Silent “Matrix”

"I once tried to come up with a definition of art. Always a risky enterprise. But the best I could come up with was: create an arbitrary set of rules, and then follow them slavishly."
The Box

Richard Kelly’s The Box isn’t out yet, so I don’t know how accurate this promotional copy is, but I do find its use of the phrase “impossible moral dilemma” to be pretty funny:

What if someone gave you a box containing a button that, if pushed, would bring you a million dollars…but simultaneously take the life of someone you don’t know? Would you do it? And what would be the consequences? The year is 1976. Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) is a teacher at a private high school and her husband, Arthur (James Marsden), is an engineer working at NASA. They are, by all accounts, an average couple living a normal life in the suburbs with their young son…until a mysterious man with a horribly disfigured face (Frank Langella) appears on their doorstep and presents Norma with a life-altering proposition: the box. With only 24 hours to make their choice, Norma and Arthur face an impossible moral dilemma.

Hmm… which is the moral choice? Press the button or not?  We wouldn’t even know the victim! And a million dollars is an awful lot of money.

It would be entirely comic, this mistaking of a clear moral choice for a “moral dilemma,” if it weren’t baked into just about everything we do as a society, including how we make war.

Yangians and Savagites

Brooklyn scene-mate Wesley Yang has a trenchant essay in last week’s New York Magazine analyzing the corpus of their recurring "Sex Diaries" feature. Having read every single diary (no mean feat in itself), Yang makes the observation that they’re not really about hedonism but rather about a whole host of underlying anxieties: about choosing partners correctly, about not being rejected, and so on. An excerpt:

7. The anxiety of appearing prudish.
The Diarists are eager to show themselves to have conquered modesty—as if anyone is still insisting they be modest. This is particularly true of the young women—and the Diaries are full of them—who operate at the weird place where male pornographic fantasies and their own fantasies of self-empowered pleasure converge:

11:39 p.m. Dance with a couple of my girlfriends. We spot some cute guys in the corner checking us out. Decide to give the guys a show and lock lips with one another. Watch guys’ jaws drop to the floor.

As for pornography, it plays a role in an extraordinary number of Diaries. Still, few Diarists of either sex are willing to betray any discomfort with it, per se. (“See, I have no issue with porn,” one Diarist assures us when discussing his friend’s enormous collection.) Instead they worry about everything related to porn. Its price, for instance. Or a partner’s overindulgence. Occasionally they do fear that the consumption of it may be wearing them out. This, it seems, is incontestable.

Do read the whole thing. What I love about Yang’s piece is that it manages, without being reactionary or prudish itself (that anxiety again!), to get at what’s so unsatisfying and (ultimately) unbelievable about so much of our discourse on sex.

For example, I’m an avid reader of Savage Love, Dan Savage’s great syndicated sex column. I really love it, and I don’t for a moment doubt either the veracity of the letters Savage gets (except in those cases where he himself calls bullshit on them), or the general wisdom of his advice.

But when you read Savage’s column (plus the Letters of the Day that he posts on The Stranger's blog), you wind up getting a cumulative vision of human sexuality that seems a bit… skewed. “Utopian” is perhaps too strong a word for Savage's sexual outlook, but it's definitely universalist and it's definitely sunny: in his vision, everyone's got their kink, or at least a big healthy libido, and if you don't, well, then repression or some other weird internal bugbear is probably to blame. Sex really is the end in itself, the thing to be pursued, the thing to be celebrated. It's almost a modernist pose, wherein libertinism (within the reasonable limits of safety and fairness) is a straight line to liberation.

Yang, by contrast, thinks that questions of loneliness and belonging are deeper than questions of sex, indeed are informing all our sexual decisions.  His is a much darker view, obviously — maybe too dark, since he could have just as easily discerned dreams as well as anxieties in NYMag’s showy couplings. One might even say that there’s an aesthetics governing sexual and romantic decisions, and that it’s this aesthetics, and not necessarily a repressive (or moral) force, that leads some people to choose less sex over more. At any rate, I am definitely in the Yangian camp on this one, and look forward to more pieces from him.

The “flash” Tea Party didn’t do so well, I guess.

"When health-care reform is finished, there are going to be two books worth writing. The first is the book about the public option, which is also the book about the health-care reform fight that most of us watched. The second is the book about everything else, which, in part because of the consuming controversy around the public option, happened quietly and largely behind closed doors."
Ezra Klein. Man do I not want to read either of those books.

Ooh wee.

A national spam economy

as imagined by the Onion News Network:

"A problem with the industry"

Via Romenesko, the NYTPicker reports on Times tech reporter David Pogue responding to his critics, who think it’s a conflict of interest for Pogue to write books about tech companies while he’s also reviewing their products. While Romenesko and NYTPicker spotlight Pogue’s rather disingenuous assertion that he is “not a reporter,” the part of his remarks that really grabbed me was this:

"In point of fact this is a problem with the industry. And not so much me alone….It’s about context. Dwight [Silverman] admitted to you that he writes for the Houston Chronicle. And he wrote a Windows book at the same time that he was writing about Windows for the paper. ….and Ed Baig, who writes for an even bigger newspaper than I do, he writes for USA Today, the equivalent column, he wrote Macs for Dummies, Palm Pre: The Missing Manual, he wrote an iPhone book at the same time as he was reviewing those. Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal makes, I think The New Yorker said, $1 million a year off of the D Conferences, where Steve Jobs and Bill Gates make exclusive appearances, the very guys whose products he reviews.

"So it’s a growing problem. You’d probably have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t have a problem like this."

