What a Dress can Teach us About What’s Wrong with the World

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In case you missed it—and hopefully you did miss it, as I pray you have better things to do—an image of a dress posted online yesterday “[set] off a social-media conflagration that few were able to resist,” according to The New York Times. (That the NYT published an article about the dress makes you wonder about their tagline “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” as surely there are other things happening in the world that are more relevant to the public interest than the color of a dress). Obviously, I do not care about the dress-color issue and am not going to wade into those waters. What I do want to talk about, however, is how this episode demonstrates precisely what is wrong the world today.

You see, with so many issues going on in the world today—war in Ukraine, the ongoing drone war in AfPak & Yemen, widespread NSA surveillance, rampant socio-economic inequality, a straggling economy, etc.—a dress is what captures our collective attention. As the NYT reports, BuzzFeed’s poll as to the color of the dress has been viewed 28 million times already. And I’m sitting here thinking: why can’t we get 28 million people to care about any of the issues I mentioned above? Surely socio-economic inequality and the relentless cycle of work-bills-debt affect more people than that? No? The whole episode reminds me of that quote from Orwell’s 1984 that I wrote about yesterday: “Why was it that they could never shout like that about anything that mattered?” Unfortunately, I already know the answer to that: people just don’t care about NSA surveillance, an endless drone war, etc. They care about dresses: blue ones, black ones, gold ones, white ones.

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And you know: I just don’t get it anymore. Working-class Americans are working harder and earning less day after day. Wall Street banks are richer and larger today than they were before they nearly wrecked the global economy. The Global War on Terror seems to have no end in sight. And yet here we are, going cuckoo over some irrelevant dress that will be totally forgotten 48 hours from now (if not before that). With priorities like that, I wonder whether we’re starting to make the Dark Ages look enlightened by comparison. The whole episode about this dress, in fact, reminds me of graffiti artist Banksy’s recent work in Gaza. One of Banksy’s newest pieces is a spray-painted image of a cat against an anonymous blown-out wall in Gaza, the sole remainder of what was presumably once a house or building. As Banksy explained regarding the piece, he drew a picture of a kitten on the destroyed building in the hopes of drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, because he’s learned (as have I) that people don’t care about the situation there—they care about cute cats instead. I’m starting to think his work would’ve fared better had he painted an image of a white-and-gold dress against the destroyed building instead. Maybe then people would start to care about things that matter.

—Winston A.

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What Orwell’s 1984 Taught me About America

cropped-copz.jpg“The actual writing would be easy. All he had to do was to transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head, literally for years.”
—George Orwell, 1984, on Winston’s decision to start a Diary

One of the major downsides to our digital age—in which communication increasingly happens vis-à-vis emoji, email, 140 characters, text messages, status updates, and the like—is that few people read books anymore. I mean, my generation is the one that birthed the concept of TL;DR for Christ’s sake. (That’s short for “Too Long, Didn’t Read,” which I’ve seen used in ways that suggest it is now cool to flaunt one’s inability to read and process too many words at once). That contrasts starkly with what I know about Ancient Rome and Greece, where one’s ability to recite huge quantities of information from memory (think Cicero) was seen as an art and something to be in awe of. And the only way you could memorize a text, of course, was to read it repeatedly. Fast-forward to the present, however, and the Pew Research Center reports that “[a]s of January 2014, some 76% of American adults ages 18 and older said that they read at least one book in the past year.” Put another way: nearly one-quarter of Americans do not read any books per year. Zero, zip, nada.

All of which is a relatively roundabout way of getting to my point: few people have actually read George Orwell’s 1984 front-to-back. (If you haven’t read it, do so now). I know this because anyone who has read the book in the past decade or so would notice many startling similarities between Winston’s fictional world and the present, which (presumably) would be both startling and disturbing to the modern reader. After all, Orwell’s book was supposed to be a critique of the evil Soviet Union—right? While that may have been true when he wrote it, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible (or wrong) to find connections between 1984’s Oceania and 2015’s America. And so, without further ado, let’s read through some quotes I’ve pulled directly from the novel and you can judge for yourself whether—and to what degree—they apply to your country today. (For Generation TL;DR, note that the quotes below provide an accurate synopsis of the themes discussed in the novel, so it’s kinda like you read the whole thing!).

