Page 2 of 9

The Parasocial Parasites

Welcome back, Hershal. First thing’s first, the word ‘abscond’. I have to be honest, I couldn’t understand what you meant by ‘absconding meaningful conclusions,’ so I had to look it up. This is what Mr. Webster tells me (the definition I assume is the most pertinent):

Abscond
\ab-ˈskänd, əb-\
to go away and take something that does not belong to you

Hm, well then. Are you implying you are an essayist hustler, stealing meaningful conclusions from us sucker NFC homies? Are you holding your verbal ‘gat’ to our metaphorical temple, yelling ‘you see this insightful shit? that’s mine, motherfuckers!’? Watch yourself- I’m about to spit fire onto your trite musings.

You’re right to be conflicted about fame. I think our society is conflicted about fame. The famous-yet-talentless artist is so much of cliche nowadays that I sometimes find myself surprised that anybody I have heard of has any real talent at all. It’s all autotune, TMZ, and good looks, right? Try this: go to an indie concert, or to some dive bar in the middle of yet-to-be-gentrified side street, or watch a youtube video of a cover artist with less than 1000 views. If the music sounds good, what does everyone say? ‘Wow, I can’t believe they’re not famous?!’

So which is it? Are famous people talentless-egomaniacs, or do we live in a meritocracy that promotes the talented to the top? My b-word-senses are tingling. Obviously fame comes from some concoction of luck, talent and determination. It seems, though, that when people get famous, they stay famous. And that I think is an idea worth talking about. Why do we care about some one-hit-wonder artist from the 90s?

That is where the science of social anthropology is relevant. There are several theories about the evolution of language in humans, and many of them revolve around gossip. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, do not use verbal cues to build one-on-one relationships, but instead engage in ‘social grooming’ where they sit together and literally scratch each other’s back. The language evolution theory hypothesizes that humans developed language by substituting this type of back scratching with verbally communicated gossip about other members of the tribe. The very structure of a sentence nicely follows from a single piece of gossip (the subject, Becky, the adjective clause, with long hair, the verb, stole, the object, my man). Juicy gossip would act as social capital, and those who were in-the-know were powerful members of the group.

A recent study showed that negative gossip about somebody can change the way your brain reacts to seeing their face (surprise, surprise). The reasoning is simple: we evolved to use gossip as a way to tell friend from foe. Information gleaned from gossip is therefore deeply ingrained into the linguistic and visual parts of the brain. We treat gossip about other people as “important,” no matter who they are. It’s just that it’s easier than ever now to communicate gossip across oceans, across racial and ethnic boundaries.

Did you know that the white wedding dress only caught on in the mid 19th century after Queen Victoria wore one? You think the Kardashian’s are good at being famous? Please. The royal family has been trend-setting for millenia.

Even hunter-gatherer societies have celebrities and status hierarchies. We have evolved to continuously obsess over the ‘top’, gossip about them to build relationships, and dream about making it big.

Perhaps the explosion of celebrity-worship in the last 50 years is different. It is easier than ever to substitute in person relationships with just constant second hand information about people you’ve never met. Fans develop ‘parasocial’ relationships with the famous, devouring the minutiae of their life like Remora fish (‘suckerfish’) devour the feces of their host-shark.

It’s gross. But it’s totally natural.

Fame, Kim Kardashian, and the Crowdsourcing of Self-Esteem

Never from Concentrate heads! It’s your boy, Hershal! The trusted stewards of your NFC content experience, the homies Rachit and Valentin, are letting me guest-post on this illustrious forum once again, to spit game, wax poetic, and hopefully not abscond meaningful conclusions about a topic that I often find myself feeling very conflicted by: fame.

There’s a common strain of thought amongst society’s cultural elitists, those who turn their nose up at reality stars like Kim Kardashian, where they question what skill it is these people possess that keeps them in the public eye.

“Why are we still talking about Kim Kardashian?! She doesn’t do anything!” they might say with manufactured vitriol, seemingly unaware of the palpable irony that questioning why we’re still talking about Kim Kardashian still undoubtedly constitutes talking about Kim Kardashian. It’s always struck me as somewhat of an obtuse question. What skill does she possess? It seems like such an outdated mode of thinking. Kim Kardashian’s skill is being famous. Kim Kardashian is better at being famous than most people are at doing whatever it is they’re best at doing. Consider, for example, a wood-worker who has spent 30 years painstakingly mastering his/her craft. Kim Kardashian is better at being famous than this person is at making oak cabinets. It’s not the most comfortable truth to acknowledge, but it’s undeniable.

