10.17.2014

Living Life to the Fullest

 
This could be an image of someone living life to the fullest.
What you do is irrelevant. It's how you do it.

There's something inspiring about this idea, this phrase, this call to arms: Live life to the fullest! Who doesn't want that? It seems so obvious, an a priori good. Our pop songs and commercials and movies portray this at every turn. I feel like every pop song I ever hear — which, I admit, is not very many — is all about being extreme out on the town. Painting it red. Lighting it up. It's life as the X Games.

After all, when you're on your death bed and look back on your life, you don't want to have regrets, right? What is sadder, we are lead to believe, than wasted potential? Than having squandered our days watching TV, scorning life and love? Shouldn't we be climbing Everest and bungee jumping off Costa Rican bridges? Shouldn't we be writing songs, poems, novels? Shouldn't we be leaving our mark on the world? And even if our ambitions are less grand, shouldn't we be seizing the moment?

But what is it to live life to the fullest? If I am sitting peacefully, joyfully, on my floor staring the ceiling and you are anxiously riding your motorcycle through the streets of Hanoi, who here is living life to the fullest? Is living life to the fullest an external event or an internal experience?

In talking about the relationship between the external and the internal — a perhaps false distinction but hear me out — Osho says, more or less: You're a smoker who enjoys the repetition of the act of smoking. The boring act of repeating the same thing over and over relaxes you. Ok. And then someone tells you that smoking is bad. So you take great measures and you quit. Great! And then you discover meditation and you start repeating your mantra over and over. The boring act of repeating the same thing over and over relaxes you. Nothing has changed. There is no difference between smoking and repeating your mantra.

All sorts of people will rant and rave. But smoking will kill you! Meditation is good! Smoking is bad! It contributes to Big Tobacco! Sure, all of this is true. But life is killing you, just as it's keeping you alive. (And is the point of life not to die? Really?) So maybe it's better to meditate than to smoke because you feel better giving your money to the self-help establishment rather than the tobacco companies. I can see that. But you haven't changed. You're no closer or farther from peace.

I know people who feel a compulsion to do extreme things. If they're not doing extreme things, they feel bad, like they're doing the wrong thing. How can I be watching TV when I should be scaling a mountain? The demand to live life to the fullest becomes a commandment, a morality, that makes you feel lousy about yourself.

It seems to me that living life to the fullest demands an internal movement of infinite acceptance of life itself. If you're relentlessly judging your life — I should have a better job; I should travel more; I should have a cooler boyfriend or girlfriend; I should be married; I should have children; I should be anything other than what you are this very moment then you are not living life to the fullest. You're living for an ideal from the past or future. You are avoiding life.

A demon comes to you, writes Nietzsche, and says: Everything that's ever happened to you and ever will happen to you — every tear, every burp, every feeling, every kiss and sneeze — has happened and will happen infinitely, how do you respond? Do you feel liberated from the regime of morality and judgment? Or does the reality of the very life you lead crush you like the greatest possible weight? ("The Greatest Weight" from The Gay Science).

I often let my house go. Dishes pile up. Dust bunnies gather and colonize. Dirty laundry litters the floor. The utter banality of cleaning and washing crushes my soul. I should be thinking! Writing! Fucking! I should be doing anything besides cleaning. And then my house becomes more and more grotesque and I feel more and more agitated. Not cleaning my house because I want to be living life to the fullest has the funny effect of making me not live life to the fullest, of making me anxious and agitated and self-loathing.

What I do in the world does matter. The line between the internal and the external is infinitely porous. It's a seam, not a border.  Living life to the fullest is something that happens; it is something you do. Only it's not something you do out there per se. It's something you do right here, right now, in every moment.  My formula for greatness in a human being, writes Nietzsche, is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.
  
This, to me, sounds like living life to the fullest: to see every moment as necessary, as beautiful, precisely because it happened or is happening. And this — to love every moment as necessary whether you're hiking the Himalayas, vomiting from a bad burrito, or washing dishes — is an internal movement.  

So, on my death bed, I don’t want to be thinking about the life I’ve lived, assessing it, judging it, interpreting it. No, I want to be present with my dying body, experiencing my death to the fullest.

