Freedom

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I’m quite late to this party, but I recently started using Freedom and I really like it. What led me to it was my realization that, while I have deleted my social-media apps from my phone, I could still access those accounts via the phone’s browser. And once I realized that I could do that … well, this is where Freedom comes in, because I can use it to block those sites on my phone and, when appropriate, on my Mac. So now I have Twitter blocked for all but a few hours a day. 

farewell to Twitter?

A few weeks ago I deleted my private Twitter account — it was a good way to keep up with friends, but I found it impossible to control it (via disabled RTs, muted strings, etc.) well enough to prevent the frustration from exceeding the pleasure. That left me just with my public account, which I have been using primarily for linking to my own writing (e.g. blog posts like this one) and to cool things I’ve read by others. But I really really want to be out of the Twitter ecosystem completely — for obvious reasons: everybody knows that Twitter is horrible, there’s no need to belabor that point — so I have now deleted the public account too.

My chief concern with being off Twitter altogether is that I’ll be unable to provide a signal boost to people who are writing or making interesting things that other folks might not notice — and for that reason I could, I must admit, come back. So when Twitter notifies me, 29 days from now, that my account is about to be deleted, I might have a moment of weakness and log back in. (Twitter does prompt you when your account is about to be deleted … doesn’t it?)

I am aware, of course, that most people who read this blog get to it via my Twitter links, so I am perhaps making myself more marginal than ever. Who will even see this post? But if you happen to see it, and want to see more, please try RSS. It’s great. Most of the cool things I read or see are posted here, or on my personal blog, or on my Pinboard page. And all of those have RSS feeds.

P.S. Have I written before about quitting Twitter? Have I quit Twitter before? Yes on both counts. I am pathetically irresolute. 
UPDATE (a few days later): Several people emailed me pleading with me to come back to Twitter, just for linkage. I guess for a great many people RSS is just a foreign technology. And since I can set up automatic posting to Twitter, why not? So that little experiment didn’t last long….

sharing: the opposite of caring

This from Michael Brendan Dougherty is worthy of some reflection:

An example: I’m worried about the culture on college campuses. Maybe you’re not, but I am. The rash of near-riots against right-wing speakers was troubling enough. But the internet wasn’t satisfied with the level of anxiety that might inspire in me and it quickly delivered to me dozens of stories about an obscure opinion piece written by an obscure group of college students from a college that had been, until that day, rather obscure to me. These people I’d never heard of wrote an editorial which argues that the concept of “objective truth” is propaganda for white supremacy.

I tried to remind myself that this was trivial bullshit, and didn’t effect anything in the world but pointless outrage. But of course that didn’t help. The poison of it flowed through me. My mind lit up with the desire to see the hands of a silent and awful deity plunging into the green plushy sward of Earth, pulling its tectonic plates apart, and shaking them until all human life and evidence of our civilization is dispersed into the outer oblivion of space. I desired that alien races, hundreds of millions of years in the future, would find evidence of this celestial event, and read it as a strict warning against subsidizing student loans. I imagined the terror of humanity’s richly merited destruction scored to Anton Bruckner’s “Mass in E minor,” of course.

All of this occurred to me in less than a millisecond. And then I scrolled to the next dumbass news event my friends were sharing.

I have decided that of all the bad elements of Twitter, the very worst, the catastrophic bug masquerading as a feature, is the RT. Retweeting is how “dumbass news events” go viral, which is to say, it’s how outrage gets perpetuated and amplified.

I have tried to make Twitter bearable by following fewer people, then by confining myself to a private account where I interact with just a few friends, then by building a large list of muted names and terms; but none of that helped much until I started disabling everyone’s retweets. Because everyone at some time or another retweets things that they find appalling. (And even this doesn’t work as well as I’d like, because I can’t disable quoted-with-comment tweets.)

