On the Futility of Life As Propaganda

How does one live a Life of Signal, in the Midst of the Greatest Disruption of Attention Ever Seen.

A dam breaks every day…

Unleashing a tsunami that floods my fields of attention.

Today, a political crisis; yesterday, a banking crisis; and tomorrow, it may be climate, pandemic or constitutional. We have weaponized our distractions into attractions, served on a glass platter, felling our ability to observe reality.

Can the trending gods surfing glass-and-likes 1 be tamed?

[Eternal Caveat: Any feedback, thoughts or criticism, appreciate em all; but only at mario.sundar@gmail.com; not checking feeds nor comments nor likes no more.]

‘Because we smashed their statues all to pieces
Because we chased them from their temples —
This hardly means the gods have died.
O land of Ionia, they love you still,
Their souls still keep your memory.’

~ C. P. Cavafy, Ionic 2

Cy Relics (1952), Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Down the Rabbit Hole…

The Inescapable Attention-Industrial-Complex

ATTENTION,” A VOICE BEGAN TO CALL, AND IT WAS AS THOUGH an oboe had suddenly become articulate.

Attention,” it repeated in the same high, nasal monotone. “Attention.”

~ Opening lines of Aldous Huxley’s “Island”

Twitter is,
not to a free man,
a friend?

Once again the world cannot tear itself away from the spectacle, that is…

Actual quote from The New York Times, April 4th, 2023

Fools we are,
In Twitter, we rest?

Escalating events in the recent past; the ‘Silicon Valley Bank’ crisis, the political fracas in the weeks & months to come, the roiling internal machinations and utter doge-foolery emanating from Twitter, and one wonders?

Absolute power, corrupts… absolutely 3
Whither, the wisdom,
Of the onlookers’ gaze?

Why does one spend the remainder of our dwindling days, holed up on a shit-shows of dueling ships (whether TikTok or Twitter), as they take our attention in exchange for ‘trolling-as-entertainment’ or ‘entertainment-as-knowledge.’ Who am I fooling, but myself? And, why does one let distractions, distract with such impunity?

“The general toleration of unnecessary noise is a direct proof of the dullness and poverty of thought that one meets with everywhere.

I should like to know how many great and splendid thoughts these whips have cracked out of the world.”

~ Schopenhauer

Not since Babel 4, have we witnessed as thorough a disintegration of our collective attention span; a direct indictment of the attention industrial complex we have built with our own creativity, tweets, RTs, likes and videos.

Just take the level of cognitive dissonance arising from every brouhaha one sees on Twitter; each worsened by a level of insularity which prevents the participants from seeing the whole picture and nothing but their own selves, something they are mired in, minute-to-minute.

The reaction was hysteria


and then it hit me, this is…

…the quagmire that every insular universe breeds.

Subjectivity from every person in every conflict leads to a disequilibrium, persistent conflict where no one sees eye-to-eye. No one chooses to see anything but differences.

This is a feature, not a bug.

This dynamic is exacerbated on every media everywhere; whether it’s basketball, sports, politics and now technology (they all follow the grand-daddy of them all — religion); as conflict breeds propaganda, breeds noise and all noise eventually turns to propaganda. A vicious cycle.

And, this cycle creates weak-willed, impulse-given, trash-talking children among men.

I should know. I was one of them. How does one think with clarity when the mind is made up & grooved in conflict all the time?

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

~ Lewis Carroll, ‘Alice in Wonderland’

What is this Attention-Industrial-Complex built on…

[x] Attention is destroyed when we are on auto-pilot

[x] Attention is destroyed when there’s a middle-man or two or three, who cannot be trusted

[x] Attention is destroyed by relentless distractions 5

“Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”

“In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

~ Neil Postman, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’

Study, after study, clearly shows the debilitating effects of immediate access to ‘everything, everywhere all at once’ and all of it begins and ends within this curved slab of glass called a ‘smartphone.’

