Kaczynski, seems to be thinking the same sort of thoughts.  And I love that logo!  That’s me, but I wear a collar and carry a laptop as I face the day’s challenges of scratching a living from the earth.

In one of his comics, Kaczynski talks about Richard Florida, and his books on the rise of The Creative Class…new to me. But at the symposium I attended Friday at the Regional Plan Association in NYC, I felt like I was hearing what he was describing, at least at the morning session.  Bike paths, cultural diversity, cafes, restaurants (for the record:  I like all that stuff) capital chasing all those smart, talented, hip-and-with-it highly educated technology workers…  What must a city do to woo them to come and live in its precincts?  And what about the not-so-smart and not-so-hip or talented?

Mayor Bloomberg gave his “NYC is Great” (and so it is) speech, and remarked that the RPA has been around giving us great plans since 1929!  1929 gave us so many great things – he rattled off a few, including Scotch Tape.  Was it a subtle joke on his part that he omitted The Crash?

Once again, mes pauvres lecteurs, I call your attention to this brilliant piece of social commentary:  Flaubert on the Internet.

The adverts have arrived!

December 1, 2010

Just yesterday, I happened upon this essay in the NYTimes by William Gibson about the world according to Google – and today, looking at my recent post on Babylonian mathematics what do I see but an ad for Google!!  WordPress explains:

Note: To support the service (and keep free features free), we also sometimes run advertisements. We’ve tested a lot of different ad providers and currently use Google AdSense and Skimlinks. We try hard to make the ads discreet and effective and only run them in limited places. If you would like to completely eliminate ads from appearing on your blog, we offer the No-Ads Upgrade.

The upgrade costs about $30.oo per year.  I guess the free ride is over, but then, why should I expect to be given a good service for free?  Will I pay to be add-free?  I doubt it.  I’m pretty cheap.  Considering the content of my blog, it might be amusing to see how Google et al place ads on it.

BTW, the picture is by Kupperman, and anyone who reads this blog knows how much I love Kubrick and 2001!


More and Zen

October 17, 2010

I have been hearing about the new movie, The Social Network, from all over the place.  My first question was simple:  How the heck does Facebook make money, anyway?  Again, the answer is simple – advertisements.  My next question was simple too:  Who cares?  Obviously, a lot of people.

I have a Facebook account, but I rarely use it.  I got it to keep up with my daughter when she was abroad.  I’ve read a lot of critical raves about the movie.  Joe Nocera’s in the NYTimes Business section was the most interesting:  he felt it was an excellent study of an important personality-type in our culture – the entrepreneur.  I get that, but I’m so un-entrepreneurial, that I have little interest in it.

On another planet, I have been reading an old book lately called How to Want What You Have.  It’s by a psychologist who approaches life from a Zen-Cognitive point of view, and it’s very down to earth.  I find that it encapsulates a lot of what I have been thinking for years.  One of the central, and novel ideas he proposes is that it is instinctual for humans to always want MORE.  He says spiritual-meditative-ethical discipline as going against the human grain, but he believes it is necessary because our evolved instinctual drives are out of synch with our culturally evolved existence.  The Buddha and innumerable religious thinkers agree.  I don’t know if his Darwinian take is valid, and I don’t even think it’s necessary, but that’s where he starts.

What brings me to Facebook & How to Want… is that they seem diametrically opposed.  Facebook is all about more, more MORE.  More “friends,” more “celebrity”, more chatter, more pictures, more connections…shading off into my own blog obsession with the number of hits to my site (down lately!)  Zen is all about letting go of more, more, More!

One thing about discussions of Internet “culture” in journalism that strikes me often is the constant failure to evaluate.  Journalism is all about filling columns and tickling readers to come back to read more.  Heavy questions are a turn off.  So in the New Yorker review of the new film, the author writes that Facebook recognizes that “we all treat each other now as packets” of information, not individuals.  Is this…dare I ask it, good?  Okay, it is a fact, it is popular, it might be fun, not everyone is obsessed by it, so…beyond the fact that it made some people fabulously rich, why care???


Information Superhighway

July 19, 2010

At last, here by popular demand! The original text of the amazingly prescient essay on Flaubert and the Internet from 1994!!


Google advertisements

July 9, 2010

I remain puzzled by the success of Google’s business model.  Obviously, I don’t have the makings of a good businessman, because Google is fantastically successful, with a torrential positive cashflow and high profits.  Google seems to have more of a right to the name Amazon than Amazon.com, given the relatively meagre profitability of the online bookstore cum emporium, despite it’s annual revenue, and Amazon.com should be called, say, Thames, a not all that impressive river.

Google gets its money from advertising, ads that Internet users click on after making a search.  I ran a very focused ad campaign for a specialized product related to my work, and it garnered a decent response, but if I had done a search for that product, I don’t think I would have clicked on the ads it presented.  I don’t think I have ever clicked on a Google ad, except for a few instances when I experimented to see just what they would turn up.  Once again, I am obviously not a judge of how people will behave.

My sense of the advertisements that appear on the Google sidebar is that they are generally vague, tangentially related to my search, and never better results than what I turn up with my Google search itself.  Why would I waste time with them?  When newspapers and magazines purchase advertising, they pay up front, and do so because they know their material will be seen by readers, and possibly read.  Some magazines, e.g., fashion publications, are all  about the ads.  Pay-per-click ads generate revenue only when browsing people click on them.  Why do they click?  But click they do!

So…I come to this rather depressing prospect.  Google is reaping megabucks off of billions of clicks by vast millions of users who are clicking on ads that are of limited value simply on the hope, the misconception, the belief, reflex action? of responding to an advert.  Their business model is built on the bedrock of consumer acculteration.  Countless people wasting countless hours in pointless activity is making Google rich.  People love to shop, they love advertisements, and they are happy to be led down the primrose path by ads that promise much and deliver little.  Why not, it’s all free!  We pay only with our time and attention!