Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Age of Ego-Casting

In the Age of Egocasting, Christine Rosen offers a very detailed and insightful history of popular media and the trend towards greater personalization. I share the author's concern over some of the effects that this trend is having on our individual psyches, particulary in regard to the Tivo phenomenon, as expressed in this section:

TiVo Nation
The enthusiasm for TiVo is at times absurd. “TiVo is the greatest thing since wheat,” former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young enthused. “TiVo is the most amazing thing ever invented!” says Rosie O’Donnell. Documentary filmmaker Pete Jones recently declared that, “TiVo has changed my life more than children. It’s the only thing in my life that I can count on week after week.” During a question and answer session at an electronics show in 2003, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell described TiVo as “God’s machine.”

Far from the madding celebrity crowd, TiVo zeal also runs high. One man told Knight-Ridder news service, “Omigod, you can have my TiVo when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers!” “I’ve converted. It’s my new religion,” another said. “I was a Jew, but not anymore. I’m now a TiVo.” A TiVo spokesperson described how devoted users send in photographs of TiVo snowmen, jack-o-lanterns carved to resemble the TiVo logo, and, in perhaps the most chilling image, a snapshot of an infant dressed up as the unique, peanut-shaped TiVo remote control. “There’s such a unique emotional connection between people and this product,” a TiVo spokesperson told the Contra Costa Times, in a comedy of understatement.

TiVo enthusiasts on one community listserv unabashedly refer to themselves as the “TiVo Army,” adopting military-style ranking based on the number of hours of TV they have stored on their devices (0-19 is a private, 20-199 a lieutenant, and so on, until you reach 5000 hours and are deemed a colonel). After their names, many contributors to the listserv include detailed listings of the models and hours programmed on each of their TiVo units. Many TiVo users on the forum own more than one TiVo, which appears to be common among users. A writer for the Chicago Tribune noted that he and his wife each have their own TiVo, so that he can watch ESPN’s SportsCenter upstairs and “my wife can be downstairs zipping through hours of home-designing shows,” prompting one to wonder what, exactly, they ever do together in their leisure time.

Speaking to Newsweek in 2003, TiVo’s CEO, Michael Ramsay, noted the device’s “amazing evangelical following.” “People say it changes their lives and helps them manage their children’s time. What we have tapped into here is really a lifestyle phenomenon where people believe that TiVo is ... giving them more control and more choice. And that’s a good thing in this busy day and age.” One man, interviewed by the New York Times, even credited TiVo with an improvement in his son’s academic performance. “Before we got the TiVo, my son was getting C’s and D’s in school because he was staying up late to watch his shows and going to school half-awake.” With TiVo, however, he’s now getting more sleep and his grades are improving. TiVo undoubtedly changes children’s experience of television. One blogger, whose daughter was three months old when the family purchased their first TiVo, “gets quite confused when we are watching a non-TiVo TV, and she asks to watch ‘a kids’ show,’ and we have to explain that this TV won’t do what ours at home does.” She thinks the television is broken. Another mother whose child has grown up watching DVDs said of her four-year old, “She just takes for granted that you can always cue up the song or scene that you want, or watch things in whatever order you want.”

In a survey of their subscribers, TiVo found that 98 percent of them “couldn’t live without” their TiVo and “another 40 percent said they would sooner disconnect their cell phone than unplug their TiVo.” It is butler, boyfriend, playmate, and therapist manqué.The company’s goal is to make TiVo the “focal point of the digital living room,” although it hastens to add that this “doesn’t make the television the centerpiece of our homes.” In fact, television has become the centerpiece of many American homes. One company is now manufacturing a hi-tech television mirror so that we can watch TV during our daily bathroom routines. Another recent
advertisement pictured a family gathered around the fireplace, although not in a traditional scene of family conviviality. Rather than looking at each other, their gazes are all fixed on a point above the fireplace: they are staring at the large, flat-screen television that now dwarfs their hearth.

If our advertisements are any guide, we are using devices such as TiVo less as efficient, multi-tasking, modern assistants than as technological enablers that help us indulge in excesses of passive spectacle. TiVo does not free us to watch less TV by eliminating waste; it seduces us with more TV by making television a more perfectly self-centered experience.

Clearly, if most Americans were polled as to what activities they should spend more time doing, it is unlikely that a majority would say "TV watching". We would mostly all agree that we should watch less. Everyone is intimately familiar with the addictive quality of TV, even without the remote control and the DVR. Yet what should we be doing with this time? Are these media addictions truly bad, or are we merely reacting to that inbred Puritan conscience in the American psyche that tells us to make a good accounting of every hour in our waking lives?