A growing problem… with the industry! Let’s parse that: what’s the problem that the industry has?  The problem is that, despite pulling down big salaries to give unbiased product reviews, everyone in “the industry” wants more money! Can’t you see what a terrible systemic problem has ensnared David Pogue?

"[W]hat is being celebrated here is the ideology of no ideology—the ascendancy of the Nora Ephron view of the world, which may be succinctly described as “food and drink and bathroom fixtures.” What moves such a heart most (aside from children, the poor, and the homeless) are amenities and trivialities. The conferring of importance upon the unimportant, and of unimportance upon the important: this is a mark of decadence, the cognitive inversion of people who live “mostly in aesthetic terms” because they have secured themselves materially—or so they would like to believe—against philosophy and pain. They live for lightness and distraction. Their laughter is the sound of luck. They acquit themselves of their intellectual obligations with opinions."
Every technology will flourish!

As a lover of falsely precise charts about not actually quantifiable phenomena, I’m obviously a sucker for the Gartner Hype Cycle, the latest report on which was just released:

I do find it hilarious, though, that Gartner refuses (for obvious commerical reasons) to predict the disappearance of any of the technologies on the chart.  Look at the legend: they even create a category of “obsolete before plateau” but then refuse to consign a single technology to that category. Way to go out on a limb, there, Gartner!

"Seven Truths about Viral Culture"

A while back I did a Q&A over tea with AdAge’s Simon Dumenco, but only yesterday did he post it to the magazine’s website. No doubt because of his very artful arrangement (a numbered list of “truths about viral culture”), it’s currently the #1 most-read piece on!  What, slow week in the ad biz? Hasn’t someone made a blockbuster new spot with a talking panda in it or something?

I have only one edit I’d make to the Q&A, if I could. Here’s the second “truth”:

2. On the internet, as in life, forget the white-hot center; the margins are what matter.

Wasik, in conversation: “The other fundamental metaphor of the flash mob was the idea of, like, people are going to come together for no reason at all other than that other people are coming together there. I mean, that was sort of always how I felt about New York. The idea that, Oh, I’m in New York, and I’m gonna get as close as possible to the white-hot center of things. But then the closer you get to it, the more you realize that the white-hot center of things is, like, a bunch of middle-aged fat people in a room sipping vodkatinis, and they’re not talking about anything interesting, because the actual work is being done a little further to the margins by people who are still trying to get closer to the center.”

My point wasn’t quite that “the margins are what matter.” Really, what I meant was that the desire to get closer to the center, the act of striving for that center — even though we find the center, when we get close enough, to be essentially hollow — is what matters.

On some level, my book (like my recent Times op-ed) is an extended meditation on the Internet as the new locus for ambition.  That’s a loaded word, of course, and I don’t mean it in an especially pejorative way.  Day by day we all do what we do, creatively and otherwise, for a whole host of different reasons. But over the long haul, there’s a little kernel of something that makes us — some of us, that is — want to go out find an audience, and then to find a bigger audience once we’ve got a small one. That little something is what gets us to New York, instead of someplace more hospitable, or makes us send out pitches and do open mics and put together bands etc. Today, it’s easy to see that little something is sending us online. It’s where the excitement is, where the audience is.

So much of our discourse about the Internet tries to make our participation in it about everything besides ambition: connection, belonging, love, “self-expression,” etc. Obviously the Internet is about all that stuff, too. I wouldn’t bother to focus so much on ambition in online culture if it didn’t seem like there were a conspiracy to elide its role. All these technology pundits — who are nothing if not hyperambitious themselves — look out into the sea of users and see them all as earnest naïfs longing for simple, human connection, or as puppyish fanboys eager to toil anonymously for days on end in a “remix” culture; as anything except ambitious, as people who want to make a name, who want fans, who want basically the same things that the tech gurus want.

Are all the participants in Internet culture like that, or even a majority? Certainly not. But I’d argue — and I do argue, in the book — that the ones who succeed in winning an audience online tend to be precisely those who do so with old-fashioned drive.

"Just over a month from now, Justice Sonia Sotomayor will take on one of the most demanding jobs in the land."
(NYT) Really? One of the most demanding in the land?
Most awesome .gov domain name EVER

Is some other federal agency squatting on all the good lupus URLs?

Thoughts on that “Modern Love”

I’ve been puzzling over the #1-most-emailed Modern Love column on managing a husband who wants to move out. I guess if I’ve been puzzling over a Modern Love column this long, it can’t be all bad. Some disconnected thoughts:

(1) This approach probably works in a shocking number of situations, because this central insight —

I was not at the root of my husband’s problem. He was. If he could turn his problem into a marital fight, he could make it about us. I needed to get out of the way so that wouldn’t happen.

— is so often correct.

(2) But what about all the situations there this WON’T work? Is it good advice? I guess she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have physically stopped him from moving out. So if he’d really wanted to, he could have done it. And probably, in that case, she’s still better off having treated him like a child; in that case, even though he’d left, she’d still be sitting on the nice high ground, waiting for him but never begging, etc.

(3) OK. So maybe this is a great idea. What’s weird, though, is how essentially religious this whole idea is, without being religious. She’s essentially saying that the family is a non-negotiable bond for her husband, the way it is for a small child. This is the kind of thinking we normally associate with appeals to a higher power.

(4) But she doesn’t mention God; so on whose authority is the family unbreakable? The crazy thing is, the answer is basically her own refusal to suffer. That’s the mindblowing crux of the whole theory. He has to remain a part of the family forever because she refuses to suffer: that refusal is her God. Basically what this woman has done is burrow so far into a sprituality of the self that she’s actually finding a binding commitment for other people in it.

(5) This makes this essay, to my knowledge, the only Styles section article to date that sets forth an entirely new and entirely radical cosmology.

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