Apr 7, 2020
If you have a computer connected to the internet, eg. a server/VPS in some hosting company, you are receiving lots of attacks from randos on the internet. It’s a very good idea to have a firewall because chances are that at some point someone will reach your server with an exploit that you haven’t had time to patch yet. Like, it’s a matter of when and not if. But, what if you aren’t really the sysadmin type and you have no idea about iptables or any of those incantations needed to protect yourself? Don’t fret, because FireHOL has you covered.
On Debian (and probably Ubuntu?), you can install it by typing:
sudo apt install firehol && \ sudo systemctl stop firehol && \ sudo systemctl disable firehol
systemctlcalls are VERY IMPORTANT because of a current bug in the package, which will leave your server inaccessible! After it’s installed (and disabled), add
server all acceptto the default config file
/etc/firehol/firehol.confso that it ends up like this (skipping the initial comment block):
version 6 # Accept all client traffic on any interface interface any world client all accept server all accept
At this point you can set
/etc/default/firehol, and then run:
sudo systemctl enable firehol && sudo systemctl start firehol
That will give you a running FireHOL that won’t filter anything. So, same as you had before you even installed FireHOL. But at least now you can start…
There are two kinds of things you will want to block with FireHOL: ports/services, and IPs. The first is very easy. The second is not too hard but you need to learn a thing or two to make it sustainable (ie. use lists maintained by others).
More than blocking ports, you specify which ports/services you want open, and everything else is closed by default. Instead of saying
server all accept, you put lines like this in its place:
server http accept server https accept server ssh accept
Maintaining IP lists
The easiest way to filter bad IPs (malware, spammers, etc.) is to download IP lists and blacklist them from the FireHOL configuration. There’s a tool called
update-ipsets(available in the
firehol-toolspackage in Debian) that you can use to download them. You can run
update-ipsetsto see the available lists (and update them, if enough time has passed) and
update-ipsets enable <listname>to enable them. For example, you can run this command to enable the
sudo update-ipsets enable spamhaus_drop spamhaus_edrop && \ sudo update-ipsets
This will download the lists under
/etc/firehol/ipsets. Once they are there, you can add these lines to your configuration file (before the
interfacedefinitions) to block incoming connections from any of the IPs and networks mentioned by the lists above:
ipv4 ipset create badnets hash:net for list in spamhaus_drop spamhaus_edrop; do ipv4 ipset addfile badnets ipsets/$list.netset done ipv4 blacklist ipset:badnets
Trying your changes
You can use the
firehol trycommand to try changes: it will automatically revert in 30 seconds unless you type
commitin a terminal.
Keeping your logs clean
By default, FireHOL will send log data (including every single dropped connection!) to syslog. If you want to keep your syslog clean and send FireHOL logs to a different file, you can do the following:
- Install the
sudo apt install firehol-doc.
FIREHOL_LOG_PREFIX=FireHOL:at the top of
- Use the provided example files (see below).
To use the example rsyslog configuration and the example logrotate configuration, run the following commands (the latter is so that the FireHOL log files don’t grow forever):
sudo cp /usr/share/doc/firehol/examples/rsyslog/rsyslog_d-firehol.conf \ /etc/rsyslog.d/firehol.conf sudo cp /usr/share/doc/firehol/examples/rsyslog/logrotate_d-firehol \ /etc/logrotate.d/firehol
Once you follow these steps you will have the FireHOL logs under
FireHOL is a great tool to make firewalls easily without having to learn arcane syntax or command-line options. Even if you don’t have advanced sysadmin knowledge, it’s easy to get started and secure your servers. I hope this little guide was useful!
- Install the
Mar 13, 2020
This is only available in Spanish, and is just a dump of all my notes, chapter by chapter. Sorry for the long post! If you prefer a shorter summary, you can read the most important ideas in Spanish and the most important ideas in English.
Hay cuatro empresas que producen los olores y sabores de todo lo que compramos. Su objetivo no es el estómago sino el cerebro. Tiendas, cafeterías y otros comercios usan aromas para hacernos comprar más. Su trabajo es engañar a nuestro cerebro a través de los sentidos. Los productos comestibles están optimizados, mediante su nombre, forma, aromas, e ingredientes (cantidades de azúcar y sal) para alcanzar ese punto en el que el consumidor se siente embriagado de dopamina pero nunca satisfecho. Un tercio de la población de EEUU sufre al mismo tiempo obesidad y desnutrición.
Las pocas veces que la industria ha intentado reconducir sus productos hacia algo más saludable, se han dado cuenta de que es más fácil crear una adicción que contrarrestarla. Pero preferimos pensar que no tenemos voluntad y no sabemos comer, a creer que una de las industrias más poderosas del planeta mantiene equipos de genios cuyo único propósito es manipularnos. Lo mismo nos pasa con el móvil e internet.
La tecnología que hace funcionar la red no es neutral. Su objetivo no es tenerte actualizado, ni conectado con tus seres queridos, ni gestionar tu equipo de trabajo. Es maximizar el “engagement”. Esta palabra implica participación. En este caso, con gestos tan sencillos y repetitivos que los hacemos sin pensar, creando una rutina. Cuando estas rutinas son buenas para nosotros, las llamamos hábitos. Cuando son malas, adicción.
La caja de Skinner y refuerzo de intervalo variable. No saber si va a haber premio refuerza la adicción y las ganas de probar, y una vez esa rutina está establecida, se mantiene incluso si en vez de premio hay castigo. Skinner no creía en el libre albedrío, y quería mejorar la vida de las personas creando detonantes oportunos para mejorar sus hábitos. Freud ganó la guerra cultural, pero el mundo post-internet es de Skinner. Notas sobre Skinner y su legado, incluyendo YouTube, en las páginas 24-42.
Cada tecnología o producto tarda menos tiempo en llegar a 50 millones de personas. Lo importante de esto es la velocidad con la que introducen hábitos nuevos en la gente, y la pérdida del interés y la capacidad para identificar los cambios, porque que cada vez tenemos menos tiempo para ello.
La industria no sabe cómo controlar las emociones, pero se ha especializado en detectar, magnificar y producir la que más beneficio genera: indignación, miedo, furia, distracción, soledad, competitividad, envidia. Esta es la banalidad del mal de nuestro tiempo: los mejores cerebros de nuestra generación están buscando maneras de que hagas más likes.
Todas las arquitecturas totalitarias son centralizadas. Internet es mucho más centralizada de lo que creemos, y unas pocas compañías son dueñas de una gran parte de la infraestructura física que la soporta.
Como cualquier narrativa distópica, todo empieza con un buen propósito. Google empezó con dos amigos que querían mejorar el sistema de búsqueda de la biblioteca de informática de Stanford. Después de la segunda guerra mundial el gobierno de los EEUU empezó a colaborar más con la comunidad científica. Querían tener ojos y oídos en todos lados, porque el mundo era una zona de conflicto a vigilar. La nueva tecnología de vigilancia remota tenía que ser capaz de observar todos estos «problemas» como procesos mecánicos predecibles, susceptibles de ser identificados y corregidos a tiempo. Era mejor que bombardear: con una cantidad de datos suficiente, podías arreglar el mundo sin derramar sangre.
Cuando acabó la guerra, toda aquella tecnología fue reciclada como sistema de vigilancia de la frontera con México. Y también para controlar a sus propios insurgentes, los millones de estadounidenses que se manifestaban contra la guerra de Vietnam. Este patrón se repite de manera regular y predecible: toda tecnología desarrollada para luchar contra el terrorismo y por la libertad en otros países acaba formando parte del aparato de vigilancia doméstico.
Google empezó a crear más servicios, y los anuncios que servía ya no dependían sólo de la web que se estaba visitando, sino de todo lo que Google sabía del usuario. Los resultados de las búsquedas también empiezan a depender de esto. Esto fue el origen de lo que se empezó a llamar «economía de la vigilancia» o «feudalismo digital».
Los teléfonos móviles modernos tienen numerosos sensores para la posición y otras fuentes de datos sobre el usuario, que se venden o llegan a muchas empresas. Estas empresas compran y venden datos de una manera absolutamente descontrolada y secreta. Es una oscura industria de servicios que compra la misma clase de acceso que la policía o el FBI, sin orden judicial, registro o licencia.
Como sabían los arquitectos del TCP/IP, todos los debates sobre la bondad o la maldad de las empresas son una distracción. Los directivos cambian o son despedidos o mienten o están sujetos a legislaciones y a gobiernos que cambian o mienten. La única pregunta relevante en el debate es si desarrollan tecnologías capaces de ejercer la censura, coartar las libertades civiles o traicionar la confianza de los usuarios. Si lo hacen, es siempre un problema independientemente de su intención.
