End of Sabbatical Report

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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34 Responses

  1. Michael Drew says:

    The memory of September is like that of an ancient god receding into the mists of history to me at this point.Report

  2. And by “bullshit” I mean “seductive information that inflames the mind-body connection despite a lack of actual value.”

    That is, exactly what anyone trying to grab your attention is incentivized to produce. Asking how to get there from here is like asking for ads that are fact-based and intelligent, rather than, well, commercial.Report

    • Maribou in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      And yet.

      I’ve recently started getting ads that are from companies I already like to buy stuff from, saying basically “you buy stuff like this, here is a picture of a thing we think you want and it would cost this much money”. If I click through, a large amount of the text on the page is devoted to giving me factual information about the item in question. Troubling privacy issues aside, that’s actually FAR more effective in getting not only click-throughs, but actually getting me to buy stuff, than any amount of hyperbole and marketing. And the stuff I bought? As shown/advertised, not a lesser version thereof.

      It’s actually so effective that I installed ad-block plus to stop myself from buying things I don’t need, because it was getting as appealing / seductive as the bargain section in a good bookstore.

      I suspect that someone somewhere will come up with the news-feed analog, and it will be equally seductive.

      Also there are plenty of entities that are only indirectly trying to get money, eg libraries and other such ventures… though I am not aware of any such that are focused on politics.

      @burt-likko Do you think just sticking to the Economist or some such might be part of a middle way?Report

  3. Damon says:

    Someone once said, “tune in, turn off, etc.

    Turn off def is the goal I’m been on for a while now. But I’ve made peace with the collapse…I’ll relish it when it comes. Humanity deserves no less than what it’s going to get.Report

    • Michelle in reply to Damon says:

      I found that giving up cable and network news and being selective about the sites I visit on the Internet for news has helped me dial down my outrageo-meter. Still working on detaching myself from my devices.Report

  4. Christopher Carr says:

    Once you can hear the words “Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States” and feel only inner peace then you know you’ve reached nirvana.Report

  5. Jason Kuznicki says:

    It’s a familiar passage, I know. But here’s David Foster Wallace about the future of the Internet. In 1996:

    Because this idea that the Internet’s gonna become incredibly democratic? I mean, if you’ve spent any time on the Web, you know that it’s not gonna be, because that’s completely overwhelming. There are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide.

    So it’s very clearly, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers. You know? Or, what do you call them, Wells, or various nexes. Not just of interest but of quality. And then things get real interesting. And we will beg for those things to be there. Because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95 percent of our time body-surfing through shit that every joker in his basement–who’s not a pro, like you were talking about last night. I tell you, there’s no single more interesting time to be alive on the planet Earth than in the next twenty years. It’s gonna be–you’re gonna get to watch all of human history played out again real quickly.

    Lipsky: Why? What meant, exactly?

    Wallace: If you go back to Hobbes, and why we ended up begging, why people in a state of nature end up begging for a ruler who has the power of life and death over them? We absolutely have to give our power away. The Internet is going to be exactly the same way. Unless there are walls and sites and gatekeepers that say, “All right, you want fairly good fiction on the Web? Let us pick it for you.” Because it’s gonna take you four days to find something any good, through all the shit that’s gonna come, right?

    We’re going to beg for it. We are literally gonna pay for it. But once we do that, then all these democratic hoo-hah dreams of the Internet will of course have gone down the pipes. And we’re back again to three or four Hollywood studios, or four or five publishing houses, being the … right? And all of us who grouse, all the anarchists who grouse about power being localized in these media elites, are gonna realize that the actual system dictates that. The same way–I’m absolutely convinced–that the despot in Hobbes is a logical extension of what the State of Nature is.


    • Christopher Carr in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      I’d never heard that before, actually. Thanks for sharing. I’ve long been a fan of both DFW and Hobbes, and now I find them both even more interesting than I did before.Report

    • About that time, there were similar conversations going on inside the companies that were spending tens of billions of dollars to build the commercial internet-access networks. The usual separation was into content creators, content consumers, aggregators, and gatekeepers. Pre-internet, there was reasonable money to be made as an aggregator or gatekeeper (the two functions often being intertwined). Post-internet, we’re still waiting to see whether that’s possible. Despite Wallace’s assertion, there seem to be darned few people willing to pay for those functions.Report

      • Guy in reply to Michael Cain says:

        With money, yes. They might be willing to pay with ad eyeballs, or at least not quite willing to go get an adblocker, provided the ads are sufficiently innocuous (a proviso many fail, but still).Report

        • Michael Cain in reply to Guy says:

          My list for “innocuous” is rather long these days. Not obscene. Not overly garish. Doesn’t take up much bandwidth. Loads promptly, and doesn’t force a page reflow if it does get loaded. Doesn’t include Javascript or Flash or anything else that executes. Doesn’t include tracking cookies. Limited number per page.

