Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms

I was reading a book, Strange Contagion by Lee Daniel Kravetz, where he dismisses complaints about wind turbines (e.g. low frequency sounds). It’s actually a great read, even as I disagree with elements of it, such as his entirely overlooking of inequality as a cause of strange contagions (public hysteria, suicide clusters, etc) — an issue explored in depth by Keith Payne in The Broken Ladder and briefly touched upon by Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland.

By the way, one might note that where wind farms are located, as with where toxic dumps are located, has everything to do with economic, social, and political disparities — specifically as exacerbated by poverty, economic segregation, residential isolation, failing local economies, dying small towns, inadequate healthcare, underfunded or non-existent public services, limited coverage in the corporate media, underrepresentation in positions of power and authority, etc (many of the things that get dismissed in defense of the establishment and status quo). And one might note that the dismissiveness toward inequality problems has strong resemblances to the dismissiveness toward wind turbine syndrome or wind farm syndrome.

About wind turbines, Kravetz details the claims against them in writing that, “People closest to the four-hundred-foot-tall turrets receive more than just electricity. The turbines interrupt their sleep patterns. They also generate faint ringing in their ears. Emissions cause pounding migraine headaches. The motion of the vanes also creates a shadow flicker that triggers disorientation, vertigo, and nausea” (Kindle Locations 959-961). But he goes onto assert that the explanation of cause is entirely without scientific substantiation, even as the symptoms are real:

“Grievances against wind farms are not exclusive to DeKalb County, with a perplexing illness dogging many a wind turbine project. Similar complaints have surfaced in Canada, the UK, Italy, and various US cities like Falmouth, Massachusetts. In 2009 the Connecticut pediatrician Nina Pierpont offered an explanation. Wind turbines, she argued, produce low-frequency noises that induce disruptions in the inner ear and lead to an illness she calls wind turbine syndrome. Her evidence, now largely discredited for sample size errors, a lack of a control group, and no peer review, seemed to point to infrasound coming off of the wind farms. Since then more than a dozen scientific reviews have firmly established that wind turbines pose no unique health risks and are fundamentally safe. It doesn’t seem to matter to the residents of DeKalb County, whose symptoms are quite real.” (Kindle Locations 961-968)

He concludes that it is “wind farm hysteria”. It is one example he uses in exploring the larger issue of what he calls strange contagions, partly related to Richard Dawkin’s theory of memes, although he considers it more broadly to include the spread of not just thoughts and ideas but emotions and behaviors. Indeed, he makes a strong overall case in his book and I’m largely persuaded or rather it fits the evidence I’ve previously seen elsewhere. But sometimes his focus is too narrow and conventional. There are valid reasons to consider wind turbines as potentially problematic for human health, despite our not having precisely ascertained and absolutely proven the path of causation.

Stranger Dimensions put out an article by Rob Schwarz, Infrasound: The Fear Frequency, that is directly relevant to the issue. He writes that, “Infrasound is sound below 20 Hz, lower than humans can perceive. But just because we don’t consciously hear it, that doesn’t mean we don’t respond to it; in certain individuals, low-frequency sound can induce feelings of fear or dread or even depression. […] In humans, infrasound can cause a number of strange, seemingly inexplicable effects: headaches, nausea, night terrors and sleep disorders.”

Keep in mind that wind turbines do emit infrasound. The debate has been on whether infrasound can cause ‘disease’ or mere irritation and annoyance. This is based on a simplistic and uninformed understanding of stress. A wide array of research has already proven beyond any doubt that continuous stress is a major contributing factor to numerous physiological and psychological health conditions, and of course this relates to high levels of stress in high inequality societies. In fact, background stress when it is ongoing, as research shows, can be more traumatizing over the long-term than traumatizing events that are brief. Trauma is simply unresolved stress and, when there are multiple stressors in one’s environment, there is no way to either confront it or escape it. It is only some of the population that suffers from severe stress, because of either a single or multiple stressors, but stress in general has vastly increased — as Kravetz states in a straightforward manner: “Americans, meanwhile, continue to experience more stress than ever, with one study I read citing an increase of more than 1,000 percent in the past three decades” (Kindle Locations 2194-2195).

The question isn’t whether stress is problematic but how stressful is continuous low frequency sound, specifically when combined with other stressors as is the case for many disadvantaged populations near wind farms — plus, besides infrasound, wind turbines are obtrusive with blinking lights along with causing shadow flicker and rhythmic pressure pulses on buildings. No research so far has studied the direct influence of long-term, even if low level, exposure to multiple and often simultaneous stressors and so there is no way for anyone to honestly conclude that wind turbines aren’t significantly contributing to health concerns, at least for those already sensitized or otherwise in a state of distress (which would describe many rural residents near wind farms, considering communities dying and young generations leaving, contributing to a loss of social support that otherwise would lessen the impact of stress). Even the doubters admit that it has been proven that wind turbines cause annoyance and stress, the debate being over how much and what impact. Still, that isn’t to argue against wind power and for old energy industries like coal, but maybe wind energy technology could be improved which would ease our transition to alternative energy.

It does make one wonder what we don’t yet understand about how not easily observed factors can have significant influence over us. Human senses are severely limited and so we are largely unaware of the world around us, even when it is causing us harm. The human senses can’t detect tiny parasites, toxins, climate change, etc. And the human tendency is to deny the unknown, even when it is obvious something is going on. It is particularly easy for those not impacted to dismiss those impacted, such as middle-to-upper class citizens, corporate media, government agencies, and politicians ignoring the severe lead toxicity rates for mostly poor minorities in old industrial areas. Considering that, maybe scientists who do research and politicians who pass laws should be required to live for several years surrounded by lead toxicity and wind turbines. Then maybe the symptoms would seem more real and we might finally find a way to help those harmed, if only to reduce some of risk factors, including stress.

The article by Schwarz went beyond this. And in doing so, went in an interesting direction. He explains that, “If infrasound hits at just the right strength and frequency, it can resonate with human eyes, causing them to vibrate. This can lead to distorted vision and the possibility of “ghost” sightings. Or, at least, what some would call ghost sightings. Infrasound may also cause a person to “feel” that there’s an entity in the room with him or her, accompanied by that aforementioned sense of dread.” He describes an incident in a laboratory that came to have a reputation for feeling haunted, the oppressive atmosphere having disappeared when a particular fan was turned off. It turns out it was vibrating at just the right frequency to produce a particular low frequency sound. Now, that is fascinating.

This reminds me of Fortean observations. It’s been noted by a number of paranormal and UFO researchers, such as John Keel, that various odd experiences tend to happen in the same places. UFOs are often repeatedly sighted by different people in the same locations and often at those same locations there will be bigfoot sightings and accounts of other unusual happenings. Jacques Vallee also noted that the certain Fortean incidents tend to follow the same pattern, such as numerous descriptions of UFO abductions matching the folktales about fairy abductions and the anthropological literature on shamanistic initiations.

Or consider what sometimes are called fairy lights. No one knows what causes them, but even scientists have observed them. There are many sites that are specifically known for their fairy lights. My oldest brother went to one of those places and indeed he saw the same thing that thousands of others had seen. The weird thing about these balls of light is it is hard to discern exactly where they are in terms of distance from you, going from seeming close to seeming far. It’s possible that there is nothing actually there and instead it is some frequency affecting the brain.

Maybe there is a diversity of human experiences that have common mechanisms or involve overlapping factors. In that case, we simply haven’t yet figured them out yet. But improved research methods might allow us to look more closely at typically ignored and previously unknown causes. Not only might this lead to betterment for the lives of many but also greater understanding of the human condition.

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Technological Fears and Media Panics

“One of the first characteristics of the first era of any new form of communication is that those who live through it usually have no idea what they’re in.”
~Mitchell Stephens

“Almost every new medium of communication or expression that has appeared since the dawn of history has been accompanied by doomsayers and critics who have confidently predicted that it would bring about The End of the World as We Know It by weakening the brain or polluting our precious bodily fluids.”
~New Media Are Evil, from TV Tropes

“The internet may appear new and fun…but it’s really a porn highway to hell. If your children want to get on the internet, don’t let them. It’s only a matter of time before they get sucked into a vortex of shame, drugs, and pornography from which they’ll never recover. The internet…it’s just not worth it.”
~Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

“It’s the same old devil with a new face.”
~Rev. George Bender, Harry Potter book burner

Media technology is hard to ignore. This goes beyond it being pervasive. Our complaints and fears, our fascination and optimism are mired in far greater things. It is always about something else. Media technology is not only the face of some vague cultural change but the embodiment of new forms of power that seem uncontrollable. Our lives are no longer fully our own, a constant worry in an individualistic society. With globalization, it’s as if the entire planet has become a giant company town.

I’m not one for giving into doom and gloom about technology. That response is as old as civilization and doesn’t offer anything useful. But I’m one of the first to admit to the dire situation we are facing. It’s just that in some sense the situation has always been dire, the world has always been ending. We never know if this finally will be the apocalypse that has been predicted for millennia, an ending to end it all with no new beginning. One way or another, the world as we know it is ending. There probably isn’t much reason to worry about it. Whatever the future holds, it is beyond our imagining as our present world was beyond the imagining of past generations.

One thing is clear. There is no point in getting in a moral panic over it. The young who embrace what is new always get blamed for it, even though they are simply inheriting what others have created. The youth today aren’t any worse off than any other prior generation at the same age. Still, it’s possible that these younger generations might take us into a future that us old fogies won’t be able to understand. History shows how shocking innovations can be. Talking about panics, think about Orson Welles’s radio show, War of the Worlds. The voice of radio back then had a power that we no longer can appreciate. Yet here we are with radio being so much background noise added to the rest.

Part of what got me thinking about this were two posts by Matt Cardin, at The Teeming Brain blog. In one post, he shares some of Nathaniel Rich’s review, Roth Agonistes, of Philip Roth’s Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013. There is a quote from Roth in 1960:

“The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

Rich comments that, “Roth, despite writing before the tumult of the Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a radically destabilized society had made it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of writing or reading novels when reality was as fantastic as any fiction? Such apprehensions may seem quaint when viewed from the comic-book hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now.”

We are no more post-truth now than back then. It’s always been this way. But it is easy to lose context. Rich notes that, “Toward the end of his career, in his novels and public statements, Roth began to prophesy the extinction of a literary culture — an age-old pastime for aging writers.” The ever present fear that the strangeness and stresses of the unknown will replace the comforting of the familiar. We all grow attached to the world we experienced in childhood, as it forms the foundation of our identity. But every now and then something comes along to threaten it all. And the post-World War era was definitely a time of dramatic and, for some, traumatic change — despite all of the nostalgia that has accrued to its memories like flowers on a gravestone.

The technological world we presently live in took its first form during that earlier era. Since then, the book as an art form is far from being near extinction. More books have been printed in recent decades than ever before in history. New technology has oddly led us read even more books, both in their old and new technological forms. My young niece, of the so-called Internet Generation, prefers physical books… not that she is likely to read Philip Roth. Literacy, along with education and IQ, is on the rise. There is more of everything right now, what makes it overwhelming. Technologies of the past for the  most part aren’t being replaced but incorporated into a different world. This Borg-like process of assimilation might be more disturbing to the older generations than simply becoming obsolete.

The other post by Matt Cardin shares an excerpt from an NPR piece by Laura Sydell, The Father Of The Internet Sees His Invention Reflected Back Through A ‘Black Mirror’. It is about the optimists of inventors and the consequences of inventions, unforeseen except by a few. One of those who did see the long term implications was William Gibson: “The first people to embrace a technology are the first to lose the ability to see it objectively.” Maybe so, but that is true for about everyone, including most of those who don’t embrace it or go so far as to fear it. It’s not in human nature to see much of anything objectively.