Jokes aside, it’s not difficult to understand why these hypothetical pedants might be reluctant to accept the fact that fame and skill can now exist mutually exclusively. If we entangle fame with skill—be it art, punditry, commerce, athleticism, etc.—we can delude ourselves into thinking that the importance we assign to the rich and famous is based in something pure; perhaps a reverence of profound ability or an admiration of singular talent. Once this assumption is relaxed, however, we’re forced to reckon with the notion that maybe our relationship with celebrity is based in something much more toxic. Rolling Stone once tried to make an ill-conceived statement about this by putting a picture Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston-Marathon terrorist, on its cover. Whatever proclamation it was trying to make was inevitably drowned out in a sea of outraged cries of, “Ooooooh. Way to be edgy, Rolling Stone. People are dead.”

I think we can learn a lot about society’s complicated relationship with fame by studying the way we interact with it on an individual level.  As someone who harbours vague aspirations of achieving marginal recognition as a writer, I’m not exactly the fame-hungry megalomaniac who would be most qualified to comment on this issue, but I think I might be able to offer some insight regardless. A couple of years into this Godless pursuit, I’ve all but disabused myself of the notion that my motivations for doing so are pure. I don’t particularly enjoy the craft of writing (I’d go so far as to say that sometimes placing my head in a blender seems preferable), I don’t think I have vital ideas that need to be shared, and I don’t possess any sort of generational skill with the pen. What I do have is an incessant need to derive my self-worth from external validation. Sadly, I’ve digested just enough armchair-psychology throughout my life to understand that this is almost certainly a misguided approach. Trying to fill the well of imagined inadequacy through outside approval is a bit like trying to fill an actual well using a colander. At the risk of sounding like an insufferable motivational speaker, it is important to recognize that sustainable self-worth can only truly be derived from within.

Going back to the idea of fame, if you were to amplify whatever emotional maladjustment it is that possesses me to write (and then subtract some of the self-awareness that keeps me grounded) you’d probably be left with someone who aspires towards celebrity. I mean, what could possibly satiate one’s vacuous need for external recognition more effectively than literally being recognized every time they leave their house? It’s this same nagging feeling of inadequacy, I’d imagine, that explains why we put celebrities on such a pedestal. Celebrities are the closest thing to living proof that it is indeed possible to crowdsource one’s self-esteem.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. There are some celebrities for whom fame is just an inevitable byproduct of profound success in their field of choice—Elon Musk comes to mind—but I can’t help but be skeptical when people tell me that fame doesn’t factor into their decision to pursue an otherwise impractical artistic endeavor at all. Call me a cynic, but I find it much harder to believe that the tens of thousands of aspiring singer/songwriters on soundcloud truly believe that the world needs more acoustic ballads about love. It’s why I’ve grown to develop a strange admiration for the Kim Kardashians of the world. Sure, Kim may seem vapid and shallow when deliberating on how best to curate her brand, but at the very least she’s being intellectually honest.

 

NFC Podcast #13 – Jiro Dream House

In this episode of the NeverFromConcentrate podcast, we talk about altruism, No Name kids, and the things we’d like to burn the most.

MGI PPG UBI

I hate to use the fist engaged, knuckles pressed against my hips, head slightly tilted, eyebrows raised, lips pursed version of the two words I’m about to spit, two words that likely start arguments in couplings across everywhere, but you make me tap into my inner snoot…

Well, actually … I said abstract dichomoties are cool, and reasonable praise be to the Gods of moderation and Balance – all I was saying was to just give me a little more sprinkle of your take on whatever we’re discussing, or your contextualization of some supposedly smart person’s take on it, along with asking the right question. A little bit of hindsight calibration, ya feel.

But, back to the branding problem you bring up of Minimum Guaranteed Income, or Poverty Protection Grant, or as I referred to it, Universal Basic Income.  And that’s probably a good starting junction for a quick little marketing analysis. What’s a better acronym? “Minimum” springs to mind connotations associated to minimum wage, which is controversial in it’s own right. “Poverty” has a pejorative feel of classism that I feel the idea behind MGI/PPG/UBI is trying to be detached from. Universal has some soviet communism feels to it (no offence to yo peeps) , but I do like the idea of the word basic, tying into Maslow’s Hierarchy of “basic needs” of existence. But beyond the acronym, I think there probably needs to be a reality check on the limits of capitalism. The implementation of that would be kind of weird. Other than in the political arena, is there any way to have a rational educational understanding of the economic limits of capitalism? Because, we’re going to eventually start nose diving to these bottom limits of our otherwise better than all alternatives society structure we call capitalism.

Speaking to a friend recently about this idea, he brought up an interesting point. Where would people live when most jobs won’t be needed? Think about how you got to live where you are right now, or your family and friend’s choice of residence. A huge chunk of why you live where you do is tied into your career and your job. With the automation of food, delivery, and in general the more economically sound allocation of resources, where will people flock to? Although I do have a perspective on it, and with questions of integrity in check, I’ll save my exploration of this question for our upcoming podcast. Here are a couple more softballs to get our feet wet on Friday:

Fast forward 2 years, once you’re done your PhD, Universal Basic Income gets implemented and you can make a good living without needing to do anything, what would you do? And even if you would still want to work, lets say you didn’t for the first year, what would you do?

What are two possible specific high level pursuits that you could see yourself pursuing in the life of Valentine Peretroukhine? Same question with low level pursuits.

 

Usain Bolt’s Mitochondria

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance: the five stages of the Kubler-Ross model, or as I knew of them before I googled their name: ‘the five stages of grief.’ How many of these have we experienced as we come to accept the inevitability of the b-word? We deny its existence by Voldemort-ing its name, we get angry at each other when we bring up dichotomies (no matter how subtle), we bargain on what constitutes an interesting conclusion, and we question the use of talking about anything given the inevitable appearance of the B. Are we ready to accept it? I don’t know. Everything in moderation, including moderation. Let’s work on it, and see how it goes.

Minimum guaranteed income is a wasp nest of interesting and controversial ideas. I’ve had a few conversations with otherwise really objective people who seem to dismiss it reflexively. “There’s no way we could ever pay for something like that,” is the usual response. I wonder if people had the same reaction to free public K-12 schooling in the early 20th century. Without getting into financial minutiae of MGI as a policy, it’s worthwhile to just explore its similarity to universal public schools. Both ideas place a significant fiscal burden on most of the populace, while only significantly helping the lower portion (I would imagine most middle class families would be able to afford some moderately priced ‘private’ school given a significant tax-break from not paying for public school boards). Similarly, they are not both obviously the correct solution to a difficult problem, and may stand to benefit only a portion of the population. In the U.S., as late as 1940, only 50% of all adults earned a high school diploma, and it wasn’t until 1965 that there was a significant federal bill passed that addressed access to primary and secondary education. There’s a big difference between these two initiatives though, and I think it’s the core reason why MGI will never be implemented in its current form in most western countries. That difference is one of branding. Public schools are branded as gateways to a better future. Minimum guaranteed income is branded as a cheat code for lazy parasites. I think we can make significant headway by simply changing the name to something like the “Poverty Protection Grant”. Public initiatives are always about branding (take a look at the renamed ‘Relief Line’ of the TTC, purposely omitting the ‘Downtown’ so as to not offend the suburb votes), and I think this one will take a significant shift in perspective to be palpable to a largely Puritan, ‘work is good,’ public.

The ‘paradox of work’ is also an interesting topic to discuss. Part of me thinks this is all quite straight-forward: we’re terrible at predicting our own happiness. As Jerry Seinfeld said in his interview with Howard Stern (which is great by the way, watch it if you have an hour and a half to spare) “no one wants to do anything.” Who wants to go to the gym? Or go meet new people? Or write a blog post? Psychopaths and 4 year olds. How tropy is the classic sitcom husband who-hates-doing-anything-but-watching-football-with-the-guys become? By the same notion, people think that doing absolutely nothing will be blissful, but end up stuck in a whirlwind of possibilities. I think many of us are not driven enough to just choose something and run with it. We evolved in groups of homosapiens, not independently, and we’ve come to depend on external social pressure. I like to imagine groups of people like a house of cards, each supporting each other, but useless alone.

