Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Mandarins I

Despite the continued presence of houseguests, I've managed to make a small dent in the novel. So far I'm enjoying it a lot and it could end up becoming one of my favorites. The characters are intelligent, emotionally sophisticated, observant, articulate and free to a much greater degree than the characters in other novels that I've read. I feel as if I am reading the first adult novel since I finished Middlemarch, and Simone de Beauvoir is already becoming an imaginary friend.

The novel begins as World War II ends, and the characters are in the process of moving on after their lives have been disrupted and curtailed for four years. The men, loosely representing Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler, embark on new writing projects, while the women in their lives, though far more independent than the women you are likely to find in other fiction, mostly seem to frame their lives around the men. What strikes me is the frankness of the conversations and the self-awareness of the women, which exceeds that of fictional characters I've encountered elsewhere. I think all fiction writers should be required to read The Mandarins if they have any pretensions about describing people who are not morons. Only a few pages of this were enough to confirm my view that American fiction is fundamentally children's writing produced by emotionally stunted authors for sale to infantile readers. In American literary fiction, style, if you can call it that, has replaced substance.

I'm not as impressed with the male characters. Koestler seems cold, calculating and manipulative. Sartre seems wrapped up in questionable ideology. Camus is the most natural and appealing, though at heart he seems to be no more than a carefree writer. As a thinker, Sartre is the heavyweight of the three, but his serious philosophical works have not held up well. I am hoping to compare this group to current intellectuals who, I think, are narrower as people but perhaps no better or worse in terms of their ideas.

One phenomenon that is of interest to me is the dominance of socialistic thought among intellectuals throughout the twentieth century. You can still see remnants of it in Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky. I tend to agree with them with respect to capitalism, which has now been documented as a source of inequality, but I have been unable to understand the unquestioned faith in self-governance that dominates leftist thought. My skepticism has become one of the themes of this blog, because I have no confidence that people will ever be able to self-govern without causing significant ill effects like the ones we live with today. The question, to me, is not how to increase freedom, but how to circumscribe it fairly and rationally. I suspect that Sartre got this wrong and that his successors still do.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


I don't have much to report because I'm distracted by the arrival of visitors who disrupt my thoughts by their mere presence and strain me with their one-way conversations and humorlessness. I am waiting this out calmly.

I was just out for a walk and ran into Jim Douglas as he embarked on his; we discussed politics, since I had read his memoir and he used to be the governor. One of the things I like about Vermont is that a quiet, thoughtful, low-key person like Jim Douglas can actually win an election here. Of course, Vermont Republicans don't exactly fit the profile of Republicans in most states. He doesn't like Donald Trump and thinks Marco Rubio is too inexperienced.

I've started reading The Mandarins and think I'll enjoy it, if only for the glimpse it provides of the intellectuals of a different era. Unlike most intellectuals today, they went through difficult times and engaged each other in the café culture of Paris. Most of them didn't depend on faculty positions and lived more freely than our contemporary equivalent. It remains to be seen whether their ideas were any good – perhaps not – but certainly they don't exude that academic stench that pervades the so-called intellectuals in America today.

It may be a few days before I post again.

Thursday, December 17, 2015


For some reason I received an e-mail from Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, recruiting me to assist in a new process for winnowing down entries to their caption contest. Presumably I was selected because I was a finalist in the contest several years ago, but I was a little surprised to hear from him because I hadn't entered since then. For the last few weeks I have been participating in the process and enjoying it. I can see why they want help, because it would be tedious to sift through thousands of entries each week. Most of the entries aren't funny, and there are usually multiple similar ones. On top of that, I find that the pictures sometimes have little potential, and that makes finding a good caption even harder. Anyway, this isn't a bad diversion for me and it takes only a few minutes each week. I like thinking about humor and agree with Wittgenstein, who once said that "a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist only of jokes."

