Cosmos Café: Stare into the lights my pretties—a talk with filmmaker Jordan Brown [2/20]


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Overview

The Café crew talks with filmmaker Jordan Brown about his new documentary, “Stare into the lights my pretties…” which looks critically at the rise of “screen culture,” and how our widespread obsession with screen-based devices affects our consciousness and brains; our human and ecological relationships; and the concentration of economic and political power.

https://stareintothelightsmypretties.jore.cc

Logline

A film about screen culture and its implications. While the world burns, where are we?

Introduction

We live in a world of screens. The average adult spends the majority of their waking hours in front of some sort of screen or device. We’re enthralled, we’re addicted to these machines. How did we get here? Who benefits? What are the cumulative impacts on people, society and the environment? What may come next if this culture is left unchecked, to its end trajectory, and is that what we want?

Stare Into The Lights My Pretties investigates these questions with an urge to return to the real physical world, to form a critical view of technological escalation driven by rapacious and pervasive corporate interest. Covering themes of addiction, privacy, surveillance, information manipulation, behaviour modification and social control, the film lays the foundations as to why we may feel like we’re sleeprunning into some dystopian nightmare with the machines at the helm. Because we are, if we don’t seriously avert our eyes to stop this culture from destroying what is left of the real world.

Purpose

This independent film was made with no budget (adding to its authenticity) with no affiliations, is not-for-profit, and is released to the world for free for the purposes of critical discourse, education, and for cultivating radical social and political change.

https://stareintothelightsmypretties.jore.cc

Jordan Brown is an activist, artist, musician, and independent film-maker whose work focuses on the interface between the dominant culture and the real impact on people, society and the environment. The social and environmental implications of the pervasive technoculture is a current focus of Jordan’s work—specifically, research and development for a film project taking a critical view of today’s culture of screens, the ‘society of the spectacle,’ and the widespread fascination with simulacra facilitated by technology while the real world burns.

https://jore.cc/

See also…

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I’m planning on being there. Watched the film just this afternoon, as a matter of fact. Very thought-provoking, very disturbing, all confirmation-bias aside.

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Me too. Here are some of my highlights :

“The Jews who lived in Holland in 1939 had nothing to fear from a database that identified them as being Jews. Well they don’t have anything to fear now, because they’re all dead, with very few exceptions. The people who had reasonable educational qualifications in Cambodia in the 70s had nothing to fear. What’s there to fear about knowing that you’ve got a certificate or an advanced diploma? Well most of them are dead too. In Rwanda Burundi, it was being thought to be of a particular ethnic background. Now it’s not terribly easy for people to tell ethnic backgrounds when they’re tribal, and they are adjacent, and they’ve been adjacent for hundreds and even thousands of years, but the decision was made that you were of that ethnic persuasion and therefore you were dead. Now these are just the sharp end where the worst case of invasion of privacy occurs and you get killed. There’s lots and lots of circumstances where obscure bits of information do harm to people somewhat less than killing them.“ Roger Clarke

“Now, information is complex and delicate and its use is complex and delicate. So when we look at personal information, when we look at the use of personal data and the interpretation of personal data, we’ve got to be very, very careful. Everybody’s got something to hide. And everybody will discover in the coming years, five, ten and fifteen years from now, that some of the things they didn’t think they needed to hide would have been better off hidden, because they’ve suffered because of that information’s availability. It’s a delicate flower, we’ve got to be careful with people.” Roger Clarke

“It’s all about how do you make your website, or your app, stickier. How do you retain attention? Right now it’s measured through these little units of time and clicks and how long do you sit there. And you think about what is the logical sort of endpoint that they are after here? They’re trying to turn everybody into what looks a lot like an addict!” Natasha Schüll

Derrick Jensen
Quoting Robert Combs : “Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture”

“I could turn my computer off and it would not stop the destruction of the planet one little bit. What needs to happen is the entire infrastructure, the entire technic surrounding all this, needs to be stopped. And needs to be… it’s so highly addictive, that I think it needs to be destroyed. Because I believe that people are so highly addicted to it, they won’t give it up.” Derrick Jensen

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Related to the topic, I found this on my FB newsfeed this morning. It had been posted by Aaron Cheek:

