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A Luddite with a laptop

As a follow-​up to what I wrote the other day, let me add another self-​definition I came up with about eighteen months ago, on February 17, 2015.

My quest for answers to the ubiquitous question “Who am I?” has arrived at yet another definition. Simply put, Luddites have been, and still are, human beings who reject technology for various reasons. Having been an early adopter of all things internet (I even owned a Handspring® Treo 180g “smart” phone) and still not going anywhere without my laptop, I am worried for quite some time now that technology might — and probably will — overrun us. On top of my worst and most terrifying ideas ever list are, in no particular order:

Lamentably, all these developments are already more or less unstoppable, given that most people don’t even guess or understand what’s coming up, as Jean-​Claude Juncker was counting on in his time as premier of Luxembourg: “We decide on something, leave it lying around and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t understand what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back.”³.

So, ambivalent as always, I find myself described very well as a Luddite with a laptop, a person both loving and rejecting technology, with the former decreasing and the latter growing exponentially.

¹ FBI warning: “driverless cars could be used as ‘lethal weapons’.”

² Especially when implanted into the human body, something that has already been and will increasingly be done.

³ Source: Wikiquote

Be big & shine bright

“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do (…) as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Misattributed to Nelson Mandela, actually by Marianne Williamson, “A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of ‘A Course in Miracles’ ”, ch. 7, section 3 (1992), p. 190.

Hikikomori San

If one deems the Oxford Dictionaries trustworthy (I know I do), the Japanese word ひきこもり or 引き籠もり (“hikikomori”) means “hermit”. A hermit is a person who lives, for religious reasons or others, a reclusive life at a secluded place, far from others, avoiding company. Quite frankly, having been a social person for many years of my life, I lately have to conclude that living la vida local is not the worst idea.

Just yesterday, in an extended, very interesting, and enjoyable conversation with a friend on the phone, I had to admit that I really like the circumstances of my present life. Which is not the life of a hikikomori, yet, but comes pretty close. You have to leave the actual area of the village I live in (which homes a mere 300 inhabitants, anyhow) to find the house in the middle of… well, not “nowhere”, but somewhere nothing much is happening, except for tractors and dog walkers passing by every now and then.

I have praised the advantages of country life already, so, I’m not going to bore you with that again. And that’s not the reason for my enjoying this place so much. It is the quiet. The calm. The absence of chatty restlessness, of busy-​ness. The absence of people.

As the British writer Sara Maitland puts it in a text originally published by The Guardian, now online at World Observer: “On occasion, I do not see another person all day. I love it.” Sara has lived alone for over twenty years, in “a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe, and I live in one of the emptiest parts of it.”

My friend, the one on the phone, warned me, that the problems I already have with getting more and more distanced from people (simply put, because I am not willing to share their means of communication, Facebook®, Twitter®, “smart” phones, and the like, and they are not willing to share mine, secure e-​mail, e.g. Tutanota or ProtonMail, old-​school land line phones etc.) will increase. I must reply, “I know, but I am not able to do anything about it.” Because I am certain of several things, and if others contradict me and I am not able to convince them otherwise, I have to retire.

I’m well aware how obstinate and self-​righteous this may sound, but I am by far not the only one to be concerned — and I am not talking conspiracy theorists here. Reasonable journalists of sound mind and proper education are the ones to have reported Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA’s boundless greed for all things data, and who continue to warn about the future and the extinction of freedom, caused by the uneducated use of all those seemingly o-​so-​useful new devices and apps. I have quoted one of them recently, promising to elaborate. Well, this is me elaborating.

People are careless to such a degree that it will make them victims of a currently ascending unsympathetic, immoral, and inhumane system, as Theodore Roosevelt saw it coming in 1912 already, and it has only gotten far worse.

Where they don’t have already, machines will take over very soon. Every time someone tells me, “there’s no need to encrypt communication, for who would read all our personal e-​mails,” I feel so helpless facing this incredible amount of ignorance. Of course, there are no men in black with hats lowered over their eyes reading our e-​mails. It’s the machines, stupid! They did, they do, and they will continue to scan all messages (i.e. all they get hold of) for key words and key phrases, and whenever a word or phrase matches one they are programmed to flag, they will.

A little red flag here, a little red flag there, and depending on the current key word database, most anyone and everyone will raise suspicion. Since every and all messages are stored away for good (read: eternity), anyone who comes to power will be able to access them and modify the search parameters, hence find people of a certain hobby, consumer behaviour, political opinion, age, area of residence, health issue, income, race, gender, you name it — and connections and combinations thereof, weaving a web of entwined micro-, macro-, and metadata. With the rise of right-​wing parties all over Europe, chances are we’ll face an ongoing dramatic change in matters of tolerance, acceptance, life choices, and — I said it already — freedom.

My friend (the one on the phone, again) also tried to evoke my understanding for people not being able to handle technology properly, hence feeling helpless even opening a new mail account. I must tell you, I don’t follow. I think that what you handle, you have to understand. As I was (and still am) entertaining the idea of a “parent’s licence” similar to a driver’s licence, I’d second the idea of a “user’s licence” for anyone buying any piece of computer technology. Well, not any, maybe; a digital odometer for a bicycle works just fine without us understanding its inner mechanisms and won’t do any harm.

The minute you log into the WWW, though, access your e-​mail, post anything to any “social” network, upload anything to The Cloud (e.g. Dropbox®, Google® Drive™, Apple® iCloud™, Microsoft® OneDrive™) or anything slightly similar, you need to fully understand what you are doing: handing over your personal data (including, but not limited to, the exact time and location when and where this or that photo has been taken¹, hence, where you have been at any given time; who all the people around you are², hence, whom you spend your time with, although you might not even actually know those guys; and so forth) to an obscure process that not only keeps your data forever but keeps on harvesting information forever and ever.

Remember:
Big data is not about making life easier for Us, The People.
It is not even about fighting crime and terrorism.
It is about controlling people.
Normal people.
All people.
People like you.
And me.
And the more you let that happen, the more I will be controlled.
That is probably the real reason why I have to recluse.

