Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Monthly Archives: November 2018

Information and anti-information. (These are not opposites.)  §

It’s very, very early in the morning. It’s 2:40 am, to be exact, and I have been trying to avoid making a blog post since about 1:00 am. But it’s becoming clear that I won’t go back to bed until I do, so I’ve finally conceded and I am now typing.

— § —

Everything meaningful in life in the present is routinely submerged beneath a torrential flood of logistics and meta-logistics. Getting things done is a thing. No regard for what it is that is getting done, or how to exercise judgment about what belongs on the list of things to get done.

© Aron Hsiao / 2017

I am convinced that we are doing the wrong things.

The information revolution, which once, many years ago, romanced me as it did many others, has delivered primarily enhancements in logistics, which themselves open the eyes to further enhancements in logistics that may be provided by reintensification of the logic of the same revolution.

— § —

Start at Google. Type something. Click something. Tap something. Open an app. Use it.

Follow your nose for an hour. Or two hours. Become lost in the network, lost in your device. Go down the rabbit holes. Learn and learn some more. Consume the data and feel the insight and power that it apparently provides. Then, when you’re finally sated, slide back in your chair and reflect.

What did you gain?

The networks are entirely full of actionable information. Information about doing and getting things done. Logistically powerful information.

Once, the concept of “insight” had nearly theological implications.

Now, insight is not a concept at all; it is a resource, like uranium or gasoline, and you burn it in order to propel yourself more quickly down the road.

— § —

© Aron Hsiao / 2001

In 1991, we all vaguely thought that someday we’d stare at these screens and be surrounded by a universe of meaning. It would be a course on the history of Western literature—on steroids. It would be the Gutenberg Bible—on steroids. It would be the Tao Te Ching—on steroids. It would be Western literature, the Gutenberg Bible, the Tao Te Ching, and the works of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dante, and Henry Miller, somehow all revealed to us and to one another in ways that shocked meaning into dizzying new heights of intensity.

It would be meditation and library flânerie, on steroids, with compelling, baffling photographs to accompany them, streetcars leading to enlightenment—on steroids.

It is easy to forget this.

What the network has led us to collectively develop, as an emergent epiphenomenon of our self-directed activity, are:

  • The bus schedule—on steroids.

  • The parts catalog—on steroids.

  • The congressional record—on steroids.

  • The instruction manual—on steroids.

  • The Merck manual—on steroids.

  • The high school gossip note—on steroids.

  • The grocery store checkout tabloid—on steroids.

The inevitable conclusions to be drawn from all of this are that (1) our culture is a misdirected one, more orthogonal to meaningful things every day, (2) that we are not very interesting, and (3) on a similar but different note, we are working increasingly hard every day to repress our imaginations.

© Aron Hsiao / 2003

The information society is machine for hobbling culture, repressing imaginations, promoting charlatans, and organizing commonplace behaviors, whose only virtues were once that they were at least subject to the variation that results from—and gives evidence of—the individual soul, in ever more mechanistic and totalitarian ways.

— § —

The information society has been a failure.

Doubly so by virtue of the way that its dazzling efficiency and proliferation prevents us from noticing precisely what it places before our eyes—bus schedules, parts catalogs, congressional records, instruction manuals, medical manuals, high school gossip, and tabloids—and from from missing (and, indeed, forgetting about the very existence of) all the things that it doesn’t.

— § —

It is time to flee the digital library of logistics and return to the analog library of literature.

I like to imagine (committing sin as I do so in today’s world) that our souls are still there waiting for us—but it’s unclear for how much longer this will be the case. It seems only a matter of time before they are washed away, along with the old printed stacks, by the continuing deluge of antiseptic innovation and the apparatchiks that row their canoes pedantically in its flows.

Only in the very early morning, when you can’t quite see “facts” any longer, can you see the horrible truths of things.

When the present becomes invisible, you know you’re in trouble.  §

It's a Sunday afternoon in early November. It's chilly out, and the ground is covered in leaves. I have started a fire in the fireplace for no good reason. It's gray and a bit dim and getting on in hours and I am sitting here typing.

I don't want anything.

© Aron Hsiao / 2018

There is nothing that I want to go out and get. There is nothing that I want to get done before the end of the day. There is nothing that I wish I could afford. There is nothing that I'd like to achieve over the next year, or over the next five years.

This does not indicate that there's nothing that I need to do, or that there's nothing that I need to buy, or that there's nothing that I need to save up for or achieve.

Rather, it's an indication of a kind of middle-aged, mid-life-crisis-style apathy.

— § —

I got up too early, given the fact that today is Daylight Savings day and I had the semi-annual "extra hour" to sleep in.

I can't sleep in these days. I can't ever sleep more than five hours at a time. I wake up. It doesn't matter how tired I am; five hours is my limit.

So I got up.

I got up and I took a pile of laundry to the laundromat and spent money to clean it because quite frankly I know that if I couldn't get it all done in one pop, I wouldn't maintain the discipline needed throughout the day to nurse along a series of loads. It just wouldn't get done.

So, I went to the laundromat. I put $6.50 into the six-load machine and then rather than sitting around to wait, I got into my car and drove around for twenty or thirty minutes. I came back, put everything into two dryer machines and then drove around again for an hour.

Where did I drive? Nowhere. Nowhere in general and nowhere in particular. Everywhere. In circles.

— § —

I was the kid that used to grab any full-color catalog that arrived in the mail and disappear with it.

