RW96 - Bat Ichthyologist Pt. 2

This week, Dan and John talk about:

  • Questioning today’s media consumption (Technology)
  • Not thinking about the moral implications of things (Technology)
  • Watching Star Wars - The Last Jedi (Movies)
  • Making clay handprints (Currents)

The show title refers to John calling bat scientists for bat ichthyologists (which is a fish scientist) instead of chiropterologist as they are actually called in part 1 of this episode

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Questioning today’s media consumption (RW96)

John doesn’t feel like the Baby Boomers improved on their parents. Obviously some of his greatest influences and some of the people he respects most in the world are Baby Boomers, but as a generation they did a lot of damage because of their profound self-involvement, which reverberates in our own time. In allowing for that degree of self-regard to be socially and culturally acceptable, they set our current time in motion where the idea of us as collective projects has lost against us being individual agents who’s feelings matter. John’s dad would have said that we have just freed ourselves from any sense of pulling together.

John is increasingly against the consumption of media, not only because it is just bad media, but also because our identities are formed a lot around what we are consuming. The ship on which we separated the virtuous from the degraded by the quality of the media they consume has sailed. We don't even have the option anymore of being some smart, reflective, engaged members of society who aren't trying to formulate our thoughts in the context of The Walking Dead. Our conversation about weird, tough stuff is now about Black Mirror and we flatter ourselves that we are the smart ones because we are watching this difficult programming.

By consuming media we are interacting with the world through someone else's imagination and by using someone else’s imaginative power to shape our own ambitions not just for our physical lives, but also for our inner lives. That doesn't spell out a very good future! People push back on John when he says that conspiracies don’t have much appeal to him, because he doesn’t think that this is ultimately the way the world is ordered. When he talks about the pernicious effect of media, he doesn’t mean that media is a monolithic agency with goals, but everybody he knows in media is just trying to do good enough to get their project picked up. There is no zionist theory behind it! Although capitalism is all riven through it, there is not some Rothschild puppet master. Entertainment is an ouroboros because it keeps making The Honeymooners over and over, like ”What if we rebooted the Honeymooners, but they were from Mars? Or if it was a cartoon?” It is always either the Honeymooners or The Simpsons. The best TV and the worst TV are not separated by as much of a gulf as the best TV and no TV. John feels strongly that we owe it to ourselves to formalize a kind of separation from it.

When John was trying to figure out what he was going to do with his phone and when he was thinking about the way he interacts with his phone, which he despises now, he realized that the premise that democratizing access to information would be a net-good, like all utopian premises, was the classic philosopher-king argument: For 2000 years, making access to information and to one another as boundary-less as we can has been animating people who believe in participatory democracy. The theory is that in so doing we are going to tap into our better natures and we are going to use our collective information to finally bring Utopia forth on Earth, but in making it so accessible and cost so little, we have devalued it to the point that what used to be difficult to acquire and what used to take effort and interest and engagement now takes nothing and is therefore worth nothing.

Not thinking about the moral implications of things (RW96)

Access to Wikipedia is a gift, but John doesn’t believe it is healthy for our minds to think of it as a resource that is available to us at an instance. We are not meant to connect with each other at an instant and John wants to throw that apparatus away, because it has gone past our ability to use it properly. John like to use drones as an example of a technology that surpassed our ethical ability to use them as a tool. We are now able to go in through somebody’s window and spy on them or kill them or do whatever we want with these little robots, but we don’t have an ethical framework or a very solid foundation for whether or not that is okay.

We are not doing that work right now, but we are letting fait accompli build so many of our future institutions. Music should be free because we built the technology for people to steal music before we figured out whether or not we really want it. Fait accompli! No band that was making records in 2000 thought that their records should be free! That was not the intent of the creators, but it became the default. Music is supposed to be a thing that you are supposed to have any time you want and it should cost you a pittance. Whether or not the music makers wanted that or whether they get paid is not your problem. It will work itself out. Fait accompli! The movie people saw that happening and threw a bunch of roadblocks into the technology as it was being built, and so we don’t think the same about movies. If you want to watch The Godfather, you don’t think that it should be free. If you are good at computers, you can go find it, but there are a lot of people who rent it for $14 and people think that this is reasonable, but they still want their record albums to be free, because fait accompli!

