I say “right now” because since my September purging, I’m constantly looking for reasons not to follow a podcast. (For the record: I use Apple Podcasts, and I never increase the audio speed.) There have never been more to choose from. It’s a good problem to have, but the need for discernment has never been higher. Even with the ones I do follow, I don’t feel obligated to listen to every episode.
So these are the ones I’ve stuck with, that bring me joy or enrich my soul or challenge my mind or lighten my mood:
Newsletters seem to be A Thing these days. To me they are a strange hybrid of public and private discourse, like a corner booth at a restaurant. You can subscribe and interact with the writer privately, as if you’re in the booth together. Or you can just eavesdrop from the next booth, so to speak, following their recommendations and links as desired without needing to interact.
Personally I prefer blogs (or anything that I can throw into my RSS reader). They’re easily accessible, don’t require subscriptions, and have space for other pages. But I get the appeal of newsletters and why people would start one.
Which got me thinking about how many I subscribe to. There’s not a great way to figure that out besides looking in my email trash folder, which is limited to the last 30 days. Based on a quick perusal, I was able to nail down the ones I like and have stuck with. (With email in general, I am merciless about unsubscribing.) Some are daily, many weekly or occasional. Some merely supplement a blog, podcast, or other endeavor. All of them I’ve found enriching in some way:
“If your mind is forever filled with the voices of others, how do you know what you think about anything? Pulling attention apart is pulling a mind apart.”
After watching this video by CGP Grey about attention (h/t C.J. Chilvers), I deleted over half of my podcast subscriptions. I’ve culled the list before, but like Don Corleone:
(I happen to be in the middle of rewatching the Godfather trilogy.)
Podcasts are perfect for my input-seeking brain. I have liked them for a while. Every morning, first thing, I check for new episodes and fire them up. Though I’m very liberal with skipping ones that don’t interest me, the ones I do listen to can still flood my brain for hours.
But like any habit, what starts as a fun diversion can easily turn into a compulsion. Social media I can regulate easily. Podcasts, I’m realizing, not so much. They are good during chores and driving, but not during time at home with my wife or when I want to be creative. Scaling back will help, I think, but so will prioritizing those other more enriching and lasting activities.
A pox upon me for never having read Ursula Le Guin before she died last week. I’ll get right on that, as her reputation is high among many different kinds of readers.
Before diving into her novels, though, I encountered her blog (an 88 year old blogging!) on which last year she posted “Constructing the Golem”, pretty thoroughly diagnosing our political moment and offering advice for overcoming it:
When he does something weird (which he does constantly in order to keep media attention on him), look not at him but at the people whom his irresponsible acts or words affect — the Republicans who try to collaborate with him (like collaborating with a loose cannon), the Democrats and Government employees he bullies, the statesmen from friendly countries he offends, the ordinary people he uses, insults, and hurts. Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion.
He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud.
Oh, would that it were so simple. He is the president, and the office of the presidency is unable to be ignored no matter who occupies its office. This is the present conundrum.
Nicholas Carr, incisive as always, speaks to this in an essay at Politico. He first zooms in on the president’s Twitter addiction:
Thanks to Twitter, the national conversation is now yoked to the vagaries of Trump’s mind. Politics has been subsumed by psychology. Twitter’s formal qualities as an informational medium—its immediacy and ephemerality, its vast reach, its lack of filters—mirror and reinforce the impulsiveness, solipsism, and grandiosity that define Trump’s personality and presidency and, by extension, the times. Banal yet mesmerizing, the president’s Twitter stream distills our strange cultural moment—the moment the noise became the signal.
…and then zooms out on its larger implications:
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the nation and its institutions have become a sort of drug-delivery system engineered to feed the compulsions of a single, unusual man. And given what we know about the way media technologies shape society, a bigger question looms: Are we stuck here for good?
Dear lord I hope not.
A president’s pronouncements will always be news, but they don’t have to grab headlines the way Trump’s tweets routinely do. The messages’ enduring power to seize attention and shape debate springs from a deeper source. It reflects the polarized state of the country and its politics. Among both the president’s fans and his foes, the tweets provoke extreme reactions, which serve to reinforce each side’s confidence in the righteousness of its cause. We listen so intently to Trump’s tweets because they tell us what we want to hear about the political brand we’ve chosen. In a perverse way, they serve as the rallying cries of two opposed and warring tribes.
And when you’re stuck between these two warring tribes, you don’t even get to enjoy the psychological benefits from tribalism. You just witness the carnage and wonder which side you’d rather see lose.
