A Man is Playing a Role

Ian Marcus Corbin writes in the Weekly Standard about the bizarre disjunction between how courteously his colleagues interact with those with different political or cultural views in real life and how nastily they attack them on social media. Some people are born with certain advantages, Corbin admits, and some people are unfairly treated based on how they look, dress or act. And yet…

It is possible to acknowledge all of this, however, and still be struck by the wild imbalance between our lived experience of one another and the verbal portrait of ourselves that we daily paint on social media. Perhaps I’m not treated like a ravening predator in my personal relationships because I’m “one of the good ones” in my identity category. Fine. Many chauvinistic group-ideologies are willing to make exceptions for exceptional individuals. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here; I don’t think that I get a special pass and all of the other white men in my acquaintances’ path are treated like monsters. Rather, for many of us, our public, impersonal lives contain a much higher percentage of status-seeking performance than our day-to-day interactions. We’re playing roles.

Last semester, I taught a class on television and culture (and again this upcoming semester). The sentence I bolded at the end of that quote strikes me as particularly relevant to that topic. One consequence of living so much of your life in front of a TV screen is that you start to believe that TV is reality and that your life is a shoddy illusion. Its in TV’s best interests to keep you watching, and the way to do that is to beat into your skull the fact that television is where life’s meaning truly lies. In his essay on TV, “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace describes it like this:

The modes of presentation that work best for TV—stuff like “action,” with shoot-outs and car wrecks, or the rapid-fire “collage” of commercials, news, and music videos, or the “hysteria” of prime-time soap and sitcom with broad gestures, high voices, too much laughter—are unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more… well, lively than contemporary life as Joe Briefcase knows and moves through it. This might seem benign until we consider that what average Joe Briefcase does more than almost anything else in contemporary life is watch television, an activity which anyone with an average brain can see does not make for a very dense and lively life. Since television must seek to compel attention by offering a dreamy promise of escape from daily life, and since stats confirm that so grossly much of ordinary U.S. life is watching TV, TV’s whispered promises must somehow undercut television-watching in theory (“Joe, Joe, there’s a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture”) while reinforcing television-watching in practice (“Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV”).

If anything has changed since Wallace wrote that essay, we’ve become more involved in these “modes of presentation.” Now, we don’t join in only in our minds, but in our actual lives. We are all living “presented” lives. We’re all playing roles.

More Data is Bad for a Man

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, on data:

In business and economic decision making, reliance on data causes severe side effects—data is now plentiful thanks to connectivity, and the proportion of spuriousness in the data increases as one gets more immersed in it. A very rarely discussed property of data: it is toxic in large quantities—even in moderate quantities. (Antifragile, p. 126)

Taleb defends this in terms of signal versus noise. Signal is information that makes sense. It is useful. You can use it to act. Noise is everything else. The more data you collect, the more chance you have of capturing some sort of signal, right? Actually, the opposite is true, thanks to the limits of man.

It all has to do with time. If you check data rarely, you see a larger slice of time, which lets you filter out anything redundant or irrelevant. You only see value over time. The more frequently you look at data, Taleb says, the more likely it is that most of what you see is noise. Take the example of the newspaper: if you glance at the news once a year, you have a much easier time drawing out the important stories than if you glance once a day. And if you glance multiple times in an hour, as so many with “smart” phones do, you’re filling your mind with noise without a chance for a signal to break through. (Part of the responsibility rests with newspapers, surely. “Newspapers,” says Taleb, “should be of two-line length on some days, two hundred pages on others—in proportion with the intensity of the signal. But of course they want to make money…”)

In other words, the deluge of information robs you of your ability to see things in their proper context. It is not ambivalent, it is actively harmful. A word of wisdom for those who make decisions, such as, say, voting someone into office: the less information you ingest, the clearer your thoughts will be.