          With respect to that last one, when I go to the NYTimes front page, my ad blocker blocks 14% of the page elements. For the Seattle Times, it’s 25%. The blocker keeps a running count of the amount of stuff blocked since it was installed — 11% of page elements!

          I was looking over my wife’s shoulder the other day while she was asking questions about something. Between my ad blocker and my piece of Javascript that enforces considerable uniformity of font faces and sizes, it’s really interesting just how different my view of the web is from hers.Report

          • Guy in reply to Michael Cain says:

            Oh yes, I haven’t put adblock on a machine I use regularly and recently paved (it’s a machine I admin for a student group and I really don’t feel like it…), and the difference is startling. You’d think advertisers would have at least figured out by now that ads that stay in the bounding boxes are less likely to cost a page hits or turn people to adblockers… (my wants are few and the machine in question doesn’t have sound)Report

            • Michael Cain in reply to Guy says:

              I think the font restrictions my software imposes actually startled me more than the ads. Here’s an image with a couple of simple examples from my notes. The top row is before-and-after for a piece of The Atlantic’s front page at the time I was writing the software; the bottom row from The Daily Beast’s front page at the same time.

              I really do tend to forget that there are individual pages out there that use six fonts in sizes ranging from overwhelming to unreadably small.Report

  6. LeeEsq says:

    I’m not sure whether or not Aristotle’s definition of happiness as the well-lived life rather than pleasure is universally true. I find a lot of resonance but other people not only seem to equate happiness and pleasure but they seem to be able to indulge themselves when they can without any emotional damage even if they do suffer the physical damage from excessive living. Likewise, there do seem to be people able to abstain from earthly pleasures for a greater purpose just fine even though most humans would chafe under such restrictions. Some abstainers seem at least content if not happy.

    Aristotle’s definition of happiness needs several outside factors to exist in order to be true for a person. A person must generally not be in a state of want. They need to know that they will be able to eat something at meal times and have a place to sleep and clothing to wear. When the necessities of life are not guaranteed than a person is probably going to be inclined to indulge in pleasure when they can and feel quite happy doing so. Any sadness comes from the fact that they know the indulgence is a rare treat rather than simply an empty experience and they are going back to the grind of life.

    Not having to worry too much about the necessities of life is not enough though. A person also needs to be reflective enough and have the right emotional state for Aristotle’s definition of happiness to be true. If a person is not inclined to much internal thought and doesn’t have an emotional state that leans towards melancholy, because those whose emotional state leans towards the sadder emotions are more likely to see indulgence as a fleeting and temporary thing, than your probably going to be able to indulge in the pleasures without much emotional remorse and find happiness in them.

    For a lot of people, the internal and external structures of their life means that pleasure is happiness for them. There is nothing wrong with that. Aristotle was the Greek philosopher that was more at peace with people’s emotions and physical needs besides the founder of Epicureanism but he did have some blind spots.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I suppose one response might by YMMV, but that’s neither interesting nor engaging. While Epicurius and Zeno have been at it for millennia and they aren’t going to stop any time soon; Aristotle’s debates with his contemporaries was just an early round of that ongoing struggle.

      For those who can’t comfortably and reliably satisfy at least the second tier of Maslovian needs, I would submit that the sensation of having those needs satisfied is neither “pleasure” nor “happiness,” but rather “satisfaction” or even “relief.” Not having needs like physical safety, shelter, and sustenance met would be a significant source of anxiety; when people experience monetary stress, the emotional state is one of anxiety.

      Is freedom from those anxieties, such as Aristotle enjoyed and that I postulate that I and most of the readers here similarly enjoy, the attainment of “pleasure”? Epicurius said that this is the very definition of pleasure, and Zeno said that this confuses a necessary condition with a sufficient one.

      Zeno has the better of that argument, if you ask me.

      Consider the freedom from anxiety offered by the Buddha’s preachings: to be free from sadness requires eschewing all of the concerns of the world, such as love, for to love someone is to know that this person will die one day and be lost forever. The Buddha offers much wisdom, but fails here: to live without love is to live incompletely and thus to miss out on happiness.

