the secret of lightness
September 29, 2013, 9:52 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , ,

Thirteen years on, a vision for the millennium I think still applies and is worth yearning for:

Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times – noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring – belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty cars.

Italo Calvino


worrying captures our brains

[Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War, David Rochkind]

From The Opinionator at the Times, a piece on new research on poverty: scarcity causes a person to ‘tunnel’ which effectively shuts down his capacity for complex thought and decision making. This reverses a very common view: many of us believe that bad character produces poverty; now we know – supported by research – the opposite is true: poverty (or scarcity) produces reduced capacity for reasoning and thought.

From the Opinionator:

Worrying about money when it is tight captures our brains. It reduces our cognitive capacity — especially our abstract intelligence, which we use for problem-solving. It also reduces our executive control, which governs planning, impulses and willpower. The bad decisions of the poor, say the authors, are not a product of bad character or low native intelligence. They are a product of poverty itself. Your natural capability doesn’t decrease when you experience scarcity. But less of that capacity is available for use. If you put a middle-class person into a situation of scarcity, she will behave like a poor person.

Escaping the Cycles of Scarcity, Tina Rosenberg, Opinionator, New York Times


Here is a stinging rebuke to the world the techies have built by George Packer in his article Change the World. The arc of his argument in these three paragraphs: that the world view of the tech made world is parochial, narrow, given to simplistic solutions; that out of this context has arisen a sort of libertarian ideology that offers tech solutions to superficials while the world burns; and that our focus on tech – which though narrow is described as a media revolution, not unlike the Industrial Revolution – may logically be related to many of the macro social problems we are experiencing, like inequality, among others.

My prof at university explained how ‘Who controls the media’ wins the prize. That the tech nerd – the audio video guy from high school, with his zero social skills, who never went out, who couldn’t engage in a proper conversation, who couldn’t conceive of anything beyond his singular realm of knowledge being significant – is now in charge is a crazy thought. It’s the reality in pretty well every office I have ever worked in; never the brightest or broadest, always the narrowly technically adept.

Here is George Packer; the full article is linked below:

Horowitz—who is the son of David Horowitz, the radical turned conservative polemicist—attributed Silicon Valley’s strain of libertarianism to the mentality of engineers. “Libertarianism is, theoretically, a relatively elegant solution,” he said. “People here have a great affinity for that kind of thing—they want elegance. Most people here are relatively apolitical and not that knowledgeable about how these large complicated systems of societies work. Libertarianism has got a lot of the false positives that Communism had, in that it’s a very simple solution that solves everything.” The intellectual model is not the dour Ayn Rand but Bay Area philosophers and gurus who imagine that limitless progress can be achieved through technology.


Technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value. Evgeny Morozov, in his new book “To Save Everything, Click Here,” calls this belief “solutionism.” Morozov, who is twenty-nine and grew up in a mining town in Belarus, is the fiercest critic of technological optimism in America, tirelessly dismantling the language of its followers. “They want to be ‘open,’ they want to be ‘disruptive,’ they want to ‘innovate,’ ” Morozov told me. “The open agenda is, in many ways, the opposite of equality and justice. They think anything that helps you to bypass institutions is, by default, empowering or liberating. You might not be able to pay for health care or your insurance, but if you have an app on your phone that alerts you to the fact that you need to exercise more, or you aren’t eating healthily enough, they think they are solving the problem.”


One question for technology boosters—maybe the crucial one—is why, during the decades of the personal computer and the Internet, the American economy has grown so slowly, average wages have stagnated, the middle class has been hollowed out, and inequality has surged. Why has a revolution that is supposed to be as historically important as the industrial revolution coincided with a period of broader economic decline?

Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics, George Packer, The New Yorker, May 2013

the free slave
September 24, 2013, 3:10 pm
Filed under: departure lounge | Tags: , , ,

Zizek improves on Chesterton: true that worry about one’s life can freeze us; but an overstatement that self reflection enslaves:

We may say broadly that free thought is the best of all the safeguards against freedom. Managed in a modern style the emancipation of the slave’s mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation of the slave. Teach him to worry about whether he wants to be free, and he will not free himself.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

One can … claim like Chesterton that the abstract freedom to think (and doubt) actually prevents actual freedom. But is the subtraction of thinking from acting, the suspension of its efficiency, really as clear and unequivocal as that?

Slavoj Zizek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Introduction

Righting the Costa Concordia
September 17, 2013, 1:48 pm
Filed under: departure lounge | Tags: