(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘entertainment

“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do”*…

Why do we need art? And what does it have to do with dreaming? Neuroscientist and author Eric Hoel has a very provocative theory…

How will we spend the remaining 700,000 hours of the 21st century? In the metered time of our own discretion, there have never been more options for our personal entertainment, nor have they ever been more freely available. We find ourselves strolling the aisles of a vast sensorium. On the shelves is a trove of experiences: video games, movies, TV shows, virtual reality, books, podcasts, articles, social media posts, all prepackaged for our consumption. What had previously been accomplished for food through the centralized distribution of supermarkets has now been done with experience itself. The recent grand opening of this supersensorium has been mediated through the screen, a panoply of icons, images, links, downloads, and videos auto-playing, which we browse through entirely at our leisure.

Such abundance of choice would have been heralded as miraculous in any other age. What a rousing cry for progress that our lowly living rooms would have stupefied with their luxuries even the God-like pharaohs, even the court of Versailles! Or maybe not—for it all comes with a price. Who hasn’t lost days from binge-watching Netflix, or deep in the dungeons of some video game? Here’s a scary, or maybe heart-wrenching, thing to consider: of our waking leisure hours, what exactly is the amount of time devoted to the consumption of experiences from the supersensorium? In 2018, Nielsen reported that the average American spent eleven hours a day engaged with media. Does anyone believe that this number is going to decrease? For the technology that undergirds the supersensorium will only improve. The algorithms will grow more personalized, the experiences will become more salient, and the platforms will get faster in their delivery of content. And we should all admit that the vast majority of what lines the shelves of the supersensorium is merely entertainment, for otherwise we wouldn’t feel a gnawing guilt so great most of us avoid consciously calculating how our time is actually spent.

The infinite entertainment of the supersensorium is especially problematic if you happen to be someone who likes and maybe even produces art or fictions. E.g., a writer such as myself, who views the tidal wave of middling fictions with a feeling akin to terror. Not that these problems are entirely new. In a letter to a friend, a 31-year-old Tolstoy wrote:

I shall write no more fiction. It is shameful, when you come to think of it. People are weeping, dying, marrying, and I should sit down and write books telling “how she loved him”? It’s shameful!

If that was Tolstoy’s judgment of himself, what might his fiery judgment be of our now endless ways of telling “how she loved him”? The mere scale of the supersensorium pushes to the fore old questions about the purpose of art and fictions. Why do humans desire these petite narratives we gobble up like treats? What’s the origin of this pull toward artifice, a thing so powerful we might even call it an instinct? Is it virtue or vice? And if it can be a vice and technology is making it easier and easier to while away our lives this way, a reasonable person has to ask: why add to the supersensorium? Why take away from the real when the real is already back on its heels, and behind it, a cliff?…

It turns out, Hoel suggests, that the answers have everything to do with dreaming…

To explain the phenomenology of dreams I recently outlined a scientific theory called the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis (OBH). The OBH posits that dreams are an evolved mechanism to avoid a phenomenon called overfitting. Overfitting, a statistical concept, is when a neural network learns overly specifically, and therefore stops being generalizable. It learns too well. For instance, artificial neural networks have a training data set: the data that they learn from. All training sets are finite, and often the data comes from the same source and is highly correlated in some non-obvious way. Because of this, artificial neural networks are in constant danger of becoming overfitted. When a network becomes overfitted, it will be good at dealing with the training data set but will fail at data sets it hasn’t seen before. All learning is basically a tradeoff between specificity and generality in this manner. Real brains, in turn, rely on the training set of lived life. However, that set is limited in many ways, highly correlated in many ways. Life alone is not a sufficient training set for the brain, and relying solely on it likely leads to overfitting…

What the OBH suggests is that dreams represent the biological version of a combination of such techniques, a form of augmentation or regularization that occurs after the day’s learning—but the point is not to enforce the day’s memories, but rather combat the detrimental effects of their memorization. Dreams warp and play with always-ossifying cognitive and perceptual categories, stress-testing and refining. The inner fabulist shakes up the categories of the plastic brain. The fight against overfitting every night creates a cyclical process of annealing: during wake the brain fits to its environment via learning, then, during sleep, the brain “heats up” through dreams that prevent it from clinging to suboptimal solutions and models and incorrect associations.

