This is how we become eloi

This is an interesting tiktok that the algorithms gave to me today.

A transcript is available on the next page, or you can click here.

If one alcoholic drink early in pregnancy is enough to cause Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), then probably something like >80% of all humans throughout history has had it.

Of course, a correlation to nature or tradition doesn’t imply goodness. Most people throughout history had malnutrition too, and it should be self-evident that our efforts towards eradicating malnutrition globally is unequivocally moral.

Still, it’s always interesting to me when something that used to be the default is now pathologized. In case you were curious, in the west, we didn’t realize that alcohol could lead to birth defects until the 70s, and presumably those who were pregnant weren’t taking much care to drink less before that.

(I want to note that the debate around drinking during pregnancy isn’t settled, even now. In the comments of the tiktok you see people complain about all their relatives or posters they see online that insist on continuing to drink while pregnant. But I’m pretty sure I know which side is going to win out in the long run.)

In the future we might see other sorts of features becoming classified as “birth defects” and pathologized. It’s not hard to imagine the construction of something called Fetal Adiposal Spectrum Disorder and an industry around it for treating people whose mothers were obese during their pregnancies. Or Fetal Stress Spectrum Disorder for people whose mothers were overly stressed. Maybe a Fetal Toxoplasmosis Spectrum Disorder. The list goes on.

Or maybe before we get to that point, we’ll realize that pregnancy is something best left to the experts or artificial wombs and that it’s barbaric to do it ourselves. It’ll become as taboo to carry your own child as it is to care for your own dead without the use of some professional mortuary service.

After that realization, how long is it going to be before we realize that having childrearing defaulting to bioparents is unethical and children should all be reared by an expert centralized body? There are a million ways to fuck up a child. And have you seen the abuse stats? In the US, in 2015, 15% of children and youth aged 0–17 years old underwent maltreatment by a caregiver, with 5% undergoing physical assault. Surely we can do better than this.

Perhaps one day there will be a study that says that the effects of child abuse costs the government ten trillion dollars a year 1 , and maybe in time that study will be used to justify the collection of all children by the state (except for the children of the very rich, who seem to always be exempt from these kinds of things).

The Scream by Kent Monkman
Like this but it’ll be ethical this time guys we promise (“The Scream”, Kent Monkman 2017)

One way to look at all this (the correct one, I think) is to say that we are trading in toxic and outdated traditions for better practices that benefit us all.

I was born after we started making these tradeoffs, and every trade that we’ve already done seems more than reasonable. I benefit from them, too. I take birth control, I appreciate living in a society that doesn’t ostracize me for my non-mainstream religious beliefs (I’m not religious), and I’m certainly not going to resist a cultural opposition to pregnant people drinking.

Still, I hesitate when looking at the tradeoffs that I see looming on the horizon. My heart illogically wants to draw the line in the sand, for us to progress to here and no further. But there’s no real argument to make for that.

  1. Actually, it turns out that someone had already written that paper. The annual economic burden was $2 trillion.[]

We can only go forwards

I was talking to my partner the other day about how unlikely it would be for us to have children, and the tremendous sacrifices it would take on both our parts to raise a happy, well-adjusted child. One thing that kept coming up was the extreme difficulty it would be to raise a child away from screens and algorithmic content, when both of us are hopeless addicts ourselves. To us, and I think to most people, it’s a given that providing children with access to screens would be severely unhealthy for their developing brains, in some unique way. And that if you can raise a kid into their early teens without too much exposure to screens, your job is done.

But recently, I’ve been reading some stuff that challenges the “unique” bit, which really upsets this whole entire narrative.

Before the internet we had television sets. They came in the 50s and proliferated in our homes and by the 90s the average American was spending 6 hours a day in front of their sets. Descriptions of television and the culture around it at this time paints a fascinating picture that is very similar to how we think of internet culture today – cynical, self-referential to the point of blindness to the real, hyperreal. And heavily irony-poisoned.

pov: David Foster Wallace tells you to touch grass (1990)

(It’s honestly kind of weird that I forgot about this, considering how much anti-tv stuff was drilled into me throughout elementary school. People were banging on about this a lot back in the day! I remember watching PSAs about how watching TV was bad between cartoons. But maybe it’s not that weird, since it’s been like 12 years since the first iPhone was released and then the internet sort of ate the world. Or, I don’t know, maybe that’s how anything that happens more than 10 years ago feels like.)

What does it mean to say that the irony poisoning isn’t new? That we’re three generations removed from a culture untouched by screens and mass media?

I think, first and foremost, it means that there’s no pure world, no strongtime that we can return to by logging off and touching grass. Not any longer.

It also means that every aspect of our lives and culture have been shaped by it. Depriving a child of a tablet might be in some ways as crippling as not teaching them how to read. I’m honestly not sure if there’s any real way of opting out of this culture, besides joining the Amish. If you’re not down for a life of churning butter and sexual repression, the only way forward is to make new theory and new strategies for the new world that we live in.

