I was just this morning trying (and failing) to explain how I love living with and in paradox. This essay captures it very well.
Todd Alcott examines the fundamental mystery in last year’s Coen Brother’s film “A Serious Man:”
The paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat hovers over practically every event in Larry Gopnik’s life. Either his wife is cheating on him, or she is not. Either a student is bribing him to get a better grade, or he is not. Either his brother is a mathematical genius, or he is not. Either his neighbor wants to have sex with him, or she does not. Larry doesn’t know anything, and the biggest thing he doesn’t know is why all this trouble is happening to him, which brings us back to the original question: either there is a force, a protagonist, setting the events of the plot of the movie in motion, or there is not — we never really know. And that protagonist, or not, is God, or Hashem, as he’s called here. Hashem takes it upon himself, or does not, to torture Larry Gopnik, and the drama of A Serious Man springs from Larry’s attempts to discover the Hashem’s intent, or, for that matter, his existence. 2001 has a protagonist who doesn’t show up on screen, but A Serious Man goes further, and gives us a protagonist who not only doesn’t show up on screen, but may not even be there. And the screenplay uses that mystery — the last mystery, really, the ultimate mystery — to drive the entire narrative.
Good read, and great thoughts. He puts the opening vignette into this context and it makes a lot of sense.
I loved A Serious Man and I think I’ll love it even more when I get a chance to see it again.
The government of southern Sudan says many companies are now trying to acquire land. “We have had many requests from many developers. Negotiations are going on,” said Peter Chooli, director of water resources and irrigation, in Juba last week. “A Danish group is in discussions with the state and another wants to use land near the Nile.”
In one of the most extraordinary deals, buccaneering New York investment firm Jarch Capital, run by a former commodities trader, Philip Heilberg, has leased 800,000 hectares in southern Sudan near Darfur. Heilberg has promised not only to create jobs but also to put 10% or more of his profits back into the local community. But he has been accused by Sudanese of “grabbing” communal land and leading an American attempt to fragment Sudan and exploit its resources.
The numbers in this article are pretty staggering.
Devlin Kuyek, a Montreal-based researcher with Grain, said investing in Africa was now seen as a new food supply strategy by many governments. “Rich countries are eyeing Africa not just for a healthy return on capital, but also as an insurance policy. Food shortages and riots in 28 countries in 2008, declining water supplies, climate change and huge population growth have together made land attractive. Africa has the most land and, compared with other continents, is cheap,” he said.
A late Christmas present arrived last week from my wife. It was my fault it was late - I set a budget for Christmas and a limit for how much we would spend on each other, and her preplanned gift was over the limit. So she took the money, set it aside, told me what I was getting on Christmas, and after two months we had added to it enough that we could afford a record player.
My father laughs every time I mention the record player; first when I said I wanted one, then I told him it was Freya’s present to me, and then just this past week when I told him it had arrived. Why, he wonders, would his perfectly rational son go out and pay money for a technology that has seen its time and, in his mind, thankfully been replaced? But I’m not the only one; there are no less than 4 record stores here in Nashville that have a great deal of records and do what I suppose is a thriving business buying and selling them. Vinyl - the long dead format, is not dead at all.
There are similar type resurrections all over the place if you peer past the wares at your local big box retailer. Despite advancements in digital printing technologies, many “ancient” printing techniques are still used. And even though our food supply is now mostly hidden from our eyes and able to deliver any food - natural or synthetic or something in between - at any time of the year to anywhere in the civilized world, lately there is a movement to plant gardens and raise chickens in our own backyards. From the ongoing popularity of thrift stores to the success that etsy.com has had in bringing craftspeople’s handmade goods to a worldwide audience, it doesn’t take much work to see that in our age of unprecedented technological advancement, the “old ways” of doing things aren’t completely dead.
“Technology has not resulted in convergence” Jesse Schell, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University said in his recent presentation about the future of gaming. Rather, he observed it results in divergence. It creates complications for us. The technological landscape is filled with dozens of revolutionary devices that don’t interact well if at all, for every “life simplifying” device there are multiple hacks available that actually utilizes the technology in some form that simplifies our life. And we accept this way of technology because we trust the long arm of progress; we believe that each New Thing really is better than the previous thing, and thus necessary for us to own.
Convergence. Technology that works together and in doing so, makes life simpler. I think we assume this is coming. Technology just keeps improving, and this is just how progress works. I’m afraid if we keep thinking that way we will waste a great deal of time waiting. There is no incentive for technology designers to create convergence and simplification - proprietary systems are what make money. They lock you in and force you to buy from one corporation or technology creator. Progress, as it stands now, is at the mercy of a capitalistic market prone to the incentives and desires of corporations. This does not make it evil, but it does make me question our inherent trust in the system.
