I've been thinking a lot about different mediums of narrative storytelling, and after seeing this video and thinking about the future of virtual reality, I've got to admit it's making me a bit anxious:
Staring at text and reading a novel is basically like staring at a sequence of symbols and vividly hallucinating. One one level it's miraculous, but on another level, how could it possibly compete with the form of multisensory perception that the future of Virtual Reality holds? Particularly interactive virtual reality? Attention is the scarce commodity in the era of the smartphone and other rapidly advancing technology.
Perhaps, then, the surprising fact isn't that novels will die out in the future, it's the fact that they haven't died out yet. And as a person deeply committed to the novel as a specific form of storytelling, its possible future irrelevance concerns me. Should I spend decades mastering a craft that will eventually go the way of the blacksmiths? Surely there will still be niches that find it appealing but the power of a novel to shake the zeitgeist's core will be gone entirely.
For many years, plays were the medium through which the masses experienced narrative, and now they've been usurped by film. Narrative, and by extension, writing, will always be with us. Maybe the future of narrative storytelling will be through the medium of virtual reality games - as opposed to virtual reality films which are, by design, not interactive. I don't know. What I do know is that I don't want to spend time learning a craft that's going the way of the dinosaurs. I've been deeply moved by novels, films, and even some video games, so on one level, as an artist, I have to be agnostic about mediums and let go of whatever literary elitism exists inside of me (to wit, I haven't even earned it!).
Art is art, I suppose, and in life, nothing is certain. Making a bet on the future is unavoidable.
I recently finished Sam Harris's Waking Up video lecture (available on Vimeo) and really enjoyed it. Although I haven't read the book it was based on, it's in my reading queue and I'm definitely looking forward to it. Harris is one of my favourite writers and thinkers and I think he has a great ability to synthesize issues into simple and clear terms while still adding useful analysis (with the sole exception of his thoughts on Chomsky, where I feel he's out of his league). Having gotten a lot of value out of this, I thought I'd share my notes:
The last point, I think was the most important one. In the process of writing my novel, I thought a lot about questions of meaning - what meaning can our personal relationships hold if, at root, they're ultimately about genetic propagation? I eventually realized that meaning is something you can directly apprehend, and even though it does require some objective component, the objective truth of the evolutionary origin of our relationships isn't something that sufficiently undermines the meaning of our experiences enough to render them meaningless.
In conclusion, four out of five stars.
To pose the question is to assume these two things are mutually exclusive: that real art doesn't aim to provoke, and that any degree of provocation is incidental to the message of the piece. I'm not sure I agree with this analysis, but let's say it's true. Where's the distinction between art and basically trolling the world?
For me, it lies in intent. If the intent of the artist is to make a point about something, and in making that point, they need to create something that contains potentially inflammatory and provocative content, then it's justified as along as a broader argument is being made.
At the outset of writing my novel (which is about a White Supremacist misogynist), I debated whether or not to write it in the first person or the third person. From the third person perspective, his bigotry could be somewhat nullified, kept at a distance from the reader, and controlled. But it ultimately took away from the power of the narrative - in order to understand the mindset of the bigot, it's useful to stand in his shoes directly, as noxious as that may be. And in doing so, the internal logic and emotion of the character begins to make more sense, and your ability to understand hatred increases accordingly.
In light of the recent events of Charleston, I just wanted to make a quick point that's often lost in the analysis of racism more generally - take a quick glance at Roof's "manifesto" (you'll have to bear the broken grammar and recurrent spelling errors), and notice how central that concept of racial superiority is to the justification of violence.
I'm not sure racial superiority is the absolute beating heart of racism as a worldview (since you could argue that racism is just a variant of a more fundamental in-group/out-group distinction), but it's definitely one of the central cores. What's interesting is how easily the imperative to violence seems to follow once an individual has accepted the belief in White Supremacy as true. I'm not sure I have a good explanation for this, but several come to mind.
I've been wrong about a lot of things in my life. Since I've discovered all the things I was wrong about, I've since developed a slightly increased degree of epistemic humility. I'm trying to be a more rational person (rational in the Elizier Yudkowsky sense), but I'm really not much better than I used to be.
A couple of examples:
To be honest, I wish I'd realized that I was wrong about all these things a lot earlier, but at least I eventually did come around.
