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December 30, 2018


Edward Nixon

I see that it is more or less warm where you are, or at least where you wrote this wonderful piece of prose. Initially, I was going to suggest you take a break, get on a plane (or even a vector of data) and find a beach on which to chill. Your tone is that of one suffering from post-partem depression I think. Please take a break, have a rest, read some real books and forget the state of mind that you created for yourself in order to write what I'm sure will be a distinct and valuable contribution to the... conversation. And yes! Thank you for caring enough about the language to craft these excellent thoughts.

...edN (-- a fogy of 72 --)

David Kretz

A thoughtful piece. I take it your book, as much of your writing, is a kind of philosophy. Has writing philosophy ever been something else than writing for a handful, basically, fellow minds (some, perhaps, yet to come)?

In absolute numbers the share of people who read philosophy books, and to whom some such books can mean the world, has probably never been larger. I’m not sure about the relative share of people who live with and for books as a percentage of the world population.

But why would it not be enough if the books creates a dialogue between you and some friends to make it worthwhile?


"Spider-Man" is hyphenated, and "Tinder" is not spelled without the E.


Like hell is other people so we just write for ourselves and hope to find a handful of readers. I'm not a robot and your essay is good.


Hey Justin,

As always, your writing is stimulating and timely. I think you're confronting the same dilemma that hit the Frankfurt School at various points: how do we write for an audience when our critique is aimed precisely at the means by which one writes for an audience in the modern era? It's a doozy.

My only worry about this piece is that "subjectivity" is treated (if only implicitly) as a kind of mysterious Kantian or Sartrean entity, something that floats free of empirical influence or facticity. I'd rather we acknowledge that we are both subjects and conditioned worldly things that can be described in broadly algorithmic terms. That said, I think your basic point survives. This is because much contemporary discourse focuses *entirely* on our conditioning, on our social identities or our psychological background, and ignores the possibility of transcending that background. That is probably a profound ethical and metaphysical mistake.

Anyway, thanks again.

George Gale

You're right of course. So I've gone all twee and now grow my own grapes, make my own wine, took a cheesemaking continuing ed course, and spend a lot of time gazing across my front yard, across Lake Champlain, at the Green Mountains of Verre Monts.
What in the world are you doing in Bakersfield?? I've probably stayed in that very Motel 6 when Cal State made me a job offer. BTW, have you noticed that Tule fog pretty much has disappeared from the Central Valley? totally different from when you and I grew up.
Onward, nonetheless!


I like much of this quite a lot. I want to make on criticism, though: I worry that there is a tendency to dismiss the subjectivity of people and media that are, or appear on a surface level to be, part of "the system", so to speak. For example, yes, perhaps an algorithm would suggest "Johnny Johnny Yes Papa" as a follow-up to "Spider-verse", but only because it has made no attempt at human understanding of what people are responding to, or of the human care that went into producing the film. The algorithm would, I think, be responding to the film and those who like it in much that same way that the bingo-card wielders respond to someone's thoughtful statement.

Lynette Smith

Yes, 'what to do, then?' is the pressing question. I would be interested to read what answers you come up with, because, you're right, neither quietism or craft are it.


The thing that people fail to understand is that these algorithmic popularity metrics shouldn't be thought of as tracking "what people like", as if they will provide you with a reflection of their real preferences. It's a lot messier than that, and I think people know that or see it when it's brought to their attention, but they don't take the next step of asking what effects it has on them and on media in general - that is, if it's not precisely tracking that, what IS it tracking, and what kind of content is it encouraging?

What are the rules of survival for this system? We need to see this ecosystem as something shaped by its survival rules. All sorts of beautiful things might be created, but over time, the rules of the system will chip away until the majority of what we find are the shapes that can actually survive there, and anything else would only emerge as an anomaly. That's the problem with these kinds of alogrithms and perhaps with having popularity and monetization shaping creative incentives generally - if they shape the rules of survival, it doesn't matter how idealistic you might be, you will have to fit in one or other of their shapes to exist at all. But at this point, perhaps we can reflect and decide to incentivize something else.


you might be interested in the possibilities of being a virtuous cyborg.

Syed Abbas Raza

This is simply the best thing that I have read in a very long time. You have crystalized and expressed my own feelings repeatedly here in an uncanny way. I have no idea how to proceed...

Michael Carrithers

Thanks for this. You convey a powerful sense of claustrophobia, the intellectual equivalent, maybe, of being crammed into cattle class on a transcontinental flight. Especially evocative is the pigeon-holing with which you begin, the way in which anyone can find themselves similarly crammed into some handy category, and so dismissed. You do this from far greater experience of the jostling e-world than I have, and so you warn me off any greater immersion in those electrons. Thanks again.

Just one point: I think the rhetorical term for such pigeon-holing, AKA stereotyping, is tapinosis. But once we've got a rhetorical term for it, that's a first Houdini move toward escape: it's someone else's rhetorical move, so immediately suspect. Of course, If the category we're thus assigned fits snugly, then there's no need to escape anyway: amor fati. But my limited experience of being a categorisee suggests that such terms as are applied to me are often ill-fitting, and that for reasons I can readily supply. So I submit that, once we can identify the misfit, we can move about and make our way out. In this respect, the Internet may have a hot temperature, but its particles have little mass, so the injury may be very slight and need not much alter our own route.

Of course being subject to a vast electro-magnetic information net that keeps your seat in your airplane and your airplane in the air is not the same. As Arthur C. Clark observed, any sufficiently advanced technology is equivalent to magic. In this case I can only suggest relaxing into the magic and breathing as calmly as we may.


