WTF? The great question of our age

How media has changed and what it means, by David Roberts

The internet changed all that. There are no longer supply constraints — it is trivially cheap and easy to publish something on the web — and there are virtually no constraints left on the supply of information. Libraries are online. Government records are online. Every public figure’s every move is blogged or tweeted.

Two things follow. First, with supply constraints gone, there is no reason to confine web journalism to the length and formal constraints of journalism developed for paper. Any story can be as long as it needs to be, whether it’s 200 words or 2,000. Not every journalist must choose between the view-from-nowhere voice of the objective journalist and stale aphorisms of major newspaper editorial pages. There is room for a greater variety of length, form, tone, voice, and subject on the web.

And second, there’s more need for explanation. Because they were supply constrained, newspapers and newspaper journalists focused on what was new, what just happened, the incremental development. But lots of times, readers had no way of making sense of those developments or contextualizing them. They were getting the leaves, but they’d never gotten the trunk.

Especially as information and incremental developments explode in quantity, there is increasing public hunger for understanding — not so much what happened, but what it means.

The great question of our age is simply, WTF? WTF isn’t asking after what happened. It’s easy to find out what happened these days. Rather, it’s pointing at what happened and asking, well … WTF?

What’s the deal with that? How does it work? How good or bad is it, really? How does it connect with these other things? What can we learn from its history?

People want to know how the world works. They want to know why the things that are happening are happening. They don’t stop wanting to learn when they get out of school.

So journalism is inevitably shifting. These days, it is less about producing new information than it is about gathering information already on the record, evaluating it, and explaining and contextualizing it for an audience, perhaps with some analysis and argumentation for good measure.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s still plenty of information to be dug up. Investigative journalism still very much exists, though it is under-funded everywhere. I look on it with great admiration and some awe, but it’s not what I do. And though many are loathe to admit it, it’s not what most US journalists do these days

Books to Read

The Atlantic published A Reading Guide for Those in Despair About American Politics. It’s a list worth looking through, and of course, reading…

  1. Americanah By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. The New Jim Crow By Michelle Alexander
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian By Sherman Alexie
  4. Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom By Ryan T. Anderson
  5. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism By Edward Baptist
  6. Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith By Francis Beckwith
  7. The Coming By Daniel Black
  8. The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism By Pascal Bruckner
  9. Between the World and Me By Ta-Nehisi Coates
  10. Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics By Cathy Cohen
  11. Evicted By Matthew Desmond
  12. Roads to Dominion: Right Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States By Sara Diamond
  13. Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America By Tamara Draut
  14. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America By Martin Gilens
  15. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion By Jonathan Haidt
  16. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements By Eric Hoffer
  17. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right By Arlie Russell Hochschild
  18. Book of Judges
  19. In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in the 20th Century By Alice Kessler-Harris
  20. The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism By Yuval Levin 
  21. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness By George Lipsitz
  22. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class By Ian Haney López
  23. A Canticle for Leibowitz By Walter Miller
  24. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 By Charles Murray
  25. Dreams From My Father By Barack Obama
  26. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America By George Packer
  27. Citizen: An American Lyric By Claudia Rankine
  28. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty By Dorothy Roberts
  29. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown By Paul Taylor
  30. Because of Sex: One Law, 10 Cases and 50 Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work By Gillian Thomas
  31. Habibi By Craig Thompson
  32. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! By Mo Willems
  33. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America By Colin Woodard

“Quantity has a quality all its own”

Quantity has its own quality – The quote is often falsely attributed to Stalin. It was used in this great article by Will Self: The awful cult of the talentless hipster has taken over

Aside from the great article it got me thinking about the quote which then led me to find out a examination on Quora written by Nils Barth it’s worth repeating:

Presumably Thomas A. Callaghan Jr., influential US defense consultant of the 1970s and 1980s and director of the Allied Interdependence program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, arguing for increased spending on weapons.

Earliest result I could find is “Quantity has a Quality All Its Own,” Allied Interdependence Newsletter No. 13, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 21 June 1979 (which Callaghan produced and presumably authored), cited in Naval War College Review, “How much is not enough? The non-nuclear air battle in NATO’s central region”, Volume 33, March-April (1980), footnote on p. 77, quotation on p. 68, echoing similar sentiments by Sam Nunn (“At some point numbers do count.”). This looks like the origin of the phrase.

The phrase has been popular in the US defense community since the 1980s, sometimes acknowledging it as a US coinage, but often misattributing it to Clausewitz, Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev, but mostly to Stalin.

The general principle that quantity begets quality is a key tenet of the Marxist theory of dialectical materialism, as formulated by Marx and Engels, phrased as the law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes. This in turn is attributed to Hegel (Science of Logic), who in turn attributes it to Ancient Greek philosophers, notably the paradox of the heap Eubulides: a quantitative change in the number of grains of sand leads to a qualitative change in being a heap or not. While Marx and Engels are quoted by various Marxist and communist authors, including Stalin, this formulation is not found in their work or in English translation. (Re: “Quantity has a quality all its own” source?, Tim Davenport, H-Russia, April 5, 2010)

Better insults needed

Sitting on the plane at Boston airport and hoping  it will take off. The delay is because it’s overcast and raining in Philadelphia. This news does not really fit well with Philly’s tough image. 