We are at the same point with drone warfare now. There is this little village up in the Afghan Kush and there is a guy in there we don’t like, we can see him from outer space and we can drop a bomb on him. Whether or not this is in the strategic interest of the US is arguable, but is right to do? Is it healthy for us? If there are people doing the ethical work, they don't have any effect on the policy. We went through the whole Bush administration like ”Is it okay in certain circumstances for the US government to hold a guy’s head under water until he thinks he is about to die and then lock him in a little cage and poke him with hot sticks if we feel like he might have some information we want?” and well no, that is not okay under any circumstances, but the argument from our own government was ”Well yeah, but what if he has some information?”

There are rules we put in place about this stuff, but ”Well, what if we had some lawyers who would tell us that those rules aren’t real?” Sure, I guess so! Throughout the Obama administration we abandoned the whole process of reflecting on what had happened there and Obama was just sort of ”Okay, fate accompli!”, which is a really bad way of laying down a moral framework for the ”civilization” you are trying to build or espousing. We are in the same shitty place on the side of things that is creating entertainment or infotainment, because we are not doing a good enough job of reflecting on whether or not what we are building is good, but we rather think about whether or not what we are building will make money or will work for people to consume. Just because people will consume it and like it and talk about it doesn’t mean that it is good, neither good for us or good to us. We used to ask those questions! John is obviously not saying that the world was better in the 1950s, but there were systems in place at that time and people were asking questions like that seriously and were taken seriously.

There were plenty of people saying at the end of WWII that we should crush the Germans and the Japanese down until we basically have salted their earth for 1000 years. We should punish them and destroy them utterly! There were people with authority who said that we are going to do a different thing. We are going to rebuild those countries and we are going to not saddle them with generations of debt, but instead we are going to invest in those countries and we are not going to shame those people. We are going to hold them accountable for atrocities as best we can, but our fury at them is not going to mean that we are going to hold their feet over the fire and we are not going to make the emperor bow in the streets, but we are going to make the emperor remain on the throne. We are going to put the German high command before trial, but we are not going to make every single member of the Nazi-party kneel in the public square.

We were going to get Germany and Japan back into the game and they became more or less model democracies and economic powerhouses. 20 years after WWI we had WWII because at the time we had salted the earth and we had punished rather than promoted. Nowadays, the idea to forgive our enemies and to look beyond the short-sighted revenge-based approach to international relations and to take the long view and the communitarian view makes you laugh! It is impossible to imagine that any voice like that would have any effect beyond the pages of The New Yorker or that anyone in power, even on the left, would say that this is what we are going to do. Even the foreign policy of the Obama administration involved an awful lot of extra-judicially dropping bombs into people’s laps in countries we weren’t at war with, because we felt like this decision had been made way back and we didn't remember by whom exactly. We signed off on it and it is really hard to reign that in now that we can do it.

John does think that our entertainment industrial complex is complicit in this modern world and the fact that we always, always, always turn to our gadgets and to the imaginations of other people to give us solace and the myth or illusion of connectedness. We are voluntarily submitting to this and it has such a strong pull on us that it is really hard. Some people feel that John is anti-technology or that he is trying to deprive them of the thing they like the most, like he would be taking their ice cream cone away, or worse: He would be taking their culture from them! To tell them ”Go out and smell the fresh air” is so boring and so reductive.

John had an argument with Jonathan Coulton years ago where Jonathan told him that there aren't going to be books anymore, so John shouldn't make this case that some musty old books were better than an iPad. The iPad has all the books that ever were on it and Jonathan was not going to worry about it, because he will just get the latest iPad and fill it with the latest books. It was a very strong pro-technology argument with strong culture-ideas attached to it, but John was arguing that an iPad with every book in the world is not the same as a small shelf of books.

Part of it is that a small shelf of books is limited and constrained and it requires that you get as much out of those books as you can. This unlimitedness is not actually unlimited! You do not actually have everything, you just have what you actually engage with. You have an iPad with all the books in the universe, but what you are actually engaged with is Stranger Things and what you actually think about is Stranger Things and about what people are saying about Stranger Things on Buzzfeed. Because you can link to articles doesn’t mean you have read them and it doesn’t mean you thought about them and it doesn't mean that you have talked to other people who have read them.

