The Great Attention Heist

Tim Wu's book, The Attention MerchantsThe L.A. Review of Books is running a piece co-written with colleague John Bell on Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants.

To give and receive attention is a fundamental human need. Some have pointed out that attention exchange is often the main, underlying motive for any human interaction, regardless of the actors’ overt intention.

Wu shows us how technologists, profiteers and politicians take advantage of this deep human preponderance for their own advantage. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed.

“According to Wu, the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi is to engage us with “apparently free stuff” and then resell our attention to others. In this regard, smartphones and tablets — and the applications that support them — represent a quantum leap in the industry’s efforts to win and hold our attention. They are the frontline harvesting machines. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed. Furthermore, there is no harvest “season” for this industry. It is happening all the time and around the clock: in our homes, on the street, in our workplaces, during vacations. It is a symphony of mental entrancement on a global scale.”

The Skeletons of Sion

A view of the city of Sion in the Valais region of Switzerland
Encountering the unexpected is for me one of the best things about travel to new places.

Back in the fall I visited the Valais region of Switzerland, near the border of Italy, to work on a magazine assignment about Swiss Wine. After one of many tortuous wine tasting sessions in the city of Sion, accompanied by a light lunch of raclette, my local and guide and I – a bit tipsy – hiked down the mountainside towards our next destination in the centre of town. Along one of the main thoroughfares we came across a huge workers’ tent pitched atop a parking lot between a restaurant and school. When I asked about the tent, my guide said it was the site of an archaeological dig and suggested we go inside and take a look.

The archeological site of Don Bosco, Sion, SwitzerlandWhen we entered we discovered a team of archaeologists digging up an Iron Age necropolis containing numerous graves. Flamur Dalloshi, the lead archaeologist from Albania, told us the burial ground dates back to prehistoric times. But most skeletons of interest, he added, were from circa 1,000 B.C.

A three thousand year-old skeleton excavated at the archeological site of Don Bosco, Sion, SwitzerlandSeveral months earlier Dalloshi became a minor celebrity after unearthing the remains of a male warrior that was laid to rest with his weapons, a razor, pottery vessels and bronze jewellery. However, most of the skeletons, he told us, belonged to women and children of the elite ruling class, leading him and his team to believe that the society may have been matriarchal.

He invited us to take a closer look a the remains still being excavated. If you look closely at this skeleton on the left, you can see bits of clothing and jewellery just behind the back of the skull – and to the left of the mid-section (a belt).

When I asked him what the most surprising thing was he’d discovered, he replied that in some graves his team had found pottery with hoses running into them and extending upwards to the surface – so that the living could provide the dead with water in their eternal repose.

Gold!

A view of the old mining town of Stewart, British Columbia, CanadaWhile on assignment recently in Northern B.C., I was introduced to a group of people working for a mining exploration company prospecting for gold. Like most big city people, I know very little about mines and mining beyond the occasional bad press those companies get when they cut corners, or become lax, causing damage to the environment.

So it was enlightening to meet these people in person, and to hear about their work. The geologists and technicians took me on a tour of their small warehouse, showing me their collection of “core samples” – cylinders of rock that have been cut and extracted from below ground with a diamond drill.

The samples are taken and examined to find concentrations of gold in a given location. If enough of the metal turns up in the cores to justify the high cost of extracting it, a mining operation ensues.  The photo below shows a core sample with trace amounts of gold mixed in with the rock on the left edge of the core.

A core sample of rock showing flecks of gold, taken from a mining exploration company, British Columbia, Canada.

The people I met were nonchalant about their work, which they regarded as very regular and even mundane; similar to how archaeologists sometimes demystify their undertakings to laypeople. But, like with archaeologists, I could discern the slightest sense of repressed expectation and excitement hanging in the air around them. Their work is a bit like playing the slots.

When I stepped back and looked at the whole picture mentally, and considered all of the physical, organizational and emotional effort going into finding a metal with little intrinsic worth beyond its artificially-endowed symbolism of profound wealth, the entire operation seemed a bit surreal.

As I was leaving, I asked a senior manager of the company what the next step was if, and when, they found enough gold to justify mining it. He told me that they would likely sell the claim to another company that would do the actual mining.

