Posts Tagged New York Times

Faceless in the crowd

As in a good fantasy story, there are parts of the Internet you just shouldn’t go to.

Peruse the comments section of just about any website, and you’re likely to run across vitriol-spewing trolls, hurling obscenities–and sometimes even rape or death threats–in arguments about seemingly everything.

In “The Epidemic of Facelessness,” a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, Stephen Marche attributes the rise of casually monstrous behavior on the Internet to the fact that attackers never see their victims’ faces.

Pulling examples from a diverse catalog that includes ancient Roman law, French phenomenology, and neuroscience, Marche argues that actually seeing another person’s face is the key to empathy.

That doesn’t typically happen online, hence the ease with which rape and death threats get thrown around.

It also means people need to work to imbue others with humanity. Attackers need to realize the people they’re threatening are, well, people, and their attacks should be understood in the context of a complex human psyche.

Remembering not to leave our humanity online is an admirable and necessary goal to work towards, but it will likely get harder to do as we rely more on indirect digital communication.

Because while society still shuns Internet trolls, it also continues to devalue humanity  at the expense of performing discreet tasks more efficiently.

That’s what digital technology does. It lets us do everything from shopping to wishing each other “Happy Birthday” quickly, cleanly, and efficiently.

Saving money and time is good, of course, but it’s possible this obsession with digital efficiency is also grooming people to be less tolerant of each other.

The number of situations where strangers are forced to candidly interact in everyday life is diminishing. Does using one of those self-cehckout machines really save that much time, or do you just prefer not having to exchange pleasantries with a human cashier?

It’s not that people need to be in the mood to talk to each other all of the time, but with Internet-related technology making it so easy to put each other at a distance, it’s hard to see how the “epidemic of facelessness” can be cured.

Beneath the shiny confidence of Silicon Valley futurism, the way of life being constructed around the Internet is potentially damaging to human empathy, even if it is easier.

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Super serious

Iron Man 3I never thought I’d say this, but people are taking superheroes way too seriously.

By people, I mean film critics. They don’t seem to understand that superhero movies are based on comic books.

In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark won an impressive victory over a fire-breathing Aldrich Killian, but according to certain critics, he destroyed American culture in the process.

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis said the film exploited imagery of terrorism for cheap thrills, without addressing any of the issues behind that imagery, and said that releasing the film so soon after the Boston Marathon bombing shows that Hollywood is out of touch with the real world.

NPR’s Linda Holmes criticized Tony himself, lamenting that his egotism, wealth, and use of technology to cocoon himself make him the “new Captain America.” Steve Rogers doesn’t use remote controlled drones to fight his battles, right?

I’m not saying that Iron Man 3 deserves critical praise, in fact quite the opposite. For movies like this, being faithful to the comic books that form the source material is as important as artistic merit.

Tales of Suspense 50No movie with as many explosions as Iron Man 3 deserves a critic’s approval, but because dodging explosions is what Iron Man does in the comic books, that’s what he should be doing on the big screen.

While writers and directors do have to make certain decisions about how to transform a comic book character into a movie character, or even about which comic books to make movies of, critics still need to stop treating the resulting movies as if they materialized from thin air.

Certain things about Iron Man simply can’t be changed, like the fact that he’s a rich white guy, or that his arch enemy is a guy called The Mandarin, or that he fights people. Without those elements, the cinematic Iron Man might be more nuanced, but he wouldn’t be Iron Man.

Iron Man and most of his colleagues predate the movie craze that is enriching their owners, and many of the political issues they are now accused of exploiting. When Iron Man debuted in 1963, Osama bin Laden was six, and America was in the middle of the Cold War.

People seem to be aware of this. In “The Amazing Spider-Man and the Modern Comic Book Movie,” a dialogue with Dargis, the Times’ A.O. Scott notes that “our superheroes have been around for a very long time.”

Of course, superheroes are capable of changing with the times. Tony fought Soviet-themed villains like the Crimson Dynamo when they were still relevant, and The Mandarin has gradually shifted from an old school megalomaniacal villain into a terrorist.

Still, there are certain things that cannot be changed. In the same article on the “Modern Comic Book Movie,” Dargis acknowledges that superheroes predate the movies that depict them, and claims that is he problem.

“The world has moved on — there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state — but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense,” she says.Iron Man first appearance

A team of white guys saving the world does seem inappropriate in our post-feminist, post-civil rights world, but this isn’t just any team of white guys, it’s the Avengers. They resonate because of who they are, not because they are white and male.

Superheroes are popular because people like them. They like the idea of them, and more importantly, they like specific characters like Iron Man and Captain America. That’s why, when a movie that does them justice (no pun intended) appears, they turn out in droves.

While it’s not impossible for a superhero movie to have an important message, or to meaningfully engage with important issues, that is all secondary to the “superhero” part of it.

If you’re looking for cultural critiques, Iron Man 3 is not the movie for you. If you want to see Iron Man in a movie, it is.