I realized that though I've discussed my early interest in comic books I haven't mentioned anything about cartoons. As I said, I didn't start reading books until about halfway through college, and comics such as Superman and Batman influenced my imagination as much as anything until then. During my adolescence we often had copies of the New Yorker at home, and I developed an interest in their cartoons quite early. They have a universal appeal and have probably always been what sells the magazine. The cartoons of Charles Addams had the strongest effect on me. Not only did they possess a dark humor, but they also contained elements of social criticism and satire. Addams was effective at making fun of the middle class in postwar America and had an appeal to subversives like me. In contrast, the TV program, The Addams Family, was humorous but lacked satire; John Astin, who played Gomez Addams, turned him into a kooky eccentric, and Charles Addams's bite was nowhere to be seen.

I still have some reluctance to read the New Yorker, but it seems to have improved a little over the last few years with a new editor and a better staff. The cartoons, when I read them, are still pretty funny, though they are not the final word on cartoons. I think that kind of work is highly demanding and requires more creative skills than most people possess, thus I respect Gary Larson for retiring from The Far Side series after fifteen successful years. Larson would have been good at the New Yorker or anywhere, and he must be upholding higher artistic standards than most successful artists in any field. Although the New Yorker cartoonists seem to maintain their standards well, I can't understand why the cartoonist Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury didn't retire thirty years ago, because he was never in their class. As far as I can tell, Bob Mankoff is doing a good job, though as a personal matter I would prefer edgier cartoons. It amuses me to think that, for all of the stylish appeal of the New Yorker, it is the cartoons, not the short stories, poems or even the journalism that make it what it is.

Monday, December 14, 2015


I decided to add a new kind of entry, which I'll call "Diary," in order to allow myself to write about anything without naming a specific topic. I've got into the habit of writing something every few days, and it's a lot easier for me to do if I don't have to come up with a topic each time. This will be my way of blabbing a little for fun. Strictly speaking, it won't be a real diary, because there will still be certain areas that are off-limits, since anyone can read this. As in my other posts, I won't say much about household members or their families, particularly my living relatives. Ex-wives, ex-girlfriends and ex-anything are still fair game, since those bridges have already been burned, though I don't think I have much left to say about them at this point. Not many of my family members know about the blog, and although I doubt most of them would be interested in it, I'd rather not risk estranging them if at some future time they were to take issue with something I wrote.

As I said, I'm reading things on the Internet at a reduced rate and am spending more time reading printed books and periodicals now. Coming up on my reading list are The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes, and The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir. Hughes is that rare critic who writes well and has strong convictions, and though it may turn out that I don't always agree with him I find it intensely refreshing to hear passionate people speak their mind without kowtowing to editorial hucksters or academic prima donnas. I'm not sure whether I'll like The Mandarins, but am taking the chance. I am attracted to smart women, and de Beauvoir certainly was that. This novel is a roman à clef whose characters represent Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, de Beauvoir, Nelson Algren and others, and I hope it will provide some insight into intellectual life in Paris of that period, though it may not work well as a novel. I don't think I'll burn through these books fast, so it may take some time before I comment on them. I recently resumed Proust again out of a sense of duty, but he puts me to sleep after a couple of pages – making good bedside reading. I think of him as a writer who lived in a culturally rich time and place and who explained himself thoroughly and eloquently, but these positive attributes are not enough to compensate for the fact that he is an entrenched social climber and an airhead who indulges himself at the expense of his readers. I don't find him insightful in the least, though he has more to offer than fellow windbag Henry James.

We are having a dreary, warm winter so far, with no snow. Usually we turn on the boiler in mid-November, but it hasn't been necessary yet and we are heating entirely with wood. I'm not looking forward to Christmas, as I will be spending it here with non-family members, and I have no common interests or rapport with most of them despite knowing them for fourteen years. I had thought of going to Montreal by myself for a week to escape them but decided not to be petty. As you can tell, I don't have much holiday spirit at the moment.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Sherry Turkle II

I've finished reading the book and have gradually become more disappointed in it for reasons that I'll explain later. Even so, Sherry Turkle has done her homework and provides ample documentation of the way lives have recently been altered by technology. The main areas that she examines are solitude, self-reflection, family, friendship, romance, education and work. I have found her anecdotes informative, because I don't otherwise get this exposure, and I'll copy a few more quotes that are interesting and instructive to me.