Los sistemas de imagen por satélite son parte de un circuito cerrado de vigilancia a nivel planetario en manos de un puñado de empresas que trabajan para distintos gobiernos. Registran todo lo que pasa en la superficie terrestre, incluyendo océanos, producción agrícola y ganadera, extracción de crudo y minerales, infraestructuras, ciudades, fábricas, transportes, refugios, personas. Mucha gente piensa que esos datos se usan principalmente para predecir el tiempo o detectar fuegos e inundaciones. En verdad, lo que hacen las empresas de análisis por satélite es contar: coches en aparcamientos (para informar a los supermercados y centros comerciales de la esperanza de venta), paneles solares instalados, barriles de crudo que circulan en el mercado, toneladas de grano que se van a recoger esta temporada, o cuántas cabezas de ganado tiene cada uno. En el contexto de la crisis climática, la soberanía de las infraestructuras de control y gestión de recursos valiosos como el grano, la ganadería o el agua es tan crucial como la capacidad de trazar el movimiento de las personas.
Las revoluciones industriales siempre traen con ellas un periodo de expansión y racionalismo tecnocrático, una visión optimista de las capacidades de la tecnología para superar todos los obstáculos y optimizar los recursos con métodos basados en el cálculo exacto de las condiciones y la aplicación de precisas fórmulas matemáticas. Es un cuento de la lechera recurrente: si damos con la fórmula adecuada, podemos erradicar el hambre y las enfermedades, acabar con la maldad, multiplicar los panes y los peces, vivir para siempre… Una de las fantasías de esta forma de ver el mundo es que podremos tomar al fin las decisiones perfectas. La otra, que las implementaciones tecnológicas son intrínsecamente mejores que las que toman los humanos.
Multitud de algoritmos deciden cosas por nosotros (ver ejemplos en las páginas 132-143). Las empresas las usan para calcular los precios más altos que una persona está dispuesta a pagar, según la persona y sus circunstancias. Cuando discriminan ilegalmente a clientes, las empresas simplemente señalan al algoritmo (Mathwashing). Esto permite la discriminación porque es opaco cómo el algoritmo eligió el resultado.
Cuando Amazon acaba con todos los proveedores de una zona no solo se asegura el poder de fijar los precios que le venga en gana, también se asegura el control de la crisis.
Historia sobre el software libre, Richard Stallman, Napster, Apple y cómo Steve Jobs consiguió manipular a la industria discográfica para asegurar el éxito de iTunes, movimientos antiglobalización, Tim O’Reilly, la burbuja puntocom, y cómo Tim O’Reilly y otros sobrevivieron después del estallido de la burbuja y se concentraron en usar «la inteligencia colectiva». Esto dio lugar a los blogs, Wikipedia, y a los primeros medios sociales. Todo esto no podía ser gratis, así que AdSense empezó a usarse en muchos sitios para ayudar a pagar los costes de muchos servicios. Pero con esto llegaron los primeros influencers y el optimizar para tener el mayor número de visitas posible, para maximizar el dinero.
Esto dio lugar a The Drudge Report y luego a Huffington Post (¡que empezó Andrew Breitbart!), y a las noticias virales y como consecuencia a las noticias falsas. En este contexto vendrían Buzzfeed y Breitbart News. Pirate Bay, partido pirata y Anonymous.
El modelo de negocio
«Las mejores mentes de mi generación están pensando en cómo hacer que la gente pinche en los banners» dice Jeff Hammerbacher, al que Facebook contrató para descubrir por qué Facebook arrasaba en unas universidades pero no en otras. Y éste fue el inicio del análisis detallado de los usuarios. En la páginas 210 y 211 se explica la historia de las cookies, DoubleClick, cookies de terceros, AdSense, y cómo la publicidad empezó a depender cada vez más de saber todo lo posible sobre los usuarios para poder segmentarlos bien.
Una verdad universal acerca de las personas orientadas a la resolución de problemas técnicos es que pueden estar tan concentradas en la tarea encomendada que no son capaces de valorar el impacto social de sus soluciones hasta que ya es demasiado tarde.
Poco después Facebook cambió su modelo, de tal forma que decidía qué leían los usuarios (al principio era como un conjunto de blogs, y ahora era una sola lista de noticias, no necesariamente cronológica, que Facebook decidía por cada usuario). Después llegaron las API para desarrolladores externos (que podían leer los datos tanto de los usuarios que usaban las aplicaciones, como los de todos sus amigos) y los likes, y con esto una nueva oleada de datos que permitían analizar mejor a los usuarios. Para cuando iban a salir a bolsa habían pasado dos cosas: (1) Facebook ya sabía que sus noticias daban preferencia a comentarios racistas e insultantes; y (2) Facebook quería saber más sobre sus usuarios y los que ni siquiera eran sus usuarios, incluso fuera de Facebook, por lo que firmó contratos con al menos tres «data brokers» para alimentar su algoritmo.
Uno de los errores recurrentes de la izquierda es pensar que el populismo es la estrategia de los imbéciles, cuando la historia demuestra que no puede ser tan imbécil cuando consigue un éxito arrollador. Ya en Los orígenes del totalitarismo, Hannah Arendt explica que este tipo de estrategia está diseñada deliberadamente para desprender a la sociedad educada de sus recursos intelectuales y espirituales, convirtiendo a la población en cínicos o en niños, dependiendo del ego y el aguante de cada uno.
Estudiando los anuncios de la época, Goebbels entendió que la mejor manera de cautivar a las masas no era a través de largos discursos sino con una programación de variedades, ligera y entretenida, interrumpida cada cierto tiempo por intervenciones de Hitler o del propio Goebbels, donde hablaban de la nobleza de la nación alemana y la despreciable naturaleza de judíos, negros y comunistas. «Esto ha sido el resultado de la estricta centralización, la fuerte cobertura y la actualizada naturaleza de la radio alemana». Como Twitter.
La distopía que vivimos hoy ha sido creada de manera casi accidental por un pequeño grupo de empresas para hacernos comprar productos y pinchar en anuncios. Su poder no está basado en la violencia sino en algo mucho más insidioso: nuestra infinita capacidad para la distracción.
El adicto a las tragaperras sabe que es adicto al estado de ensoñación nerviosa que le produce el ritmo de la máquina. No juega para ganar dinero sino para flotar en La Zona, un mundo perfecto, ordenado y predecible. Mientras que el adicto a la secuencia rítmica y fragmentada de las plataformas digitales cree que es adicto a la política, a la actualidad, a las noticias. Cree que está más despierto que nunca.
Incluso las personas que se han dejado manipular con argumentos racistas, clasistas, machistas o directamente fascistas necesitan saben que fueron manipuladas para votar en contra de sus propios intereses. Sobre todo cuando el fenómeno se sigue repitiendo cada vez que se convocan elecciones en cualquier lugar del mundo.
La principal diferencia entre la propaganda y la desinformación es que la primera usa los medios de comunicación de maneras éticamente dudosas para convencer de un mensaje, mientras que la segunda se inventa el propio mensaje, que está diseñado para engañar, asustar, confundir y manipular al objetivo, que termina por abrazar sus dogmas para liberarse del miedo y acabar con la confusión. Se basa en fotos y documentos alterados, datos fabricados y material sacado de contexto para crear una visión distorsionada o alternativa de la realidad. La campaña de desinformación empieza por identificar las gritas preexistentes para alimentarlas y llevarlas al extremo.
Las campañas como INFEKTION (ver páginas 234-236) no están diseñadas para convencer a la gente de que el sida tenía un origen distinto que el chimpancé que contagió al primer humano. Estaba pensada para generar dudas acerca de la categoría moral del Gobierno estadounidense. En 2013 se funda la Internet Research Agency (IRA) en Rusia, que se dedica a publicar comentarios en medios sociales, crear vídeos de noticias falsas con actores, a hacer dibujos satíricos, y demás, aplicando la «doctrina Gerasimov», que consiste en usar estrategias no militares para conseguir objetivos políticos, usando tecnologías de la información para crear «oposición interna». Otra táctica es crear grupos de Facebook e incluso organizar manifestaciones de grupos contrarios, como la vez que organizaron dos manifestaciones contrarias enfrente de una mezquita en Houston. El objetivo era caldear el ambiente, radicalizar a ambas partes, y producir conflicto social.
