How to Do Nothing

Oct 1, 2020

Politics neccessarily exist between even two individuals with free will; any attempt to reduce politics to design (Thiel's "machinery of freedom") is also an attempt to reduce people to machines or mechanical beings. So when Thiel writes of "new technologies that may create a new space for freedom," I hear only an echo of Frazier: "Their behavior is determined, yet they're free."

As much as I might want to live in the woods where my phone doesn't work, or shun newspapers with Michael Weiss at his cabin in the Catskills, or devote my life to contemplating potatoes in Epicurus's garden, total renunciation would be a mistake. The story of the communes teaches me that there is no escaping the political fabric of the world (unless you're Peter Thiel, in which case there's always outer space). The world needs my participation more than ever. AGain, it is not a question of whether but how.

Back in 2013, students in my first art classes at Stanford were surprised that I didn't know about "Stanford duck syndrome." This phrase, which imagines students as placid-seeming ducks paddling strenously beneath the water, is essentially a joke about isolate struggle in an atmosphere obsessed with performance.

It may be that refusal is only available as a tactic to people who already posses a great deal of social capital, people whose social standing will endure without Facebook and people whose livelihoods don't require them to be constantly plugged in and reachable... These are people who have what [Kathleen] Noonan (2001) calls "the power to switch off."

Spacial and temporal context both have to do with the neighboring entities aorund something that help define it. Context also helps establish the order of events. Obviously, the bits of information we're assailed with on Twitter and Facebook feeds are missing both of these kinds of context. Scrolling through the feed, I can't help but wonder: What am I supposed to think of all this? How am I supposed to think of all this?

But because apologizing and changing our minds online is so often framed as a weakness, we either hold our tongues or risk ridicule. Friends, family, and acquaintances can see a person who lives and grows in space and time, but the crowd can only see a figure who is expected to be as monolithic and timeless as a brand. Having worked for an old and widely recognized clothing company, I know firsthand that the pillars of any brand are internal coherence and consistency over time. (That's literally what we called them at work: "brand pillars.") For a brand as a for a public figure —which, as we now know, any Twitter user can accidentally become overnight—change, ambiguity, and contradiction are anathema. “You have one identity,” Mark Zuckerberg famously said. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” He added that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

From Community Memory:

Our intention is to introduce COMMUNITY MEMORY into neighborhoods and communities in this area, and make it available for them to live with it, play with it, and shape its growth and development. The idea is to work with a process whereby technological tools, like computers, are used by the people themselves to shape their own lives and communities in sane and liberating ways. In this case the computer enables the creation of a communal memory bank, accessible to anyone in the community. With this, we can work on providing the information, services, skills, education, and economic strength our community needs. We have a powerful tool—a genie—at our disposal; the question is whether we can integrate it into our lives, support it, and use it to improve our own lives and survival capabilities. We invite your participation and suggestions.

I think often about how much time and energy we use thinking up things to say that would go over well with a context-collapsed crowd—not to mention checking back on how that crowd is responding. This is its own form of “research,” and when I do it, it feels not only pathetic but like a waste of energy. What if we spent that energy instead on saying the right things to the right people (or person) at the right time? What if we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return—anymore time talking in rooms to those for whom our words are intended? Whether it’s a real room or a group chat on Signal, I want to see a restoration of context, a kind of context collection in the face of context collapse. If we have only so much attention to give, and only so much time on this earth, we might want to think about reinfusing our attention and our communication with the intention that both deserve.

Behind them rose the skyline of San Francisco, with its new Salesforce tower and its high-rise condos. If I squinted, I could just make out the building where I used to work, where they might have been discussing “brand pillars” at this very moment. Back there, things moved so quickly that we had separate catalogs for Spring 1, Spring 2, and Spring 3. but the pelicans made all of that seem like a joke with no punchline. Based on a fossil dating from the Oligocene Epoch, the general design of the pelican appears not to have changed for 30 million years. In the winter, as they have for countless ages, the pelicans will be heading south to the Channel Islands and to Mexico to build the nests who designs, too, have remained largely unchanged.

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