About a month ago, I was doing some hesitant online looking at an item from a rather expensive store called Anthropologie. Around that time, I also clicked through a promotional email informing me about Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King & I” on Broadway. Both situations were unusual for me: online shopping is foreign territory for me, which also explains why all my online ads suddenly turned into pictures of Anthropologie pants and “The King & I” logo. It was like that scene where Dumbledore claps his hands and all of the Great Hall banners go from celebrating Slytherin to Gryffindor. Obviously, my situation involved less magic and more browser cookies, search histories and a debate about the merits of consumer privacy. Plus, most people my age are familiar with this minor annoyance. I’m playing catchup on trendy issues, as usual.
Still, I’ve now spent a good month imagining what it must have been like when the Internet was shiny and new and online advertising wasn’t as pervasive. I’ve heard the Internet was hailed as a portal for exploration. I’ve heard it was going to help solve the problem of closed-mindedness. It was a Pandora’s box of surprises!
The Internet I know today is an echo chamber where my interests are repeated back to me. This is partly because I can’t escape myself. I gravitate toward the headlines that tell me what I’m already inclined to believe or support—”When it comes to clean water, some say Silicon Valley is all talk” and “‘No Kardashian Parking’ Signs Crop Up In Hollywood” and “South Korea is both exasperated by its wealthy — and obsessed with them—such that even if I’m learning something, it’s in the bucket of topics I’m already pursuing. But it’s also because the websites I see and the companies they advertise help feed those topics back to me, too. There’s a strong relationship between “customer engagement,” or keeping someone on your website for as long as possible, and “personalization,” or giving you more of what you’ve already picked. It results in the concierge service of the “Recommended for you” sidebar, a beguiling vicious cycle.
A more fitting analogy for the Internet might be a house of mirrors. In these freaky sideshows, one steps through the doors for a chance to look into a seeming infinity at every corner, an endless vision of distance and light and perspective. In reality, the visitor is in a tiny room, surrounded by mirrors, looking at himself, over and over again.
I was swept into a wave of bodies, all of us having just alighted from the train below ground and together marching up that stairway to daylight, ending on ground level. So many strangers, so physically close, jam-packed on a little stairway. But that cram was the perfect place to remember the beauty of being one single individual in a million—or, more specifically, one of the 26,000 stuffed into each square mile of Manhattan (and really more including commuters). No one was watching, no one was measuring, and we were all just going to our destinations, lost in our own heads filled with thoughts, agendas and memories. It was private. In the midst of crowds, I was totally on my own.
A mentor back in high school advised me, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” Goodness, how those words are ringing in my ears years later, for it is the crux of rotten political representation. Political negligence starts in the smallest of things.
The crazy thing about your ideas is that they’re invisible, to you. Spend a whole day analyzing your thoughts and what you think, but one harsh comment from an outsider is often far more useful. It’s hard to describe the box, when you’re sitting in the dark inside of it.
For example, Foreign Policy recently explained in pseudo-delicate terms how mainland Chinese citizens are being brainwashed. The article says that they couldn’t understand the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests because their language can’t even accommodate democratic ideals. The Chinese language prioritizes “the national interest, the dignity of the state, social stability, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China,” all of which is incompatible with the democracy stuff of those Hong Kong exceptionals. The article blames the Chinese government and its strategic “propaganda system… normalizing its use and injecting it into everyday discourse.” This is how the 1.335 billion people were primed to disregard the Hong Kong protesters. Of course, not all Chinese people are “brainwashed zombies,” the article relented… Continue reading
Does the world revolve around me? What a juvenile question it seems. Only children are told to share and think about other people before themselves. So at 24 years of age, no one should be reminding me that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Yet the older I get, the more I see how encouraged I am to think exactly this way: to do things that serve only me, my personal happiness, my independent desires. I keep hearing slogans compelling me to find myself, know myself, seek myself, meditate on myself. We were warned against this thinking back when we were toddlers, which is why I find it so odd that this now standard adult protocol, to the point that not being self-driven is actually deemed naive or juvenile.
