Wednesday, October 7 2020

Last Updated: 12-10-2020

One of my favourite movies of all time is Ex Machina—a 2014 science fiction thriller about A.I directed by Alex Garland. The plot centres around an advanced version of the Turing test undertaken between a guy named Caleb and a humanoid robot named Ava. The test is orchestrated by Nathan, Caleb's boss and the billionaire genius CEO of a Google-esque company.

The best scene in the movie is the out-of-nowhere dance sequence between Nathan, who's incredibly drunk, and Kyoko—a failed predecessor to Ava. The scene is super unsettling and it says so much without any actual dialogue. Nathan has lived alone for years building these robotic AIs and he's spent time choreographing and perfecting this dance routine with his robot slave. It's scenes like this, and the movie in general, that made me a fan of Alex Garland.

Ex Machina still
it's like if Elon Musk directed Saturday Night Fever

Before he wrote screenplays and directed movies, Garland started out as a novelist in the 90s. His first novel, The Beach, became a cult classic for young adults after it was published in 1996. Fellow British author Nick Hornby called it "a Lord of the Flies for Generation X". Despite being a lazy, entitled millennial, I wanted to read it anyway to see if it still resonated with my generation. I figured that if Garland could produce the greatest drunken-creepy-sexy-robot-human dance scene of all time, his novels probably aren't half bad.

The Beach

Living with death. Time limits on everything you enjoy. Sitting on a beautiful beach, waiting for a fucking time limit to come up. Affecting the way you look at the sand and the sunsets and the way you taste the rice. Then moving on and waiting for it to happen all over again. For eleven years!” Mister Duck shivered. “…Then to have that cancer lifted. To think you’ve found a cure…That’s what you can’t imagine, Rich.

— Alex Garland, "The Beach" pg. 584

As it's name implies, this book is all about a beach. Not just any beach though...the Beach. The perfect beach. An idyllic paradise in the Gulf of Thailand untouched by commercialization and the tourist industry. A place where you can enjoy the beauty and natural wonder of the ocean, the warm sun, and a serene sense of calm and relaxation without any time limits. Of course, this is only what Richard, the protagonist and narrator, imagines is on the other side of the black X marked on a hand-drawn map left on his hostel bed. The map is placed there by a deranged Scotsman, referring to himself as Daffy, who Richard meets the previous night. It's important to mention that Daffy commits suicide immediately after drawing the map and leaving it on Richard's bed—which apparently doesn't concern Richard much as he decides to set out anyway in pursuit of this paradise. What great adventure doesn't start with a suicide?

The beach book cover

The first third of The Beach revolves around Richard's quest to find this mysterious beach, and the rest of the book is about his time there. Richard is accompanied by a French couple, Etienne and Françoise, that he meets at the same hostel on Khao San Road; together they set out on a difficult and dangerous journey to reach the Beach with only a dead man's map to guide them.

On the surface, Richard seems to be taking on a completely irrational amount of risk and effort to find a beach he knows nothing about. But the Beach represents an escape in Richard's eyes, and he is desperate to escape by the time we meet him in the story. Having already travelled extensively since he was a teenager, Richard is jaded by the pre-packaged experiences and tourist traps that have pervaded his travels thus far. He is looking for something authentic, and something without an expiration date. Since his teenage years, Richard has been in pursuit of such a paradise, along with every other traveller he meets along the way. The rate of "beach expiration" is so fast that up-to-date recommendations are highly valued, as Richard recalls:

Exams out of the way, my friends and I scattered ourselves around the globe. The next August we started coming back, and I learned that my baby-sitter’s paradise was yesterday’s news. Koh Phangan, the next island along, was Thailand’s new Mecca.

A few years later, as I checked my passport and confirmed my flight to Bangkok, a friend telephoned with advice. “Give Koh Phangan a miss, Rich,” she said. “Hat Rin’s a long way past its sell-by date. They do printed flyers for the full-moon parties. Koh Tao. That’s where it’s at.”

— Garland, pg. 84

When Generation X was coming of age, insider information like this was vital. Nowadays, because of the speed and reach of the internet, there are no travel secrets anymore. If there is a nice beach in Thailand, it's going to be instagrammed, geotagged, blogged, vlogged, and googled, quickly leading to "printed flyers" and overpriced Pad Thai. The Beach takes place during the twilight era of backpacking, when secrets could still be kept.