Gibson did see the immediate realities of what he coined as ‘Cyberspace’. We do seem to be moving in that general direction of cyberpunk dystopia, at least here in this country. I’m less certain about the even longer term developments, as Gibson’s larger vision is as fantastical as many others. But it is the immediate realities that always concern people because they can be seen and felt, if not always acknowledged for what they are, often not even by the fear-mongers.

I share his being more “interested in how people behave around new technologies.” In reference to “how TV changed New York City neighborhoods in the 1940s,” Gibson states that, “Fewer people sat out on the stoops at night and talked to their neighbors, and it was because everyone was inside watching television. No one really noticed it at the time as a kind of epochal event, which I think it was.”

I would make two points about.

First, there is what I already said. It is always an epochal event when a major technology is invented, going back to the many inventions before that such as media technology (radio, films, telegraph, printing press, bound book, etc) but also other technologies (assembly lines, cotton gin, compass, etc). Did the Chinese individual who assembled the first firework imagine the carnage of bombs that made castles easy targets and led to two world wars that transformed all of human existence? Of course not. Even the simplest of technologies can turn civilization on its head, which has happened multiple times over the past few millennia and often with destructive results.

The second point is to look at something specific like television. It happened along with the building of the interstate highway system, the rise of car culture, and the spread of suburbia. Television became a portal for the outside world to invade the fantasyland of home life that took hold after the war. Similar fears about radio and the telephone were transferred to the television set and those fears were directed at the young. The first half of the 20th century was constant technological wonder and uncertainty. The social order was thrown askew.

We like to imagine the 1940s and 1950s as a happy time of social conformity and social order, a time of prosperity and a well behaved population, but that fantasy didn’t match the reality. It was an era of growing concerns about adolescent delinquency, violent crime, youth gangs, sexual deviancy, teen pregnancy, loose morals, and rock ‘n roll — and the data bears out that a large number in that generation were caught up in the criminal system, whether because they were genuinely a bad generation or that the criminal system had become more punitive, although others have argued that it was merely a side effect of the baby boom with youth making up a greater proportion of society. Whatever was involved, the sense of social angst got mixed up with lingering wartime trauma and emerging Cold War paranoia. The policing, arrests, and detention of wayward youth became a priority to the point of oppressive obsession. Besides youth problems, veterans from World War II did not come home content and happy (listen to Audible’s “The Home Front”). It was a tumultuous time, quite opposite of the perfect world portrayed in those family sitcoms of the 1940s and 1950s.

The youth during that era had a lot in common with their grandparents, the wild and unruly Lost Generation corrupted by family and community breakdown from early mass immigration, urbanization, industrialization, consumerism, etc. Starting in the late 1800s, youth gangs and hooliganism became rampant, as moral panic became widespread. As romance novels earlier had been blamed and later comic books would be blamed, around the turn of the century the popular media most feared were the violent penny dreadfuls and dime novels that targeted tender young minds with portrayals of lawlessness and debauchery, so it seemed to the moral reformers and authority figures.

It was the same old fear rearing its ugly head. This pattern has repeated on a regular basis. What new technology does is give an extra push to the swings of generational cycles. So, as change occurs, much remains the same. For all that William Gibson got right, no one can argue that the world has been balkanized into anarcho-corporatist city-states (Snow Crash), although it sure is a plausible near future. The general point is true, though. We are a changed society. Yet the same old patterns of fear-mongering and moral panic continue. What is cyclical and what is trend is hard to differentiate as it happens, it being easier to see clearly in hindsight.

I might add that vast technological and social transformations have occurred every century for the past half millennia. The ending of feudalism was far more devastating. Much earlier, the technological advancement of written text and the end of oral culture had greater consequences than even Socrates could have predicted. And it can’t be forgotten that movable type printing presses ushered in centuries of mass civil unrest, populist movements, religious wars, and revolution across numerous countries.

Our own time so far doesn’t compare, one could argue. The present relative peace and stability will continue until maybe World War III and climate change catastrophe forces a technological realignment and restructuring of civilization. Anyway, the internet corrupting the youth and smart phones rotting away people’s brains should be the least of our worries.

Even the social media meddling that Russia is accused of in manipulating the American population is simply a continuation of techniques that go back to before the internet existed. The game has changed a bit, but nations and corporations are pretty much acting in the devious ways they always have, except they are collecting a lot more info. Admittedly, technology does increase the effectiveness of their deviousness. But it also increases the potential methods for resisting and revolting against oppression.

I do see major changes coming. My doubts are more about how that change will happen. Modern civilization is massively dysfunctional. That we use new technologies less than optimally might have more to do with pre-existing conditions of general crappiness. For example, television along with air conditioning likely did contribute to people not sitting outside and talking to their neighbors, but as great or greater of a contribution probably had to do with diverse social and economic forces driving shifts in urbanization and suburbanization with the dying of small towns and the exodus from ethnic enclaves. Though technology was mixed into these changes, we maybe give technology too much credit and blame for the changes that were already in motion.

It is similar to the shift away from a biological explanation of addiction. It’s less that certain substances create uncontrollable cravings. Such destructive behavior is only possible and probable when particular conditions are set in place. There already has to be breakdown of relationships of trust and support. But rebuild those relationships and the addictive tendencies will lessen.

Similarly, there is nothing inevitable about William Gibson’s vision of the future or rather his predictions might be more based on patterns in our society than anything inherent to the technology itself. We retain the choice and responsibility to create the world we want or, failing that, to fall into self-fulfilling prophecies.

The question is what is the likelihood of our acting with conscious intention and wise forethought. All in all, self-fulfilling prophecy appears to be the most probable outcome. It is easy to be cynical, considering the track record of the present superpower that dominates the world and the present big biz corporatism that dominates the economy. Still, I hold out for the chance that conditions could shift for various reasons, altering what otherwise could be taken as near inevitable.

* * *

Fear of the new - a techno panic timeline

11 Examples of Fear and Suspicion of New Technology
by Len Wilson

New communications technologies don’t come with user’s manuals. They are primitive, while old tech is refined. So critics attack. The critic’s job is easier than the practitioner’s: they score with the fearful by comparing the infancy of the new medium with the perfected medium it threatens. But of course, the practitioner wins. In the end, we always assimilate to the new technology.

“Writing is a step backward for truth.”
~Plato, c. 370 BC

“Printed book will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices.”
~Trithemius of Sponheim, 1492

“The horrible mass of books that keeps growing might lead to a fall back into barbarism..”
~Gottfried Wilhelm, 1680

“Few students will study Homer or Virgil when they can read Tom Jones or a thousand inferior or more dangerous novels.”
~Rev. Vicemius Know, 1778

“The most powerful of ignorance’s weapons is the dissemination of printed matter.”
~Count Leo Tolstoy, 1869

“We will soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.”
~New York Times 1877 Editorial, on the advent of the telephone

“[The telegraph is] a constant diffusion of statements in snippets.”
~Spectator Magazine, 1889

“Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?”
~Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of radio, 1920

“The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.”
~Charlie Chaplin, 1916

“There is a world market for about five computer.”
~Thomas J. Watson, IBM Chairman and CEO, 1943

“Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
~Daryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox CEO, 1946

Moral Panics Over Youth Culture and Video Games
by Kenneth A. Gagne

Several decades of the past century have been marked by forms of entertainment that were not available to the previous generation. The comic books of the Forties and Fifties, rock ‘n roll music of the Fifties, Dungeons & Dragons in the Seventies and Eighties, and video games of the Eighties and Nineties were each part of the popular culture of that era’s young people. Each of these entertainment forms, which is each a medium unto itself, have also fallen under public scrutiny, as witnessed in journalistic media such as newspapers and journals – thus creating a “moral panic.”

The Smartphone’s Impact is Nothing New
by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Any invention that we see as a benefit to society was once an upstart disruption to the status quo. Television was terrible because when listened to the radio, we used our imaginations instead of being spoon-fed. Radio was terrible because families used to sit around telling stories. Moveable type was terrible because if books become available to the masses, the lower classes will become educated beyond their level. Here’s a newsflash: Socrates objected to writing! In The Phaedrus (by his disciple Plato), Socrates argues that “this discovery…will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. … (Y)ou give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

When the Internet and the smartphone evolved, society did what we always do: we adapted. Every new technology has this effect. Do you know why songs on the radio are about 3½ minutes long? Because that’s what a 45-rpm record would hold. Despite the threat some perceived in this radical format, we adapted. (As it turns out, 45s are now a thing of the past but the pop song endures. Turns out we like 3½-minute songs!)

What parallels do you see between the invention of the internet – the ‘semantic web’ and the invention of the printing press?
answer by Howard Doughty

Technology, and especially the technology of communication, has tremendous consequences for human relations – social, economic and political.

Socrates raged against the written word, insisting that it was the end of philosophy which, in his view, required two or more people in direct conversation. Anything else, such as a text, was at least one step removed from the real thing and, like music and poetry which he also despised, represented a pale imitation (or bastardization) of authentic life. (Thank goodness Plato wrote it all down.)

From an oral to a written society was one thing, but as Marshall McLuhan so eruditely explained in his book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, the printing press altered fundamantal cultural patterns again – making reading matter more easily available and, in the process, enabling the Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on isolated individual interpretations of whatever people imagined their god to be.

In time, the telegraph and the telephone began the destruction of space, time and letter writing, making it possible to have disembodied conversations over thousands of miles.

Don’t Touch That Dial!
by Vaughan Bell

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an “always on” digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

 These concerns stretch back to the birth of literacy itself. In parallel with modern concerns about children’s overuse of technology, Socrates famously warned against writing because it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” He also advised that children can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, so parents should only allow them to hear wholesome allegories and not “improper” tales, lest their development go astray. The Socratic warning has been repeated many times since: The older generation warns against a new technology and bemoans that society is abandoning the “wholesome” media it grew up with, seemingly unaware that this same technology was considered to be harmful when first introduced.

Gessner’s anxieties over psychological strain arose when he set about the task of compiling an index of every available book in the 16th century, eventually published as the Bibliotheca universalis. Similar concerns arose in the 18th century, when newspapers became more common. The French statesman Malesherbes railed against the fashion for getting news from the printed page, arguing that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit. A hundred years later, as literacy became essential and schools were widely introduced, the curmudgeons turned against education for being unnatural and a risk to mental health. An 1883 article in the weekly medical journal the Sanitarian argued that schools “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” Meanwhile, excessive study was considered a leading cause of madness by the medical community.

When radio arrived, we discovered yet another scourge of the young: The wireless was accused of distracting children from reading and diminishing performance in school, both of which were now considered to be appropriate and wholesome. In 1936, the music magazine the Gramophone reported that children had “developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker” and described how the radio programs were disturbing the balance of their excitable minds. The television caused widespread concern as well: Media historian Ellen Wartella has noted how “opponents voiced concerns about how television might hurt radio, conversation, reading, and the patterns of family living and result in the further vulgarization of American culture.”

Demonized Smartphones Are Just Our Latest Technological Scapegoat
by Zachary Karabell

AS IF THERE wasn’t enough angst in the world, what with the Washington soap opera, #MeToo, false nuclear alerts, and a general sense of apprehension, now we also have a growing sense of alarm about how smartphones and their applications are impacting children.

In the past days alone, The Wall Street Journal ran a long story about the “parents’ dilemma” of when to give kids a smartphone, citing tales of addiction, attention deficit disorder, social isolation, and general malaise. Said one parent, “It feels a little like trying to teach your kid how to use cocaine, but in a balanced way.” The New York Times ran a lead article in its business section titled “It’s Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone,” echoing a rising chorus in Silicon Valley about designing products and programs that are purposely less addictive.

All of which begs the question: Are these new technologies, which are still in their infancy, harming a rising generation and eroding some basic human fabric? Is today’s concern about smartphones any different than other generations’ anxieties about new technology? Do we know enough to make any conclusions?

