Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hello, Shawn? It's olive oil calling.

Olive oil wants me to like it on Facebook. This has me concerned. Not because I don’t like olive oil, and not because olive oil the product has somehow come to life and the first thing it did was create a Facebook account and the second thing it did was ask me to like it. No, I’m concerned because there’s human being somewhere who is behind this curtain, creating a Facebook account for olive oil, and signing up for a program that solicits Facebook users to like it. The question is, Why? What’s in it for olive oil? And who is olive oil, anyway? (No Popeye jokes, please; you’re thinking of Olive Oyl.)

According to Facebook for Business, you can significantly increase your business by creating a product page. But since it was only the generic product olive oil that queried my affections, I decided to see who or what was behind olive oil’s intrusions. The Facebook page for olive oil revealed the disturbing statistic that 32,523 people like it. That’s a lot, considering the page is nothing more than the Wikipedia entry for the product. Why would so many people like such a page? What’s in it for them? I can only guess that there was some lazy reaction, some kind of, “Oh, what the hell” spirit of reckless abandon that leads their cursors to the little “Like” box. 

Then, near the bottom of this page, I saw a little dialogue box that said this: 

     This Page is automatically generated based on what Facebook users      are interested in, and not affiliated with or endorsed by anyone              associated with the topic. See More

Huh. “Automatically generated” is, of course, disingenuous, because for something to be automatic, someone had to write an algorithm to perform the generation. (Non-believers take note: there’s a force behind everything.) I clicked on “See More,” and I got…

...moved slightly down the same page so that the Related Groups box was front and center. The top four groups displayed in the box were NurSind, Il Corriere del Gusto, ESPANOLES EN USA, Degustazioni & Dintorni, and Volkswagen parts. There were more related groups, of course–hundreds more, maybe thousands; I didn’t dig that deeply.

But what does this all mean? Why like olive oil? What’s in it for me? Does liking olive oil say something about me to the other people who like/follow me? Is this all just posturing and resume building? Another vacuous nail in the coffin of human superficiality? 

Maybe olive oil–and the algorithm and the due or dudette who wrote the algorithm–knows something we don’t know. Maybe the point isn’t that there’s a direct value in liking an abstract thing like a Facebook product page. And maybe we’re not a shallow collection of atoms jiggling for a few years until we run out of energy. Maybe there’s a desire on our part to be connected not only to each other, but to the things that make up the world around us. And if liking something in a universe powered by plugged-in servers feels weird, maybe it’s time to transcend that feeling and look more deeply at what drives us humans behave this way. 

I asked what was in it for olive oil at the opening of this piece. Olive oil is a lubricant that helps our food taste better, look better, and eat better. It’s a connector. In his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell writes that connectors “link us up with the world.” If that’s what olive oil is up to, can that be a bad thing? Isn’t that just a reflection of us, our desires? 

Those are all interesting things to ponder, but I’m not liking olive oil, the Facebook product page. It’s just too weird. Besides, what the hell is NurSind anyway? 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Cutting the Cable, Dropping the Dish

Last week I did something I’ve been threatening to do for years. I’ve ranted against it in my writing, railed about it to friends and family, and plotted to kill it while lying sleepless in bed during the wee, small hours of the morning. And when I finally did it, it was as liberating as I thought it would be. It was more liberating than my switch from alpine skiing to telemark skiing. What did I do? I got rid of our satellite television service, and replaced it with...nothing.

It was easier than I thought. I did it via an online chat with my provider. There was no caterwauling or gnashing of teeth. There were a few token offers from them, promising to reduce my bill by fifteen bucks a month, or a gift card to Walmart, but after a couple of quick “No, thank you’s” by me, they got the message, and it was over. I quickly took down the satellite receiver and stowed the equipment while waiting for the provider to send return packaging, and that was that.

Thus completes a long circle that began in 1984, when cable television finally arrived at my mother’s house in Green Harbor, Massachusetts. Back then, cable was the elixir of life itself, bringing wonders into the television set that rabbit ears couldn’t touch. Cable television quickly insinuated itself into the fabric of our consciousness, and no thought was ever given to discharging it. The only time I ever went without cable television service was when I lived in France, and only then because we were poor and all our money when to wine and cheese.

A few years ago it became clear that we didn’t need satellite television or cable service anymore. The boys were in high school and had shifted their entertainment needs to their laptop computers. And we only ever watched PBS together. The main purpose for the satellite was to feed my baseball and hockey habit. But for twenty dollars a year I got a subscription to, which allows me to listen to the radio broadcast for any baseball game during the year. Problem solved.

I replaced the satellite dish with small antenna that pulls in the digital television broadcasts beaming off Mt. Mansfield. We now receive fourteen digital channels, including four PBS stations, all crystal clear, and all free–and by free I mean that I don’t pay a monthly fee for them. With the $800 dollars a year not spent on satellite, we can get a Netflix subscription ($8/month). We can also donate more to the local public television affiliate, as well as our public radio station, which we listen to throughout the day.

But I think the best thing about cutting the cable and dropping the dish will be the peace. Peace from the noise of two hundred stations filled with the nattering of the zeitgeist. Peace from the angst of seeing the monthly bill creep up every time we open the envelope. Peace from worrying about another useless leash. Telemark skiers have a motto: Free your heels, free your mind. I have a motto for this experience: Cut the cable, cut the crap.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Curious Status of Creative Nonfiction

Yesterday, I picked my son up from the University of Vermont to come home for the summer. As we chatted about things and got reacquainted, he told me that his girlfriend was staying in Burlington this summer and taking a couple of class at UVM, one of which was called “Creative Nonfiction.”

“Whatever that is,” he rejoined.

The confusion–or college student scorn coming from someone majoring in Classics–comes from the apparent juxtaposition of the two terms “creative” and “nonfiction.” If nonfiction is creative, doesn’t that make it fiction? Well, no.

There are a lot of definitions for creativity, but at its heart it means the unique arrangement of things according to an individual. Just as no two children will arrange the same number and kind of blocks the same way, so too will no two people arrange the same words in the same way to express the same idea.

To better illustrate the meaning of creativity, let me tell you about my friend the cop. One day he told me about two people who got into a fender-bender in the supermarket parking lot. When he arrived, the participants had advanced to the second stage of the grieving process: anger. After calming them down, my friend took down their statements. Each person, he decided, told the truth about what had happened. But each had told that truth according to his own perspective, arranging the events as he had seen them. That unique arrangement, whether deliberate or involuntary, represents the creativity of the writer or speaker.

That creativity appears in the way we build our arguments. It’s present in the mess on our desks. And it invades our decision-making process, regulating what we will and will not consider allowing into our thoughts.

Back to nonfiction: I have to agree with my son’s skepticism, because I believe that all writing is fiction. Even statements to police officers are fictionalized because their light is bent through the prism of the speaker. We are all individual interpreters of the events around us, channeling things through our unique set of senses, understanding them in according to diverse experiences. That individuality represents creativity.

But think about the word again: nonfiction. There’s fiction, and there’s nonfiction. We honor fiction with its own word, but its opposite gets only a negator. It’s a way of defining something by telling us what its not, not what it is. It’s almost damning with faint praise, as if we know what fiction is–everything–and this other thing is sort of a by-product, some grease needed to get along socially.

And it’s the very thing that lets me write a blog post about creative nonfiction.