So I muttered under my breath and realized that none of my insults were things I was comfortable with. All the terms were derogatory to women, gay people, or race. 

Naturally this brought to mind the great quote from Betty White

Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.

But this doesn’t help. I needed an insult to hurl at Philly for not being tough enough to let airplanes land in the rain. And I wanted an insult that didn’t disparage women or gays or that was racist. Betty is awesome, but she wasn’t helping. 

Going back to Shakespeare there were a few tips. From Macbeth:

Go, prick thy face, and over-red thy fear, Thou lily-liver’d boy.

Lily-liver’d that kind of has a ring to it. It rolls nicely off the tongue, but the hyphenation and apostrophe is going to make it difficult when texting. 

Hamlet offered this:

Thou are pigeon-liver’d and lack gall.

It’s a variation on a theme but I guess even Shakespeare couldn’t be totally original. Same texting problem as before. 

Damn! Where can I find a better source of insults? Any recommendations? 

Oscar Wilde reads my blog

Mercedes-Benz in Sweden used a work by Karin Boye in a recent ad. As was to be expected there were those who cared and were annoyed that the Swedish poet was being used to sell cars. However, it is important to point out that she passed in 1941, and her work has therefore been in the public domain since January 1, 2012.

However, there are, under Swedish copyright law, provisions protecting cultural heritage and granting perpetual protection to works. This is rule cannot be invoked by anyone but it can be used by the Swedish Academy. The Swedish Academy (founded in 1786) is one of the Royal Academies of Sweden best known for choosing who will get the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The permanent secretary of the Academy Peter Englund compared the reading of the poem to grave robbing. He goes on to explain that the Academy has the right to protect the Swedish classics and that they have sent a letter to Mercedes. In a later post Peter Englund reports that the advert aired only once and has been removed from YouTube and will no longer be used in the dealerships.

Swedish Pirate and writer Falkvinge writes:

This is utterly insane. If something is in the public domain, which happens much too late anyway, then everybody and their brother must be unconditionally certain they have the right to use it as they like – or it is, by definition, not in the public domain. The Swedish Academy just introduced a perpetual clearance culture, effectively killing the Swedish cultural heritage rather than allowing it to live on and take new forms.

I am torn. I agree that things should enter the public domain and do so at a much earlier date. And I also think that the public domain should not be limited or infringed upon. However, there is some kinds of use that tend to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Oscar Wilde reads my blog. Photo N. Sarony

Oscar Wilde reads my blog. Photo N. Sarony

This is not about Karin Boye’s poetry. I do not feel that this Swedish classic has been terribly wronged. But I dislike the ways in which the dead can be used as marketing tools for the present and even be used in ways that may contradict everything the individuals stood for in the past.

Among the worst examples of this bad taste must be the $23,000 Montblanc Gandhi pen “18-carat solid gold, rhodium-plated nib, engraved with Gandhi’s image, and “a saffron-coloured mandarin garnet” on the clip”.

Less horrible maybe but still bad was when the Gap used a whole line of dead celebs to sell khaki trousers. Chet Baker, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, John Wayne, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr, Amelia Earhart, Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Ernest Hemingway, Rock Hudson, Jack Kerouac, and Pablo Picasso – they all wore khaki.

So I am not as upset as Falkvinge. The fact that the protection of classics is barely used is maybe a sign that a gentle hand is being applied. Of course the fact that the legislation exists begs for it to be misused. Still I find it difficult to cry for the corporation in this case. The fact that we are talking about them meant that their publicity campaign worked.

Believing the Fake

A good quote is a dream for a lecturer or a writer. I was very amused and happy when I came across this nugget. It was just what I needed:

Students today depend upon paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?

Principals Association, 1815

See? It’s perfect. It gives us a luddite from the past to mock while we may gently think about the firm beliefs we hold about technology today. But, unfortunately, like all good things… they need to be looked at suspiciously. And according to Quote Investigator these quotes were created as a humorous addition in 1978.

A personal favorite in the genre of past predictions is the 1954 article in Popular Mechanics demonstrating what a home computer may look like in 2004.

From Popular Mechanics 1954 - RAND Corp. model of home computer for 2004It’s my favorite because I have used the image in several lectures before being told. Really I needed to be told. That it was a fake. According to Snopes the picture was created in a photo manipulation competition. Now when I look at it I see how clearly staged the whole thing is.

A final example was posted online yesterday (President’s Day here). It’s the wonderful image of Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose across a river.

Its naturally a fake and yet it gets reposted.

It’s not that these fakes are particularly good that makes us fall for them. It’s that we want to believe them to be true. They suit the worldview that we are seeking to confirm. It’s almost like we choose not to look closely at the fake. Today the fake is everywhere and we cannot trust our screens. I often think about things that I see: I hope this is true, I want it to be true… but it probably isn’t. Or is it?