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Thanks for organizing this event, Marco, which I look forward to. I did some reading of the backstory for this episode and find it very relevant to our recent quandaries. What concerns me, and I have mentioned this before, is the lack of good stories I hear in the conversations around me. I live in a big city where people used to hang out and talk to one another. This created a lot of complexity and a way to deal with complexity as there was a lot of self-reflexive capacities in enough people, especially the cab drivers and the bar tenders and the shop keepers, to create a feeling of life in the city, of life on the planet. That life like feeling has dramatically changed, as a profound lack of affective and self-reflexive capacity seems the new norm.

The sad thing is, that as a once very busy social person and political activist, I prefer to be alone than among the people I used to hob nob with every day. I continue to be polite and others are polite too but we both feel that there is something better for us to do than be fully present to one another. This is a great tragedy. And some of this is presented in the film we are going to discuss.

I want to write a story about a people who have forgotten how to tell a story…

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I concur, John @johnnydavis54. I have been thinking about the film since I watched it last night. I have long argued for research into interface design that is more grounded in a modern understanding of cognition, but I now realize that the modern app is completely adapted to a particular aspect of human cognitive functioning, our pleasure inducing addictions, and there is a need to dismantle, as Jensen suggests, this aspect of our current environment. Storytelling is a very different side of cognition and is being neglected in the new modes of interaction.

I spent some time looking around on Facebook and confirmed to my own satisfaction the shift in the way it functions. But I also notice that I have stopped using FB the way I had been for a kind of cross-sectional view of the world - I rely more heavily on newspapers in their electronic versions (primarily the Guardian and the NY Times, but also La Presse, a French newspaper out of Montreal, and occasionally the Globe and Mail), and also on Twitter and Instagram for access to people who have different political views than my own. I used to use FB for this, but I must admit the content of what I see on FB has almost dropped off my radar since it has become so namby-pamby - almost the same kind of stuff all the time. Perhaps I am unusual in this, but I have hopes that others may also seek to vary their sources of information as a result of the changes. I find that I have done this pretty well without conscious awareness of making these changes - it is only now, looking at these changes with a critical eye, that I have become aware of both the disquieting aspects, but also the more hopeful elements.

After watching the film I dumped 90% of the game apps I’ve been using. I started playing games in the long hours I was awake at night as a result of sleep apnea, but they have taken over other aspects of my “quiet time”. Interestingly, I have always refused to have anything to do with slot-machine-like games, indeed, gambling in general. I have zero interest in going to a casino, of which there are lots around here, or Vegas. But the film helped me see that most apps act essentially like slot machines, using the some mechanisms for getting people to “stick”. What I find particularly insidious about this is that the slot-machine-like, addictive interactions with apps INTERFERE with our critical capacities and make it harder to see how they are manipulating us. This is part of the problem they have created for us. This is something the film hinted at but didn’t come out and say explicitly - that is, yes, they are addictive, but they also interfere with rational thought (although maybe most addictions do that in any case).

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I’m in for this one, too. I haven’t had a chance to watch the film yet, so I’ll have to follow up with initial thoughts/questions later.

Looking forward to my first Cosmos Cafe!

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A little anecdote that relates to the film … perhaps:

The other day I was on the phone with my daughter. She was telling me that the previous evening, she and my son-in-law had been talking about a friend of his who was studying physics at the local university, primarily because he wants to work in the “space industry”. The friend is what the Germans commonly refer to as a “professional student”. He’s been “working on” his degree for about 10 years now, but isn’t really all that close to finishing yet. What was getting my son-in-law’s goat was that his friend is really not all that interested in finishing his studies, rather what he’d really like to do is go to the US and work for Elon Musk at SpaceX. My son-in-law was going on to my daughter about how foolish that is, for how does his friend think he’s going to get a job with a degree? It is obvious, to my son-in-law, at least that qualifications lead to jobs. I mean that’s what we’re told.

The next day my daughter booted up her laptop and headed off to YouTube to check her vodcast feed, as she subscribes to a couple of channels that she likes to listen to in the background when she’s not doing anything else too challenging. She told me, however, that right at the top of her feed was a suggested video entitled “Elon Musk does not care about your degree”.

