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 POP LOSER No. 80

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What We Love Will Ruin Us

I’ve been re-reading Amusing Ourselves to Death because it is clearly the most important book of our time. Okay, not really—Postman does come off as curmudgeony for a lot of it and it’s easy to imagine him shaking his fist while yelling at his television set—but it does feel more on point than it used to. Here’s a bit from the foreword:

But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Eric Postman recently revisited his father’s views on Orwell vs. Huxley:

The central argument of Amusing Ourselves is simple: there were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating State) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble).

The misplaced focus on Orwell was understandable: after all, for decades the Cold War had made Communism – as embodied by Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Big Brother – the prime existential threat to America and to the greatest of American virtues, freedom. And, to put a bow on it, the actual year, 1984, was fast approaching when my father was writing his book, so we had Orwell’s powerful vision on the brain.

Whoops. Within a half-decade, the Berlin Wall came down. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
 

CONFUSIONS

Tech and the fake market tactic. There’s a lot here, but it feels mostly right.

The Fake Market for content looks like this:

Readers can’t trust the information they’re being provided to make a content decision.

A single opaque algorithm defines which readers are matched with which publishers.

Publishers have no control over their own ad rates or profit margins.

Regulators see the genuine short-term reader benefit but don’t realize the long-term harms that can arise.



The New York Times is offering people a year of Spotify with a digital subscription. I’ve seen this applauded, but honestly I don’t really get it.

At $260 for the first year (and $325 annually thereafter), the “All Access” subscription is pricier than the cheapest, “Basic” Times digital subscription tier, which runs for $195 a year. But the Times has been looking for ways to differentiate the two.

Also: Spotify might be going bankrupt. So that’s great.

A major problem is that Spotify simply isn’t making enough money.  Go figure.  They’re growing fast, but the underlying financials are rotten.  “Three to five years ago, you could have an IPO based solely on user growth and promises of the future,” a TechCrunch source relayed.

“But the financial climate has changed now. Today you have to show some path to profitability, especially at the valuation that Spotify has been targeting.”

Related: Wired went long on the state of things at the Times and where they hope to be headed.

The main goal isn’t simply to maximize revenue from advertising—the strategy that keeps the lights on and the content free at upstarts like the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vox. It’s to transform the Times’ digital subscriptions into the main engine of a billion-dollar business, one that could pay to put reporters on the ground in 174 countries even if (OK, when) the printing presses stop forever. To hit that mark, the Times is embarking on an ambitious plan inspired by the strategies of Netflix, Spotify, and HBO: invest heavily in a core offering (which, for the Times, is journalism) while continuously adding new online services and features (from personalized fitness advice and interactive newsbots to virtual reality films) so that a subscription becomes indispensable to the lives of its existing subscribers and more attractive to future ones.



Medium is doing exactly what everyone suspected they were doing but acting like they are staking out bold new territory. On the plus side, exporting your content is super easy.

Ev called the product “an upgrade to your Medium experience” and urged people to subscribe when it’s ready. He discussed the layoffs as part of the path to subscriptions, as previously Medium was focused on getting big publishers joining its platform by running ad sales for their properties itself. At the time of the layoffs, Ev wrote “It is too soon to say exactly what this will look like” regarding the new direction of the company. But now it’s coming into focus.

Also: Inside the Medium meltdown.

No one is declaring Medium dead, but people in the Valley are calling it a “s—show” and a “vanity startup,” a favorite label for a disorganized startup run by a rich and famous founder.



Google is moving from offering resources to offering answers. Unfortunately computers still suck at context.

For most of its history, Google did not answer questions. Users typed in what they were looking for and got a list of web pages that might contain the desired information. Google has long recognized that many people don’t want a research tool, however; they want a quick answer. Over the past five years, the company has been moving toward providing direct answers to questions along with its traditional list of relevant web pages.

Type in the name of a person and you’ll get a box with a photo and biographical data. Type in a word and you’ll get a box with a definition. Type in “When is Mother’s Day” and you’ll get a date. Type in “How to bake a cake?” and you’ll get a basic cake recipe. These are Google’s attempts to provide what Danny Sullivan, a journalist and founder of the blog SearchEngineLand, calls “the one true answer.” These answers are visually set apart, encased in a virtual box with a slight drop shadow. According to MozCast, a tool that tracks the Google algorithm, almost 20 percent of queries — based on MozCast’s sample size of 10,000 — will attempt to return one true answer.

Unfortunately, not all of these answers are actually true.



