Open Thread for Thursday, February 4, 2021

Captain Tom

I don’t have time for it today, but dang it, I’m going to post something. And even though it seems my readers are only interested in arguing over whether schools completely reopen or D.C. becomes a state, I’m bringing up other stuff. Here you go:

  1. We lose Captain Tom — He made it through the Burma campaign in WWII, but this hero of the current global struggle against a deadly threat fell in battle this week. God Bless and keep you, Captain Tom.
  2. The Attention Economy — This is a different way of grabbing ahold of the problem I’ve been writing about lately, having to do with the way the internet has done nasty things to our brains for which evolution had not prepared us. It’s about Michael Goldhaber, who in the ’80s predicted “the complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture — along with the near destruction of our ability to focus….” And other stuff.
  3. We don’t have enough Walmarts now — This may seem unlikely to you, but I assure you it is a problem now. Remember how, a month ago, they announced the one on Bush River would close (as of tomorrow)? Well, this has messed with my life. That was my Walmart, the one closest to me. And now the next closest one is already overcrowded. I think I’ve been to it four times  since the announcement of the closing (assuming the one they were closing would be even more poorly stocked than usual — which, by the way, is why I suspect it has been less successful), and on two of those occasions, back to back, they were completely out of shopping carts. I did not need this new hassle. I don’t like having to go out for supplies to start with, and now this…
  4. THEN WHY DID YOU VOTE FOR HER? — Sorry about the shouting. I’m just reacting to this NYT story that tells us of the discomfiture of people who voted for Marjorie Taylor Greene. We are told that “Now the revelation of past social media posts has unsettled some who backed her.” Really? REALLY? Sorry. I’m shouting again… Here’s the thing: Even after all these decades of closely following politics, I continue to be amazed and appalled by people who vote for candidates about whom they know basically nothing. It’s one of the greatest flaws in our system, and it keeps getting worse instead of better. By the way, I didn’t finish reading the whole piece. It quotes Real People at some length, you see, and stories that go on like that tend to depress me.
  5. So I guess I’m going to have to deal with this now — SC is now going to let people over 65 get the COVID vaccine. I’m still not through deal with this with my parents — they get their second shots on the 17th — and now you say I’ve got to go through it all again? Never mind the fact that I’ve never really gotten what you’d call 100 percent assurance that I’m not allergic to it. But I suppose I need to get started… although I have no idea how or where…
  6. Frank Bruni makes me almost interested in the Super Bowl — I’ve come to really enjoy Frank Bruni’s columns over the last year or so. So when he wrote something about the Super Bowl — which, as I understand, is coming up soon — I decided to read it anyway. And something surprising happened: He made me slightly interested in his wish that this person named Tom Brady should win. That’s remarkable, Frank, and I congratulate you.

46 thoughts on “Open Thread for Thursday, February 4, 2021

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    To elaborate a bit on No. 2: Mr. Goldhaber’s concept of the Attention Economy (a term he got from someone else, as the piece explains) is itself worth reading about. But of course, I’m attracted by the discussion of certain related aspects of the problem, touching upon what I’ve been writing about lately. You have to read rather far into it to get to that:

    Same with the crisis of disinformation. It’s impossible to understand the rise of Donald Trump and the MAGA wing of the far right or, really, modern American politics without understanding attention hijacking and how it is used to wield power…. Those who can collectively commandeer enough attention can accumulate a staggering amount of power quickly. And it’s never been easier to do than it is right now.

    Most obviously, he saw Mr. Trump — and the tweets, rallies and cable news dominance that defined his presidency — as a near-perfect product of an attention economy, a truth that disturbed him greatly. Similarly, he said that the attempted Capitol insurrection in January was the result of thousands of influencers and news outlets that, in an attempt to gain fortune and fame and attention, trotted out increasingly dangerous conspiracy theories on platforms optimized to amplify outrage.

    “You could just see how there were so many disparate factions of believers there,” he said, remarking on the glut of selfies and videos from QAnon supporters, militia members, Covid-19 deniers and others. “It felt like an expression of a world in which everyone is desperately seeking their own audience and fracturing reality in the process. I only see that accelerating.”