When I asked what other geographical areas they planned to prospect after hypothetically selling this location off, the man looked at me with a bit of surprise.

“Well, none,” he said, taken aback. “Part of the point of doing all this is that we hope to never have to work again.”

Encountering

In the clip below, Dr. Stephan Harding, Resident Ecologist at Schumacher College in the U.K., describes his idea of an ‘encounter.’

Having finished writing a book about Sasquatch encounters in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, I found this particularly fascinating.

The segment is from an upcoming biographical documentary about economist and ecologist, David Fleming.

Moose Factory

On the Moos River, Moose Factory, Ontario, CanadaRead about my traipse up the remote Moose and North French rivers with cohorts Jean-Pierre Chabot and Mike Naponse during a visit to Moose Factory. This feature appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Explore magazine.

The Bruce Trail

One of the unintended consequences of spending a lot of time working and travelling in British Columbia, is that one becomes indifferent to attractive, but less dramatic landscapes in other places.

The unavoidable reality is that our minds are constantly comparing. The West Coast, with its big mountains and vast forests, elevated in my mind to a sort of gold standard of nature, has worked as a spoiler for other worthwhile spots. Time outdoors, especially in parts of Ontario and Quebec, has sometimes fallen flat.

We’re all familiar with this situation in which bold and sensational things can sometimes drive out the fine: a powerful experience makes such an impact that all else seems to pale in comparison. It can be one of the biggest pitfalls of travel. Some people spend years, or sometimes entire lives, trying to recapture a powerful, but fleeting epoch or life experience that occurred while travelling or living abroad; often to the detriment of the equally important, but less dramatic, day-to-day.

I decided to ditch that addictive and defeatist thinking and get out and appreciate the wilder areas near where I live, in southern Ontario, without feeling the need to place them on some experience scale of the epic and grandiose.

This spring and summer I hiked a few sections of the 900 kilometre long Bruce Trail Conservancy – something I’d never done before. I was hugely surprised. Those daylong rambles were among the nicest and most interesting I’ve done.

I’ve attached here a few Instagram shots of some views along parts of the trail.

A view of Lake Huron on the Bruce Trail, northern Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, CanadaA forest on the Bruce Trail, Ontario Canada.A view of limestone rock on the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, Canada

‘Making the Desert Bloom’

Author David Rains Wallace, in The Wilder Shore, a book about California’s landscapes, demonstrates the stupidity and inaccuracy of certain clichés:

“‘Making the desert bloom’ is as great a misnomer as the ‘Bureau of Reclamation.’ The desert blooms without civilized help when ample rains bring out its considerable diversity and abundance of native wildflowers. It is not the desert that blooms in the cotton and melon fields of the Imperial Valley or the Gardens of Palm Springs. The desert no longer exists in such places; it has been replaced.”

The Waterworks of Merv

The ancient city of Merv in modern day Turkmenistan.One of the largest, most advanced, and today least known cities in antiquity was the oasis centre of Merv, located in Central Asia, on the Silk Road, near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. According to some estimates, Merv was the largest urban area in the world in 1200 A.D., with a population of more than half a million people.

Merv’s magnificence, unfortunately, must be left to the imagination as it was pulverized by the armies of Genghis Khan; its entire population put to the sword. Only a few dusty, sun-baked remains still stand.

Of its many reported qualities – including its colossal wealth and architecture – it is the city’s hydraulic system and waterworks that perhaps give the best indication of its astounding degree of advancement.

Because Merv was located on a desert plain, water was extraordinarily scarce. The inhabitants managed to divert and channel any and all water sources, near and far, into the city and surrounding countryside via a series of dams, catch-basins, canals, pipes and underground tunnels with access shafts – all built with complex changes of gradients. Even the morning dew was collected and used.

The entire system was an engineering marvel. Not just in terms of its construction, but also its maintenance.

To appreciate how complex and expansive the operation was, consider that Merv’s waterworks staff numbered 12,000 to maintain and repair the hydraulic system. Among them were 300 divers!

It may very well be that the need to cooperate on water issues helped to unite and gel Central Asian society, creating a kind of harmony of purpose that allowed them to succeed at so many other endeavours.

