Friday, July 07, 2017

The Algorithm That Generates David Brooks' Columns Has Gone Mad

As American Conservatism continues its relentless campaign to drive American civilization into the sea, America's Most Ubiquitous Conservative Public Intellectual continues to strive mightily to find anything to write about other than the complete collapse of the movement which has been his bread and butter for 30 years, and the complete and unconditional vindication of the Dirty Hippy's critique of both Mr. Brooks and his failed ideology.

Which is why, as the gremlins (It ain't Wendell Wilke!) who own and operate Mr. Brooks' Conservative movement smash everything to bits all around him --

-- the algorithm that generates his columns chooses to look more and more often for "inspiration"  in every paper cut and hangnail that happens to obtrude on Mr. Brooks' cosseted, tapioca existence.

Normally these are barely fit for comment, except from the dozens and dozens of Twitter bots who automatically and simultaneously retweet his column exactly two hours after it drops (Fun fact: when I was but a wee driftglass dreaming of becoming a Big Time Public Intellectual I had just one big wish -- that I too would one day command a Twitterbot army of my own which would wildly over-inflate the popularity and reach of my ridiculous opinions.)  However today's Brooksian exercise in jejune-navel-lint-parsing-as-Epiphanic-Insight-Into-The-Breakdown-Of-Society reminded me very much of what a dirty hippy of my acquaintance wrote long ago.

See if you can spot the similarity.

David Brooks today:
The Golden Age of Bailing

It’s clear we’re living in a golden age of bailing. All across America people are deciding on Monday that it would be really fantastic to go grab a drink with X on Thursday. But then when Thursday actually rolls around they realize it would actually be more fantastic to go home, flop on the bed and watch Carpool Karaoke videos. So they send the bailing text or email: “So sorry! I’m gonna have to flake on drinks tonight. Overwhelmed. My grandmother just got bubonic plague.…”

Bailing is one of the defining acts of the current moment because it stands at the nexus of so many larger trends: the ambiguity of modern social relationships, the fraying of commitments, what my friend Hayley Darden calls the ethic of flexibility ushered in by smartphone apps — not to mention the decline of civilization, the collapse of morality and the ruination of all we hold dear.

Bailing begins with a certain psychological malady, with a person who has an ephemeral enthusiasm for other people but a limited self-knowledge about his or her own future desires. In the abstract, the offer to meet up with an interesting person seems great, or at least marginally interesting. The people pleaser wants to make everybody happy so says yes to every invitation, with the unconscious knowledge that he can back out later.

The moment of cold reality doesn’t hit until you look at your calendar and find that you have five different commitments at 4 p.m. next Tuesday and not a free evening until 2021. A fog of anxiety descends, good intentions are dashed and the bailer starts bailing.

Technology makes it all so easy. You just pull out your phone and bailing on a rendezvous is as easy as canceling an Uber driver...

There was a time, not long ago, when a social commitment was not regarded as a disposable Post-it note, when people took it as a matter of course that reliability is a core element of treating people well, that how you spend your time is how you spend your life, and that if you don’t flake on people who matter you have a chance to build deeper and better friendships and live in a better and more respectful way...
From me, twelve years ago:
The side-effects of a digital world.

But quite apart from any perennial “boon or ruin” debate, it’s also undoubtedly the case that technology has changed social patterns and rhythmes in very strange ways. For example, when you can take pictures anywhere, anytime with almost-complete anonymity, and send them immediately to the other side of the continent, things change in two paradoxically opposite directions: change is at once radical and yet slips in almost without anyone noticing.

A minor bane of my existence has been the invisible rise of “soft scheduling”. Where everyone makes multiple, overlapping, mutually-exclusive plans for, say, a weekend night…which exist like in a foamy, indeterminate, neo-quantum state of flux until just before the go-time for a primary option. Like Schroedinger’s Cat, if Schroedinger’s Cat stood in front of the mirror at 9:00 p.m. on a Friday, still nattering away on its cell, still juggling six possible options for the same date/time. Used to be by Wednesday we all knew pretty well what we were doing on Friday, where, and with whom, and who was in charge of bringing the beer.

Now people really are much busier than they used to be, and multitasking has become totemized. Fetishized. A lot of us “sample” life a lot more than we live it because we want to do it all, and the definition of “all” has bloated up in the last 15 years like Windows OS Code, while the time we have to focus on one task or pleasure has slowly evaporated. Throw cell phones into that mix and “soft scheduling” was as inevitable as it is irritating...
One key difference between Mr. David Brooks' discovery of this week of ancient art of "bailing" and my post on it from more than a decade ago is that, rather than try to transmogrify the fact that I have no friends into my 400th Finger-Wagging Indictment Of Our Parlous Modern Times --

-- I tried to weave some actual social commentary into my work.  12 years later I'll let you be the judge of whether or not I succeeded:
You all know what spambots are by now, right?