X Marks The Spot

Generation X is generally perceived as the "slacker" generation that lost faith in the institutions that had anchored society for most of the 20th century. Their cynicism was due to the belief that they had inherited a host of socioeconomic problems caused by the preceding generations. Some research suggests this bleak outlook wasn't specific to generation X, but rather a trend seen across all age groups throughout the late 80s and 90s. Regardless, the rise of pervasive disaffection felt by adolescents during this period elicited a common response: hedonism and apathy. In defiance of the cultural norms impressed upon them, gen-Xers sought escape through the use of drugs, extreme sports, and exotic travel. Richard represents this ethos in The Beach—constantly restless and unhappy, even after reaching paradise.

The beach movie still
It was also made into a shitty movie with Leonardo Di Caprio

As a group of strangers are on the way to the Beach later in the book, Richard is tasked with monitoring them from a distance. Even though their arrival would signal an end to paradise, Richard realizes he is hoping they make it anyway:

It was at that point I realized my mistake, because what I registered, while entertaining this optimistic thought, was disappointment. The strange truth was that I didn’t want them to leave. Neither, as the root of my frustration, did I want them to stay put. And that left only one possibility; the worst-case scenario was the best-case scenario. I wanted them to come.

— Garland, pg. 395

Richard just wants to feel alive; he's looking for excitement, whether it's good or bad.

I think this defiance against pre-packaged, commercialized experiences died with Generation X. With the rise of the internet, smartphones, and social media, Millennials aren't concerned with finding truly fulfilling experiences anymore...we only care about framing our experiences correctly. The record of our vacation is more important than how much we actually enjoyed it. If you can post a picture of a beautiful beach on Instagram, it doesn't matter that there were 1000 other tourists taking the same picture beside you. By recording the moment, we gain control over the experience and can shape it however we like; a level of control we don't have in real life. If a tree falls in the forest and you don't take a selfie with it, did you really see it fall?

I'm being facetious of course. This desire to take pictures and record everything is obviously not shared by every millennial, just as every gen-Xer wasn't a cynical, lazy, skateboarding pothead. But a story like The Beach wouldn't have been as popular with young adults in the 90s if it hadn't resonated in some significant way.

Even Richard's choice of vocabulary reflects his aversion to commercialized tourism. When Richard first arrives at the Beach, he is disappointed when Sal, one of the Beach's founding members, describes it as a resort—a place to come on holidays:

“Holidays?” I tried to say, but the word caught in my throat. It seemed so belittling. I had ambiguous feelings about the differences between tourists and travelers—the problem being that the more I traveled, the smaller the differences became. But the one difference I could still latch onto was that tourists went on holidays while travelers did something else. They traveled.

— Garland, pg. 161

This is a trivial distinction, but one that mattered to Richard. These moments make me think The Beach is supposed to be satire. The amount of life-or-death situations (and actual deaths) that Richard and the other characters go through just to enjoy a nice beach was a bit ridiculous.

Get Beach or Die Tryin'

In The Beach, Richard and the other travellers go to extreme lengths to reach the Beach and, once they've arrived there, to protect it from outsiders. There is so much death throughout the book, from Daffy's suicide in the first chapter, the shark attack on the Swedes, the OD'ed guy Richard finds in Koh Phangan; culminating in the murder of all 5 "rafters" that were trying to reach the Beach using the map Richard gave them.

The juxtaposed relationship between death and paradise was probably intended to represent the apathetic demeanour of Generation X. This was embodied by Richard and his lack of concern towards the welfare of himself and others. But I think it's also reasonable to see this contrast as a critique on travel culture, especially when reading The Beach today.

The tourism industry is growing; there are more than twice as many international tourists travelling each year now as there were in 1996. A combination of marketing and the pressures of social media to appear "worldly" has fueled this growth. With over a billion people travelling each year, questions of sustainability and the impact on popular destinations have become important. As with every sustainability issue though, we generally consider it someone else's problem to fix. Why should I sacrifice my vacation when everyone else hasn't?

The obsession with comparing your life to others is no doubt due to social media. It's not a surprise that popular individuals on Instagram are called influencers; we're all influenced by these strangers on the internet to appear a certain way, own certain things, and travel to specific places. This creates an unconscionable desire within us to travel to these places and a sense of entitlement once we get there. If so-and-so was able to go to the salt flats in Bolivia and take a cool photo, why can't I?