Antes, nuestro entorno social estaba ligado a la proximidad geográfica, y esto nos obligaba a tratar con personas con las que no estábamos de acuerdo y a buscar consenso. Ver comentarios sobre el sentido de pertenencia y los cambios en las comunidades en las páginas 245-247. Debido a esto, se puede explotar fácilmente nuestro sesgo de confirmación y el efecto del falso consenso. Estos grupos en redes sociales generan un entorno de consenso permanente, aislado del mundo real. En Facebook, las herramientas de segmentación son increíblemente precisas, y permiten tanto encontrar encontrar el público objetivo, como hacer que estos vean cosas que nadie más ve, ofreciendo Facebook así diferentes realidades a diferentes grupos, que a menudo son excluyentes. Y esto bloquea la posibilidad de diálogo porque están viviendo realidades paralelas cuya «verdad» es mutuamente excluyente.
Y esto se hace peor por los algoritmos, que potencian y dan prioridad a las noticias que reciben más clics. Ver la empresa de Macedonia que ayudó en la campaña de Trump sin realmente quererlo, en las páginas 256, 257.
El famoso filtro burbuja no es el atrincheramiento voluntario del usuario contra fuentes de información que contradicen su visión del mundo, es parte de un modelo publicitario que genera una visión del mundo diseñada específica y deliberadamente para cada persona, pero le hace creer que es la realidad. Los que leen noticias en Twitter y Facebook lo hacen como si ambas redes fueran la portada de un periódico en el que salen «todas las noticias que es apropiado imprimir», con un enfoque en los temas que a ellas les interesan. No lo leen como si fuera un contenido diseñado a su medida por empresas de marketing y campañas políticas.
Aquí las clases trabajadoras están en un peligro mayor, y no (sólo) por su nivel de educación, sino por servicios como Free Basics, que hace que la gente no tenga que pagar datos cuando se conecta a ciertos servicios, como Facebook (violando la neutralidad de la red). Esto hace que, a efectos prácticos, Facebook sea «internet» para mucha gente, porque no se puede permitir pagar por hacer clic en cualquier enlace que los lleve fuera del servicio: leen los titulares, pero no pueden permitirse pinchar para leer las noticias enteras.
¿Cómo puede una sociedad moderna enfermar hasta el genocidio? Ver multitud de ejemplos de campañas de manipulación en las páginas 259-265.
Las plataformas digitales son un medio de masas diferente a la radio y la televisión, porque puede elegir a su audiencia. Permite decirle a cada grupo exactamente lo que quiere oír, sin que los demás lo sepan.
Las técnicas de manipulación populista modernas están convergiendo en cuatro pilares conocidos: (1) poner en duda la integridad de las elecciones, (2) deshumanizar a los inmigrantes mediante una campaña de información falsa, (3) repetir la retórica de nosotros contra ellos (manifestada de manera racista, clasista, sexista y violenta en general), (4) destruir las instituciones desde dentro una vez se llegue al poder.
El lenguaje natural para la destrucción del Estado de derecho es el meme, porque permite probar y naturalizar conceptos que habían sido rechazados (como el machismo o la xenofobia) en un contexto sin consecuencias, porque es una broma.
Ahora la nueva tendencia es usar grupos secretos de mensajería instantánea para empezar los rumores, las mentiras y las cadenas de mensajes (fue la «innovación» principal de la campaña de Bolsonaro), en parte porque es mucho más difícil de detectar, estudiar, y contener. Ver páginas 277-290.
Mar 12, 2020
This is the Spanish version of the post and, like the English version, will cover the main ideas in the book (in the original Spanish). They are reordered and grouped in headings, for easier scanning and to make them easier to understand in context. See also the full notes of the book, also in the original language.
EDIT: Added a link to the post with the full notes.
La distopía actual y los medios sociales
- Preferimos pensar que no tenemos voluntad y no sabemos comer, a creer que una de las industrias más poderosas del planeta mantiene equipos de genios cuyo único propósito es manipularnos. Lo mismo nos pasa con el móvil e internet.
- La industria se ha especializado en detectar, magnificar y producir las emociones que más beneficio genera: indignación, miedo, furia, distracción, soledad, competitividad, envidia. Esta es la banalidad del mal de nuestro tiempo: los mejores cerebros de nuestra generación están buscando maneras de que hagas más likes.
- La distopía que vivimos hoy ha sido creada de manera casi accidental por un pequeño grupo de empresas para hacernos comprar productos y pinchar en anuncios. Su poder no está basado en la violencia sino en algo mucho más insidioso: nuestra infinita capacidad para la distracción.
Tecnología para luchar contra el mal
- Una verdad universal acerca de las personas orientadas a la resolución de problemas técnicos es que pueden estar tan concentradas en la tarea encomendada que no son capaces de valorar el impacto social de sus soluciones hasta que ya es demasiado tarde.
- Los debates sobre la bondad o la maldad de las empresas son una distracción. Los directivos cambian o son despedidos o mienten o están sujetos a legislaciones y a gobiernos que cambian o mienten. La única pregunta relevante es si desarrollan tecnologías capaces de ejercer la censura, coartar las libertades civiles o traicionar la confianza de los usuarios. Si lo hacen, es siempre un problema independientemente de su intención.
- Toda tecnología desarrollada para luchar contra el terrorismo acaba formando parte del aparato de vigilancia doméstico.
- Las revoluciones industriales siempre traen una visión optimista de las capacidades de la tecnología. Dos fantasías: podremos tomar al fin las decisiones perfectas, y las implementaciones tecnológicas son intrínsecamente mejores que las que toman los humanos.
- Las empresas usan algoritmos para calcular los precios más altos que una persona está dispuesta a pagar, según la persona y sus circunstancias.
- Cuando discriminan ilegalmente a clientes, las empresas simplemente señalan al algoritmo (Mathwashing). Esto permite la discriminación porque es opaco cómo el algoritmo eligió el resultado.
- Cada vez hay menos interés y capacidad para identificar los nuevos hábitos porque cada tecnología o producto tarda menos tiempo en calar en la sociedad y cada vez tenemos menos tiempo para ello.
- El adicto a las tragaperras sabe que es adicto al estado de ensoñación nerviosa que le produce el ritmo de la máquina. No juega para ganar dinero sino para flotar en La Zona. Mientras que el adicto a la secuencia rítmica y fragmentada de las plataformas digitales cree que es adicto a la política, a la actualidad, a las noticias. Cree que está más despierto que nunca.
- Las plataformas digitales son un medio de masas diferente a la radio y la televisión, porque puede elegir a su audiencia. Permite decirle a cada grupo exactamente lo que quiere oír, sin que los demás lo sepan.
- El famoso filtro burbuja no es el atrincheramiento voluntario del usuario contra fuentes de información que contradicen su visión del mundo, es parte de un modelo publicitario que genera una visión del mundo diseñada específica y deliberadamente para cada persona, pero le hace creer que es la realidad. Los que leen noticias en Twitter y Facebook lo hacen como si ambas redes fueran un periódico con un cierto enfoque a los temas que a ellas les interesan. No lo leen como si fuera contenido diseñado a su medida por empresas de marketing y campañas políticas.
- Incluso las personas que se han dejado manipular con argumentos racistas, clasistas, machistas o directamente fascistas necesitan saben que fueron manipuladas para votar en contra de sus propios intereses. Sobre todo cuando el fenómeno se sigue repitiendo cada vez que se convocan elecciones en cualquier lugar del mundo.
Propaganda y populismo
- Las estrategias populistas están diseñadas deliberadamente para desprender a la sociedad educada de sus recursos intelectuales y espirituales, convirtiendo a la población en cínicos o en niños, dependiendo del ego y el aguante de cada uno.
- La principal diferencia entre la propaganda y la desinformación es que la segunda se inventa el mensaje, que está diseñado para engañar, asustar, confundir y manipular al objetivo, mientras que la primera simplemente usa los medios de comunicación de maneras éticamente dudosas para convencer de un mensaje. La desinformación se basa en fotos y documentos alterados, datos fabricados y material sacado de contexto para crear una visión distorsionada o alternativa de la realidad. La campaña de desinformación empieza por identificar las grietas preexistentes para alimentarlas y llevarlas al extremo.
Recomiendo encarecidamente este libro si te interesa el tema. Si estás tan obsesionado como yo puede que no te diga mucho nuevo, pero hace un resumen excelente de la situación actual y cómo llegamos a ella, poniendo muchas cosas en contexto.