Watching Star Wars - The Last Jedi (RW96)

John watched the new Star Wars movie. He went into it really scared because he had heard so much static and even though he avoided listening to it, there was so much static even on the fringe, just bla bla bla. The usual suspects were arguing that the people who didn’t like the movie were racists or sexists. After watching that conversation happen on the periphery of a very limited interaction with the Internet, John didn’t even want to see this movie and get this fucking slime on him. Then a friend of John told him that it was still playing in the Cinerama and if they would go at 11pm, there would not be anybody there, so John went and saw it. He saw fucking Star Wars in 1977 at the god damn United Artists Theater and he waited in line for fucking 4 hours to do it. He is not immune to John Williams' score, but it still brings a tear to his eye, even though the scroll doesn’t make any sense to him.

It was a fucking great movie! Who could be mad about this movie? How do you get to a point in your life where you are mad about it? There are a lot of people who will say ”Get a hobby!” or ”Don’t get a hobby because it sounds like you have plenty of hobbies! Get a reality”, but this was just a fun movie. Of course John had problems with the script and he wished they had given it to him to go over once or twice. There were too many characters in it and some of the people in that movie should have just died, but it was still a fun movie! All of the jokes were pretty good. He was a bit afraid that it would be full of jokes and would be a movie for kids, but even C3PO in the original Star Wars was a walking joke! It did very much feel like a movie that people should like when it comes on, because it is a fun movie and they should not be weighing it against this universe that they feel is important. It is like that scene in Fight Club when Brad Pitt asks ”Why do you know what a duvet is?” Why does John know that there are people who have a problem with this and why is that good for him?

To have that conversation with the person he went to see it with is what matters, but before he even went into this movie, he knew that thousands of people were butthurt about it and thousands more people were butthurt about those people being butthurt about it and none of that information is good for John, it is not good for anybody! It is newsgroup shit, it should be in newsgroups and it should be confined to newsgroups. The whole Internet is a newsgroup now. It is live journal everywhere and John wants there to be an actual movement and not just a movement where people are faving one another’s tweets about it. He doesn’t want the movement to start on Twitter, because then it is immediately gross and it sucks. He is almost inspired to go to the post office and buy stamps and send letters. He got a letter in purple ink from John Hodgman in the mail the other day. He was so glad! John doesn’t even know what inspired him because it was just some note. He might not have been thinking through what he was doing, it might not have been intentional, he might have just been trying something and John is going to try things, too!

Making clay handprints (RW96)

For Christmas time, John wanted to make clay handprints of his daughter for her relatives. He went on the Internet and tried to figure out what the best way to make the clay was and he read five different websites that said Gwyneth Paltrow on Goop says you have to stick the clay up your ass for an hour. And this woman was Oh no, don’t use salt, you have to use corn starch and the milk of a sea cow. John tried 3 or 4 different things and he put his daughter’s hand in it. The first attempt cracked and was ruined. So he made up a different batch of a different flavor and they put their hands in, but their hands stuck to the clay. At this time they have tried it two times and his daughter got very impatient with him, but John insisted to make another batch.

The kitchen was a disaster! When she put her hands in the third batch, the consistency was not right and she said ”This sucks! You suck!” and John said ”Yes! I do! But we are going to figure this out!”, because this is what fathers do to their daughters. They make them do this 15 times until they get it right. ”If mommy would be doing this, we would have been done a long time ago” When she will be 14, she will hate her father because he made her do 15 handprints before they got that one. John failed because the Internet was leading him astray all the time. Had he done this 20 years ago, he would have asked a teacher how to do it, but 20 years ago, the teachers would have done it in class anyway and they would already have had those handprints. At the end of Kindergarten, his daughter brought home a construction paper with a handprint made of paint. That was the childhood handprint they sent home, but John was looking for the clay handprint that is an American tradition. John still has not successfully made a clay handprint, but he doesn’t want a scan of her handprint or some paint on a paper. He wants some clay! He wants that handprint and he is ready to sacrifice an awful lot of entertainment to get it.

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