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.”

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

Chasing Alaska

Chasing Alaska by C.B. Bernard“Alaska makes everything ordinary impossible to bear.”

Here is another great travelogue. In Chasing Alaska, author C.B. Bernard chronicles his travels across ‘The Last Frontier’ while gathering and piecing together clues about the life of a distant relative, who, like him – but decades earlier – travelled to Alaska from the East Coast and became a bona fide Arctic explorer.

Bernard’s writing is sharp, insightful and leisurely paced. The book isn’t exceedingly long, but it covers a lot of spatial and temporal ground, giving it an epic quality. It’s a ‘journey of self-discovery’ book – in my opinion the best kind – with lots of grit and character.

It’s redirected my attention to a part of the world that I’ve put off visiting for way too long.

Icelandic Manners

A cover of the books, Names for the Sea, by Sarah Moss, a book about IcelandI’ve just finished reading Names for the Sea, a travelogue by writer Sarah Moss. The book chronicles her difficulties living and working as a teacher in Iceland, with her husband and kids in tow.

Although it’s less action-packed than I like my travel literature to be, the book contains more than a few brilliant gems of cross-cultural observation. Moss, who’s British, has a very hard time assimilating into Icelandic culture, which, as it turns out, is sometimes hugely at odds with her own – but in extraordinarily subtle ways.

I’ve written on this blog before that one of the boons of travel to places far removed from one’s own culture is that it can provide deep insight into other norms and ways of being, which, ultimately, comes full circle and provides insight into one’s own. Struggling to move through other cultures challenges our assumptions, which become mechanized and set according to our more predictable norms. Moss, explores this dynamic more than a few times in her book:

“Iceland has complexities so subtle that their existence is invisible to the inattentive foreigner. One of the Icelandic clichés about Icelanders is that, by foreign standards (as if ‘foreigners’ had one standard), they are rude. There is no word for ‘please’ in Icelandic. ‘Thank you’ and ‘sorry’ are used much less than in British and American English. Nevertheless, it has been clear to me from the beginning that Iceland is a place where the most intricate and important things are unarticulated, partly because intricacy doesn’t need to be spelt out in a place where everyone has always known how things are done, and partly because it is un-Icelandic to explain yourself. Self-explanation suggests some entitlement on the part of your audience to know your interior life. Icelandic drivers don’t indicate, Pétur once old me, because they don’t see why anyone else needs to know where they’re going.”

Sarah’s friend Pétur, who, decades earlier, moved to Iceland from the U.K., goes on to tell her about his experiences among Icelanders during his first few years there:

“There were manners of course, but the manners were sometimes not to say anything. So I’d say, ‘Excuse me, but please would you pass the potatoes.’ They’d pass them and I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ And they’d look at me, because you don’t say thank you when someone gives you a potato. That’s why you’re there, and why the potatoes are there, so you can eat them, and you know that and they know that you know that so why would you say thank you? There’s not very much of that kind of thing in Icelandic, it’s at a lower level in the same way that the flowers in the fields and the trees on the hills are at a lower level. They’re smaller and more subtle and they make more sense.”

Opening Lines in CanLit

While at the Toronto Reference Library recently, I took a break from my work to poke around the Canadian Literature (CanLit) section.

For a bit of fun I came up with the idea of pulling books at random from the shelves and reading just the opening line of the titles. At first I approached the idea as a kind of game. But then I realized that examining how novelists kick off their books might reveal something about Canada’s literary culture – and its culture in general.

So, I decided to pick just 12 books.

Here are the first lines of each of those novels:

1. Early morning sunlight warm against the thin, smooth contour of one cheek, Karen sat in the breakfast-room and thought about suicide.

2. God and whiskey have got me where I am. Too little of the one, too much of the other.

3. In a small room off a banquet hall in Montreal, Lily Kramer sat in silence with her new husband.

4. It was bad enough working in the kitchen of a doughnut shop for minimum wage, but having to wear a hairnet was even worse.

