Surround Yourself with Books, Save Humanity


Although I certainly have little patience for the fetishization of books as decorative status symbols, I have a deep affection for the physical, dead-tree book as a medium. Unlike an electronic device, to see and hold a single volume is for me to feel the thoughts and ideas it contains seething within its closed pages, like there is a flow of energy that is eager for a conduit through which it can propagate. I love that. And I feel it both before and after having read a meaningful book.

As a consumer of books, however, I also find ebooks almost miraculous in their convenience and utility. In a single device I can have literally thousands of books at the ready, which expands to millions if my device is connected to the Internet. I can infinitely annotate these books, entirely nondestructively. The device even provides its own damn reading light. Books feel great, I adore them, but to dismiss the ebook and particularly ebook readers like the Kindle is absurd.

But in one crucial way, ebooks’ greatest strength also is their greatest weakness. And I mean weakness, not flaw, as I’ll explain.

I’m thinking about this because of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book that is all at once easy, enriching, and gut-wrenching to read. Among Snyder’s 20 lessons for avoiding life under some kind of Trumpian Reich are his recommendations that we a) support print journalism and b) read more books. Now, it’s fairly obvious why good journalism needs to be bolstered in times such as these, for it may very well be the last layer of defense we have from a media entirely made up of propaganda. He writes:

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money.

That’s very clear. But by print journalism, does he merely mean deeply researched, sourced, and fact-checked reporting regardless of medium, or does he also mean that this quality journalism must be, by necessity, literally printed on paper? I’ll return to that in a bit.

Back to books. Right now, my 7-year-old son is enamored with a series of kids’ nature books in which one animal is pitted against another in a “who would win” scenario (like crab vs. lobster or wolverine vs. Tasmanian devil, for example). He’s collected eight or so of these slim little books, and he loves them so much, he’s taken to carrying them – all of them – around with him wherever he can.

“Daddy, I don’t know what it is,” he says, “but these books have just made me, well, love books!”

I’m delighted that he’s so attached to these books, that he has this affection for them. I know that wouldn’t be possible if he only had access to their contents on a tablet. The value of the content is no different, but he can show his enthusiasm in a real, physical way that a digital version wouldn’t allow. The objects, being self-contained with the words and pictures he loves, take on more meaning. And by assigning so much meaning to the objects, he imbues the content itself more meaning too.

What does a kids’ book with a tarantula fighting a scorpion have to do with resistance to tyranny? Let’s see what Snyder has to say about the contrast between books and digital/social media:

The effort [of propagandists] to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.

Snyder cites examples from dystopian literature in which the fascist state bans books and, as in 1984, the consumption of pre-approved electronic media is monitored in real time, and in which the public is constantly fed the state’s distortion and reduction of language, all “to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future.“

What we need to do, what we owe it to ourselves to do, is to actively seek information and perspectives from well outside official channels, to fortify our consciousness from being co-opted and anesthetized, and to expand our understanding of the world beyond the daily feed. Snyder says:

When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

But what if the screen is displaying the same concepts as those books? “Staring at a screen” when one is reading an ebook is a very different practice than staring at it for Facebook-feed-induced dopamine squirts. Even more so if the screen with the ebook is on a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle, which intentionally withholds many of the distractions immediately available on a phone or tablet. Heck, I read Snyder’s book on my Kindle.

You won’t see me arguing that ebooks are inferior to physical books when we’re talking about the usual day-to-day reading of books, hell no. But in the context of this discussion, think about how we get ebooks onto our devices. They exist digitally, of course, and in the vast majority of cases they come from a given corporation’s servers with the ebook files themselves armed with some kind of digital rights management in order to prevent anyone from accessing those files on a competitor’s device. (Not all ebook sales are done this way, but they are very much the exception.) When we buy an ebook, in most cases, we’re not really “buying” it, we’re licensing it to display on a selection of devices approved by the vendor. And so it is with most music and video purchases.

