Infinite TV: Curate Your Brains Out

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My father, about 1956, watching our one channel:  WBNG 12 Binghamton.

We now have an infinite amount of TV.

We have over-the-air free TV, satellite TV, cable TV, YouTube, and endless professional and amateur streaming programs.  We have Big Ugly Dishes, small ku band dishes, smartphones, smart TV’s, DVRs, DVDs, BluRay 4K 8K Apple TV Amazon TV videos on social media and it goes on forever forever forever.

MJ Robinson in TELEVISION ON DEMAND:  Curatorial Culture and the Transformation of TV (Bloomsbury Academic 2017) says that that forces each and every one of us into a curatorial role.

That means that we now spend more time trying to find stuff to watch than actually watching it.  (Exaggeration mine, not Robinson’s.)

Fun, isn’t it?

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No, being a curator – of anything – is not fun.  It’s poring over lists and items, and trying to pick the “best”.  And, as Barry Schwartz pointed out in his bestselling book of a few years ago, there’s nothing that causes more stress than having to make a decision.  Especially when the choices are infinite.

Television is in a “liminal state”, according to Robinson, an anthropological term that essentially means “in transition”.  You and I would say, “TV is changing”.  Academics say, “TV is in a liminal state”, and then babble on about mystics and shamans, and then wonder why governments threaten to stop funding the soft social “sciences”.

AI, or artificial intelligence – algorithms – are coming to the aid of us amateur curators as we try to figure out what to watch.

Have you noticed your DVR or phone giving you viewing suggestions that most often show up like those “12 albums for 1 cent!” come-ons of our youth?  Our phones follow us into the bathroom, our TV listens to our conversations, our car hears our every fart and jittle, priests get a list of your sins two weeks before confession, our dogs are embedded with chips that read our moods.  Based upon your past trail of clues, the devices around you help you curate, or pick, what you watch on television.  And everything today is some form of television.

There are still national TV networks.  HBO is still around.  Is TBS still around?  Amazon, who sells you toilet paper, now sells you TV, and you happily buy it.

But you can go niche.  You can go little TV.  You can watch the broadcasts of the home-based minister of a faith that exists only in his or her head.  (You and three other viewers.)  You can watch pet-bathing channels.  Channels showing guys (it’s always guys) waxing their trucks or tube swapping their vintage electronics.

You can broadcast your own TV channel, just like I can blog my own little newspaper.  Buy a camera.  Find a streaming service.  Done.  Isn’t this fun?  All for six readers or six viewers.

Now, if only you – or Amazon, or Apple, or NBC – could figure out something worth broadcasting.

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Because in this environment of infinite TV choices, there is still nothing you can come up with that’s worth watching.  With infinite choices, I’ve pretty much “curated” my TV viewing down to CNBC World, CNBC, and, haha, Orioles baseball.

It comes down to attention.

I only have 1 unit of Attention at any given time.  Oh, you may think that you can multitask.  No you can’t.  You only have 1 unit of Attention, too.

How on earth do an infinite number of broadcast choices get your attention?

Robinson in TELEVISION ON DEMAND says that AI will help recommend stuff to us.  It will lead us all out of the swamp.

Or, I worry, will it lead us into narcotic solitude, stuck in our own autistic world of video trivia?  Will it “save” us as well as it has done with social media?  How is that working out?  “Apply a little more, a little better AI, better and faster and more advanced algorithms” say the researchers.  Yeah, sure.

Meanwhile, the choices shout at us, louder and louder, in more extreme ways, the way candidates do.  They must bust through the muck.

But they can’t.  We only have 1 unit of Attention each, at any given moment, for infinite numbers of broadcasters to grab.

This Golden Age of TV is going to collapse.  With the next economic downturn or depression.

Then we will all sit at home, with our rooms in darkness and with our meagre Basic National Income allowance, and watch Barney Rubble smoke Winstons on PBS.

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Selling Modernity

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It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the idea of “modern living” had to be vigorously sold to us.  But there was, and in some parts of the world, the case has still not been made.

SELLING MODERNITY:  Advertising in Twentieth-Century Germany (eds. Swett, Wiesen, Zatlin, Duke 2007) is about the conversion (or conversions – it’s complicated) of Germany to the modern way of life by means of advertising.

It’s complicated because Germany has a complicated history:  World War I, Weimar, Nazis, Hitler, World War II, occupation, East vs. West Germany, capitalism vs. socialism/communism, the poor years, the Cold War, the rich years.  It’s a messy history, too, and nasty.  All you have to do to get a headache is to read about how the Nazis were anti-American yet pro-American when it came to advertising methodology, and both medieval in philosophy while being simultaneously a very modern, scientific regime.  The contradictions boggle the mind.

