The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. The four twentieth-century writers whose work is most responsible for it are probably Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut off from one another and live in an atmosphere of emotional strangulation and despair. These concepts are very familiar to most alcoholics; the common reaction to them is amusement. Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons. It doesn’t matter if you’re James Jones, John Cheever, or a stewbum snoozing in Penn Station; for an addict, the right to the drink or drug of choice must be preserved at all costs. Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it’s what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.
The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess of the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things–if they are where you tap real meaning in life–then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth.
Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.
On one level we all know this stuff already–it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power–you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need even more power over others to keep the fear at bay.
Worship your intellect, being seen as smart–you will end up feeling stupid, always on the verge of being found out.
And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called “real world” will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called “real world” of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.
Our own present culture has harnessed these forces ins ays that they have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.
But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.
That is real freedom.
The Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows
It was the nest-building season, but after days of long hard work, the sparrows sat in the evening glow, relaxing and chirping away.
“We are all so small and weak. Imagine how easy life would be if we had an owl who could help us build our nests!”
“Yes!” said another. “And we could use it to look after our elderly and our young.”
“It could give us advice and keep an eye out for the neighborhood cat,” added a third.
Then Pastus, the elder-bird, spoke: “Let us send out scouts in all directions and try to find an abandoned owlet somewhere, or maybe an egg. A crow chick might also do, or a baby weasel. This could be the best thing that ever happened to us, at least since the opening of the Pavilion of Unlimited Grain in yonder backyard.”
The flock was exhilarated, and sparrows everywhere started chirping at the top of their lungs.
Only Scronkfinkle, a one-eyed sparrow with a fretful temperament, was unconvinced of the wisdom of the endeavor. Quoth he: “This will surely be our undoing. Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?”
Replied Pastus: “Taming an owl sounds like an exceedingly difficult thing to do. It will be difficult enough to find an owl egg. So let us start there. After we have succeeded in raising an owl, then we can think about taking on this other challenge.”
“There is a flaw in that plan!” squeaked Scronkfinkle; but his protests were in vain as the flock had already lifted off to start implementing the directives set out by Pastus.
Just two or three sparrows remained behind. Together they began to try to work out how owls might be tamed or domesticated. They soon realized that Pastus had been right: this was an exceedingly difficult challenge, especially in the absence of an actual owl to practice on. Nevertheless they pressed on as best they could, constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found.
In the rarified air that was pumped into the Concorde Room, there nonetheless hovered a hint of something troubling: the implicit suggestion that the three traditional airline classes represented nothing less than a tripartite division of society according to people’s genuine talents and virtues. Having abolished the caste systems of old and fought to ensure universal access to education and opportunity, it seemed that we might have built up a meritocracy that had introduced an element of true justice into the distribution of wealth as well as poverty. In the modern era, destitution could therefore be regarded as not merely pitiable but deserved. The question of why, if one was in any way talented or adept, one was still unable to earn admittance to an elegant lounge was a conundrum for all economy airline passengers to ponder in the privacy of their own minds as they perched on hard plastic chairs in the overcrowded and chaotic public waiting areas of the world’s airports.
The West once had a powerful and forgiving explanation for exclusion from any sort of lounge: for two thousand years Christianity rejected the notion, inherent in the modern meritocratic system, that virtue must inevitably usher in material success. Jesus was the highest man, the most blessed, and yet throughout his earthly life he was poor, thus by his very example ruling out any direct equation between righteousness and wealth. the Christian story emphasized that, however apparently equitable our educational and commercial infrastructures might seem, random factors and accidents would always conspire to wreck any neat alignment between hierarchies of wealth on the one hand and virtue on the other. According to St Augustine, only God himself knew what each individual was worth, and He would not reveal that assessment before the time of the Last Judgement, to the sound of thunder and the trumpets of angels – a phantasmagorical scenario for non-believers, but helpful nevertheless in reminding us to refrain from judging others on the basis of a casual look at their tax returns.
The Christian story has neither died out nor been forgotten. That it continues even now to scratch away at meritocratic explanations of privilege was made clear to me when, after a copious lunch rounded off by a piece of chocolate cake with passionfruit sorbet, an employee called Reggie described for me the complicated set of circumstance that had brought her to the brutally decorated staff area of the Concorde Room from a shantytown outside Puerto Princesa in the Philippines. Our preference for the meritocratic versus the Christian belief system will in the end determine how we decide to interpret the relative standing of a tracksuited twenty-seven-year-old entrepreneur reading the Wall Street Journal by a stone-effect fireplace while waiting to board his fight to Seattle, against that of a Filipina cleaner whose job it is to tour the bathrooms of an airline’s first-class lounge, swabbing the shower cubicles of their diverse and ever-changing colonies of international bacteria.