Alarm at the corrosive effects of new technologies is not new. Rather, it is deeply rooted in our history. In ancient Greece, Socrates cautioned that writing would undermine the ability of children and then adults to commit things to memory. The advent of the printing press in the 15th century led Church authorities to caution that the written word might undermine the Church’s ability to lead (which it did) and that rigor and knowledge would vanish once manuscripts no longer needed to be copied manually.

Now, consider this question: “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy? Does [it] break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?” Topical, right? In fact, it’s from a 1926 survey by the Knights of Columbus about old-fashioned landlines.

 The pattern of technophobia recurred with the gramophone, the telegraph, the radio, and television. The trope that the printing press would lead to loss of memory is very much the same as the belief that the internet is destroying our ability to remember. The 1950s saw reports about children glued to screens, becoming more “aggressive and irritable as a result of over-stimulating experiences, which leads to sleepless nights and tired days.” Those screens, of course, were televisions.

Then came fears that rock-n-roll in the 1950s and 1960s would fray the bonds of family and undermine the ability of young boys and girls to become productive members of society. And warnings in the 2000s that videogames such as Grand Theft Auto would, in the words of then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, “steal the innocence of our children, … making the difficult job of being a parent even harder.”

Just because these themes have played out benignly time and again does not, of course, mean that all will turn out fine this time. Information technologies from the printed book onward have transformed societies and upended pre-existing mores and social order.

Protruding Breasts! Acidic Pulp! #*@&!$% Senators! McCarthyism! Commies! Crime! And Punishment!
by R.C. Baker

In his medical practice, Wertham saw some hard cases—juvenile muggers, murderers, rapists. In Seduction, he begins with a gardening metaphor for the relationship between children and society: “If a plant fails to grow properly because attacked by a pest, only a poor gardener would look for the cause in that plant alone.” He then observes, “To send a child to a reformatory is a serious step. But many children’s-court judges do it with a light heart and a heavy calendar.” Wertham advocated a holistic approach to juvenile delinquency, but then attacked comic books as its major cause. “All comics with their words and expletives in balloons are bad for reading.” “What is the social meaning of these supermen, super women … super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?” And although the superhero, Western, and romance comics were easily distinguishable from the crime and horror genres that emerged in the late 1940s, Wertham viewed all comics as police blotters. “[Children] know a crime comic when they see one, whatever the disguise”; Wonder Woman is a “crime comic which we have found to be one of the most harmful”; “Western comics are mostly just crime comic books in a Western setting”; “children have received a false concept of ‘love’ … they lump together ‘love, murder, and robbery.’” Some crimes are said to directly imitate scenes from comics. Many are guilty by association—millions of children read comics, ergo, criminal children are likely to have read comics. When listing brutalities, Wertham throws in such asides as, “Incidentally, I have seen children vomit over comic books.” Such anecdotes illuminate a pattern of observation without sourcing that becomes increasingly irritating. “There are quite a number of obscure stores where children congregate, often in back rooms, to read and buy secondhand comic books … in some parts of cities, men hang around these stores which sometimes are foci of childhood prostitution. Evidently comic books prepare the little girls well.” Are these stores located in New York? Chicago? Sheboygan? Wertham leaves us in the dark. He also claimed that powerful forces were arrayed against him because the sheer number of comic books was essential to the health of the pulp-paper manufacturers, forcing him on a “Don Quixotic enterprise … fighting not windmills, but paper mills.”

When Pac-Man Started a National “Media Panic”
by Michael Z. Newman

This moment in the history of pop culture and technology might have seemed unprecedented, as computerized gadgets were just becoming part of the fabric of everyday life in the early ‘80s. But we can recognize it as one in a predictable series of overheated reactions to new media that go back all the way to the invention of writing (which ancients thought would spell the end of memory). There is a particularly American tradition of becoming enthralled with new technologies of communication, identifying their promise of future prosperity and renewed community. It is matched by a related American tradition of freaking out about the same objects, which are also figured as threats to life as we know it.

The emergence of the railroad and the telegraph in the 19th century and of novel 20th century technologies like the telephone, radio, cinema, television, and the internet were all similarly greeted by a familiar mix of high hopes and dark fears. In Walden, published in 1854, Henry David Thoreau warned that, “we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Technologies of both centuries were imagined to unite to unite a vast and dispersed nation and edify citizens, but they also were suspected of trivializing daily affairs, weakening local bonds, and worse yet, exposing vulnerable children to threats and hindering their development into responsible adults.

These expressions are often a species of moral outrage known as media panic, a reaction of adults to the perceived dangers of an emerging culture popular with children, which the parental generation finds unfamiliar and threatening. Media panics recur in a dubious cycle of lathering outrage, with grownups seeming not to realize that the same excessive alarmism has arisen in every generation. Eighteenth and 19th century novels might have caused confusion to young women about the difference between fantasy and reality, and excited their passions too much. In the 1950s, rock and roll was “the devil’s music,” feared for inspiring lust and youthful rebellion, and encouraging racial mixing. Dime novels, comic books, and camera phones have all been objects of frenzied worry about “the kids these days.”

The popularity of video games in the ‘80s prompted educators, psychotherapists, local government officeholders, and media commentators to warn that young players were likely to suffer serious negative effects. The games would influence their aficionados in the all the wrong ways. They would harm children’s eyes and might cause “Space Invaders Wrist” and other physical ailments. Like television, they would be addictive, like a drug. Games would inculcate violence and aggression in impressionable youngsters. Their players would do badly in school and become isolated and desensitized. A reader wrote to The New York Times to complain that video games were “cultivating a generation of mindless, ill-tempered adolescents.”

The arcades where many teenagers preferred to play video games were imagined as dens of vice, of illicit trade in drugs and sex. Kids who went to play Tempest or Donkey Kong might end up seduced by the lowlifes assumed to hang out in arcades, spiraling into lives of substance abuse, sexual depravity, and crime. Children hooked on video games might steal to feed their habit. Reports at the time claimed that video kids had vandalized cigarette machines, pocketing the quarters and leaving behind the nickels and dimes. […]

Somehow, a generation of teenagers from the 1980s managed to grow up despite the dangers, real or imagined, from video games. The new technology could not have been as powerful as its detractors or its champions imagined. It’s easy to be captivated by novelty, but it can force us to miss the cyclical nature of youth media obsessions. Every generation fastens onto something that its parents find strange, whether Elvis or Atari. In every moment in media history, intergenerational tension accompanies the emergence of new forms of culture and communication. Now we have sexting, cyberbullying, and smartphone addiction to panic about.

But while the gadgets keep changing, our ideas about youth and technology, and our concerns about young people’s development in an uncertain and ever-changing modern world, endure.

Why calling screen time ‘digital heroin’ is digital garbage
by Rachel Becker

The supposed danger of digital media made headlines over the weekend when psychotherapist Nicholas Kardaras published a story in the New York Post called “It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies.” In the op-ed, Kardaras claims that “iPads, smartphones and XBoxes are a form of digital drug.” He stokes fears about the potential for addiction and the ubiquity of technology by referencing “hundreds of clinical studies” that show “screens increase depression, anxiety and aggression.”
We’ve seen this form of scaremongering before. People are frequently uneasy with new technology, after all. The problem is, screens and computers aren’t actually all that new. There’s already a whole generation — millennials — who grew up with computers. They appear, mostly, to be fine, selfies aside. If computers were “digital drugs,” wouldn’t we have already seen warning signs?

No matter. Kardaras opens with a little boy who was so hooked on Minecraft that his mom found him in his room in the middle of the night, in a “catatonic stupor” — his iPad lying next to him. This is an astonishing use of “catatonic,” and is almost certainly not medically correct. It’s meant to scare parents.

by Alison Gopnik

My own childhood was dominated by a powerful device that used an optical interface to transport the user to an alternate reality. I spent most of my waking hours in its grip, oblivious of the world around me. The device was, of course, the book. Over time, reading hijacked my brain, as large areas once dedicated to processing the “real” world adapted to processing the printed word. As far as I can tell, this early immersion didn’t hamper my development, but it did leave me with some illusions—my idea of romantic love surely came from novels.
English children’s books, in particular, are full of tantalizing food descriptions. At some point in my childhood, I must have read about a honeycomb tea. Augie, enchanted, agreed to accompany me to the grocery store. We returned with a jar of honeycomb, only to find that it was an inedible, waxy mess.

Many parents worry that “screen time” will impair children’s development, but recent research suggests that most of the common fears about children and screens are unfounded. (There is one exception: looking at screens that emit blue light before bed really does disrupt sleep, in people of all ages.) The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend strict restrictions on screen exposure. Last year, the organization examined the relevant science more thoroughly, and, as a result, changed its recommendations. The new guidelines emphasize that what matters is content and context, what children watch and with whom. Each child, after all, will have some hundred thousand hours of conscious experience before turning sixteen. Those hours can be like the marvellous ones that Augie and I spent together bee-watching, or they can be violent or mindless—and that’s true whether those hours are occupied by apps or TV or books or just by talk.

New tools have always led to panicky speculation. Socrates thought that reading and writing would have disastrous effects on memory; the novel, the telegraph, the telephone, and the television were all declared to be the End of Civilization as We Know It, particularly in the hands of the young. Part of the reason may be that adult brains require a lot of focus and effort to learn something new, while children’s brains are designed to master new environments spontaneously. Innovative technologies always seem distracting and disturbing to the adults attempting to master them, and transparent and obvious—not really technology at all—to those, like Augie, who encounter them as children.

The misguided moral panic over Slender Man
by Adam Possamai

Sociologists argue that rather than simply being created stories, urban legends represent the fear and anxieties of current time, and in this instance, the internet culture is offering a global and a more participatory platform in the story creation process.

New technology is also allowing urban legends to be transmitted at a faster pace than before the invention of the printing press, and giving more people the opportunity to shape folk stories that blur the line between fiction and reality. Commonly, these stories take a life of their own and become completely independent from what the original creator wanted to achieve.

Yet if we were to listen to social commentary this change in the story creation process is opening the door to deviant acts.

Last century, people were already anxious about children accessing VHS and Betamax tapes and being exposed to violence and immorality. We are now likely to face a similar moral panic with regards to the internet.

Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams

In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.

I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.

That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.

Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press.

The Media’s First Moral Panic
by Frank Furedi

When cultural commentators lament the decline of the habit of reading books, it is difficult to imagine that back in the 18th century many prominent voices were concerned about the threat posed by people reading too much. A dangerous disease appeared to afflict the young, which some diagnosed as reading addiction and others as reading rage, reading fever, reading mania or reading lust. Throughout Europe reports circulated about the outbreak of what was described as an epidemic of reading. The behaviours associated with this supposedly insidious contagion were sensation-seeking and morally dissolute and promiscuous behaviour. Even acts of self-destruction were associated with this new craze for the reading of novels.

What some described as a craze was actually a rise in the 18th century of an ideal: the ‘love of reading’. The emergence of this new phenomenon was largely due to the growing popularity of a new literary genre: the novel. The emergence of commercial publishing in the 18th century and the growth of an ever-widening constituency of readers was not welcomed by everyone. Many cultural commentators were apprehensive about the impact of this new medium on individual behaviour and on society’s moral order.

With the growing popularity of novel reading, the age of the mass media had arrived. Novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) became literary sensations that gripped the imagination of their European readers. What was described as ‘Pamela-fever’ indicated the powerful influence novels could exercise on the imagination of the reading public. Public deliberation on these ‘fevers’ focused on what was a potentially dangerous development, which was the forging of an intense and intimate interaction between the reader and literary characters. The consensus that emerged was that unrestrained exposure to fiction led readers to lose touch with reality and identify with the novel’s romantic characters to the point of adopting their behaviour. The passionate enthusiasm with which European youth responded to the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) appeared to confirm this consensus. […]

What our exploration of the narrative of Werther fever suggests is that it acquired a life of its own to the point that it mutated into a taken-for-granted rhetorical idiom, which accounted for the moral problems facing society. Warnings about an epidemic of suicide said more about the anxieties of their authors than the behaviour of the readers of the novels. An inspection of the literature circulating these warnings indicates a striking absence of empirical evidence. The constant allusion to Miss. G., to nameless victims and to similarly framed death scenes suggests that these reports had little factual content to draw on. Stories about an epidemic of suicide were as fictional as the demise of Werther in Goethe’s novel.