I mean, what are the chances?

I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

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I haven’t had a chance to watch the film, but will do so. And if I can wrangle a day off from work next Tuesday, I will be there. I’ve missed too much in the Café as it is.

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I will try to be there for this as well–3PM EST on a Tuesday should be good for me. I will probably watch the film today.

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Some interesting related questions/observations raised in this^

“The internet is an aggregation of many mediums and to our knowledge never before has such a congregation taken place.”

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Thanks, Tj, for the article. I wonder about the interactive nature of some of our cafe videos Are we becoming more self-reflexive in networks than in traditional groups? Perhaps a different kind of governance could be imagined out of this interplay?

Hot and cold and cool mediums needs an update. Where is McLuhan when you need him? Reading Ong and McLuhan together might be a good topic, TJ, for a future cafe? I have been very perplexed (as a Youtube junkie) about what this is doing to my nervous system.

There was a period of extreme disorientation as I made the shift from group to networked. I have not yet come to any conclusions, but we have had enough experiences now to do our own qualitative research. How are podcasts, interactive videos of members studying texts together, reciting one’s own writing, etc, creating more richly layered learning occasions? What do we give up or gain by these shifts from real time to asynchronous? And how do we internalize these experiences, what do these events do to our memory? Are we more resilient or are we heading towards a bigger crack up of society?

I have watched cafe videos that I participated in and I find it startling because my felt sense of the memory of the experience is subtly different from the video version I review. Moving from a shared interior space while being located in my own apartment and viewing others in their different environments creates a different kind of tempo-rhythm. Many of us look as if we are watching TV rather than looking at another person. And how does this get internalized? So our dreams reflect this? How is the re-distribution of memory happening in ways that are radically different than what was the norm of even a decade ago? We used to have a family album now we have Youtube videos of our selves in a group dynamic.

It’s weird. We are shaping and re-shaping our social worlds very directly. We can monitor this shaping in ways we have never been able to do. Can we do this more consciously?

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I agree. Take TV. It’s supposed to be a ‘cool’ medium - more audience participation (e.g., channel-surfing ability, awareness of the room beyond the screen, etc). But toward the end of the film when they showed the kids watching TV (pretty disturbing images there!), I definitely got the sense that it was acting as an all-absorbing ‘hot’ medium for them. So relative levels of ‘self-defense’, so to speak, probably need to be taken into account as well.

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I am also wondering if, and if so, how, what we are doing contributes to an emergent “collective intelligence” (if there is such a thing)? I have no idea how many are “watching” us, maybe Marco @madrush knows, but given the very small amount of material/commentary still available on Sloterdijk, I expect the numbers will go up over time at least in that area, as well as in others. I don’t think we are currently influential, but even a small group may become more so over time.

I also was disoriented at first, but the experience has grown in charm. I don’t watch TV - haven’t had one in more than 30 years now - partly because I’ve always been distrustful of its “perverse” effects - a particular way of packaging information/entertainment, its advertising structures, its cognitive effects (studies show that after an initial 30 minutes of stimulation, TV becomes a depressant), its restructuring of family/home life, etc. Of course, internet access has even worse, even more insidious perverse effects, and it is that much harder to turn off!

I was talking with a writer friend this week. I learned to write on a typewriter, with carbon copies and “white-out” to correct small mistakes. These days I write on either an ipad or a laptop. A very different set of constraints. Overall today’s writing environment is more flexible, but there are some comparative downsides. A moment’s inattention and I can lose a whole chunk of text - in the old days, that was well nigh impossible. It is not easy to think influences through, for both good and ill…

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I believe each of us will have to think influences through, because that is not what technology does very well. In order to think well you need a situated body in an environment to think through. There is a great deal that will never be on the map. How to apply the map is optional. We have to contrast and compare our maps and give our attention to what supports our attention and avoid what disrupts it. I am not hopeful that this will happen on a sweeping scale, but there are signs that boredom may set in with the high tech low touch speed frenzy and that many of us may yearn for the rocking chair and the smell of real flowers and bare feet in the dirt. That kind of slowness and perceptual acuity gives us power, power to regenerate, to heal from injury, to renew our intuitions.