5. Home is never home anymore.

6. George Bullay finished his soft-boiled egg and one slice of buttered wholewheat toast.

7. By the time we left Calais, I thought perhaps I hated Dottie Forsyth.

8. My mother died on the same day as Marilyn Monroe, August 4th 1963, and just like the movie star her body would not be discovered until the following day.

9. It’s a funny thing, to know the exact date of your death.

10. There’s a condition called Tinnitus where you hear a ringing that isn’t there.

11. I’m tired of the end of the world.

12. She’s thirty-five minutes late and for the past hour I’ve been pacing the fifteen feet between my bathroom and the window, repeating like a mantra: ‘This place is so pathetic, this place is so pathetic.’

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The above is obviously just a small sample – a thin slice. Any other combination of books would have yielded different results. But looking at these opening lines, I’m struck by a singular tone that runs through them all – a sense of banal melodrama and sentimentality.

We’ve all heard that old refrain about how Canadian literature can often be ‘dull’ or ‘boring.’ You’ll sometimes come across the same complaint levelled at Canadian films and TV shows. Just the other day someone quipped to me that trying to read the works of certain Canadian authors is like “reading elevator music.” To apply that stereotype across the board would obviously be unjust – there are lots of excellent Canadian writers.

Though it’s very subjective, I wonder if there still isn’t something to the claim. It does seem that the themes and conflicts at the centre of our stories, more often than not tend to focus on social ill and dysfunction in interpersonal relationships. A kind of controlled, polite, existential angst and rumination that comes at the expense of action in our writing. This is probably the source of that complaint that CanLit is ‘boring.’

Could it be that we are preoccupied with these sorts of themes in our stories because, to some degree, they are the only significant life experiences that many of us can draw from?

We’re a more or less stable and prosperous country. The majority of us live relatively easy lives compared with people in the rest of the world (the down-and-out and First Nations people notwithstanding). Canada is still largely free of the earth-shattering conflicts and daily life-and-death struggles that have embroiled other regions of the globe for centuries. As a result, our greatest, most epic struggles seem to be with our own neuroses. So more than a few of our stories tend to centre around those themes – told in the measured, polite and parochial way commensurate with our temperament as Canadians.

I wonder if big exciting plots, characters, ideas and insights – a kind of universalism in literature – tends to be forged by the kind of deeper struggles that most of us haven’t been exposed to in this culture.

How Trees Make Rain

If you’ve taken high school geography you probably remember learning the basics of weather. For instance, that coastal regions tend to bear the brunt of rain blowing in from the ocean. And that those systems gradually dissipate as they move further inland until the clouds get rained out. That’s why a lot of interior landlocked regions of continents tend to be drier, seeing far less precipitation.

I’ve been reading Peter Wohllben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. The book is an exposé of the little-known, and even less seen, living processes of trees. The “hows” and the “whys” of all things tree-related. One remarkable nugget of information in the book (which I never learned in school) is that trees and forests are additionally important because they help extend the reach of rainfall coming off the sea into the interior. I’ll let him explain how this works, below:

“Of all the plants, trees have the largest surface area covered in leaves. For every square yard of forest, 27 square yards of leaves and needles blanket the crowns. Part of every rainfall is intercepted in the canopy and immediately evaporates again. In addition, each summer, trees use up to 8,500 cubic yards of water per square mile, which they release into the air through transpiration. This water vapour creates new clouds that travel farther inland and release their rain. As the cycle continues, water reaches even the most remote areas. This water pump works so well that the downpours in some large areas of the world, such as the Amazon Basin, are almost as heavy thousands of miles inland as they are on the coast.”

transpiration evapotranspiration trees forests British Columbia deforestation
Photo © John Zada

Wohllben goes on to say that in order for this water transference phenomenon, this hopscotching of rain, to take place there needs to be a forest – including a coastal forest to kick off the process. If coastal forests are cut down by humans the chain reaction collapses.