Also, the words of Jim Morrison are very true, who, in an interview with the Rolling Stone, said: “If for some reason you’re on a different track from other people you’re around, it’s going to jangle everybody’s sensibilities. And they’re either going to walk away or put you down for it.”

A to-​the-​point example of that: “Ach Quatsch” would be an answer many Germans would shut me down with, a phrase that sounds something like “uch kvutch”, the first “ch” being the typical throat-​grating noise that one hears a lot in Northern parts and in Arabic countries. A very harsh-​sounding reply this is, and a harsh-​feeling at that, since it means “nonsense!” They put me down for my constantly warning about the dangers lurking in the dark of server parks. The problem, or one of the problems at least, is that people take democracy and freedom for granted. They are not, my dear readers, they are not. We are closer to a dictatorship than most of you most likely imagine, and probably not a dictatorship of wo:::men over wo:::men but of machines over humankind, or, more precise, and not to put ludicrous images of an army of robots in your head, a dictatorship of software over humans.

“But software is written by programmers, by human beings, and it is also controlled by them,” so many have told me repeatedly. See, that is just not true. Well, the first part is, obviously; software is made by wo:::men. But the conclusion is plain naïve. Today, software has gotten complex in ways that even most programmers aren’t able to grasp. Additionally, more and more software is programmed to learn by itself, which subsequently shall lead to something called “artificial intelligence” (A.I.), always making for a good appearance in a sci-​fi film, but unfortunately already much more in use then it would deem reasonable. Only think of drones killing “enemies” based on algorithms and you get the idea. Software even now is “acting” autonomously — and will do so much more in the very near future.

No actual person will be involved when you get a 20% increase in your health insurance premium (based on a calculated risk you don’t even know the origin of), when you don’t get the flat or apartment (based on your estimated income, or the rather frequent change of homes you have been through lately, or another calculation you are not even aware of), or you don’t get the job (based on how long you’ve held jobs in the past, or how much money you seem to spend, hence demand, or any other calculation you are not even aware of). No actual person will be involved when you are let go, based on an algorithm only taking efficiency into account (or time spent working, or punctuality, or something you are not even aware of), not anything else you did contribute to the company over all the decades. No actual person will be involved when you are denied entry into a foreign country, based on an algorithm that assessed you a possible security risk.

All this can and will not happen to you? Well, just wait for it. Maybe you’re lucky. “Maybe”, not “likely”.

After unsuccessfully trying for years, many years, too many years, to open eyes, to raise sensitivity, and to inform my fellow wo:::men about the dawning of just another Age of Aries (as opposed to the supposed dawning of the Age of Aquarius, which would be a time of love, peace, understanding, and hashish, according to the musical “Hair”, that is; the Age of Aries is associated with war and fire and the rise of empires, never that much of quiet times), the only way I see now is — out.

So, here I am, back to the brink of my little village and to the heading of this article: from now on, you may address me as “Hikikomori San”³. To a certain degree, I dearly love you all (well, most of you), but there is so much I disagree with that I have to go my very own ways. I’m just glad that some still walk alongside.

¹ Those are only a few of the metadata stored inside all image files (unless you strip them bare, which is possible).

² Facial recognition software is already working so well, it is truly scary.

³ “San” being the Japanese “Mister”.

Menos’ Law

The more stupider people are, the more louderer they proclaim what’s right and what’s wrong and how things must to be done.

Disclaimer

I refuse to be of use for this world.
I refuse to be made use of.
I refuse to give anything to this world
except all the useless things I have to give:
my thoughts, my ideas, and my music.

In the future

Just a brief reminder; I do promise that I will elaborate some time soon:

“Careful what you twitter today, in twenty years it might ruin your career.” — Austrian author Robert Misik (German language); source: taz (German language), translation: B.M.

Where have all the data gone …?

Let us, for a minute, assume Facebook® be good and beneficial for its users, acting in the sole interest of them, not itself (all of which is not true at all, I might elaborate on that later; just let’s, for the sake of argument). So, people are trusting all their data, communications, and contacts to the friendly father figure f. Now, for some reason or another (Facebook® gets unrecoverably hacked, it doesn’t make enough money any more, another better online service makes it obsolete), it gets shut down. What happens to your data then? All those people you only met on Facebook®, some of whom you did not even know their place of residence, phone number, or e-​mail address, they are gone. Gone for good.

Wouldn’t that be sad?

Bear with me for another few paragraphs and replace Facebook® now with all the other services you are using. Chats, e-​mail programmes, Google® this and Google® that, note-​taking applications like Evernote®, Microsoft® Note™, what have you. All gone! You’re on your own, alone in this world!

Same happens, and has happened to many already, when your (“smart”) phone breaks down. I have received enough calls from friends who were only able to contact me because I still have a land line, saying “I lost all my contacts, do you know the e-​mail address of Agnes and his brothers¹, please,” and I was able to provide, “Yeah, sure, there you go: …” because I still keep copies of all my contacts, redundantly spread over several hard drives.

The only attack my data wouldn’t survive would be an EMP, which is highly unlikely, especially at all the places I usually stay. I am quite well protected against data loss. (I could even show you e-​mails I wrote and received late last century, but I admit that is a little “over the top.”)

“But,” you will probably reply, “aren’t those big companies keeping their own redundant servers making it impossible for them to actually loose my data, and will they not inform their users beforehand any shutting down?” — “Well, are they? Will they?” I return the question with an enigmatic smile.

Long story short: you can never be too careful. Put down all your contacts in a book (remember, those things with pages of paper inside), or at least copy them to an electronic document that you then should copy to another data carrier, external hard drive, USB stick, whatever you like².

Even shorter: Don’t rely on external facilities when it comes to your data.

(Also, they all do bad things with your data, but as I said before, I’ll elaborate on that later.)

