Goodbye, Information Age

Fake news“Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now,” is the headline of an article by Italian philosopher and professor Gloria Origgi, published recently on Aeon Magazine’s website.

She writes:

…the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

I no longer need to open a computer, go online and type my questions into Google if I want to know something: I can simply ask it. “Hey Google, what’s the population of China?” or “Hey Google, who’s the mayor of Midland, Ontario?” or “Hey Google, how many lines are in Hamlet?” Google will answer with all the data. If I ask, “Hey Google, what are the headlines this morning?” it will play a recent CBC newscast.

Google Home can, however, only give me a summary, a snippet, a teaser. Should I want to delve deeper or into than one question, I still need to go online and search. And that leads me into the information swamp that is the internet. How do i sort it all out?

The way we access information has changed as radically as the amount available to us. Just look at the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2018: “Nomophobia” which means “a fear or worry at the idea of being without your mobile phone or unable to use it”.

Describing a typical day in his life, Dan Nixon writes of how we isolate ourselves with out phones, imagining they are instead connecting us:

…the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing.

What could there be that is so engaging on the phone that the writer cannot use the time to, say, think? Read? Observe? Communicate with his fellow travellers? Eleven studies found that “…participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” The phone serves as a personal barrier to interaction instead of facilitating it. It’s a feedback loop: making it seem we are “doing something” by giving us a sensory response, while making it seem that simply thinking is “doing nothing.”

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Seneca, Letter II to Lucilius, trans. Robin Campbell, Penguin Classics: Letters from a Stoic, 2004.

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Gilgamesh four thousand years later

GilgameshGilgamesh continues to enthrall us, even after more than 100 years of translations and interpretations. The story continues to be told and retold and even re-imagined. There’s even a children’s version of the tale.

You can read a version here, in PDF format or an online version here.Translations and transliterations (if you know your Akkadian…) are here. There was likely an oral version shared even before writing was invented – if you really want to know what that might have sounded like, listen to some modern recordings of old Babylonian poetry here.

Gilgamesh is not simply humankind’s earliest written legend – it’s also a powerful story that tells us about what it means to be human, to be part of a greater community. It’s about growing up, about friendship, fear, loss, death, sex, magic, faith, pride, finding wisdom and the meaning of life.

Several texts of the Gilgamesh epic have been found, all of them fragmentary, so part of the retelling is collecting the pieces and assembling them into a whole. They are also in other languages including Elamite and Hurrian. It is also a personal tale based on a man many archaeologists believe to have been real: the King of the city-state of Uruk,* some time between 2750 and 2500 BCE.

While the story itself dates back to the late third millennium BCE, the earliest tablets – Sumerian versions of the epic – date come from the city of Ur around 2150-2000 BCE. The Akkadian version is from about 1900 BCE.

The Gilgamesh story is the earliest work of literature known, and was so popular it spread throughout the great Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumeria, Babylon, Akkad and others. The great epic was still being repeated and written down on clay tablets during the Hittite rule a thousand years later. That alone shows the power of its storytelling.

Some parts – like the Flood myth – even made their way into the Bible, albeit wrapped in a different religious blanket.Four thousand years later, this story still captures our imagination.
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One Million B.C.(E.)

One Million BC(E)
You can’t help but chuckle when Tumak runs down the rocky slope to battle the baby Triceratops (about the size of a Sheltie) and ends up rolling in the dirt with the all-too-obvious rubber model. I half-expected it to squeak like a dog toy.

Akoba and TumakIt’s just one of the many scenes in the 1940 version of One Million BC that make makes it fun to watch. Corny, yes, cheesy, perhaps. But mostly fun. And it was the top-grossing film of the year; that’s no small accomplishment.

The film is basically a Romeo-and-Juliet love story with a happier ending. Throw in some moralizing, a bit of clumsy sexism, warped Darwinism, paleontological anachronisms, some special effects (of sorts… although nominated for an Academy Award for those effects, today they are pretty comical, some even cringeworthy…) and you have a good movie. For its time. Those effects don’t stand up quite so well nigh-on eighty years later, what with out CGI-dense extravaganzas, but don’t give up on it too quickly.

Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, we have the Stone people with their Romeo (Tumak – Victor Mature) and the Shell people and their Julie (Loana – Carole Landis). And there’s no Mercutio. Or a friendly Friar Laurence. But there is Akhoba – Tumak’s brutal father (Lon Chaney Jr) who gives the film its pathos in a poignantly moral scene, and Ohtao, the friendly rival for Loana’s love who takes his loss of lover and spear who takes the whole competition with a smile.

Call it Romeo and Juliet lite. Without even a syllable worthy of The Bard, of course, since everything vocal in the movie is either a grunt, growl or a made-up word (both tribes seems to speak in single-word sentences and seem to have vocabularies limited to only a handful of words per tribe). Others have pondered more deeply over the language than I, but I did wonder if they only had nouns; verbs were to be discovered only sometime in the future.

Carole LandisAnd despite the cornball (and egregiously inaccurate) notion of dinosaurs and cavemen co-existing, or even cavemen of this level of advancement a million years ago, or the hard-to-watch battles between real lizards (cruelty of a sort no longer allowed in cinema – it is a disturbing part of the film, although the monster scenes were re-stitched into several other B-films in later years), there’s still enjoyable watching here. Assuming you like B-films, that is. To which I always answer in the affirmative.

It’s shot in glorious black and white, has no sex and the violence is very tame (no blood and very few deaths). Even the loincloths and costumes aren’t particularly titillating even for the time (no fur bikinis like Raquel Welch wore in the 1966 sexploitation remake). However, the rather demure Carole Landis looks pretty fetching in her outfit. For the women in the audience, the clean-shaven and frequently topless Victor Mature was considered a romantic hunk in his day. Their romance is remarkably chaste given their skimpy outerwear.
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The slow death of media credibility

A story in the recent issue of New Republic opens:

“A decade of turmoil has left a weakened press vulnerable to political attacks, forced into ethical compromises, and increasingly outstripped by new forms of digital media.”

Collapsing media credibilityThis points to the continuing erosion of public confidence in traditional media. While this piece refers to national (American) and international media, it applies equally to local media – all types.

Traditional media has been disappearing under the waves of digital media for the past two decades. In its fight to stay afloat and retain audience, a lot of media outlets have tried to pander to the lowest common denominator: the public’s obsession with conspiracy, scandal, gossip, the glitterati and rude allegation. Nipple slips and leaked sex tapes in the headlines.

This grasping attempt at salvation sinks media’s credibility: going down that road it’s not long before every medium looks like the National Enquirer or the Daily Mail, with little to no relationship between what is printed and actual events. It’s not a long voyage from scandals and unfounded allegations to UFO abductions and chemtrail conspiracies. 

But decaying standards and disappearing journalism are not the only cause for its collapse. Cutting the staff necessary to do the job expected of them has helped guide it down the path.

Local radio stations lack news directors or reporters. There is no regular TV coverage of local events and issues (Council coverage on the Rogers-only community network being the exception; however it is tediously flat coverage without annotation, explanation or analysis). A single print reporter here is expected to cover all issues, events, sports and politics. But the local print media barely covers local news* and avoids anything controversial or that requires significant investigation. Plus with such little space dedicated to actual news in print, a vast array of issues and governance gets ignored.

Personal relations with politicians have tainted some local media and further reduced its credibility (avoiding controversy or criticism to prevent friends from embarrassment results in blandly supportive reporting that readers should distrust). Ads and computer-generated playlists get more vastly time and space than news in local media – which speaks to the audience about the media’s priorities.

How does the public become engaged without a reliable, credible news source? How does the public get to understand and decide on issues without investigative reporting to explain all the facts? How does the public even learn of events and issues when no media provides the space or time they require? How does the public choose its politicians at election time when the media has failed to provide unbiased coverage of local governance?

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Baby, It’s Politically Correct Outside…

Double facepalmI must have travelled to another universe because when I awoke, the world had gone mad. Radio stations were pulling a popular, rather over-played, 74-year-old, playful holiday song because some folks thought it was about rape. Sexual assault. Or at least non-consensual sex. The media was full of Chicken Littles screaming that the cultural sky was falling if radio stations continued to play it. The song was subject of weighty opinions on editorial pages.