Bolivia Salt Flats 1
Bolivia Salt Flats 2
Bolivia Salt Flats 3
Bolivia Salt Flats 4
Bolivia Salt Flats 5
Ok these are actually pretty cool

I see Richard's plight to find the Beach as analogous to this widespread race to find the most "instagrammable" destinations around the world; travelling just to get exotic selfies. Richard and all the other characters are obsessed with reaching this hidden oasis by any means necessary. Their obsession spirals into chaos and suffering by the end of the book. A warning, perhaps, by Garland that perpetual paradise is not all its cracked up to be.

But whatever. The meaning of The Beach doesn't really matter. Travelling is cool, selfies are cool. The story was entertaining, I guess. Didn't really have any effect on me though. Read it if you want, or don't...I don't care. I'm gonna go listen to Nine Inch Nails.

Rating

Fiction 

Imagery

3/7

Entertainment

5/7

Writing

3/7

🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: fish and rice wrapped between banana leaf

Sunday, July 26 2020

Last Updated: 27-07-2020

The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.

— Bryan Stevenson, "Just Mercy" pg. 510

On a recent episode of Amanpour & Co, a public affairs series which airs on PBS in the United States, Walter Isaacson hosted Bryan Stevenson for an interview conducted over video chat. Isaacson began by asking Stevenson what he felt after watching the video of George Floyd being murdered in broad daylight by a police officer. Stevenson's response was succinct: "frustration and anger". There has been a lot of frustration and anger felt by people in the United States, and around the world, in the wake of Floyd's death but I think Stevenson has more reason than almost anyone to feel this way. Stevenson has worked his entire career to fight the systematic racism that is entrenched into the American justice system. He has been helping people, mostly black men, wrongly or unfairly incarcerated for decades. To see that black people are still being killed by the police in the streets must be deeply saddening. As a lawyer, he can only help those who have been granted a trial—but George Floyd's life was taken before that could ever happen.

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer based out of Montgomery, Alabama and the founder of a non-profit law firm called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Stevenson has ran this organization since its inception in 1989 and its primary purpose is to provide pro bono legal representation to anyone who has been denied a fair trial. The choice of location in the capital of Alabama was not incidental; Alabama is the only state that does not provide legal assistance to people on death row. Montgomery has also been the epicentre of many events related to oppression and slavery in the history of the United States. In the early 19th century it served as an auction site for black slaves who were brought by the boatload up the Alabama river. In the 1860s, Montgomery became the first capital of the Confederacy and then almost a century later it was the centre for protests during the Civil Rights Movement—like Rosa Park's bus boycott and the marches from Selma to Montgomery. Standing on the shoulders of giants, the Equal Justice Initiative is another important step in the on-going fight against inequality and prejudice.

Just Mercy

Stevenson published Just Mercy in 2014. It's a memoir of his life as a lawyer for the last 25 years. The bulk of the book is focused on one particular case—one of the first cases that Stevenson took on after founding EJI. It was in defence of Walter McMillian, a man from Monroeville, Alabama found guilty of the murder of a young white woman and sentenced to death. McMillian's story provides a sort of overarching narrative in the book but Stevenson also spends time sharing stories and information about other cases and areas of the judicial system where he has seen cruelty and injustice. After a long and arduous career campaigning for the disenfranchised, Stevenson distills some really important lessons about humanity, and our society, in Just Mercy:

Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

— Stevenson, pg. 32

The poor and disfavoured are exactly who Stevenson sought to defend and protect throughout his career. From kids as young as 13 being sentenced to life in prison, to the mentally disabled on death row, to the systematic racism perpetrated against black people...Stevenson and the lawyers at EJI fought for their justice. I was stunned by how discriminatory the police, the judicial system, and the prison system could all be. It is important to recognize that these are not historical events either—Stevenson only began his career in 1990 and he is still working today. Just Mercy was only published in 2014, so the cases that Stevenson has worked on and the prejudices he's witnessed are problems that still exist today. Just Mercy Cover The United States has been in turmoil for the past few months, first with the Coronavirus outbreak, and now by the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd. It has been a trying moment for a country which is already so divided by partisanship. The death of George Floyd has received a tremendous amount of media coverage and it has generated emotional discussion among people of all races and backgrounds. The unfortunate part is that people are psychologically drawn to the story due to the face attached to it and the personal details of those involved. But the discussion should not be about George Floyd, his past life, or his actions on that day, nor should it be about any of the officers involved and their personal lives. Floyd's death, and the immense reaction to it, was catalyzed by two things: the ubiquity of smartphones with videos cameras, and the scope and influence of social media. These new features of modern society, when used together, help to find and amplify the stories and events that people care about. The sad thing is that deaths like Floyd's have happened continuously in the United States for more than 100 years. This was not a singular event that involved one racist cop and a bad situation and the fact that it wasn't an anomaly is the problem.

When you see the amount of people that have participated in these protests against racism and the amount of emotion and anger directed at the police, it is hard to make sense of it. I knew that it was tough to be black in America, but I figured all of the horrific injustices like slavery, lynchings, and segregation were over and they had moved past that. But by reading Stevenson's book, I realized just how incredibly racist and unfair their institutions still are, particularly in the Southern States. All over America, black children are not taught to trust the police, they are taught to fear them. This is not without good reason too—the police have consistently failed to protect the health and safety of black people for years. Reading about all the cases where obviously innocent black men were sentenced to life in prison, or even to their death, was infuriating. Like Will Smith said in an interview on the Late Show back in 2016: "Racism isn't getting worse, it's getting filmed". Maybe if there were smartphones in the South during the 80s and 90s, more of the racism and oppression would have been captured and challenged by society; unfortunately we are only being informed now through the work of Bryan Stevenson.

Serious Problems

On November 1st 1986, Walter McMillian was having a community fish fry in his own backyard with dozens of people from his Church. That day, miles away from the fish fry, a young white woman was tragically murdered at a dry-cleaners in town. After months of investigation and mounting pressure on the local police department, they felt like they needed to arrest someone to appease the town. So they arrested McMillian. To make a case against him, the police basically forced another criminal, a white man with a known history of lying and making up stories, to testify at McMillian's trial. The story he told was laughably absurd; it was filled with contradictions and asinine motives, and it refuted McMillian's alibi of hosting a fish fry that day, which dozens of people could attest to. Unfortunately, the people that could vouch for McMillian were also black, so it would not have made much difference to the all-white jury that was deciding his fate. Instead, the judge, jury, and the whole damn town decided to believe the stupid story of a degenerate criminal, just because he was white, and so McMillian was sentenced to death row. Maybe deep down they all knew it wasn't true but they just wanted to arrest someone for the murder and feel better about themselves. The fact that they sentenced a black person just made it an easier pill to swallow.

When Stevenson was finally able to exonerate McMillian and save him from death row, after 6 years of incarceration, he stood in front of the judge at the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and said this:

Your Honor, I just want to say this before we adjourn. It was far too easy to convict this wrongly accused man for murder and send him to death row for something he didn’t do and much too hard to win his freedom after proving his innocence. We have serious problems and important work that must be done in this state.

— Stevenson, pg. 390

Stevenson was right, and he has been working on solving these serious problems his whole career. EJI's mandate is that they will provide legal representation to anyone that has been denied a fair trial and may have been wrongly convicted. Stevenson has taken on many cases but the ones I found most shocking were cases where a juvenile had been tried as an adult, of which there are an astounding number of examples in the United States.

I always assumed that if a juvenile were to be tried as an adult, they would be almost of age (like 2 weeks away from being eighteen) and they had murdered like 12 people in cold blood or something egregiously violent like that. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case. Stevenson describes numerous examples of 13 and 14-year-old children that have been sentenced to adult prisons for life with no chance of parole, some of them for non-lethal crimes.

In 1989 in Pensacola, Florida, Joe Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Sullivan was black, and Stevenson describes him as "a thirteen-year-old boy with mental disabilities who read at a first-grade level". Sullivan had been found guilty of sexual assault of an elderly white woman, but because of some other past misdemeanours the judge concluded that Sullivan was beyond rehabilitation (as a thirteen-year-old!) and the juvenile detention system would be a useless sentence. So instead, he sent Joe Sullivan to prison:

Joe, just one year into his own adolescence, was sent to adult prison, where an eighteen-year nightmare began. In prison, he was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted. He attempted suicide on multiple occasions. He developed multiple sclerosis, which eventually forced him into a wheelchair. Doctors later concluded that his neurological disorder might have been triggered by trauma in prison.