¹ Inside joke, not to be understood by most of my readers, but totally unimportant, too.

² CDs are fine, too; just remember: no storage device is build and/​or designed for eternity. Check the data every once in a while, or even better: make new copies to new devices on a regular basis (well, weekly is not exactly necessary).

Bees don’t have

Erich Fromm was a German psychoanalyst, social psychologist, sociologist, and philosopher who, in 1934, moved to Columbia University in New York; his last name in German means, ironically enough, something like pious or religious. Ironically, because he questioned the very beginning of mankind as the Bible tells it: Adam and Eve were by no means sinners who refused Gods command not to eat from the Tree of Know­ledge, but, as Wikipedia explains, “Fromm extolled the virtues of humans taking independent action and using reason to establish moral values rather than adhering to authoritarian moral values.”

His most popular book probably is “To Have or to Be?” —  the topic of which is fully outlined by its title. It can’t further be broken down than that. We live in times of people preferring ‘having’ over ‘being.’ This is, and now I am not quoting Fromm any more, but elaborating on his thoughts on my own, simply wrong. Having only makes us wanting more and getting sick from not getting what we want; only re-​focusing on being might give us back calm and balance.

“But how is it even possible to be without having,” many of you will exclaim in anger, or angst. But it is, really. I can easily imagine a world where people just live their lives without craving for something all the time. I am not too convinced that this world will come into existence anytime soon (or ever), though; as it turns out, people are lazy, selfish, and lacking self-​confidence, the latter making them prone to bragging, hence depending on things to brag about.

There is a second pair of words that illustrate another aspect of this dilemma, one of which was mentioned already: to want and to need. Certain things we simply need for our survival, like air, water, food, and shelter. The things we want, on the other hand, are not necessary for survival. In many aspects, they are even hostile to it.

“I want this beautiful red pullover,” says John, already owning a whole cabinet’s worth of pullovers, sweatshirts, and cardigans. It is even pretty expensive, but John feels the urge to own it regardless. Today, want is a very strong desire, but there are still societies that reject the whole idea of possession. I think that between these two extremes there should be a possibility for us to own a few things but not walk into capitalist’s trap to want new garments (gadgets, games, what have you) every month. Because, what John does, is ruining the lives of children and poisoning the environment in Bangladesh. Since there will never be a capitalist company truly observing moral and/​or ecological standards (for that is against their own codex of maximising profit), the only way of stopping this evil is to stop buying things.

That is a tough call to many, I know. So, let me suggest to ease the task by learning how not to want things any more. How to achieve that? Simply by searching fulfilment in all things free. In voluntary deeds (helping someone with something they’re not capable of). In long and profound conversations with our partners and friends. In sharing love, extending a smile to people, chatting with strangers. In idling in the sunlight, strolling under the moon, watching water (creek, river, or ocean). Watching birds fluttering, dogs running, children playing. Reading a good book. Eating good food in a very, very slow manner, enjoying every bit and focusing on the different tastes and textures, the whole composition of smells and sensations, the epic opera of sensory stimuli!

There are so many things to do, so many hidden treasures do discover, that fill our hearts with joy! Trust me, the more time you spend with these “useless” things, the less you will want anything else. If you are yet to be convinced, read or watch anything Tom Hodgkinson has to say on that matter, maybe start with a list of ten ways to enjoy doing nothing. Tom is an idling teacher, wrote a lot about the perks of doing absolutely nothing (well, besides looking into the sky or lying down) and illustrates some of his ideas in brief videos which are entertaining, funny, and eye-​opening.

Once you got there, make your job at least a part-​time one (or quit to become freelancer), that way others who are unemployed might get work, too, and enjoy your spare time.
Breathe.
Smile.
Giggle.
It’s just plain divine.

Still no time

Something I honestly question in the music business are re-​releases of albums that are still available. It happens a lot, you wouldn’t guess. But what I do like a lot are re-​releases of my own blog posts every now and then. Due to me frequently building my blog anew — from scratch, so to speak — all the old posts are missing. Most of them are not exactly made for eternity, but some I do consider worthwhile still. So, here we go with a text first published on November 7, 2012:

No Time!

It seems to me that this is the core problem of our (part of the) world: Nobody takes their time any more. Exactly, it says “takes their,” because I firmly believe that to a large (the largest!) part it’s up to us how we “manage” our time. Most readers may be surprised to learn that our concept of time is not very old at all; a little more than two centuries ago, people in Europe lived without the permanent influence of clock-​measured time. Very interesting in this connection is an essay I read a while ago: “Time, Work-​Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” by Edward P. Thompson. The publisher’s note of the German edition goes something like this: “About 200 years ago in England, with the emerging Industrial Revolution, time became ‘clock-​time.’¹ Experienced time, measured by nature, changes to time spent ‘with work’ or ‘in recreation,’ to ‘used’ or ‘wasted’ time.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I write this in a country where the clock (still) has way less influence than it demands in our part of the world. Okay, it’s “crazy Asia”, it’s far away, “the clocks work differently” here. But even in Greece, a mere two thousand kilometres from Germany, people stop their cars in the middle of the street to have a chat, and quite some time goes by before anyone starts honking their horns. Why would they, right? Germany basically has the tools at hand, too, one example being the saying “nichts wird so heiß gegessen, wie es gekocht wird” (“nothing is eaten as hot as it was cook­ed”). Remembering this alone can already be of great help.

Because, alongside health, time is our most important asset. No iPad® or smart phone, no TV, no fancy clothes, no car, and no beautiful flat can protect us from the passing of time, and in reality we don’t need all that. In reality, we are — by advertising, social envy, and greed — driven to trade our time for money and this money then for goods. Who has any interest in that — except those who produce these goods? In reality, the clock is the most powerful tool of the capitalists who, ever more unchecked, brazen, and radically, propagate in our society.