But you don’t read the essays in SELLING MODERNITY for the specifics of German advertising.  You read it to get the big picture.

And the big picture is that Germany, like the United States, had to be pulled, kicking and screaming, into the mass consumption and marketing of the 20th Century, as late as the 1990’s in the case of the former East Germany.  At the same time that citizens craved modern goods – TVs, washing machines, Rayon – their brains craved traditional tribalism and the comforts of old ways.

A professor once said that the Middle Ages did not end until the late 19th Century, or, perhaps, even as late as the 1950’s.  And some places still haven’t caught on.

I’ll buy that.  Because even as we love to jet to Las Vegas or curate our own TV schedules, we still get a kick out of making our own jams and jellies, listening to the blues, and pounding on our own drums.

And no advertising has been invented that can heal that split.

The Lie: “It’s For Your Own Good!”

ABTL_2015-Volkswagen-Golf-1.8T-SEL-Silk-Blue-Metallic-Front-Quarter-RightCompanies compulsively lie.  Not always with big lies.  With disingenuous half-lies.

It’s as if the heads of public relations staffers and advertisers would split open if they simply told the truth:  WE’RE DOING IT TO MAKE MORE MONEY.  NOW GET ON BOARD OR ELSE!

Above is a simple, current Volkswagen.  We had one.  It’s a great car.  Cheap to buy, cheap to run.  Very refined for a shitcan.  We loved it.

But “consumers love it” is no longer a good reason to make and sell stuff.  It never was a good enough reason.

The only reason to make and sell stuff is to make more money.

More money, more money, and more money, until the whole planet has been consumed.  And then we’ll start in on the asteroid belt.

Since the VW Golf is perfect, VW has to further perfect it by creatively destroying it by figuring out how to make more money off it, all while putting the best lipstick-on-a-pig spin on the whole story.

You’ve heard the expression, “Change is good”?  And, “Change is the only constant”?  And you’ve heard that you need to change continuously in order to be a happier, healthier, more vital, and still-worthwhile member of the human race?

So here’s what VW expects you to buy in a couple three years:

Teaser-m01-bg-largeThe yellow thing is called an “iBuzz”, I kid you not.  It’s basically an updated, electric VW van that your aunt and uncle conceived your cousins in.  (Or your cousins conceived you in?)

Why electric?  We’re told by VW and the greater automotive industry and by politicians of all stripes that electric mobility is the wave of the future.  We will adapt to it for our own good.  It will solve climate change, Beijing’s air quality problems, acid rain, whatever.  We’re told all about VW’s and Ford’s and Honda’s beneficence, their desire to save tadpoles and old growth forests and children and women.

It’s bullshit.  VW will go electric because the average internal combustion auto has something like 1400 parts that need assembling (by human beings called “workers”) whilst electricmobiles have like 200 parts that need assembling (by far fewer human beings called “workers”).

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I have no doubt that an ancillary benefit will be cleaner air and a cooler planet.  But please tell the truth:  the main benefit will be to the automotive industry’s stockholders.

Understand exactly where I’m coming from, and why I’m writing this:

As someone who is sitting in a centrally-heated home while a blizzard rages outside, as someone who does not dig ditches for a living, as someone who has no desire to ever assemble a vehicle, internal combustion or electric, I would be okay with all this, if only, if only . . .

. . . corporations could treat us like adults and tell us the simple truth:  that they’re in this for the money and, oh yeah, by the way, there are on occasion good side effects to that approach.

I guess simple truth is too difficult.  I guess PR people and ad copy people need to feel creative, since the rest of their lives are so dismal.

btw, this is not new.  The 1939 World’s Fair was one orgiastic paean to capitalism and how it’s-all-for-you with no mention of profits.  That defensiveness was understandable at the end of the 1930’s, in a decade when capitalism nearly went under.

But now?  Why?  I think we’re all pretty cool with buying stuff and understanding how that works.  I’d admire a car company that says, “Boy, are we gonna make a shitpile of money if we can strong arm you enough to change and give up the stuff you like now!”

In the car industry, there’s another nasty trend that I’ve written about before:  autonomous vehicles.

Does this photo make you sweat?:

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Cars that drive themselves are here now.  More are coming.  For various reasons, I don’t think they’ll become universal.

We’re being told that they’ll help Grampa get to the doctor when he’s in a cast and Grandma is blind and the grandkids are in Oregon – grandkids always seem to be on the West Coast nowadays, don’t they? – or when you have important business to conduct with the pornographer on the other end of your smartphone.  They’ll be safer than human drivers because as machines they’ll be as perfect as your DirecTV or your nav system or Windows.