How the hell did we end up distrusting statistics?

The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society.

But: Facts probably won’t change your mind anyway.


​We have reached the end of informed opinion.

As we learn after every election, polling is an imperfect science. But, again, the issue might not lie with polls, but rather with us. As Kurl points out, people answer polls to the best of their knowledge, whatever that might be. Reading poll results, we take that into account. In a poll like this recent one dealing with refugee policy, Kurl notes that, in reference to the amount people said they’d been paying attention to the issue, “awareness is actually quite high.”

But what if even the people who feel they are well informed still can’t be sure they know anything?



The gender gap in tech could be because computers and video games were marketed almost exclusively to men.

In 1984, 37% of computer science graduates were women, but those numbers began to drop dramatically in the middle of the decade. By 2016, that number had been whittled down to 18%. This dip in the 1980s has created a chasm that the past 30 years hasn’t been able to overcome—and the dude-centric computer marketing campaigns of that time may be to blame.



PornHub has decided to add sex education and that’s going about as well as you could expect.

The ironies of Pornhub’s endeavor, of course, are clear. If any industry has negatively impacted young peoples’ understanding of healthy sexual behavior, it’s mainstream porn. And if any company epitomizes mainstream porn, it’s Pornhub.

While many of Pornhub Sexual Wellness Center’s contributors, like sexuality thought leader Emily Negoski, are top tier, the site collectively feels like a wash of disconnected, elementary, and at times, even inaccurate information which, without proper context, serves limited educative power.


​Ben Thompson on evolving Twitter as a product.

What, though, is “the experience”? There is the actual viewing — once upon a time you could only see something happen once — although the fact I embedded a video of last night’s Academy Award moment reinforces that this is no longer a differentiator. More important is the sheer shock: that can never be reproduced, and said shock — and the associated potential — is very much what drives live sports viewing. What is perhaps surprising, though, is that the reactions of those you care to follow is just as fleeting.


​Alexa is the world’s best clock radio.

Sometimes Alexa forgets to wake me up in the morning; other times, if the volume hasn’t been turned up all the way, I’ll wake up half an hour late to an alarm that is only one tenth as loud as I want it. But if she loses connection to my WiFi at 3 am, she’ll definitely let me know right away. If someone shouts my name—Alex—across the apartment, it will activate Alexa, although sometimes Alexa will also be activated by arbitrary syllables in ordinary conversation. And if she starts doing something annoying, you’ll have to shout “Alexa, Stop,” six or seven times. Sometimes she’ll play Rod Stewart covers of Ella Fitzgerald songs instead of the Ella Fitzgerald versions, which defies both the alphabet and common sense. She struggles to understand phrases like “rewind” or “maximum volume.”


​There is a live 24/7 video feed from Andy Warhol’s grave.

Also: Andy Warhol on The Love Boat.


​Dilbert creator Scott Adams is the worst blogger.

Adams’ long slide into right-wing buffoonery was facilitated by his official Dilbert blog, which in 2008 started off, innocently enough, as a log of press clips and merchandise releases (order an “archival print” for only $39.99!), before giving way to some of the most vapid political writing this side of Reddit. The first post to mention politics, a 2008 entry titled “The Economy,” is brain-dead on its own terms but useful for understanding Adams’ rhetorical style, which resembles message board pedantry as much as it does the reflexive metacommentary utilized by freshmen who want to look smart in class without having done the readings.


DMOZ is closing. That’s sad and was always sort of inevitable.

DMOZ — The Open Directory Project that uses human editors to organize websites — is closing. It marks the end of a time when humans, rather than machines, tried to organize the web.


Snopes got a new design.



Oregon Trail and the innocence of youth.

The ways to die in the computer game Oregon Trail are more memorable than the object of the game, to survive the Oregon Trail. “Dying on the Oregon Trail” is filed in my memory bank next to “first kiss at recess behind the foursquare courts with Bobby Rett.” (Open mouth, no tongue.)

The glorious ways we fifth graders died in Mr. Mosher’s computer class. We strove to die in the most imaginable permutations possible. Snakebite on both broken legs, drowning while fording the river, picked-off while hunting the bitmapped bears pwew-pwew, slap on some cholera for good measure. Next giddy task: we get to write our own epitaphs at the tender age of ten years old.

Related video: The history of Oregon Trail.


​There is a guy hacking old NES games, then selling them with custom cartridges and artwork, creating a kind of alternate Nintendo timeline. It’s crazy and awesome and I’d buy them all if I had infinity money.