— Stevenson, pg. 448

The fate of a thirteen year old boy's life was decided upon inconclusive legal grounds, all within a single day of trial. As punishment Sullivan was sent to a facility where he was subjected to rape and sexual assault for years, and was irrevocably damaged as a result. The entire situation is horrifying to read about.

Because some prison staffs have realized that juveniles sent to adult prisons are five times more likely to be victims of sexual assault, they will place these children in solitary confinement instead to "protect" them from the other inmates. This is exactly what happened to Ian Manuel, also in Florida, in 1990 when he shot a woman while robbing her with two older boys. The woman survived the shooting, but regardless Ian Manuel received life imprisonment without parole at thirteen years old. Manuel was sent to Apalachee Correctional Institution, where he began an eighteen year period of uninterrupted solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement at Apalachee means living in a concrete box the size of a walk-in closet. You get your meals through a slot, you do not see other inmates, and you never touch or get near another human being. If you “act out” by saying something insubordinate or refusing to comply with an order given to you by a correctional officer, you are forced to sleep on the concrete floor of your cell without a mattress. If you shout or scream, your time in solitary is extended; if you hurt yourself by refusing to eat or mutilating your body, your time in solitary is extended; if you complain to officers or say anything menacing or inappropriate, your time in solitary is extended. You get three showers a week and are allowed forty-five minutes in a small caged area for exercise a few times a week. Otherwise you are alone, hidden away in your concrete box, week after week, month after month.

— Stevenson, pg. 263

Now, I am not so naive as to think that any justice system can be perfect. Laws can have unintended consequences, bad precedents can be set, prejudiced individuals will always exist, and innocent people may be sent to jail sometimes. However, when a justice system is capable of completely ruining a child's life because of one mistake, when it has the authority to place a child in a concrete box and hide them away until they die, there is something wrong with that system. Stevenson believed the same, and he worked tirelessly for years to get the Supreme Court to make such decisions a lot harder. He has won landmark rulings to ban mandatory life-imprisonments for children 17 and younger, and to ban them completely for non-homicidal crimes. For his efforts, both Joe Sullivan and Ian Manuel were released in 2016, both of them having served over 25 years of their lives in prison.

Slavery By Another Name

It was hard to hear about the numerous cases of injustice and cruelty that have been adjudicated during Stevenson's career, and long before it, that he has worked to ratify. It's even harder to accept that these aren't anomalous events in many ways—it's just how the system is supposed to work. Stevenson spends some time discussing why so many people, predominantly blacks and other minorities, are incarcerated in the United States and why prison sentences are so severe. It can be boiled down to two main reasons, or possibly just two manifestations of one reason: power. Specifically, it is the desire of the ruling class to maintain the existing power structures.

The most visceral form of power in our society is economic power and prison happens to be a profitable business in the United States. It is an industry worth about $6 billion dollars, due to the rise of the privatized prison system. Since their inception in the 80s, private prison corporations have generated massive profits from lucrative government contracts, prison labour programs, and by having publicly traded shares. The prison industry also spends millions of dollars a year through government lobbying to ensure there are more prisoners to profit from:

Prison growth and the resulting “prison-industrial complex”—the business interests that capitalize on prison construction—made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem. Incarceration became the answer to everything—health care problems like drug addiction, poverty that had led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues generated responses from legislators that involved sending people to prison.

— Stevenson, pg. 449

The prison-industrial complex is a strong part of why America has 25% of the global prison population despite only being 5% of the overall population. There is a vested economic interest in having more incarcerated citizens. That being said, private prisons only house about 8% of prisoners in the United States, so the majority of prisons are still operated by the government. This leads me to the second reason why so many people are incarcerated: racism.

Slavery, as a legal institution, was abolished in 1865 by the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. But the South did not relinquish its socioeconomic systems of power over African Americans; the practices of enslavement and prejudice just changed and became more discreet. Reading Just Mercy was a stark reminder that, nearly 150 years after slavery was outlawed, African Americans and other minorities are still severely disadvantaged, and even targeted, in most of the United States still. There is a long way to go until this inhumane discrimination is removed from society, in America and elsewhere. I certainly don't know how it will end, but I believe it starts with education. I'd recommend everyone read Stevenson's novel because it was one of the most eye-opening books I've ever read.

