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June 05, 2018


I agree with your assessment of what Habermas is trying to get us to see here: "However, what he's even more concerned about is 'a much more insidious model of commercialization in which the goal is not explicitly the consumer's attention, but the economic exploitation of the user's private profile.'" This media revolution in the form of social media is one of algorithms meant to maximize clicks for profit, so it's not surprising that its main drives are to fragment attention while increasing addiction to platforms that trigger a need for constant "newness." I am probably not expressing this well, given how damaged my own attention span has become over the last few years. The effect of that, as you note in your post, has become a silencing. It's not just that I feel as if I had lost the ability to think and write deeply, but, like you said, "who wants to shout into the whirlwind"? The sad part is that I lost a sense of purpose...

I am going to read the interview now. A long time ago, the ideas of Habermas were an important part of my master's studies in communication.

Thanks, Maria. I know that you and I are on the same page here, and I'm fascinated that you read Habermas for your master's studies. I hope you'll say more after you've read the interview. I do think that there is a reaction, a pendulum swinging back somewhat toward greater depth, but I feel like we've all been damaged and that recovery of our essential selves isn't a trivial matter. Maybe just naming the silencing and the damage is a start.

I look forward to reading this essay. If there is any 'good' (in terms of maintaining critical thinking skills) it is in simply making access to so many different voices available. There is a lot of good (if not the most incisive) expository writing on the Internet, and I have learned from accounts written by persons in communities I would not have encountered. At the same time, I agree with many of the observations you and Habemus make.

To counteract that 'click consciousness' I have retained subscriptions to several journals or periodicals that force me to slow down and read long, thoughtful articles.

Thanks for this, Beth! Another friend of mine 'shared' the interview a few days ago and I meant to go back and read it properly and of course, as so often, didn't. What a wise, measured and decent man Habermas comes across as. Wonderfully concise and eloquent here in response to slightly crass interview questions (and... spry? grandfatherly? ugh!). Awful to think we may not see his like again. He made the UK news a bit in the run-up to the referendum, speaking out strongly as a man of the left, passionately against Brexit although not at all uncritical of the EU or of the German government's dominant and resented role.

I too know his work a little - not as well as Maria. He was a big figure to staff and students of the university department where I used to work (one of whose professors was once a Master's student with Maria in Canada! Gosh, I remember finding that out - the proverbial surprisingly few degrees of separation...).

I identify with Duchesse, have my longstanding subscription to the LRB, always read my printed copy, all the long essays, cover to cover. It gets harder, though. And it's hugely depressing to know that they make a huge loss and only survive because the editor has devoted her personal wealth as well as her long working life to the paper.

Meant to say also that I'm afraid he's over-optimistic about Macron - hope he's right, but I don't think so at all...

Beth, you bring up a very timely and interesting topic. I haven't read the interview with Habermas yet but I can tell that we will be mostly in agreement. This point in particular strikes me as extremely significant:
"...The Internet is turning us all into potential authors and it's only a couple of decades old."

The real revolution is that everyone with an internet connection and a keyboard can now publicly express their opinions about anything under the sun as well as comment on everyone else's opinions about anything under the sun and that these opinions are instantly published, disseminated all over the planet. I think that this fact, rather than the technology itself or the commercialisation, is the big issue.

There has always been chatter, gossip, small talk, exchanges of insults, etc. as well as thoughtful, profound conversations, observations. But all this used to happen within the circle of people we knew, on the pages of newspapers and books we read and on tv or radio we listened to. The serious, profound stuff was between friends, colleagues, mentors and those cultural figures we admired from past or present. Now there are no lines of demarcation betwen "Us" and "Them" (whoever we consider to be either)and no rationing of rewards.

The cacophony is there and we are part of it. We have been given the power to 'publish' our thoughts but not the power to exclude the noise, the distractions, and the attraction of having it all on hand: within the next hour or so I can go read the Habermas interview then maybe find an old Krishnamurti talk on Youtube whichI was reminded of then decide to write a post of Facebook but notice a Share someone has posted about orangutans.......and so on.