​Using Metacritic to determine the best director of the last quarter century.

The vast majority of the reviews come from American critics, so the movies included also skew American—though many foreign films with distribution in the US also receive ratings. To filter out one- or two-hit-wonder directors, we stuck to directors who had made six or more movies. We took each director’s six highest-scoring movies since 1992 and averaged their scores.


Unarius and public-access television.

The participants in these psychodramas, which continued to air on public access channels into the ‘90s, were not professional actors, but members of a UFO cult re-enacting their memories of past lives on film. They were part of Unarius, a self-described “spiritual school” that offers self-improvement “based on the interdimensional understanding of energy.”


​Often misunderstood, RoboCop is the movie we need right now.

That is, in a way, the tragedy of RoboCop — you really do have to pay attention to get it. It’s a victim of its own success, insofar as what makes it hilarious is how straight-faced everything is. There are no winks to inform you that it’s time to giggle, so if you’re only half-watching, you’ll miss all your cues. That said, if you do pick up what the film is putting down, you’ll see a remarkable degree of significance for the world of 2017.
 

INTERPLAYS

Video: Baseball Girls from NFB. Tom Cruise falling into other movies. The ultimate Sega logo compilation. Apps: Hater Dater. Trailers: Stranger Things. The Bad Batch. Ghost in the Shell. Deadpool 2. Music: Run The Jewels Tiny Desk Concert for NPR. Eighties DJ Archives. Iggy Pop’s 1994 acoustic performance of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Design: David Lynch and typography. Web Gradients. A curated list of curated lists. Logobook. Soviet logos. Photos: Control panels. Deserted Japanese theme parks. Fun with action figures. On the Reservoir Dogs set. Duane Hanson’s Polaroids. Miscellany: List of common misconceptions. Chicago in Minecraft. Dwitter. Classic Mac OS in the browser. Super Antics.
 

PROPAGANDA

Rhyme Over Reason: Pavement′s Brighten The Corners 20 Years On // The Quietus
Was Pavement′s Brighten the Corners the most lyrically inventive record of the 90s? This famously verbose album, with its dual approaches to language – sublime lines followed by throwaway quips, austerity offset by the need to jam in more and more – remains a puzzle.

Can We Ever Master King Lear? // The New York Review of Books
Here is the problem: Shakespeare’s King Lear was first printed in 1608 in one of the paperback-size, inexpensive editions known as Quartos and then again in 1623 in the First Folio, the large, handsome, posthumously published collection of his plays, edited by two of his friends and fellow actors. The two texts of the tragedy are not identical.

Wrestling with Demons: The Story of Chyna’s Final Days // Broadly 
Since the WWE icon died of a drug and alcohol overdose on the same day as Prince, a battle has emerged over whether America will remember her as a groundbreaking feminist athlete or a reality TV tragedy. According to her friends and mother, the answer lies in the last year of her life.

When Things Go Missing // The New Yorker
A couple of years ago, I spent the summer in Portland, Oregon, losing things. I normally live on the East Coast, but that year, unable to face another sweltering August, I decided to temporarily decamp to the West. This turned out to be strangely easy.

David Letterman on Donald Trump and Late-Night TV Today // Vulture
Since retiring after 33 years on the late night television, David Letterman has kept a low public profile — aided by the growth of a truly impressive beard. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been as fixated on politics as the rest of us.

Sociology’s Stagnation // Quillette 
Emile Durkheim is the father of modern sociology; he is a titan. Over a century ago the great man issued an edict that would forever alter — or you could say, forever derail — the course of the discipline that he established.

An Oral History of Randy Savage and Ricky the Dragon Steamboat // ESPN
Pro wrestling was the land of giants in 1987, as towering talents such as Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant helped Vince McMahon’s WWE promotion (then known as WWF) live up to its billing as a big-man territory.

Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools? // The New York Times Magazine
In the days leading up to and after Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as secretary of education, a hashtag spread across Twitter: #publicschoolproud. Parents and teachers tweeted photos of their kids studying, performing, eating lunch together.

4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump // Medium
Trump’s younger supporters know he’s an incompetent joke; in fact, that’s why they support him. Around 2005 or so a strange link started showing up in my old webcomic’s referral logs. This new site I didn’t understand. It was a bulletin board, but its system of navigation was opaque.

2017 National Magazine Award Winners // Longform
 

“But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
—Neil Postman


Pop Loser is a weekly newsletter of innumerable confusions collected and written by Tyler Hellard.

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