What I kept thinking throughout your thoughts was that you were going to pivot to express what people have considered the end of conversation, literature, and attention span in the past. Have you by chance read "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business"? The author writes in the year 1984, reflecting that the world around him has more to do with a soma-addled Brave New World than the forceful oppression of Orwell's 1984. Some of his themes and statements feel reflective of what you have expressed here, though he was writing before the creation of the internet as we know it.


Interesting, but a collection of impressions that become something of a mishmosh because you don't think them through because you want to convey a "sense of things." It's one thing that people like to claim your thought must fit into categories they already have come to terms with and so you become nothing but an instance to them. It's another thing to argue, as you seem to be, that because people can lease together the components of an airline more easily than getting a permit to in fly a -- crowded? oligopolistically grabbed? -- route, that we are in a new age. Recall US railroads, recall the mergers of the 19th c. Etc. And so you end up with a collection of thoughtworthy observations that at best loosely inform each other.


Speaking as someone who has spent a great deal of time (perhaps too much) reading Foucault, your post really interested me. Recently I've been thinking about how individuality-as-such could be seen as a finish line that only a select few will ever reach, and how a consumerist society arranges itself so that we all compete for the right to call ourselves individuals. The agency vs. algorithm dichotomy seems to be a way in which we can control and monitor each other, to reign in any attempts at individual agency by dismissing them as their exact opposite. If the prize at the end of the game is full individuality, understood as full agency, the algorithm is a way to prevent people from attaining this.

On the other hand, and to invoke Fromm's thought about 'the fear of freedom', perhaps the algorithm is a way for us to try and convince ourselves that we are not agents, and so are not responsible for our actions. Either way, there's something disconcerting about a culture which seems to desire inclusiveness and diversity, yet which also happily dismisses any sense of autonomy that a person might believe themselves to have.


C.S. Lewis claims that modern thought was founded by Ebenezer Bulver when he overheard his parents arguing about geometry. His father asserted that the sum of a triangle's sides is greater than the length of its hypotenuse. His mother said, "Oh, you're only saying that because you're a man!"

Derek Neal

Great essay. Anyone have an idea where to find the Pol Pot piece that Smith refers to?


If I were still on Twitter, I would follow you.

On the other hand, your essay, pleasing to read as it is, reminds me of a Chinese movie from before 1989, where various 'comrades' were hastening to criticise themselves for every word or gesture that might have been construed as deviation from the party line.

We're living through yet another moment of ugliness, of which there have been many. No need to strive to suit it. We can try to be the best we can be and do the best work we can, whether or not it fits with the current metrics; then all will be well. This is my attempt of an answer, at least, good or bad.

Annie Gottlieb

As one old enough (72) to be immune to the algorithm -- I can even paddle around online and not catch it or be caught by it -- I would say to you, let the lemmings go over the cliff into a new Dark Ages. If the majority are that easily manipulated into betraying their god- (or whatever-)given gifts, then whatever lies ahead, up to and including extinction, serves us right. We as a species have failed, paradoxically by worshiping ourselves, our fathomless addictions, and our creations money and technology. Meanwhile, to read and share essays like yours on our little Lindisfarnes is very consoling. We may be few and powerless but you are nourishing us.

Annie Gottlieb

P.S. I once aspired and failed to be an "influencer" before there was such a word. I concluded that I lacked the common touch. So be it. I now write entirely for myself -- as the necessary exercise of what I seem to have been made for -- with no expectation that anyone will read it or "get" it. If someone does, it's a nice surprise, but my default assumption is that most will not have the attention span to read it or the patience to understand it. It is perhaps written in an idiolect, to please myself.


Your assertion that Bingo memes drain things of their subjectivity conflicts directly with your conflation of the new Spiderman movie with Yes Papa. If you are unable to distinguish (and willing to combine) a movie in a genre that you don't like with a video noteworthy for its total lack of content, how could you possibly be upset that you are stereotyped for being influenced by a very specific author. You don't get to claim that Burroughs does not entail Hemingway but that somehow everyone interested in Marvel or DC must also love Yes Papa.

On another note, I would be very interested to hear why you think that the expansion of algorithmic thinking to cultural money-making projects will destroy the culture, when it has failed to destroy those sports that have been ahead of the algorithm curve?


Justin, you don't have to find yourself in a crowded room on the internet full of strangers- you will be you no matter what and no matter what they say- you find yourself in how you deal with life which means other people
Perhaps you ought to narrow down your significant others you lean against to feel who you are in your bones.
It's really quite easy once you get the hang of it


Other people that is don't have a say in who you are, you are in control of that- they're just a part of the ride or spectators

Adolph Reed

Hi, several friends forwarded this article to me. I thanked them for doing so and thank you for writing it, and not at all primarily because of the nice reference to my work (though I do appreciate that as well). I wouldn't have thought to write to you, though, until I saw your response to the responses. That was brilliant! Thanks for that superb critique of the bizarre "left" absorption into the logic of mass-cultural entertainment and its reproduction. You probably know these, but, in case not I thought you'd find them simpatico -- https://nonsite.org/feature/django-unchained-or-the-help-how-cultural-politics-is-worse-than-no-politics-at-all-and-why and

I saw Wonder Woman, which is a live-action cartoon, with family and recently watched the first half-hour of Black Panther, largely bemused by how utterly puerile it is. I mentioned to my son, who is about your age, that it reminded me of the "Ultra Man" series that he watched on tv as a four year old. You absolutely hit the nail on the head about that stuff. Thanks again.

Gerry Broughton

Sound like you need to unplug your electronics and go play outside.

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