In spring 2014 Kati is interested in politics, the Italian Renaissance, and training for the Boston Marathon. When she goes to parties, she reports that there is a lot of texting. Here is what she tells me: At any party, her friends are texting friends at other parties to figure out "whether we are at the right party." Kati says, "Maybe we can find a better party. Maybe there are better people at a party just down the block." Kati is describing how smartphones and social media have infused friendship with the Fear of Missing Out – now a feeling so well known that most people just call it by its acronym, FOMO. In its narrow definition, the acronym stands for tensions that follow from knowing so much about the lives of others because of social media. You develop self-doubt from knowing that so many of your friends are having enviable fun.

Arjun, a college senior, gave me another way to view why people turn away from a friend and to a phone. For him, the phone not only serves up comforting friends; it is a new kind of friend in itself. The phone itself is a source of solace.

Comments from teachers about the students at a competitive, private middle school:
Students don't make eye contact.
They don't respond to body language.
They have trouble listening. I have to rephrase a question many times before a child will answer a question in class.
I'm not convinced they are interested in each other. It is as though they all have some signs of being on an Asperger's spectrum. But that's impossible. We're talking about a schoolwide problem.
They are talking at each other with local comments, minutia really, short bursts, as though they were speaking texts. They are communicating immediate social needs. They aren't listening to each other.
The most painful thing to watch is that they don't know when they have hurt each other's feelings. They hurt each other, but then you sit down with them and try to get them to see what happened and they can't imagine things from the other side.
My students can build websites, but they can't talk to teachers. And students don't want to talk to other students. They don't want the pressure of conversation.

Women talk about being on dates with men and going to the bathroom to check their phones to see who else has contacted them. They say that they feel a little guilty, but over time, acting on the impulse to check your phone – to check your options – comes to feel normal. Consider Madeleine, thirty-two, a financial analyst in New York. She's out to drinks with a group of friends, including a man who seems interested in her. But, phone-enabled, she is clear that "drinks do not imply the entire evening." Messages on her phone mean "things could go anywhere." In this world, she says, "if I get a message from a guy who interests me and I want to leave the group of friends I'm with, I do. I usually go to the ladies' room to set things up so I'm not sitting at the table where people can look over my shoulder as I get too specific about my next plan."

When we think we are multitasking, our brains are actually moving from one thing to the next, and our performance degrades for each new task we add to the mix. Multitasking gives us a neurochemical high so we think we are doing better and better when actually we are doing worse and worse. We've seen that not only do multitaskers have trouble deciding how to organize their time, but over time, they "forget" how to read human emotions.

It was only when Elizabeth returned to the university that she saw the full effect of years spent multitasking, a life lived in hyper attention. Now, as a graduate, she has been assigned an excerpt of Plato's Republic for an ethics class. "I had skimmed the chapter, as was my habit, then, realizing that I hadn't retained much, reread it again and even made a few notes. Unfortunately, on the day of the class, I did not have that notebook with me, and while I remembered the overall gist of the chapter (moderation – good; desire for luxury – bad), I struggled to recall the specific ideas expressed in it. Without access to my cell phone to refer to the article or read up on Plato on Wikipedia, I wasn't able to participate in the class discussion. Having access to information is always wonderful, but without having at least some information retained in your brain, I am not able to build on those ideas or connect them together to form new ones."

This senior physician is sad as he considers his students' discomfort: "They don't want to take responsibility for the things that might come up in a conversation, things that would come out during a full-patient history. They don't want to hear that their patients are anxious, depressed or frightened. Doctors used to want to hear these things. They knew that the whole person got sick. The whole person needed to be treated. Today, young physicians don't want to have that conversation. My students welcome the fact that the new medical records system almost forces them to turn away from the patient and keep the interchange about relevant details. They don't want to step into a more complicated role.