The son of the late philosopher-mystic Perelmann, who was writing a biography of his father, used to say at our weekly brown-bag colloquiums that he wore two hats: that of Perelmann’s son and that of his biographer. We assumed that this was just a figure of speech until a graduate student who happened to be renting an apartment across the street from him told us that he really wore two physical hats: the son-of-Perelmann hat was a Boston Red Sox cap, and the biographer-of-Perelmann hat was a brown fedora. Some evenings he wore the Red Sox cap, some evenings he wore the brown fedora, and some evenings he went back and forth, more or less rapidly, between the cap and the fedora.
Word circulated, and before long the chair of the department knocked on Perelmann’s son’s office door. The chair urged him to take some time off, please, for his own sake.
“Bill,” Perelmann’s son said, with a knowing smile. “Is this about the hats?”
The chair admitted that he was concerned.
“Bill,” Perelmann’s son said again, touching the chair’s wrist. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not going crazy, at least not yet! The hats serve a purely functional purpose.”
It looked silly, he knew, but the hats helped him keep separate his two conflicting roles—first as a son still grieving for his father, second as a scholar trying to understand, to historicize, and, yes, to critique, as dispassionately as possible, his father’s ideas. Before hitting upon the two-hat system, he’d lived in a state of perpetual self-reproach: when he thought of Perelmann in the way that a son thinks of his father, the scholar in him condemned his lack of objectivity, and when he thought of Perelmann in the way that a scholar thinks of his subject the son in him condemned his lack of loyalty.
The hats put an end to all that.
When he pulled on the old Red Sox cap, its snug fit and familiar smell had a Proustian effect. He was returned to the grandstands of Fenway Park, beside his father. He was suffused with compassion and pity, with respect, love, and acceptance—for his father’s flaws no less than for his virtues. He wanted to annihilate his father’s academic detractors and slaughter those who would attempt to understand him as a product of his milieu. Such was the effect of the Red Sox cap. But under the weight of the brown fedora, beneath its sober brim, he could put aside his childish devotion and scrutinize his father’s thought with the skepticism required of an intellectual historian. He investigated the genealogy of his father’s ideas, examined their internal consistency, considered their presuppositions and limitations.
“Bill, I admit it’s a strange system!” Perelmann’s son said, laughing. “That what happens in our heads should be so affected by what happens on top of our heads. But, for me, this does seem to be the case.” He shrugged. “It helps me proceed. I do not question it.”
The department chair went away intensely impressed, even moved. Word went around that Perelmann’s son was not crazy but brilliant.
At our next brown-bag colloquium, Perelmann’s son claimed to wear “four hats.” He was Perelmann’s son, Perelmann’s biographer, Perelmann’s philosophical interlocutor, and Perelmann’s estate executor.
The following morning, the graduate student reported that two new hats, a black bowler and a purple yarmulke, had entered the rotation. From what he’d seen, he hypothesized that the bowler was the executor hat and the yarmulke was the interlocutor hat. Perelmann’s son had spent most of the early evening going calmly back and forth between the Red Sox cap and the bowler. At around eight o’clock, the yarmulke had gone on and stayed on until just after nine. From then until midnight, he’d frantically switched among the yarmulke, the Red Sox cap, and the brown fedora. He had ended the night with forty-five relatively relaxed minutes in the black bowler.
“I’m fine, Bill!” Perelmann’s son said, touching the chair’s wrist. “How can I summon memories of my father one minute and deal with his taxes the next? Impossible, unless I physically put on the bowler hat. One minute I’m recalling the sensation of being up on his shoulders, the next I’m attacking his peculiar interpretation of Kant? The purple yarmulke. Who taught him this idiosyncratic Kant, and when? Brown fedora.”