It is, however, likely that readers of Werther were influenced by the controversy surrounding the novel. Goethe himself was affected by it and in his autobiography lamented that so many of his readers felt called upon to ‘re-enact the novel, and possibly shoot themselves’. Yet, despite the sanctimonious scaremongering, it continued to attract a large readership. While there is no evidence that Werther was responsible for the promotion of a wave of copycat suicides, it evidently succeeded in inspiring a generation of young readers. The emergence of what today would be described as a cult of fans with some of the trappings of a youth subculture is testimony to the novel’s powerful appeal.

The association of the novel with the disorganisation of the moral order represented an early example of a media panic. The formidable, sensational and often improbable effects attributed to the consequences of reading in the 18th century provided the cultural resources on which subsequent reactions to the cinema, television or the Internet would draw on. In that sense Werther fever anticipated the media panics of the future.

Curiously, the passage of time has not entirely undermined the association of Werther fever with an epidemic of suicide. In 1974 the American sociologist Dave Phillips coined the term, the ‘Werther Effect’ to describe mediastimulated imitation of suicidal behaviour. But the durability of the Werther myth notwithstanding, contemporary media panics are rarely focused on novels. In the 21st century the simplistic cause and effect model of the ‘Werther Effect is more likely to be expressed through moral anxieties about the danger of cybersuicide, copycat online suicide.

The Better Angels of Our Nature
by Steven Pinker
Kindle Locations 13125-13143
(see To Imagine and Understand)

It would be surprising if fictional experiences didn’t have similar effects to real ones, because people often blur the two in their memories. 65 And a few experiments do suggest that fiction can expand sympathy. One of Batson’s radio-show experiments included an interview with a heroin addict who the students had been told was either a real person or an actor. 66 The listeners who were asked to take his point of view became more sympathetic to heroin addicts in general, even when the speaker was fictitious (though the increase was greater when they thought he was real). And in the hands of a skilled narrator, a fictitious victim can elicit even more sympathy than a real one. In his book The Moral Laboratory, the literary scholar Jèmeljan Hakemulder reports experiments in which participants read similar facts about the plight of Algerian women through the eyes of the protagonist in Malike Mokkeddem’s novel The Displaced or from Jan Goodwin’s nonfiction exposé Price of Honor. 67 The participants who read the novel became more sympathetic to Algerian women than those who read the true-life account; they were less likely, for example, to blow off the women’s predicament as a part of their cultural and religious heritage. These experiments give us some reason to believe that the chronology of the Humanitarian Revolution, in which popular novels preceded historical reform, may not have been entirely coincidental: exercises in perspective-taking do help to expand people’s circle of sympathy.

The science of empathy has shown that sympathy can promote genuine altruism, and that it can be extended to new classes of people when a beholder takes the perspective of a member of that class, even a fictitious one. The research gives teeth to the speculation that humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering. And as such, the cognitive process of perspective-taking and the emotion of sympathy must figure in the explanation for many historical reductions in violence. They include institutionalized violence such as cruel punishments, slavery, and frivolous executions; the everyday abuse of vulnerable populations such as women, children, homosexuals, racial minorities, and animals; and the waging of wars, conquests, and ethnic cleansings with a callousness to their human costs.

Innocent Weapons:
The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War

by Margaret E. Peacock
pp. 88-89

As a part of their concern over American materialism, politicians and members of the American public turned their attention to the rising influence of media and popular culture upon the next generation.69 Concerns over uncontrolled media were not new in the United States in the 1950s. They had a way of erupting whenever popular culture underwent changes that seemed to differentiate the generations. This was the case during the silent film craze of the 1920s and when the popularity of dime novels took off in the 1930s.70 Yet, for many in the postwar era, the press, the radio, and the television presented threats to children that the country had never seen before. As members of Congress from across the political spectrum would argue throughout the 1950s, the media had the potential to present a negative image of the United States abroad, and it ran the risk of corrupting the minds of the young at a time when shoring up national patriotism and maintaining domestic order were more important than ever. The impact of media on children was the subject of Fredric Wertham’s 1953 best-selling book Seduction of the Innocent, in which he chronicled his efforts over the course of three years to “trace some of the roots of the modern mass delinquency.”71 Wertham’s sensationalist book documented case after case of child delinquents who seemed to be mimicking actions that they had seen on the television or, in particular, in comic strips. Horror comics, which were popular from 1948 until 1954, showed images of children killing their parents and peers, sometimes in gruesome ways—framing them for murder—being cunning and devious, even cannibalistic. A commonly cited story was that of “Bloody Mary,” published by Farrell Comics, which told the story of a seven-year-old girl who strangles her mother, sends her father to the electric chair for the murder, and then kills a psychiatrist who has learned that the girl committed these murders and that she is actually a dwarf in disguise.72 Wertham’s crusade against horror comics was quickly joined by two Senate subcommittees in 1954, at the heads of which sat Estes Kefauver and Robert Hendrickson. They argued to their colleagues that the violence and destruction of the family in these comic books symbolized “a terrible twilight zone between sanity and madness.”73 They contended that children found in these comic books violent models of behavior and that they would otherwise be law abiding. J. Edgar Hoover chimed in to comment that “a comic which makes lawlessness attractive . . . may influence the susceptible boy or girl.”74

Such depictions carried two layers of threat. First, as Wertham, Hoover, and Kefauver argued, they reflected the seeming potential of modern media to transform “average” children into delinquents.75 Alex Drier, popular NBC newscaster, argued in May 1954 that “this continuous flow of filth [is] so corruptive in its effects that it has actually obliterated decent instincts in many of our children.”76 Yet perhaps more telling, the comics, as well as the heated response that they elicited, also reflected larger anxieties about what identities children should assume in contemporary America. As in the case of Bloody Mary, these comics presented an image of apparently sweet youths who were in fact driven by violent impulses and were not children at all. “How can we expose our children to this and then expect them to run the country when we are gone?” an agitated Hendrickson asked his colleagues in 1954.77 Bloody Mary, like the uneducated dolts of the Litchfield report and the spoiled boys of Wylie’s conjuring, presented an alternative identity for American youth that seemed to embody a new and dangerous future.

In the early months of 1954, Robert Hendrickson argued to his colleagues that “the strained international and domestic situation makes it impossible for young people of today to look forward with certainty to higher education, to entering a trade or business, to plans for marriage, a home, and family. . . . Neither the media, nor modern consumerism, nor the threat from outside our borders creates a problem child. But they do add to insecurity, to loneliness, to fear.”78 For Hendrickson these domestic trends, along with what he called “deficient adults,” seemed to have created a new population of troubled and victimized children who were “beyond the pale of our society.”79

The End of Victory Culture:
Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation

by Tom Engelhardt
Kindle Locations 2872-2910

WORRY, BORDERING ON HYSTERIA, about the endangering behaviors of “youth” has had a long history in America, as has the desire of reformers and censors to save “innocent” children from the polluting effects of commercial culture. At the turn of the century, when middle-class white adolescents first began to take their place as leisure-time trendsetters, fears arose that the syncopated beat of popular “coon songs” and ragtime music would demonically possess young listeners, who might succumb to the “evils of the Negro soul.” Similarly, on-screen images of crime, sensuality, and violence in the earliest movies, showing in “nickel houses” run by a “horde of foreigners,” were decried by reformers. They were not just “unfit for children’s eyes,” but a “disease” especially virulent to young (and poor) Americans, who were assumed to lack all immunity to such spectacles. 1 […]

To many adults, a teen culture beyond parental oversight had a remarkably alien look to it. In venues ranging from the press to Senate committees, from the American Psychiatric Association to American Legion meetings, sensational and cartoonlike horror stories about the young or the cultural products they were absorbing were told. Tabloid newspaper headlines reflected this: “Two Teen Thrill Killings Climax City Park Orgies. Teen Age Killers Pose a Mystery— Why Did They Do It?… 22 Juveniles Held in Gang War. Teen Age Mob Rips up BMT Train. Congressmen Stoned, Cops Hunt Teen Gang.” After a visit to the movies in 1957 to watch two “teenpics,” Rock All Night and Dragstrip Girl, Ruth Thomas of Newport, Rhode Island’s Citizen’s Committee on Literature expressed her shock in words at least as lurid as those of any tabloid: “Isn’t it a form of brain-washing? Brain-washing the minds of the people and especially the youth of our nation in filth and sadistic violence. What enemy technique could better lower patriotism and national morale than the constant presentation of crime and horror both as news and recreation.” 3

You did not have to be a censor, a right-wing anti-Communist, or a member of the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, however, to hold such views. Dr. Frederick Wertham, a liberal psychiatrist, who testified in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case and set up one of the first psychiatric clinics in Harlem, publicized the idea that children viewing commercially produced acts of violence and depravity, particularly in comic books, could be transformed into little monsters. The lurid title of his best-selling book, Seduction of the Innocent, an assault on comic books as “primers for crime,” told it all. In it, Dr. Wertham offered copious “horror stories” that read like material from Tales from the Crypt: “Three boys, six to eight years old, took a boy of seven, hanged him nude from a tree, his hands tied behind him, then burned him with matches. Probation officers investigating found that they were re-enacting a comic-book plot.… A boy of thirteen committed a lust murder of a girl of six. After his arrest, in jail, he asked for comicbooks” 4

Kindle Locations 2927-2937

The two— hood and performer, lower-class white and taboo black— merged in the “pelvis” of a Southern “greaser” who dressed like a delinquent, used “one of black America’s favorite products, Royal Crown Pomade hair grease” (meant to give hair a “whiter” look), and proceeded to move and sing “like a negro.” Whether it was because they saw a white youth in blackface or a black youth in whiteface, much of the media grew apoplectic and many white parents alarmed. In the meantime, swiveling his hips and playing suggestively with the microphone, Elvis Presley broke into the lives of millions of teens in 1956, bringing with him an element of disorder and sexuality associated with darkness. 6†

The second set of postwar fears involved the “freedom” of the commercial media— record and comic book companies, radio stations, the movies, and television— to concretize both the fantasies of the young and the nightmarish fears of grown-ups into potent products. For many adults, this was abundance as betrayal, the good life not as a vision of Eden but as an unexpected horror story.

Kindle Locations 2952-2979

Take comic books. Even before the end of World War II, a new kind of content was creeping into them as they became the reading matter of choice for the soldier-adolescent. […] Within a few years, “crime” comics like Crime Does Not Pay emerged from the shadows, displaying a wide variety of criminal acts for the delectation of young readers. These were followed by horror and science fiction comics, purchased in enormous numbers. By 1953, more than 150 horror comics were being produced monthly, featuring acts of torture often of an implicitly sexual nature, murders and decapitations of various bloody sorts, visions of rotting flesh, and so on. 9

Miniature catalogs of atrocities, their feel was distinctly assaultive. In their particular version of the spectacle of slaughter, they targeted the American family, the good life, and revered institutions. Framed by sardonic detective narrators or mocking Grand Guignol gatekeepers, their impact was deconstructive. Driven by a commercial “hysteria” as they competed to attract buyers with increasingly atrocity-ridden covers and stories, they both partook of and mocked the hysteria about them. Unlike radio or television producers, the small publishers of the comic book business were neither advertiser driven nor corporately controlled.

Unlike the movies, comics were subject to no code. Unlike the television networks, comics companies had no Standards and Practices departments. No censoring presence stood between them and whoever would hand over a dime at a local newsstand. Their penny-ante ads and pathetic pay scale ensured that writing and illustrating them would be a job for young men in their twenties (or even teens). Other than early rock and roll, comics were the only cultural form of the period largely created by the young for those only slightly younger. In them, uncensored, can be detected the dismantling voice of a generation that had seen in the world war horrors beyond measure.