Those ebooks are then transmitted over wires and/or wireless frequencies that are owned by another corporation, access to which we are once again leasing. So even if you are getting DRM-free, public domain ebooks in an open format like ePub that is readable on a wide variety of devices, you probably can’t acquire it unless you use a means of digital transfer that someone else controls.

You see what I’m getting at. Ebooks come with several points of failure, points at which one’s access to them can be cut off for any number of reasons. Remember a few years back when, because of a copyright dispute over the ebook version of 1984 (of all things), Amazon zapped purchased copies of the book from many of its customers’ Kindles. It didn’t just halt new sales, or even just cut off access to the files it had stored on its cloud servers. It went into its customers’ physical devices and deleted the ebooks – again, ebooks they had paid for. Customers had no say in the matter.

This was more or less a benign screwup on Amazon’s part. Presumably it had no authoritarian motives, but it makes plain how astoundingly easy it is for a company to determine the fate of the digital media we pretend we own.

This is about permanence. A physical book, once produced, cannot be remotely zapped out of existence. While some fascist regime could indeed close all the libraries, shut down all the book stores, and even go house to house rounding up books and setting them ablaze, physical books remain corporeal objects that can be held, passed along, hidden, smuggled, and even copied with pen and paper by candlelight. If the bad guys can’t get their actual hands on it, they can’t destroy it. And it can still be read.

But for ebooks, all it would take would be a little bit of acquiescence from the vendor (or the network service provider, or the device manufacturer) and your choice to read what you want could be revoked in an instant. Obviously, the same goes for video, music and other audio, and of course, journalism. The ones and zeroes that our screens and speakers convert to media can be erased, altered, or replaced and we wouldn’t even know it was happening until it was too late.

Physical books, along with print journalism (literal print), come with real limitations and inconveniences that electronic media obviate. But those same limitations also make them more immutable. It fortifies them and the ideas contained within them. Though constrained by their physical properties, they also offer the surest path to an expanded, enriched, and unrestricted consciousness. One that, say, an authoritarian state can’t touch.

Here’s an example of what I mean, once again from Snyder, with my emphasis added:

A brilliant mind like Victor Klemperer, much admired today, is remembered only because he stubbornly kept a hidden diary under Nazi rule. For him it was sustenance: “My diary was my balancing pole, without which I would have fallen down a thousand times.” Václav Havel, the most important thinker among the communist dissidents of the 1970s, dedicated his most important essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” to a philosopher who died shortly after interrogation by the Czechoslovak communist secret police. In communist Czechoslovakia, this pamphlet had to be circulated illegally, in a few copies, as what east Europeans at the time, following the Russian dissidents, called “samizdat.”

If those had been the equivalent of online articles, they’d have been deleted before they ever reached anyone else’s screens.

There’s one additional step to this, one more layer of intellectual “fortification.” It’s about the act of reading as something more than a diversion, more than pleasure. Because if we only read the digital content that’s been algorithmically determined to hold our attention, or even if it’s one of our treasured print books that we read for sheer amusement, we’re still missing something.

Today I happened to see Maria Popova of Brain Pickings share a snippet from a letter written by Franz Kafka to a friend, in which he explains what he thinks reading books is for (emphasis mine):

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

We don’t need books to achieve mere happiness. To expand our intellectual and moral horizons; to give our minds the armor they need to withstand the assaults of misinformation and stupification; to be made wiser, more empathetic, and more creative than we are, we need to read those books that affect us, “like a disaster” or otherwise.

To fully ensure that we have those books, that they can be seen and held and smelled and shared and recited and experienced outside the authority of a state or corporation, they need to be present, corporeal objects. They need to exist in the real world.

So, please, do use that Kindle for all it’s worth; use it to read all the books that wake you up, blow your mind, and change your life.

But also, if you can, surround yourself with books. In a very real way, they might just save us all.

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Quirky: Adapting for Asperger’s at the Expense of Sincerity

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No really, I’m like this all the time.