10.09.2014

What is Cool?


 

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Humphrey Bogart. I had this large cardboard cut out of him in my room, wearing that suit, that hat, and leaning just so with a cigarette. Yes, in the 70s cigarettes were not yet so thoroughly stigmatized but we'll return to cigarettes shortly. I was into Fred Astaire, too, but the whole jubilant dancing thing had its limits in my book. No, I was mostly into Bogie's whole shtick — his delivery, his tone, his posture. I was into cool.

I've been intrigued by the concept of cool ever since — not being cool, mind you, as I am not nor will ever be cool. I'm too goofy, too emphatic, too slovenly — words, stains, emotions, anxiety leak from me continuously. No, I'm not cool but I've been interested in the concept of cool, the definition of cool, the operation of cool.

Of course, we use cool in a variety of contexts to describe what seem like vastly different experiences. For instance, you look at a video that visualizes the entire universe and you say, Cool! It's a declaration that whatever has been offered — a fact, a song, a movie — is something worth taking note of, something that exceeds the everyday. It could be a break dancer, a picture of a volcano mid-explosion, or a fact about scorpions. But cool is different than cute or beautiful or awesome, all of which grab our attention and exceed the everyday. But they do so in different ways. So what is it that makes things as different as Bogart and black holes cool?

Cool is restrained, but not repressed, passion. It's a burbling that doesn't explode. It's contained but not staid. Picture all the icons of cool — Bogart, Dean, Chow Yun-Fat, Pam Grier. They are all brimming with life and yet somehow keep it all together. They're not Jack Black, coming out of his pants. They're not Jim Carrey or Robin Williams flailing about. They're not Mr. Pink; they're Joe Cabot, the boss (not quite Mr. Blonde who's a psychopath, not cool). They are founts of passion but they don't let themselves get carried away; they control and contain their vim. They’re sensitive but — or and so — they maintain a certain distance, a certain stoic resolve.

Oh, these cool cats may be pushed to the limit. But even when they're up against the wall, even when they're sweaty and tired and have shot and killed a bevy of thugs, even when the cops and the mobsters are both breathing down their necks, they never become unglued. Cool under pressure, is the expression. But they don't have ice in their veins; they bleed hot but they bleed rarely. 


Tarantino, who is himself so uncool, loves the cool. Think about Jackie Brown. De Niro and Sam Jackson want to be cool but are too goofy, too full of themselves, too showy, too quick to fly off the handle. But Pam Grier's Jackie Brown? She's one cool customer, even with a gun in her face. Meanwhile, Pulp Fiction is an homage to the cool.
 
So back to those cigarettes. Why are — or were — they so cool? Picture the characters in Wong Kar Wai's incredible Fallen Angels. They're always smoking. Now think about how I just used that word, smoking. They are giving off heat, passion and life itself radiating out of them: they are smoking. But they're always smoking cigarettes, too. Because a cigarette is, quite literally, this discrete containment of heat. A cigarette is bounded yet burns. And this is the very definition of cool: fire under control without ever being uptight. 


Now picture Tony Soprano with his cigar. It's a containment of fire but it's big, consumptive, gangly — just like Tony. In fact, the characters in The Sopranos are never quite cool. They try to be cool but, in reality, they are emotional adolescents who give way to their immediate passions. Tony is always fighting his anger; Phil Leotardo is overcome with resentment. They're too out of control — just as a cigar is a barely contained cigarette. The very premise of The Sopranos is precisely that Tony can't keep it contained, that he keeps having panic attacks: that he's not actually cool. We see this in Scorsese's mob films, too. Think of Joe Pesci: he's constantly going off the deep end. Sure, there are cool gangsters. But, in these depictions, most of them are always coming unglued.


I am not ignoring the politics and economics of smoking. Yes, there is vested interest by Big Tobacco in making cigarettes cool. But the fact is cigarettes are kinda cool. That doesn't mean they're not also grotesque or tainted by need and greed. We don't live in an age of cool; we live in an age of anxiety and fear so of course we feel that way about smoking.