In our immersion to bubbles (teens on TikTok, adults on Twitter, etc.) we are becoming a trivial culture. The comments I witnessed, in any fracas on Twitter; some in ALL CAPS, was the trivialization of reality; politicized, weaponized and strong opinions, strongly held. There is very little signal for what goes on media; all one hears are LOUD CRIES.

Technology has a lot more at stake, but instead is playing the silly game that politics plays.

Our Fumigated 6 Selves

‘Kinde pitty chokes my spleene; brave scorn forbids
Those teares to issue which swell my eye-lids;
I must not laugh, nor weepe sinnes and be wise;
Can railing then cure these worn maladies?’

~ John Donne, Satyre III 7

How does one find agency within the chaos? Take writers whose working habits fascinate me. Dostoevsky spent hours (without a break) writing, staying up all night to finish a scene or a chapter. Ditto for Kafka, who’d spend hours honing a single sentence or paragraph (without a break). Hemingway spent many a countless hour on a great deal of revision and editing, while Borges too spent months or even years on a single essay.

Makers in any world are no different. All of us are makers.

More importantly, we as a global society have to ask ourselves, are we better off spending hour after hour on frivolity, TikTok & Twitter; but what’s even more egregious is that the the blaring noise prevents us from seeing the world & ourselves clearly, instead thicketed by a fog of self-propaganda.

What kept me on Twitter, as it disintegrated every day into a mosh pit was habit and a dose of conflict, like sugar or salt. This made it impossible to escape, when no moderation was possible. Focus stolen & spent on drama I needed none of.

It was all very well to say “Drink me,” but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry.

“No, I’ll look first,” she said, “and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not.”

~ Lewis Carroll, ‘Alice in Wonderland’

The Four Pied-Pipers of The Attention Apocalypse

“Utopias appear to be far more realizable than one may have thought in earlier days.

And we find ourselves presently faced with a question of alarming significance: how can we avoid their definitive realization? …”

~ Nicolai Berdyaev

Over the past decade, the architects of technology have slowly come to own the attention-span of societies in seconds. I still remember being fresh-eyed, when I began my life at LinkedIn, owning the role of ombudsman, but with every passing iteration of Facebook, escalated a digital arms race for your attention that has culminated in TikTok.

The tools we built might not have seemed scary at first, but over time, and our personal experience, we can say that these have monopolized our attention in ways that are less productive, less constructive and more time-consuming.

The more I stared at my fleeting feed atop my ephemeral life, the more I strained to keep track of what really matters in life: clarity & order. 8

And, these distractions are everywhere.

The Homepage & The Feed, Notifications & Subscriptions

A dam breaks every day…

… Unleashing a tsunami that floods my fields of attention.

Wherever I go, I find my attention being held hostage by a suffusion of noise masquerading as recommendations. Twitter, might be the epitome of such an information tsunami that hijacks the mind, but I find every algorithm aimed squarely at my attention.

Like hunger roaming the aisles of Safeway, after a night of drinking…

And, I noticed four places where such corruption plays out on iPhones across mainstream platforms:

  1. Homepages & ‘Recommendations’: It all started with Amazon, which now has six rows of book recommendations blinding me to my own library that I wish to get to. Amazon sees me as an ATM machine to buy books while I have tons of books left to read.
    • Google is getting in on the Twitter distraction machine, by automatically serving me the lowest-common-denominator articles it wants me to read. And, all these get served on their homepage.
    • Apple is no exception, serving me a subscription to news I don’t need, nor care for. The entertainment industrial complex is now digitized for one’s lazy enjoyment. More time spent reading magazines & news, less time for the rest of what matters.
  2. The Feed is pilloried, but the doom-scrolling of our lives continues its relentless march. I have no room for feeds in my life. All this trough does is feed me more crap that grabs my attention and never lets go.
  3. Subscriptions is a more desperate form of the feed, where you’re actually paying for something you badly want; usually predicated on vices, reputation or exclusivity. Many of these habits metastasized during the pandemic, and continue, albeit in smaller ways.
  4. And, last but not the least, Notifications are the quiet knocking at the door, to do the bidding of the above three, denying my brain the headspace it needs to perform; whether at work or at life. All of life’s value can only be redeemed in Quiet Mode.