Fast is great for fashion and creating innovations but will not bring about a healthy direction from the many arid abstractions offered. I am not concerned about wide influence but rather of preserving the quality of our attention, and increasingly, what I would call our meta-attention. As we start to be aware of what others are aware of we will greatly assist one another and ourselves to find the patterns that connect and resonate with that, and move towards a wisdom/coherence, which has been lost in all the sound and fury of our technology boom.

"How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?"
Shakespeare

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These are excellent questions, John. I wonder if perhaps we are discovering that less, with deeper attention, can be more. For example, I feel a lot more value in one 2-hour conversation once a week than in 3-5 times that much time doing typical “social media” (which I don’t do anymore). However, those 2 hours of conversation also imply a bunch of my own reading, writing, thinking, walking, dreaming…

So a lot goes into it, and it’s more intensive, but also a deeper experience, it seems to me. That said, I would ultimately like for our digital systems to be stablizing, rather than disruptive. I think I’ve had enough disruption for one lifetime. I would like to find my way to a balance of digital and analog, intimate and networked, real time and asynchronous. I hope that part of what we are doing here is thinking our way toward better ways of being in this crazy-making world. :slight_smile:

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I would like some of that, too. I have had enough disruption for one life time, for ten life times. So job man, kiss my butt! I am taking the time I have left, my subjective time, and releasing myself from the yo yo death grip of a culture running out of gas.

Relax…relax…relax…relax while alert…what are you aware of when you hold the slow and the fast mind…together at last…

I do believe your project is desirable, possible and sustainable. What needs to happen to make this happen?

I am going out to the market place this morning, to Whole Foods for a muffin, then to the gym, to the library. I will share the sidewalk with thousands of people. I won’t see or smile at everyone ( they would think I was crazy) but I will hold each person in high regard. And maybe that is enough, one honest step at a time…

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(possibly unable to attend… posting some thoughts related to documentary)

This episode is supplemental (and in some sort of ironic meta- manner a la Brown’s documentary, is both a distraction and a deep meditation upon the issues raised in the film).

Yesterday @Eduardo_Rocha posted this great summary and analysis of Byung Chul Han’s Burnout Society, a short and deep read on the “positive” feedback loop we encounter in daily life, whether we directly participate in the more is better mindset or not. This podcast episode and the short book by Han go hand-in-hand.

One theme explored in all three above (documentary, podcast, book) is the exploitation of the human animal, the honing in on our psychological traits through persuasion, manipulation, influence. Harris and Brown state that the big companies are exploiting our attention,: the phone is the 1st thing we see in the morning, outrage at the news, response necessary, slot machine mentality, perpetual loops. Han, in both parallel and contrast to Harris, writes that we are doing this to ourselves, leaving out the big tech companies and minds behind the algorithms. Man is the animal that lives in the age of self-exploitation, seeking more and more in the positive feedback loop, the multitasking, creating disorders resulting in the hyper-individual with hyper-disorders from overload or the depressive individual who is unable to measure up.

From "Beyond Disciplinary Society" chapter in Han's book:

(note: Han states we are moving away from the disciplinary society; the society of negativity that produces madmen and criminals; adheres to the Should; "obedience-subjects; into an “achievement society,” the society of positivity that produces depressives and losers…becoming "achievement-subjects;’ entrepreneurs of themselves; Can/“yes, we can” mentality)

The depressive human being is an animal laborans that exploits itself—and it does so voluntarily, without external constraints. It is predator and prey at once. …the achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom—that is, to the free constraint of maximizing achievement. Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation. This is more efficient than allo-exploitation, for the feeling of freedom attends it. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Perpetrator and victim can no longer be distinguished. Such self-referentiality produces a paradoxical freedom that abruptly switches over into violence because of the compulsive structures dwelling within it. The psychic indispositions of achievement society are pathological manifestations of such a paradoxical freedom.

Other human animal themes in Han’s work include the shift from vita contemplativa to vita activa , in which our lack of “deep thinking” or even “profound boredom” and the increase of preserving life by any means possible takes away an element of our humanness. It makes human life radically fleeting. There is no real death of human, no shutting down, no real substance. Our previous human narratives found in religious messages is missing. It is replaced the active life.