As I was concluding work on this book I attended a large international meeting that had a session called "Disconnect to Connect." There, psychologists, scientists, technologists, and members of the business community considered our affective lives in the digital age. There was widespread agreement that there is an empathy gap among young people who have grown up emotionally disconnected while constantly connected to phones, games, and social media.

While I think that Sherry Turkle is to be commended for examining and publicizing the effects of new technology on human lives, I also think that her analysis falls short in several respects. The tone of the book, from start to finish, is that of a psychologist who has seen an increase in troubled patients and has pinpointed the source in addictive new technology. Her prescriptions read like a self-help manual: the patients are to put away their smartphones and start having face-to-face conversations with those around them, whether at home, school or work. If only it were that simple. Like Turkle, I would prefer to be surrounded by sensitive people who were interested in interacting with me and were capable of articulating their ideas, but the obstacles to that are far more significant than she suggests. She repeatedly harks back to memories of her grandmother, who lived under conditions considerably different from those we live in today. She also idealizes more recent times that I am old enough to remember. I have lived in the U.S. for nearly sixty years, and I recall having the open-ended discussions that she relishes, mostly as an undergraduate liberal arts student. Outside that period, I have generally found people to be too private, too scared, too inarticulate or too uninterested to have what I would consider to be a satisfactory face-to-face discussion of any depth. My early home life, and, as far as I can tell, the home lives of most of my contemporaries, did not provide the conversational opportunities that Turkle seems to think were flourishing then. When I entered the workforce, conditions worsened, with coworkers tending to be too protective of their source of income to take many risks. The baby boomers I've known have their own set of undesirable characteristics. Thus, for most of my life I have had to content myself with at most one or two people who are willing and able to participate in a decent conversation. Turkle's thoughtful and articulate people have always been a rarity in my life. As I suggested in my last post, Turkle seems to inhabit a humanistic academic bubble that isn't representative of broad American culture. Her research and writing seem to focus on elites who have the resources to address concerns that everyone else puts up with quietly.

From my point of view, a deeper analysis of Turkle's subject matter would include a closer look at its sociological aspects. For example, the gadgets and apps that seem to be causing many of the problems would not necessarily exist if we didn't live in a capitalistic society. Turkle's stressed-out, insensitive multitaskers might be more relaxed and happier if they lived either in an agrarian or a post-capitalist society. There is no reference in her book to this fact, and I find a more significant, if more abstract, account of the origins of modern tensions in works such as Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Without capitalism, there would be no Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, or any of their products. In the absence of a highly competitive job market it would be much easier for people to act spontaneously and lose that unpleasant robotic veneer. Here I think Turkle may have a conflict of interest in the sense that she does not want to alienate corporate leaders who currently provide her with access that is crucial to her work.

On the whole, Turkle remains firmly planted in the humanities camp. That isn't surprising if you consider that her earliest research was on Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. Although she is careful not to blaspheme against AI and robotics, she obviously sees them as parts of the problem and allows little or no place for them in any solution. This, I think, is where her imagination fails her. To be sure, her long presence at M.I.T. has made her fully cognizant of the past failures of AI and robotics with respect to human interface. However, in my opinion, extant anthropocentrism in the humanities precludes the possibility of her allowing that AI may one day surpass human capabilities across the board, even as it demonstrates positive emotional capabilities that are in no way inferior to ours. At that point researchers like Turkle, rather than defending human uniqueness, may well join the technological bandwagon and acknowledge that posthuman life may actually have more to offer than the lives to which we're accustomed.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Sherry Turkle I

In case you were wondering, I haven't had a stroke or died. I started reading Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle. I had heard of her before in reference to her previous book, Alone Together, which was published in 2011, and was interested in reading about the ongoing effects of digital media. Turkle, a professor at M.I.T., seems to be one of the few public intellectuals writing nontechnical books on this subject, which I think deserves far more attention than it gets. As I've said, the brains of younger people who have access to the latest technology are being organized in ways that defy historical precedent, and there doesn't seem to be much discussion of the potentially significant negative consequences, both to individuals and to society at large.