The Velvet Underground is cool. Think of Lou Reed's voice, its deadpan, understated delivery of extreme states. And I feel just like Jesus' son. The VU were all New York cool, a counterpoint to San Francisco's flowing hippy madness. The Grateful Dead are a lot of things but cool was never one. Dead shows were too exuberant, all that loose pajama clothing twirling and twirling and jiggying. Please note that I'm not passing judgment. I love both the VU and the Dead (I went to 25 or so Dead shows back in the day). I'm only trying to understand the ways of cool.

So why do we say cool when we hear certain facts or watch certain videos? Because we're experiencing cool, a discrete nugget of knowledge or life that is brimming with excess. 

Martinis are not just cool: they breed coolness. Consider the martini glass. It's a lot of strong booze delivered in a glass that demands the drinker keep it together. If you get sloppy drinking a martini — a drink that is getting you lit — you won't be able to drink it. The martini glass is more than a symbol. It is a pedagogy in the ways of being cool: be lit, always, but keep it together. 

10.07.2014

Between Rage and Smiles: In Defense of Politeness



I am rarely calm as I drive through San Francisco. From an objective perspective, driving in this absurd city has indeed become intolerable — construction on every corner, the city gutted by the utilities, lanes eliminated to make room for trees and bikes and, on top of it all, an inundation of new, douchebag entitled drivers all conspire to make it impossible to go literally one block without mayhem. 

When I'm out there trying to navigate these streets, everyone is a douchebag — except me, of course (one of my favorite tweets was courtesy of someone I don't even follow, : Congratulations everybody in the world for all being tied for the most shitty driver in the world).  The things that fly from my mouth on a daily basis include a greatest hits from "The Wire": Get the fuck out of the way, you fucking shitbird! Fucking drive, fucknuts! What the fuck fuck, fuckwad? My son's vocabulary is now distinctive amongst his peers.

Whenever I see other drivers fly into a rage — when I see them through the window silently gesticulate their madness, scream, curse, and wish intense physical harm upon their fellow citizens — I am humbled. It's ugly to behold. And the fact is that despite whatever justifications I might offer, I am that driver, driven to the brink of madness daily because another driver hasn't accelerated fast enough. Ensconced in our two tons of steel, we quickly and mercilessly condemn the slightest perception of wrongdoing. All sense of the humanity of others disappears, the machine affording the aegis of invincible anonymity.

We witness the same thing online in the infamous comment sections, the casual ease with which strangers let loose upon strangers with a stream of ad hominem bile. I, for one, have been called everything under the sun online by people I've never met nor will ever meet, usually based on their poor reading of my poorly written screeds.

We see the same thing in war. Through a sniper scope or from the all seeing eye of a predator drone, the humanity of other people has a tendency to dissipate. In the American drone attacks, we can't even say how many people have been killed, not to mention who's been killed. This is not due to government secrecy; it's due to ignorance born of the indifference technology proffers. When a remote control robot kills someone, the humanity of that someone is so irrelevant that we don't even care whether we killed the "right" person (let's put aside that creepiness for the moment).

There is a continuum that runs from road rage to cruel comments to predator drones. This is by no means to conflate these things. For the most part, road rage and cruel comments don't kill people. But there is something disturbing about the way certain technology provides a distance that lets us vent the basest aspects of our wills. It breeds a culture that lets us believe that a drone attack is not only a viable option but a good one.

This is not to say that the driver's rage or commenter's vitriol is always base and undeserved. Most drivers are indeed selfish douchebags and deserve a shit storm of insults. And, no doubt, much of my own prose and ideas deserve the nasty attacks on my personhood.

Meanwhile, if technology has a way of stripping other people of their humanity that allows for ready hatred and insult, face to face we tend to be too non-confrontational. In American culture, at least, we'll hurl the nastiest crap at other drivers or in comments online but, in person, we're all smiles. We dread conflict. I have a friend who, whenever she's asked to do something by some acquaintance she doesn't even like, first bitches to me  — and then goes to meets this person smiling broadly! Oy! Who wins in that situation? 