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Boston is bombed, one tweet at a time

Since I got a Twitter account recently, I haven’t been sure of what to do with it. On Monday, I found a very good, but very unpleasant, use for it.

As with so many things these days, I found out about the Boston Marathon bombings through a reference on someone’s Facebook profile. Scrolling through the newsfeed, I saw a status from a college classmate:

“Slowly finding out more about what happened during the Boston Marathon,” it read.

I jumped over to Twitter and, sure enough, a photo of the scene of the first explosion had already been retweeted by a friend. Reports of a series of explosions were starting to come in, intermixed with Pulitzer prize winners and the announcement that Chris Hardwick will be in Baltimore on May 24.

“Two men had bombs strapped to themselves and they both went off,” a tweet posted 32 minutes before I logged on read, “everyone is scrambling.”

Switching over to the New York Times’ website, there were only a few short lines confirming that explosions had occurred, not even using the word “bomb.”

Facebook and the news sites stayed quiet a bit longer, but Twitter was shot through with  reports, mostly from the Associated Press and journalists who were already on site. The Boston Globe posted a video of the first explosion, and soon it was possible see it from nearly every angle by scanning the tweets.

Not everything tweeted that day was accurate (the report of suicide bombers doesn’t jibe with what investigators are learning about the bombs) but the most necessary information was imparted as quickly as possible.

So that, it seems, is what Twitter is for.

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Flinching in the face of the future

They used to say “trust no one over 30,” and I guess that means I can’t be trusted. I’m not over 30, but I seem to have the mentality of someone who is beyond their 20s.

Twenty-somethings have run afoul of the New York Times a lot lately. In one post I read recently, the author described the Times as “conservative” and “on the wrong side of history” for criticizing the Millenial lifestyle.

It wasn’t just shocking to hear a paragon of liberalism like the Times being referred to as conservative, it was the thought that modern tech is defining who we are.

I’m a 20-something, but I sometimes feel like I’m on the wrong side of history. I use digital tech to work and communicate, but I often wonder if society isn’t paying a price for all of the convenience it offers.

Of course, everyone gets annoyed by the constant barrage of e-mails and Facebook statuses once in awhile, but what really bothers me is the feeling that, whatever people think about tech, and whatever legitimate evidence of its flaws comes to light, we’ll continue plunging head-first into a wired future. We don’t have a choice.

I love writing this blog, and I love being able to keep in touch with far flung friends with social media. However, I also love print books, and my flip phone. I don’t love the idea of paying my bills online, and risking all sorts of digital skullduggery.

I often read that the Internet and smart devices are creating unheard of opportunities for innovation, that they are tools that can change the world. But for something that can do all of that, it comes with an awful lot of rules.

Living in the Digital World requires a different set of skills; it doesn’t completely level the playing field. As with anything else, some people are better at it. Those who can express themselves in 140 characters, attract followers, and read the data will always succeed. Those who can’t will fail.

I guess this is second nature to some people, but it quickly drains the romance from the digital frontier. Whenever I engage a new medium, it seems like someone’s already figured it out before me. So what’s required is conformity, not innovation.

I’m sure there are others more brilliant and courageous than I who can bend these mediums to their will and truly innovate, but it’s completely false to believe that everyone can automatically do the same because of some inherent quality of the technology.

I sincerely hope that technology leads us to a better future. I hope that someday, our reality is like Star Trek. I just have a hard time seeing how to get from here to there, and I have a hard time imbuing technology with that much significance. Yes, it’s new and popular but at one time, so was the steam engine.

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Anyone want to buy a newspaper?

Today the New York Times Company announced that it is putting its New England Media Group, which includes the Boston Globe, Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette, and other related properties, up for sale.

Since the Internet became a thing, it seems like everything something bad or unusual happens to a newspaper prophecies of doom fill the air. While this definitely puts the fate of the Globe and Telegram & Gazette up in the air, it’s not like a newspaper has never been sold before.

The sale is definitely news but, it’s easy to forget that speculation is not news. These papers’ fates are obviously less stable than they were yesterday, but that doesn’t mean they, or print journalism in general, are finished.

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Getting meta over media criticism

In this age of irony and constant self-investigation, it’s easy to lose track of the reasons why people do things. That’s especially true when it comes to the media (I still don’t understand why we have 24-hour news networks). Still, we all know why reporters publish stories on things they observe, right?

As a member of the media (sort of) I guess I sometimes fall into the trap of assuming what readers will think of an article. That’s why I was surprised by some of the reactions to a recent piece on dating in the New York Times magazine.

“The End of Courtship?” was controversial to begin with. It focuses on 20-somethings’ use of texting, social media, and online dating sites, saying that technology has ruined romance. The author claims that social media have taken the risk out of asking a person out, and prevent one-on-one dates from happening by making it too easy to bring friends along.

Having your entire generation described as gutless and emotionally stunted obviously stirs up some strong opinions. In a rebuttal on RoleReboot, Niki Fritz criticized the story’s assumption that women only want old fashioned dates where the man picks the wine and pays the bill. She said there is nothing wrong with having casual dates, group outings, or hookups as options.