Thompson already realised that almost 50 years ago; here goes another excerpt from the editor’s note: “In 1967, E. P. Thompson illustrated in his essay that the changed perception of time is not only a symptom of the prevailing capitalism, but a key element to understanding modern society. From organisation and division of time to pre-​planned recreational activities, all structures are fully clocked by chronometers.” With the objective of subduing humans, taking from them the only asset they freely have at their command, and replace this asset with bric-​a-​brac, glittering junk breaking down after two years so that one has to buy anew.

Now, the question is: what can we do?

First, we might take as an example the Degrowth movement, or Décroissance (French) in France and Switzerland, the aim of which is to reduce consumption, hence forcing production to downscale (e.g. by disposing of their mobile phones, TVs, cars, using as little resources as possible, buying only the bare necessities), thus breaking the vicious circle of ever more consumption — ever more economic growth — ever more environmental damage — ever more psychological damage — ever more consumption…

Second, we may say good-​bye to the most ludicrous idea that any paid employment could be a life’s purpose or provide fulfilment. To the self-​destructive illusion we were “needed” in “our” company. (As soon as your function will become obsolete or someone younger, dewier, better-​trained will apply, you will be let go.) And to the idea work be something honourable, meaningful, important. Hired labour always, with no exception, means voluntarily extending the hands to get cuffed, gladly relinquishing freedom, and giving oneself over to slavery. (I know, at this point some will mutter, but I mean exactly that. Any company today, be it thousands of employees big or the tiniest workshop with a staff of only three, has to bow to the capitalist ideology, has to be efficient² and growth-​orientated, hence has to act against basic human interests, no matter how nice the boss and colleagues.)

Third… well, we might pause once in a while. Contemplate a detail at the side of the road. Browse through some items at an antiquarian book shop on our way back from lunch break. Spontaneously drink an extra cup of coffee. Pay someone a surprise visit. Clock off early today (feign a headache) and drive to the seaside. By train, bus, or bike, of course. Water, actually: sitting down at the water is the best resource to strengthen the soul. And lazing around idly is the best way to benefit from our time.

Let me add one more thing: it is an illusion, too, to think that growth be possible indefinitely. This is, as a matter of fact, the core concept of capitalism, and, as all natural sciences have already realised (law of conservation of energy), it is plain wrong. This fact is long well-​known, too: 1972, five years after Thompson’s essay being first published in the British “Past & Present” journal, the report ”The Limits to Growth”, commissioned by the Club of Rome, was presented and almost immediately generated an ongoing “fervent debate”, as Wikipedia puts it — only to this day next to no one feels actually addressed. But we all are. Every single one of us, our behaviour and awareness. It should come as no surprise that politics and politicians, with eyewash actions like plastic bottle and can deposit, recycling, battery return, laws on thermal insulation, and “En­er­gie­wen­de” (the German approach on an energy turnaround), do not help in the matter, since they are entirely entangled in capitalistic structures³. Compact fluorescent lamps, enforced by law, containing environment-​damaging mercury, and ethanol fuel mixtures like E 10, making the soil unusable for food production, are only two randomly picked current examples.

Addition: After reading this text, a dear and long-​time friend sent me a bit from history I did not know, mentioning the antique Roman word pair of “otium” and “negotium”, the former being “leisure”, the latter “duty.” She then wrote, “So, leisure is the basis of all, and everything else is ‘non-​leisure’ (neg-​otium). I always found that quite likeable about the old Romans.” — All translations: B.M.

¹ This is “Uhr-​Zeit” in the German original, which is not actually possible to translate, but you get the point, I guess.

² A few years after this text was originally written, German author Hannes Koch wrote in the newspaper taz (German language): “One-​dimensional economic efficiency is the opposite of democracy,” and substantiates, with VW as an example, that large multinational companies almost inevitably are organised dictatorially: “Two years ago already, Der Spiegel portrayed the Volkswagen corporation as ‘North Korea minus labour camps’ and former board chairman Martin Winterkorn as ‘one of the last dictators.’ ”

³ Not only today, too, as Theodore Roosevelt pointed out in his 1912 speech “The Progressive Cov­e­nant With The People”: “Behind the osten­si­ble government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics, is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”

All bum?

In a recent chat with a friend, a musician, too, the topic of the album came up. A few weeks earlier, I had found an example sentence in the Oxford Dictionaries (highly recommended, by the way), that reads: “Does the advent of downloading herald the demise of the album format as we know it — a tangible sequence of songs selected, ordered and packaged according to the intentions of the artist?”

My friend, at present in the process of recording an album himself, doubted the right to exist for the well-​composed song collections and asked himself the same question, “Isn’t an album something completely obsolete?”

The simple answer: no. I would even like to not give out any single-​track downloads at all, which will probably not be possible. But the album as an art form in its own right will survive, I am sure of it. Provided the artist puts all their effort, heart and soul into every single song and into the sequence of songs, too, the album is a way of telling a broader story than any one song can. Plus, the act of enjoying a full album gives you a totally different listening experience, a higher degree of focus, and a chance to actually drop out of everything for a while. Now, if it’s even a vinyl edition, all the senses are triggered; touching, smelling, viewing the cover artwork all add to a holistic experience.

(I’m guessing, to all the kids¹ who just stream Spotify® all day, thinking they were actually listening to music, all the above must read like a paragraph from a really old book, say, 19th century. But I don’t mind, and “those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind,” as Dr Seuss puts it so eloquently.)

¹ Kids are people with a more limited life experience; they can be of any age.

No more news

I would like to elaborate a little further on one aspect of the text “Fear not”, during the research of which I found something interesting. About five years ago, Swiss author Rolf Dobelli has written an essay titled “Avoid News” in which he reveals the danger — both mental and physical — of your daily news bits. The text was last edited in 2013 (but has become even more relevant since), and I’d like to encourage you to read it in full, although “many people have lost the reading habit and struggle to absorb more than four pages straight,” as Dobelli says in the prologue. Like him, I didn’t read news for quite some time, just started again recently and am certain of getting back to a news-​free life; I can confirm the effects he describes: “less disruption, more time, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more insights.”