Mar 12, 2020
This post will cover the main ideas in the book (translated to English). They are reordered and grouped in headings, for easier scanning and to make them easier to understand in context. See the list of ideas in the original Spanish. Upcoming posts will cover my full notes of the book, also in the original language.
The current dystopia and social media
- We would rather believe we don’t have willpower and we don’t know how to eat properly, than believe that the food industry (one of the most powerful on the planet) keeps a team of geniuses with a single goal: manipulate us. The same thing happens with mobile phones and the internet.
- The industry is an expert in detecting, magnifying, and producing the emotions that give them the most benefit: indignation, fear, fury, absent-mindedness, loneliness, competition, envy. This is the banality of evil of our times: the best minds in our generation are looking for ways to get more likes.
- Today’s dystopia has been created almost by accident by a small group of companies to make us buy products and click on ads. Its power isn’t based on violence but something far more insidious: our infinite capacity to get distracted.
Technology to fight evil
- A universal truth about solution-oriented technical people is that they can be so focused on the given task that they are unable to gauge the social impact of their solutions until it is too late.
- Debates about good or evil in companies are a distraction. The executives change or are fired or lie or are tied by laws and governments that change or lie. The only relevant question is whether they develop technologies capable of censoring, limiting civil liberties or betray the users’ trust. If they do, that’s always a problem regardless of their intention.
- All technology developed to fight terrorism in other countries ends up being part of the national surveillance apparatus.
- Industrial revolutions always bring an optimistic vision of the capabilities of technology which can be summarised in two fantasies: we can finally make the perfect decisions, and technological implementations are intrinsically better than the human ones.
- Companies use algorithms to calculate the highest prices a person is willing to pay, according to the person and the circumstances. This is especially troublesome in times of crisis.
- When customers are illegally discriminated, companies simply point at the algorithm (mathwashing). This allows discrimination because it is impossible to know how the algorithm made the decision.
- There is less and less interest and capacity to identify new habits because each technology or product takes less time to take over a society, and thus we have less and less time to do so.
- The slot machine addict knows that they are addicted to the dream state that the rhythm of the machine provides. They don’t play to earn money but to float in the Zone, while the addict to the rhythmical and fragmented sequence of digital platforms believes they are addicted to politics or news. They believe they are more awake than ever.
- Digital platforms are a different mass medium than radio or TV because they can choose its audience. It allows telling each group exactly what they want to hear, without others knowing.
- The famous ‘filter bubble’ is not the voluntary confinement of the user away from information sources that contradict their worldview, it is part of an ad model that generates a worldview specifically and deliberately designed for each person, but that makes the person believe it is “the truth”. Those who read Twitter and Facebook do so as if these sites were a newspaper with a slight spin towards the topics the user finds interesting. They don’t read it as if it was content designed and tailored to them by marketing companies and political campaigns.
- Even people who have been manipulated with racist, classist, misogynistic or even fascist arguments need to know that they were manipulated to vote against their own interests. Especially because this phenomenon keeps repeating itself every time there are elections anywhere in the world.
Propaganda y populism
- Populist strategies are deliberately designed to strip an educated society of its intellectual and spiritual resources, turning the population into cynics or children, depending on the ego and stamina of each person.
- The main difference between propaganda and disinformation is that the latter makes up the message, which is designed to trick, frighten, confuse and manipulate the target, while the first simply uses media in ethnically dubious ways to convince of something. Disinformation is based on manipulated photos and documents, fabricated data and out-of-context material to create a distorted or alternative view of reality. Disinformation campaigns start by identifying already-existing cracks in society to exploit them and take them to extremes.
If you can read Spanish, I strongly recommend this book. It doesn’t necessarily say a lot of new things if you are as obsessed as me about privacy and such, but it does an excellent job putting things into context and making a summary of how we got here, the current situation, and the problems we face.
Nov 23, 2019
Some weeks ago I had a very good discussion stemming from a question I asked on the Mastodon instance tabletop.social: “Can anyone give examples of traditional RPGs that aren’t about adventure and/or investigation?”. I had that question in mind because I wanted to test a theory I had, which I will expand on in this post.
Traditional tabletop RPGs are, in general, about adventure and/or investigation, and thus severely limited as a storytelling medium. In contrast, GM-less games make it much, much easier to explore different kinds of stories.
Not to say other kinds of stories aren’t possible in traditional games, but these games make it explicitly harder to tell these other stories and in practice almost no one does.
What are “traditional games”?
For the sake of this discussion, “traditional games” means games that have a narrator and that focus on solving the “simulation” part of the game, as opposed to the story itself. The latter is typically done by defining characters in terms of a set of skills and/or characteristics.
Also note that many games don’t fit into either of these categories: FATE, Powered by the Apocalypse games, Forged in the Dark games, Dread, etc. In those you get a mixed bag, even inside a given category, e.g. I’d argue that Blades in the Dark is very much about adventures, but Quietus (another Forged in the Dark game) is about melancholy horror, which focuses on the character backstories and feelings.
I can think of three arguments to support the thesis above:
- Statistics: most traditional games are about some kind of adventure and/or investigation. When I asked, there were very, very few games in the replies that I considered exceptions, and we were actively looking for them! Some of the suggestions were adventures, just not violent. This cannot be a coincidence.
- The focus on the simulation encourages framing the story as a set of challenges, mostly of a nature that can be seen from the outside (physical or knowledge), as opposed to internal character struggles.
- The strong biases against metagaming, for keeping secrets, and for having relatively large number of players nudge the game and the story towards discovery of some kind (adventure or investigation) because there’s this dynamic in which the narrator “knows” the world and the answers, and the players are trying to uncover that world.
I believe that the last two create a strong bias towards adventure and/or investigation in the same way that videogames have a bias towards violence).
What is “adventure”?
Intuitively, I mean any story that would belong into the “adventure” genre in a film or a novel. But specifically, I’d like to point out that stories that aren’t about adventures are not stories without adversity. They are not boring stories about trivial tasks we do everyday. Most novels, and probably most films, are not really about adventure, and they do have adversity, and they are not about trivial things!
Examples of GM-less games
Now, the argument might be difficult to understand without a list of games with non-adventure themes, so here is a list of GM-less games I find interesting thematically and that show a bit better the diversity of stories (1) we can tell with storytelling games, and (2) are typically not covered by traditional RPGs:
- Ribbon Drive: self-discovery and learning to live in the present.
- Dialect: how an isolated community breaks down and gets swallowed into another, bigger community; the isolated community is defined through the language they used.
- Fiasco: ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control; think the typical Coen Brothers comedy.
- Breaking the Ice: how two people get to know each other, start dating, and maybe stay a couple.
- The Skeletons: undead soldiers slowly discovering who they were, but forced to protect a tomb for centuries.
- The poison of suspicion (free! written by me): forgiveness and what makes life worth living, told through the eyes of a person dying, and the person who poisons them.
- The 5 whys (free! written by me): how disasters sometimes are a chain of coincidences and/or small mistakes.
It doesn’t have to be important for you, and that’s ok! I just think of story games as a medium to tell stories, and it saddens me that a medium with so much potential is used so little. There are so many stories that are worth telling, why limit ourselves to “group of people going on adventures” and “group of people unraveling a mystery”?
Now, I know that many people play these games to disconnect from reality and they only want them to be fun. That’s fine! I’m just talking from the point of view of considering these games a storytelling medium.
One of my pet peeves is the apparent insistence by some people to consider traditional RPGs as storytelling games, but then resisting the idea that we should expect these games to actively help you in shaping a story. If a game just solves some “world simulation”, and expects you to do all the storytelling work… how is that a “storytelling game”? The game itself (ie. the rules) is not helping you create a story!
Thanks for reading so far. If you’re interested in this topic you might want to read a series of articles called D&D: Chasing the Dragon exploring a very similar topic.
Nov 4, 2019
This is the third and last part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.
This last part will be my notes, almost unfiltered, of the whole book. It is going to be long! And there might be typos and slightly-nonsensical sentences, as it’s not edited for the most part. Remember to read the most important ideas of the book in part one of the summary, and the notes about TV’s way of thinking taking over different areas of life, in the second part.
The medium is the metaphor
Today we must look at Las Vegas as a metaphor for the US’ national character and inspiration. Las Vegas is entirely devoted to entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment.
American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display; that, in fact, half the principles of capitalism as praised by Adam Smith or condemned by Karl Marx are irrelevant.
Indeed, in America God favors all those who possess both a talent and a format to amuse, whether they be preachers, athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians, teachers or journalists. In America, the least amusing people are its professional entertainers.
Culture watchers and worriers (those of the type who read books like this one) will know that the examples above are not aberrations but, in fact, clichés. In short, descent into a vast triviality.
How we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.
I use the word “conversation” metaphorically to refer not only to speech but to all techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages.
Another example: The information, the content, that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist (could not exist) in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business.
The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation.
This book is an inquiry into, and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television.
If all of this sounds suspiciously like Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, the medium is the message, I will not disavow the association. In the Bible you can find intimations of the idea that forms of media favour particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture.
Lewis Mumford, for example, has been one of our great noticers. He is not the sort of a man who looks at a clock merely to see what time it is. Not that he lacks interest in the content of clocks; but he is far more interested in how clocks creates the idea of “moment to moment”. “The clock is a piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes”. In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nourishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. Moment to moment, it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created.
In the book “Technics and Civilization”, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. The inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by Enlightenment philosophers.
I bring all this up because what my book is about is how our own tribe is undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics. What I mean to point out here is that the introduction into a culture of a technique such as writing or a clock is not merely an extension of man’s power to bind time but a transformation of his way of thinking (and, of course, of the content of his culture).
Start from the assumption that in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself. It has been pointed out, eg. that the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century not only made it possible to improve defective vision but suggested the idea that human beings need not accept as final either the endowments of nature of the ravages of time. The idea that our bodies as well as our minds are improvable. I do not think it goes too far to say that there is a link between the invention of the eyeglasses in the twelfth century and gene-splitting research in the twentieth.
Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever “languages” we find it possible and convenient to employ. We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.
Media as epistemology
The book’s intention is to show that a great media-metaphor shift happened in the US, which resulted in public discourse becoming dangerous nonsense.
This is not a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on TV: the focus is on epistemology, not aesthetics. There’s on objection to TV’s junk. In fact, that’s the good part. Besides, we measure a culture not by its trivialities, but by what it considers important. TV is in fact more dangerous when it tries to be serious. And, sadly, many intellectuals and critics often ask more serious stuff to appear on TV.
The important part of epistemology that is relevant to this book is the definition of truth and the sources from which such definitions come.
Media sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, goodness, or beauty; and it’s always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth. Excellent examples, including oral law, on p. 18-22.
The concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of the form of expression. It must appear in its proper clothing or it’s not acknowledged. But the book doesn’t make the case for epistemological relativism: some ways of truth-telling are better than others. In fact, the book argues that a TV-based epistemology has grave consequences for public life.
Since intelligence is primarily defined as one’s capacity to grasp the truth of things, what a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication.
Three points to defend against possible counterarguments:
- The book doesn’t claim that changes to media bring about changes in the structure of people’s minds of in their cognitive ability. The argument is limited to saying that a new medium changes the structure of discourse, by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favouring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content.
- The epistemological shift has not yet included everyone and everything. Other forms of conversation always remain. However, that TV and print both exist doesn’t imply parity.
- TV-based epistemology pollutes public communication, not everything.
In short, as TV-based epistemology takes over, the seriousness, clarity, and value of public discourse dangerously declines.
The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quality of printed matter but because of its monopoly. Today there’s more printed matter available than before, but from the 17th century to the late 19th, printed was virtually all that was available.
The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere, eg. in how people talked. Tocqueville remarks on this in “Democracy in America”. “An American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a metting, and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say ‘Gentlemen’ to the person with whom he is conversing.”
The typographic mind
In the 19th century in the US, it was normal that politicians had seven-hour debates, and for people to “take the stump” and talk for hours about some topic. Who was the audience? By current standards, their attention span was extraordinary.
The language of many of these debates and speeches was strongly influenced by writing: speeches were written in advance, and rebuttals, too. So, what are the implications for public discourse of a written, or typographic, metaphor? What is the character of its content? What does it demand of the public? What uses of the mind does it favour?
To engage in the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. Not that analytic thought isn’t possible outside of the written word: instead, the point is to show the predisposition of a cultural mindset.
Even in commerce, the resonances of rational, typographic discourse were to be found. If we may take advertising to be the voice of commerce, then its history tells very clearly that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries those with products to sell assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, analytical. Indeed, the history of newspaper advertising in American may be considered, all by itself, as a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment.
In the 1890s, advertisement started using illustrations, photographs, and nonpropositional use of language with the introduction of slogans. By the turn of the century, advertisers dropped reason to became depth psychology and aesthetic theory.
The peek-a-boo world
Telegraphy did something Morse didn’t foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make “one neighborhood of the whole country”. It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse. The telegraph not only permitted a conversation between Maine and Texas: it insisted upon it. And that would require the content of that conversation to be different to what people were used to.
As Henry David Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those with whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. We became accustomed to context-free information: information that doesn’t alter our plans for the day, or causes you to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve. Instead, it gives us something to talk about.
The telegraph made public discourse essentially incoherent. If a book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past (and thus civilised people consider book burning a vile form of anti-intellectualism), the telegraph demands that we burn its contents.
The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: its language was the language of headlines–sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement to be forgotten with dispatch #twitter “Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.
Photography also helped replace language as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality. Excellent example on p. 75.
Crossword puzzles became popular at just that point. This suggests that where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use: crossword puzzles, cocktail parties, radio shows, TV game shows, and Trivial Pursuit.
Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining. Of course there’s nothing wrong with entertainment itself: the problem is when we try to live in it.
We have now accepted the epistemology of TV: its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality. The goal of the book is to make this epistemology visible again: try to demonstrate that TV’s way of knowing is hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that TV’s conversation promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious TV” is a contradiction in terms; and that TV speaks in only one persistent voice, the voice of entertainment. In short, TV is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.
The age of show business
The assumption that new media is just an amplification of old media is wrong, in the same way that cars are not fast horses. What is TV? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce?
The problem is not that TV presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, ie. entertainment is the supraideology of all discourse on TV. The assumption is that everything presented in it is for our amusement and pleasure.
Sustained, complex talk does not play well on TV. It can be made to play tolerably well, but this it not TV at its best, and it is not TV that most people will choose to watch.
It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest. Films, records, and radio are, of course, equally devoted to entertaining the culture, and their effects in altering the style of American discourse are not insignificant. But TV is different because it encompasses all forms of discourse. No one goes to a movie to find out about government policy or the latest scientific advances.
It is not merely that on the TV screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse; it is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.
Prior to the 1984 presidential election there was a TV “debate” between the two candidates. They had five minutes to address complex questions, so complexity, documentation and logic can play no role. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with “giving off” impressions, which is what TV does best. The relevant question became “who had KO’d whom?”, and the answer was determined by the “style” of the men.
Now… this (news on TV)
“Now… this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see.
TV didn’t invent this world view, but in TV’s “news of the day” we see the “Now… this” mode of discourse in its boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.
It’s frightening to think that the perception of the truth of a report rests heavily on the acceptability of the newscaster. The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. This is a matter of considerable importance. If on TV, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.
All TV news programs begin, and, and are somewhere in between punctuated with music. I have found very few Americans who regard this custom as peculiar, which fact I have taken as evidence for the dissolution of lines of demarcation between serious public discourse and entertainment. If there were no music, viewers would expect something truly alarming, possibly life-altering. But as long as the music is there as a frame for the program, the viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about; that, in fact, the events that are reported have as much relation to reality as do scenes in a play.
Another feature of the stylized dramatic performance is the length of each news story: 45 seconds.
The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear, it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim that TV news is designed as a serious form of public discourse. Imagine what you would think of me, and this book, if I were to pause here, tell you that I will return to my discussion in a moment, and then proceed to write a few words in behalf of United Airlines or the Chase Manhattan Bank. You would rightly think that I had no respect for you and, certainly, no respect for the subject. And if I did this not once but several times in each chapter, you would think the whole enterprise unworthy of your attention. [How does this affect newspapers, paper and digital?]
One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtaposition do to our sense of the world as a serious place. The damage is especially massive to youthful viewers who depend so much on TV for their clues as to how to respond to the world. In watching TV news, they, more than any other segment of the audience, are drawn into an epistemology based on the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely. [4chan, fake news?]
I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a TV news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. For those who think it’s hyperbole, I offer the following description of TV news by Robert MacNeil, executive editor and co-anchor of the “MacNeil-Lehrer News-hour”. The idea, he writes, “is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required… to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.”
Everyone had an opinion on the Iranian Hostage Crisis, because everyone is entitled to an opinion and it’s useful to have one for when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions. What is happening is that TV is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. And in saying that TV news entertain but don’t inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?
“There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies” (Walter Lippmann) The reporters who cover the White House are ready and able to expose lies, and thus create the grounds for informed and indignant opinion. But apparently the public declines to take an interest. To press reports of White House dissembling, the public has replied with Queen Victoria’s famous line: “We are not amused”. Perhaps if the President’s lies could be demonstrated by pictures and accompanied by music the public would raise a curious eyebrow. We do well to remember that President Nixon did not begin to come undone until his lies were given a theatrical setting at the Watergate hearings. But we do not have anything like that here. Apparently, President Reagan does is say things that are not entirely true. And there is nothing entertaining about that.
But there is a subtler point to be made here. Many of the President’s “misstatements” fall in the category of contradictions–mutually exclusive assertions that cannot possibly both, in the same context, be true. “In the same context” is the key phrase here, for it is context that defines contradiction. Disappear the context, or fragment it, and contradiction disappears. And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.
There is nothing “Orwellian” about it. The President does not have the press under his thumb. All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.
I do not mean that the trivialisation of public information is all accomplished on TV. I mean that TV is the paradigm for our conception of public information. In presenting news to us packaged as vaudeville, TV induces other media to do the same, so that the total information environment begins to mirror TV. [Memory of people complaining that you needed a lot of context to understand the news]
Shuffle off to Bethlehem (religion on TV)
It is the perfect TV sermon–theatrical, emotional, and in a curious way comforting. For TV, bless its heart, is not congenial to messages of naked hate. You never know is watching, so it is best not to be wildly offensive. There are at present thirty-five TV stations owned and operated by religious organisations.
Two conclusions: (1) On TV, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away: no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. (2) What makes these TV preachers the enemy of religious experience is not their weaknesses, but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work.
Most Americans, including preachers, have difficulty accepting that not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another. Not everything is televisable, or, more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence.
There are several characteristics of TV that make authentic religious experience impossible: there’s no way to consecrate a space; impossible to force certain rules of conduct; no aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness.
It’s fair to say that attracting an audience is the goal of religious programs, just as it is for “The A-Team” and “Dallas”. The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want”. That’s an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader who offered people what they wanted. Only what they need. But TV is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is “user-friendly”.
I believe I’m not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. There are counterarguments to the idea that TV degrades religion. Among them is that spectacle is hardly a stranger to religion. The difference is that the accoutrements are integral parts of the history and doctrines of the religion itself. The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment. The distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.
The danger is not that religion has become the content of TV shows, but that TV shows may become the content of religion.
Reach out and elect someone (politics on TV)
In “The Last Hurrah”, a character claims that politics is the greatest spectator sport in America. In 1966, Ronald Reagan used a different metaphor: “Politics is just like show business”. If it was the former, there would be several virtues to attach to its name: clarity, honesty, excellence. If it’s the latter, politics’ main business would be to please the crowd, and its principal instrument would be artifice. The idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity of honesty but to appear as if you are. And what the other matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising. [How new is this?]
This chapter’s purpose is to show how advertising has devastated political discourse. But first, its effects on commerce itself: it has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. Capitalism, as originally conceived, is based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate transactions, eg. children cannot make contracts. In America, there even exists in law a requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational decision-making is seriously impaired.
The TV commercial is not at all about the products to be consumed, but about the potential consumers of products. About their fears, fancies, and dreams. This would come as a great surprise to Adam Smith. The TV commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas. It has accomplished this in two ways: (1) by requiring its form to be used in political campaigns (see examples on p. 129), and (2) because the TV commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americas would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of TV commercials (see examples on p. 130). Short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; drama is to be preferred over exposition; being sold solutions it better than being confronted with questions about problems. Such beliefs would naturally have implications for our orientation to political discourse.
Some time ago, voters barely knew who the candidate was and, in any case, were not preoccupied with his character and personal life. The point is that TV does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, TV makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom, if we mean by “better” being more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of the interrelations of economic systems, and so on. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image”. On TV the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience. And therein lies one of the most powerful influences of the TV commercial on political discourse. We are not permitted to know who is best at being President, but whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent.
History can play no significant role in image politics. For history is of value only to someone who takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past which may provide the present with nourishing traditions. A book is all history, everything about it takes one back in time, and it promotes a sense of a coherent and usable past. In 1980, Nobel Prize winner Czelaw Milosz remarked in his acceptance speech that our age is characterised by a “refusal to remember” and he cited, the “shattering” [this is the word used in the book! I wonder what Mr. Postman would have thought of modern social media –Esteban] fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place. Slowly, we are being rendered unfit to remember.
In the Age of TV, our information environment is completely different from that it was in 1783; we have less to fear from government restraints than from TV glut; in fact, we have no way of protecting ourselves from information disseminated by corporate America; therefore, the battles for liberty must be fought on different terrains from where they once were. Eg. the banning of books from school libraries is now largely irrelevant, and distracting; but TV clearly does impair the student’s freedom to read.
Those who run TV do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture of Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously [Social media? YouTube?] But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual [What about documentaries and such?].
Tyrants have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse. That is why tyrants have always relied, and still do, on censorship.
Teaching as an amusement activity
We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street” [Evidence?] It does not mean that “Sesame Street” is not educational; it is, in promoting what might be called a TV style of learning. And this style is hostile to book-learning or school-learning. As a TV show, it doesn’t encourage children to love school, but to love TV.
It is important to add that whether or not “Sesame Street” teaches children letters and numbers is irrelevant. John Dewey observed that the least important thing of a lesson is its contents: “Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes… may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history… For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future”. And one is entirely justified in saying that the major educational enterprise now being undertaken in the US is not happening in its classrooms but in the home, in front of the TV, and under the jurisdiction not of school administrators and teachers but of network executives and entertainers. I don’t mean to imply that the situation is a result of a conspiracy or even that those who control TV want this responsibility.
TV’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses. You will find it said by some that children will learn best when they are interested in what they are learning. You will find it said that reason is best cultivated when it is rooted in robust emotional ground. You will even find some who say that learning is best facilitated by a loving and benign teacher. But no one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively achieved when education is entertainment.
We might say there are three commandments that form the philosophy of the education which TV offers:
- Thou shalt have to prerequisites: each program must be a complete package in itself, no previous knowledge is to be required. This is why you will never see a TV program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. In doing away with the idea of continuity in education, TV undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.
- Thou shalt induce no perplexity: perplexity is the superhighway to low ratings. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount.
- Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt: arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn TV into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, TV-teaching always takes the form of storytelling. Nothing will be taught on TV that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context.
The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment. See references to relevant studies on p. 151. One of the conclusions from several studies is that “the meanings secured from TV are more likely to be segmented, concrete and less inferential, and those secured from reading have a higher likelihood of being better tied to one’s stored knowledge and thus are more likely to be inferential”. [I wonder if that would also hold for modern video essays and documentaries, like on eg. YouTube]
What is of greatest significance about “The Voyage of Mimi” (a multimedia educational project, see p. 149) is that the content selected was obviously chosen because it is eminently televisible. Why are these students studying the behaviour of humpback whales? I would suggest that the project was conceived by someone’s asking the question “What is TV good for?” not “What is education good for?” The students will learn from that project that learning is a form of entertainment or, more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form of an entertainment, and ought to.
The Huxleyan warning
Huxley teaches that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face. In this prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. Those who speak of this invite the charge that they are wimps or public nuisances. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognise, and oppose, than a Huxleyan. Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?
What is happening in American is not the design of an articulated ideology, but it’s an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, discussion or opposition. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology, but to be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple [This book was published in 1985].
Now, about remedies for the affliction: not everyone believes a cure is needed, and there probably isn’t any. In spite of this, two solutions are offered: (1) we must not delude ourselves with preposterous notions such as the straight Luddite position, for Americans will not shut down any part of their technological apparatus. To suggest this is to suggest nothing at all. Almost equally unrealistic is to expect nontrivial modifications in the availability of media. That said, one must applaud the efforts of those who see some relief in limiting certain kinds of content on TV (eg. banning political commercials in the same way cigarette and liquor commercials are banned), even if I’m not very optimistic about anyone taking the suggestion seriously. Improving the quality of TV programs is not good, either: TV serves us most when presenting junk-entertainment, and it’s precisely when trying to cover more serious topics that it’s a menace.