    While Mr. Goldhaber said he wanted to remain hopeful, he was deeply concerned about whether the attention economy and a healthy democracy can coexist. Nuanced policy discussions, he said, will almost certainly get simplified into “meaningless slogans” in order to travel farther online, and politicians will continue to stake out more extreme positions and commandeer news cycles. He said he worried that, as with Brexit, “rational discussion of what people stand to gain or lose from policies will be drowned out by the loudest and most ridiculous.”…

    But I urge you to read the whole thing

    1. randle

      Back in 1978, I read a book called “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” by Jerry Mander (yes), a former adman, which presaged the problems the Internet is causing today. He argued that the medium and technology of television were damaging to human beings and TV could not be reformed. He said, “If (the book) has any basis in “authority,” it lies in the fifteen years I worked as a public relations and advertising executive. During that time, I learned that it is possible to speak through media directly into people’s heads and then, like some otherworldly magician, leave images inside that can cause people to do what they might otherwise never have thought to do.”
      I was especially interested in his theory that the technology of television adversely affected the developing brains and attention spans of young children. I wonder if that is part of the problem with children today who struggle more with learning to read and paying attention than we did back in the Dark Ages. In my elementary school, everyone in our first grade class of 70 (varying abilities) was reading at least by the end of the year. Instruction was mainly phonics and reading aloud in our groups. It would have been remarkable if anyone wasn’t reading by then. Now, third grade is the goal, and that seems very late.
      Anyway, here are his arguments:

      Argument One–The Mediation of Experience

      “As humans have moved into totally artificial environments, our direct contact with an knowledge of the planet has been snapped. Disconnected, like astronauts floating in space, we cannot know up from down or truth from fiction. Conditions are appropriate for the implantation of arbitrary realities. Television is one recent example of this, a serious one, since it greatly accelerates the problem.”

      Argument Two–The Colonization of Experience

      “It is no accident that television has been dominated by a handful of corporate powers. Neither is it accidental that television has been used to re-create human beings into a new form that matches the artificial, commercial environment. A conspiracy of technological and economic factors made this inevitable and continue to do so.”

      Argument Three–Effects of Television on the Human Being

      “Television technology produces neuro-physiological responses in the people who watch it. It may create illness, it certainly produces confusion and submission to external imagery. Taken together, the effects condition for autocratic control.”

      Argument Four–The Inherent Biases of Television

      “Along with the venality of its controllers, the technology of television predetermines the boundaries of its content. Some information can be conveyed completely, some partially, some not at all. The most effective telecommunications are the gross, simplified linear messages and programs which conveniently fit the purposes of the medium’s commercial controllers. Television’s highest potential is advertising. This cannot be changed. The bias is inherent in the technology.”

      Maybe we should silence all of electronic devices, at least for a little while.

      1. Ken

        I take the point about the internet not necessarily representing anything fundamentally new in this regard. But couldn’t the same concerns expressed above be extended back even further, all the way back to the printing press itself? Or even to the Tree of Knowledge? Since any form of information carries with it the possibility of its misuse.

        I mean, couldn’t the printed word likewise be said to represent an “artificial environment” that “colonizes” our experience, “produces neuro-physiological responses” and “predetermines the boundaries of its content”?

        1. Randle

          I think so to a certain extent. Except reading involves more active participation of the recipient’s brain. We create our own images and digest information at our own rates. He thinks the actual technology — the way information is delivered in short bursts — affects brain function and development and disrupts the ability to develop or maintain one’s attention span. And then the way we are manipulated by ads to want things we don’t need is more effective on TV, he says.

          1. Randle

            But I am not suggesting that the internet isn’t new. I think it’s a continuation of technology’s intrusion and manipulation of its viewers. Which explains more completely how easily so many people became susceptible to the Internet’s influence. They were already primed.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        You remind me of something I was thinking about earlier today. For the gazillionth time in my life, I heard someone say, “watch the news.” It was an NPR interview with a woman whose mother was one of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6. She said she didn’t realize what was happening until later because she was busy and didn’t “watch the news.”

        And for the gazillionth time in my life, my head almost exploded.

        Informed people don’t “watch” news. They read it. OK, so obviously I sometimes hear it on the radio or a podcast. But “the news” is not a TV show.

        The thing that drives me nuts, actually, is less the word “watch” than hearing someone say “the news” in a way that makes it clear that the person thinks “the news” is something that exists on television and only on television…

        Now THAT’S something that’s been going on a long time — I’m thinking that idiom probably dates to the 60s — and it’s been a problem for a long time…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          And of course, I could stop and explain again why the admittedly addictive medium of television is nevertheless a pathetic, primitive thing for brainwashing people compared to the algorithms of social media, YouTube, etc.

          The dynamics of the interaction are radically different. But it always takes a while to explain that, so I refer you to my previous posts on the subject.

          Anyway, the posts are here, here and here.