Truth Before Reconciliation

Near the end of that interview on Amanpour & Co, Stevenson says something quite poignant about what sort of positive action he would hope to see from law enforcement. He would like the police to visit the lynching memorials that EJI has erected in Montgomery. He invites them to go there, in uniform, and just apologize. Apologize on behalf of those that have worn the same uniform and have failed to protect black people for so many years. They may not be personally guilty of these injustices, but by wearing the uniform they are representing the same institutions. They could state, verbally, that they want to see change and they will do better to protect black people. Not acknowledging this history, and not talking about it, will not bring about change. Truth needs to come before reconciliation. There is great power in the oral statement, and to provide acknowledgement of the past is all Stevenson wants. It doesn't require a budget, or a change to the laws, but it requires courage.

I think this path towards change that Stevenson wants can apply to more than just law enforcement. As a white person, to be post-racial is as helpful to society as waking up and not killing your neighbour everyday; it is just inaction. To be post-racial in a world that is still racist is just turning a blind eye to problems. By being white, we belong to the same culture and society that promoted and enforced inequality, much like the police officer that represents the institution of law enforcement. There is power in acknowledgement. Action must be taken, by everyone, to work towards a more equitable future.

"We’ve all been through a lot, Bryan, all of us. I know that some have been through more than others. But if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, and recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed.”

— Stevenson, pg. 218

Rating

Non-Fiction 

Value

7/7

Interest

5/7

Writing

5/7

🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: smoked beef brisket on a poppy seed bun with horseradish

Saturday, May 30 2020

Last Updated: 27-09-2020

In 1886, German architect Mies van der Rohe famously declared that "less is more". In 2019, not to be outdone, American Youtuber MattySmokes420 responded with: "like and subscribe for more great content!" Both men make compelling arguments, but I'm beginning to think that less is becoming a more important option in this Age of Great Content. Mies van der Rohe was a pioneer of modernist architecture, which was also a cultural precursor to the minimalist art movement of the 20th century. In the years since, minimalism has evolved into a variety of other art forms and areas of life. Nowadays we watch as Marie Kondo, a petite and joyful Japanese woman, preaches to her Netflix audience to remove all possessions that don't "spark joy" in one's life. Clean up your room and throw things out; this is minimalism in 2020.

Looking back at its origins as an artistic philosophy in the 1950s, minimalism was an attempt to "expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts", according to an art critic named Wikipedia. Digital Minimalism book coverIn the context of American art, it was partly a response to the abstract expressionism movement of the mid-twentieth century. Abstract expressionism was popularized through artists like Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning who eschewed form and objectivity in favour of the surreal. It was dynamic, spontaneous art that was often overflowing with emotion and energy. As I understand it, these artists wanted to abandon traditional composition in order to evoke their subconscious representation of a subject. Jay Meuser, an American abstract expressionist, wrote that "it is far better to capture the glorious spirit of the sea than to paint all of its tiny ripples". If the purpose of abstract expressionism is to represent boundless emotion, perhaps minimalism is about the boundaries themselves. And that, I believe, is the crux of minimalism conceptually: erecting boundaries and then thinking about your relationship with them.

The artists of the abstract expressionist movement sought to express their personal emotions through their paintings. As such, each work of art is integrally tied to its creator. Art created to serve this purpose can be viewed as narcissistic or pretentious, but as much as these artists have imbued themselves into their work, the observer still has their own subjective reaction to the art.

A painting is not a picture of an experience. It is the experience.

— Mark Rothko

Rothko sought to cultivate a personal experience for the observer, but it is still hard to separate him from his work when each brush stroke was produced by his hands. When you see Rothko's bright, colourful rectangles slowly transform over the years into darker and darker shades, ultimately culminating in a work with no colour at all, it's hard not to think of his suicide just a year after this work was painted. It is this context and the intimate focus on the artist that minimalist art strives to eliminate. How can an artist remove themselves from the experience of the art? How can an artist create something with no meaning at all?