Nonsense.  The simple truth is that we’re being asked to change our entire way of life so that car companies can make even more money.

VW and Ford and everybody else will be running their own fleets of autonomous vehicles.  You’ll call them up piecemeal or else by subscription plan – just like with the aforementioned lovely DirecTV or your smartphone – and order a vehicle to come around.

What does VW make as profit when they sell a (low-tech, old fashioned, cheap, polluting, un-hip)  Golf nowadays?  A couple three hundred bucks total if the customer doesn’t finance it?

Hell, you’ll be paying $500 a month forever when you subscribe to a car!  And the car will still be VW’s!  And we’ll believe it’s a good deal!  And far better than the old-fashioned and more dangerous way of life!

Let’s just be told the truth.

You are constantly being told that you must “change”.  Despite the nostrums, change hurts.  It upsets lives.  It ruins peace of mind.  It costs money.  It scares people.  It even kills some people.  It puts a lot of people (“workers”) out of work.

And when those workers lose their jobs and their physicians prescribe opioids, the workers, not the employers or doctors, are then blamed for their addictions and politicians call them deplorable.

It’s a lovely world we’ve created.

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photo via ’56 Packard Man

 

 

We’ve Been Hooked Then Abandoned

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The story of our lives is one of:  A)  getting addicted to something, and then:  B)  getting abandoned.

Good things end.  I’m not talking about kids growing up or getting old or things wearing out.  Those things are bad enough, but they aren’t artificial.

I’m talking about artificial, capitalist-style desertion.  Since the industrial revolution, and especially since the turn of the 20th century, marketing, advertising, innovation, and technology have enchanted us and then broken our hearts.

We’re given – sold, actually – a bill of good things.  Take TV.

TV ended in the mid-1980’s when intelligent comedies such as “Barney Miller” and “Taxi” wrapped.  Oh, there was “thirtysomething” a few years later, which fell prematurely to self-indulgence and class envy.  There was the original “Twin Peaks”, and even this year’s Showtime version.

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Then what?  TV abandoned us.

What’s left?  “Hannity”?  “The Property Brothers”?  Some reality shows?

Hell, my wife and I came across “The Beverly Hillbillies” a few weeks ago, and in it are cultural references to ancient Greece that would fly over the heads of today’s college graduates.  “Hillbillies” now comes off as hip and campy compared to today’s fare.

By the late ’80’s, video games arrived to fill the gap.  We got hooked.  At least white males did.

I remember “Earl Weaver Baseball” and “SimEarth” and “SimCity” and “SimLife”, then “Pharaoh” and “Stronghold” and “The Sims”.

Since then?  Video games are muck.

The graphics cause motion sickness.  They are almost all shooters.  They’re all designed for lower-demographic 12 year old boys whose parents don’t pay much attention to them.

We got addicted to the time sink of video games, and then our friends like Electronic Arts abandoned us.

Thus adrift at sea, we were picked up by the internet.

Surfing, Facebook, and the web in general became the new organizing principle of our lives.  Technology was called our savior.  We believed it.  We bought it.

Now San Francisco, the symbolic home of high tech, is one vast homeless shelter, and California’s economic inequality is infamous.  The products they gave us are seen in research as causing depression, loneliness, envy, anger, rage, and political divisiveness, fed by our very own “friends”.

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via Cnet

I was asked to join Facebook about 10 years ago by a real-life friend (as opposed to an artificial digital one) who, in typical school playground drug pusher style said, “Oh, come on, Gregg, it’ll be fun!”

I was hooked.

But now we all know how Facebook and the internet in general are a waste of time, are annoying, cause rage and impoliteness, post fake news, allow radical political groups to emerge, hack our bank accounts, steal our credit card numbers, and on and on.

And, worst of all, the internet is overflowing with ads for crap products and it is . . . boring.  Really shit-awful boring.

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I won’t even mention the porn.  Did I mention the porn?

After you’ve seen every breast on the planet several times over, what can captivate further?  Is there anything capitalism can provide to fill up the next 10 or 20 years?

No, it can’t.  Capitalism has shot its wad.  It has forced us to undergo detox several times, and we’ve caught on to its games.  Capitalism is a liar.  So is socialism, even worse.  All “isms” fail the, “Come on, it’ll be fun!” hype after several detox cycles.

You can see the failures of several other cultural subsets, which only makes things worse.

I see small schools such as SLU pushed out of college hockey by big money, or at least made permanent laughingstocks, good for an easy win.