Coming to terms with being a 38-year-old man with Asperger’s, having only been diagnosed a few weeks ago, has naturally lead to reexaminations of my behavior. The first things I’ve focused on have been those aspects of my personality that put me blatantly at odds with the rest of the species, such as my extreme introversion, my inability to read others’ signals or intentions, and my aversion to overstimulation.

But as some of this has begun to settle, I also find myself going a few layers deeper, and I realize just how much of my identity is wrapped up in how I’ve compensated for the hindrances of Asperger’s. Some of the more interesting exploration is not about my differences, but my adaptations — the behaviors I’ve adopted to mitigate those differences. Successful adaptations, even.

As I’ve noted before, some people have trouble accepting my Asperger’s diagnosis as a valid one, because all they see are the adaptations. They see me as someone who’s generally smart and funny and well spoken, someone who is obviously not “the average guy,” but someone a little different, just a little odd, and harmlessly so. A bit nerdy, a little geeky, and humorously self-effacing about all of it. Maybe a little too self-effacing, but oh, that’s just Paul. One of his many quirks.

That’s me. I’m quirky.

Paul says some weird things sometimes, or Paul gets oddly quiet and distant, or Paul seems to find everything funny, but also every once in a while he takes something too seriously, and talks a little too much, too fast, and too loud. But that’s just his quirkiness.

If anyone comes away with that impression of me, as “quirky,” then I have successfully adapted as best I could. Once it became clear to me, probably around my mid-teens, that I was never going to be considered “normal,” and not even in the same universe as “cool,” I decided (partly consciously, partly unconsciously) that I would adopt a quirky identity. I’d be the funny sidekick, the sarcastic friend, vaguely-artsy oddball, just minimally different enough to cover up just how utterly alien I actually felt. My quirkiness was like a white noise machine to help muffle and distract from the sound of the train line running right next to the house.

Decades of this practice led me to believe that the act was who I really was. In a new social setting, I’m harmless-quirky, making little jokes when it seems safe to do so. With bosses, I’m grinning-idiot-quirky, engaged and overly eager to agree. With closer friends, I’m wry-quirky, able to vent a little of my misanthropic steam, but in a safe and humorous way. And so on.

It even extends into my online persona, where the facepalming-Paul avatar has become my unofficial insignia. I have a quirky logo.

Some of it is natural, some of it is very much forced. But over the years I think I may have gotten so good at it that I don’t know when I’m “working” and when I’m just “being.”

But without this adaptive behavior, I don’t know how I would have navigated the real world. Maybe if I had known I had Asperger’s, and accepted the things that made me different, I wouldn’t have bothered to try so hard to please and to pass. What would I have been like? What happens if I decide to drop the quirk now? What will I be?

I think the scary answer to that is: sincere. I’d be sincere.

I am not an insincere person, per se, not in the way we usually think of that term. I’m not two-faced or deceptive or phony. What I mean by sincerity is a dropping of unnecessary pretenses and performances, allowing whatever person was behind those masks to come out and breathe.

That’s terrifying!

I can’t say with any exactness, but I suspect this hypothetical sincere version of me would be less expressive when in the company of others. Even in conversation, I might look distant or even severe, even if my actual feelings were entirely benign. I would interject less often, and save my words for when they might contribute to something. That might make me appear disinterested or “shy,” even if I felt neither. A more sincere version of me might excuse himself entirely earlier and more often in order to recover from the stresses of stimuli.

A sincere version of me would be less concerned with a projected personality, online and off. He would not think so much about cultivating a “brand” for himself, and simply let his work and his words speak for themselves. It would likely have no impact on the number of Twitter followers I could boast, and this version of me (again, hypothetical) wouldn’t concern himself with that anyway, because why bother.

This sincere-me would relieve himself of the stress engendered by worrying over what people thought of his various interests and obsessions. Contemporary geek culture has made the world a safe place for folks to proudly parade their allegiance to various fiction franchises, but that’s not quite what I mean, because what that really adds up to is a new in-group that happens to be made up of people who once languished in out-groups. That’s good and fine, but not what I mean.