The hysterical tone of the response to these comics was remarkable. Comics publishers were denounced for conspiring to create a delinquent nation. Across the country, there were publicized comic book burnings like one in Binghamton, New York, where 500 students were dismissed from school early in order to torch 2,000 comics and magazines. Municipalities passed ordinances prohibiting the sale of comics, and thirteen states passed legislation to control their publication, distribution, or sale. Newspapers and magazines attacked the comics industry. The Hartford Courant decried “the filthy stream that flows from the gold-plated sewers of New York.” In April 1954, the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency convened in New York to look into links between comics and teen crime. 10

Kindle Locations 3209-3238

If sponsors and programmers recognized the child as an independent taste center, the sight of children glued to the TV, reveling in their own private communion with the promise of America, proved unsettling to some adults. The struggle to control the set, the seemingly trancelike quality of TV time, the soaring number of hours spent watching, could leave a parent feeling challenged by some hard-to-define force released into the home under the aegis of abundance, and the watching child could gain the look of possession, emptiness, or zombification.

Fears of TV’s deleterious effects on the child were soon widespread. The medical community even discovered appropriate new childhood illnesses. There was “TV squint” or eyestrain, “TV bottom,” “bad feet” (from TV-induced inactivity), “frogitis” (from a viewing position that put too much strain on inner-leg ligaments), “TV tummy” (from TV-induced overexcitement), “TV jaw” or “television malocclusion” (from watching while resting on one’s knuckles, said to force the eyeteeth inward), and “tired child syndrome” (chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches, and vomiting induced by excessive viewing).

However, television’s threat to the child was more commonly imagined to lie in the “violence” of its programming. Access to this “violence” and the sheer number of hours spent in front of the set made the idea that this new invention was acting in loco parentis seem chilling to some; and it was true that via westerns, crime shows, war and spy dramas, and Cold War-inspired cartoons TV was indiscriminately mixing a tamed version of the war story with invasive Cold War fears. Now, children could endlessly experience the thrill of being behind the barrel of a gun. Whether through the Atom Squad’s three government agents, Captain Midnight and his Secret Squadron, various FBI men, cowboys, or detectives, they could also encounter “an array of H-bomb scares, mad Red scientists, [and] plots to rule the world,” as well as an increasing level of murder and mayhem that extended from the six-gun frontier of the “adult” western to the blazing machine guns of the crime show. 30

Critics, educators, and worried parents soon began compiling TV body counts as if the statistics of victory were being turned on young Americans. “Frank Orme, an independent TV watchdog, made a study of Los Angeles television in 1952 and noted, in one week, 167 murders, 112 justifiable homicides, and 356 attempted murders. Two-thirds of all the violence he found occurred in children’s shows. In 1954, Orme said violence on kids’ shows had increased 400 percent since he made his first report.” PTAs organized against TV violence, and Senate hearings searched for links between TV programming and juvenile delinquency.

Such “violence,” though, was popular. In addition, competition for audiences among the three networks had the effect of ratcheting up the pressures for violence, just as it had among the producers of horror comics. At The Untouchables, a 1960 hit series in which Treasury agent Eliot Ness took on Chicago’s gangland (and weekly reached 5-8 million young viewers), ABC executives would push hard for more “action.” Producer Quinn Martin would then demand the same of his subordinates, “or we are all going to get clobbered.” In a memo to one of the show’s writers, he asked: “I wish you would come up with a different device than running the man down with a car, as we have done this now in three different shows. I like the idea of sadism, but I hope we can come up with another approach to it.” 31

Snow Crash vs Star Trek

“[C]yberpunk sci-fi of the 1980s and early 1990s accurately predicted a lot about our current world. Our modern society is totally wired and connected, but also totally unequal,” writes Noah Smith (What we didn’t get, Noahpinion). “We are, roughly, living in the world the cyberpunks envisioned.”

I don’t find that surprising. Cyberpunk writers were looking at ongoing trends and extrapolating about the near future. We are living in that near future.

Considering inequality in the US began growing several decades ago when cyberpunk became a genre, it wasn’t hard to imagine that such inequality would continue to grow and play out within technology itself. And the foundations for present technology were developed in the decades before cyberpunk. The broad outlines of the world we now live in could be seen earlier last century.

That isn’t to downplay the predictions made and envisioned. But it puts it into context.

Smith then asks, “What happened? Why did mid-20th-century sci fi whiff so badly? Why didn’t we get the Star Trek future, or the Jetsons future, or the Asimov future?” His answer is that, “Two things happened. First, we ran out of theoretical physics. Second, we ran out of energy.”

That question and answer is premature. We haven’t yet fully entered the Star Trek future. One of the first major events from its future history are the Bell Riots, which happen seven years from now this month, but conditions are supposed to worsen over the years preceding it (i.e., the present). Like the cyberpunk writers, Star Trek predicted an age of growing inequality, poverty, and homelessness. And that is to be followed by international conflict, global nuclear war, and massive decimation of civilization.

World War III will end in 2053. The death toll will be 600 million. Scientific research continues, but it will take decades for civilization to recover. It’s not until the 22nd century that serious space exploration begins. And it’s not until later in that century that the Federation is formed. The Star Trek visionaries weren’t starry-eyed optimists offering much hope to living generations. They made clear that the immediate future was going to be as dark or darker than most cyberpunk fiction.

The utopian world that I watched in the 1990s was from The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Those two shows portray the world 250 years from now, about the same distance we have to the last decades of the American colonial era. It’s unsurprising that a pre-revolutionary writer might have predicted the invention of the cotton gin at the end of the 18th century, just as unsurprising that he couldn’t have predicted the world we now live in. That is why I would argue it’s premature to say that no further major advancements in science will be made over that time period.

Scientific discoveries and technological developments tend to happen in spurts — progress builds incrementally, which is what makes Star Trek compelling in how it offers the incremental details of how we might get from here to there. We can be guaranteed that, assuming we survive, future science will seem like magic to us, based as it would be on knowledge we don’t yet possess. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were those who predicted that nothing significant was left for humans to learn and discover. I laugh at anyone who makes the same naive prediction here at the beginning of the 21st century.

To be fair, Smith doesn’t end there. He asks, “These haven’t happened yet, but it’s only been a couple of decades since this sort of futurism became popular. Will we eventually get these things?” And he adds that, “we also don’t really have any idea how to start making these things.”

Well, no one could answer what the world will be like in the distant future any more than anyone in the distant past was able to predict the world that has come to pass. Nothing happens yet, until it happens. And no one really has any idea how to start making anything, until someone figures out how to do so. History is an endless parade of the supposedly impossible becoming possible, the unforeseen becoming commonplace. But it is easy to argue that recent changes have caused a rupture and that even greater changes are to come.

Smith goes on to conjecture that, “maybe it’s the authors at the very beginning of a tech boom, before progress in a particular area really kicks into high gear, who are able to see more clearly where the boom will take us.” Sure. But no one can be certain one is or is not at the beginning of a tech boom. That can only be seen clearly in retrospect.

If the Star Trek future is more or less correct, the coming half century will be the beginning of a new tech boom that leads to the development of warp drive in 2063 (or something akin to it). And so following it will be an era of distant space travel and colonization. That would be the equivalent of my grandparents generation growing up with the first commercially sold cars and by adulthood, a half century later, experiencing the first manned space flight — there being no way to predict the latter from the former.

As a concluding thought, Smith states that, “We’ll never know.” I’m sure many in my grandparents generation said the same thing. Yet they did come to know, as the future came faster than most expected. When that next stage of technological development is in full force, according to Star Trek’s future historians, those born right now will be hitting middle age and those reaching young adulthood now will be in their sixties. Plenty in the present living generations will be around to know what the future holds.

Maybe the world of Snow Crash we seem to be entering into will be the trigger that sends us hurtling toward Star Trek’s World War III and all that comes after. Maybe what seems like an endpoint is just another beginning.

* * *

About predictions, I am amused by early 20th century proclamations that all or most great discoveries and inventions had been achieved. The belief was that the following century would be limited to working out the details and implementing the knowledge they already had.

People at the time had just gone through a period of tumultuous change and it was hard to imagine anything further. Still, it was a time of imagination, when the earliest science fiction was popularized. Most of the science fiction of the time extrapolated from what was known from the industrial age, from Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolution. Even the best predictions of the time couldn’t see that far ahead. And like cyberpunk, some of the predictions that came true in the following decades were dark, such as world war and fighting from the air. Yet it was hard for anyone to see clearly even into the end of the century, much less the century following that.

The world seemed pretty well explained and many felt improvements and progress were hitting up against a wall. So, it would be more of the same from then on. The greater changes foreseen tended toward the social rather than the technological. Otherwise, most of the experts felt certain they had a good grasp of the kind of world they lived in, what was possible and impossible. In retrospect, such confidence is amusing to an extreme degree. The following passage describes the context of that historical moment.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine
by John Higgs
pp. 17-19

It appeared, on the surface, to be an ordered, structured era. The Victorian worldview was supported by four pillars: Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton.

The pillars seemed solid. The British Empire would, in a few years, cover a quarter of the globe. Despite the humiliation of the Boer War, not many realised how badly the Empire had been wounded and fewer still recognised how soon it would collapse. The position of the Church looked similarly secure, despite the advances of science. The authority of the Bible may have been contradicted by Darwin and advances in geology, but society did not deem it polite to dwell too heavily on such matters. The laws of Newton had been thoroughly tested and the ordered, clockwork universe they described seemed incontrovertible. True, there were a few oddities that science puzzled over. The orbit of Mercury, for instance, was proving to be slightly different to what was expected. And then there was also the issue of the aether.

The aether was a theoretical substance that could be described as the fabric of the universe. It was widely accepted that it must exist. Experiments had shown time and time again that light travelled in a wave. A light wave needs something to travel through, just as an ocean wave needs water and a sound wave needs air. The light waves that travel through space from the sun to the earth must pass through something, and that something would be the aether. The problem was that experiments designed to reveal the aether kept failing to find it. Still, this was not considered a serious setback. What was needed was further work and cleverer experiments. The expectation of the discovery of the aether was similar to that surrounding the Higgs boson in the days before the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Scientific wisdom insisted that it must exist, so it was worth creating more and more expensive experiments to locate it.

Scientists had an air of confidence as the new century began. They had a solid framework of knowledge which would withstand further additions and embellishments. As Lord Kelvin was reputed to have remarked in a 1900 lecture, “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Such views were reasonably common. “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered,” wrote the German-American physicist Albert Michelson in 1903, “and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.” The astronomer Simon Newcomb is said to have claimed in 1888 that we were “probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.”

The great German physicist Max Planck had been advised by his lecturer, the marvellously named Philipp von Jolly, not to pursue the study of physics because “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.” Planck replied that he had no wish to discover new things, only to understand the known fundamentals of the field better. Perhaps unaware of the old maxim that if you want to make God laugh you tell him your plans, he went on to become a founding father of quantum physics.

Scientists did expect some new discoveries. Maxwell’s work on the electromagnetic spectrum suggested that there were new forms of energy to be found at either end of his scale, but these new energies were still expected to obey his equations. Mendeleev’s periodic table hinted that there were new forms of matter out there somewhere, just waiting to be found and named, but it also promised that these new substances would fit neatly into the periodic table and obey its patterns. Both Pasteur’s germ theories and Darwin’s theory of evolution pointed to the existence of unknown forms of life, but also offered to categorise them when they were found. The scientific discoveries to come, in other words, would be wonderful but not surprising. The body of knowledge of the twentieth century would be like that of the nineteenth, but padded out further.