The problem with the system, to me, is that it keeps producing really cool gadgets. I’m a geek, I understand the common feeling of geek gadget lust. All geeks seem to function on the same wavelength. We seek to find the perfect device, but we don’t know what that device is. We keep waiting, and if a device isn’t quite there, then we hack it and modify it. Geeks accept divergence as a way of life. Sure, it’s frustrating occasionally, but usually it is just an obstacle to overcome on the path to, well, who knows what. Progress? We like the challenge and we accept the frustrations. We take the time to learn what needs to happen to change the technology we are given into something that’s closer to perfection.
Maybe this comes because we implicitly trust in the idea of progress. We are moving forward in time, so naturally we must be progressing. Necessity is the mother of invention the proverb tells us, and the inventions come at a staggering pace these days, which must mean that we have a lot of unrecognized necessity in our life. That is what happens when an exciting new technology is announced; we immediately recognize the previously hidden necessity in our life, a need that we just didn’t know we had until now.
The iPod did that for me, nearly a decade ago now. It was announced in early 2001, but I didn’t obtain one until 2004. I had always enjoyed listening to music but I didn’t realize that I needed to listen to it everywhere. Once the ability existed, well, portable music (in mass quantities) instantly seemed to be a necessity.
But last year, after having an iPod for about 5 years, I realized that I don’t listen to music the way I used to. There was a time when the acquisition of new music was exciting; when I would open the CD and take it out and play it and listen through while reading the lyrics, admiring the album art, appreciate the album as the art it was (admittedly, a very low and pop art considering my tastes at the time). Lately though, I rarely stop listening to music, which means obtaining new music is simple an event which allows me to set aside the last album I wore out and listen to this one until I find yet another album to wear out in an endless cycle.
The music just passes by, and I know the melodies of the songs really well and I might even subconsciously know the choruses, but I hardly ever take stock of the album as a whole. I hardly ever focus in on the music. Actually, truth be told, I have trouble doing it because music has become merely a soundtrack - something that plays while I live life. It is the background, and I just like the background to change occasionally. Last year I realized this about myself, and I decided I didn’t like it.
Have you ever objectively examined a technological device in your life? Marshall McCluhan made famous the maxim “the medium is the message,” but do we ever try to examine the mediums in our lives and what that makes the messages in our lives? Is it possible that the message of cell phones is that people are convenient, portable, and subject to our schedules? Could it be that the message of iPods is that all music is cheap, portable, and demands nothing of us as listeners? Is it true what Neil Postman says, that books relate a worldview that is rational and linear, and moving images destroy this worldview, disconnecting us from the world?
Recently I saw six arguments against ebook readers meant to establish the thesis that ebooks and the devices that display them are actually regressive technologies when compared to books. The arguments focused on technological aspects - books can be skimmed, ebooks can’t, books can be searched non-linearly, ebooks can’t, etc. Another argument put forth against ebooks, at least as sold by the major distributors, is that they are proprietary and locked in. Imagine if the book you bought at your local bookstore was physically incapable of being loaned to another person. You can’t imagine it because it doesn’t make sense. But that is the nature of technology. It diverges. If you stumble across a good ebook, you either loan your ebook reader to your friend or you recommend they buy it, neither option being as convenient as loaning them a physical book. Why do we put up with these problems of technology?
Ostensibly, we put up with hindrances like this for the sake of “convenience.” An ebook reader doesn’t let us lend books to friends indefinitely, but it does let us carry our books anywhere we want go to - a whole library with us all of the time! If, granted, we have bought an entire library to carry with us, at prices similar to those of physical copies. Maybe this is convenient for things like textbooks, but most of the bestselling books on ebook seller’s lists are the types that actually are just as convenient to carry around. And they don’t ever run out of battery life.
“Convenience,” at least sometimes, is a lie we tell ourselves to convince our minds that we are living in the future, that this is progress. It’s not that all technology is inconvenient, but maybe more of it is than we’d like to admit. This is what I mean by objectively examining the technology in your life. Do we ever stop to ask ourselves if this technology is making our life more convenient? Is it easier than the way things were before? Do we even know how things were before this technology exists, what sacrifices or simplifications were made in accepting it?
I often think “I can’t even remember what life was like before X existed.” Maybe it was cellphones. I know for a fact I can’t remember what life was like before computers - there has been one in my house for as long as I can remember. But even newer technology like iPods, HD video, laptop computers, these are the things that radically change the way we live, and yet we don’t step back and question them. Our answers aren’t at all guaranteed to be negative, but they should always be revealing.