Turkle has a background in sociology and psychoanalysis, hence, from a scientific point of view, the research cited tends to look murky and subjective compared to that of some other disciplines. However, this is just the kind of book that I was looking for, because it is filled with relevant anecdotes regarding the behavior of people with whom I have very little contact: educated Americans in roughly the five-to-thirty age group. Like most quasi-scientific popular nonfiction, the book is a little bloated, repetitive and too informal in its argumentation to generate much of a punch. Moreover, Turkle, at the age of 67, is a pre-digital person like me, and some of her thinking seems old fashioned, particularly in the area of psychoanalysis, which I consider obsolete. Still, I am finding the book useful for understanding younger people, and there are surprises. Apparently older people, me included, engage in some of the questionable behaviors encouraged by digital media. For now I'll just mention some of the points I've come across that I find interesting, and perhaps I'll follow up with another post later on.

Recent research shows that people are uncomfortable if left alone with their thoughts, even for a few minutes. In one experiment, people were asked to sit quietly – without a phone or a book – for fifteen minutes. At the start of the experiment, they were asked if they would consider administering electroshocks to themselves if they became bored. They said absolutely not: No matter what, shocking themselves would be out of the question. But after just six minutes alone, a good number of them were doing just that.

Interviewee Eleanor:
Let's say we are seven at dinner. We all have our phones. You have to make sure that at least two people are not on their phones or looking down to check something – like a movie time on Google or going on Facebook. So you need sort of a rule of two or three. So I know to keep, like, two or three in the mix so that other people can text or whatever. It's my way of being polite. I would say that conversations, well, they're pretty, well fragmented. Everybody is kind of in and out. Yeah, you have to say, "Wait, what..." and sort of have people fill in a bit when you drop out.

One of Eleanor's friends explains that if a conversation at dinner turns serious and someone looks at a phone, that is her signal to "lighten things up." And she points out that the rule of three is a way of being polite even when you're not at the dinner table. When "eyes are down" at phones, she says, "conversation stays light well beyond dinner."

In order to feel more, and to feel more like ourselves, we connect. But in our rush to connect, we flee solitude. In time, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves is diminished. If we don't know who we are when we are alone, we turn to other people to support our sense of self. This makes it impossible to fully experience others as who they are.

Developmental psychology has long made the case for the importance of solitude. And now so does neuroscience. It is only when we are alone with our thoughts – not reacting to external stimuli – that we engage that part of our brain's basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past. This is the "default mode network." So, without solitude, we can't construct a stable sense of self. Yet children who grow up digital have always had something external to respond to. When they go online, their minds are not wandering but rather are captured and divided.

...if we don't have experience with solitude – and this is often the case today – we start to equate loneliness with solitude. This reflects the impoverishment of our experience. If we don't know the satisfactions of solitude, we only know the panic of loneliness.

Cara, a college student who has been using an iPhone app called the Happiness Tracker, has a different problem. How much should you look at the "output" of a tracking program to clue you in on your feelings? Over several weeks, the Happiness Tracker has asked for Cara's level of happiness as well as information about where she is, what she is doing, and who she is with. Its report: Her happiness is declining. There is no clear link to any one factor. When she gets this result, Cara finds herself feeling less happy with her boyfriend. The app did not link him to her declining happiness, but she begins to wonder if he is the cause of her discontent. Uncertain of her feelings, she ends up breaking up with her boyfriend in partial deference to the app.

These days, neuroscientists speculate that when parents caring for children turn to their phones, they may "effectively simulate a still-face paradigm" – in their homes or out in a restaurant – with all the attendant damage. It is not surprising if children deprived of words, eye contact, and expressive faces become stiff and unresponsive with others.

