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When the Diagnosis Is the Treatment

We’re slowly but surely rolling out the list of confirmed speakers for this year’s NYC Conference (4/26-28) and somewhere very close to the top of the pile sits Alan Jacobs, a writer, teacher, and thinker who has been an invaluable influence on–and help to–our work these past couple years. Alan’s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds dropped this past Fall, i.e. not a moment too soon, and the book is as short as it is essential. (NY Times readers may remember it inspiring a particularly strong Brooks column back in October.) Here’s a small taste of the intro:

Everyone today seems to have an RCO [Repugnant Cultural Other], and everyone’s RCO is on social media somewhere. We may be able to avoid listening to our RCO, but we can’t avoid the realization that he or she is there, shouting from two rooms away.

This is a profoundly unhealthy situation. It’s unhealthy because it prevents us from recognizing others as our neighbors–even when they are quite literally our neighbors. If I’m consumed by this belief that that person over there is both Other and Repugnant, I may never discover that my favorite television program is also his favorite television program; that we like some of the same books, though not precisely for the same reasons; that we both know what it’s like to nurse a loved one through a long illness. All of which is to say that I may all too easily forget that political and social and religious differences are not the whole of human experience. The cold divisive logic of the RCO impoverishes us, all of us, and brings us closer to that primitive state that the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “the war of every man against every man.”…

Once, years ago, I started having chest pains, and my doctors couldn’t isolate the problem: I exercised regularly, my heart seemed healthy, nothing was evidently wrong. But the pains kept coming back, and that scared me. Finally, one doctor asked some probing questions and discovered that I had had, before the pains began, a lingering heavy cough. It seemed that coughing had strained a muscle in my chest, and that was the source of the pain; and when I started worrying about it, the resulting anxiety tensed the muscle and increased the pain–which then led to more anxiety. It was the classic vicious circle of reinforcement. When I asked the doctor what treatment he thought best, he replied, “The diagnosis is the treatment. Now that you know you don’t have a life-threatening illness, you won’t worry so much, and less stress in your mind will mean less stress on your chest muscles. That’ll give them a chance to heal.”

p.s. Click here to pre-register for the NYC Conference (4/26-28)!

Snow Blowers Are Of The Devil (Blue Jeans Too)

Snow Blowers Are Of The Devil (Blue Jeans Too)

We live in a time of raging technology. Everything is changing as the microprocessors are taking everything over. A couple of centuries ago a group called the Luddites simply rejected technology beyond what they knew back when the microprocessor was called the steam engine. Luddites smashed machines to retain control. It didn’t work. Technology won. Everything changed.

In a similar way, I think technology has become a public crisis once again. Not since the advent of The Machines has our culture convulsed as it is now with the advent of the pervasive robot. I know this personally because I…

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What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Life and Death

What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Life and Death

Grateful for this one by Nicholas Davis.

I made the decision to purchase an iPhone years ago because I already owned a MacBook and an iPad (why not have the whole system, right?). Steve Jobs invention has taught me much about life and death.

As a whole, I’ve been pleased with how little effort it takes on my part to accomplish virtually anything I want (short of making me my morning cup of coffee…there’s no app for that). From searching to syncing, to going “paperless” by scanning print documents, handling finances from my phone, reading the Greek New Testament with a tap…

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Everything I Touch Is Overwhelmed

Everything I Touch Is Overwhelmed

Last spring, I was attending the Mockingbird Conference in New York when my phone died. Like, straight up died. The battery was charged, but nobody was home. It didn’t even give me a chance to say goodbye. It just died.

I don’t know how other (normal) people react to this kind of situation, but I panicked. “My plane ticket to get home lives in there,” was my rationalization for panicking, but really my addiction to everything on my phone had me hyperventilating a bit. Texting, e-mailing, and all of the things that remind me that “I’m important, dammit” live on my…

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Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad (and Him, Too)

Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad (and Him, Too)

You can’t time this stuff. At least, if you did, it wouldn’t pack half the punch.

I’m referring to the release of The Rentals’ song “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” a few short weeks before Rolling Stone published a full-length profile of the man in question. We’ll take them one at a time.