In this world of smiles, we deny the humanity of others, as well. We treat them not as individuals with quirks and ticks and likes and dream, we treat them as an anonymous force to be managed with a friendly hello and smile, a bourgeois blow off. Of course, often a friendly hello and smile is nice and, like the occasional mean comment, well deserved. But like road rage, trolling comments, and predator drones, the obsequious smile denies individual humanity. 

This whole equation of social exchange is out of whack. Armed with technology, we're nasty and brutish, even for the slightest of offenses. And then, when our time and energy is really on the line, we avoid conflict at all costs (at least in most places outside of Manhattan. In the Manhattan of my childhood, people confronted each other often, banging on taxi hoods, letting loose on a subway platform for someone budging. Whenever I've done the same here in San Francisco, people look at me like I'm a nut job. Sure, they'll fuck over another driver, wish him and his family dead, offer caustic comments anonymously on some news website, but actually confront another human being in the flesh? You'd have to be some kind of deranged asshole to do that!)

How, then, are we relate to each other? I believe there is a distanced respect we call politeness. The function of politeness is to let other people be amidst the ever increasing throngs of predominantly urban life. To some, the formality of politeness is dehumanizing. But I prefer to see it another way: it allows maximum difference by allowing you to be you, me to be me, without judgement and snooping into each others business. 

This is a lesson I learned from William Burroughs, not exactly that icon of propriety. But while his imagery is often shocking, and while he lived most of his life as a junkie, he believed not in social protocol but in social tact — in knowing the right thing to say at the right time. I've written about precisely this before so I'll try to avoid excessive redundancy. But to quote myself despite its awkward phrasing, True social protocol is not what's inherited or determined by others but through the skills of tact: reckoning the here and now by perceiving and discerning.

It's difficult to figure out how to address each other these days. We live part of our lives in our neighborhoods, sure, but we also live more and more at work and of course online. We are often strangers to the people who live across the hall or across the street not to mention all the people we interact with online who live god knows where. And, at the same, we are each of us multiple — we have multiple lives, multiple identities, multiple needs and desires. Who sees which self, in what voice, in what mode of address?


Ah, but politeness allows us to be all of our selves while letting all those around us be their multiple selves. To be polite says: I wanna be me and I wanna let you be you and, as we all live jammed here together, let's not muck it all up by sticking our noses where they don't belong. Let's give each other room to be ourselves.

Does this mean we shouldn't occasionally get in someone else's face? That we need always to be quiet around each other? Proper? No, I'm not saying that at all. I am saying that there is a practice of tact that seeks the humanity within a situation, a humanity which may very well involve calling someone out on their douchebaggery, playing music loud, flipping the bird. 

This is obviously a longer discussion of ethics in an increasingly crowded, interconnected world both virtual and physical. So, for now, I offer this: politeness can go a long way towards maintaining a balance of distance and respect that lets a multifarious world of multifarious selves enjoy this multifarious life. 

After all, we all live in this world together, sharing the roads both paved and virtual, sharing the air and bar stools and economy. And it seems to me that it might behoove us to behave with a tad more couth towards each other  — not just if we want to survive but if we want to live with a sense of enjoyment and pleasure.

9.30.2014

Death and the Afterlife


The Diet Soap podcast in which Doug Lain and I discuss death. There are some nice moments here.


Death is some scary shit, no doubt. But death is not nothing. This is a mistake I often made in my life, in both my thinking and my living. I readily conflated death and nothingness, nihilism with a death wish. But death is not nothingness. Fear, anxiety, despair: they tends towards nothingness, towards an erasure of life that is not death but is a kind of living death, a zombieism. As Kierkegaard would say, the anxious don't live and can't even die — which is precisely the source of their despair.

The death of the body, for Kierkegaard, is not the sickness unto death. Anxiety is the sickness unto death. It keeps the living self away from living, at a distance, caught up in what has been or could be, in worlds that don't exist. For many, including myself, it feels better to retreat into anxiety and the life of possible worlds, however awful those worlds might be — especially if they're awful. Oh my god, I could do really badly at my job! The plane could crash! I could get sick! I could shit my pants! None of these have happened but, for some insane reason, we enjoy the misery of living through them virtually. And then experiencing all the dread and horror as if they were real. It's truly nuts.  