Vita Activa:

Life today is even barer than the life of homo sacer. Originally, homo sacer refers to someone excluded from society because of a trespass: one may kill him without incurring punishment. According to Giorgio Agamben, homo sacer stands for absolutely expendable life. Examples he provides include Jews in concentration camps, prisoners at Guantanamo, people without papers or asylum-seekers awaiting deportation in a lawless space, and patients attached to tubes and rotting away in intensive care. If late-modern achievement society has reduced us all to bare life, then it is not just people at the margins or in a state of exception—that is, the excluded—but all of us, without exception, who are homines sacri. That said, this bare life has the particularity of not being absolutely expendable; rather, it cannot be killed absolutely . It is undead, so to speak. Here the word sacer does not mean “accursed” but “holy.” Now bare, sheer life itself is holy, and so it must be preserved at any cost.

The reaction to a life that has become bare and radically fleeting occurs as hyperactivity, hysterical work, and production. The acceleration of contemporary life also plays a role in this lack of being. The society of laboring and achievement is not a free society. It generates new constraints. Ultimately, the dialectic of master and slave does not yield a society where everyone is free and capable of leisure, too. Rather, it leads to a society of work in which the master himself has become a laboring slave. In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside. This labor camp is defined by the fact that one is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetrator. One exploits oneself. It means that exploitation is possible even without domination. People who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, or burnout syndrome develop the symptoms displayed by the Muselmänner in concentration camps. Muselmänner are emaciated prisoners lacking all vigor who, like people with acute depression, have become entirely apathetic and can no longer even recognize physical cold or the orders given by guards. One cannot help but suspect that the late-modern animal laborans with neuronal disturbances would have been a Muselmann, too—albeit well fed and probably obese.

On multitasking (hyperattention):

Han:

The attitude toward time and environment known as “multitasking” does not represent civilizational progress. Human beings in the late-modern society of work and information are not the only ones capable of multitasking. Rather, such an aptitude amounts to regression. Multitasking is commonplace among wild animals. It is an attentive technique indispensable for survival in the wilderness.
An animal busy with eating must also attend to other tasks. For example, it must hold rivals away from its prey. It must constantly be on the lookout, lest it be eaten while eating. At the same time, it must guard its young and keep an eye on its sexual partner. In the wild, the animal is forced to divide its attention between various activities. That is why animals are incapable of contemplative immersion—either they are eating or they are copulating. The animal cannot immerse itself contemplatively in what it is facing [Gegenüber] because it must also process background events. Not just multitasking but also activities such as video games produce a broad but flat mode of attention, which is similar to the vigilance of a wild animal. Recent social developments and the structural change of wakefulness are bringing human society deeper and deeper into the wilderness. For example, bullying has achieved pandemic dimensions. Concern for the good life, which also includes life as a member of the community, is yielding more and more to the simple concern for survival.
We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention. Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible. Increasingly, such immersive reflection is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyperattention.

Klein/Harris episode:

Can Silicon Valley be fixed from the inside?

Ezra Klein:

There is a lot of focus on meditation in Silicon Valley. Burning Man is a big part of the culture, with its heavy emphasis on presence, on putting down your phone. There’s a lot of experimentation with psychedelics. For all the searching that people are doing inside Silicon Valley, for all the feeling people have that it’s too busy, that something is not quite right, the products they make keep pushing us further toward distraction, toward busyness, to being always and constantly on call. Can this be changed from inside?

Tristan Harris:
No, it cannot be. I tried for two and half years inside of Google to change it. There is no way to change these things from the inside…

…There’s all these groups at Facebook, at Google, at LinkedIn, and they talk about their wisdom programs and their mindfulness programs. They go onstage and they push it out there to the world, and it’s so hypocritical because on the one hand, they’re talking about how they find balance in the workplace, how to not get stressed out by the overwhelm, the notifications, the stress. Obviously the elephant in the room is that the product that’s being exported by these technology companies is possibly the largest counter-force to all the things that they’re talking about.