Minimalism is all about literal, physical presence. It is characterized by extreme simplicity and a reduction of any personal and referential elements so that only the objective, purely visual aspects remain. Expressionism, and most art in general, is about representing some feature of reality or visualizing human experiences, such as emotion and feeling. The minimalist artist seeks to remove any external references at all, so that the viewer is affected only by what's in front of them. The material, form, and location is the entirety of the art. Because of this, minimalist art most often takes the form of sculpture rather than painting. It is common for this art to be manufactured in bulk or produced by automated machinery, further removing the artist from their creation.

Now, I can certainly appreciate this style of art and the virtues it represents. A metal cube placed on the floor in front of you can be seen as a very pure form of beauty; the art does not try to imitate something it's not and in that way it is truthful. It is easier to understand minimalist art by comparing it to abstract expressionism because its existence is an antithesis to all the emotionally driven art that preceded it. If the point of art is to evoke feelings and start discussions then I think minimalist art, as boring as it may seem at first glance, fits this criteria still.

stupid monkeys looking at a monolith
stupid monkeys looking at a monolith
cultured humans appreciating art
cultured humans appreciating art

Minimalism's popularity grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s and its core tenets have spread to other disciplines and facets of life. I would resist saying that minimalist art was the direct inspiration behind this spread to other areas such as music, architecture, software, and lifestyle; I believe it has more to do with why minimalist art resonates with us in the first place. When we see a neat tiling of bricks on a wooden floor, or a tidy, all-white spacious room with white chairs and white shelves, or a clean and simple user interface on a smartphone app...we are drawn to the simplicity and clear distinctions. I think it's deeply rooted in the fact that these straight lines and neat symmetries are not found in nature. They are of human creation and their inarguable logic is comforting to us. Like the apes being captivated and inspired by the monolith in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, minimalist design can open up possibilities to us and teach us about the essence of things. Maybe a minimalist lifestyle can have similar benefits.

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport describes a healthier approach to technology which is inspired by minimalist ideologies. The book provides guidelines for improving our personal use of technology, specifically the use of internet-based entertainment, social media, and video games. In a broader sense, Newport wanted to address the consequences of ubiquitous connection and endless content that is now possible thanks to smartphones and the internet.

It was interesting to read this book during the Coronavirus outbreak, as Canada and the rest of the world has been living in lockdown. Almost everyone has been in social isolation within their homes; the only face-to-face contact is with whomever you live with, which may be nobody. Newport spends time looking at the fundamental differences between connection, which are digital interactions and communication with others, and conversation, which is real, physical interaction. Anyone that has been subject to this lockdown over the past couple months has become intimately aware of these differences—or at least aware of the negative effects. Coronavirus has forced upon us what may be the greatest global social experiment in the history of our species and it will be interesting to see the results of this experiment.

Connection is any form of digital interaction with others. The most basic examples of which are Facebook's "Like" or Instagram's "Heart", which are literally a single bit of transmitted information and therefore the smallest amount of interaction possible between two people. Text messaging, whether through SMS, comments, or e-mail would be the next "level" of interaction we use frequently, which is understood to be fairly low-bandwidth as well. It is hard to convey emotion with just words, especially when you do not message the other person frequently (although anyone in a relationship can sense danger when their partner sends them a single "k"). Newport argues that connection is an insufficient and vapid substitute for true conversation. He points to several studies conducted on the effects of heavy social media use that generally correlate this behaviour with loneliness, less satisfaction in one's life, and increased anxiety. Naturally, if social media causes such a detriment to one's mental health, the question arises as to why it is so popular in the first place. I think Newport's explanation can be reduced to two primary reasons. The first is concerned with why we are so willing to replace real conversation with digital connection...we're lazy:

Humans are naturally biased toward activities that require less energy in the short term, even if it’s more harmful in the long term—so we end up texting our sibling instead of calling them on the phone, or liking a picture of a friend’s new baby instead of stopping by to visit.

— Newport, pg. 185

I think this shift towards "easier" forms of communication is blatantly evident today. The decline of phone calls in favour of texting (in my generation at least) is a primary example. Social media provides ways of interacting with your friends and family from the comfort of your own home, on the bus, or anywhere really. It is so convenient and accessible that we can feel, at times, more connected to the people in our lives—but Newport believes that by replacing genuine physical time spent together with these digital forms of communication we are losing out on the real benefits of social interaction.

