🙌✨The Nexialist #0071
Eurovision “Getting Political” | Linguistic Genocide | Pied-à-Terre | Namecore | DALL-E 2 | Youtuber Brain | A Messiah Won’t Save Us
Welcome to another week of links&spasms from the internet ft. my brain, The Nexialist
This week it seemed there was a clear common thread across the links that appeared to me, from chats with friends, algorithms, news feeds and newsletters. I think it is one of my favorite Nexialists, so I hope you enjoy it as much as I did while writing. I also wish you some brainsparks 🧠✨
🇺🇦Eurovision “Getting Political”
Last week, the Eurovision Song Contest happened in Turin and, as many expected/wondered, Ukraine won. Their song and video are above and you can use the subtitles to get the meaning of the lyrics, in case you haven’t yet.
If you don’t know what Eurovision is (I only got to know it because I moved to Europe and I happen to be gay, so there was no escape): Eurovision is “an international songwriting competition organized annually by the European Broadcasting Union, featuring participants representing primarily European countries.” I’m not the biggest fan but I recognize its fun and cultural relevance. I also love how it feels like a circus: you’ll hear/see performances ranging from fierce to cringe, from boring to deeply touching, from (often) tacky to larger-than-life presentations.
Of course, Ukraine’s win sparked the old conversation about entertainment getting political. I won’t get into this debate here (or if the results were manipulated), but I got this vibe we often see of “don’t touch my entertainment!” This made me curious about the origin of the word:
Entertain: late 15c., "to keep up, maintain, to keep (someone) in a certain frame of mind," from Old French entretenir "hold together, stick together, support" (12c.), from entre- "among" (from Latin inter; see inter-) + tenir "to hold" (from Latin tenere, from PIE root *ten- "to stretch").
It’s interesting to see that somehow, even if the word has new meanings today, it still holds part of its past connotations. To be entertained may mean to stay voluntarily (or not) distracted from the (many times harsh) reality. It is also a way to hold people together.
Now… the etymology of Fun (adj.) “1680s, "to cheat;" 1833 "to make fun, jest, joke.” In Portuguese, the word for fun is Diversão. When you look at it, it comes from latin: to diverge, to go apart. It’s also a military word, which means to act in a way that distracts the attention of the enemy.
It got me thinking about how these contradictions coexist when we talk about fun and entertainment. Entertainment and fun can bind us together and help us cope with hard times, but if left unchecked they can distract us from finding solutions and trick us into apathy and isolation.
Another great video from The Missing Chapter series from Vox. I had no idea that Hand Talk, or the now called North American Indian Sign Language, was once the lingua franca among indigenous tribes across the continent. Unsurprisingly and terribly, this way of communicating was systematically erased. Just another example of how languages, no matter the shape it takes, can be demonized or even weaponized.
Andi Schmied pretended to be a billionaire to infiltrate NYC’s most exclusive and expensive homes, which only cater to the unbelievably wealthy and privileged. Touring homes up to $85 million, she wanted to see and photograph how the 1% of the 1% lives in one of the most iconic and expensive cities in the world. To do so, she had to transform herself from an artist into a convincing billionaire almost overnight. But while snapping 25 penthouses she discovered a world of high rise apartments sitting empty in a city facing a housing crisis.
This is quite a fascinating story of how an art project unexpectedly turned into a dossier of inequality and the absurdity of the housing crisis in NYC. One part that stood out for me was how “Gabriella” had to learn terms like Pied-à-Terre (which is new to me) or say that she was looking for a second home to create this billionaire persona. Also, this part made me laugh:
“In order to do this project, I needed to bring my camera and photograph the view. This made me obviously very unusual in the eyes of the agents. But I also realized that the stranger I act, the more convincing it is that I’m actually a billionaire, and I just don’t give a sh*t.”
“Namecore is the trend that unifies all trends” by Olive Pometsey is one of those articles that I just ate up because it is so telling about the internet we experience today. Yes, I’m also guilty of feeding into the neologisms (though I am not aware of most of the names they mention here.) We love to name things: trends, moods, vibes, styles… and with the speed of social media, the shelf life of these trends are everyday shorter and more volatile.