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“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.”

I’m trying to figure out how people can distinguish between the quote above and the modern era of rampant NSA/GCHQ surveillance, but I just can’t do it. Do you have any way of knowing whether your emails, calls, and social media use are being monitored? No—you don’t.

“Parsons was Winston’s fellow employee at the Ministry of Truth. He was a fattish but active man of paralyzing stupidity, a mass of imbecile enthusiasms—one of those completely unquestioning devoted drudges on whom, more even than the Thought Police, the stability of the Party depended.”

Similarly, the status quo today depends on most of us being “completely unquestioning devoted drudges.” The government tells us Russia is interfering with Ukraine, we believe it no questions asked. The government tells us NSA surveillance programs help stop terrorists, we believe it no questions asked. The government tells us Greece needs to accept austerity, we believe it no questions asked. The list goes on ad infinitum, and the stability of the system—in other words, the maintenance of the status quo—depends on us not questioning the official storyline.

“Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war…”

I can’t. Can you?

“Why was it that they could never shout like that about anything that mattered? Until they have become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” (emphasis in original)

That’s how I feel every time I see people shout and rally about relative trivialities—their favorite sports team, another St. Patrick’s day parade, another EDM concert, etc.—and then I notice those same people almost never shout about NSA surveillance, a drone war gone out-of-control, the affront to the rule-of-law that is Guantanamo Bay, etc.

“Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.”

I know the feeling 🙂

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

This is like when the government tells us “Yes, we are in an economic recovery” or “the economy is gaining strength now” when everyone who works for a living knows that isn’t true.

“To understand the nature of the present war—for in spite of the regrouping which occurs every few years, it is always the same war—one must realize in the first place that it is impossible for it to be decisive.”

Even though Obama tells us his plan is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS (whatever that means), he knows—and we should know too—that this is gobbledygook. You don’t really think the Global War on Terror (even though Obama no longer uses that term) is going to end anytime soon, do you?

“For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once  they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and  they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”

I submit that quotation without comment.

“The social atmosphere is that of a besieged city, where the possession of a lump of horseflesh makes the difference between wealth and poverty. And at the same time the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.”

Regarding the second part of that quote, ask yourself how many times in recent years the government has expanded its power (drones, NSA surveillance, etc.) and has justified doing so under the theory their actions keep us safe in a time of danger.

“Even the official ally of the moment is always regarded with the darkest suspicions.”

Remember when the NSA spied on Angela Merkel and Germany? Remember when the NSA spied on the United Nations? Remember when the NSA spied on the European Union? Remember when the NSA spied on the Copenhagen climate change summit? Anyone remember any of that?

“Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston.”

Well, I guess I’m still working on that last part.

—Winston A.

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Why Citizenfour is a Joke—On Us

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As you may have heard, Laura Poitras’ film Citizenfour—about Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance disclosures—won the Academy Award for best documentary a few days ago. I don’t have the time or patience to delve into an analysis of the film (for starters, I haven’t even seen it), but I do want to take a little time to explain why the film is a joke. And the joke, my friends, is on us.

You see, even though Citizenfour won an Academy Award—in a televised event viewed by millions—it will do absolutely nothing to bring reform to the surveillance state. (Which, let’s not forget, is the whole reason Snowden did what he did). As I wrote last December, we haven’t gotten anywhere in terms of reining in an out-of-control surveillance state, and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that real reform is anywhere on the horizon. That explains why I was dumbfounded to read Amy Davidson’s take on the film in The New Yorker, which she closed by noting “outside the [Hong Kong] hotel room, things really did change.” What? What parallel universe is she living in? What, I ask you, has changed post-Snowden? My answer: nothing. NSA surveillance is as widespread and pervasive as ever. Nobody got fired or held accountable for anything. Yes, we’ve “raised awareness” about surveillance, but absolutely nothing has been done about it. So what’s there to celebrate, folks?

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According to the for-profit media, however, there’s apparently a lot to celebrate. In the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg notes that a scene in the film “say[s] more about what we lose when we’re stripped of our privacy than even the most explosive document ever could.” Except, again—I don’t need to see the film to know what it’s like to be stripped of my privacy rights. All I need to do is go online and do anything at all, and I already know my privacy rights are being infringed upon (I know this, of course, because state surveillance has not been curtailed whatsoever post-Snowden). And yet Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, absurdly suggests that the Academy-Award win for Citizenfour “couldn’t have pleased the NSA and its apologists.” I mean: who is he kidding? The NSA and their apologists could care less about how many people watch Citizenfour or how many awards the film wins—they know that significant surveillance reform is as likely as a blizzard in the Sahara.