No, death is not nothing. Anxiety tends towards nothing as it veers away from the now. But death is always now, an event to beat all events. It's anything but nothing. If thinking about whether the plane will crash is a non-event, the plane actually crashing and your body being obliterated is certainly an event. 

Death, while being an event that changes everything, is certainly not the end. Yes, it's the end of the living body. But that body is not the limit of who we are. I don't say this in some glib, pseudo-religious way. I say it because it's so obviously the way of things, something we experience every day, all the time.

A step toward rational immortality, William Burroughs writes, is to break down the concept of a separate personal, and therefore inexorably mortal, ego. This opens many doors. For instance, you can live in, on, and with other people. In fact, this is always happening. There is no pure being distinct from the world; we are made up of tics and tricks, gestures and licks from other people. You live in other people and other people live in you (WSB). (Read Burroughs' incredible, hilarious essay, "Immortality.")

The other day, I was spending time with a friend and every time I chuckled, she'd say, That's your brother! That's his laugh! Think about what an insane thing that is to say. I wasn't quite sure I knew what she meant at that juncture but I do know the experience of being possessed by my brother. Usually, I feel it when I'm holding forth. Oh, lord, when I was teaching, I'd be mid-lecture when all I could hear, all I could feel, was my brother spouting — sprouting — up through my mouth, a kind of  Ouija board.

My brother lives in Manila, in the Philippines. But he also lives right here — in me, as me, with me, at least a little. My sister is dead and she, too, lives right here — in me, as me, with me. Death, the Philippines, across town, it doesn't matte: our possession of and by other people transcends time and space, transcends body and ego. This can, of course, be to our dismay. I have familial forces working in me that I'd like to dispel. In fact, in order not to be a total asshole of a father — the key word here being total — I have to wrestle, stifle, and muffle the paternal voices that live in me, that live as me, that haunt me all the time. 

We live with ghosts. This is not some supernatural thing, some mystical claim. Events are not discrete. When something happens, it doesn't just begin then end. It continues to happen more or less. This is called, amongst other things, memory. Memory is not a card catalog of snapshots. Memory is the presence of the past, here and now. It's my tying my shoe, craving rice noodles for dinner, knowing the way to my son's school. It's also the smell of my childhood house; it's falling into a pile of dog shit at the ever sad PS 165 playground and then my five year old ass being asked to strip for a bath by the Jamaican nanny I could never understand; it's the wide, radiant, true smile of my sister as well as her confused, sad, skinny face days before she died; it's the daily screaming of my parents that still echoes in my skull. It's everything that's ever happened to me and is still happening to me, right here, right now.  

We are events, each of us. We continue just as the things that happen to us continue. Sure, they seem done and gone but they — but we — persist in various ways, as echoes and sentiments, as shadows and gestures, as scars and dreams. 

Burroughs says the way to immortality is through writing. Writing is a powerful and highly effective way of transcending your body in order to possess others — much more effective than mummification. I can't think a thought — not one thought — without hearing and feeling the presence of a veritable symphony of others — Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, Kierkegaard, Deleuze, Plato, Foucault, my brother, Derrida, Gadamer, Marc Lafia, Paul Ricoeur, even Paul de Man! This is what happens when you write a doctoral dissertation: you let yourself be possessed by a bunch of philosophers until they're all speaking out your mouth (not to mention other orifices). 

We all write. Not necessarily words but we write on the world, write with the world, write the world itself. This is what it is to be alive — you are always, necessarily, leaving your mark. It might be a relatively slight mark, a small etch in the earth, an inflection of the flavor of carbon dioxide from your particular gut, a way to hold strangers' eyes on the subway gleaned by attentive teenagers sitting across the aisle. These are all forms of writing. Sure, they don't have the usual grammar and they don't travel as well as words do. But they are all inscriptions on the surface of the universe. We are all writers; we are all immortal.

But what about the experience of the dead person? Well, the experience of the self is not limited to the experience of the mind, thought, and body. We exist as, and on, different planes of existence. While I'm in the body, I am limited by my body but also by my mind and its demands for certainty, clarity, knowledge, understanding, social productivity (in its sundry, insidious forms). I am this guy who has done, this says that, has this value in the social and financial economy. But I also live in, with, and amongst a certain cosmic consciousness, an infinite self that bleeds with the universe rather than with blood. 