I mean that when I have a driving obsession with something that holds no obvious value to anyone but the satisfaction of my own brain, that’s not a failing. It’s not something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. I can just pursue that interest (within reason and feasibility) without regard to the opinions of others.

And I – I mean this hypothetically sincere version of me – wouldn’t have to make excuses for any of it. He wouldn’t have to apologize, and qualify himself with “I know this is weird” or “this probably seems silly, but…” He…I…would just follow the string of curiosity where it leads, and allow my brain its squirts of dopamine whenever they can be safely had.

The last bit of this is the hope that sincere-me would not indulge his autism and oddness at the expense of his responsibilities to those he loves. I don’t see that as a problem, because one thing that even quirky-me can be sincere about is my love and devotion to my wife and kids. I don’t need to “act” that, no“passing” required. Come to think of it, I’m very lucky for that.

The adaptations of Asperger’s have been enormously expensive in countless ways. They have eaten up time, energy, and my valuation of myself. Maybe over time, as I truly come to terms with this condition and its implications, I can begin to turn down the dials, divert power away from the quirk-generators, and recoup some of what I’ve lost. I would sincerely like that.

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Madame Defarge’s Memes

madamedefarge_2119297bAt Wired, Issie Lapowsky summarizes some research that tells us something that is not surprising, that more or less no one is ever persuaded to change their mind about a political position because of a post they saw on Facebook.

I suppose people do actually think that their social media posts are badly-needed ammunition in the political war of ideas, and that their fierce, impassioned, and ironclad arguments will surely win over the misguided. I assume they really do think that. Intellectually.

But the truth, which I believe they at least feel at a gut level, is that these political social media posts are social tokens, signifiers of belonging to a particular group, earning good will and social capital by reaffirming that which they all already believe. That’s largely why I write political tweets, usually because I think I can do so in a funny way and get some positive validation that might begin to fill the abyss that is my self-esteem. My zinger about Trump or my spirited defense of Hillary isn’t going to move the needle one teeny tiny little bit in anyone’s mind, and I have no expectation that it will.

At this level it’s harmless (other than those perilous moments when my tweets are not affirmed and I fail to achieve validation). The problem arises when the posts and tweets and memes go from social tokens to something more like Madame Defarge’s knitting. Outside of the more black-and-white world of election-year D vs. R posts, social media posts involving politics and heated social issues are designed to affirm via othering, by striking clear delineations between the good people and everyone else who is irredeemably bad for failing to check every ideological box, whether they know those boxes exist or not.

And it’s not just reactions to one’s own posts that do this work. It’s the posts of others. Lapowsky writes:

The majority of both Republicans and Democrats say they judge their friends based on what they write on social media about politics. What’s more, 12 percent of Republicans, 18 percent of Democrats, and 9 percent of independents who responded say they’ve unfriended someone because of those posts.

So it’s not political persuasion, as we might like to believe, it’s shaking the trees for villains to fall out of, it’s political partitioning.

In the film Bananas, the Castro-like ruler Esposito delivers his first speech to his people, and tells them, “All citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.”

The kind of social media I’m talking about is that underwear you just changed, and you’re pretty damned proud that you did it after only 29 minutes.

Trump is Exactly What We Wanted

Photo credit: Tony Webster via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
I was not a Trump skeptic when he entered the race. I didn’t know how far he’d get, but I knew he’d be a big factor, and as he plowed ahead and stayed on top, I was also not one of those who thought he’d implode. His support, I believed, was rock solid, with a floor that other candidates couldn’t match. But I don’t think I could ever really articulate why he would do, and has done, so well.

Then I read this interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at Huffington Post by Howard Fineman, and it all made sense. Fineman writes:

Trump deploys fame for fame’s sake; taps into populist expressions of fear, hatred and resentment and shows a knack for picking fights and a braggart’s focus on the horse race. All of which allow him to play into — and exploit — every media weakness and bad habit in a chase for audience and numbers.