And that’s really all I have to say on the matter. There’s really no point into looking into this film any further, because honestly anyone who cares to know anything about global state surveillance can do so without ever watching this film. And I’m tired of people saying that films like this “raise awareness” about an issue. No, they don’t. The state surveillance disclosures first made headlines back in June of 2013—so if you aren’t aware of what the NSA and GCHQ are up to by now, you likely never will be. Bottom line: just like what went wrong with the BlackLivesMatter protests, we don’t need awareness anymore—we need action. For once.

—Winston A.

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Nature or Nurture: Hiking as the Antidote to our Digital Age

10373969_893525939733_8033547778225173248_n(All photographs taken by me)
This is approaching the summit of Alta Peak in Sequoia National Park

Prior to moving to the Bay Area, I barely spent any time in the wilderness—couldn’t, in fact, finish a mild five-mile trail in New England without being beset by the twin devils of exhaustion and boredom. Fast-forward through several years in the Golden State, however, and I’ve conquered big peaks and strenuous trails everywhere from Yosemite to Kings Canyon to Joshua Tree to Death Valley to Humboldt Redwoods to Tahoe to Big Sur. Over that period one might say I’ve lived my own chapter of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, going from career-focused graduate student to trail-blazing mountain goat. And you know what? I couldn’t be happier to have shifted my focus from the world of corporations and cubicles to the one of birds and bees.

1009829_790202645443_1597178747_n(Returning from Half Dome in Yosemite).

Because if I’ve learned anything during my many hikes, it’s that spending time in the wilderness is more important now than ever before. And the reason for that is simple, my friends: we have never been so disconnected from the natural world. Absorbed in our screens, smartphones, and social media accounts, we’ve grown to comprehend pixels more readily than pastures. New research indicates the average American spends 12 hours per day in front of a screen. (Back in 2009, The New York Times reported the average was 8.5 hours). And this infographic from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the average American slept 7.7 hours per day in 2013, leaving us just over four hours per day for everything that doesn’t involve screens or snoring. That’s barely enough time to arrive at one of America’s many national parks, let alone to explore them on foot from base to summit. So the numbers shouldn’t surprise us: the average audience for this year’s Super Bowl was 114 million people; Call of Duty has roughly 40-million monthly active users; the Mall of America has 40 million visitors annually. By contrast, one of America’s oldest and most spectacular national parks—Yosemite—attracts a paltry 3-4 million visitors a year. (For perspective, California’s population hovers somewhere around 40 million).

10496087_902775867803_6639144807568092366_o(En route to the Mt. Whitney summit).

But the facts and figures can never accurately encapsulate what we’ve lost along the way to our technicolor “progress” of iWatches, FitBits, Wikis, and Teslas. I’ve learned—one might say the hard way, but I’d say the fun way—that only through hiking and spending time in the wilderness can we begin to replace what we’ve been missing. As David Abram put it in The Spell of the Sensuous, “Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape” (emphasis mine). Simply put: we’ve lost touch with that many-voiced landscape that our ancestors knew so well. The ancient Greeks did not have (or need) the Internet to provide them with “access to information”—they were able to learn so much simply by opening their eyes and looking around. Ditto the Iroquois, the Cherokees, and the Mayans. We no longer recognize the many-voiced landscape that speaks through birds and bears, creeks and canyons, mountains and molehills, stars and streams. We recognize, instead, the theme song to Law & Order.

1238166_804094710633_1467634974_n (Somewhere deep in Joshua Tree National Park).

Standing in civilization’s echo chamber of self-congratulation, man places himself simultaneously at the center and the top of everything. We believe we are the smartest animal, the most accomplished, and the most capable. We behave as if the world revolves us and our desires alone. The modern ethos seems to be: “What can I learn from flora and fauna that I can’t without technology?” Or as Lewis Lapham once wrote: “Out of sight and out of mind, the chicken, the pig, and the cow [have] lost their licenses to teach.” But as I’ve written about in other posts (see here and here), even a short hike in the wilderness can yield insights that are simply unattainable through technology. We could learn—as any animal can teach—to live in harmony with our planet and its resources. We could learn—as any tree could teach—that what seems boring, dull, or lifeless on the surface is in fact anything but. We could learn—as any river or canyon could teach—that water (not technology) shapes our world. And so forth.

