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.

In fact, there is little I hear that strikes me as coming from a simple, humble spirit of deeply honest good will. Perhaps this is because most of those that do 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 myself.

Take, for example, the circus in Washington DC.

 

I am deeply opposed to almost all that Trump is doing. He seems to be a deeply narcissistic bully, to be into precisely one thing: himself. Yet the rhetoric of Trump’s many enemies is frequently, 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.

 

This dearth of nuance, patience and depth is pervasive, extending far outside of the DC fantasy. The shallowness of TED talks and thought leaders and talking-head experts that lull the elites into a self-satisfied state of cozy superiority  — with an uncanny resemblance to a slumber punctuated with nightmares animated by the other bad guys that are ruining the world — is rarely interrupted by wisdom, or deep thought or a fearless attention to detail.

Many public discussions or stories in the news or podcast/televised interviews or broadcast discussions suffer, sometimes to a great degree, from a lack of details and nuance that would, if known, put the events in a very different light for those that thought about the whole picture thus revealed. 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 arena that I have been convinced suffers deeply from the lack of nuanced, detailed, deep examinations is the arena of big data and 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 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 the expanded TED talk or Atlantic article book. There is an idea or two that is inflated into a book, often with haste, with little attention to nuance, and little care for the patient observation that would let the authors master the art of waiting to find the “feeling for the organism”.

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 that 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 that flowed from the immersive focus that created the book — as she says, 7 intense years in her pajamas. Even more extraordinary is this intensity in combination with the focus on the threat to the very soul of civilization posed by surveillance capitalism.

 

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 that 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 that 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 the fact only 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, even 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 sloppy or hasty or 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 to make that obvious the most casual observer.

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 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, the elitism that blinds them, the devotion to the big, fast, crowd and the unwillingness to spend the time to think and see and feel,  to wait patiently for wisdom.

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, to a fundamental orientation towards wisdom, above all else.

When we prioritize the time to think and attention to the patient search, we begin to understand the intense power of quietness and the richness that opens when we slow down enough to see the living path in everything. We begin to avoid the labels and the naming that stymies our ability to see, and quashes our desire to search more deeply.  We find that where we are and what we see, becomes rich with information and nuance.

Only then will we have a chance of getting to the root of the problems we are faced with.

If more of us emulate the spirit of inquiry evident in Zuboff’s work, then and only then do we stand a chance of righting the wrongs that have put us in the path of multiple disasters.