What is going on in this strange, politically correct and apparently unhinged universe?

Let me back up. Two items appeared simultaneously on my Facebook timeline this week: one was a video of a peacock strutting around, trying to win over a pea hen by flashing his tail at her. The other was news that Baby, It’s Cold Outside was causing such a furor that radio stations were banning it. But these Facebook items are actually two aspects of the same thing.

The song is a duet, a playful banter between a man and a woman about, yes, sex. But not sex as in explicit. Inferred, yes, perhaps implied, but never stated. And never forced. The peacock video is also playful banter, albeit wordless and nothing is forced.

There are a hundred or more shows on Netflix you can watch right now that include graphic nudity, sex and even rape that don’t even try to hide behind innuendo. The abysmally-written mommy-porn novel, Fifty Shades of Grey was graphically explicit – and so popular it sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Sex and seduction are in the Bible – read the Song of Solomon! As far as I know, no one is having these banned or burned.

Is there some strange hypocrisy at work here? CBC writer Jessica Goddard wrote,

…nothing says “happy holidays” like the death of nuance and frantic institutional overreaction…
The accusation that Baby, It’s Cold Outside is about sexual assault is absurd unless you isolate the entire duet down to the lines “Say, what’s in this drink?” and “The answer is no.” That ignores the lyrics that suggest that same character internally wrestling with wanting to stay (“I wish I knew how / To break this spell,” “I ought to say ‘No, no, no sir’ / At least I’m gonna say that I tried”).

Baby, It’s Cold Outside is not pornographic or even bawdy. It’s about seduction and the age-old mating game. You know: the old tail-flashing peacock routine in the video a few tens of thousands shared without anyone being offended. You want bawdy, go listen to some madrigals or early Renaissance love songs.

If people were really kerfuffled about sexually explicit lyrics or misogynistic treatment of women, they’d have banned rap music years ago. No, this is unfathomably different.

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Astrology: millennials in search of woo hoo

Astology debunked“Astrology is not a science; there’s no evidence that one’s zodiac sign actually correlates to personality.” I was disappointed to read that line in a story in The Atlantic, a piece titled, “The New Age of Astrology: In a stressful, data-driven era, many young people find comfort and insight in the zodiac—even if they don’t exactly believe in it.

Disappointed not because it isn’t true – it is: astrology is woo hoo – but rather that writers still feel the need to state the obvious. It’s like a movie reviewer starting with “There’s no evidence that Batman is actually a real person.” Or a political columnist starting with “There’s no evidence Donald Trump can actually distinguish between truth and fiction.” Or a medical writer in an article saying, “There’s no evidence homeopathy actually works.” Some things are just so obvious they should not need to be repeated.

No one should ever have to remind others that astrology ISN’T a science. Or even an “alternate” belief because there’s no collective agreement on pretty much every part of it: hardly any two astrologers agree on interpretations, there are different types of charts and calculations used in different countries, the constellations are not the same as they were 3,000-plus years ago when astrology was first concocted, and constellations themselves are arbitrary associations of distant stars, not actual connections. Plus the whole thing was created before anyone knew about planets beyond Saturn, or the asteroids, or the moons of any planets.*

But sadly, what is evident to anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking is not always so for many people on social media, where simplistic memes – the digital equivalent of bumper stickers – often take the place of informed discussion and learned conversation. In part it comes with the declining IQ from people not reading longer articles, newspapers or books. And as the article’s author, Julie Beck wrote,

…astrology is perfectly suited for the internet age. There’s a low barrier to entry, and nearly endless depths to plumb if you feel like falling down a Google research hole. The availability of more in-depth information online has given this cultural wave of astrology a certain erudition—more jokes about Saturn returns, fewer “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” pickup lines.

Internet erudition is an oxymoron. It has allowed people to put words or terms into their vocabulary of which they have neither knowledge or understanding.

Words show up in memes in entirely the wrong use or context. Political terms like liberal, socialism, fascism and communism are all highly misused (especially, it seems, by Americans). GMO, health, natural, detox and chemical are frequently misused by diet-fad followers and “alternate healthcare” providers. Creationists dismiss evolution as merely a “theory” with no evident grasp of what a theory actually means in scientific terms.

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