Little automated advertising barnacles that badly mimic human language and intonation that affix themselves to the comments section of a blog. I have my little spambot tanglefoot at the top of this blog – which still cracks me up and which has become a modestly renowned thing in its own right – but even that seems to only create a relatively spam-free wake for the seven or eight posts that trail directly behind it.

The ones further back can still get pretty weedy with the little pests.

So what?

Well I ran across a blogger many long months ago when I was zigging and zagging around, web-window shopping. Looking for this and than. I may have been checking out the more eclectic stuff that people who link to my site also link to, and came across a pretty good writer who was also a working prostitute. I’m going to be deliberately vague about the specifics, but suffice it to say that this person was very bright and wrote English with the accent and peculiar muscularity of someone who had mastered it as a second language.

And I would drop by once in a great while and read the new posts. The sexual particulars were very much not my cuppa joe, but the writing was always good…until it veered sharply into despair. And then writing about life being painful and not worth the trouble appeared.

Then a rally.

And then the site “went dark”, and there have been no new posts since.

Ok, perhaps they just got bored or busy. Perhaps they changed their lives. Perhaps to move on they had to shed old haunts and habits like a skin. But I really don’t think so.

Now I wouldn’t have known this person had we passed on the street, and it’s highly unlikely we ever would have crossed paths in the analog world, but I came to admire their voice and while I have no way of knowing what actually happened (no email option on the site) my imagination can’t help but run out ahead of the facts and what I think probably happened saddened me.

However what makes it more than just another poignant story to me is the last time I checked, this dead site was not completely inert.

Spambots in their mindless, relentlessly insectile way were slowly filling it up with fake-cheerful salutations. Mechanically excreting ads and a sliver of text about “Really liking your blog” and then scuttling on.

For reasons I can’t quite explain I find that particular image thoroughly unnerving, and I am quite aware that the very same technology that's been a boon to my family made this scenario possible and delivered it into my head.

What a strange world it has become.
And it is still a strange world, made infinitely stranger by the fact that, for reasons which no one will openly discuss even all these years later, Mr. David Brooks is still paid a king's ransom to spout piffle in America's newspaper of record twice a week.


Peter Janovsky said...

The cartoon that inspired the classic Twilight Zone episode?

bluicebank said...

If I can take a stab at what David Brooks is going through (pick one or three):

1) He's still not getting laid, despite running off with a young assistant. Conclusion: the marriage will not last.

2) Second mid-life crisis, which not even a red sports car can assuage.

3) The walls are closing in, and "Charlie" is close, getting stronger.

Tom Shefchik said...

Someone likely bailed on him recently, and therefore bailing is the new existential threat to the civilized world.

And the fraying of commitments, the decline of civilization, the collapse of morality. How many times has that buy been married?

MRjonz54 said...

Driftglass, it took great restraint to keep from making the obvious "Brooks has been bailing for years on the American Conservative debacle he helped create" point.

trgahan said...

I tend to interpret these types of Brooks columns as Death Of A Right Wing Pundit laments worthy of an alternate Tennessee Williams play of the same title.

I'd say it wasn't just anyone who bailed, there was someone specific who bailed. My guess is was probably some young, up and comer in the Beltway "intellectual" conservative circle who Brook's thought was going to spend a evening giving him a metaphorical rim job in hopes of some "help with their career" while quaffing merlot on his NTY expense account.

So instead of admit someone ditched him in Aspen to hang with someone more connected and powerful that Brooks doesn't have access to, he writes about how its broader social problem that he was recently reminded he isn't as significant, interesting, or influential as he thought he was.

David C. Drake said...

Nice post, Driftglass. Love the C-3PO image, too.

Lawrence said...

"ethic of flexibility ushered in by smartphone apps — not to mention the decline of civilization, the collapse of morality and the ruination of all we hold dear."
I never put such words to paper, no matter how half assed and cooked up the night before it's due the assignment turned out. And I have quite a catalog. Yours reminded me of the Bistromathic Drive from Life, The Universe, And Everything: "The second non-absolute number is the given time of arrival, which is now known to be one of those most bizarre of the mathematical concepts, a recipriversexcluson, a number whose existence can only be defined as being anything, other than itself. In other words, the given time of arrival is the one moment of time at which it is impossible that any member of the party will arrive." - Douglass Adams

John MacCuish said...

I remember when they took Trudeau off the Funny Pages; it is way past time to put Brooks on them, next to Nancy.

rhwombat said...

Also sprach Zarathustra's Arsehole.