Between 1895 and 1901 H.G. Wells wrote a string of books including The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon. In doing so he laid down the blueprints for science fiction, a new genre of ideas and technological speculation which the twentieth century would take to its heart. In 1901 he wrote Anticipations: An Experiment in Prophecy, a series of articles which attempted to predict the coming years and which served to cement his reputation as the leading futurist of the age. Looking at these essays with the benefit of hindsight, and awkwardly skipping past the extreme racism of certain sections, we see that he was successful in an impressive number of predictions. Wells predicted flying machines, and wars fought in the air. He foresaw trains and cars resulting in populations shifting from the cities to the suburbs. He predicted fascist dictatorships, a world war around 1940, and the European Union. He even predicted greater sexual freedom for men and women, a prophecy that he did his best to confirm by embarking on a great number of extramarital affairs.

But there was a lot that Wells wasn’t able to predict: relativity, nuclear weapons, quantum mechanics, microchips, black holes, postmodernism and so forth. These weren’t so much unforeseen, as unforeseeable. His predictions had much in common with the expectations of the scientific world, in that he extrapolated from what was then known. In the words commonly assigned to the English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, the universe would prove to be not just stranger than we imagine but, “stranger than we can imagine.”

 

Weirdness of Waze

There is a popular GPS app, Waze. It was developed in Israel and bought by Google. The purpose of it is to not just track where you are, but to keep track of where you’ve been and where you normally go, not to mention when and for how long. It then gives you info based on your behavioral patterns. It is the ultimate spy app.

I hadn’t heard of it until my dad mentioned it to me. He has been using it lately. I’m not sure he realized what it was intended to do, because he was surprised by the results.

On several occasions, it has figured out the precise place he visits: the local senior center, his church, etc. Then it determined what was going on while he was there and gave him info about future events. Just yesterday, it told him about the church service and what time it was to begin today, and it told him how long it would take to drive there and some info from the church newsletter.

The app had figured this all out on its own. It used my dad’s past behavior and searched the web to find data that corresponded. It has even recommended to him events to him that didn’t fit his past behavior but fit the kinds of things he’d like to do in the places he does visit. He found it slightly disconcerting. It is clear that vast amounts of data is being kept and analyzed.

My dad’s smart phone is also connected to his car, which has GPS as well. I don’t know if the app is able to access to the car’s GPS, but it seems like that might be the case. He was leaving somewhere and the app told him where he had left his car, without him even asking it to do so. It just assumed he wanted to go to his car and it knew where it was.

Before long, such apps will know us better than we know ourselves. But until then, there will be a learning curve with these new technologies.

* * *

Terms & Conditions: Waze is a privacy accident waiting to happen
by Andrew Couts, Digital Trends

Did Google Just Buy a Dangerous Driving App?
by Kevin Roose, New York Magazine

Israeli Students Hack GPS App Waze to Create Fake Traffic Jam
by Shiryn Ghermezian, The Algemeiner

Israeli troops relying on Waze app blunder into Palestinian area; clashes follow
by Ruth Eglash, The Washington Post

Waze app directions take woman to wrong Brazil address, where she is killed
by Shasta Darlington, CNN

Plowing the Furrows of the Mind

One of the best books I read this past year is The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally. The book covers the type of data HBDers (human biodiversity advocates) and other hereditarians tend to ignore. Kenneally shows how powerful is environment in shaping thought, perception, and behavior.

What really intrigued me is how persistent patterns can be once set into place. Old patterns get disrupted by violence such as colonialism and mass trauma such as slavery. In the place of the old, something new takes form. But this process isn’t always violent. In some cases, technological innovation can change an entire society.

This is true for as simple of a technology as a plow. Just imagine what impact a more complex technology like computers and the internet will have on society in the coming generations and centuries. Also, over this past century or so, we saw a greater change to agriculture than maybe has been seen in all of civilization. Agricultural is becoming industrialized and technologized.

What new social system is being created? How long will it take to become established as a new stable order?

We live in a time of change and we can’t see the end of it. We are like the people who lived during the time when the use of plows first began to spread. All that we know, as all that they knew, is that we are amidst change. This inevitably creates fear and anxiety. It is a crisis that has the potential of being more transformative than a world war. It is a force that will be both destructive and creative, but either way it is unpredictable.

* * * *

The Invisible History of the Human Race:
How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures
by Christine Kenneally
Kindle Locations 2445-2489

Catastrophic events like the plague or slavery are not the only ones that echo down the generations . Widespread and deeply held beliefs can be traced to apparently benign events too, like the invention of technology. In the 1970s the Danish economist Ester Boserup argued that the invention of the plow transformed the way men and women viewed themselves. Boserup’s idea was that because the device changed how farming communities labored, it also changed how people thought about labor itself and about who should be responsible for it.

The main farming technology that existed when the plow was introduced was shifting cultivation. Using a plow takes a lot of upper-body strength and manual power, whereas shifting cultivation relies on handheld tools like hoes and does not require as much strength. As communities took up the plow, it was most effectively used by stronger individuals , and these were most often men. In societies that used shifting cultivation, both men and women used the technology . Of course, the plow was invented not to exclude women but to make cultivation faster and easier in areas where crops like wheat, barley, and teff were grown over large, flat tracts of land in deep soil. Communities living where sorghum and millet grew best— typically in rocky soil— continued to use the hoe. Boserup believed that after the plow forced specialization of labor, with men in the field and women remaining in the home, people formed the belief— after the fact— that this arrangement was how it should be and that women were best suited to home life.

Boserup made a solid historical argument, but no one had tried to measure whether beliefs about innate differences between men and women across the world could really be mapped according to whether their ancestors had used the plow. Nathan Nunn read Boserup’s ideas in graduate school, and ten years later he and some colleagues decided to test them.

Once again Nunn searched for ways to measure the Old World against the new. He and his colleagues divided societies up according to whether they used the plow or shifting cultivation . They gathered current data about male and female lives, including how much women in different societies worked in public versus how much they worked in the home, how often they owned companies, and the degree to which they participated in politics. They also measured public attitudes by comparing responses to statements in the World Value Survey like “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than a woman.”

Nunn found that if you asked an individual whose ancestors grew wheat about his beliefs regarding women’s place, it was much more likely that his notion of gender equality would be weaker than that of someone whose ancestors had grown sorghum or millet. Where the plow was used there was greater gender inequality and women were less common in the workforce. This was true even in contemporary societies in which most of the subjects would never even have seen a plow, much less used one, and in societies where plows today are fully mechanized to the point that a child of either gender would be capable of operating one.

Similar research in the cultural inheritance of psychology has explored the difference between cultures in the West and the East. Many studies have found evidence for more individualistic, analytic ways of thought in the West and more interdependent and holistic conceptions of the self and cooperation in the East. But in 2014 a team of psychologists investigated these differences in populations within China based on whether the culture in question traditionally grew wheat or rice. Comparing cultures within China rather than between the East and West enabled the researchers to remove many confounding factors, like religion and language.

Participants underwent a series of tests in which they paired two of three pictures. In previous studies the way a dog, a rabbit, and a carrot were paired differed according to whether the subject was from the West or the East . The Eastern subjects tended to pair the rabbit with a carrot, which was thought to be the more holistic, relational solution. The Western subjects paired the dog and the rabbit, which is more analytic because the animals belong in the same category. In another test subjects drew pictures of themselves and their friends. Previous studies had shown that westerners drew themselves larger than their friends . Another test surveyed how likely people were to privilege friends over strangers; typically Eastern cultures score higher on this measure.

In all the tests the researchers found that, independent of a community’s wealth or its exposure to pathogens or to other cultures, the people whose ancestors grew rice were much more relational in their thinking than the people whose ancestors were wheat growers. Other measures pointed at differences between the two groups. For example , people from a wheat-growing culture divorced significantly more often than people from a rice-growing culture, a pattern that echoes the difference in divorce rates between the West and the East. The findings were true for people who live in rice and wheat communities today regardless of their occupation; even when subjects had nothing to do with the production of crops, they still inherited the cultural predispositions of their farming forebears.

The differences between the cultures are attributed to the different demands of the two kinds of agriculture. Rice farming depends on complicated irrigation and the cooperation of farmers around the use of water. It also requires twice the amount of labor that is necessary for wheat, so rice-growing communities often stagger the planting of crops in order that all their members can help with the harvest. Wheat farming, by contrast, doesn’t need complicated irrigation or systems of cooperation among growers.

The implication of these studies is that the way we see the world and act in it—whether the end result is gender inequality or trusting strangers— is significantly shaped by internal beliefs and norms that have been passed down in families and small communities . It seems that these norms are even taken with an individual when he moves to another country. But how might history have such a powerful impact on families, even when they have moved away from the place where that history, whatever it was, took place?

Advance of Knowledge and Generations

Knowledge has advanced greatly just within my relatively short lifetime.

The internet, of course, has grown exponntially which has brought social media and alternative media. This has made knowledge more widely available and more easily accessible, but it has also opened up dialogue. If you write a blog post about some particular place (country, city, region, etc), it is qute likely that someone from that place or familiar with that place will respond in the comments. I find myself regularly interacting with people I would never have met prior to the internet.

There is also a general increase in data, especially demographics and polls. This partly is just because there are more organizations gathering data and naintaining databases. Computers have made it easier and cheaper to store data. Plus, companies offering data services have become profitable such as genealogy websites.

Even scientific data has become more accessible. The ease of data gathering now makes scientific research easier and cheaper. Along with adverisers, scientists have been sifting through the vast repositories of data.

It was the scientific angle that got me thinking. Every ideology and opinion is potentially a hypothesis to be tested. However, some ideologies predispose individuals to holding opinions of mistrust or even denialism toward scientists and others who gather and/or analyze data. Some people respond to new info with excitement and curiosity while others respond with fear and defensiveness.

Some of this is just personality differences. Whatever the cause, it creates a strange predicament for our info saturated modern society.

For most of human existence and civilization, humans just muddled along with no hope of learning much about the world around them. If you had an idea and the power to enforce it, you could create a religion or government and that was just the way it was. There was no scientifically testing of claims about someone’s idea being better than someone else’s. Jesus existed because the church said so and there were no academic historians to challenge that claim. A particular country was the best because the king said so and there was no scientist to do a cross-nationl analysis.

All of that has changed. There is no claim that has remained safe from questions and criticisms, from study and analysis. If you believe that some system is more efficient or some group more biased or whatever else, then it is your responsibility to prove it. However, there are some people who don’t like this. It makes me wonder what they are afraid of. Why wouldn’t a person want to know that their belief isn’t supported b the evidence? What is so horrible about changing one’s mind?

A new generation has grown up in this information age and they never experienced the world that came before. They are perfectly comfortable with all the information overload. They have more trust in science (and less blind faih in religion). As the older generations retire and die, what kind of world will the younger generations create in the coming decades?

The democracy of e-books

Here is the link to a blog post by Quentin S. Crisp:

The business of books

The following are my responses. I want to be clear about one thing, though. These are my responses to my perception of Crisp’s presented view in this particular blog. My specific perceptions here, of course, may not be entirely accurate and most likely involves various biases and projections.

To speak of Crisp more generally, I like him and agree with him more than not. In this particular case, however, I found myself having a bewildered response in trying to understand why Crisp’s ‘loathing’ was so strong, especially as his loathing seemed directed at a group of people of which I am a member, i.e., Kindle owners. 

My first response:

I’m of the type who thinks change just happens and there ain’t nothin’ can be done about it. After civilization began, it was all downhill from there. I’m fatalistic about progress. I embrace it until civilization collapses. I’m curious where it will lead before then.

I bought a Kindle for various reasons, but my original reason was that I wanted something to replace my electronic dictionary. I still buy some physical books, not as much as I used to though. It’s a good thing because I was running out of room in my apartment.

By the way, why does “just sayin'” irritate you so much? I would assume it originates from American English. I’ve used the phrase “just sayin'” on occasion. I just find it amusing to say. It’s silly and stupid.

As I read your blog post, I must admit I felt some gut response to defend the world wide web. It’s ‘democracy’ in all of its beauty and ugliness. As Freck said in A Scanner Darkly, “Well, I like it.”

