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

When the Virtual Upstages the Real

Social media has become the primary conduit for criticizing others, airing our gripes and mobilizing against real and perceived injustices. It seems like it’s never been easier for members of the general public to disseminate messages and raise awareness of certain issues, online.

But like all technologies that have arisen throughout the course of history, the Internet is also a double-edged sword. It’s changed how we engage with life, exacting a sort of Faustian “price” we pay in exchange for its benefits.

One of the more obvious costs is that we spend large parts of our days distracted and entranced by screens.  There are likely a flurry of other negative consequences that lie just below conscious awareness. Pondering this has led to a thought: I wonder if by increasingly taking our concerns online, we are preempting – or robbing the real world of – other more direct forms of action we could be taking. And not just through amount of time we spend online versus out in the world.

Could it be that when we campaign, lobby or complain in the virtual world we are in fact discharging the impulse to act in the real, physical world – where our efforts and the rewards are seemingly more tangible? We feel less compelled to act because we’ve gotten that hit of satisfaction that comes with feeling that we’ve done our bit.

If so, the consequences for the future might be considerable. Yet another of those costs that we didn’t quite bargain for.

Residential Schools Documentary

After a long time away from the documentary world, I’ve stepped back into the fray to help research and produce a film for Al Jazeera about Canada’s Indian residential schools. “Canada’s Dark Secret” looks at the forced cultural assimilation and abuse of indigenous children who attended those schools for over a century.

Canada residential schools indian documentary al jazeera
Our crew on location in Powassan, Ontario to interview Ron Shortt

The film is directed by Lebanese filmmaker Rania Rafei (above right) and highlights the experiences of a pair of indigenous survivors of the former Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School, in Brantford Ontario.

The doc also features Ron Shortt, a former officer of the RCMP who recently went public to admit he’d helped an Indian agent take a pair of young girls away from their family in Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories, in the mid-1960s. The work of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) in Winnipeg will also be included in the film (Senator Murray Sinclair, the former TRC commissioner, makes an appearance).

Details to come.

The Harper Years

Here’s another op-ed for Al Jazeera, written with a colleague, about Canada’s recently deposed Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his autocratic style of rule.

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.

 

Great Bear on the Beebs

Big Cedar Conservation AreaThe BBC Travel website is running a recent photo essay I produced about British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. The piece is entitled Where the White Spirit Bear Roams.

Check it out here.

Futurology

In 1993, the celebrated Polish journalist and travel writer, Ryszard Kapuściński published a book entitled Imperium. It is a travel memoire that chronicles the author’s often bizarre experiences as he wanders remote parts of the former Soviet Union. Like Kapuściński’s other excellent books, Imperium brims with astute social and political commentary.

At the end of the book, Kapuściński recounts the fall of Communism, and goes on to ask what the future might hold for the post-Soviet empire

It’s a difficult, if not impossible question to answer, he tells us. As is any other question about the trajectory of the modern world:

“Almost no prognoses about the contemporary world come true. Futurology is in crisis; it has lost its prestige. The human imagination, shaped for thousands of years by a small, simple, and static world, today cannot grasp, is no match for, the reality that surrounds it, which is augmenting at a rapid rate (especially due to the advances in electronics and the accretion of information), in which there is increasingly more of everything, in which millions of particles, elements, units, and beings are in continual motion, in battle, in new configurations, arrangements, and assemblages, all of which it is no longer possible to seize, to stop, or to describe.”

Kapuściński does go on to offer three future scenarios for the post-Soviet Union. But it’s the preamble above that’s striking because, though applicable to his time, it better describes the age of rapid, unfathomable change we’re living in today – more than 20 years later.

It’s for the same reason that a close friend, who works as a diplomat, recently told me that most journalistic and scholarly writing in the field of political science and international relations (with its emphasis on trying to predict the future) is more akin to astrology than any actual “science”.

This crisis in futurology is really just a small symptom of the much larger (and perilous) crisis in which it partakes: namely, our inability as individuals and as a race to adapt to a faster, ever-changing world.