The Rentals, which at this point is really just the moniker for Matt Sharp (of early Weezer fame), haven’t released a record since 2014’s excellent Lost in Alphaville. Then, on October 5th, “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” appeared out of nowhere, a seven minute gospel pop opus…

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From the Archives: Not Much of a Technology Person?

From the Archives: Not Much of a Technology Person?

Been a while since we’ve talked about this, or heard from this guy. So here you are, a classic DZ technology rant. Throwback! 

We were heading in the same direction, an awkward number of steps apart, close enough that we might as well have been walking together. He was maybe ten years older than me, well put-together, kind face and a slightly outdoorsy demeanor. I think I’d seen him around the conference, family in tow, but we hadn’t spoken.

I was about to fall back and let him go ahead when he asked, “You heading to a session?” I was, I replied, the one on…

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The Celebration Department

The Celebration Department

I want to be clear about something from the very start: I adore my cell phone. From the very first time I found myself in the grocery store, not knowing if my wife wanted tuna fish packed in water or in oil and I was actually able to call and find out, I was in love. I like social media, being able to keep up with my friends…GPS maps…weather prediction…google at my fingertips…it’s all incredible. I do admit, though, to a certain disturbing compulsion with the phone. Whenever there’s a moment in which nothing else is going on, I feel…

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The New Gnosticism of the Transhumanists

The New Gnosticism of the Transhumanists

For the (very very quickly) upcoming Love & Death Issue, I had the chance to interview the journalist, Mark O’Connell, who is the author most recently of To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death. He also wrote that amazing piece in the New York Times Magazine a few months ago about Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist who ran for president and drove across the country in a coffin-shaped bus. O’Connell’s new book reads like a travelogue among characters like Zoltan, futuristic types (mostly from California) that O’Connell describes with a…

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Death of a Garden That Never Existed. And Robots.

Death of a Garden That Never Existed. And Robots.

Garden writing is a rather unusual sub-genre, part memoir and part fantasy. You do, you dream. Gardening is all about should and ought; nature is governed by its own laws, and we are struggling to keep or subvert them. Exploring the existential effects of our ‘original profession’ has, on us mere mortals, produced some worthy and insightful reading material over the years. Karel Capek, the early 20th century Czech writer — and coiner of the word ‘robot’ — was an avid gardener who understood the struggle, or more accurately, the compulsion. To wit: “Let no one think that real gardening is…

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The Girls of Whitehaven: Love and Friend Requests in Cyber Space

The Girls of Whitehaven: Love and Friend Requests in Cyber Space

In 2009 I was invited to join “Facebook.” I already knew all about it, because my best friend from high school had gone to Harvard, where I had visited her and had seen it in 1974, in her freshman room. Back then, “Facebook” was paper and had all the Radcliffe girls listed in it.

It was mostly a catalog of pictures. Many of those pictures were of Groucho Marx — those who did not submit photos were represented by the specter of the huge mustache, glasses and cigar. This mid-century Facebook was a proto-dating service. High tech as it was — Xeroxed (versus mimeographed) and mass produced, I…

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Transhumanism: No More Death

Transhumanism: No More Death

“Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”
 – T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland.

In an excellent essay for n+1, Meghan O’Gieblyn connects transhumanism’s striving take on human perfectibility with Christian eschatology. “Ghost in the Cloud: Transhumanism’s Simulation Theology” draws on the writer’s personal history to provide a well-considered take on what an increasing reverence for technology might mean for our spirituality.

O’Gieblyn describes her first encounter with Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines after a co-worker lent her a…

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Internet Trolls Have a Case of the Mondays

Internet Trolls Have a Case of the Mondays

A doozie of an article from the WSJ last week, provocatively titled, “We’re All Internet Trolls (Sometimes).” The piece highlights recent research out of Stanford and Cornell on the patterns and habits of internet trolling. Like any study of taboo topics, the research has its own missing pieces, but some of the findings are, frankly, revealing:

New research by computer scientists from Stanford and Cornell universities suggests this sort of thing—a generally reasonable person writing a post or leaving a comment that includes an attack or even outright harassment—happens all the time. The most likely time for people to turn into trolls?…

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