“When it comes to uniting people around a common story, fiction actually enjoys three inherent advantages over the truth. First, whereas the truth is universal, fictions tend to be local. Consequently if we want to distinguish our tribe from foreigners, a fictional story will serve as a far better identity marker than a true story…
…The second huge advantage of fiction over truth has to do with the handicap principle, which says that reliable signals must be costly to the signaler. Otherwise, they can easily be faked by cheaters…
…Third, and most important, the truth is often painful and disturbing. Hence if you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you.”
—Yuval Noah Harari, “Why Fiction Trumps Truth.” The New York Times. May 24, 2019.
“However, such a move seems to imply the utopian view that you can bring people into close virtual proximity and have everyone simply get along splendidly. McLuhan was closer to the truth: we will face arduous interfaces and abrasive situation regardless of how benign the companies and how ethical the design.”
—L.M. Sacasas, “No. 17: Arduous Interfaces.” The Convivial Society. May 18, 2019.
The small print publisher 404 Ink’s discussion of their finances, particularly the portion on the cost to small press publishers to have their books sold via Amazon, is a bit of an eye-opener. On some level, I was aware that the discounts that Amazon is able to offer on books had to be squeezed from authors and publishers (but apparently not distributors). But, I was not sure of the exact scope.
I’m imagining a publisher like Dorothy selling Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk. On the publisher’s website, it is $16.00. On Amazon, it is being sold for $14.87. If we assume a similar distribution like 404 Ink’s, then:
- Printing cost (9%): $1.44
- Royalty to author (12%): $1.60
- Share to distributor (12%): $1.92
- Share to publisher (9%): $1.44
- Share to Amazon (60%): $8.48
So, the $1.13 difference between Amazon and Publisher prices is 7%, which Amazon offers as part of a package with Amazon Prime, free delivery and so forth to create a price sensitive, captive book market that buys primarily through them. But, even with the 7% off they are still making 13%, or $2.08, more on a $16 book than a traditional book seller.
And let’s be real about mom and pop book shops. Books selling have been dominated by the likes of Walden’s, Borders, Books-a-Million and other chain book stores for decades. I don’t really care if Amazon puts them out of business. But, there are still independent shops that are trying to carve out space in the cracks, promoting books that are not in the cultural mainstream. The problem is that there are not many cracks that Amazon isn’t in.
There’s also a large question about our cultural output. If there is no room for an independent publisher or book store to make a living doing that kind of work, and publishing houses like Dorothy are doing vital cultural work in promoting emerging women writers, what happens to those writers? Do they stay at their technical writing jobs, in the corporate cubicle, etc. and never produce any work? Or, do they end up channelling their creative energy to generate page views, followers and what not, hoping there’s a life to be found, like salt sprinkled in a wound?
There’s an argument here, beyond the standard argument about the feudal internet, the Rating Rabbit Hole, and so forth that we should pay the extra $1.13, buy directly from publishers, and consider this a tax to support diversity in our cultural landscape. Because every time we buy from Amazon rather than directly from these small publishing houses, we are voting with our dollars to essentially destroy the very stories we are showing we are willing to buy, just to save a small fraction of the cost. It’s a tragedy.
Of course, you could argue that if there is no money to be made on Amazon, then these small publishers will turn to alternatives, such as print on demand, and they will develop a market outside of Amazon. This is true, and it is happening. But, relegating a large portion of our cultural output to the long tail is also an exercise in diminishment. The diversity of the long tail will be a function of the amount of effort we put into creating it, and the first step is to stop using Amazon to buy books.
“Escape is the purest form of resistance.”Joseph Kelly, “The Masterless People: Pirates, Maroons, and the Struggle to Live Free.” Longreads.com. October 30, 2018.
God. The United States Government. Money. You, yourself. They are all ghosts, and it is your head that is haunted.
There’s all kinds of ghosts in our lives. People fading in and out. Ideas and memes that are minds suddenly latch on to or let go of.
It’s interesting that it took a juxtaposition of telecommunications, computer hardware, and software to turn the noun, “ghost” into a verb. It wasn’t a term you heard before the mobile phone.
Yet, ghosting has clearly been a fact of life in human relationships since it has been possible to move between large communities and not have your reputation follow you. From the proverbial man who goes out for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back to the prejudice against nomadic groups like the gypsies, there is always been worry about people that can enter a community or a relationship with an individual and then leave it with little consequence. It undermines the social fabric. It creates distrust and fear, particularly in places where distrust and fear are already prevalent.
