Social Conditioning

Alan Jacobs:

I don’t think we reckon with this phenomenon often enough, or seriously enough. The major social-media companies have been conducting for the past decade an implementation of B. K. Skinner’s principles more massive than anything we can truly imagine. They have found ways to get billions of people to volunteer for the experiments and devote sometimes hours a day to pursuing them. Operant conditioning at this level works. And its effects are difficult to undo.

One way to see this: often when people get sick of Facebook or Twitter or Instagram and find some other online venue, they simply bring with them to their new location the habits they learned in the previous ones: the snark of Twitter, the rants of Facebook, the posturing of Instagram. It’s like the old line about travel: wherever you go, there you are. It’s hard enough for people to leave Facebook or Instagram or Twitter behind; what’s almost impossible to leave behind is the person that those sites’ algorithmic behaviorism turned you into.

Having recently deleted my Twitter account, I’m officially off social media. And I can tell you, Jacobs is not wrong. The withdrawal symptoms of FOMO (fear of missing out) and a general disorientation about where and what to give my attention to online are powerful forces that make me wonder if I made a poor decision. I’ve been conditioned a) to expect the internet to behave like a social media site, and b) to find the deluge of information that floods a social media feed comforting.

It’s probably too soon for me to make a true assessment of this decision. So, I plan to stick to it for a while. In the meantime, I’ll try to hang around here a little more as I work through the withdrawal symptoms.

George Saunders on Writing

I might be overly concerned with my writing style, but every time I finish a piece, I’m disheartened at how “mechanical” it sounds. It’s as if I’m stacking LEGO blocks from different LEGO sets on top of one another, creating a recognizable but oddly proportioned figure. Part of the problem, I think, stems from the fact that I teach writing to junior high and high school students–i.e., I spend most of my time teaching writing formulas and structures so that students can work on plugging in the right information in the right places.

The result: I sometimes impose an artificial structure onto my ideas, instead of allowing the ideas to take shape naturally on the page. Structure can’t be abandoned entirely, but I can’t be authoritarian about it either.

The folks at the Literary Hub recently interviewed George Saunders about some of the best writing advice he’s received. The following excerpt got right to the heart of my own writer-ly insecurities. It also reminded me of Alan Jacobs’ dictum, “Read at Whim!”

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Once, when I was a student, I cornered my mentor and hero Tobias Wolff at a party and assured him that I had sworn off comedic sci-fi and was now writing “real literature.” I think he sensed, correctly, that 1) this was not an attitude that was going to produce my best work but 2) there was going to be no arguing me off of that position (only time could do that). So he just said, “Well, good. Just don’t lose the magic.”

Which I then proceeded to go off and do, for about four years. The “advice” part of that came home on the day I made the breakthrough that would lead to my first book—that is, when the magic (finally) came back. The new writing was fun and (see above) ostensibly entertaining—it came out of a place of joy and orneriness, instead of a place of stiffness or control or pedanticism. And to suddenly recall his advice at just that moment was a sort of force-accelerator, and I’ve never forgotten that, for me, “magic” has to be the operative word—getting the prose to go somewhere and do something you couldn’t have foreseen at the outset.
I saw that this distinction I’d been making between “entertainment” and “literature” was not meaningful, not at the highest levels.

So, this principle of proceeding not by head (ideas, concepts, plans) buy by heart (moving ahead line-by-line, trusting my ear, trying to communicate with and entertain an imaginary reader, being ok with being lost and even seeing this as an indicator that the story wants to be more than I have in mind for it) has stayed with me and has led me to think that, when self recedes, there is something else that rushes in to replace it, and that thing is smarter and kinder and just more trustworthy than self, i.e., the self we create through control and rumination.

The Pleasures of Reading

I’ve been thinking about how we read, why we read, and whether it can be done well.

For example, check out my review of Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Image result for the pleasures of reading in an age of distractionIn addition to Prior’s book, I’ve also been reading two other books about reading.

The first is Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading Well in a Distracted Age. A couple things I’ve enjoyed about Jacobs’s book:

Jacobs does not offer strategies, techniques, or formula for getting the most out of a book. He simply explains why and how reading can be enjoyable. His first foundational principle for reading for pleasure is to read at whim:

…for heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout–some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called ‘social and ethical hygiene.’ (17)

This is a timely word. In a numbers-obsessed culture–we count steps, calories, proteins, words, pages, sleep hours, etc.–everything has become a standard and a burden. Whimsy is a byword, and joy is suspect.

Don’t misunderstand Jacobs. Whim isn’t an excuse for thoughtlessness and bad taste. If taken seriously, whim will lead to ever expanding horizons, greater beauty, and a hunger for deeper truth. Jacobs makes a distinction between whim and Whim:

In its lower-case version, whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge–it can become for us a gracious Swiss pedagogue of the mind. (41)

Diligently reading at Whim means being selective, choosing only those books that bring the most pleasure and stir up interest. This is harder than it sounds. Especially, if like me, you constantly stand under the dark cloud of “BOOKS YOU SHOULD READ TO BE EDUCATED.” But reading strictly for numbers and standards isn’t reading. Reading, if done well, is a transformative experience (e.g., On Reading Well). It will change a habit of thought or perception. Reading at Whim facilitates reading well because it precImage result for what we see when we readipitates the enjoyment necessary for reading slowly, carefully, and lovingly.

I’d like to think I’ve had such an experience recently. I was at the publicly library and (at whim!) picked up Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read. This is not the kind of book I would normally think to read. But as soon as I flipped through a few of the pages, I added it to my library stack. It’s a fun but also serious analysis of how our minds project images of characters from a story based on the words we see on the page. If I’m not careful, thinking aImage result for what we see when we readbout how reading works while I’m reading can cause me to stall out. It’s like thinking about thinking while thinking: at some point the system crashes.

But Mendelsund’s approach, using images alongside words, avoids the usual problems of reading about reading because he forces your mind to process the same information in multiple ways. The result, so far, is an enriched reading experience. I don’t think I’ll read the same way again.

Happy reading!