By the next colloquium, Perelmann’s son wore sixteen hats. He was Perelmann’s son, Perelmann’s biographer, Perelmann’s philosophical interlocutor, Perelmann’s estate executor, Perelmann’s publicist, Perelmann’s usurper, Perelmann’s housekeeper, Perelmann’s zealot, Perelmann’s annihilator, Perelmann’s designated philosophical heir, Perelmann’s defector, Perelmann’s librarian, Perelmann’s gene carrier, Perelmann’s foot soldier, Perelmann’s betrayer, and Perelmann’s doppelgänger. Twelve new hats joined the repertoire, including a beret, a bandanna, a small straw hat, and a sombrero.
Naturally, we were a little alarmed. Perelmann’s son’s evenings, the graduate student reported, were now mere blurs of hat transitions. Nothing stayed on his head for long. But reality, we assumed, would sooner or later impose a limit on his mania. There are only so many kinds of hats, just as there are only so many relations that can possibly obtain between a father and a son. In due course Perelmann’s son would run out of either hats or relations, we thought—probably hats—and thereafter he would return to reason.
But soon there were relations we had never considered, hats we’d never heard of. He was Perelmann’s old-Jewish-joke repository, Perelmann’s voice impersonator, Perelmann’s sweater wearer, the last living practitioner of Perelmann’s skiing technique, Perelmann’s surpasser, Perelmann’s victim. He wore an eighteenth-century tricorne, a deerstalker, a round Hasidic kolpik, an Afghan pakol with a peacock feather tucked into its folds.
By the end of the fall semester we knew something had to be done. The explosion of hats and relations had not abated. Left alone, we realized, Perelmann’s son would partition his relationship with his father ad infinitum, and for each infinitesimal slice of relationship he would purchase a hat. Ultimately, he would turn his relationship with his father—by nature, one simple thing—into something infinitely complex, and his hat collection would, correspondingly, grow without bound, and he would wind up destroying himself. His analytical tendency, along with the huge hat collection that resulted from it, would obliterate him.
So, one morning, in an attempt to save Perelmann’s son from himself, a group of graduate students and junior faculty members slipped, with the department chair’s blessing, into his apartment. (He was at a Perelmann conference.) We gathered all the hats and put them in garbage bags—a hundred and twenty-eight hats in twelve garbage bags—and got them out of there.
But in our hearts we must have known that we were treating the symptom, not the cause. Yesterday, according to our informant, Perelmann’s son spent all day and all night in a ten-gallon hat of thus far unknown paternal associations.
Adam Ehrlich Sachs, (2016) Two Hats - The New Yorker Feb 1, 2016
Everyone knows that dragons don’t exist. But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind. The School of Higher Neantical Nillity is in fact wholly unconcerned with what does exist. Indeed, the banality of existence has been so amply demonstrated, there is no need for us to discuss it any further here. The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, probability theory to this area and, in so doing, created the field of statistical draconics, which says that dragons are thermodynamically impossible only in the probabilistic sense, as are elves, fairies, gnomes, witches, pixies and the like. Using the general equation of improbability, the two constructors obtained the coefficients of pixation, elfinity, kobolding, etc. They found that for the spontaneous manifestation of an average dragon, one would have to wait a good sixteen quintoquadrillion heptillion years. In other words, the whole problem would have remained a mathematical curiosity had it not been for that famous tinkering passion of Trurl, who decided to examine the nonphenomenon empirically. First, as he was dealing with the highly improbable, he invented a probability amplifier and ran tests in his basement – then later at the Dracogenic Proving Grounds established and funded by the probability theory to this area and, in so doing, created the field of statistical draconics, which says that dragons are thermodynamically impossible only in the probabilistic sense, as are elves, fairies, gnomes, witches, pixies and the like. Using the general equation of improbability, the two constructors obtained the coefficients of pixation, elfinity, kobolding, etc. They found that for the spontaneous manifestation of an average dragon, one would have to wait a good sixteen quintoquadrillion heptillion years. In other words, the whole problem would have remained a mathematical curiosity had it not been for that famous tinkering passion of Trurl, who decided to examine the nonphenomenon empirically. First, as he was dealing with the highly improbable, he invented a probability amplifier and ran tests in his basement – then later at the Dracogenic Proving Grounds established and funded by the Academy. To this day those who (sadly enough) have no knowledge of the General Theory of Improbability ask why Trurl probabilized a dragon and not an elf or goblin. The answer is simply that dragons are more probable than elves or goblins to begin with. True, Trurl might have gone further with his amplifying experiments, had not the first been so discouraging – discouraging in that the materialized dragon tried to make a meal of him. Fortunately, Klapaucius was nearby and lowered the probability, and the monster vanished.