We get glimmers of this aspect of ourselves, this infinite, cosmic becoming that we are in addition to being body, ego, and mind. Some people work to experience this as much as possible and find it in different ways — meditation, psychedelics, hiking. In these moments, our ego dissipates. It can be scary, for sure. I've seen people lose their proverbial shit on acid, watched as their egos melted and they became stammering, mumbling, idiots, at once beautiful and distressing. I've also seen people lose their egos and become ecstatic. This is the Dionysian experience that people have sought for millennia — in raves, at Burning Man, in Roman orgies, in sex, at Dead shows.

As Burroughs writes, The tiresome concept of personal immortality is predicated on the illusion of some unchangeable precious essence: greedy old MEEEEEEEE forever. But as the Buddhists say, there is no MEEEEEEEE, no unchanging ego. We are immortal not as ourselves per se; we are immortal as we are the cosmos, this piece of the cosmos, this inflection of things which shifts the very register of the entire universe forever. The farthest reaches of the universe are different, however imperceptibly, because you lived. And you are different because of that super nova, that black hole, that asteroid, that flicker of cosmic crap, those solar flares. We are the world, as it were, and as such are immortal.

That might not be a consolation, I know. The straw man image of the afterlife  — living as our ego-driven selves in the blissful cloud planes — is absurd, even if somehow reassuring. I see Larry David, his hair gown back, about to meet Marilyn Monroe. Some religions do a great job — albeit areligious — of making you feel comforted by the best of all possible worlds: you'll still be you, ego and all, only minus the annoying parts.

But isn't the promise of death — and it is a promise — reassuring precisely because we get to shed all this bullshit, all these hang ups and anxieties, all this worldly crap?  Living forever as this would be downright exhausting. How many times can I choose what to eat for dinner? How many dishes can I wash? How many bills can I pay? So, yes, a heaven that promised none of that while letting me still be me sounds pretty good. But then I'd still have to be me. How long can anyone, including me, endure this shnoz?

This is not to poo poo life. On the contrary. While I'm in this body, with this mind, I'm going to try and enjoy it. I'll think, drink, screw, love, hate, stress, eat, text, write. But, in death, I will be done with all that. I will be done with my petty ego nonsense. I will be done with thought and mind. I will be ether, not subjectivity. In all honesty, does this scare the shit out of me? Yes. But I'm beginning to think it sounds mighty fine.  

9.24.2014

Rethinking the Internet: Networks, Capitalism, and Control

 
 A very smart documentary by Marc Lafia that discusses the figure and history of the network, amongst other things.

I admit it: I have been seduced by the figure of the network and have applied it readily to the internet. It sounds so right, doesn't it? There's no center. Or, even better: Everything's a center! When I'm online, I am the center of the inter-network, the entire global data field orienting around me. Oh yeah! 

And with no center, there's no hierarchy. No Big Boss Man. No priest. Nothing between me and the goods, me and information, me and the truth. It's the Lutheran dream, or some such thing. Information no longer flows from the mouths of expert-priests to the clambering, ignorant masses. We educate ourselves! Thanks, Wikipedia! Rather than a downhill flow, there are ever shifting distributions and flows of data. It's a thousand plateaus of liberation!

As for commerce, who needs those big box shops that are shutting down every mom and pop shop and slaying neighborhoods? Now each local vendor, maker, artisan, chef has the same access to the market, bypassing the prohibitive costs of real estate that let the Costcos and Starshmucks of the world dominate.

But, as we all know now, this is not what's happened. Because that's not how networks, in fact, function. 

Since the dot com explosion of the late 90s, we've seen a steady rise of monopolies — eBay, Facebook, Twitter, Google. The network effect is not the wild distribution of information but its steady coalescing into zones. For this virtual world to work (the definition of "work" is precisely what's at stake), there have to be certain densities. Who wants to be part of a social network with only twelve people (well, I do, but that's another matter)? Who wants to shop, or sell, at an auction that only has 145 items and 267 bidders?