I used to be extremely politically engaged, and although I don't want to sound cynical, I'd say that I've largely lost interest in following political trends and movements closely. In the future, I might contribute to some organizations underneath the Effective Altruism banner (i.e. vetted by GiveWell), but other than that, I don't particularly have the urge to be an activist directly. To the extent that I want to make political statements, I want to do them indirectly, through art, which I think can be a very powerful medium for effecting social change (for example, art that humanized gay characters undoubtedly played a significant role in pushing LGBT rights forward).
So here's a random rundown of various opinions I have:
I have a love/hate relationship with goals. Goals are good because they orient you towards something, pushing you to achieve it. On the flipside, goals are bad because, by definition, they haven't been met, therefore they make you feel inadequate and incomplete. You find yourself future projecting, imagining some ideal future scenario where you'll be happy because you'll be "complete," having met your goals.
Except this day never arrives. You'll just get new goals. You're perpetually chasing something, never reaching it.
Here's a list of goals that I had previously set out for myself:
I failed in all of these things, and spent a lot of time making myself unhappy because I hadn't met my own internal success conditions. Goals by definition create binary outcomes: success and failure, polarizing the breadth of life into these two narrow categories.
Instead, I've started to shift towards a new paradigm advocated by Leo Babauta - achieving without goals. Instead of goals, I now have areas of focus. So instead of writing in order to achieve some specific level of literary success, I write because I like to write. If I write every day, and focus only on the next immediate step, eventually I'll have a completed novel (this is how I wrote my book, taking it one day at a time, focusing on the moment to moment process as mindfully as possible).
I've gotten a lot of value from balancing out my Western success-oriented mindset with the Eastern concept of mindfulness and staying present to the moment, and I think you can too.
If you check out my twitter feed you'll notice that I follow some individuals who hold view that you will likely find repulsive. A lot of the time people think that following someone on twitter constitutes an endorsement of their views (not true). I follow people on twitter for a very simple reason: I want to know what they have to say.
I spent a great deal of time researching white supremacists on-line for my novel, and in the process of doing so, I began to develop a much greater understanding of their psychology. This understanding, in turn, helps me to see the bigotry in a much clearer light. And in the context of twitter, it doesn't bother me. I have pretty thick skin, not just on-line, but in RL too.
Do I hate white supremacists? Do I have a morbid fascination with them?
No, and probably yes.
For many years I had a deep interest in Islamic extremism, probably since I had recently come out of a similarly fundamentalist worldview. I saw their views as analogous to views I had once held.
Following racists on twitter helps to serve as a check to the internalized, subconscious memes of white supremacy that still float around the back of my mind - as a function of living in the West, they're more or less inescapable. So really, I look at their views as a form of inoculation - as a vaccine of sorts.
Just finished Susan Wolf's Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, which was okay. It was recommended off of the Very Bad Wizards podcast, which I generally love, but what I was really looking for - a specific response to the reductionist arguments made via evolutionary psychology & incompatibilists, was basically entirely missing. Maybe that was too much to expect from a positive account of meaning - a specific response to modern scientist nihilism espoused by the likes of Alex Rosenberg, etc.
Wolf sketches out an obvious and straightforward account of meaning that I have trouble disagreeing with:
Meaning in life arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness, and one is able to do something about it or with it.
What I find interesting is the following:
Meaning has an objective (that is, a nonsubjective) component...
Having been raised as a devout evangelical Christian, this especially rung true for me. I experienced great moments of transcendence and ecstasy as a religious believer that I haven't been able to reproduce since that time. It was a great shock to realize that an experience so profound could prove to be so, so wrong.
This ties into the issues I wish that she had addressed: what to make of objective attractiveness? How can this be discerned? If the incompatibilists are right, then doesn't that degrade the objective value of our decisions? Don't our choices collapse into the movement of atomic particles? Can that be said to be objectively attractive? I don't know.
This point ties directly into the altered states of consciousness made possible by subsuming oneself into a large group.
We want, need, and love groups. We have special emotions that we feel only in groups. And we have special practices that bind groups together into a kind of hive. Barbara Ehrenreich recently made this case in her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. She describes how collective, ecstatic dance used to be nearly a cultural universal, which functioned to soften hierarchy and bind groups together with love.
The power of this shouldn't be understated. One can only imagine how meaningful the Nuremberg Rallies (or a public execution by ISIS) has felt for those attending it.
In conclusion: 2 out of 5 stars.
people I admire
Bret Easton Ellis