Walter Kirn

Little Brother Dwells Inside Us

Excerpt from “Little Brother is Watching,” by Walter Kirn, New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 12, 2010:

In George Orwell’s “1984,” that novel of totalitarian politics whose great mistake was to emphasize the villainy of society’s masters while playing down the mischief of the masses, the goal of communications technology was brutal and direct: to ensure the dominance of the state. The sinister “telescreens” placed in people’s homes spewed propaganda and conducted surveillance, keeping the population passive and the leadership firmly in control. In the face of constant monitoring, all people could do was sterilize their behavior, conceal their thoughts and carry on like model citizens.

This was, it turns out, a quaint scenario, grossly simplistic and deeply melodramatic. As the Internet proves every day, it isn’t some stern and monolithic Big Brother that we have to reckon with as we go about our daily lives, it’s a vast cohort of prankish Little Brothers equipped with devices that Orwell, writing 60 years ago, never dreamed of and who are loyal to no organized authority. The invasion of privacy — of others’ privacy but also our own, as we turn our lenses on ourselves in the quest for attention by any means — has been democratized.

Ours is a fragmentarian society, infinitely divided against itself and endlessly disrupted from within by much the same technologies that, in Orwell’s somber novel, assured a dull and deadening stability. In some ways, his nightmare vision of state control is cozy and reassuring by comparison. Big Brother may have stifled dissent by forcing conformity on his frightened subjects, but his trespasses were predictable and manageable. What’s more, his assaults on citizens’ privacy left the concept of privacy intact, allowing the possibility that with his overthrow people might live again as they once had.

Little Brother affords us no such luck, in part because he dwells inside us rather than in some remote and walled-off headquarters. In the new, chaotic regime of networked lenses and microphones that point every which way and rest in every hand, permitting us to train them on ourselves as easily as we aim them at one another, the private and public realms are so confused that it’s best to treat them as identical.

Read the entire essay…

Procedural Voyeurism

Excerpt from "The Art of the Deal as Entertainment," by Walter Kirn, New York Times (July 20, 2010):

LeBron James Mural Comes Down (Cleveland Plain Dealer) In the contemporary entertainment business (and also, increasingly, in sports and in politics), it’s the business that’s the entertainment and the art of the deal that’s the art that draws most notice. We have become a society that is fixated on process and absorbed by the slippery, complex machinations of the middlemen, brokers and executives who conspire offstage to determine what takes place onstage. Call this outlook “procedural voyeurism” — a redirection of mass attention from the spectacle of the game itself to the circus of the game behind the game, as when LeBron James, the N.B.A. superstar, commandeered the TV sets of umpteen thousands of sports bars, not to mention the better part of the Web’s bandwidth, to tell us, months before the season’s first tipoff, that he was moving from Cleveland to Miami to take advantage of the new team’s “cap space,” a slangy term for the ability teams have to add new strings of zeros to coveted players’ salaries.

You might also think back to last winter’s late-night-talk-show feud, its battlefield swarming with lawyers, go-betweens, snitches, seducers and propagandists, that pitted Conan O’Brien against Jay Leno for the desk that the senior comedian nobly ceded to the younger and then, as if by tugging on a lasso encircling the desk’s legs, rudely jerked away. This orgy of Jacobean backstage backstabbing wasn’t televised directly, but rumors about its intrigues captured our imaginations anyhow, stirring extensive discussions of ratings numbers, severance payments, contractual etiquette and viewer demographics...

Procedural voyeurism grants us an illusion of control over realities that we secretly fear we have no power over — sometimes correctly, as with the BP oil spill, whose coverage has been rich in process and until recently short on meaningful developments. The Romanian religious philosopher Mircea Eliade wrote about mesmerizing narratives that he called origin myths. He said they helped people feel a sense of authority over an otherwise chaotic world. Today our origin myths are more mundane, but we still see the deal as a primordial act. We might do well to call these decadent versions “LeBron Announcements” or “Conan-Leno Matches”: rituals of symbolic participation in games-within-games that are way above our heads and occur within heavily guarded inner circles that we can peek into but never truly penetrate.

Read the entire essay…

Flying Over the Chasm

Barry Blitt for The New York Times Excerpts from “Hollywood’s Brilliant Coda to America’s Dark Year,” by Frank Rich, New York Times, December 12, 2009:

The fictional doings in “Up in the Air,” adapted from a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, are bookended by brief montages culled from interviews that the director, Jason Reitman, conducted with real-life laid-off workers while shooting in Detroit and St. Louis. He asked the interviewees what they had told — or wished they had told — the H.R. bureaucrats who let them go. “On the stress level, I’ve heard that losing your job is like a death in the family,” says one man. “But personally I feel more like the people I worked with were my family, and I died.”

...What gives our Great Recession its particular darkness — and gives this film its haunting afterlife — is the disconnect between the corporate culture that is dictating the firing and the rest of us. In the shorthand of the day, it’s the dichotomy between Wall Street and Main Street, though that oversimplifies the divide. This disconnect isn’t just about the huge gap in income between the financial sector and the rest of America. Nor is it just about the inequities of a government bailout that rescued the irresponsible bankers who helped crash the economy while shortchanging the innocent victims of their reckless gambles. What “Up in the Air” captures is less didactic. It makes palpable the cultural and even physical chasm that opened up between the two Americas for years before the financial collapse.

Everywhere, but Nowhere

“All the airports kind of feel and look the same now. Some are more beautiful, some are less beautiful, but for the most part you’re going to find a Starbucks in every airport. You’re going to get your coffee and the USA Today or New York Times in every airport. All the things that you want are there, so you can land anywhere, and you feel at home. You’re given the sense that you’re everywhere, but you’re nowhere; that you are constantly with your community, yet you have no community. There’s kind of a terrific irony to that.”

~ Jason Reitman, from “A Director Who Gives Business the Business,” by David Carr, New York Times, November 25, 2009


Multitasking

From "The Autumn of the Multitaskers" by Walter Kirn, The Atlantic Monthly, November 2007

It isn’t working, it never has worked, and though we’re still pushing and driving to make it work and puzzled as to why we haven’t stopped yet, which makes us think we may go on forever, the stoppage or slowdown is coming nonetheless, and when it does, we’ll be startled for a moment, and then we’ll acknowledge that, way down deep inside ourselves (a place that we almost forgot even existed), we always knew it couldn’t work.

Istvan Banyai

The scientists know this too, and they think they know why. Through a variety of experiments, many using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity, they’ve torn the mask off multitasking and revealed its true face, which is blank and pale and drawn.

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

For more on Walter Kirn: