Tag Archives: commonplace

One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear

Letter from a Region in My Mind by James Baldwin for The New Yorker, 1962:

It was a summer of dreadful speculations and discoveries, of which these were not the worst. Crime became real, for example—for the first time—not as a possibility but as the possibility. One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account. One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear. It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else—housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers—would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities. Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough.

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If God cannot do this…

Letter from a Region in My Mind by James Baldwin for The New Yorker, 1962:

If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

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Hot Wheels don’t teach auto mechanics

Deep Work by Cal Newport

The complex reality of the technologies that real companies leverage to get ahead emphasizes the absurdity of the now common idea that exposure to simplistic, consumer-facing products—especially in schools—somehow prepares people to succeed in a high-tech economy. Giving students iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for a high-tech economy about as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics.

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The paradox of fun

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

The paradox of fun is this: we think fun is enjoyment, but in practice it often feels like quite the opposite. On the one hand, we’d never think to describe uncomfortable or distressing experience as fun ones, but on the other hand, discomfort or distress often characterize the experiences we later describe as fun. A fun match of soccer might involve physical and emotional injury; a fun trip to the zoo might entail heat exhaustion and stained overalls. And yet fun doesn’t feel like suffering either, exactly, even when it literally involves suffering. Otherwise we’d not call it fun, but hardship.

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We’ve misunderstood fun to mean enjoyment without effort

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

What does it mean for something to be fun? If you wanted to design a fun toaster, or lead a fun classroom, or advertise a fun job, or write a fun book, how would you go about it? If you wanted to find a fun appliance to buy, or a fun course to take, or a fun career to pursue, or a fun book to read, what heuristic would you choose to select one? Most of us have no idea. We don’t even know what fun is, even though we claim to want it in everything. We’ve misunderstood fun to mean enjoyment without effort. Nothing has been spared the cursed attempt to “make it fun”; everything whatsoever hopes to transform itself into a delightful little morsel of sugar in your mouth.

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Under the sail of generosity rather than selfishness

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

My daughter’s mall game illustrates these principles. She saw and acknowledged the tiles, which are separately laid and grouted for the ease of manufacture, transport, installation, and maintenance. But rather than allowing that material distinction to recede into the background, to become mere substrate for our far more urgent pursuit of retail commerce, she made the tile / grout pairing the focus of her attention. She added to them the speed of her gait as pulled along by me, my hand and body as it attached to and pulled her to and fro erratically, the shape and size of her feet, the traction or slipperiness of her shoes, the vectors along which runs counter to our ordinary conception of play as a release of tension and responsibility.

Then, even though I was merely an accessory to her game rather than a party to it, she forced me to recognize and acknowledge the space she’d created. The tiles, the grout, her shoes, and so on—I became newly aware of these things simply by virtue of attending to her indirectly. We must seek to capture that magic everywhere; in everything. Not the pleasure of realizing our own goals—as if we even know that they are or ought to be—but the gratification of meeting the world more than halfway, almost all the way, and reaping the spoils of our new discoveries made under the sail of generosity rather than selfishness.

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The limitations make games fun

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

The lesson that games can teach us is simple. Games aren’t appealing because they are fun, but because they are limited. Because they erect boundaries. Because we must accept their structures in order to play them. Soccer sees two teams of eleven players attempting to use their feet, torsos, and heads to put a ball into a goal. Tetris asks you to position falling arrangements of four orthogonally-connected squares in order to produce and remove horizontal lines. And yet the experiences games like soccer and Tetris create are far larger than those boundaries convey on their own. That bounty results from the deliberate, if absurd, pursuit of soccer and Tetris on their own terms, within the limitations they erect. The limitations make games fun.

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The television equivalent of the novel

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Art is the aftershock of technological plates shifting. Sometimes the aftershock is slow in arriving. It took the novel about three hundred years to evolve into its modern form after the invention of the printing press. The television equivalent of the novel—the complex serialized drama of The Wire or Breaking Bad—took as long as seventy years to develop, depending on where you date its origins.

I’ve often thought about today’s serialized, bingeable, Golden Age of Television as the visual equivalent of the novel. Rich worlds. Deep investment in characters. Time to marinate with relationships and stakes.

Before the Golden Age of Television, I was captivated by trilogies — hell, I still am — namely Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (Extended Editions!) I hadn’t read the books, but I felt an attachment to the characters. Its cohesive production, year-over-year release schedule, and follow-through of Tolkien’s parallel stories and stakes built a world I was able to immerse myself in.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings runs 9 hours in total, the extended editions running 11 hours — not dissimilar from a Golden Age television series.

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Music seems to send us out on a quest for new experiences

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

One premise unites both sides in this debate: that music “presses our pleasure buttons,” as Pinker describes it. Yet there is something too simple in describing our appetite for music in this way. Sugar and opiates, to give just two examples, press pleasure buttons in the brain in a relatively straightforward fashion. Given a taste of one, we instinctively return for more of the same, like those legendary lab rats endlessly pressing the lever for more stimulants. And we put our ingenuity to work concocting ever-more-efficient delivery mechanisms for these forms of pleasure: we refine opium into heroin; we start selling soda in Big Gulp containers. But music—like the patterns and colors unleashed by the fashion revolution—appears to resonate with our pleasure centers at more of an oblique angle. The pleasure in hearing those captivating sounds doesn’t just establish a demand for more of the same. Instead, music seems to send us out on a quest for new experiences: more of the same, but different.

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Modern life itself could make you sick

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Visible in these perplexed diagnoses is a new way of thinking about the psyche. Diseases of the mind did not have to be rooted in some biological deformity, as the phrenologists had contended; nor was it attributable to some abstract “lesion of the will”; nor was it tied to basic biological realities like menstruation or masturbation. Instead, the root cause of the disorder was to be found somewhere else: in the lived history of social and economic change. Modern life itself could make you sick.

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