And Goodwin tells him:

Do we know, at this point, about his modus operandi in business? Do we know how he treated his staff? Do we know what kind of leader he was when he was building his business? I mean, I don’t know the answers to these things.

All I know is that, when I see him now, it’s like his past is not being used by the media to tell us who the guy really is.

This all rings more truthfully to me than the idea that Trump is some kind of political savant. I do think he’s probably smarter than his competition in a number of meaningful ways, but a better and broader explanation of his success is that his shtick happens to align perfectly with the way the news media produces content today.

The media and Trump are equally obsessed with horse race poll numbers. The current news paradigm is to churn out content with every tiny, potentially interesting development, and Trump practically gives off spores of content fodder. The news media delights in conflict, especially personal conflict, and the potential for controversy or the possibility of offenses given. Again, Trump provides and provides. And I assume that this is half because he’s playing all of us, and half because it’s just what he is. We the audience demand vapid, garbage content, and Trump gives us exactly what we want.

Here’s a subject that Fineman and Kearns don’t cover: the electorate to which Trump is appealing. It’s hard to imagine a Democrat-Trump, some leftward counterpart that has Trump’s bravado but fights for social and economic justice. No, Political Trump is a product custom made for an electorate stoked into rage and fear and happy ignorance by the very party that now fears the Trump takeover. The GOP primary electorate has been primed for a candidate like Trump, whether the party knew it or not. They’ve been fomenting paranoia about Obama, minorities, women, “religious freedom,” Iran, Muslims, and whatever else you can think of, and they’re shocked that perhaps some chest-thumping candidate might swoop in and, confidently and joyously, embody those paranoias.

Trump is a man of our times. Goodwin in the interview with Fineman says that deeply researched print journalism is what could have better exposed and explained someone like Trump, “because [of] the way sentences work.” There’s something kind of perfect for that. In an age of clumsy tweets and Facebook memes, the antithesis of whatever it is Trump is, might be “the sentence.”

Righteous Irritation and the License to Bully

Yesterday, I tweeted:

Get really mad. Together.

Twitter.

Ha ha I’m so witty. Anyway, it’s an expression of my feeling of alienation from the mob-attacks that pass for “debate” on Twitter and other online outlets. Last year I put it this way:

There is plenty of argument online. But actually relatively little open disagreement. [It’s] really just agreement on the position that those other people (or that one poor dumb bastard) on the other side are wrong.

It’s people, astride very tall horses, agreeing at other people.

At Big Think, Jason Gots traces this phenomenon to annoyance, the power that being irritated by a person or an idea can have on us emotionally. And where do we go to vent our emotions? Twitter! Gots writes:

Irritation is a powerful force. It has the whiff of righteousness.

Think about how you feel when (if) you’re annoyed at a smoker, or the way someone drives, or how they dress, or how they parent. Admit it, you feel bothered by their wrongness, that a moral principle has been broken. Ugh, look at that person just lighting up like it doesn’t even matter. Ugh, look at that mother letting her kid behave that way. Most of the time, these things don’t even effect you. You just feel like they’ve violated something sacred rule even though it has nothing to do with you.

More Gots:

[Irritation] inspires dread in the meek. If you read old accounts of any society that eventually erupted in some form of ethnic cleansing or witch-hunting, you’ll hear people gossiping and commiserating about the annoying habits of the marginalized group, nodding their heads in agreement about the ways in which these people obviously don’t “get” the rules of society that are perfectly obvious to anyone with common sense.

Have you ever known that a romantic relationship was more or less over, as far as you were concerned, but couldn’t really justify a breakup with any ironclad offenses? They haven’t wronged you or cheated on you, you’re just done. So (and I know I’ve done this in my stupider days) you unconsciously begin to invent things that bother you about them, or the small annoyances that never mattered before suddenly become deal-breakers. Now apply that to one cultural, ethnic, political, religious, or any other identity group’s feelings toward another. (Android people can’t stand how snooty Apple people are. Apple people can’t stand how crass and tasteless Android people are. They are so annoying.)