Like its neighbouring cities of Balkh, Bokhara and Samarkand, Merv was a node of high learning whose residents included savants and geniuses. It was also part of the wider Islamic renaissance that reached from China to Spain, and whose contributions, we now know, made possible much of the knowledge and advancements we enjoy in the West today.

Review: Is Travel Writing Dead?

is travel writing dead?This is a question that’s bantered about a lot these days.

It’s not just political correctness, identity politics and the growing intolerance towards the legacy of colonialism that are causing some to charge – and others to fear – the relevance of non-fiction travel narratives. In this digital age everything seems to have been photographed, written about, or blogged to death. Humanity appears to have visited every conceivable niche. What could be left to describe? And how many of us truly, seriously, want to read another account of someone crossing the steppes of Central Asia on a segue as they search for the lost goat stew recipe of Genghis Khan?

The Winter 2017 issue of Granta, entitled “Journeys,” includes short essays by a dozen well-known writers that tackle the above question.

The consensus among them is that travel writing is not dead – and in a sense could never die as all our journeys through life are a form of travel, each unique, and each filtered through the writer’s individual personality and perspective. Most of them acknowledge that travel literature is changing, and should change, to encompass a wider variety of voices, perspectives and experiences to become more original and democratic – and no longer western-centric.

Below are a few quotes from the essays. If you’re interested, pick up the back-issue and read the complete essays which are seriously thought provoking.

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“Travel writing isn’t dead; it can no more die than curiosity or humanity or the strangeness of the world can die. If anything, it’s broken out of its self-created shell, as more and more women give us half their world, and Paris is ever more crowded with visitors from Chengdu.”

– Pico Iyer

“Some of the most important kinds of travel writing now are stories of flight, written by people who belong to the millions of asylum seekers in the world. These are the stories that are almost too hard to tell, but which, once read, will never be forgotten.”

– Alexis Wright

“It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world, by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironized, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way. Travel writing isn’t dead. It just isn’t what it was.”

– Ian Jack

“The literature of travel describes the world as it is – but only as it is in its instant, as it appears to the particular sensibility of the passing witness. For that is the other aspect of travel writing that has begun frequently to be overlooked – that it has much to do with the beholder as the beheld. The writer filters her surroundings through her temperament, distilling something richer and more meaningful in the process… As long as there are writers, and as long as they stir occasionally out of their houses, there will be travel writing worth reading.”

– Samanth Subramanian

“There is a supposition, too, that travel writing is a postcolonial presumption: a notion that reduces all contact between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ cultures to a patronizing act of acquisition. No mention here of travel as an avenue of understanding, of self-education or of empathy. Any meeting between unequal worlds is seen in terms of dominance – a notion that threatens to turn all human contact into paranoia… Whatever the current state of travel writing (which reached its popular peak in the 1980s) its continuance over the centuries belies its death sentence.”

– Colin Thubron

“Instead of finding a Western angle of experience in countries like Vietnam – motorbiking from Hanoi to Saigon, boating in the southern delta, snapping up fabric arts from the Hmong, eating their way down the Mekong, seeking redemption from war experiences or war protests, romanticizing French colonialism, or tracing the ghost of writer Marguerite Duras – maybe writers should stick closer to home. What would it look like to travel to a mall, a local wood, a suburban tract – to deeply study and visit one’s own locale?”

– Hoa Nguyen

“Travel literature will always be with us. But the centre of experience also shifts in the world. Stupendous traditions end accordingly, and spring up again from new, improbably sources.”

– Rana Dasgupta

Going in Circles

A yellow fidget spinner turning in cirlcesIn 2009, researcher Jan Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany conducted a series of experiments using volunteers wearing GPS tracking devices who were told to walk in a straight line over long distances in wilderness environments.

The tests determined that people who are lost in the wilderness and think they are walking in a straight line, and have no physical landmarks to rely upon, tend to travel in squiggly, circular trajectories. In other words, they walk in circles.

Later experiments led Souman to conclude that most people, when lost without navigational cues (thus lacking a deeper contextual perspective), will not travel more than 100 metres beyond their embarkation point – regardless of how long they walk.

That’s a sobering thought. An equally sobering question is whether that same tendency may be at work where trajectories in our own lives are concerned.