Certainly, this was why divorce had such a high stigma for so long. It was thought to undermine families and communities.
But, it is the modern variety of transient relationships, with the ability of apps to create new connections that transverse diverse social networks, that has made the behavior so pervasive that it has become necessary to give it a name. It seems everyone is out buying cigarettes, getting away from someone.
Of course, we can mitigate the damage it can do to us personally by adopting new mental models, such as the theory of visitors. If you view everyone in your life as a visitor, one that can leave it any moment, then you only focus on your experience in the moment. We take people, moment-by-moment, rather than trying to forge lasting bonds.
But, this is a difficult view to adopt because most of us want lasting connections with other people, where we can love them and be loved in return. We don’t only live in this moment, but our mind is haunting both the future and the past.
We also want to be part of a community. We want to be accepted and have lasting connections to others. But, it is probably worth considering the basis for those relationships.
I was recently watching the Kung Fu television series from the 1970s. There is this touching dialogue between Caine and Master Po that gets at this point.
The Scene: Caine is about to present Master Po flowers but stops when Master Po rejects the flowers of another student. Seeing this, Caine is scared he too will be rejected, so he comes up short and stands off in the distance. Master Po, seeing what has happened, starts an exchange about love that this leads to this bit of dialogue:
Master Po: Do you seek love or barter?
Caine: If I love others and they do not love me, I will feel great pain.
Master Po: That is what you risk, Grasshopper. Great pain or great joy.Kung Fu (television series)
It makes me think that ghosting is an idea based on this transactional model. With cell phones, our culture has evolved where there is a sense of always on, instant accessibility to the people in our lives. I send one message, they should send me one back. The more quickly, the more important I am to you.
There are also call logs. So, you can see the history. Who tends to contact who? At what time? Am I investing more of myself than they are? The accounting is built in because that kind of accounting is what computers are good at doing. But, it isn’t good for developing our love for one another.
And, this transactional view is particularly acute when we are first meeting someone. When we don’t have a lot of interaction, then each data point, each interaction bears a lot of weight.
You go to a first date. It seems to have gone so well. You spent hours together talking over dinner. You wandered through a local neighborhood for a few hours, talking. Perhaps you even slept together. Not hearing from the other person over the next week makes you question your whole experience. Did it happen? Did the other person feel the same as I did? If you are insecure, you might also wonder if there was something you said or did that caused them to ghost.
Even if it is true, maybe you spent a little more time talking about your infatuation with a co-worker than you should have with a possible new romantic interest, it’s not personal. It’s just how things happen sometimes. It’s largely random chance.
Sometimes, the timing is not right. Sometimes, the chemistry isn’t there or perhaps, something is going on in your life that makes you less attractive in that moment. Maybe you reminded them of a previous relationship that turned out poorly. Sometimes relationships just end, or more frequently, they never get started in the first place.
Love is like fire. You can start a flame. But, you cannot control how it burns. In a hard world, where fire fizzles out 999 times out of a 1000, it can be hard to keep motivated to keep striking the flint of love. But, counting strikes is easier on our psyche than counting fizzles or flames.
Related: Closeness lines.
“Evil can not be conquered within this world. It can only be resisted in oneself.”Kung Fu (television series), Master Po
The world is full of people that look at the world they live in and see evil all around them. It’s easy to point to outliers, such as Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., the Unabomber, to illustrate the point. But, looking at individuals is a good way to only look at trees and miss the forest.
The fundamental problem is that every human being has evil tendencies, and they live with other human beings that use those tendencies to increase the group’s chances of survival in a world with limited resources. Hunter-gatherer groups protect sources of water for their groups exclusive use from other hunter-gathers. With the advent of agriculture, surpluses allowed a larger population, which could then take control over the sources of water in their area from hunter-gatherers. Larger societies took from smaller ones, and killed and consolidated with outside groups. Human history is simply a chronicle of the rise and fall of these groups, whether it be tribe, city or modern nation.
How then can these tendencies be eradicated? How can evil be fought?
The first step is to transcend the notion that our group is somehow special, whether this idea is talked about as “The Chosen People”, the “twice-born” of Hinduism, the “Elect”, or any of the other many permutations of this idea of a special group that is above others. This kind of thinking allows for a double standard of morality, where the in-group is treated one way and the out-group is treated in another.