The OBH fits with the evidence from human sleep research: sleep seems to be associated not so much with assisting pure memorization, as other hypotheses about dreams would posit, but with an increase in abstraction and generalization. There’s also the famous connection between dreams and creativity, which also fits with the OBH. Additionally, if you stay awake too long you will begin to hallucinate (perhaps because your perceptual processes are becoming overfitted). Most importantly, the OBH explains why dreams are so, well, dreamlike.

… and everything to do with the role that it plays in our lives– and in shaping the media and entertainment that we consume…

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s rather amazing humans are willing to spend so much time on fictions… Why are we so fascinated by things that never happened?

If the OBH is true, then it is very possible writers and artists, not to mention the entirety of the entertainment industry, are in the business of producing what are essentially consumable, portable, durable dreams. Literally. Novels, movies, TV shows—it is easy for us to suspend our disbelief because we are biologically programmed to surrender it when we sleep. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a TV episode traditionally lasts about the same ~30 minutes in length as the average REM event, and movies last ~90 minutes, an entire sleep cycle (and remember, we dream sometimes in NREM too). They are dream substitutions.

This hypothesized connection explains why humans find the directed dreams we call “fictions” and “art” so attractive and also reveals their purpose: they are artificial means of accomplishing the same thing naturally occurring dreams do. Just like dreams, fictions and art keep us from overfitting our perception, models, and understanding of the world…

And as you’ll see if you read this piece in full, as I hope you will, the implication is that art– real art, good art– matters…

… as the supersensorium expands over more and more of our waking hours, the idea of an aesthetic spectrum, with art on one end and entertainment on the other, is defunct. In fact, explicitly promoting any difference between entertainment and art is considered a product of a bygone age, even a tool of oppression and elitism. At best, the distinction is an embarrassing form of noblesse oblige. One could give a long historical answer about how exactly we got into this cultural headspace, maybe starting with postmodernism and deconstructionism, then moving on to the problematization of the canon, or the saturation of pop culture in academia to feed the more and more degrees, we could trace the ideas, catalog the opinions of the cultural powerbrokers, we could focus on new media and technologies muscling for attention, or changing demographics and work forces and leisure time, or so many other things—but none of it matters. What matters is, now, as it stands, talking about art as being fundamentally different from entertainment brings charges of classism, snobbishness, elitism—of being proscriptive, boring, and stuffy.

And without a belief in some sort of lowbrow-highbrow spectrum of aesthetics, there is no corresponding justification of a spectrum of media consumption habits. Imagine two alien civilizations, both at roughly our own stage of civilization, both with humanity’s innate drive to consume artificial experiences and narratives. One is a culture that scoffs at the notion of art. The other is aesthetically sensitive and even judgmental. Which weathers the storm of the encroaching supersensorium, with its hyper-addictive superstimuli? When the eleven hours a day becomes thirteen, becomes fifteen? A belief in an aesthetic spectrum may be all that keeps a civilization from disappearing up its own brainstem.

In a world of infinite experience, it is the aesthete who is safest, not the ascetic. Abstinence will not work. The only cure for too much fiction is good fiction. Artful fictions are, by their very nature, rare and difficult to produce. In turn, their rarity justifies their existence and promotion. It’s difficult to overeat on caviar alone. Now, it’s important to note here that I don’t mean that art can’t be entertaining, nor that it’s restricted to a certain medium. But art always refuses to be easily assimilated into the supersensorium.