Gots doesn’t just shrug it off, though. He wants us to stop it. And it’s harder than it seems to stop.

Words have power, and the line between opinion and fact is not nearly so clearly demarcated as it once was. So when your rhetoric suggests that something you’re saying should be completely obvious to anyone who isn’t an idiot, you’re basically bullying people into agreeing with you.

Remember bullies in the classic middle and high school sense? Well I sure do! And they were always so annoyed by my existence. The fact that I was, well, the way I was, way over there, away from them, really irritated them. That feeling justified their ruining several years of my life. What I looked like, what I was into, the way I stood or sat or walked, it wasn’t right, so I had it coming.

This happens all the easier if you, the hearer of a given annoyance, don’t know any better. If I’m an Apple fan, and I hear all this irritation with Android people, I’ll be pretty likely to share that opinion and that annoyance, even if I have no experience with Android or its users. If I know nothing about feminism, and a bunch of dudebros I follow go on about how annoying they are, what with their always asking for equality and whatnot, I will likely share this opinion of them whether I intend to or not.

Because you see I probably don’t know any better, and I certainly don’t want to be on the outs of my group, right? I can’t be sticking up for Android or feminism or whatever, because then I’m the one my group gets annoyed at. Then it’s open season on me.

Oh hey, it’s open season on Rachel Dolezal, isn’t it? We’re so annoyed and irritated that she thought it would be okay to just pretend to be black. She’s fair game. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know why she does it, or what might have happened to her, or been done to her, to make her want to escape her identity, to turn away from her other life. Let’s make her feel even worse because we’re annoyed.

Arthur Cohen had an op-ed in the Times a few days ago about political hating, but it applies to all of these things. His advice:

Declare your independence by not consuming, celebrating or sharing the overheated outrage and negative punditry — even if it comes from those with whom you agree. Avoid indulging in snarky, contemptuous dismissals of Americans on the other side. And always own up to your views.

Imagine that.

One Man’s Blogspam is Another Man’s Engaging Content

The truth is, folks, I don’t maintain a blog purely for the joy of doing so. I do love to write, but one doesn’t blog unless one wishes not just to write, but to be read. Even on a somewhat high-profile platform like Patheos, even coming with the cred of being the mouthpiece of a major secularist organization, and of having been the substitute-Friendly-Atheist a few times, this little blog simply isn’t making much of a dent in terms of readership.

I’d like very much for that to change. There are surely lots of things I could do to make some progress: I could post more often, I could fashion my posts to be more in line with click-bait principles, I could write about things that interest a broader range of people, or conversely, write about things that drive a small number of passionate people nuts. But the fact of the matter is that I want to write what interests me, frame and express it in a way that reflects who I am, and do so as often as I am inspired to do so. Perhaps that mean I am an entitled and privileged. Go ahead, you can say it. You wouldn’t be the first.

Given all this, the best way I have found to generate at least temporary spurts of traffic is to get my material posted to sites like Reddit or into active communities on Google+. But very often, these communities and subreddits and whatnot live by an ironclad “no blogspam” rule, which means simply that they don’t want the authors of written content linking to their own stuff.

Which I get! I’m sure, given the opportunity, thousands of “bloggers” would clog up whatever feeds they could with their own material. That’s spammy, and online communities are right to police this kind of thing.

But here’s the situation I run into: I have a piece I’ve written and that I’m proud of, and I think it will resonate with a particular audience. I can go find the appropriate subreddit or Google+ community or what have you, and share it with them. But then I get a message from a moderator telling me that I’ve violated their rules against blogspam, that the post is being removed, and that I now risk being banned.

Now, if I made a habit of plastering my material willy nilly into these communities, they’d have me dead to rights. But is there no middle ground between never promoting your own material and spam? Shouldn’t there be some allowance for an author deciding that a particular piece is relevant to a particular group and sharing it? It can always be ignored or downvoted if the community in question doesn’t like it or isn’t interested. Being immediately policed seems to me to be overkill.

