Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Age of Discovery

We live in an age of discovery. Or is it discoverability? Christ, I get confused. All I know is that I need help. On the one hand we've got all these curatorial types -- taxonomists, critics, aggregators, call them prospectors, why don't you? Nah, call them marketers, marketers is better, marketers is what they are, especially the ones with advanced degrees in behavioral economics. There's a slew of them out there prospecting on our behalf -- working hard to unfuddle and inveigle the archetypically clueless American consumer. They want to help us find just the right thing for ourselves, the Object Endowed with Special Properties, guaranteed to make us smile and increase our self-esteem. Where would we be without them and their discoveries? Undoubtedly unhappy.

On the other hand, a cloud bank of machines running sophisticated programs records our every key stroke from which data it extrapolates our wishes, lies, and dreams. These same machines then suggest which keys we ought to hit next. Mindless mindfuckers, but effective. Who needs human discoverers when computers can do the conjuring trick far more efficiently? I hear the techno-savants say that we should leave discovery to the algorithms.

But how many citizens-turned-consumers even know what an algorithm is, for crying out loud? I tell you what it is for me: a scalable set of instructions that routinely prompts the transferral of money from my bank account into the coffers of the Amazon CEO, wily Jeff Bezos. He's got a good racket going. Half the so-called books I buy I can't read and half the other shite I buy I don't need. But my effin self-esteem is off the charts. Truth is, I've purchased so much self-esteem I gotta keep the overflow in the drawer with my effin sports socks and spare shoelaces. At least I think it's in there -- the last time I went looking for some, I couldn't find it no how.

Buying lots of needless shite makes us feel good, just like buying into a set of conventional ideas some bright marketer has formulated for us. When we've discovered the right shite to buy, including candidates for public office and institutions of higher learning, it's as exhilarating as discovering the right ideas to think or the right beliefs to hold. The right shite comes with labels on the outside, celebrity endorsements, and a hefty price tag. (Don't worry, no one is gonna know if you've bought it at markdown.) The wrong shite, however, does nothing for your self-esteem regardless of its utility.

We haven't discovered much of anything on our own in a long time, have we, poot? Nabokov had his butterfly, Hubble his galaxies. Me? I'm lucky if I can find a new salsa recipe. I'm too tired, too anxious, too confused. I need an effin valet just to get me through the day. On the commute to work, I answer emails and prepare myself for the day ahead. At work I put out fires and see my well-laid plans derailed time and again. On the ride back home, I try to read manuscripts in the hope of discovering a new voice worth publishing but I usually fall asleep by the time the bus gets to the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel. Jersey can put anyone to sleep. So can reading manuscripts.

I try not to be saddened by the fact that there seems to be nothing new under the sun, but all it takes to set me back is to go online for a couple of minutes and be overwhelmed by the volume of knowledge, the sheer variety of stuff, served up for me by the great minds and machines of our age. Burdened by the weight of all that discovery done on my behalf, I give up any hope for increasing my self-esteem. Or finding something I can truly call my own.

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