Not only does the internet not foster proliferation and multiplicity, it necessarily tends towards monopoly. In real space, the reality of distance slows any one entity from dominating. But in the virtual world, domination happens at the speed of light. We call it going viral or, in wonky tech speak, it’s called the hockey stick.

Business wonks, especially here in San Francisco, love to call this disruptive. But it's anything but. It's just the acceleration of capitalism that's been picking up speed since the late 18th century French and American Revolutions. Like the French Revolution with its rally cry of liberty, equality, fraternity, the information revolution has been forged under misleading pretenses. 

The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, business and property owners wanting a piece of the pie previously reserved for those who lived off the merits of birth and inheritance, the aristocracy. This was the explicit cry of the American Revolution which didn't want to pay taxes to a king 3000 miles away (and who pays taxes? Not the destitute). While often portrayed as a revolution to rescue the starving masses from the cruel indifference of the aristocrats (the one image we all know is Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake"), the French Revolution used the downtrodden to empower the rising business owners who, in turn, exploited and ignored those same downtrodden (it’s been worse in the US than France, of course). As our American constitution declares, the declaration of equality is not equality of life but equality of a right to the pie (presumably; in reality, the game was rigged from the get go in various ways via government-business complicity such as tax breaks, corporations, the government picking up the tab for externalities such as wars for oil, roads, subsidies, etc.).

Like the French Revolution, our information revolution decries the way of the hierarchy. And so, like the French Revolution, the information revolution cut off the heads of the king, the queen, the aristocracy in general — albeit virtually. The big retail brands of the world have, for the most part, been toppled by Amazon and eBay. Old media is on its last legs. Wikipedia cut off the legs of the academic experts, those fuddy-duddy keepers of knowledge.  

But rather than giving rise to a radical democracy or symphonic anarchy in which all voices are heard — especially the smartest and oddest — we're witnessing the radical centralization and control of conversations and, scarier, a rapid monopolization of the ways and means of discussion. Television networks sure had it easy but in retrospect that looks like nothing compared to the dominance of a Comcast who controls the pipes and the content that travels over them (see: the attack on net neutrality).

Look around the so-called memes of the interweb. What passes for an issue and discussion on Facebook and Twitter is a relentless slicing and dicing of events into discrete nuggets with clearly marked good guys and bad guys, readily digested and scanned issues that make it easy for people to like, ignore, or share. Think of all those lists and petitions. Buzzfeed and Thought Catalog have their clear motivation: clicks for ad revenue. But what’s our excuse? 

With this technology that turns everyone into a publisher, why are there so few surprises and even fewer discussions of the media and forces that have framed the issues in the first place? It’s not that these critical opinions don’t exist; it’s that they are pushed to the edge of the network, into oblivion (just as they always have). Something happens — a beheading, a leaked video — and it immediately becomes something about which to feel outrage! Snarky! Sad! So few consider the plethora of perspectives that inform this event. We get an issue and a way to feel about it. Nietzsche calls this the herd mentality. I guess I thought the internet would be different. 

Just as the network effect tends towards business monopolies, the network effect tends towards the cleansing and homogenization of discussion and opinion. Rather than a proliferation of perspectives, we experience their radical reduction. The ready access to information has turned everyone into an expert regurgitating the same multiple choice perspectives on multiple choice “issues.”

And what's so insidious about this internetwork is that's even more efficient than television networks. A TV channel broadcast down its one-way pipe and then we could analyze its agenda. But now there is no broadcaster, no agency with an agenda. We reduce conversations to a like or share all on our own. There’s no media to interrogate. There’s only ourselves (pace Foucault).

I realize for some people, this is not a surprise. But to my naive and obviously limited understanding, this is a radical realization. The internet and its architecture seemed so promising to me, so exciting, so potentially revolutionary. Even the ever astute Doug Rushkoff is surprised by how it’s all transpired. 

The reality is the internet is the acceleration of a form of power and control that is centuries, if not millennia, old. NASDAQ is shipping trade routes on steroids. And the internet information revolution is no revolution at all: it's the acceleration of control and monopoly that's been breeding for ages, now moving at the speed of light.