So this brings me to this recent piece that I can’t stop thinking about: Michael Cuenco’s “America’s New Post-Literate Epistemology” for Palladium Mag.

I think it’s a super insightful piece, that also doubles as a great survey of the media studies field, which first established in the 70s to critique television culture. I tried to find an excerpt but it’s such a weird, expansive piece that it’s really not possible. So instead here’s a brief summary of one section:

Modern humans interact with content by way of a never ending stream of articles, takes, and countertakes. Issues never feel solved, they only disappear from the timeline due to waning interest in due time. Reflecting this, there’s now a societal disinterest in reaching any sort of closure, and maybe even the feeling that the desire to have closure is somehow juvenile or naive. We should categorize this type of media interaction as having something closer to an oral nature rather than a literate one because of a lack of clear sequence, structure, or hierarchy in the information.

In oral structures, when we interact with new content, we can form associations between them and older stuff that we’ve seen pretty easily, but it’s much more difficult to form conclusions, to reach definitive endings. In this world it becomes increasingly difficult to think in terms of linearity, in terms of doing something and getting somewhere, to produce programs and manifestos and five-year plans.

Literate—but non-liberal—China has a goal: national rejuvenation by 2049. This is a concrete master plan bounded by a progressive notion of time, with numbered steps and specific metrics, and the planners are concerned with the reshaping of space.

Meanwhile, post-literate America has no long-term goals. Identity-slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Defund the Police” may sound like goals, but they are in fact what McLuhan called “mythical environments,” which “live beyond time and space” and are therefore untethered to concrete linear action in the physical world. By when exactly is America supposed to be great again? Are there any metrics to help us determine if it is on track to becoming great? How precisely do we defund the police? What happens after?

One important thing to note is that the authors are actually quite ambivalent to this shift, from the literate to the post-literate. Sure, Cuenco seems to say, there’ll be growing pains as we make the switch in our epistemology, but can we really say that we’ll be worse off afterwards?

Of course, being a literate troglodyte in this “post-literate” world, my response to the question is an unequivocal yes. It seems objectively terrible, and what’s worse is how much I recognized my own style of thinking reflected in the description of oral culture, since I’ve been terminally online since I was twelve, and a pretty hopeless tv addict before that.

In adolescence, I began to see issues in hues of grey instead of black and white, and to see societal problems as parts of an ever-shifting ecosystem, paralyzingly wicked and complex instead of anything a single person could affect. Throughout high school and most of university I cultivated and refined this way of thinking. I think the pendulum is now starting to swing in the other direction. I want to develop my ability to think linearly. (I don’t think I’m like, abjectly terrible at this, but I think I could be better.)

So I’ve been taking time to read books again, lots of them, sequentially, from start to finish. I’ve started volunteering, and then working full-time for grassroots mutual aid organizations that do things right now, instead of returning to the public service policy positions I interned for, where my job was to analyze consideration after consideration for policies that might launch 10 years later. (This is important work, but I don’t think it’s the work for me any longer.) I’m trying to get back into the habit of writing, because blog posts need beginnings and middles and ends.

And I go on regular walks, and although I don’t touch the grass, I admire the wildflowers.

Links Retrospective, May – June 2020

[Author’s note: I found this sitting in my drafts a full year later, on May 30, 2021. It’s very barebones, but I figure I might as well get it out the door. Backdated to last edit of draft.]
 
Links Retrospective is a bi-monthly post on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month time-frame. The intent is for there to be a few weeks of “lag” time between when I first read the articles and when I curate this collection, so that my selection isn’t biased by ongoing hype or sensationalism.
 
Generally, I try to curate my articles for these links posts so that they either avoid or only obliquely mention current events, to keep them relatively timeless. But to do so this time would be a significant contrivance. The events that I lived through (and am continuing to live through) aren’t timeless. So I’m going to break that rule, and give a selection of articles related to the 2 main things that are continuing to happen. Still, veering away from anything that could be rapidly updated.

COVID-19

To Survive This Pandemic, We’ll Need to Adopt Some Polyamorous Skillsets – Ferrett Steinmetz (2020)

What Parents Can Learn From Child Care Centers That Stayed Open During Lockdowns – Anya Kamenetz (2020)

Race and Escalating Police Brutality

Short Points on Language Use, One and Two (both from 2020)

How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease: An Interview With Jonathan Metzl – Christopher Lane (2010)

The Third Amendment Gang is Finally Having Their Moment – Miles Klee (2020)

Not Related to Current Events

They passed the admissions test, but they were failing in class. How Niagara College tackled an international student crisis – Grant LaFleche (2019)

The Bisexual Woman’s Guide to Dating Women – Sana Al-Badri (2020)

Cooking as a Service – Alex Danco (2019)

Digestif

Monet Refuses the Operation – Lisel Mueller (1996)