In early America, the government gave subsidies to presses so that it would be cheaper to publish newspapers and books. This would also meant more opportunities for writers. Of course, not everyone had a newspaper column like people now have blogs. But I’m sure the average published writing back then wasn’t all that well-edited. I was wondering about this. It would be an interesting analysis to look at first editions of books across the centuries to find out when writing was the most well-edited according to the standard grammar of the time period.

Having more writers does create more chaos. Even so, I’d point out that (since you were blogging about VALIS) I’m with PKD in having faith in chaos and the good it can safeguard. The corollary to chaos is innovation. Every age of innovation began with the crumbling of the previous age. We can’t know if it will lead to progress or destruction, but either way it can’t be avoided.

My second response:

On the whole I’m more sympathetic to chaos than order, as anyone who’s visited my flat can probably testify, but I think I’m most sympathetic of all to benign chaos – that is, self-regulating chaos of the idyllic kind which seems to be championed in the Dao De Jing, etc.

I’m also a man of much personal chaos. But there is a difference between one’s own chaos and someone else’s. And, as you say, there is a difference between benign chaos (benign to me, at least) and other varieties of chaos. I don’t know how benign PKD saw chaos, but he didn’t see chaos as an automatic enemy. He saw the divine as that which can’t be controlled, that which in fact will seek to avoid control. The divine sought hiding in the chaos so as to not to be found by the demiurgic forces that seek to control the world for their own purposes.

The argument that is always raised with any new technology, when anyone objects, is basically that “it’s all good” or “you can’t stop change”. But the same argument is never used in the case of politics. In politics, the points themselves are generally argued, and people, however stupid their decisions may be as related to the points, hardly ever just revert to “all change is good and/or inevitable.” So why do this with technology, which is, after all, as much of human manufacture as politics?

That may be true for some or even for most, but it ain’t true for me. I see two warring tendencies in society’s progress. There are those who see all progress as good and those see all progress as bad. An interesting middle position is that of Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Empathic Civilization. In Rifkin’s analysis, the progress of civilization is both destructive and creative. On the creative end, new technology (for traveling and communication) increases collective empathy. But it does so at a very high cost. Will our empathy for other people and other life increase quickly enough that we will find solutions to the destruction we’ve caused?

I don’t know. I just thought such a way of thinking might be applicable to this issue as well. Modern society changes ever more quickly which means much of the past gets lost. With the introduction of Western culture (including the Western invention of the book), many indigenous cultures are destroyed and lost forever. Likewise, with the introduction of new technologies, the traditions of the West can also become endangered. However, there is also a counter trend. For example, the digitization of books has saved many books from the dustbin of history. Some of these books only had one physical copy left remaining in the world, but now anyone anywhere can read them.

I think people have been hypnotised into thinking technology is inevitable and has a kind of universal objectivity to it, in other words, that it doesn’t have cultural implications or cultural bias. But all technologies have cultural implications and biases. Someone has made a decision somewhere to switch tracks to this or that thing.

Yeah, that is true. Even a simple technology like books hypnotize us into a certain way of looking at and being in the world. The printing press probably was the first to create or at least widely promulgate this perception of inevitability and universal objectivity. The vision of inevitable progress goes at least back to the Age of Enlightenment. More broadly, of societies around the world, a collective decision over generations was made to switch from oral to written, from stone and clay to scrolls and then to books and now to e-books. No single person or even group of people is making this decision, but this isn’t to say that individual choices don’t have influence. It’s just that individuals are increasingly choosing e-books. Still, you are free to think people like me are wrong or stupid for choosing e-books.

My third response:

I think that PKD must have been at least ambivalent towards chaos. In Valis, he identifies ananke, or ‘blind chance’ (also translated as ‘necessity’, or could that be ‘you can’t stop change’?), as a symptom of evil in the universe, and generally seems to equate rationality and order with good.
Oh yeah. I’m sure PKD was ambivalent about lots of things. I should’ve clarified my thoughts. I was partly referencing PKD’s view of what he called “God in the gutter” or “God in the garbage”. PKD was fascinated with chaos, not that he idealized it.

People accept free will in politics and other areas of life, so why not in technology?

I have no clear opinion about freewill. Part of me is attracted to the view of philosophical pessimism. I don’t think individuals are all that free. We act according to our natures and our natures were formed (with genetics and early life experience) long before we had any opportunity to aspire to become self-willed agents. And, on the larger scale of society, I suspect we have even less willed influence.

As I see it, freewill is a very modern concept, if anything created by and magnified by technology. Books are just one of the early technologies that have formed the modern sense of self. the book format was first used by the early Christians and it was that era when individualism was beginning to become what we know of it. With modern technology, people have an even stronger sense of self and of a self-willed relation to the world.

The problem you seem to be perceiving is that as the masses gain more freedom then more specific groups lose their monopoly on specific areas. When everyone can be a writer, everyone can influence the culture of writing, not just ‘professional’ published authors. Writing is no longer an elite profession. The internet and other new technologies have democratized writing and empowered the average person. For example, I’m just a parking ramp cashier and yet I’m talking to you, a published author. Online, I am equal to you and we’re both equal to everyone else. Power and authority have little meaning online, unless you’re one of the people who owns a major internet company like Google.

You have a sense, as an author, of losing power even as many people around the world are gaining power through more opportunities of reading and writing. But that isn’t how I see it. A small press author like you gets more readers from more countries for the very reason of newer technology. A century ago, you might never have been published at all or have remained almost entirely unknown. There are trade-offs. You gain more ability to reach more people but so does everyone else. Also, you have been self-publishing recently. Yes, you are more careful in editing, but because of limits of funds many small press publishers (whether self-published or not) often have issues with quality editing as it is very time consuming. I know Mike has bought expensive small press books with many editing problems. So why blame the average person for such issues? Why should anyone get to decide who can publish or not? Who would be on this publishing board of literary oligarchs?

I know you aren’t actually promoting oligarchy or anything. But how do you think the average person would be persuaded to your position? Considering the increase of writers among average people, you’d probably have a hard time even convincing writers of your position. This, however, doesn’t mean your position is wrong. Many of my own positions seem in the minority which doesn’t cause me to stop holding those positions. However, on this issue and as an American, I do have a healthy skepticism of any elite who wishes to tell the masses what they should do. Maybe if I were a part of the elite of professional published writers my views would be different… or maybe not. Matt Cardin bought a Kindle before I did. Mike is a collector of rare books and a lover of a fine book. He also has been considering buying an e-reader so as to not to have to read the expensive copies of books he owns.

There are a couple of factors I see.

First, there is an increase of freewill rather than a decrease. It’s just that there is greater equality of freewill (more opportunities to influence, more choices available) than ever before in all of the history of civilization. However, this creates other problems. As the ability to publish writing spreads to the lower classes, the upper classes lose control of defining correct and acceptable grammar. As the English language spreads to diverse cultures, British English becomes less dominant in defining correct and acceptable English grammar. For example, the more informal American English has become more popular because of American media.

Second, there is the development of large corporations. It’s ultimately not the average person defining writing and publishing. Large corporations (like Amazon and book publishing companies) aren’t democracies. This is probably where your insight fits in. These big businesses often promote a false sense of freedom and opportunity. What we’re experiencing is a shift of who is the elite controlling society. In the US, the founders were mostly an intellectual elite and small business owners who were actually fighting against a transnational corporation (British East India Company). But now such transnational corporations have taken over every major country and economy and taken over society in general. It’s the corporate elite, instead of the traditional intellectual elite, who now mostly control the publishing of books. It’s also large corporations who own most of the media companies (newspapers, tv, movies, internet, etc). It’s these companies who have the greatest power to influence language and there main motivation is profit, not maintaining the proud tradition of literature.

Eugenics was ‘progress’ and a new idea once. Should we have accepted it merely on those terms?

There is always the question of defining ‘progress’. I would, of course, agree that not all ‘progress’ is good.

However, I would point out that eugenics as a basic idea isn’t new. Spartans supposedly threw deformed babies off of a cliff. Male cats when they become the new alpha male will often kill the kittens of the former alpha male. The only modern part is that eugenics was able to be done on a larger scale and done with more precision. I would say that eugenics isn’t progress itself, although it can be used in the service of certain visions of progress.

I think everything I’ve said still stands. If there were concomitant spritual or social progress, technological progress would be simply useful, possibly irrelevant, probably harmless. But I don’t think that genetic modification, for instance, will represent true progress, because it will be an amplification of the steering will of a number of individuals in order to wipe from existence the possibility of certain other steering wills.

I also think everything I’ve said still stands. 😉

Actually, I don’t know to what degree we disagree. Like you, I’m not blindly for progress. Mabye less like you, I’m not against progress either. Like most issues, I’m agnostic about progress. It brings out my fatalist side. I can read someone like Derrick Jensen and find myself strongly persuaded. All of civilization (books and e-readers alike) is built on and maintained through massive dysfunction, oppression and violence. On the other hand, nothing has yet stopped the march of civilization’s progress, despite millennia of doomsayers.

I honestly don’t think it matters whether I like e-readers or not. I loathe lots of things and yet those things continue to exist. I loathe war and yet my tax money funds wars where worse things than Kindles happen.

I own a Kindle not because I have a strong opinion in support of e-readers but because I have a strong opinion about reading. I like to read and love books, in any and all formats. An e-book if it’s public domain is free and if not it’s still usually way cheaper than a physical book. As a relatively poor person, I can get more reading material for my money with e-books. As a person living in a relatively small apartment, I can from a practical perspective own more e-books than I could physical books. Even my public library already allows the public to ‘check out’ e-books. I personally like having my opportunities and choices increased. If that happens through e-readers, it is good by me. Or, if it happens by some other format, it is also good by me.

Similarly, I don’t see Kindle as a form of real progress, since what it does is allow people who don’t care about books and literature to call the shots.

Yes, I understand you feel strongly about this. But why does any individual get to decide which people are perceived to care? I suspect many of these people do care and some to a great degree. Like many normal people, I care. Don’t I matter? Defining who cares is like defining what is or isn’t literature, what is or isn’t art. In some ways, you might be right. Literature as we know it may be in the process of being destroyed. This is just like how Socrates was right that the oral tradition as he knew it was being destroyed by written texts. The ironic part is that Socrates supposed words are now recorded in text. It’s also ironic that your views here are recorded on a blog.

We don’t really know what will happen, and I hope the outcome ends up being more positive than negative, but I honestly don’t see much that’s positive coming out of it at the moment.

Yep. I don’t entirely lack hope, but in the long run I think it’s all doomed. We’re all just going along for the ride. Sometimes the ride is fun, often not.

Reading is already one of the most egalitarian of cultural media. It is an open university.

It’s true that it is to an extent an open university, but not equally so. Poor people in wealthy countries have a lot less access to this “open university”. And people in poor countries have had little access to it at all until very recently. The internet and e-books have opened up this “open university” to the entire world.

Now, however, Amazon have got the thin end of their wedge into reading, and I’m rather afraid (this seems to be the direction), that before long, Amazon (with Kindle) will be saying, “All those who want to come to reading, must do so by me, and my technology. All those who want to come to writing, must do so by me, and my technology. Keep up. Plug in. Buy the next model.”

The issue of transnational corporations taking over the world isn’t the same as the issue of e-readers, although like everything in life there is overlap. Right now, there are numerous devices (computers, tablets, pads, e-readers, smart phones, etc) that anyone can use to read almost any book (or at least any book that has been digitized) and such devices are becoming cheaper and more widely available. Right now, even poor people can access some kind of device that allows them to access the entire world’s library of public domain literature. I see that as a good thing.

Yes, many plutocrats would like to use the power and wealth of corporations to take over the world. They might be successful, but don’t blame the average person who simply wants more freedom and opportunity to cheaply and easily access reading material. In time, the natural trend of things should lead to open source e-readers being developed just as there are open-source computers and browsers.