So, what is news, anyhow?

Let me quote Dobelli, who says that “(…) most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t real­ly concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation.” So, we come back for more. And more. And more. But — to what end? Are we better informed? Do we get provided with tools to enhance or secure our lives?

Dobelli gives an example of a news article about a car crossing a bridge, causing it to collapse. “What does the news media focus on? On the car. On the person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). What kind of person he is (was). But — that is all completely irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking and could lurk in other bridges. That is the lesson to be learned from this event.”

In other words: News is not relevant. “The car doesn’t matter at all. Any car could have caused the bridge to collapse. It could have been a strong wind or a dog walking over the bridge. So, why does the media cover the car? Because it’s flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-​abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce.”

News distorts reality, too, a phenomenon of which the best example is a plane crash. By comparison of the plain numbers, a plane ride is still the safest way of travelling, but since every single one event of everything from a jumbo jet to a four-​seat Cessna crashing or going missing is covered by the media we develop a “wrong risk map”, as Dobelli calls it: “Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated,” or “Britney Spears is overrated. IPCC reports are underrated.”

This is all as worrying as it is pretty obvious, at least when you look closely enough. Really interesting the essay gets with its third thesis: “News limits understanding.”

Huh? Limits? News is supposed to expand understanding!

Well, it doesn’t. As Dobelli puts it, “news has no explanatory power. News items are little bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world.” Knowing plain facts does not equal understanding the world. “It’s not ‘news facts’ that are important, but the threads that connect them.” Those threads, I may add, are more like spiderwebs, though, making the world and all things in it very complex. Much more complex than any single person is capable of grasping. Hence we need journalists who are well trained, well paid, extremely persistent, and as objective as humanly possible to connect the dots for us. Not many of those are out there any more. Thus Dobelli says: “The important stories are non-​stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below the journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect. (…) Reading news to understand the world is worse than not reading anything.”

Another aspect of news reading has to be considered even physically dangerous, because “news constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. News consumers risk impairing their physical health. The other potential side effects of news include fear, aggression, tunnel-​vision and desensitization.” Allergic, anyone?

You know what? I am actually still writing about, and quoting, page four of the eleven-​paged essay. Which makes it perfectly logical, according to Dobelli’s own estimation, to stop right here. I will do so, but not without at least listing the further paragraph headings and provide some conclusion.

  1. News massively increases cognitive errors
  2. News inhibits thinking
  3. News changes the structure of your brain
  4. News is costly
  5. News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement
  6. News is provided by journalists
  7. Reported facts are sometimes wrong, forecasts always
  8. News is manipulative
  9. News makes us passive
  10. News gives us the illusion of caring
  11. News kills creativity

Really, I have to urge you again, read this, all of it. Then follow Dobelli’s advice and “go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey. Make news as inaccessible as possible. Delete the news apps from your iPhone. Sell your TV. Cancel your newspaper subscriptions. Do not pick up newspapers and magazines that lie around in airports and train stations. Do not set your browser default to a news site. Pick a site that never changes. The more stale the better. Delete all news sites from your browser’s favorites list. Delete the news widgets from your desktop.”

Don’t be afraid to miss anything important; information that truly has an impact on your life you’ll get anyway, from the people around you. Read books instead, long and detailed magazine articles (choose those wisely, too; I know quite a few manipulative propaganda instruments that come in the disguise of magazines). “The world is complicated, and we can do nothing about it. So, you must read longish and deep articles and books that represent its complexity.”

Let me add one more thing: Facebook® and Twitter® and the like are news sources, too. So, avoid them just like any other news. Repeating myself, I know. But it’s really a matter of now or never. We are lab rats already, let’s free ourselves from the laboratory (read: international finance and corporations, backed by local, national, and international media).

Oh, and by the way: don’t flatter yourself into believing you could handle it. Just like advertisement, the news influence just works, without us even realising. Those in charge have a number of tools at hand, and they learned from the best psychologists, sociologists, and propagandists how to play with our subconscious. They know how to push the buttons.

Update

I mentioned already twice I was composing again; last Wednesday the recording process has begun — with song number eleven that I had just started composing. Originally, I had the idea to again add a few already half-​done tracks from a few years ago to the new record; as it turns out, I will probably not be able to do so since I believe an album should not contain more than about twelve, thirteen songs. (Well, we’ll see, it actually wouldn’t be the first time for me to break my own rules.)

Fear not

“Angst essen Seele auf” was the title of a 1974 film by German author and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which literally translates as something like “fear eat soul up” (with the rudimental, flawed language due to the storyline that “revolves around an unlikely relationship which develops between an elderly woman and a Moroccan migrant worker in post-​war Germany” [Wikipedia]). Lately, I’ve been reminded of that title quite a lot.

If the soul of a person, as many spiritual wo:::men do believe, is the very essence of one and by definition good, then it is apparently true that it gets eaten by fear. Last year’s refugee crisis all over Europe marked the final return of conservative extremists¹ into the open; people from other countries “flooding” our own are feared for various reasons (e.g. “they take our jobs,” “they rape our women,” “they scheme to undermine the Western culture,” and so forth), all of which are, for the most part, obviously nonsense. When you look at them from a rational, de-​emotionalised perspective. If you’d look at them from a rational, de-​emotionalised perspective. Which our souls are supposedly capable of, our fear-​poisoned minds and/​or hearts not so much.

In the aftermath of Turkey’s military coup last night and the assault by a homicidal truck driver in Nice, France, the night before that, the media are spreading fear again. Headlines read “Nightmare,” “Dramatically Dangerous Situation,” “Impotence At The Côte d’Azure,” and the like. I am not saying that the events were not terrible, mind you! What I am saying is, bad things can, do, and will happen at all times, at all places. Question is, in which way does the public get informed? Neutrally (“there has been a shooting, three bystanders, a policeman, and the perpetrator are dead”) or emotionally (“in this terrifying act of atrocity not only the killer himself, but also a father of three, two young women, and a policeman heroically performing his duty were killed and families devastated”)?