The second reason we love social media is that it's been explicitly designed to be addicting; the more time we spend using Facebook's services, the more ad money they receive. There is already a plethora of research and information available that explains exactly how these tech companies build these addicting feedback loops into their products, so I won't go into detail here. If you're interested a google search will yield plenty of results, or this podcast episode with the author Cal Newport is a great explanation too.

Unfortunately, the negative effects of ubiquitous technology do not stop at our social lives, according to Newport. This constant connectivity and consumption has a major effect on our psychological welfare; always having stimulus from other outside sources means we are never truly alone with ourselves anymore. Newport claims that these moments of solitude are vital:

For one thing, when you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships

— Newport, pg. 136

I really believe in the importance of alone time, especially with how it helps to clarify what's important to you. When you give your mind the space to breathe, where you're not processing anything and there is no distracting stimuli, the things that are important to you (or it?) will naturally surface to your consciousness. If you start thinking about something for no reason, there's probably a good reason you should be thinking about it. Moments like these I tend to value and I place a lot of weight on the decisions made during these times.

Newport is careful to note that this ability to keep yourself distracted is not a new problem that Silicon Valley has created. There has always been ways of keeping yourself mindlessly entertained, and ever since advertising became a part of entertainment, the "attention economy" has been figuring out ways of getting more and more of your eyeball time. What has changed is how pervasive this influence has become and how it's infiltrated every corner of our daily lives:

Erecting barriers against the existential is not new—before YouTube we had (and still have) mindless television and heavy drinking to help avoid deeper questions—but the advanced technologies of the twenty-first-century attention economy are particularly effective at this task.

— Newport, pg. 217

The presence of smartphones and devices that we can carry on our person at all times has given us the previously unimaginable ability to access...well...literally everything. If you don't see how insane that is then maybe you were born after 2000 and it's just expected for you (shouldn't you be making a TikTok right now or something?). Anyways, smartphones are, without a doubt, very powerful tools we've been given, but I'm convinced it's important we learn to properly manage this power without losing ourselves. It may sound hyperbolic, but I believe it's necessary. Just as art minimalism was a necessary response to the sensory overload of abstract expressionist art, so too must we respond to a world that claims it has given us all we ever wanted, right in our pocket.

So, how exactly does Newport suggest we survive in this brave new world? It's quite simple: Newport wants everyone to become Amish because they figured out this stuff a long time ago. Just kidding, but Newport does spend some time lauding the Amish for their altogether reasonable approach to technology. Most people assume that the Amish are strictly opposed to all modern technology, but it turns out they actually do adopt new tools and technology sometimes—whenever they collectively agree that the tool is beneficial.

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.

— Newport, pg. 77

This sort of value-driven adoption is closely aligned with what Newport actually suggests we do to curb our use of technology. This lifestyle is what he calls digital minimalism:

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

— Newport, pg. 48

In other words, use technology only when it benefits what you personally value. Use it as a tool for life, not a substitute for it. It's certainly easier said than done because there are so many reasons we use technology and so many ways it's become integrated into our lives already, but Newport thinks its vitally important to at least become aware of these things. The Googles and Facebooks of the world have every intention of taking over all aspects of your life; I've wrote previously about how their entire business model is predicated on mining your data and keeping your attention. In an economy like this, we must erect boundaries and protect ourselves. This is what digital minimalism is: a way of saying no.

Pollock
streaming yourself on Twitch watching Youtube videos while scrolling through Instagram
minimalist art
throwing your phone into a lake

Newport goes into a lot of detail around how to become a digital minimalist and what he recommends you do with all the free time you're going to suddenly have. Overall, I thought it was a very thought provoking read despite being overly prescriptive at times. There was also a sense of "look at all the great ways I spend my time" kind of vibe in certain sections, which came off as a little pretentious. In general though, what Newport writes about in digital minimalism is essential. Minimalism has existed for quite some time, in different forms, and it is vitally important today to figure out how to live simply. I will end with a succinct strategy Newport provides for assessing the technology in our lives, when deciding whether it is necessary or not. I think it would be good to keep this in mind.

[Does the technology:]

  1. Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough).
  2. Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better).
  3. Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.

— Newport, pg. 107

Rating

Non-Fiction 

Value

6/7

Interest

4/7

Writing

4/7

🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: half a baconator

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