          It’s all staring us in the face, but I didn’t realize what I was looking at until shortly before I wrote the first of those posts. (Then it was like, WHAM.) I might have gone on for years without it dawning on me. So I’m not surprised that other smart people keep looking for other explanations…

          1. randle

            Yeah, I understand what you’ve been posting about the Internet. I have posted about its effects on your blog many times, even before your epiphany.
            Your post and the piece on Goldhaber reminded me of Mander’s observations about the effects of television on our brains. The book wasn’t about brain-washing, it was about the way the technology was actually changing the brain physically; how we process information, the way we receive information and the shape of that information. He said it diminishes our attention spans, reduces information to the most simplistic terms and creates alternate realities. Isn’t that what we’re talking about? How the internet is affecting our brains and not in a good way? Maybe I’m missing something.
            So, I’m not looking for other explanations because I don’t accept the one I already cited as an explanation or by remembering something I read 42 years ago that may have a bearing on what we are seeing today. How did we get to this place where almost half the country creates its own reality, voted for an autocrat and was OK with overthrowing an election? I want to know. Social upheaval usually doesn’t have one cause. The more we know, the better equipped we are to counter it.

            1. Doug Ross

              The same way we got to the point where half the country believed Russia interfered with the 2016 election and rigged it for Trump, spawning four years of mindless conspiracy theories and righteous indignation and fury to the point of obsession – relying on anonymous sources to create phony news. If you voted for Hillary, Biden, or Trump, you’re a fool.

              It doesn’t take research and in depth analysis to recognize that most people are of average or lower intelligence biased, and ill-informed and there are con men and women like Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and their ilk who can get the dolts to believe anything they say.

              P.T. Barnum said all there needs to be said.

                1. Doug Ross

                  Do you still believe Trump was elected because Putin made it happen? If you do, your brain was already washed.

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              No, social upheaval doesn’t have one cause, Randle.

              My point, though, is that the thing that happened over the last four years happened because of one ingredient that had been missing previously in history.

              We had all those same problems. As I’ve said over and over, the issues that divide us have long and bitter histories.

              My epiphany — which is what it was for me, and I fully realize how ridiculous it is that I finally “discovered” something that was right there in front of everyone (or, rather than “discovered,” finally understood something that others clearly knew, once it was explained to me the right way) — was realizing what it was that took all those issues, and pushed us over the edge, causing the American electorate to do something they would never, ever, have done in the past.

              What drove so many people crazy enough to elect someone so grossly unfit as Trump — a thing that was unimaginable in American history before that? What motivated them to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, in the complete absence of evidence supporting what they said they believed? I didn’t get it before. I think I do now.

              Lots of people figured it out before I did. The Russians did, for instance, and weaponized it. I’m trying to catch up…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Oh, and yes, television did alter our brains. Mine’s still pretty messed up. My wife’s mother wouldn’t allow a TV in the house when she was young, so she’s not as messed up as I am…

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Oh, and I should add that one thing the web — and especially smartphones — is doing to us is taking that dysfunction from TV and supercharging it, keeping us staring at screens throughout our waking hours, without having to have a TV.

                  That was one of the concerns “The Social Dilemma” dealt with. I was focusing on a different one, though — the features of the algorithms that hook us as plain ol’ TV never could, and take us deeper and deeper into madness…

  2. bud

    The Attention Economy — This is a different way of grabbing ahold of the problem I’ve been writing about lately, having to do with the way the internet has done nasty things to our brains for which evolution had not prepared us.

    Just replace “internet” with “pulpit” and it’s just as accurate. After all preachers have convinced millions if not billions of people to believe a man and his 3 sons built a boat large enough to house 2 specimens of every species and float around for half a year and then successfully repopulate the earth. The means may change but the spread of implausible stories has proliferated unabated for centuries.

      1. bud

        No I haven’t. I’m responding directly to your own words. Since you put soooo much stock in the importance of words then defend what you write. You have gone on and on and on about how the internet has somehow made people go insane. That’s what YOU are saying. Therefor I feel no obligation to read some long article that alleges to support your assertion. But I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll read every single word of this article if you read every article in Mother Jones for a week.

        1. bud

          Well I couldn’t get through every word of it. It was just so tedious and basically a repetition of Brad’s endless discussions on the subject. But I did read enough to understand the general upshot. So I can state with absolute certainty that replacing the word “internet” with “pulpit” is not only correct but an understatement. Churches have brainwashed people for centuries. Let’s not use the internet as a scapegoat for human gullibility.

  3. Bill

    “This is Major Tom to Ground Control
    I’m stepping through the door
    And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
    And the stars look very different today
    For here
    Am I sitting in a tin can
    Far above the world
    Planet Earth is blue
    And there’s nothing I can do..

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, I keep thinking that, too — except he was never a major.

      But he was promoted last year to something higher — Her Majesty made him SIR Tom…

    1. bud

      The labor participation rate must be really low given the tepid job growth and pretty decent drop in the unemployment rate.

  4. Scout

    Well, maybe they have worked out the sign up kinks to get a shot for you – though supply and whether or not they can keep your appointment may still be a concern. It was a nightmare getting my parents scheduled, but they get their second shot Monday now. Yay! From my experience with my parents, Prisma seems fairly well organized with the way they are handling it.

