We are not wise, and not often kind

This is a poem called “Don’t Hesitate,” by Mary Oliver

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed.

Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb

A Theory of Knowledge

The following is an excerpt from a piece of literary fiction by Jess Zimmerman in Catapult magazine

This final exam will count for 40 percent of your course grade. In the space below, please provide an example of each listed cognitive bias.


When I thought you didn’t want me, I would have done anything.

Attentional bias

Everyone on the department website has an official headshot, except you. (I looked. Of course I looked.) Instead you have a snapshot taken near dusk, near winter, your jacket zipped to your jaw. The buttery light from a streetlamp pours molten down your face; you are lifting your chin against a sudden wind that blows your hair back. Who took this picture? You aren’t looking at her. You’re looking off to the left.

The ghost towns of Balaclava and Newfoundout

A friend came to visit us at the lake recently, and they wanted to go and see a nearby “ghost town” called Balaclava. I had never heard of it before, but it turned out to be just a short drive from our place. So we headed off to Scotch Bush road near Dacre and there it was — not technically a ghost town, I don’t think, since there are still people living there. But it does have a great old abandoned lumber mill that dates back to the 1850s or so (although much of it was apparently destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 1930s).

Behind the lumber mill is a tall, rusted tower that sits on a foundation of river rocks, with the remains of a wooden chute leading to the mill. This was apparently the first sawdust furnace in Ontario, and it was reportedly built because the owner of a grist mill down the river from the Balaclava mill sued the owner in 1911, claiming the sawdust being dumped into the river was fouling up his grist works. According to some reports, this was also the first environmental lawsuit in Ontario.

Continue reading “The ghost towns of Balaclava and Newfoundout”

Crypto and the rise of “speculative communities”

Max Read, a former editor-in-chief of Gawker, writes a newsletter called Read Max, and in one of his latest editions he talks about a book he read and reviewed, called “Speculative Communities: Living With Uncertainty in a Financialized World,” by a London-based sociologist named Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou. It’s about more than just crypto, but it explains a lot about the rise of that kind of niche community:

Where prediction once reigned, speculation now dominates. You can see this at the most literal level in the rise of gig-platform apps like Uber, where the once-simple acts of hailing or driving a cab become adventures in speculation—wagers on whether the price of a ride will rise or fall in the next five minutes—but you can also see it on a discursive level in social media, where users stake out speculative positions (called “takes”) on volatile reputational marketplaces. You even see it, Komporozos-Athanasiou argues, in the success of “populist” politicians and initiatives from the Greek bailout referendum to Brexit to Trump, votes for which can be understood as speculative wagers on “possible, yet uncertain, outcomes”

[H]omo economicus is an isolated individual, while homo speculans, in Komporozos-Athanasiou’s formulation, is a member of a “speculative community.” The delegitimation of neoliberal reason not only increases volatility, it also undermines the previous regime’s insistence on atomized individuals and family units. “Struggles of speculation and insurance,” then, “are experienced more intensely but also more collectively.” Here Speculative Communities draws on Benedict Anderson’s famous study of the origins of nationalism, Imagined Communities, which argued that the collapse of anciens régimes around the world and the rise of print-media capitalism in the wake of the industrial revolution created new uncertainties around which the “imagined communities” of nationalism could coalesce.

Hamlet is actually about doomscrolling on Twitter

This is the only slightly tongue-in-cheek thesis of Allegra Rosenberg, writing in Ryan Broderick’s excellent “Garbage Day” newsletter. In a section of the newsletter, Allegra talks about reading and trying to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy, how it reminds her both of Twitter and of Derrida, and of a recent edition of Charlie Warzel’s Galaxy Brain newsletter in which he discusses theories of contemporary society as posed by L.M. Sacasas:

In Hamlet’s keen analysis from inside his own cloud of hesitation, it is the fear of the unknown which prevents him or anyone from taking the craved-for plunge into the sweet release of death. It makes us rather bear the ills we have / than fly to those we know not of. He understood how stuckness self-perpetuates. The equally frustrating presentness perpetuates, too, in Sacasas’ contemporary formulation: when everything is commentary, what else is there to comment on, but prior commentary?

He says: “We’re not building toward new ideas; we’re relating things that just happened to other things that happened before that” — and thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. The internet is a forest of inscriptions, so dense that we are far too caught up in infinite fractal brambles of things said and done to actually make any real choices, and/or to understand our situation insofar as we can affect it. 

This got me thinking about Jacques Derrida (I know…). In Archive Fever, a later work dealing with the looming digital age, he speaks about how the titular fever — what he identifies as a death or destruction drive — allows in itself for the ongoing existence of the archive: “There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression.” Basically the only reason we’re stuck in the “doom loop” of forever talking about the past, as Warzel puts it, is because the internet contains both the constant production of the past as well as an intense feeling of ephemerality.

Have the dangers of social media been overstated?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On April 11, The Atlantic published an essay by Jonathan Haidt entitled Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid. In the piece, Haidt—a social psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business, and the co-author of a book called The Coddling of the American Mind—argued that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have constructed a modern-day tower of Babel. The societal chaos that these kinds of services have unleashed, Haidt wrote, have “dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.” The arguments made in the piece were similar to an earlier Atlantic essay by Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, about the “dark psychology” of social networks, and how they have created a world in which “networks of partisans co-create worldviews that can become more and more extreme, disinformation campaigns flourish [and] violent ideologies lure recruits.”

Haidt’s essay was the latest in a long series of research papers and articles on the ills of social media, and specifically the idea that services such as Facebook and Twitter have fractured, polarized, and enraged Americans, because of the way recommendation and targeting algorithms work. Concepts such as the “filter bubble,” the “echo chamber,” and the idea that social networks can “radicalize” otherwise normal users—turning them into right-wing conspiracy theorists—have become commonplace. “Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly,” when services such as Facebook and Twitter became widespread, Haidt argued in his most recent essay. “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.”

As repetitive as some of Haidt’s arguments about social media were, his Atlantic essay did introduce something relatively new to the field. After some criticism of his conclusions, and some of the research he relied on for his piece, Haidt and Chris Bail—a professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Polarization Lab—created a collaborative Google document they titled Social Media and Political Dysfunction: A Collaborative Review. The idea behind it, the two men explained in a preface, was to collect research that might help to shed light on the question: “Is social media a major contributor to the rise of political dysfunction seen in the USA and some other democracies?” (This is the third such collaborative document Haidt has created to track research on related topics; he created two with Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology from San Diego State University—one that collects research related to adolescent mood disorders, and one that does so for social media and mental health.)

Continue reading “Have the dangers of social media been overstated?”

I worship at the temple of everything

From Heather Havrilesky’s excellent newsletter:

“I’m not stooping to lick mud puddles anymore. I worship at the temple of everything now, updrafts of wet oak tree and bruised lip and salty oyster shell, hints of sheer rock cliff and band director and broken typewriter and my dad’s sad stories about the Great Flood, the one that swept everything away, the one that took everything, the kitchen table and the chicken coop and the tattered books, the crocheted blankets and the boxes of love letters, the pickled cabbage, the black rosary beads, the love worn chair, the long exhale of smoke across the garden at twilight, the years of waiting, of saying too little, of backing away slowly, of disappearing for good, everything.”