One of the problems is that we haven’t learned what TV is. What is information? What are its various forms? What conceptions of intelligence, wisdom and learning does each form insist upon? What conceptions does each form neglect or mock? What are the main psychic effects of each form? What is the relation between information and reason? What is the kind of information that best facilitates thinking? These questions are the means through which it might be possible for Americans to begin talking back to their TV. For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers. This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To which I might add that questions about the psychic, political and social effects of information are as applicable to the computer as to TV (eg. a central thesis of computer technology, namely that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data, will go unexamined).
Only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over TV, or the computer, or any other medium. And how is such media consciousness to be achieved? There are only two answers that come to mind:
- The first is nonsensical: to create TV programs whose intent would be to show how TV recreates and degrades our conception of news, political debate, religious thought, etc. It’s nonsensical because TV would have the last laugh. In order to command an audience large enough to make a difference, the programs would have to be vastly amusing.
- The second is desperate: to rely on the only mass medium of communication that, in theory, is capable of addressing the problem, namely our schools. The process rarely works. In the matter at hand, there is even less reason than usual to expect it to, because schools haven’t even gotten around to examining the role of the printed word in shaping our culture. And yet there is reason to suppose that the situation is not hopeless. Educators are not unaware of the effects of TV on their students. Besides, it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. We are in a race between education and disaster, and we need to understand the politics and epistemology of our media.
Nov 3, 2019
This is the second part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.
This second part will cover more concrete ideas about how TV’s mentality has taken over politics, education, and other areas. See the first part on this blog. The third and last part will be my full, mostly unedited notes.
EDIT: Added link to the last post.
In TV news are presented not only fragmented, but without context, consequences, or value. In short, without essential seriousness: as pure entertainment.
The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness conveyed by the actor/reporter. Political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.
No matter how grave any fragment of news may appear, it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim of TV news as serious public discourse. Imagine seeing that in a book!
One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtaposition do to our sense of the world as a serious place. One is drawn into the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely. [Does this help explain 4chan and fake news? –Esteban]
TV is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation (in the CIA/KGB sense): misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial–which creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. We are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?
Contradictions, ie. mutually exclusive assertions that cannot possibly be both true in the same context, have ceased to exist because the context has disappeared or fragmented, and thus there cannot be any contradiction. The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.
Two main ideas: (1) On TV, religion, like everything else, is presented as entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away: no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. (2) What makes these TV preachers the enemy of religious experience is not their weaknesses, but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work.
There are several characteristics of TV that make authentic religious experience impossible: there’s no way to consecrate a space; impossible to force certain rules of conduct; no aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness.
Attracting an audience is the goal of religious programs, and they do so by offering people something they want. There is no great religious leader who offered people what they wanted. Only what they need. But TV is not well suited to offering people what they need.
When religion is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment, and that distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.
Politics are also taken over by TV, and so the main idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity of honesty but to appear as if you are. That is, advertising. In contrast, some time ago, voters barely knew who the candidate was and, in any case, were not preoccupied with his character and personal life.
Advertising has spoiled capitalism (there is no possible rational decision-making with modern advertising), and also politics, which have adopted advertising’s way of working: short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; drama is to be preferred over exposition; being sold solutions it better than being confronted with questions about problems. In fact, TV makes it impossible to know which politician is better (= more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of economic systems, etc.) than whom. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image”. On TV the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience.
As a TV show, “Sesame Street” doesn’t encourage children to love school, but to love TV. Whether or not it teaches children letters and numbers is irrelevant because the least important thing of a lesson is its contents: collateral learning of attitudes is often more important than the spelling or geography lesson, for these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.
TV’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses. No one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively achieved when education is entertainment. And education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment (see references to relevant studies on p. 151: “the meanings secured from TV are more likely to be segmented, concrete and less inferential, and those secured from reading have a higher likelihood of being better tied to one’s stored knowledge and thus are more likely to be inferential”). [How would this compare to modern video essays and documentaries, like on eg. YouTube? –Esteban]
This part of the summary explores the specific ways in which TV’s way of thinking has taken over politics, news, education, and religion. Remember to check the first part of the summary for the most important ideas in the book, and check the third and last part of the summary if you want the full notes. Or, you know, read the book, because it’s great!
Nov 2, 2019
This is the first part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.
This first part will cover the eight most important ideas in the book. The second part will cover more concrete ideas about how TV’s mentality has taken over politics, education, and other areas. The third and last part will be my notes, almost unfiltered, of the whole book. That last part is going to be long!
EDIT: Added links to the other posts.
How a society conducts conversations has a strong influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture. Eg. “the news of the day”, ie. disconnected events happening far away, did not (and could not) exist in a world that lacked the media to advertise them quickly and efficiently. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation.
As TV-based epistemology takes over, the seriousness, clarity, and value of public discourse dangerously declines. However, this book is not a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on TV: the focus is on epistemology (in this book’s context, epistemology is “the definition of truth and the sources from which such definitions come”; see excellent examples, including oral law, on p. 18-22), not aesthetics. That is, there is no objection to “junk” on TV, and that’s in fact its good part.
Telegraphy gave a new meaning to public discourse by making relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those with whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. We became accustomed to context-free information: information that doesn’t alter our plans for the day, or causes you to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve. Instead, it gives us something to talk about.
The telegraph made public discourse essentially incoherent. If a book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past (and thus civilised people consider book burning a vile form of anti-intellectualism), the telegraph demands that we burn its contents. This makes us “unable” to remember history, which has many negative implications.
The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: its language was the language of headlines–sensational, fragmented, impersonal. It was to be noted with excitement to be forgotten with dispatch. “Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning: not understanding implications, background, or connections, but instead knowing of lots of things. Excellent example on p. 75. [Compare to social media –Esteban]
We have now accepted the epistemology of TV: its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality. TV’s way of knowing is hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that TV’s conversation promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious TV” is a contradiction in terms; and that TV speaks in only one persistent voice, the voice of entertainment. In short, TV is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.
Huxley teaches that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face. In this prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognise, and oppose, than a Huxleyan. Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?
To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. [This book was published in 1985! –Esteban]
This is a very interesting book, although some sections are a little bit abstract. However, in general it is fairly easy to read, and everything is explained quite well.
If you have any interest in ways of thinking, especially at a society level, or politics, or media, this book is highly recommended.
Sep 14, 2019
Recently a friend mentioned that there’s an official RPG guide for some TV show. He was asking for suggestions for an alternative system to play in that world because he didn’t like the suggested system (Cypher). Mostly jokingly, I “strongly” suggested he created a custom GM-less story game for it.
Although I wasn’t really serious, that made me think about why that was genuinely my first reaction. It also made me think about what exactly I like about my idea of “story games”, and what I dislike about more traditional systems like Cypher. This post is a way to try to order my ideas, and give my friend a better response than Twitter could ever deliver.
First of all, you have to take into account that I care about the story part of role-playing games, and not very much at all about the game part. Second, I don’t really have a stable group, and I strongly prefer one-shots to any sort of campaign: I’m usually more interested in a focused story than in following what happens to a cast of characters over time.
System does matter
Ron Edwards, of (among others) Sorcerer fame, said that “System Does Matter”. Although Ron Edwards doesn’t get into that, the fact that the rules aren’t neutral implies that they make a difference in how the game feels, the kind of things you tend to do, the parts you tend to focus on, and which kinds of stories you tend to tell with it. For example: no matter how traditional it is, Call of Cthulhu would feel very different to play if it didn’t have a sanity rating. Fewer characters would run away from the monsters, and the stereotype of the game would be “fighting Lovecraftian monsters” instead of “going insane or dying”.
At a higher level, one could say that traditional systems that focus on skills and the minutae of simulating every small action encourage stories about challenges (eg. D&D, Call of Cthulhu, OSR games), whereas systems that think in terms of drama and scenes encourage stories following whichever flavour or genre the system is designed for (eg. Dread generates horror stories with mounting tension; Night Witches generates stories about constant stress, death, and the grind of war). And yes, I realise there are many games that are somewhere in between or have elements of both!
“But you can tell stories with any game!”
That is correct! However, if the system doesn’t help you at all, and in fact encourages you and your players to focus on other things, why use it to tell stories? Also, one could argue that if the rules don’t support the drama/storytelling, then that’s not a very good medium to tell stories. And note that I’m specifically not arguing that it makes it a bad game, just that it’s not very helpful for the storytelling part of it. For a (much) longer discussion about this point, read the excellent D&D: Chasing the Dragon (but make sure you read the whole thing, as the ending puts some things in context; I found myself agreeing with a lot more after reading the last part).