As for your Jiro-Dream-Town, I wonder whether it’s a town or a ghetto. On many levels, the idea you bring up exists: they’re called maker labs, and Etsy shops, and youtube channels. People like Casey Neistat make a good living by ‘just’ filming themselves every day. With enough skill and hard work, it’s already possible to make a decent living with ‘hobbies, and bits of leisure’, but I wonder how society will look on these people when anybody can do that? With admiration? With disgust? Will it be like the scene from ‘Her’ when Joaquin Phoenix’s friend discovers he’s dating an ‘OS’. ‘Oh you don’t work? How is that? My brother-in-law doesn’t work!’

My favourite book of the last few years is ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Harari. In it he talks about how the most influential thinkers of the last two centuries were not Theologians scouring ancient texts, but philosophers like Karl Marx who observed the society around him, and wrote down what he perceived to be bad and good. One of Marx’s key criticisms of ‘modern’ (i.e. late 19th century) capitalism is that is divorces the worker with the final output of his work. We are part of a machine, but we rarely get to see the end product the machine spits out (if that product can even be defined). All of these low-level ‘jobs’ seek to go back to that direct connection of worker and product. But is that really what we need? Maybe, after all, we’re just like the things that make us up. We’re just like the lonely mitochondria that swims within one of Usain Bolt’s cells. Completely unaware that he just won the Olympic gold.

The Utopic Jiro Dream World

“If we were all sceptics, there would be nothing to doubt (since no one would think of any ideas). Yet, if we’re all idea generators, then we can’t meaningfully communicate and share important ideas.”  Both. This binary juxtapositioning of having to choose one versus the other abstract extreme is exactly what I called us out on before. Instead, I would position this potential future topic more along the lines of: what is more important / when is it more important / how does one implement the difference of importance of being a skeptic versus idea generator. You rightfully expressed the value in positing the right question to stimulate initial discussion and clear the haze of ignorance. In that spirit, lets get past the binary phrasing, to which the answer is almost always both, but move towards, it’s both, but who/how/what/when/ is one more than the other. And, even when posing an important question that welcomes discussion, I still think we need to offer perspective(s). If you don’t quite know what yours is, maybe offer a perspective of someone else, or multiple ones, and try and offer an opinion to why you are confused.

But moving back on to our discussion, and before discussing choosing what to do in this automated economy, lets first consider the implementation and transition into this Brave New Robot World. We’ve discussed the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) a few times in conversation, and I think, more than anything, it would be a needed component in this transition. The beginnings of this new economy would unhealthily shrink wealth to a smaller group of rich folk, countering the merits of a thriving capitalist society that needs a strong lower and middle class, without which the consumerism of wealth distribution would become impossible, leading to widespread poverty and societal collapse. So how do we live & work, or live & not work in this new world? Consider two ideas before making these decisions: the paradox of work and the paradox of leisure. “The paradox of work is that many people hate their jobs, but are considerably more miserable doing nothing.” And akin to this sentiment, the paradox of leisure shares similar diminishing returns, but rather, sinking into a mind mushing numbing of entertainment overload.

So how does a society balance out these conflicting problems? Well for one, the idea of a “full time job” may become that of history. The people that work, will work less. The German government already provides tax credits to companies that shrink hours instead of firing employees in times of economic lows. Another mechanism would be to support and incentivize entrepreneurship. In this new economy, if people can come up with sustainable businesses that create jobs, and are functioning within the new automized world, it should be rewarded more than static accumulation of great wealth.

But what about for the ones that don’t want to work, or do not have the proper skills to work in this new world? Well, I think this is where we have the opportunity to approach a more utopic society, full of Jiro Dreams, and the sushi fruits of the labour. In this world, education, as it already is becoming, would become a lot more readily available and accessible. People would be free to learn what they please, possibly even economically encouraged to do so, pursue and contribute to society through these Jiro types of low level approaches, from pursuing the arts, to help facilitating local community hubs. All of these types of hobbies, or bits of leisure would be incentivized to create wellness in the given community, and promote healthy desired behaviour.  Through these activities, people possibly would have the opportunity to earn a bit more basic income by small artisanal contributions to local communities. Of course, this life of an artist is at a simplistic level of necessity, so the American Dream of buying a bigger and better house than your peers, and winning the rat race remains square on the table; it’s just not the be all end all, as it seems to be in society currently.