1966918_864448975203_6911329317604018042_n(Point Reyes National Seashore).

And if my hiking has taught me anything else, it’s that these lessons aren’t being learned by enough of us. Instead, we’re learning how to type words and emojis into an ever-wider array of devices. We’re learning how to use social media better. We’re learning to buy a new device this year and toss it out the next when the latest version becomes available. We’re learning how to save our countless photographs to The Cloud, where we will likely never look at them again. We’re learning how to code for the digital economy.

What we forgot, however, is that we’re not the only ones here on Earth. Not by a long shot. There’s a whole world out there for whom the terms Iraq, Bill O’Reilly, unemployment, Goldman Sachs, bipartisanship, etc. mean nothing. There are billions of living things that get around each and every day without Google Maps. There are a near-infinite number of examples of ingenuity, intelligence, empathy, and emotion in the natural world. We need to listen to those voices from nature now more than ever, lest the effects of climate change drown them out while we are too busy discussing who wore what to the Oscars last night.

10917807_975412737933_7115878980658990598_o(On the Yosemite Falls trail in Yosemite Nat’l Park).

And even though we can learn much from the words of nature, don’t get me wrong—the words of man still have much to teach as well. So I’ll leave the last word to Henry Beston, who said it best in his novel The Outermost House:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

—Winston A.

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What Hiking in Death Valley Taught me About Life

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(All photographs taken by me).

Several days ago, I traveled to Death Valley National Park to hike to the summit of Telescope Peak, the highest point in the Park and the Panamint Range at just over 11,000 feet. (Technical specs on hike at bottom). Although I have hiked several large California peaks before—including Mt. Whitney, Alta Peak, and El Capitan—Telescope Peak is by far the most remote and most desolate. One might think there’s not a lot to learn about life in a place as rugged and ruthless as of the Valley of Death, but one would be mistaken. Because as I’ve learned throughout my hikes in California and beyond, Mother Nature is the greatest teacher of all.

Hike up to any mountain—but particularly traverse the ridge that leads to Telescope Peak—and the first thing you appreciate is the smallness of man. So much of our lives are spent entrapped in man-made environments that we come to believe places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. are large and imposing. Far from it, dear reader. Perched upon the ridgeline leading up to Telescope Peak, I could see an area covering literally hundreds of miles with virtually no trace of civilization in sight. Before me lay immense valleys, deserts, dunes, canyons, peaks, and mountains—but I could discern no roads, no buildings, and certainly no people. I got a taste, in other words, of what the world looked like before the arrival of man.

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And man, what a world. As Colin Fletcher observed in his wonderful book The Man Who Walked Through Time—about his solo journey through the entire Grand Canyon in the 1960s—there comes a point in every hiker’s life when his travels bring him “not merely new knowledge but new humility, and so new wisdom.” And as I stood there on the ridgeline with steep, snow-covered descents on either side of me, I was humbled by the vastness of nature. To my left, over 11,000 feet below me, I could see the lowest point in the United States: Badwater Basin. To my right, over 3,000 feet above me and almost 100 miles away, I could see the unmistakable summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. In the span of one head-turn, then, it was possible to take in everything from a scorching-hot desert to the snow-capped Sierras.

But that’s just what was visible. What was invisible—but no less present—was the vast expanse of time that it took for Death Valley and the Sierras to be created, how long they have looked like they do, and how long after us they will still look like they do. And for me, that more than anything placed the smallness of the human world into perspective. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed: “There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. … [T]he hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours.” And from that one point in the Panamint Range, the ages spoke to me clearly and directly: man is a relative newcomer to this Earth.