Another thing I like about many narrative games is that they don’t need a “scenario” decided beforehand to play: in many of these games, you generate the story collaboratively, as you play. So in many cases the system doesn’t only help you keep the drama in focus, but even generate the story itself!
“But I don’t need help telling a story”
It could very well be, but you’re doing more work than you could be doing if you had a system that supported the style of story you want to tell. Also, I have the impression that lots of people who think that, tend to tell stories about some kind of “adventure” a group of people have… and there are so many other exciting stories to tell!
“But they’re limited!”
This is a critique I have read several times: that narrative games, because they are focused in one genre/mood, are “limited” because you cannot tell any kind of story with a given game. I don’t understand why that would be a bad thing: if you care about the story, usually a narrative game for that specific mood or genre will work better than doing the narrative heavy-lifting yourself. So why wouldn’t you use a narrative game adapted to the kind of mood you want to play? It feels to me like complaining that you cannot tell an action story with the principles of horror films. Of course you can’t! The point is to use whichever principles work for the genre and mood you want for your story, instead of you trying to find some principles that work for every genre, or you doing all the heavy lifting. Besides, indie narrative games are usually very simple and easy to learn right before playing, so they don’t really need nearly as much investment as most traditional games.
The idea of using a single system for any story you want to tell seems a bit ridiculous to me. But if you insist, you can have something very close to that by playing PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) games, ie. games based on the excellent Apocalypse World. It’s still a game for every mood or genre you want to play, but the games have very similar principles and mechanics, so they’re trivial to pick up if you know other PbtA games.
May 31, 2019
This is the third and final part of my summary of the book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”, by Donald Maass. It’s a book about writing fiction, as you can imagine. This third part will explore chapters “The emotional plot” and “The reader’s emotional journey”. I skipped the last chapter, “The writer’s emotional journey”, because I didn’t have a lot of notes about it. You can find the first part and the second part on this blog.
The emotional plot
It’s common to motivate characters with public stakes (“if I don’t do X, Y will happen”). Those are fine, but personal stakes (from inner need and yearning) are more powerful. The rest of the chapter details methods for building emotional plots.
Tips on p. 90 (in short: find something warm and human your character cares about, and open the story with that feeling. Now find something curious, puzzling, or weird, and highlight it, but without giving away too much about it).
Why readers really fall in love with protagonists
Longing and inner yearning are more powerful than need.
The emotional midpoint
The midpoint is when the protagonist is utterly alone with themselves, defined only by hope or dread. It’s a second when the story is suspended, unable to go backward and about to plunge forward into the unknown: the character being face-to-face with fear, failure, a dilemma, or death; a moment of truth when a secret is revealed, the protagonist is shamed, or their actions are shown to have terrible consequences. Whatever its purpose, it’s important to mark it and make space for the reader to experience it. Tips on p. 99 (in short: write about how the protagonist viewed themselves before this point, and what about that view is no longer true; think about what your protagonist can see that couldn’t before, what can no longer be seen in the distance behind, what is coming, and what is never again to be).
Failure and defeat
In crisis, the past is erased and the future is a void. It’s the end of identity. Tips on p. 104 (in short: think about what makes the failure excruciating, and work backwards setting it up so it hurts more: who is counting on the protagonists, who is let down, etc).
Catalyst and catharsis
Tips on p. 108 (in short: what frustrates your protagonist? Find three new ways to increase the need and one way to punish your protagonist for having that need. Also think about in which ways can they act out, and what they can destroy in a fit of rage over this. Now, what can they do or say that they couldn’t before? Show it).
Scenes in which nothing happens
Tips on p. 111 (in short: identify your protagonist’s greatest inner need, that would be there regardless of the plot, and write a short paragraph or sentence explaining it; then, pick a scene in the middle of your story, and rewrite it using the short paragraph as a start; when you’re done, delete the first paragraph: is the inner need and the feeling still evident?)
Emotional goals in scenes
Tips on p. 115 (in short: look at the scene you’re writing right now. Who is the POV character? Identify the scene goal [what the character has to do, get, seek, or avoid], and then shift focus to the emotional goal: what in this scene is pulling the character closer of farther from the emotional goal? How does this character attempt to reach the emotional goal in spite of what’s happening? Write a passage that shows all this).
Emotional breakthroughs: getting real
Getting real is what happens when the scene’s subtext bursts through. Sudden shift in tone, unexpected openness, show of force, begging for compassion, etc. This shows that we’re in the middle of a struggle that has nothing to do with the plot. Tips on p. 118. In short: try to be a NYC cop, Mother Teresa, Oscar Wilde, or the Oracle of Delphi for one of your characters. Does the result help you pierce through the fog and the artifice? If so, use it.
Plotting the non-plot-driven novel
There’s nothing wrong with writing about the human condition with stuck characters, but these are hard to write as they can easily become passive. The recommended approach is to play off your reader’s feeling of impatience, expressed through unspoken questions like “why can’t the protagonist just get what he wants? why can’t she simply talk it out? why can’t he just walk away or quit? why can’t she simply change?” Tips on p. 123 (in short: work with the four questions).
In these kind of stories it’s important that the reader doesn’t feel lost, and can keep a mental map of where the story is. Tips on p. 127.
The true ending
The job is not finished at “Happily Ever After”: everyone else in the protagonist’s world has to be ok, too. The highest human good is not gaining happiness, but giving back.
The reader’s emotional journey
Tears, rage, and terror are big, but notice that when they occur thy are preceded by something. They come about when conditions are right. They also carry with them attendant feelings. Big emotional experiences are engineered by circumstances.
- Forgiveness: The act of forgiveness is a fundamental change that occurs, most important, in the one who must forgive.
- Sacrifice: It can be big or small: what makes the sacrifice moving is not its size but how much it is needed.
- Betrayal: It isn’t the act of betrayal that’s so bad, but who does it, and how.
- Moral dilemma: They work best when the stakes are both high and personal.
- Death: Sadness in itself is not a feeling that we want, but sorrow is. The former is a door closed; the latter is a door open to something good that we don’t want to give up. To make death poignant, make life beautiful.
Extra tips on p. 144.
They are more than flags, eagles, roses, rings, or rain. You can make symbols out of anything. Tips on p. 150.
Story worlds we don’t want to leave
The buildup of tension and its release is one of the big ways that a big story becomes big. Even better is when the tension comes from something good that we hope will happen, rather than from fear that something bad will happen. Thus the first task when creating a world is to create hope. The stronger the hope, and the more we fear is won’t be fulfilled, the greater will be the emotional release when things turn out ok.
Making the world a better place for others may inspire admiration, but what grabs us is a hope that for something that we want for ourselves. World peace vs. getting a smile from the beauty that serves at the coffee shop.
Hostile environments don’t make us want to stay. That goes for a story’s moral values as well. In that place, goodness reigns… or will reign again, once the protagonist wins.
Tips on p. 154 (in short: think about how your protagonist feels about the world, about where they find comfort or goodness or refuge [if it’s a hostile place], and what warms your protagonist inside. Find a way for the readers to feel that pleasure, comfort, security, or delight right away).
Change is the goal of every character and the true ending of every story. We want to know that despite the difficulty we can all change. Tips on p. 163 (in short: start from the new self, and work backwards: how’s the old self, what sparks the need for change, add some mentor and devil, find when must change happen, and find the most dramatic way for your protagonist to become their new self).
Seasons of the self
We go through transitions, and the self-awareness of who I was and who I am becoming now is very significant, maybe more so than what the characters do. Tips on p. 167 (in short: figure out the periods of the characters’s life, and which events started the transitions; figure out which phase the character is leaving behind at the beginning of the story, and what phase they’re heading towards; somewhere in the middle, change is being forced on the character: what makes the protagonist aware, what is good about changing, and why does your protagonist want to stay the same?)
Protagonists and other characters always change one another. Tips on p. 171 (in short: look at your current scene and figure out who wins and who loses in an interaction; then, figure out how your POV character is changed by that interaction; make a chart with characters and how they influence each other’s view of self, the other, the problems in the plot, people in general, etc).
Feelings without names
Unique feelings are situation-specific. They flare and then perish quickly, but leave a trace. The smaller and more specific the imagery, the more universal and expansive the unspoken feelings of the POV character. Small visual details turn into big invisible feelings.
I thought the book was quite interesting, and it made me think of, or realise, many things about fiction and writing. I had mixed feelings about the insistence on happy endings and good characters when I read it, but I guess there’s something to it.
In any case, I hope you enjoyed the summary!