So if we can shift gears when the time comes, and achieve this utopic-esque dream world, before letting the wealth collect in small bubbles to catastrophic ends, I think the “forever-tweaking-hindsight-driven-utilitarian-analysis-tool” I mentioned earlier, will have a lot more room for risk taking to explore individual curiosity. Sounds like fun.

Brave New Perspective

What is perspective exactly? I think the analogy between a physical vista, and a metaphorical ‘stance’ on some issue may be a bit misleading (at least in clear weather). I agree – we shouldn’t lallygag over completely substance-free questions. That said, posing the correct question may be just as important as giving your own perspective – especially when that perspective may be completely mal-formed or missing. The first post can clear the fog, so to speak, so that we know where to drive to get the best view of the idea-landscape.

On a related note, I was listening to a podcast recently called ‘Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature)’ (recorded for a Stanford University radio show) that talked about Wittgenstein as a philosopher. One of the criticisms against him is that all he did was raise questions and outline criticisms of modern philosophical perspectives, yet provided no meaningful input into alternatives. Much of his work denigrated academic philosophy as a general pursuit, but his answer to ‘what should philosophers be doing?’ was essentially ’something else.’ So what use is there for scepticism without substantial alternatives? If we were all sceptics, there would be nothing to doubt (since no one would think of any ideas). Yet, if we’re all idea generators, then we can’t meaningfully communicate and share important ideas. Perhaps this is a (meta-)topic for another day, but I think it’s a worthwhile one.

Ok back on the topic at hand. You mentioned dirty jobs. I agree, currently those are needed. But inevitably automation will replace many of the human jobs within those fields, will it not? What happens then? Will we get a new class of dirty jobs, or will the landscape of ‘career options’ be forever changed. I would tend to go with the latter. I imagine a world where the large majority of the developed countries essentially contain modern-day aristocrats. A world in which we are even more removed from the ideas of hunger, bad harvests, and self-sufficiency. I like to imagine the Wall-E space-ship, but with more exercise (since I think we are much to vain to ever allow obesity to be the norm). In that world, how does one choose a job, if even the idea of having a job is optional?

In that world, I’m thinking the ‘true calling’ gives way to our affinity towards working directly with physical objects (i.e we strive to be Jiro, not Bono), since inevitably it seems that the ‘high-level’ issues will either be truly reduced to a marginal rate, or completely hidden away from anyone within the developed society. Come to think of it, this is sounding more and more like some sort of dystopian novel, but I can’t help but go along with it. If automation and science removes the need to think about our own survival, and we’ve automated away retail shopping, food production, sanitation, transportation, etc. what is there left? Only the two extremes: either we make like John in Brave New World and fight for some broad justice, or we reconnect with our hunter-gatherer DNA and make artisan food and accessories. Is there really an alternative?

The Forever Tweaking Hindsight Driven Utilitarian Analysis Tool

Before I start with my incessant ramblings, I need to call you out on something, well, call us out on something. If we were to give NFC some kind of modus operandi, it would go as follows: write about a non-linear idea/concept/issue, often creating abstract dichotomies that lead us down a path of discovery to some feng shui conclusive balance. And the balance is not binary, it’s a weird hindsight driven understanding that is often individually specific, and sometimes engrossed in a meta layered dichotomy. And that’s cool. And fun. And mostly, it swims in truth. It approximates the grey nuanced world we live in. But, what I’m hoping we can graduate to, is skipping the posts that establish these dichotomies & asks the open ended questions, without an attempt to give a perspective on it. Get into the nitty gritty, write an extreme version of a perspective only to highlight the values of the opposite, or just you know, your own perspective. So on that note, lets dive into the trenches..

Well you sort of answered the question of pursuing high level versus low level ideals from the beginning of your post, it’s both.  But yeah yeah yeah, enough of the possibilities of the equation, lets try and answer it.