The second step is to realize that all human beings are the same, with capacities for both good and evil. Evil is the product of desires to get the things we want or need. We need to turn and face this tendency in ourselves and make a choice. That’s the only evil we have any hope of eradicating, and realistically, most people can only hope to reign in their evil tendencies, particularly in a cultural environment that promotes them.
In 2007, The New England Journal of Medicine had a study on obesity and social networks that has results that said:
“A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% (95% confidence interval [CI], 6 to 123) if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval. Among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40% (95% CI, 21 to 60). If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37% (95% CI, 7 to 73). These effects were not seen among neighbors in the immediate geographic location.”Christakis, Nicholas A. and Fowler, James H. “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years” N Engl J Med 2007;357:370-9
It is clear that social contagion has impacts everyone across a wide-variety of behaviors. Hearing of a celebrity or having an acquaintance committing suicide increases the chances of those hearing of it committing suicide. News of mass shootings spawn other mass shootings.
Racial, gender and other stereotypes propagate across the social landscape in much the same way, both for good and ill. Social justice movements can reduce stereotypes just as racist, sexist and other groups can reenforce them.
Then, there is the whole process of demarginalization. In online forums, finding kindred spirits can help with being part of an often marginalized group, such as being homosexual. But, it can also lead to adopting extremist attitudes, such as the religious extremism that drives Islamic, and other ideologically-motivated terrorism.
All of which ties into the paradox of tolerance, a society without limits is a society that will be destroyed by tolerating behaviors that eat away at the social bonds that bind it together. But, where does brotherhood and sisterhood reside? Where should boundaries be drawn?
Should we select our friends based on whether they are physically fit? So, we reduce the chance that we will be influenced into behaviors that will make us obese?
What of people with a mental illness, such as the chronically depressed? What of stupid people? What of controlling, manipulative people? What of people with uncontrolled anger? What of the socially inept?
What if we change the perspective and ask ourselves about a society? Should individuals cut themselves off from a society, or parts of it, that have a negative social impact on them as individuals?
Clearly, the Western diet, as it is becomes the dominate way of eating around the world, leads to a whole host of modern ailments, from diabetes to dementia. It also seems likely that the Internet is a catalyst that is causing fissures in society by speeding up the forming of communities and the propagation of ideas, more of it bad than good due to the structure and incentives of the technology. Should healthy individuals cut themselves off from a sick society and technologies that tend to promote undesirable behaviors?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. However, I do remember a comment made at a Quaker meeting I attended once that seems relevant, they said:
“If you want to learn to love, don’t start with Hitler.”-Quaker Meeting comment
I think the demands of love are that we try to be as open and tolerant as we are able. But, I think it is not an unqualified principle. If a relationship doesn’t have the potential to benefit from tolerance, where the risk is substantial and the reward minimal, then we can draw lines based on our capacity. The Enlightened Buddha, Jesus Christ or a deity may be able to save all sentient beings. It’s a good goal. But, if you are just starting out on your journey or only a little way on, trying to love Hitler out of the gate sounds like an excellent way to be pulled from the path and to lose ourselves entirely. Like on an airplane, you’ve got to put your own oxygen mask on first. Save yourself, then you might be able to save others.
This is probably why Buddhist meditation on loving-kindness starts with our own selves. We must first learn to love ourselves. If we cannot learn to tolerate our own limitations and the negative influence of our own mind on our behavior, how can we hope to have much capacity to deal with the difficult individuals in our lives?
We surely have more capacity than we think we have and a principle of tolerance reminds us to stretch ourselves, perhaps even find our limits and run the risk of passing them. But, first start with yourself. Understand your limitations and weigh the risks. Don’t start trying to save the whole world. Start with just a small piece of it. Tending one’s garden can lead to tending the world.
There were a group of tourists in a bus in Amish country. Getting off the bus, they saw an old Amish man standing nearby.
One of the tourists asked the old Amish man, “What does it mean to be Amish?”
The old Amish man, who we’ll call Amos, started talking about Jesus, and before too long, another tourist stopped him. He said, “We know all about Jesus. But, what does it mean to be Amish?”
Amos stopped for a moment and thought. Then, he asked, “How many of you have television sets?” Raising his hand to indicate they should do so to say they did.
Every hand went up.
Then, he asked, “How many of you think that television, on balance, has a negative impact on your life and on your communities?”
Again, every hand went up.
Finally, he asked,”How many of you are willing to give up television?”
They group looked to one another, but no hands were raised.
“That is what it means to be Amish.”