As you can see, Turkle provides much food for thought. She has exactly the same reaction that I had to Victoria in my earlier posts: here is a dysfunctional child who is not on track to becoming a full-fledged adult in the sense to which I'm accustomed. The book is a rallying cry for preventing children from becoming robotic zombies who never understand themselves and live in a trance in which they sail through their lives as if belonging to a subhuman herd of nervous mammals. Turkle proposes what amounts to talk therapy that gives kids a slap in the face in order to wake them up from their stupor, which she links to a lack of emotional development and an inability to empathize with others or understand themselves.

For the most part, I am saying "Yes!" and giving high fives as I read this, but on reflection I am a little worried that Turkle may be too invested in old paradigms. I completely agree with her that this media environment has given rise to the fearful reactions of college students who make their campuses hotbeds of political correctness because they lack the self-confidence and intellectual maturity to deal with ideas and behaviors that don't fall within their narrow comfort zones. And she is obviously correct about the irresponsibility of parents who lazily allow digital devices to subvert time-tested, biologically necessary childrearing methods. However, when I think of these phenomena in the context of what I've written about anthropocentrism and AI, it may be that this digital herding is the vanguard of the future. I'm not so sure that a later form of AI couldn't lead to an improvement over the world as we know it. With the chaotic circumstances that keep surfacing in our human-controlled present, I don't see how anyone can dismiss out of hand an orderly world in which people are prevented from engaging in wars and terrorism or despoiling the planet so as to ruin it for future generations. You might say that the algorithms currently used in smartphones are primitive precursors to ones that may one day work much better and encourage richer personal development while simultaneously reducing world disorder and instability. What would be wrong with that? Possibly Turkle is stuck in obsolete Enlightenment thinking that places mankind on a pedestal and denies the existence of our recurring deficiencies.

Another criticism I have of Turkle is that psychoanalysis and talk therapy have historically not been terribly effective at changing behavior on a large scale. Through much of its existence, psychoanalysis seems largely to have been a fashion statement of the rich: they could afford to hire a very expensive personal advisor to consult on demand. Because it didn't usually work, most people couldn't afford it and drugs were a lot cheaper, it more or less died out. Even if it still exists, its popularity is probably confined to well-heeled and highly-educated people like the ones Turkle runs into in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In this regard Turkle may be addressing a very small audience. Beyond formal psychotherapy, she seems oblivious to the fact that in most families childrearing has never been a controlled process in which parents have the luxury of following all of the latest recommendations offered by the current gurus.

On a personal level I am benefiting somewhat from Turkle's mention of the failings of adult users of digital media. Although I don't fall into the category of serious abusers, there are still behaviors to watch out for. I do have a smartphone, but I mainly use it as a phone – about once a week. I don't have digital service and it is connected to our home Wi-Fi; I get beeps when I receive e-mails or messages, but that usually occurs only a couple of times a day. Occasionally I use the smartphone on public Wi-Fi while on trips. This means that I am nothing like the people discussed by Turkle, who are actively engaged with their smartphones day and night. However, I am guilty of one of their sins, which is that of constant editing. I genuinely love having the ability to edit my written communications, and I frequently do it on this blog, sometimes even after I've made a post. But my motivation is somewhat different from Turkle's target: I like being able to improve on whatever I've written. Turkle criticizes people who are obsessed with controlling their public image, and although I can't honestly say that I am completely indifferent to my public image, I genuinely don't care that much what people think of me, and I have no interest in getting "Likes" or "Thumbs Up." Even so, I do to some extent inhabit a bubble. The fact that I have withdrawn from commenting on other sites could be construed as an attempt to avoid disagreements and gain control over my environment so as to eliminate anyone who disagrees with me. From my point of view, I have retreated to this blog only because I have given up on finding substantive, interesting and civil discussion on other sites, which tend to be populated by the same narrow-minded, inflexible and intolerant people whose behavior Turkle finds problematic.

I'm only about a fourth of the way through the book and will probably have more to say later.