I’m not the only one wondering about this, though. Continue reading
In college, it was beyond me to imagine staying in academia like some of my peers soon would, committing so much of life to research a small piece of the world, hidden away, not making money or anything. It seemed so restrictive and myopic, and in a self-induced way, no less. Academia doesn’t enjoy a great rap from non-academics. It’s that last-resort hideout for people – the “intellectuals” – who can’t find “real” jobs. It’s that place where people go to do nothing except read all day, and say lots of theoretical things that can’t be proven.
Doing my dissertation showed me the value of the pooh-poohed humanities and social sciences. I see how the death of these departments would be a very ominous sign for our society. Continue reading
Censorship is on my mind. As usual, I can’t decide whether this is an organic development from the outside world, or a topic I’m currently cocooned in thanks to recent reading choices and discussions with friends. I want to say it’s both (but maybe that’s indulgent).
This issue may have started feeling close to me back in March, when that massacre/terrorist attack happened in Kunming, China. I remember meeting two friends for our usual Monday morning Breakfast Club and hearing about the tragedy of it from my Chinese friend. I expected to see it splashed all over my top news pages, but this was also the time when the Ukraine/Crimea/Russia issue was in full throttle, which I think pushed the farther-away China off the front pages. Later, another Chinese friend explained that many from back at her home were outraged at how (the few) Western outlets were reporting the situation, particularly by downplaying the tragedy (see: this article). As time passed, I was surprised I still wasn’t seeing the issue bubble up to big headlines in London or the states. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised? Others told me that China was doing a good job shutting down the story.
I probably first learned what censorship was in middle school, in the context of ridiculous, repressive governments and conspiracy theories. After that, it became something I more associated with North Korea – real, but extreme to the point it’s almost not. This past year, I learned about censorship in China on a much more personal level, from my small number of Chinese friends that help make up the even tinier elite fraction of the Chinese population that actually knows what’s in front and behind the “Great Firewall of China” because they jump it with VPNs. That’s the famous kind of censorship, the ban on Facebook and Line, the one that makes headlines, makes students roll their eyes, makes adults scoff at the government in charge. But these past couple of months I’ve been tuning into the censorship in its more implicit, social pressure, trendy/ing form. This is where it gets so complicated for me to figure out, because, as I said already, censorship gets such a bad rap… but if we do it for the current social mores, it’s okay, right? Continue reading
This is what I’ve concluded in London. I’ve spent so much of my life harboring deep pride about the cities I’ve seen, the airlines I’ve used, and the times I’ve moved, and finally I’ve decided that traveling is one of the most loaded status symbols I’ve ever abused. Very early on, people learn that the places we’ve been to are tremendous social currency for either bragging to friends or applying to college or jobs. In both cases, the assumption is that travel has made us into more tolerant, independent, and culturally aware people.
I think this is incorrect. I think that just as travel can genuinely break preexisting assumptions we have about the world and other people, it can lock worldviews into place or the kinds of people we surround ourselves with. Geographical location is only one way among many that people are different, and I think it’s very dangerous to assume that the plane tickets we buy come packaged with a new, “open mind.” Continue reading
“But how could the United States reduce its commitments in the world without at the same time conveying the appearance of weakness, and thus risking humiliation…?”
When was this written? Continue reading
I’ve been trying to understand how the general American public can equate wealth with success, and simultaneously denigrate society’s wealthiest people. I find this combination very odd sometimes. A couple of friends have pointed me to that study suggesting a “perfect salary” beyond which happiness levels off, so perhaps our acceptance of others’ wealth lies similarly on a cliff? But I’m starting to think that what society really attacks is the publicity of wealth, and specifically the flaunting of it. I think this is how society reveals a buried, but core and widespread belief that too much accumulated wealth, in reality, is irresponsible. Continue reading