Sharing is not caring, people. If you want to be caring, you’ll stop all the sharing. And if you insist on broadcasting what annoys the hell out of you, then, whether you know it or not, you’re singing along with this song.

a further word of exhortation: RSS

Some of you will have discovered my previous post exhorting you to abandon Twitter by finding a link to it on Twitter (possibly a link posted by me). I have scripts set up to send various things I do online to Twitter because by using such scripts (a) I don’t have to visit Twitter to announce what I’ve posted and (b) I acknowledge that many of you now get your news, and more generally your sense of what is worth reading online, from Twitter.

May I suggest that you try an RSS service instead? RSS is the great neglected technology of the internet. It has never been super-popular, and such popularity as it had largely dissipated when Google shut down Google Reader, a much-loved service it cost them nearly nothing to maintain. (That was when I stopped trusting Google.) 
But there were then and are now a number of really good RSS services. I use NewsBlur, but Feedly is also very good, and you can see a long list of RSS aggregators here. Many of these come in both free and paid versions. If you don’t want to trust your reading practices to such a service, there are some excellent stand-alone aggregator apps, one of the oldest and best-known of which is NetNewsWire. Around fourteen years ago (!) NetNewsWire was my gateway drug to RSS; I still remember those early versions with great fondness. 
Every now and then I come across an interesting site that doesn’t have an RSS feed, but that’s a rare experience. An RSS feed is just a URL, slightly different than the URL of a website, but all modern aggregators can find the RSS feed from the main site URL: you can just paste http://text-patterns.thenewatlantis.com into the aggregator’s Add Site box to subscribe to this blog, for instance. Big sites — the New York Times, CNN, ESPN, the Guardian, and the like — will have many feeds, and most of them have a page where all those feeds are listed. (It might take a little googling to find it.) 
Over time you can build up a roster of sites that you keep regular track of, sites where you can find substantive news and ideas and a minimum of crap, and then you’ll have a far better and more consistent source for what you want to know than social media can give you. Also, every aggregator and app I know of allows you to export that list as an OPML file, which you can then import into another service if you find one you like better than your original choice. 
Try RSS. You’ll love it. 

a word of exhortation

This morning, for the first time in a few weeks, I checked Twitter. I thought I should see if anyone had sent me a direct message, or if there was some reply I should be aware of. No and no, thanks be to God. But I took a look around while I was there, and saw that a friend of mine had written a post that was getting a good deal of comment, almost all of it hostile. What struck me about the commentary was how plainly and evidently off-base it was: almost every critic had accused the writer of saying things that he didn’t say, didn’t even hint.

Some of the commenters were stupid people, of course, but a number of them weren’t. However, they were trying to be. That is, they couldn’t possibly have been dumb enough, or sufficiently incompetent at reading, to believe that the post’s author had said the things they were claiming he said. But making those ridiculous and insupportable claims gave them the opportunity to score political points. Or, at least, they believed, and rightly, that people who shared their politics would think points had been scored.

I left Twitter and picked up a book — P. D. James’s Death in Holy Orders, which I had read (and loved) when it first appeared but which has receded far enough in the rear-view mirror of memory that I can now enjoy it a second time. And what struck me about the book, as I immersed myself in it, was simply this: that it was written by a very intelligent person who valued intelligence, not least in her readers. Imagine that, I thought; believing that intelligence matters, that the exercise of it is good, that it is good for us all if we pursue it together.

I think I have been away from Twitter long enough now to see what it has become: a venue for people who don’t just preen themselves on their righteous anger, but who also work diligently to suppress their intelligence so that that that righteous anger may be put before the world in a condition of laboratory purity. Let not mind thwart spleen — that is the unofficial motto, now, of Twitter.