…only by upholding art can we champion the consumption of art. Which is so desperately needed because only art is the counterforce judo for entertainment’s stranglehold on our stone-age brains. And as the latter force gets stronger, we need the former more and more.

So in your own habits of consumption, hold on to art. It will deliver you through this century…

The neuroscientific case for art in the age of Netflix: “Exit the supersensorium,” from @erikphoel.

* Haruki Murakami

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As we dream on, we might send birthday greetings to Konstantin Yuon; he was born on this date in 1875. A painter and theater designer, he was involved with Mir Iskusstva, the Russian magazine, and with the artistic movement it inspired and embodied, which was a major influence on the Russians who helped revolutionize European art during the first decade of the 20th century. Later, he co-founded the Union of Russian Artists and the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia.

New Planet, 1921

source

Self-portrait, 1912

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 24, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The world cannot be governed without juggling”*…

Innovation in juggling? David Friedman investigates…

How many new ways can there possibly be of throwing a bunch of balls up in the air and catching them? I mean, people have been juggling for thousands of years. There’s even an ancient Egyptian tomb that includes this wall painting of what sure looks like juggling [illustration above].

So as a modern juggling performer, how do you keep your routine fresh? Is it all about the patter and the performance? Or is there still room for innovation in the art and craft of throwing balls to yourself?…

With the help of professional juggler Luke Burrage, he finds some fascinating examples:

Luke’s “rotating room” routine
Adam Dipert‘s “Space Juggling”
Greg Kennedy in a cone
And the OG, MacArthur Fellow Michael Moschen

Even more at “Innovations in Juggling,” from @ironicsans.

John Selden

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As we stay aloft, we might send amazingly entertaining birthday greetings to John Bill Ricketts; he was born on (or around, records are sketchy) this date in 1769. An English equestrian, famed for his trick riding, he was also an impressario– who brought the first circus performances to the United States in Philadelphia in 1793.

John Bill Ricketts, aka, Breschard, the Circus Rider, by Gilbert Stuart
The original “Big Top” (source: Tracy Chevalier)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 15, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Do I rue a life wasted doing crosswords? Yes, but I do know the three-letter word for ‘regret'”*…

F. Gregory Hartswick, an early author of crossword books

Efforts to diversify the crossword puzzle industry might be having the opposite effect. As Matt Hartmann explains, although puzzles are an increasingly important part of The New York Times’ and others’ business strategies, only a handful of people actually make a living from crosswords…

The conspiracy theory writes itself. Start looking, and you’ll notice how many New York Times crossword puzzles are co-constructed (the preferred term for what most people would refer to as co-written) by a professional crossword constructor and someone with a day job—it’s hard not to see all the artists, web developers, professors, and other titles that imply a degree of wealth and elite connections. As the pandemic handed the work-from-home class extra time for their hobbies, the number of first-timers published in the Times has skyrocketed. Obviously, rich people are paying others to get the glory of their name in ink.

But the theory is almost diametrically wrong. It turns out the crossword industry really does consist of earnest wordplay lovers donating their time to unpaid mentorships, generally as part of an industry-wide effort to bring new and underrepresented people into crosswords.

Unfortunately, the end result might be even more exclusive than a pay-to-play scheme. And a game that brings the Times at least one million monthly subscribers—at $1.25 a week or $40 for a year—provides a sustainable living wage for shockingly few people…

Learn why at “Inside the Elite, Underpaid, and Weird World of Crossword Writers,” from @themhartman in @newrepublic.

Robert Breault

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As we fill in the blanks, we might recall that it was on this date in 1977 that South Park premiered on Comedy Central– where it runs to this day. The animated saga of Stan, Kyle, Eric, and Kenny and their exploits in their (titular) Colorado hometown has won five Emmys and a Peabody Award. A theatrical film, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, was released in June, 1999 to commercial and critical success, and scored an Academy Award nomination.

