Category: Culture

Extraordinary is the New Ordinary

Kevin Kelly, in The Improbable is the New Normal, an article on how the internet increasingly exposes us to massive quantities of impossible and improbable events, explores how that may affect our culture.

Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we’ll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens which focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everyday-ness. As long as we are online – which is almost all day many days — we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.

When we get bored of our ordinary lives, consuming stories about the extraordinary can be an addictive, if temporary, remedy for all the mundanity we experience.

That light of super-ness changes us. We no longer want mere presentations, we want the best, greatest, the most extraordinary presenters alive, as in TED. We don’t want to watch people playing games, we want to watch the highlights of the highlights, the most amazing moves, catches, runs, shots, and kicks, each one more remarkable and improbable than the other.

We are also exposed to the greatest range of human experience, the heaviest person, shortest midgets, longest mustache — the entire universe of superlatives! Superlatives were once rare — by definition — but now we see multiple videos of superlatives all day long, and they seem normal. Humans have always treasured drawings and photos of the weird extremes of humanity (early National Geographics), but there is an intimacy about watching these extremities on video on our phones while we wait at the dentist. They are now much realer, and they fill our heads.

This reminds me of walking through the Louvre Museum. Because there are so many amazing things to see, amazing becomes ordinary. Context is everything. In another environment, some of the less amazing pieces in the Louvre become the extraordinary ones. Yet in the Louvre they are ordinary.

When everything is amazing you get overwhelmed at first. After a prolonged exposure, you become desensitized to it.

Needless to say, to stand out, you need to be extraordinary. But the definition of extraordinary depends on your environment, context, individual characteristics and the amount of exposure to the remarkable or amazing.

The Filter Bubble — What the Internet is Hiding From You

The Filter Bubble

Just “googling it” might not be such a great idea after all

The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser, puts forth an argument that we’re increasingly trapped inside an algorithm that filters our news based on what it thinks is best for us. In this case, IT is an algorithm.

Computers and the algorithms they run are increasingly aware of the things we seem to like. They learn from what we click on and tailor results so we get more of what we like and less of what we don’t like. The equivalent would be parents giving their kids only sugar because that’s what they seem to like. Only parents know better, so they feed their kids what they need first with a sprinkling of what they want. Algorithms don’t. This means that two people googling the same thing are likely to see different results.

The problem with this, Pariser argues, is that you’re not making a conscious choice to have your results filtered — it happens without your knowledge or consent. And that causes a whole host of issues, of which Pariser is primarily concerned with the social and political implications.

When technology’s job is to show you the world, it ends up sitting between you and reality, like a camera lens.

“If we want to know what the world really looks like,” Pariser writes, “we have to understand how filters shape and skew our view of it.” It’s useful to borrow from nutrition to illustrate this point:

Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we should grab them. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

Consider for a moment where we are headed. If Google knows that I’m a democrat or republican they could now add a filter to my news to show me only the stories I’m predisposed to agree with. Based on their guess as to my education level, they may then tailor the article’s words and language to maximize its impact on me. In this world, I only see things I agree with and writing that I easily comprehend and that’s a problem. Google might know that I don’t read anything about Republican tax cuts or democratic spending so they might just filter those articles out. Reality, as I see it, becomes what the lens shows me.

“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

— Andrew Lewis

When asked about the prospects for important but unpopular news, Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte smiled. On one end of the spectrum, he said is sycophantic personalization — “you’re so great and wonderful, and I’m going to tell you exactly what you want to hear.” On the other end is the parental approach: “I’m going to tell you this whether you want to hear this or not, because you need to know.” Currently, he argues, we’re headed in sycophantic direction.

Whether you believe the book’s conclusions are wholly convincing or not, it is worth thinking about. If nothing else, it is thought-provoking.

(If you want a search engine that won’t “track you” try

David Foster Wallace: SNOOTlet

David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster:

A SNOOTlet is a little kid who’s wildly, precociously fluent in SWE—Standard Written English—(he is often, recall, the offspring of SNOOTs). Just about every class has a SNOOTlet, so I know you’ve seen them — these are the sorts of six-to-twelve-year-olds who use whom correctly and whose response to striking out in T-ball is to shout “How incalculably dreadful!” The elementary-school SNOOTlet is one of the earliest identifiable species of academic geekoid and is duly despised by his peers and praised by his teachers. These teachers usually don’t see the incredible amounts of punishment the SNOOTlet is receiving from his classmates, or if they do see it they blame the classmates and shake their heads sadly at the vicious and aribtrary cruelty of which children are capable.

Teachers who do this are dumb. The truth is that his peers’ punishment of the SNOOTlet is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. They’re learning about Discourse Communities. Little kids learn this stuff not in Language Arts or Social Studies but on the playgroun and the bus and at lunch. When his peers are ostracizing the SNOOTlet or giving him monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there’s serious learning going on. Everybody here is learning except the little SNOOT—in fact, what the SNOOTlet is being punished for is precisely his failure to learn. And his Language Arts teacher — whose own Elementary Education training prizes “linguistic facility” as one of the “social skills” that ensure children’s “developmentally appropriate peer repport,” but who does not or cannot consider the possibility that linguistic facility might involve more than lapirdary SWE — is unable to see that her beloved SNOOTlet is actually deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammer, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it’s these abilities that are really required for “peer rapport,” which is just a fancy academic term for being accepted by the second-most-important Group in the little kids life. If he is sufficiently clueless, it may take years and unbelievable amounts of punishment before the SNOOTlet learns that you need more than one dialect to get along in school.

The point is a little A+ SNOOTlet is actually in the same dialectal position as the class’s “slow” kid who can’t learn to stop using ain’t or bringed. Exactly the same position. One is punished in class, the other on the playground, but both are deficient in the same linguistic skill — viz., the ability to move between carious dialects and levels of “correctness,” the ability to communicate one way with peers and another way with teachers and another with family and another with T-ball coaches and so on.

Still curious? David Foster Wallace is the author of Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, and The Pale King.