    I think they could compromise and allow older teachers or those with underlying conditions to be on the vaccinate now list. I have nothing against those 65 and older being added, but I think it is a valid point that they have the ability to stay home if they want for the most part, but teachers are facing potential daily exposures if we go back to school, including those that are older and have other conditions.

  5. Scout

    There is a New York Times opinion piece about Qanon and Hillary Clinton right now.

    They talked to her to see what she thinks about it since she is the object of their obsession. Here is a quote from her in regards to Marjorie Taylor Greene:

    “We are facing a mass addiction with the effective purveying of disinformation on social media,” Clinton said. “I don’t have one iota of sympathy for someone like her, but the algorithms, we are now understanding more than ever we could have, truly are addictive. And whatever it is in our brains for people who go down those rabbit holes, and begin to inhabit this alternative reality, they are, in effect, made to believe.”

    So she is kinder than me. When MTG says “I was allowed to believe……” my response is – yea, who allowed it? I’m not inclined to let people off the hook because of an addictive algorithm. We all have brains. I don’t understand why some people are taken in by obvious lies and some can see through them. Is it just an innate personality difference that some people tend to note discrepancies between information across settings/environments and thus question more – and some just don’t seem to even check that the information they are given jives with anything else in the world. I would like to understand these things.

    1. Barry

      I always enjoy getting a lecture about Trump derangement syndrome from the

      “what about Hillary’s emails”

      Yeah, but Vince Foster



      Stand by my man


      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Hey, you need to realize that Trump derangement syndrome is real. It afflicts not only the obvious patient, the one for whom it is named, but also there’s millions of others who actually voted for him. The worst cases are so out of it that they still think he won.

  6. Ken

    Saw the first “Trump 2024” flag today, flapping aggressively from the back left-hand-side of a red pick-up. On the right-hand side was one of those snake flags. In the middle was Old Glory, looking like it was being held hostage by the other two.

  7. James Edward Cross

    #2 Read the article. Still missing the forest for the trees. Yes, strategies and tactics against misinformation must take into account the unique properties of the Web. However, the problem isn’t the Internet “rewiring our brains” (any backing of that from neuroscience, by the way?) but that people want to believe this stuff because it fits in with their worldview. You could shut down the Web and its algorithms tomorrow and you’d still have that problem. The danger isn’t the Web but the disaffection of people from democratic ideal and the emotional resonance they find in authoritarian, racist, and discriminatory ideas.

    #6 Interesting how any number of folks who considered Tom Brady the devil incarnate want him to win just so they can see him stick a thumb in the eye of his former coach.

  8. Barry

    Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and 2 other Democratic senators said Monday that they will push to pass this year sweeping legislation that would end the federal prohibition on marijuana.

    1. Bob Amundson

      Very glad to be invested in Canopy Growth Corporation, which is a cannabis company based in Smiths Falls, Ontario.

  9. Barry

    Virginia lawmakers vote to legalize marijuana

    RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — State lawmakers voted to legalize marijuana Friday, deciding legal sales will start in 2024 but not yet settling on key details as the push to make Virginia the first Southern state to authorize recreational use continues.

    Each chamber of the General Assembly, both under Democratic control, passed legislation to legalize use and possession for those 21 years and older. Making his own proposal for legalization ahead of the 2021 session, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is likely to sign the measure if it were to get to his desk.

    Two Republicans abstained and one didn’t vote but the House passed its bill 55-42. Hours later, state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), an OB-GYN, and state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) voted with Democrats in the Senate for a 23-15 bipartisan vote.

  10. Barry

    Seems Virginia has their own problem with a “firebrand” Republican. (Many of the pictures of this lady seem to suggest she’s perpetually mad and angry)

    Angry about censure, state Sen. Amanda Chase files lawsuit with help of Virginia Beach lawyer

    RICHMOND — A Virginia state senator seeking the Republican nomination for governor filed a federal lawsuit Monday that seeks to undo her legislative colleagues’ recent decision to censure her.

    In a bipartisan vote last week, the Virginia Senate approved a measure rebuking Sen. Amanda Chase for a “pattern of unacceptable conduct.” The decision followed a long debate that featured scathing criticisms of Chase – a firebrand conservative with a long history of making inflammatory remarks – from both Democrats and Republicans.

    Chase had previously called for martial law to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. She repeated former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, and lost access to her Facebook account after falsely blaming leftist activists for the Capitol insurrection.

  11. bud

    On another topic we debated at length one of the arguments against the suggested change was that it simply could not be accomplished. Has there ever been a less likely movement to succeed than recreational marijuana legalization? Never say never. If there is anything about the American experience that is a certainty it’s that things will change. And in unexpected ways.

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