      Zeno hammers the point home with the example of the unhappy sybarite. A sybarite may well be generally distracted by the manifold and sumptuous pleasures she pursues, but if she is self-aware at all (self-awareness being also a predicate to happiness) she will sense that material pleasures on their own are hollow and devoid of meaning or purpose, and therefore that another necessary condition for happiness is absent from her life notwithstanding the presence of the luxuries she enjoys.

      TL/DR: being rich isn’t going to make you happy, at least not on its own. Wealth likely helps you attain happiness, but alone, it’s is not enough. Point, Zeno.Report

  7. Doctor Jay says:

    Meh. I would less blame the devices and more blame the people that try to use that device to wind us all up. And they do that every day – with click-baity headlines, and postings about the latest dumb thing that “those people” did.

    The nice thing is that human neural systems are adaptive, and that the response to this stuff will lessen with more exposure. We’re in a kind of escalation loop now, where even as we get less responsive, the baiters and trollers are refining their craft and making it even more likely to wind us up.

    Contributing to this has been the Great Recession and the slowness of the recovery. This make people a bit more desperate, and makes them pile on more ads to their webpages and to follow any discipline that will get them more page views.

    I am a lot less reactive these days than I was when I started reading political blogs in 2003. One thing that helps me is that I have a few categories of things that are meant to wind me up, but when I realize it fits the pattern, I can easily set it aside. For instance, one of my categories is Crazy Person Says Something Crazy. This covers every utterance by Steve King, for instance, and most of them by Ben Carson. There are tons of posts out there of the form “This crazy person said something crazy. Isn’t that crazy?” It is crazy, but does it matter? I already knew that Steve King was crazy. I now know that Ben Carson isn’t fit to be president.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    a definition that roughs out to “personal fulfillment” or “the well-lived life.”

    The term we used was “flourishing”.

    On a personal level, for me myself personally, I’ve found that “intentionality” is key to flourishing.

    If I am just sitting down to be distracted for X minutes or Y hours, it’s a dull grey experience that is probably best compared to masturbation.

    If, on the other hand, I’m sitting down in order to deliberately play Fallout 4 (for example) and, dang it, I’m going to complete this or that quest or achieve this or that more intangible goal, then I am having a *BLAST*. This is something that I can chew on and, maybe, write a post about.

    If I’m just sorting m&ms to have something to do until it’s time for bed…

    Well, that’s a crappy evening.Report

  9. Will H. says:

    I have more to say, but I’m pressed for time right now.
    For the present, a bold prediction:

    It will take fifty years for the aggregate emotional intelligence of a people to adapt to the level of technology available to them.

    Told you it was bold.Report

  10. CK MacLeod says:

    Two points, provisionally, though this post, like Jason’s state of blogging post that addresses intersecting themes, deserves a longer reply:

    1) Aristotle’s idea of happiness – or idea of the best life – is crucially a “political” idea. (He, of course, defined human beings as “political animals,” although his definition of the human or the uniquely human rested on rationality or use of the intellect.) The setting and precondition for authentic happiness was the polis – or “the city” (the site), ideally of a size that could be traversed in single day’s walk. It is possible that a great many of our conflicts, contradictions, and uncertainties derive from the attempt to develop ideas of the best life or, differently, of the best attainable life, or, differently again, the best generally available life, or, differently again, the best practically achievable and tolerable life, and so on, that might suit a polis, or a good polis, but are either very difficult or impossible to apply to a league of cities or a mass society or a world state of states – and vice versa.

    Moral of the story/cut to the chase: So, Burt could not maintain his sabbatical for very long, and now has returned to this virtual polis, this city/site where the highest value is friendship in the Aristotelian (political) sense. To complete his “idiocy project,” he would have to abandon it – tell us all about being apart from us and so re-join us. Aristotle toldyaso, Burt.

    2) One of the most interesting observations in the piece was this very speculative one, I think:

    Of course, intangible concepts matter a great deal. We care intensely about information like democracy, faith, love, wealth, and mathematics. These mental constructs are often as not understood as means of enhancing our ability to survive (think “science,” and “government”). Some use those mental constructs to craft an identity and at least some grasp of Really Big Ineffable Stuff like cosmic teleology and the definition of evil and for some, the existence and nature of supernatural phenomena.