Biz Sherbert, culture specialist at The Digital Fairy, agrees: “Labels can be a means of identity exploration and formation, acting as a quick route to highlighting one’s core interests and characteristics, no matter how temporary, and signalling these traits to others succinctly.” Perhaps the reason everyone went crazy over ‘goblin mode’, then, was because it struck a chord with people on a personal level. Suddenly, we had the language to describe the abstract and very particular feral mood that it describes. It became a way to identify the messy parts of ourselves we didn’t previously know how to articulate. And best of all: we soon found out via social media that lots of people have those exact same messy parts. We’ve all just been keeping them hidden.
Read: Namecore is the trend that unifies all trends by Olive Pometsey for The Face
Many editions ago I mentioned Dall-E, and now that AI has gotten even better. “DALL·E 2 can create original, realistic images and art from a text description. It can combine concepts, attributes, and styles.” It’s another reminder of how human-machine communication also needs language, and it is already in this extremely advanced (+ fascinating +scary) level. I want to ask for it to create so many things!
The DALL-E research has three main outcomes:
First, it can help people express themselves visually in ways they may not have been able to before.
Second, an AI-generated image can tell us a lot about whether the system understands us, or is just repeating what it has been taught.
Third, DALL-E helps humans understand how advanced AI systems see and understand our world. This is a critical part of developing AI that’s useful and safe.
Some editions ago (#60) I learned the term Channel Drift and I asked: “What happens when we become channels (as many of us are today with our social media) and there are a plethora of algorithms intermediating what we publish online? And what are the kinds of content we are leveling down to in order to get a larger audience?”
Well, Rebecca Jennings answers exactly that story on The YouTubers are not okay piece for Vox:
Howell enumerated these reasons and more, all of which are good reasons to quit a job you hate. Another, less discussed one, however, is something I’ve come to call “YouTube brain.” Compare it to “Twitter brain,” in which spending too much time on Twitter results in someone becoming argumentative and perpetually outraged, or “Instagram brain,” (image-obsessed and overly materialistic), or “TikTok brain,” (unquestioningly devoted to the latest slang or trend before moving on to the next one). YouTube brain, from the perspective of the YouTuber as opposed to the viewer, is what happens when you are both creatively and financially subject to the whims of other people’s attention spans for years at a time, weighed down by neverending demand for more content for dwindling returns.
It reminded me the famous quote “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us” (credited to Marshall McLuhan or John Culkin). Also, it made me think of David Eagleman’s Liveware term and how this is an example of how our brain’s malleability can also be damaged and manipulated for the worse if we don’t balance the kind of stimuli we’re receiving.
Read: The YouTubers are not okay, by Rebecca Jennings for Vox
🙌A Messiah Won’t Save Us
The messianic idea that permeates Western political thinking — that a person or technology will deliver us from the tribulations of the present — distracts us from the hard work that must be done to build a better world.
Jonathan Blake’s piece for Noema Mag gave me a lot of food for thought. Connecting it to the malleability we talked above, I was thinking how as a society fed on heroe’s journeys for centuries (or millenia) our brains and cultures have come to expect this narrative. I recommend reading the whole thing when you have time.
Contemporary political messianism is a form of thinking premised on the expectation of external solutions for our problems — not necessarily (or even typically) a divine solution, but a deus ex machina nonetheless. When facing apocalypse, there is a deep human yearning for quick fixes to complex problems and one-size-fits-all solutions. This messianic impulse offers an appealing narrative that suggests that transformational change can happen without major upheavals that hurt ordinary people or dislodge incumbent elites.
Scholem believed that after the Enlightenment, messianism was “secularized as the belief in progress.” Maybe the allure of messianism is even more fundamental: a human need to know that life has meaning, that there’s a purpose to suffering — bleak as things seem, it will all work out in the end. Or as the Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk has written: “The Messiah … is something that flows in your blood, resides in your breath, it is the dearest and most precious human thought: that salvation exists.”
Read: A Messiah Won’t Save Us, by Jonathan Blake for Noema Mag
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