Again, I appreciate and share the desire to keep unscrupulous self-promoters from sullying online communities. I have to think that when one of those people come around, though, it’s pretty obvious, and that the occasional sharing of one’s own material, when relevant, is equally obvious. But since I don’t have that kind of community moderating responsibility, I could be missing something.

Maybe there’s a better way, a way that allows me to do the work I want to do and earn the attention I think it deserves. Or perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe it already is.

Beautiful, Beautiful Alienation: Walkmen, Phones, and (Not) Watches

Photo credit: Viewminder / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

I was relatively late to the whole Walkman thing. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I got ahold of my own portable cassette player, partly because I didn’t discover a love of contemporary music until I was 12 or so, and partly because I never thought to ask for one. (I had pretty much exhausted my enthusiasm for my Weird Al tapes, they being pretty much the only thing I ever listened to.) I don’t remember how I finally got one (a spare of my dad’s? a gift from grandma?), but when I did acquire one, and armed it with Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless, my life was changed.

Suddenly, I could remove myself from the world around me, something I as a bullied, nervous, self-loathing teen was desperate to do. In place of the hurtful, disapproving world, I could immerse myself sensorially in a rich world of melody, pathos, cleverness, and imaginativeness. It’s a cliché to say that “music saved my life,” but it’s no exaggeration to say that I was able to get through some of my most miserable years because I discovered the joys and the escape of music, enjoyed alone.

The Web and the larger online world have in many ways been the Walkman of my social existence. There was no Web to speak of when I was a teenager, but I did have Prodigy and later America Online (which I hear goes by another, shorter name now). These technologies — which included things like chat rooms, message boards, email, and later social networks — facilitated communication and interaction, yes, but from a much safer remove. There were layers of abstraction that conveniently hid most of who I was, and only let out the things I specifically authorized. I could speak, joke, argue, play, and even flirt, and never have to worry that I was being disqualified for my appearance, my clothes, or even how I simply held my body, all things that invited open mockery in meatspace. Like a personal cassette player, the online world let me enter a rich new world while also being blissfully alone.

Last month at The Awl, John Herrman wrote about “the asshole theory of technology,” which I’ll get into in a bit. He writes about the dawn of the Walkman:

Sony was worried that its portable stereo would be alienating. This turned out to be true. But the impulse to correct it was wrong: the thing that made it alienating was precisely the thing that made it good. The more compelling a gadget is, the more you use it, the more the people around you resent you for using it, the more they are pressured to use it themselves. (The fact that these devices are now all connected to each other only accelerates the effect.)

For me, I was already alienated. I needed someplace to be while alienated, a way to make use of my alienation. Music helped, and the advent of the online world was a significant leap (and iPods too). And then we got smartphones, and all of that and more became instantly available wherever I was, from a small rectangle in my pocket.

So back to this asshole theory. Herrman means to apply it to the likely success of the Apple Watch, as a new gadget for users to alienate themselves with, while simultaneously wooing the would-be-alienated:

This is the closest thing we have to a law of portable gadgetry: the more annoying it is to the people around you, the “better” the concept. The more that using it makes you seem like an asshole to people who aren’t using it, the brighter its commercial prospects. [ . . . ] It will succeed if it can create new rude exclusionary worlds for its wearers (this is why I wouldn’t underrate the weird “Taptic” communications stuff). It will succeed, in other words, to whatever extent it allows people to be assholes.

Maybe this is true for the Apple Watch, that the air of exclusiveness and elitism that it projects, and the in-crowd-only communications aspect of it, will drive its success. But the theory doesn’t work for me in terms of personal stereos, iPods, the Internet, and smartphones. I don’t care if they make me seem like an asshole (perhaps they do). I care that they get me away from all the other assholes, everywhere.

And a watch can’t do that.