What doth one tweet for?!

‘Interrogatus quaenam esset disciplina maxime necessaria, Mala, inquit, dediscere.’ 9

When asked what was the most necessary discipline, Antisthenes replied, ‘To unlearn evil.

~ Schopenhauer, ‘Parergo and Paralipomena’

  • Once one observes this slide into bad habits, and sees (for a fact) that conflict is the reason for Twitter’s existence. What happens next?
  • Once one is aware that this mechanical circus is petty, tiresome and bereft of substance. What happens next?
  • Once one sees their participation on all media as just another cog in a propaganda machine that feeds off of conflict. What happens next?

‘This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.’

~ T. S. Eliot, ‘The Hollow Men’

The Redemption of a Poet

‘That’s the most surprising thing about this loss of control: its every detail has become a daily news item, a wicked banality.

whether there’s still some way a poet (or what we have until now considered a poet) could make himself useful.

~ Elias Canetti, ’The Profession of the Poet’

I’ve spent many an hour, these past months, scratching at the meaning of ‘life as poetry’, as an antidote to our digital ‘life as propaganda’, and its ramifications for our world at large.

pro·​pa·​gan·​da: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause
also : a public action having such an effect

One of the essays that has stuck with me is Elias Canetti’s ‘The Profession of the Poet’ which starts with this innocuous anecdote about a writer staring at WWII:

This anonymous note is dated August 23, 1939, a week before the outbreak of the Second World War. It reads: “It’s all over now. If I were really a poet, I’d be able to prevent the war.

The essay is a tour-de-force in extracting what it truly means to be ‘a poet,’ in our world, at any time, while crumbling at most times. And, a lot of it stems from a sensitivity that bleeds compassion & empathy; the hallmark of intelligence.

  • A poet is someone who takes responsibility ‘for everything meaningful in words, and makes himself, and himself alone answerable for their failure.’
  • A poet is someone who tries ‘no matter the cost’ to ‘preserve a gift that has atrophied.’ Someone who jettisons the baggage of ‘achievement as deadweight,’ to become more efficient.
  • A poet is someone who is about intelligence through sensitivity, a ear to listen, the capacity to become ‘everyone: the smallest, the most naive, the most powerless’ and through this empathy desires to engender a metamorphosis.
  • A poet is someone who is able to fine-tune the wavelength to hear the poetry that is waiting to be told.
  • A poet is someone whose work can spark ‘an actual metamorphosis in every living individual.’

These might not necessarily apply just to words, but there are poets in every profession. Only those who are sensitive to beauty can build an iPhone. The intelligence is there, but somewhere along the way, wires get crossed, the tools find the wrong hands, and the state flips between democracy & tyranny.

Technology has poets, and we need more of them now, than ever.

Let him search for nothingness only in order to find a way out of nothingness and show that way to everyone.

Let him remain in sorrow and despair so as to know how to pull others out of sorrow and despair, and not to begrudge creatures their happiness,

even though they claw and maim and tear one another apart.

  • A poet is someone who in that search, finds ’a quintessence, even from nothingnesse, from dull privations and lean emptinesse.’ (John Donne)

Poetry, over Propaganda

“I pondered over the foundation of architecture and
realized that a good life for humans
is to feel at ease in architecture’s embrace
and to live together with beautiful nature.”

~ Tadao Ando, Architect of Bourse de Commerce, Paris

Technology has an immense & fast-growing responsibility; an awakening might help. A Siècle des Lumières that calls for entrepreneurs, who see their role as ‘poets& makers; a few builders who take upon themselves technology’s failures, and through that sensitivity show us a way out.