Fear comes with imagination. As Cypher Raige (Will Smith) puts it in the (controversial, but not really that bad) film “After Earth”: “Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity.”

Whenever messages are delivered with images (both literal and figurative) to illustrate them, the listener’s, viewer’s, and reader’s fantasy will rev up, imagining themselves in this very situation. Leave out all the colourful hyperboles, and the audience will still be affected and empathetic, but stay calm(er). Which seems to be the opposite of what is wanted.

As people (both plural of single persons and inhabitants of a nation) have to be ruled (at least that’s what all rulers of all times have proclaimed) and the act of ruling is eased so much by inducing fear, there is a significant itch for governments, leaders, kings, and what have you, to do exactly that. Induce fear.

What goes beyond my understanding is, why do the media aid them in their doing? Wasn’t there something like The Free Press at some point? Is it gone?

No, it isn’t, of course not. But the press is under heavy pressure with this whole internet shebang and such, trying to make “new” money with the “old” (sales of printed editions, you know, this prehistoric stuff) gone. The reflex of most magazines is to try and get closer to the readers (read: be more populistic), which includes the apparent demand of most people for blood, tears, and dramatics. Most newspapers and monthly mags I used to read with interest and a feeling of being actually informed in a solemn manner have shrunk to just another specimen of the yellow press.

And then there is another facet of people being ruled much easier when afraid: Since nineeleven (which was also terrible, don’t get me wrong) all the rights that humans have fought for over the past 50, 60 years by and by seem to vanish, most of them for reasons of “fighting terrorism”². Privacy, the right to undisclosed communication, ownership of one’s own data — all gone already, as is the responsibility for one’s own health. The next to disappear may well be the right to assemble and the right to one’s own opinion. Democracy, as flawed and faulty it may be, is also not a gift but something we all have to keep alive. You, me, and everybody else. Every day.

¹ I know, I know; there were quite a few helpers and supporters out there, too, giving out food and provide shelter, clothing, and encouragement. But still, the right-​wing party nobody ever believed to become more then ridiculous, has gained power in several federal states of Germany. So, considerate support by the few seems outvoted by the many.

² Not one act of terrorism has actually been prevented, nor any terrorist exposed, by means of mass surveillance. Quite the opposite is true: All assailants of the past years were known to police forces already due to ”classical” police work, even those of the World Trade Center attack.

Eating disorder, anyone?

I first came across this little fun bit in one episode of the (quite okay, but not really great) TV series “Defiance”; some internet research suggests that the authorship is unclear, hence I quote without source:

“ ‘Stressed’ is just ‘desserts’ spelled backwards.”

Too much? Too little!

There is no such things as too much work. There’s only too few employees.

Update

I mentioned already I was composing again; twenty days after the first strums on the guitar I’m at a total of ten songs already. Most of them are done so far, composition-​wise, only two or three are missing a few lines of lyrics. All of them have to be recorded, though, and that means a lot more additional arrangement work. But the basics, guitar chords, melody, and words are there. So excited!

Capitalist ruins

Jakob Augstein, well-​known German journalist and publisher, sees the need for a new Europe. Following Brexit, in his latest column (German language) for the magazine Der Spiegel he puts it very eloquently: “The EU was built on the ruins of fascism. Today, it has to be re-​built on the ruins of capitalism. The promise of Europe’s foundation was: no more war. Today, it has to be: no more inequity. (…)
“A caring Europe — that’s the modern variant of the peaceful Europe’s founding promise. And it’s the only promise left to possibly put the right-​wing revolution to a halt.”

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in an essay published by Newsweek, seconds the apparent threat of the growing right wing: “Look at the strange bedfellows that found themselves together in the Brexit camp: right-​wing ‘patriots,’ populist nationalists fuelled by the fear of immigrants, mixed with desperate working class rage — is such a mixture of patriotic racism with the rage of ‘ordinary people’ not the ideal ground for a new form of fascism?”

In a commentary (German language), again for Der Spiegel, Hamburg/​Brussels based journalist Markus Becker furthermore quotes British reactions: “The European Union was pursuing a similar goal to Hitler in trying to create a powerful superstate, said London’s former mayor Boris Johnson mid-​May: they wanted to get the whole of Europe under their sway. ‘Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out,’ albeit by different methods than the EU, deemed Johnson.” Becker sees the dawning of a “dictatorship of the frustrated.” Hence his warning of referendums — at first glance, a way to involve the public with political decisions; but populists, propagandists, and demagogues were the ones to control the process of opinion-​making, not by quality of arguments, but by emotions like fear, rage, even hatred. — Translations: B.M.

After all, money¹ does not make the world go ’round, but rather go down.

¹ More precisely, the boundless greed for it of a few and the lack of it for the many.

Newsflash

As of last Monday¹, I am working on new songs again. With “Make me do” being inspired by the open D tuning called “Vestopol” on my acoustic guitar, this time I changed one string, the F♯ string, down to an F, making the major chord a minor one and the tuning an Open Dm. Amazing, how much of a difference this teeny-​tiny change makes to the sound of the guitar and the chordal possibilities; it even evokes a different style of strumming. So far, I have laid out four songs already, and I am truly thrilled.

¹ Edit June 25: actually, it was Tuesday.

R U bot or what?

Let’s stick with the online world a little longer. Having quoted Tariq Krim and the reasons for his falling out of love with technology yesterday, today I am inspired by a German article on the use of algorithms and programs in manipulating votes and elections. Quite the topic, isn’t it? Imagine a government being pushed into office despite a broad disagreement throughout the human population just by the power of bots shifting results.

Well, you might not even have to imagine; all evidence indicates that we are very close to this sort of tyranny. Based on a sociological study, said article states that 15 % of both Brexit supporters and adversaries on Twitter® are no humans but mere software.