The difference between us, in this matter, seems to be where we direct our loathing the most. The main problem I see is a plutocratic elite rather than the democratic masses. Democracy can be messy and ugly, but I think it’s better than the alternative. You seem to be equating the plutocratic elite with the democracy-seeking masses because the former is always trying to manipulate the latter. Even if the latter is being manipulated, why blame them instead of those who manipulate? Why not try to end their being manipulated rather than trying to end their having influence?

I realize that you have an old fashioned respect for the intellectual elite. I do too in many ways. I think the demise of the intellectual elite has had major problems. Maybe there will always be an elite. If so, I’d choose an intellectual elite over a plutocratic elite. In case you’re interested, Chris Hedges writes about the loss of power and influence among the intellectual elite in his book Death of the Liberal Class.

I would emphasize that this issue is part of a larger set of issues. Reading, writing and publishing are being democratized just as knowledge and education is being democratized. The first public library was only in recent centuries. For most of the history of ‘Great Literature’, most people had little or no access to any book besides the Bible and often not even that. Public education is likewise very new. I think it was Jefferson who helped create the first publicly funded university. Now, starting in the mid 20th century, almost anyone in the West can go to college if they really want to and if they have basic intelligence.

There is another tidbit of history related to American and British history. Thomas Paine was a working class craftsman. His father, a Quaker, taught him a love of learning and made sure he received a basic education. But lack of money and social position disallowed Paine to follow a scholarly profession. Fortunately, he went to London where he discovered many self-educated people. The lower classes weren’t allowed into the universities and so these people paid people to give them lectures. It was the rise of democracy that first took form through knowledge and education. From the perspective of the elite, this led to what was seen as chaos challenging tradition, the masses challenging authority. It probably didn’t look like democracy as we know it. During this era, there was much rioting and violence. An old order was collapsing.

The democratization of knowledge and education has led to problems in some ways. It created a literate middle class who mostly read crappy pulp fiction, but it also created a massive publishing industry that made books available to average people. It’s this pulp fiction industry that allowed someone like PKD to make a living at writing, despite the literary elite at the time thinking his writing was worthless.

I’m far from being an optimist, but apparently I’m the one defending optimism. I suppose I’m just playing Devil’s Advocate. Maybe it’s easy for me to be an optimist as I don’t have skin in the game in the same way you do. Your livelihood is dependent on book publishing. Nonetheless, I would point that, from a practical perspective, if you want to continue to make a living as an author, you should embrace e-readers. However, if principle is more important than profit, you are free to fight the Goliath to your dying breath. I wouldn’t hold that against you. We all have to pick our fights.

Rise of the Creative Class & Second Axial Age

Profit, greed, selfishness… are these the primary motivations of human nature?

I’ve always thought that humans aren’t primarily selfish. Going by my studies of psychology, humans seem to be primarily social animals. However, modern society forces people into a self-centered mentality. The problem is that this isn’t natural. It worked well enough in the past when society was hierarchical and when the central ideal of society was merely that of success. Using this mindset, many people became filthy rich and very powerful. But we no longer live in the times of the Robber Barons.

The Industrial Age attitude of individualism is being replaced by the very different view which is encouraged by this new Technological Age. All you have to do is look at the Millennials who grew up on technology. They have much more of a group mentality. They’re more interested in cooperation than competition. It’s not that they don’t want to succeed, but they just are less likely to define success as being the result of the isolated actions of an individual. The technological Age is slowly creating a less hierarchical society. Out of this, a creative class is arising.

I’ve always found it strange that conservatives are so embracing of Social Darwinism. This is particularly strange with Christian fundamentalists who believe their culture is superior and often this is identified with “white culture” or “Western culture”. It’s the idea that we genocidally destroyed the Native American cultures and so our culture is superior. We deserve our superior position because our culture is superior (i.e., stronger, more dominant, more forceful, more successful). We won. You lost. The same for the African-Americans. Conservatives whites love to complain about the black culture being dysfunctional which is rather convenient since the black culture was destroyed by whites.

I wonder how much this has to do with Christianity. Not all Christians have this superior attitude, but it has been a far from uncommon attitude throughout the history of Christianity. Christians have always been about “spreading the Good Word”. Unlike the views of many Eastern religions, not everyone is guaranteed of being saved in Christianity. In fact, there is the idea of an elect few who will be saved and this idea has been popular since the beginning of Christianity. There were other views within the Christian tradition. Universalism (i.e., everyone is saved) has also been a part of Christianity from the beginning, but unlike Buddhism or Hinduism it never gained much traction within mainstream Christianity.

It’s interesting that “white culture” Christian fundamentalism is on the decline at the very same time that the creative class is on the rise. But it isn’t surprising. My guess is that the creative class tends to be liberal and open to alternative lifestyles such as atheism and agnosticism. Buddhism, or certain traditions of Buddhism, have become very popular as well in the creative class, the educated class, the liberals. The greatest spokesperson for this new attitude is probably the Dalai Lama who is of course a Buddhist.

At the same time, the developing world is simultaneously embracing both the model of materialistic success and the modern attitude of religious fundamentalism. I’ve always thought that Karen Armstrong was correct when she identified religious fundamentalism as a modern phenomenon, a reaction to Industrialization and demographic shifts forcing the mixing of cultures. In the US (along with Europe and countries such as Japan), we’ve assimilated this change and it has become a part of our identity. Particularly, the US demographics are shifting so quickly that the newest generation is already past much of the old racial/cultural conflicts.

The Industrialized West is entering terra incognito. There are some people (*ahem* conservatives *cough cough*) who don’t want their world to change, but like it or not the world is changing and there is no going back. As a liberal, I’m very curious where it’s all heading. I don’t see Western Culture as a static artifact or a set of laws set in stone. The entire history of the West has been of progress. The very idea and ideal, the very narrative of progress is at the heart of the Western Culture.

I should add that this doesn’t mean that Christianity is simply being left in the dust of the 21st century. If there is one thing that Christianity has proven itself to be, it is that it’s an evolving tradition which is very flexible and adaptable (the grand ideal of cultural mixing of the Greco-Romans). Christianity is shifting partly because the culture wars are shifting. It used to be the God-fearing Americans versus the Godless Commies. However, we no longer have a great enemy like the Soviet Union and the enemy we are focused on is even more religiously fundamentalist. The atheists and agnostics have gained a foothold and are growing, but more importantly even religious Americans think about religion differently. When Christianity was politicized by conservatives it became a competition of values where one side had to win at the cost of the other side. The young generations no longer see it that way and they don’t like the way religion has become politicized.

Why has Christianity been shifting so dramatically in recent decades? The most obvious explanation is that biblical studies itself has changed as it became free of church control and as new texts were discovered.

What is taking place of politicized Christianity? That is easy to figure out. Just listen to what the religious right is complaining about. Presently, the most vocal defender of the religious right is Glenn Beck. So, what is Glenn Beck complaining about? Social Justice Christians. What is different about these liberal Christians? For one, they tend towards the ideas of Unitarianism and Universalism. Many Christians have been fighting for these ideals for centuries, but only in this last century have they had great impact on US culture (although there was a Universalist European country in the past). My basic point is that this is a less competitive and more inclusive view of religion. It’s what Martin Luther King, jr was speaking about when he said he had a Dream. The Social Justice Christians argue that this was the very message that Jesus spoke of.

Of course, this Dream is older than Christianity. To speak of it broadly, this is the vision and ideal of human rights.

Many people have spoken of a world that wasn’t or shouldn’t be just dog eat dog. There is an ancient idea that humans, all humans have inherent worth.

One thing I’d is that of the Axial Age. Many cultures around the world developed along similar lines at about the same time. It wasn’t that the idea of human rights simply spread out from a single point. There was something inherent to human culture that hits a tipping point where human rights become a collective ideal and aspiration.

It’s been more than a couple of millennia since the beginning of the Axial Age. We Westerners like to think we’re so advanced and yet we’re still processing the radical change, the cultural shift that happened so long ago. Some argue that we’re in a Second Axial Age.

I’m not exactly optimistic. I do feel that something is trying to be born, but the birth pangs are going to be painful.

I can’t speak of certainties in the context of global society and what it may become. My point is simply that culture itself is shifting, attitudes are changing. It’s something that is happening on the level of relationships and communities, on the level of everyday communication and interactions. More important than anything else, people are changing on a fundamental level. It’s not about what is happening in politics, not about what leaders are deciding, not about what the plans and agendas international corporations project into the future. 

No one knows what is coming. There is no one at the top who is in control.

Ephemeral Media

Many things are changing with the new media. I remember a time when I was but a wee child sitting blank-eyed in front of picture box. When I wanted to change the channel, I had to stand up and manually turn a knob. That was about as interactive as it got, but now with the world wide web interactive is the name of the game.

There is a specific change I had in mind. It’s become increasingly apparent that the new media is simultaneously more permanent and more ephemeral. If you’ve ever posted, commented or uploaded anything on the web, you can try to remove it but you can never be sure it’s entirely gone. Someone else could’ve downloaded it or copy/pasted it. The web trawlers capture almost anything that has been up any amount of time.

That said, it’s easy for things to disappear or become inaccessible. I’ve noticed the fickleness of search engines. I’ve known something exists, but couldn’t find it in a search. Or you can know precisely what you’re looking for and yet look through hundreds of results before finding it.  Search engines only show what the web trawler has noticed and it only shows results according to equations of relevance. And if you live in China, much of the world’s internet would be entirely invisible to you. You can’t know about what you can’t see.

My thoughts, however, are focused on another aspect. A famous example is the Kindle book that was simultaneously removed from everyone’s Kindle because Amazon didn’t have the rights. That would be like if a bookseller did a recall and entered everyone’s home while they were sleeping to retrieve the book. Another example was a cellphone company that managed to lose all of its customers data (contact info and whatever else).

More pertinent to my own experience are examples related to online forums and websites. The first forum I was an active member of closed down a while back. The sad part was it just disappeared one day without warning. I had many wonderful discussions that were almost entirely lost… except what the web trawlers managed to save. Could you imagine if real life communities could just disappear instantly like that? In the case of the forum I mentioned, I did still have contact with some of the other members through other sites… but it still sucked.

Even more recently, the only other online community I’ve been active in also shut down. It was where my first blog was. Fortunately, I had a two week warning. I realized, though, that I wouldn’t have had a warning at all if someone hadn’t told me about it because I hadn’t visited the site as much in recent months. If someone hadn’t sought me out on my new blog, I might’ve lost all of my old blogs… and that would’ve really sucked.

The people from that community have mostly moved over to Ning and started new communities. That is fine. I wasn’t too sad about any of it, but I learned something about Ning that gives me pause. The Ning management has an absolute policy about every individual having the rights to their own material. So, any person can delete everything they wrote, but the messed up part is that all responses to the deleted material will also be deleted. That is just not right.

A similar thing has happened to me on the local newspaper website, but on a smaller scale. If a comment gets reported for breaking some rule (such as slander), then that comment is removed and all responses to it automatically disappear as well.

One last example directly related to blogging itself. I have many posts in this blog. I have some of them saved, but not all of them. If someone hacked my account, they could delete my blogs or even cancel the account entirely. I’ve heard of examples on other blogging platforms where blogs get accidentally removed or deleted by a system error. Sometimes they are able to be put back up and sometimes not. I haven’t heard of any problems with WordPress, but it’s always a possibility.

To be fair, all of life is ephemeral. A fire could destroy all my books in a very short amount of time. In the past, I’ve lost a notebook that had personal writings in it. Or a more odd incident involved a pile of printed material I was saving that one of my cats peed on. That is life. Things get lost and destroyed, but there is something about a physical book, newspaper or magazine that feels more real because you can physically hold it and possess it. Writings on paper can last for centuries and millennia. If the internet collapsed or was destroyed, would it be as bad or worse than the burning of the library of Alexandria?