There are several arguments that can be made against these technologies. One is that they rob the viewer of communal experiences. We could be engaged in joint activities with family members, friends or community members. The original broadcast TV model, while keeping people at home more, at least fostered an atmosphere for joint family viewing, and provided shared mass audience experiences for the nation as a whole. The new media technologies, by allowing the individual to break free of the restrictions of schedule and content, destroy this communalizing function of broadcasting, it is argued. The more that we retreat into our self-selected domains of interest, the less we are conditioned to identify with the larger community.

While I have some sympathy for this argument, I feel that it is a tad overwrought. I believe that for most people media obsessions tend to be self-correcting. The alarmist scenario would paint a picture of a nation of isolated Narcissi, entranced by their psychic image in their electronic reflecting pool of choice. This scenario does not account for the lack of novelty or ultimate satisfaction that such a monotonous diet provides. Media diets cannot be sustained without novelty, and the individual must look beyond himself to find the elements of surprise and wonder that alone can satisfy his need.

The author delves into a second, perhaps more esoteric consequence of self-directed media techlology:

The Shallow Critic

Questions about the erosion of cultural standards inevitably prompt charges that the critics are unduly pessimistic or merely hectoring. After all, most Americans see no looming apocalypse in the fact that some of our favorite pastimes are watching television and downloading music from the Internet. Aren’t our remote controls, our TiVos, and our iPods simply useful devices for providing us with much-deserved entertainment? “Americans love junk,” George Santayana once noted. “It’s not the junk that bothers me, it’s the love.” But few Americans have ever shared this sentiment. We like our cheesy reality TV shows and our silly sitcoms. We love the manufactured drama of The Wire and The Sopranos. What could be wrong with technologies that make our distractions more convenient? But as the critic Walter Benjamin once noted, “the distracted person, too, can form habits,” and in our new age of personalized technologies, two bad habits are emerging that suggest we should be a bit more cautious in our embrace of personalized technologies. We are turning into a nation of instant but uninformed critics and we are developing a keen impatience for what art demands of us.

In his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin argued that technological change (particularly mechanical reproduction) fosters a new perspective he called the “progressive reaction.” This reaction is “characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert.” Benjamin compared the live stage actor to the film actor to demonstrate this point: “The film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance, since he does not present his performance to the audience in person. This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing.”

Today, an increasing number of us consume culture through mediating technologies—the camera, the recording device, the computer—and these technologies are increasingly capable of filtering culture so that it suits our personal preferences. As a result, we are more willing to test and to criticize. As we come to expect and rely on technologies that know our individual preferences, we are eager as well to don the mantle of critics. And so we vent our frustrations on and are in turn ranked by others who opine on the helpfulness and trustworthiness of our views. We are given new critical powers to determine the fate of television plot lines; recently, the show Law & Order: Criminal Intent allowed viewers to vote on whether a character should live or die (the masses were lenient—53 percent said the character should survive). Programs such as American Idol encourage a form of mass criticism by allowing millions of viewers to phone in their choice for a winner.
But although our media for viewing culture, particularly TV, encourage us to be critics, they do not require much critical judgment or even focused attention. As Benjamin suggested, “the public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.” Benjamin correctly feared that this avid but absent-minded criticism would lead to a lowering of culture and a public increasingly vulgar and simple-minded in its ability to understand art. “The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion.”

This brings us to the second tendency fostered by our personalized technologies: an impatience for what art demands. The more convenient our entertainments, the weaker our resolve to meet the challenges posed by difficult or inconvenient expressions of culture. Music and images are now delivered directly to us, and we consume them in the comfort of our own homes. You can see reproductions of major works of art by perusing the Internet; even literature has been modified for easy consumption. As critic Dubravka Ugresic has noted, “we can find it on CD, on the Internet, in interactive computer games, in hypertext.” But to what effect? As Benjamin argued, “one of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.” This is the difference between the canvas and the screen. “The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations,” Benjamin wrote. “Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped the scene than it has already changed.” The qualities of the canvas—uniqueness, permanence—are the opposite of the screen, which fosters "transitoriness and reproducibility.” And the canvas cannot be consumed in one’s home, at will. It requires that we venture forth into the world that lies beyond convenience.