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And that’s a humbling lesson indeed. Because as Colin Fletcher put it, we spend most our lives in the “man-constructed world … in which the days are consumed by clocks and dollars and traffic and other people.” Living in such a world day-in and day-out, we tend to convince ourselves that man has been here forever and that man will be here forever. We believe that the man-constructed world—monthly bills, foreign affairs, international organizations, daily routines, domestic politics, social media, the daily news, etc.—are all that matter and all that exists, when in fact that view is myopic. We are missing the bigger picture, which is that our environment was created long before us and will last long after us. To paraphrase something I previously wrote, we can’t continue without the natural world but it can (and will) continue without us.

Standing there on Telescope Peak, the lesson was as clear as the valleys below me. I knew then—felt it, breathed it—that this vast expanse of territory looked precisely the same then as it did when it was first crossed by Native Americans and as it probably did during the time of Caesar. I understood, as Colin Fletcher did at the end of his journey through the Grand Canyon, that “the ‘here and now’ is only a flickering heartbeat in many long, slow pulsations” of time. As individuals and as a civilization, man has been on this Earth for what amounts to a split-second in the grand abyss of time. And yet in that short time, we’ve managed to cause harm to this planet—through climate change, deforestation, pollution, fracking, consumption of fossil fuels, etc.—as no animal has done before.

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And yet we hardly seem to notice either our destruction or the natural world around us. We wait with breathless anticipation as to what smartphone (or movie, or videogame, or TV show) will come out next. We focus on achieving our career goals, on finding a life partner, on not falling behind on our debt, on what’s going on this weekend, that we often forget about the natural world that sustains it all. The latest peace accord or executive action or celebrity scandal makes the front-page news, but the harm that we’re inflicting upon the natural world does not. We believe that we are the smartest things to ever walk the Earth, forgetting that on the Earth’s time-scale we are mere children still learning about the sandbox that surrounds us.

But I love learning about, playing in, and reflecting upon that sandbox. And as I stood there on Telescope Peak assessing the scene around me, I was reminded of what Theodore Roosevelt said at the Grand Canyon in 1903, and about what lessons we might’ve missed while we were too busy playing with our iPads. As Roosevelt said: “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you[.]”

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But as I left Death Valley and made the long drive back to San Francisco, I was saddened to recall that “the great loneliness and beauty” of the wilderness is not what we are likely to leave for our children. Instead, the realities of what one sees on Route 5 slowly set in: drought, unemployment, recession, development, construction, poverty, and the like. As Curtis White put it in Orion magazine, the modern world of “global capital triumphant” has removed many of us from the “great loneliness and beauty” of the world in exchange for “the cold comfort of the television and computer monitor[.]” Perhaps it would benefit us all, in other words, to take a hike and see what we’ve been missing.

Technical Specs on Hike to Telescope Peak: Getting to the Telescope Peak trailhead is both long and difficult, and the National Park itself offers zero help as there are no signs letting you know where the trailhead is. Not one. So, presuming you are coming into the park from the West, take Route 190 East into the park. Once on 190 East and about nine miles before reaching Stovepipe Wells, there will be a turn-off to a right on the road marked “Wildrose.” This is the turn you want to make to reach the trailhead. This road is technically Emigrant Canyon Road—which you can Google Map—but please note there will be no signs there indicating that this is Emigrant Canyon or that it takes you to Telescope Peak; the sign will only say “Wildrose” but that is the road you take. Also, please be advised that there is no water or gas once you make the turn towards Wildrose, so if you are in need of either gas or water continue on Route 190 East until reach Stovepipe Wells, which is where you can obtain both.

Take Emigrant Canyon Road for 20-odd miles as it winds through beautiful landscapes until you reach the Wildrose Campgrounds. Continue on the road (pass the campgrounds) and keep going past the historic Charcoal Kilns that are about six miles ahead. Once you pass Charcoal Kilns, the path turns into a fairly rough unpaved road and I would strongly advise using a 4WD (ideally an SUV) vehicle for this final section of the journey. After eight miles on the dirt road, you come to Thorndike Campgrounds, where you can camp for the night or park your vehicle for the hike (the trailhead begins at the end of the road a mile or so past Thorndike). Alternatively, if you continue on the road past Thorndike, you can go on for the final mile which will take you to the Mahogany Flat campgrounds, which is both where the road ends and where the trailhead begins. Once you’ve reached the trailhead, it’s about eight miles (one-way) to the summit. The trail is fairly narrow and steep throughout and there’s no question this hike is strenuous. Additional details on the hike itself can be found here.

—Winston A.

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