I realized that music played all the time in my life and yet I hardly ever listened closely to it. And, as mentioned, I didn’t like that. And I further realized that it was due to the technology in my life. I could play my iPod anytime I felt like it, any song, on demand. And if I didn’t like a song, or it was catchy, or I wasn’t in the mood for it, I just hit skip and was on to the next song. Meanwhile, I claimed to appreciate artists and art. I wanted to understand art more, and I was very aware that you understood art only through intentionality, through focusing on the art and asking questions and attempting to understand it. And I claimed to consider music an art.
Cognitive dissonance. I guess I had a shortage of it. I finally received a dose and I realized that in order to combat this constant flow of music, I needed to make music listening an intentional action. There needed to be some sense of purpose to it, at the very least to regain my respect for the artist and their art.
So I decided to buy a record player. This wasn’t, perhaps, the inevitable result of wanting to pay more attention to music, but it’s what I chose to do. There was a bit of nostalgia - of harkening back to the days when you couldn’t just call up any song you wanted at any time, but you had to go pull out that specific album and carefully seek to the track you wanted, or, more often, just play the record all the way through as the artist intended.
Does a record player create convergence, does it simplify my life? Not at all. It’s just as disconnected a device as any. Vinyl is a specific format unplayable by a cassette player, a CD player or a computer. To listen to music on vinyl I have to buy it all over again, even if it’s an album I have in some other form. But I had a desire to put an obstacle between me and my music, a barrier, as slight as it may be, for me to overcome. This means that hopefully I don’t just casually throw on a record, but instead I find a fitting album for the setting and mood, and put it on, and respect the creation of the artist.
In the end, it’s not that divergence is a bad thing, more that it is an inevitable thing. Technology will continue to diverge, and we’ll keep hoping it simplifies our lives. Sometimes it will, but many times it won’t. The question is, are we willing to admit that?
So, deep down, I’m probably a conservative. But my political thoughts and beliefs are so nuanced that to all sane and rational people they appear hypocritical and/or irrational. I’m ok with this for now, because my positions are very much “under construction.” That’s why I’m not really going to write much on this issue, I promise.
But this thought has been boiling in my head lately and I just have to put it out there.
All conservatives who despise the healthcare bill as the worst thing since Hitler need to think about one thing:
No Republican President would have ever touched healthcare reform. It wouldn’t have happened, and it may never happen, for the simple fact that the guiding principles of conservatism (smaller government, fewer entitlements, market-based systems) require such radical reform of the healthcare system as is that healthcare reform is political suicide.
The system that existed before 1:22pm yesterday was not much more conservative than the system that exists now on the balance. Because our health care system was and still is pretty damn messed up.
But to reform the healthcare system to be in line with conservative principles would require removal of entitlements, increasing competition in health care (by increasing transparency? letting insurance companies get bigger?), and giving up short-term political thinking for the long-term good of the country. Bush didn’t do that on the healthcare issue (he increased Medicare, right?) and I would be willing to bet no Republican president would be likely to do that any time soon. It is political suicide for the party, not just for the president.
That said, the healthcare bill passed yesterday was a mixed bag. There was good in it and bad in it and depending on which voters you are pandering to, you are only able to see one part of it. That, sadly, is how politics works today.
But the good that came was needed. Like the ending of rescission, the increased abilities for people with “pre-existing issues” to be covered, and many of the pilot programs that will be started to find ways to reduce Medical costs. And as an American, and as a slightly politically aware realist, I’m really glad for some of those reforms because they help more people get the healthcare coverage they need. It was a start, but there is still so much more reform needed.
Honestly, the realist in me would rather take the bad mixed in with the good from a Democrat president (who, come on, please, didn’t bring us one step closer to socialism. Don’t be an idiot.) because we needed the good reforms that much. The seats that Democrats are now expected to lose this fall in the midterm elections because of this bill are the political backlash that will forever keep the Republican party from attempting reforms like that. This is a political reality.
Obama, whether you hate him or not, seems to be a President who is attempting use the principles he believes in to help guide him in leading long-term reforms rather than ones that are politically expedient in the short term. Most of the health care reforms he passed yesterday do not kick in until after he leaves office assuming he is not re-elected. I only wish that Republicans, rather than acting like the Black Knight from Monty Python, foolishly yelling “NONE SHALL PASS” as their limbs are chopped off, would recognize that there is now an opportunity to set their sights on some long-term goals and work to achieve them.
Until then, I remain a conservative in principle who is willing to look optimistically at the reality of politics, even if that means being happy that liberals are in charge.