To build a world of clarity; to replace noise with signal, chaos with order, and, propaganda with poetry.

This will be the calling of our generation, as we find faster and better ways to destroy attention and reality (imagine A.I.’s powers to obliterate the line between fact & fiction), we need to build shelters from the storm. And maybe usher in a new mindset toward building technology products.

To that end, let’s begin… to recreate our colossus. 10

  1. My affection for the iPhone (born of glass) and Twitter (born of likes) continued undiminished until 2022. My career born in the trenches of LinkedIn in 2007 to the chaos at Twitter in 2016, followed with five runaway years in my history (a pandemic, a nation in crisis, the climate crisis we’ll see until the end of our times), feels like a personal Odyssey when it comes to the effects that a glass slab of technology and a whole new breed of ‘social’ apps has wrought. ↩︎
  2. Found this quote on the opening pages of ‘Cy Twombly | Making Past Present’ a book about artist / painter / sculptor Cy Twombly’s inspiration and obsession with Greek & Latin poetry & art that drove his last decade of creativity. This poem resonates with me as we wrestle with modern Gods of our creation that are at odds with our well-being. Also, of significance to me is Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ — my favorite poem of antiquity. ↩︎
  3. Uttered by Lord Acton; British historian, politician and writer, 1834 – 1902. These words expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, as a critique of authoritarianism within institutions that consolidate power through a single individual or group. Acton was particularly critical of Pope Pius IX who declared Papal infallibility in the First Vatican Council in 1870. To some degree, technology is a religion unto itself, circa 2020s with influence over billions of lives; more than the Catholic Church could ever muster. ↩︎
  4. ‘According to the biblical narrative in Genesis 11:1–9, the people of the earth spoke one language and decided to build a tower that would reach the heavens. However, God confused their language, causing them to speak different languages and scattering them across the earth. The story of Babel has been used as a metaphor for several historical events, from the rise & fall of the Roman Empire, which sought to impose Latin as the universal language of the empire to the Soviet Union’s attempts to impose Russian as the dominant language of the Soviet bloc.’ Source: ChatGPT ↩︎
  5. Amazon, Google, TikTok, Snapchat or Google are not very different. Twitter might have shown the way, and now TikTok is showing how easily one can distract any one, within seconds. I am tired of these digital iniquities adding up to blight my life. ↩︎
  6. : to apply smoke, vapor, or gas to especially for the purpose of disinfecting or of destroying pests ↩︎
  7. Not since William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet, have I read lines this profound, yet singular to Donne — incredibly witty about something that bothers him much. Multiple interpretations indicate the subject of his ire might be the corruption of an institution — the Church — but isn’t this applicable to any institution that bends toward corruption. ↩︎
  8. This ain’t an isolated thought, those in the know, like Y Combinator’s Paul Graham has written about the acceleration of addictiveness, 2010, & disconnecting distraction, 2008. What was true then, is now, a cancer of our minds, in 2023. ↩︎
  9. When asked what was the most necessary discipline, Antisthenes replied, ‘To unlearn evil.’ Schopenhauer used the quote in his book Parerga and Paralipomena, where he argued that the pursuit of wisdom requires not only the acquisition of knowledge but also the elimination of harmful beliefs and behaviors. Schopenhauer believed that people should focus on “unlearning” negative influences, like the pursuit of material wealth or the desire for social status, in order to attain a fulfilling life. Unlearning ubiquitous technology is the calling of many generations henceforth. ↩︎
  10. Pieces of The Colossus of Constantine, originally seated and roughly 40-feet high (twice as tall as the Lincoln Memorial) is a statue of Roman emperor Constantine the Great, the last of his lineage and the forebear of a new state religion called Christianity. Remnants of this mammoth work were discovered in 1487 and brought to the Palazzo dei Conservatori of the Musei Capitolini courtyard by Michelangelo. Image Attribution: Joan Carroll, 1/10/13 ↩︎

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