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 13, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”*…

The Long Tail

One the one hand: Ted Gioia suggests that, while ‘The Long Tail’ was supposed to boost alternative voices in music, movies, and books, the exact opposite has happened…

When I first heard people predict the rise of the Long Tail, I was amused. Not only did it seem wrong-headed, but it ran counter to everything I saw happening around me.

It pains me to say this—because the Long Tail was sold to us as an economic law that not only predicted a more inclusive era of prosperity, but would especially help creative people. According to its proponents, the Long Tail would revitalize our culture by expanding the scope of the arts and giving a boost to visionaries on the fringes of society.

Alternative voices would be nurtured and flourish. Music would get cooler and more surprising. Books would become more diverse and interesting. Indie films would reach larger audiences. Etc. etc. etc.

Hey, what’s not to like?

But it never happened. More to the point, it was never going to happen because the story was a fairy tale. I knew it back then because I had been hired on a number of occasions to analyze the Long Tail myself. But the flaws in the reasoning are far more obvious today, even to me.

Nonetheless many believed it—and many still do. So it’s worth digging into the story of the Long Tail, and examining exactly why it never delivered its promise.

And maybe we can find some alternative pathway to that lost cultural renaissance by seeing how this one went off the rails.

On the other hand: Cal Newport suggest that Kevin Kelly‘s fourteen-year-old prediction that an artist could make a living online with a thousand true fans is (finally) coming true…

In his “1,000 True Fans” essay, Kelly explains that he wasn’t as excited about this new economic model as others seemed to be. “The long tail is famously good news for two classes of people: a few lucky aggregators, such as Amazon and Netflix, and 6 billion consumers,” he writes. “But the long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators.” If your work lives in the long tail, the introduction of Internet-based markets might mean that you go from selling zero units of your creations to selling a handful of units a month, but this makes little difference to your livelihood. “The long tail offers no path out of the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales,” Kelly writes. “Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artists do to escape the long tail?”

This question might seem fatalistic, but Kelly had a solution. If your creative work exists in the long tail, generating a small but consistent number of sales, then it’s probably sufficiently good to support a small but serious fan base, assuming you’re willing to put in the work required to cultivate this community. In an earlier age, a creative professional might be limited to fans who lived nearby. But by using the tools of the Internet, Kelly argued, it was now possible for creative types to both find and interact with supporters all around the world…

A shining example of the 1,000 True Fans model is the podcasting boom. There are more than eight hundred and fifty thousand active podcasts available right now. Although most of these shows are small and don’t generate much money, the number of people making a full-time living off original audio content is substantial. The key to a financially viable podcast is to cultivate a group of True Fans eager to listen to every episode. The value of each such fan, willing to stream hours and hours of a creator’s content, is surprisingly large; if sufficiently committed, even a modest-sized audience can generate significant income for a creator. According to an advertising agency I consulted, for example, a weekly podcast that generates thirty thousand downloads per episode should be able to reach Kelly’s target of generating a hundred thousand dollars a year in income. Earning a middle-class salary by talking through a digital microphone to a fiercely loyal band of supporters around the world, who are connected by the magic of the Internet, is about as pure a distillation of Kelly’s vision as you’re likely to find…

The real breakthroughs that enabled the revival of the 1,000 True Fans model are better understood as cultural. The rise in both online news paywalls and subscription video-streaming services trained users to be more comfortable paying à la carte for content. When you already shell out regular subscription fees for newyorker.com, Netflix, Peacock, and Disney+, why not also pay for “Breaking Points,” or throw a monthly donation toward Maria Popova? In 2008, when Kelly published the original “1,000 True Fans” essay, it was widely assumed that it would be hard to ever persuade people to pay money for most digital content. (This likely explains why so many of Kelly’s examples focus on selling tangible goods, such as DVDs or custom prints.) This is no longer true. Opening up these marketplaces to purely digital artifacts—text, audio, video, online classes—significantly lowered the barriers to entry for creative professionals looking to make a living online…

But can this last? Is it destined to fall prey to the forces that Gioia catalogues?