Moreover, around 30 % of Donald Trump’s Twitter® followers apparently are bots, and 10 % of Hillary Clinton’s, too. This is not a brand-​new phenomenon; six years ago, Twitter® bots did discriminate a Massachusetts politician, and in the 2012 elections in Mexico, the impressive amount of more than 10,000 fake user profiles seem to have supported the Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Until today it is still true that a bot is not able to actually vote, but it is also very true that many voters are undecided and easily to be influenced by supposed fellow humans. So, the results of elections are in fact already shifted by those bots. Additionally, since the “techno doctrine” is invading more and more parts of our society, the day is nigh that we’ll be forced to vote electronically (as, for example, Germans are already forced to use the internet for tax returns). That will be the day when the actual count of votes will be open to hacks and fakes. Remember: the one in control of technology is the one in control. (That, by the way, is an essential part of “The Circle”, too.)

Also, you might want to remember that some of your Facebook® “friends”, some of the Twitter® posters you follow, some of the Amazon® recommenders of a product you consider buying, are probably small pieces of software, not actual people.

The end of the Internet?

Lü Buwei, a politician of the Qin state in the Warring States Period of ancient China (Wikipedia), supposedly once said: “Every ending is followed by a new beginning.” So, fellow internet inhabitants, let us not mourn the downfall of our favourite refuge — for that is what has to happen: the internet as we know it has to make place for a new online community. Tariq Krim, start-​up entrepeneur, founder of Netvibes®, Jolicloud®, and former journalist, feels highly reluctant toward the WWW these days.

“The uncomfortable truth is that I fell out of love with the technology world and that I am not excited by the future any more. At least the future that is being built today,” he writes in a Facebook® post, and he has good reasons for his criticism, “at least three things that make me fear this future.”

Firstly, he worries about “(the lack of) ownership. For many people, entering this new digital world means the end of ownership.” Spotify® owns our music, Netflix® our films and TV series, Amazon® all of the above and e-​books, too. With quite dramatic consequences for the “real world”, too, as Tariq points out: “I didn’t mind subscribing to some services until I started to see, in Paris or everywhere I would go, that it also meant closing bookstores, record shops and even public libraries. That struggling magazines have to loose some of their identity to the advertisers. And Culture is becoming increasingly commoditised.”

Next, his concerns focus on the “algorithmic choice. (…) Today, it’s really hard to accept the fact that the machine should decide what’s important for me. Because as good as the algorithms are, they are black boxes with very little control over them.” But “content, like life, is about finding pleasure in messy and unpredictable situations. It’s about content serendipity and friends mentorship. It's about all these little things technology wants to make impossible in the future.” So true, isn’t it? Friends know me so much better than any machine ever could (because a machine wouldn’t understand my sense of humour, my erratic, almost capricious mood and taste swings, my … incalculability), hence I’d prefer any friend’s recommendation over all those algorithm-​based “you-​might-​like-​that-​toos.”

Lastly, Tariq mentions “the impossibility to slow down.
“There’s an incredible paradox to see the rise of meditation and mindfulness in Silicon Valley while most products that are built are designed to accelerate time and stress.
“While the Dunbar number of meaningful interactions with other humans is around 120, our social graphs are breaking records every day about how many people we can talk to.”
Actually, Dunbar’s number seems to be a little higher even, namely around 150 in average. Which is still vastly exceeded by the amount of Facebook® friends, Twitter® followers, Instagram® fans one might have. (I can not even imagine to know and relate to the overwhelming count of 120 or 150 persons.)

Tariq then concludes, envisioning a “sort of slow web that is to technology what slow food is to processed things,” and a “sort of ‘organic sustainable slow technology’.” I second that and would like to invite everyone reading this to our new community of “slow webizens.” As I wrote earlier, in my text City Zen: let’s rather be idle than busy for a change. Let’s read full length texts instead of Twitter® bits and tl;drs. Let’s breathe, and float, and close our eyes every now and then. — Sources: Tariq Krim @ Facebook®, German translation @ Zeit Online

What’s normal, anyway?

“The reputed normal is composed of the least common multiple of prejudices and superstition. It resides in the heads of those too lazy to question themselves.” — Swiss-​German author Sibylle Berg in her most recent column (German language) for the magazine Der Spiegel; translation: B.M.

Manipulation rules

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country (…) We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society (…) In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons (…) who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind. — Edward Bernays, “the father of public relations”, in: “Propaganda” (Routledge, 1928)

City Zen

I have lived in cities quite a while. But for almost a decade already, I prefer staying in rural areas. Not that I’m much of a “nature guy”; I am not so much into hiking or biking, not a busy gardener (yet), nor bird watcher or bee counter (and no tree-​hugger either, mind you). But I appreciate the proximity to all things green and growing, and I also appreciate the basic, laid-​back lifestyle of many, if not most, ruralists¹. Even those who are not working in the fields or breeding cattle seem to be more earnest, down-​to-​earth, and at the same time merrier than your average time-​lacking urban dweller: always in a hurry, always busy, always on top of it all.

Still, the inhabitants of a country or state are called “citizens”, implying that those from towns and towers are the predominant species. That is so chauvinistic! Each city’s every street corner should get warning signs applied, similar to those on cigarette boxes, “LIVING IN THE CITY CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH,” “URBAN LIFE IS A DANGER TO YOU AND EVERYONE NEXT TO YOU”! Bad air, bad attitude, bad atmosphere are the downsides of a vague possibility for inspiring encounters and collaborations.

In cities, you can buy anything and everything, but you can never be sure of the product’s quality, especially when it comes to food. In the countryside, however, you may grow your own vegetables, fruits, raise rabbits, or befriend an organic farmer. With TTIP on the threshold, with herbicide and fertiliser producers pushing for their poisons’ permits to be extended indefinitely despite indications of their apparent carcinogenic “side effects”, industrial food is really not getting any better but increasingly worse instead. (Tragically, this is true for many products carrying an “organic” stamp, too.)