Benjamin feared that our impatience would eventually destroy the “aura” of art and eliminate the humility we ought to bring to our contemplation of it. But we haven’t destroyed art’s aura so much as we have transferred it to something else. Aura now resides in the technological devices with which we reproduce art and image. We talk about our technologies in a way (and grant to them the power over our imagination) that used to be reserved for art and religion. TiVo is God’s machine, the iPod plays our own personal symphonies, and each device brings with it its own series of individualized rituals. What we don’t seem to realize is that ritual thoroughly personalized is no longer religion or art. It is fetish. And unlike religion and art, which encourage us to transcend our own experience, fetish urges us to return obsessively to the sounds and images of an arrested stage of development.

If I had limited sympathy for the first argument, I have even less for this one. Rosen's critique drips with the condescension of elitist snobbery. It is a snobbery borne of the inflated sense of importance of the overly intellectualized artist, that creature of modernity who sees his role as the originator and mediator of culture and meaning in society.

Rosen's concern is that the individual consumer of art has gotten uppity. He doesn't know his place. He doesn't know that he is not informed enough to pass judgement on the work of the artist. The Mountain no longer comes to Mohammad to receive the blessings of the artist. With the new technologies, the Mountain stays home and fancies himself a prophet, putting his needs for enlightenment up for bid to a host of sychophantic, mercenary priests.

The key to understanding this critique is precisely in this conflation of art to religion. For the "High Church" artist, that artist who creates work that is demanding, difficult to digest and requires the presence of an informed viewer at the location of performance, art is a sacrament. The artist sees himself as a shaper of souls. He imparts meaning, a meaning inaccessible to the individual left to his own devices. He offers a salvation, of sorts. An aesthetic salvation, a cultural uplift. However, as practiced by the artistic priesthood of the 20th & 21st centuries, it is strictly a religion of aesthetics and tastes. It is not a religion of morality.

To what end does this religion of art acheive? Or to put it more bluntly, why do we need art? Does art transmit meaning unattainable by other means, or is it merely a medium for pleasure? Can one live the "good life" without art? Is the unartistic life worth living? In my own opinion, yes. The one quality that every human life must possess to make living it worthwhile is meaning. Meaning must be discovered by each individual, it cannot be imparted by an external source. We find meaning in our relationships, in family and community, and in religion. Art can impart meaning, but only by echoing fundamental human truths. Moral truths. Art cannot create truths, it can only represent them.

The 20th century artistic priesthood sought to create new truths devoid of meaning or morality. By abandoning representational form, by dehumanizing art, the priesthood inserted a personal agenda of their own. Art became a projection of the artist's ego. A monochrome canvas was imbued with great esoteric meaning. An ordinary object was transformed into a great work of art by the will of the artist. Modern day Midas's, artists could create artistic gold from their mere touch.

A perfect example of this is a work by the late German "conceptual" artist Joseph Beuys. Entitled "American Hare Sugar" it consists of sugar packets that he collected from a diner in Minneapolis. Another of his works, entitled "Noiseless Blackboard Erasers", consists of 3 blackboard erasers of the same manufacture as one he used to erase the blackboard that he used during a lecture in Minneapolis.

Rosen would chastise us for being impatient for what art like this demands of us. The meaning is there for the individual with the patience and desire to venture forth into the world that "lies beyond convenience". If you are not too embarrased to ask what that meaning is, there is certainly someone skilled in the art of freeform exegesis to draw the abstruse associations and convoluted connections to some political or social cause celebre. But it is an empty exercise. It is meaningless in any fundamental way. It provides no enrichment, entertainment or betterment.

Good art is still being produced, but in the most part it is produced via the popular, comercialized media channels of consumption. The common man and woman still has a firmer grasp on the true and the meaningful than the priestly elites of the artistic establishment, and it is their tastes, while responsible for producing much of the "junk"that is the daily throwaway fare that entertains them and keeps them sane, that will also recognize and reward the rare masterpieces that seed the cultural heritage of mankind.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Berlinski: More reasons to ignore

As a side note to our multi-part takedown of David Berlinski's anti Darwinism rants, it is instructive to get another perspective on his philosophical methods as they inform his views on science in general. While perusing the new-book rack at the local library yesterday, I came across Berlinski's latest book, The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky: Astrology and the Art of Prediction. Noting Berlinski's uncompromizing skepticism as it pertains to Darwinism, one would imagine that he would offer up an even more relentless savaging of Astronomy. Strangely, he appears uncharacteristically sympathetic to it, as related by this Editorial Review by the Publisher's Weekly, from the Amazon listing:

Spanning the development of astrology from Sumerian origins to Nazi court astrologers, Berlinski's ruminative but shallow history seeks to rescue it from what he sees as the misconceived derision of modern science. The author of A Tour of the Calculus remains coyly agnostic about astrology's validity. He calls it a "finely geared tool for the resolution of practical problems" and cites many successful predictions and a statistical study supposedly verifying the "Mars effect" on athletic talent, but when faced with the incoherent, metaphorical techniques by which astrologers interpret their charts, he can only shrug that since smart people used to listen to astrologers, there must be something to it. If not rational, Berlinski argues that astrology is at least "rationalistic," in that "the peculiar nature of astrological thought has returned in all the sciences, in disguised form." Unfortunately, this provocative point is made through facile comparisons-medieval notions of heavenly "influences" anticipate Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism and sociobiology, for example, while 15th-century medical astrological charts are "the forerunner of such diagnostic devices as CAT scans"-that illuminate neither ancient nor modern thought. Physicists will object to Berlinski's contention that they account for "action at a distance" no better than astrologers do, while philosophers will blanch at his superficial take on the conundrums of causality and determinism. No more edifying are the self-consciously literary vignettes (the dying Copernicus "took his breath in long, slow, wet, ragged gasps, a bubble of pale phlegm forming on his lips") with which Berlinski "humanizes" this intellectual history. Readers looking for real intellectual meat behind the author's ostentatious erudition and metaphysical
pseudo-profundities will go hungry.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

How to square such credibility with his toughminded skepticism of Darwinism? I would propose the thought that Berlinski is not so much a skeptic as an anti-skeptic. He is skeptical of the modern skepticisms, spearheaded by the scientific revolutions, against the more ancient systems of spiritualized "knowledge", represented by religion and the arcane arts. Perhaps he is a Romantic, railing against the disenchantment of the world wrought by Rationalism and Science. It is hard to say where his motivations lie, but it is quite certain that there is an emotional agenda underlying his treatments of Darwinism and Astrology in particular, and science in general.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Twilight of the No-Gods

The Washington Times declares that "Science, 'frauds' trigger a decline in atheism":

GURAT, France -- Godlessness is in trouble, according to a growing consensus among philosophers, intellectuals and scholars.

"Atheism as a theoretical position is in decline worldwide," Munich theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg said in an interview.

His Oxford colleague Alister McGrath agrees. Atheism's "future seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals rather than in the great public domain it once regarded as its habitat," Mr. McGrath wrote in the U.S. magazine, Christianity Today.

Two developments are plaguing atheism these days. One is that it appears to be losing its scientific underpinnings. The other is the historical experience of hundreds of millions of people worldwide that atheists are in no position to claim the moral high ground.

British philosopher Anthony Flew, once as hard-nosed a humanist as any, has turned his back on atheism, saying it is impossible for evolution to account for the fact that one single cell can carry more data than all the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Mr. Flew still does not accept the God of the Bible. But he has embraced the concept of intelligent design -- a stunning desertion of a former intellectual ambassador of secular humanism to the belief in some form of intelligence behind the design of the universe.

That atheism is losing it's "great public domain", whatever that means, can be argued, but the simplistic reasons given by this article are certainly laughable. Flew's "defection", while certainly a high-profile event, is rather meaningless to the field of Darwinian evolution. Flew is basically affirming the Argument from Complexity, which is just putting a respectable philosophical face on an act of personal incomprehension. Rather than stating "I give up, this is too complex for me to understand", the Argument from Complexity allows the philosopher to state "since I cannot follow the chain of causality that lead to the formation of DNA, therefore it is too complex to have occured naturally". By the same reasoning we would have to conclude that weather systems require intelligent direction, since the trail of causal interactions is too complex to calculate.

The second causal factor according to the article, which is atheism's dismal record on morality, is equally problematic:

Atheism's other Achilles' heels are the acts on inhumanity and lunacy committed in its name.

"With time, [atheism] turned out to have just as many frauds, psychopaths and careerists as religion does. ... With Stalin and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheism seems to have ended up mimicking the vices of the Spanish Inquisition and the worst televangelists, respectively," Mr. McGrath wrote in Christianity Today.

This is a strange set of precedents to argue against the inhumanity of atheism: Stalin and O'Hair. One a mass murderer, the other an activist, who while being offensive to many religious people, leaves a legacy that is reviled by the religious for the singular act of challenging a law in court that discriminated against non-believers, a law that the vast majority of religious Americans would disavow today.