I should read that essay! The explosion of hierarchies has meant that we don't seem to have cultural figures that the general population can rely on for stimulating opinions and a winnowing of what's out there--and what's out there is overwhelming and too much. Nor is there any clarity on competence and achievement. Even finding reliable voices is like searching for the haystack needle...

Surely there never was a time when "the entire population could read" nor will there be. Reading isn't merely a skill it depends on inclination; even for the well-educated, properly researched articles on important subjects such as economics and international relations demand a certain amount of intellectual effort. An easy read usually means the author is offering nothing new or merely confirming fashionable ideas. A review of a best-selling author lurks on the next page and whoops! - we're gone.

All newspapers and most magazines are in themselves commercial enterprises; without paying readers and, more especially, paying advertisers their apercus would remain unpublished. Culture and cash are inextricably intertwined and the cash may ooze from dubious sources. As an un-educated reader myself I recall my simplistic view of US history in the thirties: the Crash was squeezing out the country's lifeblood, FDR invented the New Deal and lo, all was well and everybody was grateful. But many weren't grateful; they believed mass unemployment was a natural force and shouldn't be resisted, especially by the federal government. In a so-called classless society. FDR was vilified as "a traitor to his class" (you'll forgive me - a callous Brit - for smirking at that) and there were newspapers and radio programmes to support this view.

Like democracy the free press is an imperfect tool for protecting our rights. On occasions during my lifetime both have subsided into cacophony. At such moments intellectuals have a tendency to forget history and regard the present and the immediate future with despair. Yet there might be a case for suggesting that cacophonies are naturally recurring phenomena; for every action, said Newton.... How many intellectuals read Newton?

I am not of course advocating laisser passer. We must do what we can, as you have done with this post. However, as a non-intellectual (they rejected my application) I do think it behoves us to think positively; so far mankind has, on the whole, rejected the attractions of cultural and physical suicide. Ignorance, which can co-exist with an ability to read, is the greater enemy.

Time to do a syllable count. Long words don't help and they are one of my many, many faults.

Duchesse and Jean, thanks for your comments. I only subscribe to one print journal anymore - the Canadian literary magazine "Brick". The New Yorker, LRB, and NYRB have become online reading, and I'm afraid that often means I don't read them carefully or fully as I once did. Maybe it's better to have the printed copies, I don't know. I do look through my Feedly posts very single day and read blogs and the long articles that catch my attention. With the books on the nightstand, and the feedreader posts I find there are only so many hours in a day. If I could add more reading hours I certainly would, and maybe that's something to strive for in the years ahead.

Jean - I agree with you about Macron, but we can hope.

Natalie, thanks for picking up on Habermas's point that "we have all become all potential authors." I agree that this is a big part of the whole issue. Everybody has a bully pulpit now, whether for their grand ideas or to tell the world what color shoes they wore today, and it makes us feel like we have to enter into so many conversations, or else we sit on the sidelines, exhausted by it!

Marly, I hope you will read it, and your point is well taken.

Robbie, I noticed the same assertion and disagreed with it myself, too. Lately J. and I have been watching the Ken Burns documentary series about the Roosevelts -- he covers both Ted and FDR -- and have been utterly fascinated. We were never taught this history in depth, nor did we have a sense of the depth of their personalities and the forces that opposed them, so I understand very well what you're saying about simplistic views of history. Ignorance has always been the enemy, along with a lack of compassion -- and those leaders who do have real compassion for others are often vilified.

Discussions like this always remind me that the last time that people's consumption of information was as disrupted as at present -- that would be Gutenberg, Wycliffe, and Luther et al. -- we had a Thirty Years War. I share the pain and exhaustion. And I have to struggle with collapse of a dimly envisioned future folks in parts of the US could hope for. But most of history has been worse.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.