Finding Depth, Seeing Clearly

The frequent presence of a serious thread of self-righteousness in the opinions and speeches and exhortations to save the earth, to stop hating, to become accepting, to love everyone, to be inclusive, to stop being a racist, to take responsibility, to work hard — you know, to be righteous — corrupts the conversations we need to have, blinding us to where we actually are and what we need to do.

Little that I hear that strikes me as coming from a simple, humble spirit of deeply honest, good will. Perhaps this is because most who have that authentic goodness — that simple approach to making the world a better place — do little talking and no preaching.

Instead, in the opinions and speeches and exhortations (and tweets and posts) there is often a clear dose of hypocrisy or arrogance or self-righteousness (or all three). Sometimes they are muted. Sometimes it is difficult to see anything but these three. The intensity with which this is impressed on me can be overwhelming, perhaps because I am myself particularly vulnerable to the temptation to self-righteousness.

Take, for example, the ongoing circus in Washington DC.

 

I am deeply opposed to almost all that Trump is doing. From a distance he seems to be a deeply narcissistic bully, to be into precisely one thing: himself. Yet the rhetoric of Trump’s many enemies is almost always very distasteful because of the self-righteousness, the hypocrisy, and sometimes even hatefulness.

This phenomena is not new with Trump – politics has always had these elements.

But in the era of Trump, it is out of control. While Trump has descended to a level that was unimaginable by most before he became president, his opponents have unwittingly become the flip side of the same debased coin they so despise, though this can only be seen in the nuance and the subtle details of the fantasy that is unfolding in Washington DC. This ugly show began as soon as Trump became a threat to the elites who were used to running things. Starting with the mistakes they made in thinking it was impossible for him to win, they quickly settled into the role of full out attack, with little attention to depth and nuance and detail and fairness. (It is not without merit to wonder what would have been if Trump’s enemies had not opposed him with such contempt and hatred, for does this not feed his worst instincts?)

This dearth of nuance, patience and depth is pervasive, extending far outside of the DC fantasy. The shallowness of TED talks, thought leaders and talking-head experts lulling elites into a self-satisfied state of cozy superiority is rarely interrupted by wisdom, deep thought or fearless attention to detail.

Stories in the news, podcast/televised interviews and broadcast discussions all suffer, sometimes to a great degree, from a lack of details and nuance that would put events in a very different light. This is intentional at some level — if there were a real will to produce deep reporting, the money aimed at truly thorough reporting would not be so microscopic. In the battle between thick data and big data, between clever TED talks and deep wisdom, between “faster, better, cheaper” and and taking the time to think, it seems that the big data, the TED talks, and the “faster, better, cheaper” is winning.

One hot topic suffering deeply from the lack of nuanced, detailed, deep examinations is the nature and uses of big data, machine learning and AI. I know that some would claim that O’Neil’s  Weapons of Math Destruction, or Broussard’s Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World, or Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, and others like them fill that gap. While these admittedly are a small start, these books neither plumb the depths nor exhaust the subject. In fact, they are rather unsatisfying as an answer to the threat that these hitherto undisciplined forces represent.

More generally, non-fiction literature is now dominated by book-length expansions of TED talk or Atlantic articles. There is an idea or two, inflated into a book, often with haste, with little attention to nuance. The time to think and the discipline of patient observation leading to a mastery of the art of waiting, to finding a “feeling for the organism”, is not often evident.

Every once in awhile though, you run across someone who has taken the time to really think, and feel, and see, and then write from a place of true depth and intense focus. While I have not finished the book, I am convinced the new book by Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power, is one such book. There is a depth and a passion flowing from the immersive focus that created the book. This intensity in combination with the focus on the threat to the very soul of civilization posed by surveillance capitalism is unique.

 

I first heard of this book when I listened to Shoshana being interviewed on the NPR show, On Point. I was very impressed. But a much deeper impression was made when I started reading the book.

I quickly came to the realization that I was dealing with the results of deep, focused thoughts I was accustomed to seeing in mathematics (for example, Federer’s Geometric Measure Theory) or in philosophy (for example, Josef Pieper’s Leisure – the basis of culture).   An example from Shoshana’s book: though I had thought about the parallels between the ruin brought on the natural world by industrialization and the ruin the information age promises to bring on the human mind and spirit, Shoshana’s book is the first time I have seen someone else put these thoughts on paper. And it was not only the fact that these observations were there, it was the way in which they appeared and the care with which she examined and stated things. Yet is is not a dead, scholastic work, though it is very deeply researched.

Somehow, it is also alive.

While I have not yet finished the book, the parts I have read so far only confirm the initial impressions of depth and thoroughness and even wisdom.While I am sure that there will be things I quibble with, I am certain they will not be because she is being hasty, careless or thoughtless in some way. I am convinced enough of its value to have chosen this to be the next book my own graduate students have to read, the next book for the book discussion group I lead, and the next book that I buy multiple copies of to give away.

 

In order for us to do something, we have to see things correctly and deeply — that is the thesis behind Shoshana’s book. If we are to do this in the political arena, we must first recognize that things were extremely corrupt, even completely bankrupt at the deeper levels long before Trump came along.

While Obama put a good face on things, he was not getting in the way of the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the super-rich, nor was he into the truth, if that truth cost him power. Witness how he dealt with Ed Snowden.  (Those that think the Democrats are somehow more righteous than the Republicans are dangerously deluded. It is not an accident that “House of Cards” has the psychopathic president in the democratic party.) Listening, for example, to Jame Risen (at http://theintercept.com), you begin to understand that both Bush and Obama were doing deeply disturbing things, that they were precursors to Trump in very important, often ignored ways.

What allows almost all of the elite-bubble inhabitants to miss these facts is the haste with which they seek to know and the elitism that blinds them.  Their devotion to the big, fast, crowd and the unwillingness to spend the time to think and see and feel,  to wait patiently for wisdom, doom them to a darkness they think is light.

The humility that comes from realizing how all of us are actually susceptible to these errors opens us to the pursuit of depth, to investment in thick data, and, above all else, to a fundamental reorientation towards wisdom. When we prioritize the time to think and attention to the patient search, we begin to understand the intense power of quietness. Slowing down,  our eyes are opened to a rich, living path in and through everything. We begin to avoid labels. We abandon the naming so detrimental to our ability to see and to the desire to search more deeply.  Where we are and what we see becomes rich with information and nuance.

In this place of deeper awareness, armed with clearer pictures of the complexities and grounded truth, we begin to have a chance of making progress on real problems.


 

Returning to the work of Shoshana Zuboff, it is this universal lesson that comes as a corollary to a careful reading of her work. Though it seems obvious — that for real solutions, time to see, to feel, to think, to know, must be invested, the fact that books like Shoshana’s are not the norm tells us that the lesson needs much more emphasis.

In fact, I believe it is this deeper universal message that can have the biggest impact on thoughtful readers of the book. And this, in turn, compels me to do my part to make the number of such readers larger.

The stakes could not be higher.