Stanislaw Lem (1965). The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age
Through a series of experiments, Iyengar has demonstrated that an excess of options can lead to indecision and paralysis. In one of her most influential studies, she and another researcher set up a table at a luxury food store and offered shoppers samples of jams. Sometimes the researchers offered six types of jam, but other times they offered twenty-four. When they offered twenty-four, people were more likely to stop in and have a taste. But, strangely, they were far less likely to actually buy any jam. People who stopped to taste the smaller number of jams were almost ten times more likely to buy jam than people who stopped to taste the larger number.
Don’t you see what’s happening to us? There’s just too much jam out there. If you’re on a date with certain jam, you can’t even focus, ‘cause as soon as you go to the bathroom, three other jams have texted you. You go online, you see more jam there. You put in filters to find the perfect jam. There are iPhone apps that literally tell you if there is jam nearby that wants to get eaten at that particular moment!
Aziz Ansari (2015) Modern Romance
He recalled what his favorite professor, Leonard Leech, once told him about getting ahead in law. Leech said that, just as a good airplane pilot should always be looking for places to land, so should a lawyer be looking for situations where large amounts of money were about to change hands.
"In every big transaction," said Leech, "there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it, passing it on. If the man who is to receive the treasure is unused to wealth, has an inferiority complex and shapeless feelings of guilt, as most people do, the lawyer can often take as much as half the bundle, and still receive the recipient's blubbering thanks."
Kurt Vonnegut (1965) God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
The future of virtual reality isn’t just about whether or not it causes a stampede at your local big-box retailer, ends up in bedrooms and living rooms around the world, or enables new artistic achievements—if, in short, VR becomes a mass medium. Let’s get past that and ask: then what? Take a January 2014 article on Forbes’ website titled “Legal Heroin: Is Virtual Reality Our Next Hard Drug”. I assume the authors left out the question mark because they’d already made up their minds. The article lurches from irresponsible comparisons of the effects of VR immersion with middle America’s worst nightmares (“a rapid hit of speed, heroin, ecstasy, marijuana, and cocaine”) to singing the potential praises of VR as a learning tool.
If you’re up on media history, that kind of overblown language sounds mighty familiar. Looking back at media panics—from dime novels to train robbery flicks to horror comics to videogames—it’s easy to imagine how VR might be vulnerable to a similar wave of fear. Those previous panics look ridiculous in hindsight: In 1954, Fredric Wertham declared Batman and Robin secret lovers in front of a U.S. Senate subcommittee as part of his crusade against comic books. In the halcyon early '50s, when comic books overflowed on newsstands, Wertham's bullying played a key part in relegating sales to their current specialty market. Even pinball machines were banned in most major U.S. cities for four decades because of their alleged deleterious effects on the nation’s youth.
Looking back at media panics, it’s easy to imagine how VR might be vulnerable to a similar wave of fear
There’s a definite cycle of mistrust, misunderstanding, and censorship by older generationsofthe new media embraced by youth. Dr. Dmitri Williams, a professor at the University of Southern California, calls this cycle the River City effect, referencing a tune from The Music Man. Williams describes three phases of reactions to new media used by kids: worries about the activities the media displaces, fears about health problems caused by the new tech, and opportunities to assign them blame for larger social problems. VR has some peculiarities that make it a fine target for all three phases.
What will be displaced? The physical world, for a start. Immersion in a virtual world is exclusion from the world around you. When a teenager is playing a console on the TV in her room, she can still turn her head to listen and look at her mom when she asks how her day has been or whether or not her homework is finished. That same mom might have a harder time accepting her offspring whiling away her free time behind goggles and headphones that completely block out the outside world. The inhuman, slightly sinister design of the headsets mocked up in prototypes and concept art isn’t doing the medium any favors: Headsets that obscure most of the user’s face transform a familiar daughter into a cyborg interloper occupying the living room couch. For bonus points, put a plastic gun in the player’s hands, or have them swing their fists to punch.
If game creators do their jobs right, the player’s mouth will be zombielike in slack-jawed ecstasy or twisted into a lunatic’s rageful maw, caught in the ecstasy of popping a cap into a noob or disemboweling an unfortunate goblin. Watching someone’s entire body react to a world you can’t see is deeply unsettling. Something about blocking out the outside world makes you forget to wear the mask of normalcy. Because VR seeks to mimic the senses by covering up the outside world with the virtual, it doesn’t allow passerby to become spectators with the same ease. The fertile imaginations of a fearful parent can populate what goes on beneath those goggles with their worst nightmares of debaucherous sex and violence.