With this knowledge one can start to see how large-scale deforestation, such as that happening on Canada’s West Coast, should not just be the concern of environmentalists and activists – but perhaps everyone. Including those with no vested interest in ecology or wilderness protection. People living in the landlocked outer edge of forest ecosystems, especially farmers, and those who eat their food, even if they don’t identify with such issues, are inextricably bound to them.

Exposure to New Realities

Colin Turnbull Forest People Mbuti Congo ZaireI just finished reading Colin M. Turnbull’s The Forest People which documents his three years living among the Mbuti pygmies of the Belgian Congo (modern day Zaire) in the late 1950s.

There is a poignant scene near the end of the story when Turnbull and Kenge, his Mbuti friend, leave the confines of the dense tropical rainforest and arrive by jeep to the edges of an expansive grassland and wildlife reserve below the Ruwenzori Mountains near the Uganda border. There they are met by an African park ranger named Henri. It is Kenge’s very first journey outside of the cloistered jungle.

Turnbull’s fascinating description of Kenge’s reaction to the expansive views of the high, snow-topped peaks of the Ruwenzori Mountains and the plains below them is illustrative of how all of us are shaped by our environment. It also shows how obdurate we can be in the face of new information, or new realities, which we had no idea existed before they are pointed out to us:

“Kenge could not believe that they were the same mountains that we had seen from the forest; there they had seemed just like large hills to him. I tried to explain what the snow was – he thought it was some kind of white rock. Henri said that it was water that turned colour when it was high up, but Kenge wanted to know why it didn’t run down the mountainside like any other water. When Henri told him it also turned solid at that height, Kenge gave him a long steady look and said, “Bongo yako!” (“You liar!”)

“When Kenge topped the rise, he stopped dead. Every smallest sign of mirth suddenly left his face. He opened his mouth but could say nothing. He moved his head and eyes slowly and unbelievingly. Down below us, on the far side of the hill, stretched mile after mile of rolling grasslands, a lush, fresh green, with an occasional shrub or tree standing out like a sentinel into a sky that had suddenly become brilliantly clear. It was like nothing Kenge had ever seen before. On the plains, animals were grazing everywhere—a small herd of elephant to the left, about twenty antelopes staring curiously at us from straight ahead, and down to the right a gigantic herd of about a hundred and fifty buffalo. But Kenge did not seem to see them.”

“Then he saw the buffalo, still grazing lazily several miles away, far down below. He turned to me and said, “What insects are those?” At first I hardly understood; then I realized that in the forest the range of vision is so limited that there is no great need to make an automatic allowance for distance when judging size. Out here in the plains, however, Kenge was looking for the first time over apparently unending miles of unfamiliar grasslands, with not a tree worth the name to give him any basis for comparison. The same thing happened later on when I pointed out a boat in the middle of the lake. It was a large fishing boat with a number of people in it but Kenge at first refused to believe this. He thought it was a floating piece of wood.

“When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies. When Henri, who was thoroughly puzzled, told him the same thing and explained that visitors to the park had to have a guide with them at all times because there were so many dangerous animals, Kenge still did not believe, but he strained his eyes to see more clearly and asked what kind of buffalo were so small. I told him they were sometimes nearly twice the size of a forest buffalo, and he shrugged his shoulders and said we would not be standing out there in the open if they were. I tried telling him they were possibly as far away as from Epulu to the village of Kopu, beyond Eboyo. He began scraping the mud off his arms and legs, no longer interested in such fantasies.” (pp. 251-253)

Logic

Linear LogicSometimes sequential “logic” turns out to be anything but.

Have you ever noticed that book introductions penned by secondary writers as a kind of preamble to the main work (they often appear in classics) are invariably more illuminating and meaningful when read after one completes the book?

When they’re read in this reverse sequence, they also don’t give the book’s plot away.

 

Where Ideas Come From

Where Ideas Come FromIn 2003, anthropologist Wade Davis gave a TED presentation entitled Dreams from Endangered Cultures. The talk centred around the surviving knowledge of indigenous peoples increasingly at risk of being lost to the spreading mono-culture of the West.

Davis, an anthropologist and author, is also an ethnobotanist. He has spent years in Central and South America studying the relationship between indigenous peoples and the plant species they live among.