Maybe it’s not so much the command prompt I’m nostalgic for, but the days when the computer wouldn’t do anything without me — I had to explicitly tell the computer what I wanted to do, and if I didn’t tell it, it would just sit there, patiently, with a dumb look on its face.
I really miss how computers used to be “dumb” in this way. The primary computer in my life — my “smartphone” — is too smart. It used to constantly push things on me — push notifications — letting me know about all sorts of stuff it thought I wanted to know about, and it continued doing this until I had the good sense to turn them all off. It’s dumber now, and much better.
Besides text messages and Snapchat pictures of my new nephew, I don’t get notifications on my phone and haven’t for a long time. I can’t imagine how people with news or social media apps subject themselves to the onslaught of Fresh Hell in their pockets all day.
In Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, Cory Doctorow writes about the need to be protected from computers as they burrow further into our lives and bodies:
I want to be sure that it is designed to take orders from its user, and to hide nothing.
Take orders and hide nothing. Command and control. Pull rather than push. Make Computers Dumb Again.
By choosing to be a reader of websites whose voices and ideas you’re fundamentally interested in and care about, you’re taking control. And by doing that, you’ll chip away at the incentive publishers have to create headlines and stories weaponized for the purpose of sharing on social media. You’ll be stripping away at the motivation for websites everywhere (including this one) to make dumb hollow mindgarbage. At the same time, you’ll increase the incentive for these websites to be (if nothing else) more consistent and less desperate for your attention.
At our Subaru dealer for a car tune-up, I spotted this sign beneath the TV on the wall in the waiting room:
No, thank you. This rule ought to be extended indefinitely and everywhere. Especially public areas. Cable news of any kind is bad for the mind, body, and soul.
I wonder what happened to inspire this. Fistfights over bad coffee and granola bars? I guess a room full of people waiting to hear how much they’ll be shelling out for their car don’t need much of a push to go over the edge.
Also love the attempted copyediting of the hyphen and “either”. Silent protest?
About a year ago I got into the habit of listening to new episodes of the 99% Invisible podcast on Tuesday nights, on my way home from my late night at work. Most episodes are about the length of my drive home. Cruising through dark and empty streets, weary from the day, I revel in the soft baritone of Roman Mars’ narration and delightful diversity of stories—“Dollhouses of St. Louis” and “Oyster-tecture” being recent gems. It’s a ritual I didn’t intentionally create but has nevertheless become an indispensable part of my week.
What about you? Do you have any accidental routines you’d suffer without?
In the “Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores” story from The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror VI”, giant advertisement characters come to life and terrorize Springfield:
Lisa goes to the ad agency that created those advertising characters, and an executive suggests the citizens stop paying attention to the monsters as they are advertising gimmicks, and attention is what keeps them motivated. He suggests a jingle will help distract people from watching the monsters. Lisa and Paul Anka later perform a catchy song and the citizens of Springfield stop looking at the monsters, who lose their powers and become lifeless.
Their jingle? “Just don’t look”:
Some things can’t be defeated by looking away, but many things can.
You don’t have to look. You don’t have to click. You don’t have to pay your attention to things or organizations or public officials who don’t deserve it. Don’t pay the toll on a road you don’t want to go down.
Almost Famoustells us “the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” True enough, but I think the only true currency in this bankrupt world is your attention.
Loved the first episode of “Raising Kings”, a three-part series from NPR’s Code Switch podcast on a new boys-only public school in Washington, D.C., filled only with freshmen students of color:
All are determined to change the narrative. In Washington, and the rest of the country, that narrative says too many young black men are below-average readers. They’re suspended from school at above-average rates and less likely to graduate than any other group. Ron Brown College Prep is a radical effort to change that.
NPR and Education Week have been reporting on this school for over a year. The first episode reminded me of This American Life’s Peabody-winning series on Harper High School. I’m rooting for the school and the boys to succeed, and am eager to see how this series turns out.
Learned a lot from Susan Douglas’s Listening In: Radio And The American Imaginationabout the development of radio technology and culture, and their impact on 20th century America. Also learned, in a tidbit about Franklin Roosevelt’s crusade against newspapers, that he sounded a lot like another ostensibly anti-media president:
Privately, the president in 1940 ask the new FCC Chairman, Lawrence Fly, “Will you let me know when you propose to have a hearing on newspaper ownership of radio stations?” Publicly, through his press secretary, Steve Early, Roosevelt told broadcasters that “the government is watching” to see if they air any “false news.” Radio, Early warned, “might have to be taught manners if it were a bad child.” Network executives understood “false news” to be news critical of the administrations policies.