This is the thing that needs to change. This is why I was working on this for so long. We actually have to change the thing that we are exporting to the world, which is distraction, outrage, slot machine-style rewards, constant stimulation, social validation, making it harder for people to tell what’s true.

We’re distorting every single aspect of the human stack, and meanwhile, we’re talking about meditation and how good it’s been for us and the cool programs that are helping Googlers and Facebook people meditate more. I think that’s the thing that needs to be reconciled.

Ezra Klein:
There is a way in which it all makes you a little bit Burkean. It makes you wonder whether we’re changing some of this too fast.

Harris:
This is an interesting thing too about changing too fast. There’s these dimensions to being human and one dimension, per your point about too fast, is clock rate. If we start breathing at a slower rate, speak at a slower rate, being here with each other, that’s very different than if I just dial that thing way up to 10X that. Things start to fall off the rails when you’re going really fast. This is one of the things that I’m kind of worried about — human animals, when dialed up past certain boundaries of speed, make poor choices. Basically the entire game now in high-frequency trading is to blow up the mountains so you can lay a cable so you can do a trade and a financial transaction a microsecond faster than the other guys. We’re competing to go as fast as possible in domains where, given the impact, we ought to be going as slow as possible.

Ezra Klein:
Mark Zuckerberg recently made a bunch of changes to Facebook and said he wanted time on the platform to be “time well spent,” which is the concept you’ve been behind. My sense is you don’t believe that’s going to be a fundamental change in Facebook’s operating approach.

Tristan Harris:
Now we’re getting into more of the practicality of what is the system and what is the problem and then how do we fix it? The advertising business model is the thing that forces the technology companies to maximize attention. Zuckerberg said on his earnings call that people were spending one or two minutes less on Facebook a day, and that was 50 million hours less per day. They can only do that to a certain extent. They can’t halve the amount of time that people spend on Facebook. That would be way too much. Their stock price is too hinged on a certain amount of usage. How do we decouple the link between the stock price and how much attention is extracted? This is the thing that I’m actually most alarmed about in the current system.

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The quote is from the “Vita Activa” (hidden-text) section. I was wondering if it was referring to Giorgio Agamben’s work or it is harking back to Han’s text (as that was the lead-in to this section)? In other words, I don’t know whom to place it with, and I would hate to carp at the wrong person.

You see, Muselmann is a German word and is the archaic term used to describe a Muslim. It is regaining a certain vogue in certain not-so-desireable quarters, given the recent (worldwide) rise in nationalistic sentiments and derrogation of certain ethnic and religious groups. I’m certainly anything but the most politically correct individual around, but this is a really poorly thought-out concept-borrowing from another culture.

The majority of those emaciated prisoners of the Nazi death camps were Jews, to be sure, but they included many others, from those with alternative sexual preferences to union leaders, alleged (and actual) communists, anyone who thought differently enough to get noticed, or even mainstream religious folks who believed that dying for one’s beliefs was preferable to living a lie. In an attempt, perhaps, to expand the notion of “the sufferer”, we might look for a different word. So, while I can appreciate someone wanting to find a category-label for what happened to all these different individuals, and not just the Jews (even though the fact remains that in purely quantitative terms, the Jews were the vast majority of the targets), the one chosen has got to be one of the poorest choices ever.

I don’t think it is ever wise to go scrounging in other cultures when we think that our own language doesn’t provide us with the words we need to express what we think we have to say. It can be that they can be found – there is no word for schadenfreude in English, so borrowing the German notion, as it is found (and now re-pronounced as if it were English) seems reasonable, but the Nazis made extensive and intensive use of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, which is why these days any self-respecting scholar will give that wide berth even when discussing Nietzsche, which is as it should be.

And, I know this all sounds a bit curmudgeony, but it isn’t really. I expect smart people to be smart about what they do, and it is lapses like this that then make me wonder where else in that person’s thinking are lapses that I don’t otherwise know about. It doen’t enhance one’s credibility, let me put it that way.

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Thanks again for another history lesson Ed. I almost left out that last bit that you are focusing on here, for it seemed controversial even on the surface level interpretation, which I tend to take. I am sure both Han and Giorgio, from which Han takes the term from, are well aware of the word’s deeper meaning!

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