I see small market professional sports teams neutered, especially in baseball.  I’m sure MLB was delighted with the Boston/Los Angeles World Series.  It’s a miracle Milwaukee got as close as they did.   That won’t be allowed to happen again.  So no sports addiction for me.  What fun is a stacked deck?

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There was a time when I could walk from my corner home on Leigh Street down to Appleton Arena in Canton, NY (pop. what, about 5,000?) and see future NHLers beat Cornell and Yale.  The walk took about one minute.  The game was free or nearly free.  I thought a lifetime of sports was going to be a safe addiction.

And the same with cars.  The market got us all addicted to cars.

The ultimate was a low-slung sports car.  Now all cars are SUVs, which look like jacked-up hearses.   The car addiction fuel has dried up.

I don’t want this to sound like a “things were better in the good old days” lament, because  they weren’t, and that’s not what I’m saying.

I’m saying that modernity has a rhythm of creative destruction that makes us all unhappy, all the time.  We await the Next Big Thing.  We have to, because the game and show developers, the auto manufacturers, the geeks, the university administrators, and the CEOs all lose focus by going for the easy and/or big $$ rather than quality.  Markets are overhyped, then they “mature” (rot).

What happens now that we’ve caught on?  What happens when we refuse to get addicted again?

More importantly, what do we do tonight?  And tomorrow?

 

All Art Is Not Politics

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SIX SHOTS by Gregg Fedchak

I had a college professor who repeated, like a mantra, “All art is politics.”

Not true.  As an artist, I can safely say that, “All art is whatever color paint I have in front of me today.”

I get the professor’s point.  We’re all embedded in a culture, our culture, the culture and time and place we live in today.  To the extent that you think politics is the most important thing in life, you’re likely to believe that politics equals culture.

Art is politics only when you consciously sit down and plan your art, beforehand, to be a political statement, and an obvious one.  I’ve tried that.  It produces my weakest art, probably because politics is weak broth for anything serious.

The strongest art comes from the unconscious gesture, an assault upon the blank canvas with whatever those paint colors are in front of you, with no idea where you’re headed.

Even then, the “all art is politics” cult would say that your unconscious is shaped by politics, and ultimately determines the nature and/or subject of your work.

No.  Besides what colors have hardened and which still flow, my art is determined by my mood, by whether the cat just threw up, by whether it’s raining out or not, by whether I’m constipated or hungry or zipped on caffeine.  Politics still hums in the background, but no more than hums my blood sugar level, flies dying on the windowsill, random prayers or oaths, how bad the Orioles lost last night, whether or not my favorite shirt is wearing out, or whatever.

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LOOSE GRID by Gregg Fedchak

Only people addicted to or obsessed by politics would favor politics as a bigger mover of the world than religion, family, or acid reflux.  Art reflects what we obsess over.

I obsess over color.  Therefore, I say, “All art is color.  Or the lack thereof.”

There may be Red States and Blue States.  But I live in purple.  It’s the only way to stay sane.

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Fools Right & Left

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I just read Roger Scruton’s updated FOOLS, FRAUDS, AND FIREBRANDS:  Thinkers of the New Left, instead of going to my high school reunion.  Sorry.

btw, these are not “book reviews”.  I didn’t want to do book reviews in 4th grade, I didn’t want to do book reviews in 9th grade, and I don’t want to do book reviews now.

I thought I was going to be a bank vice president and drive a Buick station wagon with plastic woodgrain on its sides.  This is what I do instead.  I live to figure out why people are happy or unhappy.  Some people shovel coal.  I don’t.  I shovel books.

Scruton says that the brightest liberal thinkers write nonsense, safely ensconced with tenure behind high university walls fortified with political correctness and in a smoke-free environment, unless you count pot.  They spill out books like beans.

The scary thing is, Scruton convinces me.  I have, and have read, the authors he crucifies.   Deleuze, Guattari, Adorno, Habermas, Sartre, Marcuse, Benjamin, Foucault, Galbraith, Lacan, Zizek.  Actually, I don’t have Galbraith, Habermas, or Zizek.  Interlibrary Loan headed them off at the pass, and saved me some money.

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These authors are nearly impossible to read.  Scruton takes them apart piece-by-piece and almost, almost, makes them understandable.  But all they do is urp up verbiage that defies understanding – on purpose.

The problem is, if the left is fueled by thin gruel, so is the right.  Scruton fails to convince me that conservatives have philosophy that can be turned into a political program either.

I’ve gone to the trouble to summarize all that I know about politics from all of the above authors, including Scruton and other conservative philosophers:

  1.  It doesn’t have to be as hard as they make it.
  2.  Political/social thinkers, both liberal and conservative, are dense and useless “players”.
  3.  Liberals think that things are bad and can only be improved by laws, regulations, “education”, government, politics, and tax money.  Conservatives think that things are pretty good and can get even better with God, prayer, and with less government, fewer laws, fewer regulations, and lower taxes.