Let’s say Mom wants to try out VR for herself and straps the goggles on. Ten minutes later, she’s staggering down the hallway to eject dinner into the toilet bowl Professor Williams’ health issues phase of the River City effect. “Simulator sickness” has been the bane of virtual world development for decades—it’s something like motion sickness, but for virtual worlds, and while motion sickness usually requires long-term or extreme exposure, like a cruise or a roller-coaster ride, just being in VR makes some people sick. Maybe commercial hardware developers will be able to crack the simulator sickness problem where the military-industrial complex and its mountains of cash failed. But given that simulator sickness is caused by a variety of factors—including the design of the virtual environment and player movement—that manifest in varying ways, degrees, and populations, a certain percentage of people will likely never be able to experience VR without nausea.
Headsets that obscure most of the user’s face transform a familiar daughter into a cyborg interloper occupying the living room couch
Still, most people develop a higher tolerance to simulator sickness over time through gradual exposure. So an excited teenager might get past some initial wooziness over the course of a few weeks, but a parent who wants to see what all the fuss is about could plunge into a virtual environment and end up severely disoriented. This problem isn’t going to be restricted to parents: If kids today remain anything like kids have always been, they’re probably going to overdo it on their new toys with marathon VR sessions. Christmas might get messy.
Making someone hurl isn’t generally considered a great first impression, and the cipher of VR is going to absorb all the perennial fears and complaints about young people. These complaints become a crisis of conscience when sharpened by links to the kind of horrific violence that has become all too routine in America, in tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook. This is the final phase of Williams’ River City effect, where the most troubling issues facing a society are blamed on a younger generation’s embrace of new media. After the angry newspaper editorials, the outraged appearances on talk shows, and overplayed clips of the most extreme content VR has to offer run for days, what would the case for regulating and censoring the new medium look like?
Each new medium has to be explicitly approved by the justices as speech before it’s protected
Some precedents have been set. In 2011, the United States Supreme Court declared videogames protected speech. Unfortunately, they’ve never gotten around to giving a definition of speech that has much predictive power: Each new medium has to be explicitly approved by the justices as speech before it’s protected. The first step for would-be goggle-grabbers will be to make the case that VR is a radically new medium and assert that its greater interactivity and realism are fundamentally different and more dangerous than what came before it. If they can manage that, the four decades of case law and precedent that established videogames as part of the First Amendment will be irrelevant.
The next step is to make the argument that VR isn’t speech at all; this is exactly what happened to videogames in 1982. By collapsing motion-based technology into the same category, legislators might make the argument that VR isn’t speech but action, which has a much lower barrier to regulation. When something is considered speech by the courts, any legislation regulating or censoring it must pass a very high standard of proof known as “strict scrutiny”, and the videogame speech case suggested that media effects research isn’t going to get there anytime soon. If it’s not speech, restrictive laws have to pass only the “rational basis” test: Basically, if the lawmakers give any justification at all, that’s good enough for the courts. That result could be disastrous, giving enterprising local, state, and federal politicians free reign to censor virtual reality for children or even adults. A promising new medium could be snuffed out under the onerous weight of regulation.
VR is still protean in its technical and cultural configuration: The future will bring many surprises and new wrinkles to an age-old contest between young and old. The best insurance against a future of censorship for VR is by making sure a generation gap doesn’t develop. The best way to do that is by showing people who wouldn’t otherwise put on a pair of goggles what VR is like, and by showing politicians that voters recognize the cycle of censorship and fear-mongering surrounding the birth of new media.
TV advertising used to work like this: you sat on your sofa while creatives were paid to throw a bucket of shit in your face. Today you're expected to sit on the bucket, fill it with your own shit, and tip it over your head while filming yourself on your mobile. Then you upload the video to the creatives. You do the work; they still get paid.
Hail the rise of "loser-generated content"; commercials assembled from footage shot by members of the public coaxed into participating with the promise of TV glory. The advantages to the advertiser are obvious: it saves cash and makes your advert feel like part of some warm, communal celebration rather than the 30-second helping of underlit YouTube dog piss it is.
Charlie Brooker (2009) Charlie Brooker's Screen burn