Let me exhort you, people: close Twitter and read a book. Take delight in something well-made, well-made because the author loved her task and sought to bring her best intellectual resources to bear on her work. Take delight in words crafted to increase the world’s store of intelligence, to share what the author knows and bring forth knowledge in readers. It’s a better way for us to live that to spend even a few minutes a day in the company of people who have made the cultivation of stupidity into a virtue.

the fragility of platforms

In a comment on my previous post, Adam Roberts writes:

In terms of human intermediation, facebook and twitter are radically, fundamentally ‘thin’ platforms, where things like the church or the family are deep-rooted and ‘thick’. FB/Twitter-etc are also transient—both relatively recent and already showing signs of obsolescence. The sorts of institutions we’re talking about need to endure if they’re to do any good at all. Doesn’t this very temporariness magnify the volume of the reaction? People have been living with quite profound changes to social and cultural mores for decades, much longer than there has been such a thing as social media. When they take to Twitter they are trying to express deep-seated and profoundly-contextualised beliefs in 140 characters. It’s not surprising that what emerges is often just a barbaric yawp.

I think this is a very powerful point, because it reminds us that when we replace institutions with platforms, especially now that those platforms are uniformly digital, we’re moving from structures that, if not altogether antifragile, are relatively robust to structures that are either palpably fragile or untested.

Thought experiment: What if Twitter actually does as many have suggested and bans Donald Trump? They would be perfectly within their rights to do so — he would have no one to appeal to — so what would he do? The very platform he uses to howl his anger and outrage would be denied him, so where would he go? Facebook? But the architecture of Facebook doesn’t lend itself quite as well to his preferred tactics of engagement (for reasons I wish I had time to explore but do not). Trump’s ability to disseminate his messages in unedited form, and more particularly to change the subject when things aren’t going his way, would be dramatically curtailed. He would be dependent on others to share his message, others whose voices don’t reach as far as his now does. Could his Presidency survive his being exiled from this platform that he has made his own?

rising up and rising down

Richard J. Evans summarizes Pankaj Mishra’s argument:

“After a long, uneasy equipoise since 1945,” Mishra says, “the old west-dominated world order is giving way to an apparent global disorder.” We have entered an “age of anger”, in which established forms of authority and legitimacy, already seriously weakened by the forces of globalisation, have been challenged by history’s losers. We are experiencing “endemic and uncontrollable” violence, fuelled by a range of hatreds – of “immigrants, minorities and various designated ‘others’” – that have now become part of the political mainstream. In response, there is “a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism”. Societies organised for the interplay of individual self-interest mediated by the state have plunged into tribalism and nihilistic violence. To Fukuyama’s Panglossian vision of the future, Mishra opposes a nightmare.

And yet Steven Pinker continues to argue that we are simply not “experiencing ‘endemic and uncontrollable’ violence,” that, globally, violence continues to decrease. The notion that violence is on the rise may well be one of those illusions I discussed the other day.

I don’t know, of course, but I’m inclined to suspect that physical violence is on the decline while verbal violence, especially on social media, is on the rise. It is indeed an age of anger, but perhaps people are largely content to express that anger online. Almost infinitely more people cheer the punching of Richard Spencer than would actually punch Richard Spencer. One or two acts of mild violence — videoed on smartphones and watched on loop — might be enough to slake most people’s bloodlust.

And so the anger dissipates, and “enterprises of great pitch and moment / With this regard their currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action.” Twitter is the opiate of the masses.

P.S. My post title.

a dissertation on monocausal parataxis in social media

We don’t usually do politics here at Text Patterns, but I sort of sent us down that road in my last post. So: I think Twitter’s atomizing, paratactic tendency, its constant pressure to squeeze thoughts into tiny boxes, exacerbates and intensifies a common intellectual vice: monocausalism.

So far there have been, according to my highly scientific estimate, fifty bazillion tweets beginning “Trump won because” or “Hillary lost because” — and providing the answer within 140 characters. But the more you read about the election the more you will realize that many, many factors produced this result. Let’s just look at one of several ways we could think about what just happened: in 2012 almost 66 million people voted for Barack Obama, while in 2016 Hillary Clinton received only around 61 million votes. Why the decline? Wikileaks? James Comey’s on-and-off investigations based on Wikileaks? Long-standing hatred of the Clintons? Misogyny? Actual (as opposed to perceived) corruption on the part of Hillary personally and the Clinton Foundation institutionally? A sense on the part of minority voters that Hillary does not share their concerns? A sense on the part of working-class voters that Hillary is contemptuous of them? Extremely poor strategy by the Clinton campaign, focusing their money and energy in the wrong places? Third-party candidates that siphoned away votes? Hillary’s unattractive personality, especially in comparison to Barack Obama? An Electoral College system weighted in favor of the places where Hillary was weakest? Intimidation of voters by Trump supporters?