The recent history of the Internet, however, warns that we shouldn’t necessarily expect the endearingly homegrown nature of these 1,000 True Fans communities to persist. When viable new economic niches emerge online, venture-backed businesses, looking to extract their cut, are typically not far behind. Services such as Patreon and Kickstarter are jostling for a dominant position in this direct-to-consumer creative marketplace. A prominent recent example of such attempts to centralize the True Fan economy is Substack, which eliminates friction for writers who want to launch paid e-mail newsletters. Substack now has more than a million subscribers who pay for access to newsletters, and is currently valued at around six hundred and fifty million dollars. With this type of money at stake, it’s easy to imagine a future in which a small number of similarly optimized platforms dominate most of the mechanisms by which creative professionals interact with their 1,000 True Fans. In the optimistic scenario, this competition will lead to continued streamlining of the process of serving supporters, increasing the number of people who are able to make a good living off of their creative work: an apotheosis of sorts of Kelly’s original vision. A more pessimistic prediction is that the current True Fan revolution will eventually go the way of the original Web 2.0 revolution, with creators increasingly ground in the gears of monetization. The Substack of today makes it easy for a writer to charge fans for a newsletter. The Substack of tomorrow might move toward a flat-fee subscription model, driving users toward an algorithmically optimized collection of newsletter content, concentrating rewards within a small number of hyper-popular producers, and in turn eliminating the ability for any number of niche writers to make a living…

The future of the creative economy: “Where Did the Long Tail Go?,” from @tedgioia and “The Rise of the Internet’s Creative Middle Class,” from Cal Newport on @kevin2kelly in @NewYorker.

* F. Scott Fitzgerald (“The Crack-Up,” Esquire, February, 1936)

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As we contemplate culture and commerce, we might recall that it was on this date in 1894 (after 30 states had already enshrined the occasion) that Labor Day became a federal holiday in the United States.

labor day
The country’s first Labor Day parade in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882. This sketch appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

source (and source of more on the history of Labor Day)

“Damn everything but the circus!”*…

Acro-balancing in Circus and Philosophy at the University of Kentucky, fall 2017

Meg Wallace, of the University of Kentucky, teaches the philosophy course that I wish I’d taken…

The circus is ridiculous. Or: most people think it’s ridiculous. We even express our disdain for disorganized, poorly run groups by claiming, disparagingly, that such entities are “run like a circus.” (This isn’t true, of course. The amount of organization, discipline, and hard work that it takes to run a circus is mind-blowingly impressive.) But this is one reason why I teach Circus and Philosophy. I want to show students a new way into philosophy – through doing ridiculous things.

 It seems strange that philosophers often teach philosophy of art, philosophy of sport, philosophy of the performing arts, and so on, without having the students at least minimally participate in the activities or artforms that are being philosophized about. This lack of first-person engagement is especially unfortunate when the topic at hand crucially involves the perspective of the participant– the painter, the dancer, the actor, the aerialist, the clown. Circus and Philosophy is an attempt to explore this participation/theorizing gap. (Another aim is just to magic-trick undergrads into loving philosophy.)

[The circus is] rich with potential for deep discussions about an array of philosophical topics in aesthetics, ethics, social and political philosophy, personal identity, mind, metaphysics, epistemology, and so on. It is also intrinsically interdisciplinary, so students with interests and majors outside of philosophy can easily find a way in…

Finding the profound in the profane: “Circus and Philosophy: Teaching Aristotle through Juggling.”

* e e cummings

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As we benefit from the big top, we might recall that it was on this date in 1987 that another instructive family of entertainers, The Simpsons, made their debut on television in “Good Night,” the first of 48 shorts that aired on The Tracey Ullman Show before the characters were given their own eponymously-titled show– now the longest-running scripted series in U.S. television history.

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 19, 2022 at 1:00 am

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