    Note that we invest these Really Big Ineffables with the semiotics of survival: Western culture is steeped in the concept that your moral choices affect the fate of your soul in the afterlife, for instance. In case you missed it, Really Big Ineffables are supposed to elicit emotions as well as intellectual exercise.

    Which is why, I’m beginning to think, the modern trend of overuse of electronic devices requires that we invest the information they convey with emotional and intellectual gravity. I’m convinced now that very little (not none) of the information disseminated on electronic devices is particularly important and thus worthy of substantial emotional investment.

    Burt seems to take the position that this “investment” of gravity is fundamentally in error (just as Burt views theism as fundamentally in error), but, in a way that relates to the prior observation, he may be neglecting this very peculiar fact of connection, this real-time, speed-of-light interconnection of a global community that also happens to enable the virtual presence to each other that all of us enjoy here. too, in this virtual polis, this electronically enabled site/city. Clickbait and cat pics and idle chatter and twitter-mobs aside, it may be as important as anything can be, still in the infant stages of being worked out and of working us out, in the process of re-defining what “importance” is or can be to us concretely.


    Gives one pause that the same man who, in 1996, was describing “the next twenty years” as the most ” interesting time to be alive on the planet Earth” would die by suicide twelve years later.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      @ck-macleod It certainly does. Though he did say they’d be interesting times, not happy ones.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Ehh, it gives one about as much “pause” as jogging promoter Jim Fixx dying of a heart attack.

        Adding: It’s also sorta ironic that CK finds Wallace’s suicide informative right after challenging Burt’s view that the internet leads to unhappiness.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      To run with this ball a bit, the root of the problem may well be that the polis in question (the Internet, or at least that portion of it which concerns principally the United States as a political and cultural aggregation of people) is too large and too heavily-populated.

      Unlike the polis thus described, it is not possible (for someone like me) to have personal relationships and friendships with a critical mass of decision-makers and elites. One might and should have a group of friends, but a normal social circle (maybe 100 people or so) is not large enough to meaningfully impact what happens within a given community. The ability of an individual to have a real political impact on things is therefore hugely truncated, and one is at the mercy of elites rather than an independent actor in one’s own right.

      So if the polis is redefined to a smaller area — by cordoning off much of the Internet from a particular space, for instance — perhaps one can attain sufficient personal gravity, esteem, a network of friendships, and exercise a sufficient degree of control and influence, that a person might legitimately feel as though he matters. It’s hard to get to feel that way when you’re one person in three hundred million. It’s much easier to do when you’re one person in three hundred.

      Which is to say, writing here and interacting with the community here makes me happy. Other, larger, sloppier, less well-curated communities? Not so much. Is it because I enjoy a measure of esteem and influence here? Maybe so, in part. Is it because the community is small? Certainly. Are those two attributes of the community related? Almost certainly.Report

    • Glyph in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      I realize the Wallace thing is just noting an irony, and I’m not upset about it or looking to argue, but Wallace struggled all his life with severe and chronic depression.

      The state of the larger external world, be it good, bad, indifferent or interesting, was probably almost totally irrelevant to his suicide.Report

      • CK MacLeod in reply to Glyph says:

        I wasn’t just noting an irony, and also wasn’t trying to suggest that Wallace’s suicide, to use Stillwater’s word, was “informative” in relation to Burt’s arguments. I said the statement as uttered “gives one pause.” I meant in somewhat the same way that any evidence of a deceased person’s unfinished business or unrealized plans – especially those of someone of great talent who died relatively young – might give one pause to reflect… (I happen to have dealt with a lot of that this year, as no doubt many others here have done somewhere along the line, and as the rest of you very likely will sooner or later.)Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Glyph says:

        @glyph is undoubtedly correct. David Foster Wallace’s suicide had much more to do with a change in his medication regime, which left his last-line antidepressant drug ineffective. I don’t think it had much to do with the state of new media.Report

  11. David says:

    It’s not on political topics, but this is why I mourn the death of grantland. It was somewhere electronic I could go and know that there would be stories of substance (even if nominally about sports or pop culture) and relatively little to no bullshit.

    Hopefully, there will over time be more of a market that pays for such levels of quality and curation, and more spaces on the web that filter bullshit for quality. In the meanwhile, at least I can hang out here and read Burt Likko 🙂Report

  12. Michael Cain says:

    By the way, welcome back, counselor. Not to nag, but I’m expecting a deep piece on the six top cases on the Supreme Court docket for this session. Next week would be nice. And I think I owe you a beer, so I’ll have to figure out how to pay for that.Report