The answer is: All of the above, and more. Every factor listed played a role in the outcome of this election. And we haven’t even brought Donald Trump into our deliberations. The outcome of this election is a classic case of causal overdetermination. But Twitter doesn’t do overdetermination well. Twitter lends itself to monocausal parataxis: you pick your preferred explanation, articulate it in the punchiest way you can, and then retweet everyone who sees it your way. And … and … and….

People used to complain about politicians and their sound bites. Twitter is the sound bite in the age of infinite digital amplification. Combine that radical oversimplification of every event and every idea with the constant inflammation of emotion and you have a real mess. The other social media — especially Facebook — have their own problems, but Twitter, while it isn’t the worst thing that has happened to American politics, may be the worst thing that has happened to American political culture.

against tweetstorms

A few weeks ago I took to Twitter to unleash a tweetstorm against tweetstorms. (I was in an ironic mood. Also, if you’re wondering what a tweetstorm is, you can see a few by Mark Andreessen, thought by some to be the originator if not the master of the form, here.) Now I want to make that argument more properly. Hang on tight, we’re getting into the Wayback Machine for one of my geekiest posts ever!

One of the most distinctive characteristics of biblical Hebrew is parataxis, which connects clauses almost wholly by coordinating conjunctions — “and” and its cognates. Without getting too technical here, I want to acknowledge that there is disagreement among Hebrew scholars today about whether the Hebrew word waw should always be translated as “and”: some believe that it has different shades of meaning, in different contexts, that translators should strive to bring those shades out. But in the King James translation, waw is always rendered as “and,” which gives to biblical storytelling a very distinctive rhythm, and also contributes to what Erich Auerbach famously called its “reticence.”

A classic example is the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac:

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

As Kierkegaard famously showed in Fear and Trembling, the story fairly cries out for elucidation: What was Abraham thinking? What did he feel? But all we get is this unembellished, uninflected, set of steps: And … And … And…..

Parataxis is perfectly suited to the chief genres of the Hebrew Bible — narrative, law, poetry, prophecy — or, maybe better, the genres of the Hebrew Bible are what they are because of the paratactic tendencies of the Hebrew language? Hard to say. In any case, in the New Testament, as long as the genres are carried over from the Hebrew Bible, the parataxis is there also, even though now in Greek rather than Hebrew:

When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.

It’s when we get to the letters of Paul that we begin to suspect that God knew what he was doing in bringing the Christian Gospel to the world at a moment and in a place where the lingua franca was Greek. For Greek lends itself to complexities of conjunction and disjunction, all manner of relations between clause and clause, idea and idea. (Sometimes Paul gets himself tangled in those complexities: try reading Ephesians 1, for instance, in any translation, and see if you can diagram those sentences.) If instead of narrating or legislating or poetizing or prophesying you need to be engaged in dialectical exposition and argumentation, Greek is the language you want. Greek gives you parataxis if you need it, but syntaxis also. And the more complex your argument is, the more you need that syntaxis.

Hey, wasn’t this supposed to be a post about Twitter and tweetstorms? Yes. My point is: Twitter enforces parataxis. I don’t mean that in the sense that you absolutely can’t make an argument on Twitter, only that everything about the platform militates against it, and very few people have the commitment or the resourcefulness to push back. So a typical tweetstorm, even when it’s trying to make a case for something, even when it needs to be an argument and its author wants it to be an argument, isn’t an argument: it’s a series of disconnected assertions, effectively no more than And … And … And…. I think this is enforced not primarily by the 140-character limit itself, but more by the tweeter’s awareness that each tweet will be read individually, and retweeted individually, losing any context. So the tweeter tries to make each tweet as self-contained as possible, forgoing syntactic relations and complications.