During his presentation, Davis talked about the psychoactive plant preparation known as ayahuasca – a brew ingested by shamen in areas of the Amazon Rainforest for divinatory purposes.

He tells us that the potion is made from a concoction of plants, and contains two main ingredients. The first is liana, a woody plant with a mildly hallucinogenic affect. The second, and more potent of the two, is Psychotria viridis, a shrub in the coffee family. This plant contains tryptamines, powerful psychoactive compounds, which when smoked or snuffed produce an intense intoxication marked by powerful visual imagery.

Davis likens the effect of certain tryptamines to “being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity. It doesn’t create the distortion of reality, it creates the dissolution of reality.”

But here’s the catch: to be affective, tryptamines cannot be taken orally because they are rendered inactive by an enzyme in the gut called monoamine oxidase (MAO). They can be ingested only if taken in conjunction with another chemical that neutralizes MAO in the stomach (known as an MAO inhibitor)

It turns out that liana, the less potent of ayahuasca’s two main ingredients, contains beta-carbolines, which are MAO inhibitors of the type needed to allow the tryptamines to create their phantasmagoria of visual wonders.

For anyone fascinated by this unlikely coincidence, an obvious question arises. Davis articulates it:

“How, in a flora of 80,000 species of vascular plants, do these people find these two morphologically unrelated plants that when combined in this way, created a kind of biochemical version of the whole, being greater than the sum of the parts?”

Through trial and error? Unlikely, Davis suggests. In his book, The Lost Amazon Davis writes that the problem with trial and error is that botanical preparations are exceedingly complex (requiring additional experimentation) and take up too much time and energy to justify the too few successes they yield. There are also negative physical consequences to randomly ingesting many plants.

When Davis posed the question to the Indians, he got an altogether different answer.

“The plants talk to us,” they told him.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are not the only communities to have inherited some seemingly random or obscure knowledge. Occasionally, we hear of other cultural practices or accomplishments, often tied to ancient cultures, that make us wonder: How did these people uncover this fact? Or, where did that group get the idea to do that?

For instance, how did the ancient Dogon people of West Africa develop an advanced system of astronomy which knew the movements and characteristics of invisible, and nearly invisible celestial bodies without the use of instruments?

How ancient cultures moved and arrayed the massive stone blocks in their monumental architecture (i.e. – Pyramids of Giza, temple walls at Baalbek in Lebanon) continues to provide fodder for the wildest speculations. One also becomes puzzled how anyone could conceive and artistically execute with such precision the impossibly complex Islamic geometrical patterns that grace the interiors of some mosques built during the age of medieval Islam.

Fast forwarding to more recent times, many of our own great scientific discoveries don’t come from experimentation, but rather through sudden and often random flashes of insight – that come on the heels of an intellectual impasse and the accompanying mental exhaustion.

Where does information come from? is a question that has always bedeviled physicists – some of whom consider information to be the underlying energy tied to the origin of the universe.

Austrian quantum physicist, Anton Zeilinger coined the phrase, “In the beginning was the bit.” The late German-American physicist, Rolf William Landauer, maintained that information is always physical.

All of this inspires the question:

Does information – potential knowledge – exist independently in the Universe? Can knowledge exist in a tangible form even if it is not yet conceived, or known by a single person?

For example, if it occurred to me suddenly, as the first person in ancient times, how to cut, move and lift 1,000 ton stone blocks, does it mean that I created that knowledge? Or did I simply access it, tap into something that was already there – because the information of all the relationships inherent in that operation had to simply exist? Perhaps in the same way that the information in DNA has to exist before biological forms can arise?

If I accessed it, then all information, all potential knowledge, must somehow be “out there”.

Perhaps the totality of knowledge resides “somewhere” – in a certain “place,” “dimension” or “storehouse” (for lack of a better word), where it can be accessed (downloaded) by individuals, either deliberately or by accident.

A fascinating book by two European psychologists address this, and other big picture questions facing science.