The way that this plays out can be illustrated by, say, a school shooting.

Liberals call for gun laws.  Conservatives call for a moment of silence.  Liberals call conservatives Hitler and fascists on social media.  Conservatives call liberals snowflakes.

It used to be that nobody called the other side names.  As recently as 9/11, in fact.

This made compromise possible.  Liberals could get a little gun control, conservatives could get policemen at school doors, kids were marginally safer, and everybody was happy.  More or less.

Then along came Facebook, cable news, and clickbait meme sharks.  Throw in your average hysterical American moron with a smartphone and a gin ‘n’ tonic, and you get unsophisticated name calling.

So now there can be no compromises.  There can be no way forward.  You can’t negotiate a compromise with Hitler, can you?  You can’t reason with a snowflake who acts like a 4 year old, can you?

Adorno, Horkheimer, Scruton, Hayek – are all worthless.  They are worthless in our current situation, and they are stand-alone worthlessnesses.

I can now turn to lighter reading fare.  Unless the rare great woman or man comes along on one side or the other.  Or, preferably, on both sides.

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On Bailing on Books

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Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  My last confession was about 40 years ago.  Since then I have bailed on several books.  I started reading them, then tossed them aside.  I have even tossed aside books by the handsome, young Saul Bellow, above, photo via Knopf.

I just read Bellow’s RAVELSTEIN.  I thought I would bail, but didn’t.  I wavered, though.

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RAVELSTEIN is a late work from Bellow, and is a thinly fictionalized account of his real-life relationship with Allan Bloom.  I just wrote about Bloom’s bestselling THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, so I had a sudden, spontaneous interest in RAVELSTEIN.

As a late work, RAVEL is kind of shaky.  Bellow had nearly died of food poisoning a few years prior, and was in his 80’s.  RAVEL is a vehicle for Bellow’s belief that the “pictures” in our mind – the pictures of lived experience, what we call consciousness – along with RAVELSTEIN/BLOOM’s late reversion to speaking as if an afterlife was an automatic expectation of a fully-formed human consciousness (even though Bloom was an atheist) – speak of eternal life for all of us.  Not a small topic!

Bellow at his shakiest still makes for a great novel.  Buoyed by finishing RAVELSTEIN, like an ass I tried reading Bellow’s award-winning 1970 MR. SAMMLER’S PLANET:

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btw, this was like my 4th attempt to read SAMMLER.  I think my first attempt was right after an SLU summer class that I took from Bob DeGraff (sp?) for English credit.

Something about SAMMLER repels me.  It’s not SAMMLER’S (or Bellow’s) fault.

I know that when I was younger, the “elderliness” of the protagonist was a turn-off.  Sammler is a partly blind Holocaust survivor with an odd fascination for minor criminals.

I’m not happy to say that, at 61, I am still repelled by the bitchy old man Sammler, even though he has many, many legitimate reasons to be grumpy.  I felt a familiar depression slip over me as the pages went on.  The Sammler Depression.

It’s not because of the Holocaust.  I read history and World War II history.  No problem.  I would suggest that, perhaps, Bellow’s novel is one or two steps greater than straight history, one or two steps more concentrated and potent.

And I’m not up to it yet.  I may never be.

It’s not that I have a problem with Bellow, who was probably the greatest American novelist of the 20th Century.  One of my favorite novels is Bellow’s 1956-ish HENDERSON THE RAIN KING:

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I read HENDERSON for the same summer school class at St. Lawrence.  It changed my life.

HENDERSON was the prototypical big, dorky, powerful-to-a-fault American abroad.  He nearly destroyed Africa in his clumsy attempt to love Africa to death.  American foreign policy came to life in a way it could not have in Hepburn Hall with my Government major.  Talk about liberal arts synergy.  This is why I assume SAMMLER is more potent medicine than I can stand; that’s what was true with HENDERSON, but it was assigned.  I HAD to read it.

In any case, the point of all this is:

Don’t be afraid to pick up a book and then, if necessary, toss it aside.

Maybe it’s a bad book.  Maybe it’s not for you.  Maybe you aren’t ready for it yet.  Put it back on the shelf.  It’ll be there 10 or 30 years from now.  Don’t be OCD and refuse the book out of the fear that you’re stuck with it.  Grab and read, or else grab and read and toss aside.

It’s not a sin!

Life is too short for bad or for even inappropriate books.  RAVELSTEIN says that.  And Bellow is always right.