What tool do we use to determine the hyper individualistic answer to the equation? But of course, the most utile tool of human problem solving, utilitarianism. The use of this tool starts with your projections of satisfaction of each perspective – does the feeling of making perfect sushi bring me more happiness or the satisfaction of pursuing a utopic societal ideal by means of charitable work. And that’s just the initial step of the tool. What it ultimately comes down to is trying things out, small attempts at a time, taking those risks, and doing a post hoc analysis in order to recalibrate the projections and then rinse & repeat. People typically have expectations of trying to figure out what their true “calling” is by a pros and cons list, stuck in the initial projections, without realizing most of the work is done by taking the needed risk, accepting the possible failures involved, and gaining the new perspective of their own satisfaction equation. It’s the forever tweaking hindsight driven utilitarian analysis tool.

Beyond this though, the idea of finding one’s “true calling” probably needs a reality check, or an expectations calibration. In any sort of civilized society, we’re going to need the “dirty jobs“, the service oriented jobs, the maintenance jobs that may not be on paper ‘fulfilling’. The romanticization of finding your “true voice” through this idealized career where you’re engaged intellectually, while contributing to some high level ideal, or whatever the perfect set of variables are, is almost an impossibility. We need to sprinkle some nutrient rich practicality into the stew. And I’m not saying pursuing this individual ideal career is wrong, it’s more of a ‘no big deal if it doesn’t come to fruition’ approach. Or just, no big deal if you treat your work practically as a means to an end, and pursue your high level / low level ideals as hobbies. And recently, with the advent of the internet, access to education, hyper specific markets, and reach to people around the world, fulfillment through part time hobbies with a practical career that support high level & low level ideals (*ehem*, NFC)  are more possible than ever.

Take some risks, and get back to me.

Jiro Dreams of World Peace

For our new topic, I want to discuss a dichotomy that I’ve been struggling with as I think more about how to find ‘fulfilling’ work. Be warned, we will undoubtedly conclude that there is no need to gravitate towards one extreme or another, and the most sensible thing is to find the b-word. Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to discuss the factors at play. So without further ado, I present to you: the highs and the lows of perspective. In short, I can summarize the whole issue with a single question: thinking about my ‘career’, should I find a high-level cause to support (like ’the environment’, ‘ethical eating’, ‘original art’, ‘autonomous driving’), or should I quit flattering myself and dedicate my time to perfecting a specialized skill that provides clear meaning (e.g. making sushi, creating quality knives, or becoming a respected film maker)?

The problems of high-level perspective are perhaps unique to us as a species. Even more specifically, they are perhaps unique now in the history of our own species. How recently have we cared about anything other than the very bottom three (Physiology, Safety and Love/Belonging) rungs of the Maslow hierarchy of needs? I’d argue that significant portions of the human race have not cared until extremely recently, perhaps the last 50 years. So how do billions of people find ‘fulfillment’ now that their essential needs are met? Should we ignore perspective, and seek out specific skills, or find the necessary skills that let you apply yourself towards a high-level objective?

The Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono, of ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ fame, is maybe one of the most famous examples of the low-level approach: find fulfillment in making the best food in the world. Perhaps the Japanese culture as a whole is geared more towards this perspective. From sushi and king-fu masters, to ‘salary-men’ that dedicate their lives to a single company. In the west, we’re in a slightly confused middle-ground. We respect and obsess over ‘masters': from sommeliers, to barbers, to architects. Yet we also obsess over ‘shooting for the moon’ and grand ideas like environmentalism, peace, ethics, and love.

Consider the countless athletes and celebrities who spend significant time with charities. It is almost taken for granted that any ‘superstar’ (whether in sports, media or business) has their own ‘high-level’ foundation. Steve Jobs, for example, was and is criticized by many for not doing more philanthropic work. Of course there is nothing wrong with charity, but how much of this activity can be explained by our desperate need to support a high-level cause above all else? Can an artist create simply for themselves, or does the modern age make this impossible without some underlying agenda?

Should we aspire to be Jiros, or should we find our Yoko, and imagine ‘all the people living for today’?

NFC Podcast #12 – Political Korrectness

In this episode of NFC, we talk about artistic integrity, political correctness, NOT Donald Trump, and David Foster Wallace.