Many a friend I hear complaining about the demanding harshness, breathlessness, tension, and anonymity of urban existence. Actually, there are means to make city life a little less stressful and a little more enjoyable. Just try to adopt rural behaviour while inside city limits:

If none of the above works: move to the countryside. I promise, you will not regret it. It will change your life, of course, but for the better.

Possible alternatives: Move to the outskirts of a small town. Take long vacations (at least two months) at a secluded beach, in a little village, or a mountain hut. (Don’t forget to send me a postcard then.)

¹ Unfortunately, there’s a growing number of citywo:::men who just own a house in the countryside, but have grown up and still work and spend a lot of time in the city; those are just as tense as any other urban person, hence spreading their illness countryward.

² I am well aware that it is impossible to walk heads-​down all the time. Just do it whenever possible. (Also, I am well aware that this is not an adoption of rural behaviour. Outside cities and towns I’d recommend quite the opposite!)

³ This may not appear a “rural recommendation” either, but it is the right thing to do, wherever you live. The more people demand to use buses and trains, the more buses and trains will be put on road and rail.

Transparent New World

Today, I want to recommend a book to all those who didn’t read it yet: “The Circle” by Dave Eggers. The story unfolds around a young woman, Mae, who starts her new job at an internet company that might be described as a mix of Google® and Facebook®, with a few more ingredients. All the reservations and concerns I have against my fellow wo:::men being hooked on their digital profiles are confirmed and elaborated on by this dystopian novel. Frightening enough, most of the developments depicted by Eggers are done, or in the making, already.

Let me show you some excerpts, and let me add: Close your Facebook®, Google®, YouTube®, Dropbox®, Twitter®, Instagram®, and whatever else accounts you have. Close them all, today, for good. For your own good. (Yes, I am serious.)

“Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know — they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”

This, to me, is the most brilliant paragraph, because it delivers a very convincing explanation as to why people tend to lemming blindly toward “social” networks and into surveillance. (The underlying theory is backed up by the fact that an increasing number of young people, asked for their goal in life, want to become a “star”, “YouTuber”, or otherwise famous.)

“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You’re not hungry, you don’t need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you’re pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-​social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.”

Counters Mercer, Mae’s once boyfriend and the novel’s one of two antagonists who keeps warning her.

“SECRETS ARE LIES”
“SHARING IS CARING”
“PRIVACY IS THEFT”

These three mottos are invented by Mae herself while she’s stepping up The Circle’s hierarchical ladder; it is certainly not by accident that they resemble those found in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-​Four”.

“(…) the volume of information, of data, of judgements, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable — it was too much.”

This is a brief moment when Mae doubts her job, her calling, The Circle. It won’t last long, though.

“Suffering is only suffering if it’s done in silence, in solitude. Pain experienced in public, in view of loving millions, was no longer pain. It was communion.”

There she is, “back on track”, so to speak.

Really, everyone: read this. It’s mind-​opening and scary and will make you rethink your being online. If you don’t quit now, today, all of this will come true. And that would be absolutely terrifying. — Sources/​further reading: Goodreads, GradeSaver, Telegraph, Canadian author Margaret Atwood in The New York Review of Books

P.S.: While you’re at it, you might additionally read the … well — blueprint of a sort for “The Circle” (at least in parts), Aldous Huxley’s dystopia “Brave New World”, followed by the aforementioned “Nineteen Eighty-​Four”. Finally, to calm your nerves a little, read “Island”, Huxley’s last novel and a utopian vision of a better world made possible by combining Western science with Eastern (mainly Buddhist) wisdom.

All under control

Many, if not most, people hope for sport, exercises, and health apps to expand and control their life expectancy. They try to control their lives’ risks by signing countless insurance contracts. Companies, governments, and law enforcement agencies use big data analysis to predict and control future behaviours. Undoubtedly, the one thing modern men fears most is the loss of control.

There’s at least three downsides to this control mania.

First off, it’s an illusion. We are not in control, however desperate we try. Life has its own way of surprising us; people with a healthy lifestyle, well-​fed, well-​trained, non-​smoking, die at an early age while smokers, sport refusers and greasy meat eaters get to live 90+ years.

Secondly, the desire for control strips us of real experiences. If everything goes as expected, our brains go into hibernation since there’s nothing to compute. But we are designed hungry for something new, hence the growing market for extreme sports, exotic travels, and so forth. (Those distractions happening in a controlled manner and environment, too, makes them way less satisfying than the real thing, though.)

Lastly, control is rarely left in our own hands. Self-​proclaimed sports scientists decide which exercises to do (happily changing their minds every now and then), app developers put average values into their programs that might well not apply to a certain individuum, insurance companies define exception over exception in the fine print, making sure they won’t have to cover your claims, and governments … well, Edward Snowden was not the first to demonstrate how recklessly data miners assume that anyone might be guilty of something, so everyone must be observed and surveilled. — This text was partly inspired by an article in the German magazine Der Spiegel.

Excuses

“Every person I know is pretty poorly constructed. Everyone has an excuse for not dealing. But eventually that’s all they are — excuses.” — Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), in: “Dollhouse” (Season 2, Episode 1, “Vows”; Joss Whedon 2009)

New, again

My website has been undergoing changes, and not for the first time. I will not promise for this design to last any longer than all the others, but I’ll try to stick to it.

Changes include:

Part of this development is inspired by, among others, Justin Jackson and his reminiscence of the web in the nineties. He is, I am, and many others are, tired of what the German language calls “klickibunti” websites, which roughly translates to “clicky-​gaudy”: fancy flashy gimmicks, embedded videos, large images, all that stuff that eats up bandwidth — something you don’t have to worry about as long as you are not leaving your fibre-​optic, 100-​Mbit connected home. Start traveling, dear programmers, and realise: there’s many places on the globe where your cool sites don’t work at all, or at least are slow as hell. (That is one important reason for the increasing use of add-​ons like AdBlock and NoScript, btw.)