But, to its credit, McGrath at least points out that atheists have been guilty of acting as badly as theists when they have acheived positions of unchecked power. Which is as it should be. Atheism should never have been promoted as a philosophy that could liberate mankind from evil. Such a position, paradoxically, promotes one of the most toxic aspects of theist religions, messianic idealism.

Be careful what you wish for

However, the decline of atheism is not an occasion for celebration by the theologians:

The Rev. Paul M. Zulehner, dean of Vienna University's divinity school and one of the world's most distinguished sociologists of religion, said atheists in Europe have become "an infinitesimally small group."

"There are not enough of them to be used for sociological research," he said. Mr. Zulehner cautioned, however, that the decline of atheism in Europe does not mean that re-Christianization is taking place.

"What we are observing instead is a re-paganization," he said.

The Rev. Gerald McDermott, an Episcopal priest and professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., said a similar phenomenon is taking place in the United States.

"The rise of all sorts of paganism is creating a false spirituality that proves to be a more dangerous rival to the Christian faith than atheism," he said.

After all, a Satanist is also "spiritual."

It is hard to see how Christian theologians could expect, once the Reformation made each man a priest and an interpreter of God's word, that popular religion would not devolve into a solipsistic vanity mirror. The privatization of religion was the logical oucome of the Reformation, and Christianity will have to continually compete with atheism, paganism, and every other form of what-I-feelism. What the authors don't realise is that it is not just atheism's future that seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals, but all religions. They seem to think that with atheism vacating its "great public domain", that Christianity can reclaim its lost public domain. Optimism reigns supreme:

Mr. Pannenberg, a Lutheran, praised the Roman Catholic Church for handling this peril more wisely than many of his fellow Protestants.

"The Catholics stick to the central message of Christianity without making any concessions in the ethical realm," he said, referring to issues such as same-sex "marriages" and abortion.

In a similar vein, Mr. Zulehner, a Catholic, sees Christianity's greatest opportunity when its message addresses two seemingly irreconcilable quests of contemporary humanity -- the quest for freedom and truth. "Christianity alone affirms that truth and God's dependability are inseparable properties to which freedom is linked."

It is odd that Mr Zulehner would see freedom and truth as irreconcilable. But he is reciting the traditional Catholic reaction to liberty, and the goal of restricting the dissemination of knowledge to the teachings of the Church, lest free individuals are led astray by false prophets or their own sinfulness. The days of an all-controlling shepherd church and a sheeplike flock are past.

As for the "peril of spirituality," Mr. Zulehner sounded quite sanguine. He concluded from his research that in the long run, the survival of worldviews should be expected to follow this lineup: "The great world religions are best placed," he said. As a distant second he sees the diffuse forms of spirituality. Atheism, he said, will come in at the tail end.

He is, of course, ignoring one major trend, that of "spiritualized Christianity". Christians are increasingly spiritualizing their faith, customizing it to fit their own personal what-I-feelism. In the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ronald J. Sider sounds the alarm:

Scandalous behavior is rapidly destroying American Christianity. By their daily activity, most "Christians" regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.

The findings in numerous national polls conducted by highly respected pollsters like The Gallup Organization and The Barna Group are simply shocking. "Gallup and Barna," laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, "hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general." Divorce is more common among "born-again" Christians than in the general American population. Only 6 percent of evangelicals tithe. White evangelicals are the most likely people to object to neighbors of another race. Josh McDowell has pointed out that the sexual promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less outrageous than that of their nonevangelical peers.

Alan Wolfe, famous contemporary scholar and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, has just published a penetrating study of American religious life. Evangelicals figure prominently in his book. His evaluation? Today's evangelicalism, Wolfe says, exhibits "so strong a desire to copy the culture of hotel chains and popular music that it loses what religious distinctiveness it once had." Wolfe argues, "The truth is there is increasingly little difference between an essentially secular activity like the popular entertainment industry and the bring-'em-in-at-any-cost efforts of evangelical megachurches."

Christianity will, of course, survive as a major world religion well into the future. It is doubtful that atheism, from a numerical standpoint, will ever threaten to overwhelm the basically religious nature and habits of humankind. However, I don't believe that religious or denominational affiliations will be the dominant, decisive philosophical fault lines that affect the future direction of history as they have in the past. The ideological and political divides of left and right, capitalist and socialist, nationalist and trans-nationalist will play a more decisive role, and you will see Christians, Muslims, Athiests and Pagans on either side of those divides.