There wasn't an Internet to distribute ads, much less smartphones and tablets to carry from afar directly into your hands. Television commercials were only relevant to kids for a few hours a day; the rest of the programming on television was for adults, and the ads matched. Soap, brokerages, Chevrolets. Who cares?

But catalogs—catalogs were hundreds of pages of full-color photographs and in-depth descriptions of things to want. And want I did.

I don't know how many months or years of aggregate time I spent wanting things, but it was a lot. I wanted things. Many things. I rarely got them, but I certainly wanted them, and it was joyful.

© Aron Hsiao / 2017

Hours and hours spent dreaming wistfully of things I'd probably never have, and of how wonderful it would be to see them sitting in front of me—to touch them and use them and own them.

I don't remember when I stopped doing this. In a strange parallel to broader trends in our culture and society, it was probably as I got involved in computing and networks early on, in the mid-'80s as a pre-teen.

My dreams shifted toward knowledge that I could gain and skills that I could learn and code that I could write.

The catalogs disappeared, both from my own life, and—I believe in short order—from society as a whole.

— § —

I don't know why I lit the fire in the fireplace or why I'm sitting here typing for the first time in weeks except that I don't really have any idea what else to do.

I'm clearly not going to get to any of the many things—dishes, carpets, home repair, car maintenance, general tidying, yard work, painting, budgeting, planning, "work" work in advance of Monday, and so on—that I ought to be doing.

How do I know? Because at a subconscious level I have to admit that I have decided that I am damned well not going to do them. Period.

If you wake up and spend an hour or two nagging yourself to do things and you simply don't do them, but instead dawdle and read messages on football message boards focused on teams you don't even follow, you know that you're refusing to do what needs to be done.

Then all that's left is the only slightly more interesting question of what you're going to do instead.

In this case, it amounted to go do laundry at the laundromat, then come home, light a fire, and sit down at a tablet to type.

— § —

Long after there were no more catalogs, there was The Future.

As in: college, graduate school, career, marriage, family, lifestyle, fashion, identity, vacations, activities, and so on.

There were years of preparing for tests—the SAT, the ACT, later on the GRE and of course exams in classes themselves—and trying to climb the career ladder. Better wages. A better title. A new location. Another degree. More stature. More status. More contacts in the network. More book manuscripts to submit. More items in the portfolio and achievements on the resume.

That was exciting, and it was long-term; each goal took years of careful preparation, planning, hard work, and discipline to accomplish.

I also can't remember when this tapered off—it may have been around the time of my divorce—but it did.

— § —

A fire brings a kind of cheery warmth to a room that is completely agreeable in every way. The same goes for large, sleepy dogs. I feel far less chilly sitting here in a big, empty house on a fall afternoon with a fire in the fireplace and two sleeping dogs near me than I otherwise would.

© Aron Hsiao / 2018

Cool white light is streaming in through the sliding glass doors. I can see the lawn from here, and it's finally green as the season winds down, with fall yellows and oranges scattered here and there.

The room is tidy and the "wood" floors and soft gray wall lend a cozy touch, too. It's pleasant enough. It's all pleasant enough.

Still, none of this is either an achievement or a fulfillment or the result of any particular desire. Here I sit and there the fire burns, and there lie the dogs, and here I sit just because and on a whim and for no reason greater than that.

And the list of things that I should be doing? I frankly just don't give a shit. That's probably bad, but if you don't, you don't.

— § —

Time is faster now. Far faster.

The kids' last year's Christmas things are still entirely "new" to me, I still find myself recalling with shock that they are here and caring for them as if they'd just arrived.

And yet it's Christmas already in the stores again, and will be everywhere else within a few short days.

I still think about evenings in terms of reading stories to my children and about weekends in terms of trips to the Zoo and games in the park.

But the kids aren't interested any longer; they're ready to move on and individuate, working hard on being cool and imagining their own goals and wish-I-hads, showing signs already of tween hormones and telling their parents to walk a few paces behind them because parents aren't so amazingly cool.

Everything was just yesterday. The print catalogs. High school. College. Grad school. Buying the first car. Writing the first book. Making the first cross-country move. My childhood. My kids' childhoods.

It was all just yesterday, and the older I get, the more recent it all seems to be. And yet apart from what "seems" to be the case, time continues to race forward; in the official count it all recedes farther and farther into the past at a rate that I can't fathom.

© Aron Hsiao / 2018

The disconnect between the official record and what seems to be has grown so wide that I begin to suspect that the officials of reality are cheating somewhere in their offices, taking bribes from imps of the perverse that are themselves lacking anything better to do than to irritate regular folk like me as we live our lives.

— § —

All those years and all those years ago I was a dreamer.

Always dreaming about something, always thinking about the future, always trying to make something real, a part of my reality, whether gadgets and trinkets and toys or degrees and publications and jobs.

I wanted and I wanted badly and I worked as a result.

Then, I wanted things for my kids, and I wanted them to be able to want things as well. But now… Now I don't want anything.

Quite frankly, it feels terrible. And dull. And sad. And pointless. I have reached that stage in my life at which I want only one thing: to want again, and to understand at a visceral level again just what it is to want.

Until that gets fixed, I'll be stuck here in front of the fire doing nothing in particular, lazing around like the dogs, wondering what to do with myself and watching the months disappear into the assortment of impressions and myths that litter the ground everywhere without really being noticeable most of the time.