Moreover, even a lengthy tweetstorm, by tweetstorm standards, isn’t long enough to develop an argument properly. (You’d need to use seven or eight tweets just for my previous paragraph, depending on your strategy for connecting the tweets. This whole post? Maybe 50 tweets. Who does 50-tweet storms?)

So what does this atomization of thought remind me of? Biblical proof-texting, that’s what. The founders of Twitter are to our discursive culture what Robert Estienne — the guy who divided the Bible up into verses — is to biblical interpretation. Is it possible, when faced with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians divided into verses, to keep clearly in mind the larger dialectical structure of his exposition? Sure. But it’s very hard, as generations of Christians who think that they can settle an argument by quoting a verse, a verse that might not even be a complete sentence, have demonstrated to us all. Becoming habituated to tweet-sized chunks of thought is damaging to one’s grasp of theology and social issues alike.

All this is why I think people who have interesting and even slightly complicated things to say should get off Twitter and get onto a blog, or Medium, or something — any venue that allows extended prose sequences and therefore full-blown syntaxis. Of course, in other contexts, Twitter — with its enforcement of linguistic and argumentative simplicity, its encouragement of unsequenced and disconnected thoughts — might be just the thing you need. If you want to be President of the United States, for example.

Stay tuned for a follow-up to this post.

children of Twitter

It’s a commonplace that Europeans, and people from several other parts of the world, see Americans as — if they’re inclined to be neutral — “childlike” or — if they’re inclined to be censorious — “children.” In his memoir Paris to the Moon Adam Gopnik quotes approvingly a French friend who comments that you can always spot the American tourists in France because they’re all dressed like six-year-olds. And indeed Americans have often embraced this description, though giving it a positive spin: for instance, in his seminal book No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, Jackson Lears explains how many intellectuals and artists embraced “antimodernism” in the form of medievalism precisely because they saw the Middle Ages as “childlike” in all the best senses of the term.

And then there’s A. O. Scott, writing in 2014 on “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture”:

A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

Yesterday’s post on social media, politics, and emotion is a variation on this theme. I don’t think there’s any question that social media prompt us to respond to the world in childlike/childish ways, leading always with our strongest emotions and then coming up with comically inadequate post facto justifications of them, or assuming that the only just world is one which conforms itself to my felt needs and within which the only real violations are of my feelings.

Nous sommes tous Américains. In the current moment, most adults are emotionally six years old, most college students four, and the Republican Presidential nominee two. (Seriously: look at any professional description of the “terrible twos” and try to tell me that it doesn’t precisely describe Donald Trump, whose supporters act as indulgent parents and elder siblings.)

I can’t say that this is a good thing, but it’s the situation we’re in and it’s not going to change any time soon. So when we’re thinking about social media and political discourse, what if we stopped cursing the emotional darkness and instead lit a candle? And the first step in doing that is by accepting that most of the people we interact with on social media really are children.

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote,

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

This, I think, should be the task of those who want to use social media wisely and well: not to try to reason with people — the code architecture of all social media, and especially Twitter, with its encouragement of instantaneous response and crude measures of approval or disapproval, militates against rational reflection — but to promote ordinate affection, and especially the love of the good wherever it may be found, even in people you have been taught to think of as your political opponents.

I say that because I believe hatred is the least selective of emotions, the most scattershot, the one that can most easily find its way into every human encounter if it is not restrained by strongly positive responses to the true, the good, and the beautiful. (The truth of this statement is confirmed on Twitter every hour.)

If we are going to begin to heal the wounds of our political culture that have been either created or exacerbated by social media, then we will need to train ourselves — and only then, we hope, others — in the practices of loving what is truly desirable. Rather than trying to wrench Twitter into a vehicle for rational debate, which it can never be, we need to turn its promotion of emotional intensity to good account. (We need jujitsu, not Mortal Kombat.) And then, perhaps, when at least some people have become habituated to more ordinate affections, and Reason at length comes to them, then, bred as they have been, they will hold out their hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity they bear to her.