I completely agree, but I didn’t expect Fritz to attack the article’s negative tone along with the specific points it made. I’m getting a little meta here, so bear with me.

“All these articles do is scare young women into thinking we are in some hopeless, relationship-less era devoid of love and romance,” Fritz said.

This sounded similar to a comment I saw on a friend’s Facebook page: “I’m just sick to my stomach of article like this complaining with no resolution in sight,” the disgruntled reader said.

They say no news is good news, and maybe that’s becoming too much for people to handle. I could be wrong, but I’ve always assumed that articles like the Times piece are written to identify negative trends so they can be corrected.

People should read articles like this, realize how lame their dating lives are and try to change. But I guess, in the real world, even the people that agree that text-based dating is a problem respond with a simple “I don’t want to hear this.”

There are a lot of unpleasant things in the world, and this isn’t even really one of them. Everyone deserves to be happy, but these 20-somethings are much closer to happy than most people in the world.

Arguing an article’s specific points is one thing, but criticizing it just because it is negative is completely different. Journalists need to report what they see, good and bad, and while they shouldn’t exaggerate or misinterpret the facts, they definitely have a license to be negative.

Much criticism of the media is warranted, but have we really been reduced to this? I hope the New York Times doesn’t pick up this story; too much criticism of criticism might break the universe.

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Living in the robot economy

Robotic Jimmy Fallon as published in Wired. Photo by Peter Yang.

Robotic Jimmy Fallon as published in Wired. Photo by Peter Yang.

Apparently, the robots are coming for our jobs. On the cover of the January 2013 issue of Wired is a story about how robots already have the capability to do human work. The robot takeover is even endorsed by Jimmy Fallon.

It’s easy to speculate about whether Wired’s Kevin Kelly is right or not, because none of this has actually happened yet. What’s really interesting to consider is what human life will be like when robots start doing all of the work.

A Life of Leisure

Let’s start out with a relatively positive side effect. If humans get pushed out of jobs that require a lot of manual labor they could, in theory, be moved up to supervisory or white collar-type jobs that require less actual work. The factory of the future could have robot workers and human managers.

That means more people will have more spare time, which could be wonderful for both individuals and society. After all, who doesn’t want more time to do something that isn’t their job. More people could become less specialized, because they would have the time to pursue hobbies and budding talents. They could get a chance to read Crime & Punishment, or to think of an excuse to not read Crime & Punishment.

People often say that they are too busy to follow important news stories or political issues closely, but with machine assistance, we could have a more educated body politic. The Internet has, if nothing else, made massive amounts of information available. Sorting through it takes time, though.

Pop Culture Meltdown

In the Wired article, Kelly suggests that most displaced workers will become entrepreneurs or artists, starting small companies making custom wares and turning the global economy into Kickstarter writ large.

If that does happen, popular culture may become obsolete. It’s already happening in a way: Nearly everyone in the United States knew “Gangnam Style” before most American record executives had even heard of Psy.

If popular culture is basically a conversation between produces and consumers of media, then a robot economy could give them a hi-def connection. People won’t need to rely on media giants for entertainment, because small organizations (or even individual artists) will be readily available to produce media that are fine-tuned to each person’s specific tastes.

Never having to listen to Brittany Spears again sounds like a good deal, but it could have a negative affect. Pop culture is a bonding mechanism for a large population; its lowest-common-denominator aesthetic reminds us that there are certain basic things that we all enjoy.

Without it, we run the risk of cultural echolalia. If we don’t need to acknowledge what we don’t like, it’s hard to get a read on what other people are thinking. It would also make it hard to discover something new, because we’d have to make a determined effort to leave our comfort zones.

Every Man (and Woman) an Island

If the implosion of pop culture means having less in common with the people around us, then having a robotic workforce also means having less people around us. If robots become store clerks or waiters or repair-bots (Kelly says robot therapists and teachers are even possible), we’ll be spending a lot less time around people.

Of course, that is already sort of happening in the form of social media. Most people have even given up on phone conversations and text instead. Even dating has fallen into the digital realm.

I’m very thankful for the communication social media allows, but I don’t think it can replace a physical meeting. It’s great to be able to talk to a friend in another state or another country instantly, but I can’t imagine pulling that trick off with someone I’ve never met.

The same goes for online dating. I’ve given two sites a try and, personally, I think the Internet takes all of the romance out of romance. I spend the time combing through profiles like I’m a Human Resources director; a very unfulfilling experience. I’m not alone either: in a recent “Room for Debate” piece in the New York Times, a group of experts concluded that online dating is no replacement for the real thing.

So how else will we meet people when most of our daily interactions are with robots?

Some might say that robots will just eliminate the tedious and annoying human interactions from our lives, but that’s a bit of a slippery slope. It’s impossible to eliminate everything unpleasant, irritating, or intimidating from human interactions, because we are who we are. We are as scary, annoying, and boring as we are loving, captivating, and interesting. Maybe that’s why the robots seem like such an attractive replacement.

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