Digital Maoism and Six-Word Stories

Sunday, June 07 2009 @ 07:35 PM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto


Jaron Lanier

The phrase Digital Maoism (aka Online Collectivism) was coined by Jaron Lanier, an American computer scientist, composer, visual artist and author, in his May 2005 essay.

Four years later, a growing number of Netizens are becoming fascinated with a new literary format named six-word stories. The slogan there is, "Brevity is a virtue." The one who has led the way to the kiddy stuff since last year gives Ernest Hemingway credit for his inspiration. According to him, the shortest-ever story in the history of literature is the one written by the American Nobel laureate. It goes like this:

For sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.

This crap is supposed to be considered profound simply because it's Hemingway. But I suspect that the new breed of American Netizens owe Japanese haiku poets their literary movement more than they owe it to Hemingway.

As I explained in a TokyoFreePress story titled Seamless Transition from Haiku to Keitai, nothing illustrates the essence of Japanese culture better than their obsession with the myth of homogeneity. In literature, the same pathological trait has translated into the 17-syllable format since the 17th century. Without the delusive belief that all the community members shared the same set of word associations, they would never have thought a minimal number of words would be enough to have their messages get through to the receiving ends. This is how the haiku mentality has taken root in this climate.

The myth was invented in the early 8th century by a couple of successive emperors as a tool for pacifying the Japanese archipelago. Ever since their successors have taken advantage of the mental defect to the fullest by leveraging the same method. Even today the media keep implanting into their audience a logic circuit that always ensures a standardized response to a given stimulus.

To Japanese, it has always been true that "less is more." But before long we will be hearing them say, "Nothing is everything," because the typical distortion of Buddha's tenet is an inevitable consequence of the pursuit of brevity. This is where the world's most hive-minded people are destined.

It is also interesting to know that if you compose a good haiku (there are some,) you'll get a favorable review which is often hundred times longer than your piece, whereas if you choose to give a full-length elaboration on your thought, as I often do, the longest feedback you can expect from your audience is a 17-syllable-long review. Most typically it's as short as 12-syllables: nagasugite yomu-ki ga shinai, or I don't want to read such a wordy piece. It's against this backdrop that manga now accounts for more than 70% of all the printed publication in Japan. And as you may know, manga are much less wordy as compared to comics in the West. Sometimes they have no speech bubbles.

As Lanier feared four years ago, the same thing is happening in America. The country is now rapidly transforming itself from a diverse culture to a hive-minded society. Small wonder that the six-word format is flourishing in the Obama Nation.

Lanier's May 2005 essay discusses a lot about the pros and cons of the Wikipedian way of thinking, but actually Digital Maoism refers to the general attitude of a broader Internet population. So let me give you a different perspective on this trend here.

You are often asked, or ask yourself, these questions - whether you approve or disapprove of things such as:
.
Democracy as against autocracy
Republicans as against Democrats (in America)
Liberal Democratic Party as against Democratic Party of Japan (in Japan)
War as against peace
Multilateralism as against unilateralism
Resort to military option as against the "keep dancing at the U.N. ballroom" option
Same-sex marriages
Abortion
Free market system as against centrally controlled economy
Right to carry firearms
Proliferation as against the oligopoly of the nukes

The list of FAQs goes on and on. Actually it's as long as the hyper-extensive agenda of the sufferer of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in the White House.

In totalitarian regimes, things are straightforward. There always are correct answers given beforehand and you never invite troubles unless you give wrong answers. Or you aren't asked these questions in the first place. But wherever the constitution nominally guarantees freedom of speech, the situation is a little trickier. You can answer these yes-or-no questions either way. Moreover, you are even allowed to give a four-word answer, such as "I don't know," or "I don't care." The respondents are supposed to appreciate the ample opportunities to exercise FOS. There is a catch, though.

Some of us, however, never appreciate the constitutional civil right because it is an empty promise everywhere. We know these media-salient topics are all red herrings and have nothing to do with the real issues.

Of bloggers, Lanier writes:

"The question of new business models for content creators on the Internet is a profound and difficult topic in itself, but it must at least be pointed out that writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing."

He goes on to say:

"It's easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play to the crowd. Or you can flame the crowd to get attention. Nothing is wrong with either of those activities. [But] what I think of as real writing, writing meant to last, is something else. It involves articulating a perspective that is not reactive to yesterday's moves in a conversation. (Emphasis mine.)"

This makes my blogging philosophy almost inviable because I have always avoided responding to given questions, such as whether I prefer "democracy" to "autocracy," whether I support the use of military option to thwart the North Korean nuclear ambition, etc. and that takes an enormous amount of unpaid time. And I am not particularly a charitable person. But to me this is the only way to provide my audience with information of lasting relevance.

In another part of the essay, Lanier talks about the relationship between the hive mind and individuals. It goes:

"The hive mind should be thought of as a tool. Empowering the collective does not empower individuals - just the reverse is true. There can be useful feedback loops set up between individuals and the hive mind, but the hive mind is too chaotic to be fed back into itself."

This can mean that my assumption was unrealistic, or self-contradictory, when I thought I could make my political blog taboo-free and interactive at the same time.

In fact I've had to learn bitter lessons about the behavioral patterns of Digital Maoists in the last five years. Their typical ways of responding to my blog posts are:

Externalize, or generalize issues I bring up because they are so used to discussing them as if they are someone else's headaches or heartaches. They try hard to avoid internalizing otherwise empty words such as democracy, peace and human rights under the guise of objectivity. The last thing they would do is to talk about their own selves, and their own home country.

Habitually relativize, or marginalize the enormity of issues I have identified myself because they don't have an absolute sense of values. To them that is the only way to get around the real issues.

Constantly obscure the causal relationship, or even turn it upside down, by talking about a chicken-and-egg situation. To me, a specific egg is laid by a specific chicken and another specific chicken comes out of that specific egg.

Whenever they exhausted all these maneuvers, they resort to a hear-no-evil attitude. It's an easy thing for them to dismiss a heresy from an unestablished writer such as me as paranoia.

Americans I used to know may have been less tolerant of different ideas, but at least, they never ignored them. There were no potential lurkers or trollers, let alone spammers. Whenever a difference arose between us, we fought all out, if in a civilized manner, until either of us fully convinced the other, or we could specifically identify the root cause underlying the difference. We never glossed it over. This is something today's American people are utterly unable to manage.

I am just one of those blogging Netizens. I don't have that special privilege of saying anything and doing nothing. That is why I find Digital Maoism most threatening among other types of suppression of FOS. Yet, I still hope that not a few of the predominantly American audience of my blog will withstand the overwhelming wave of collectivism.

Here's my own six-word story dedicated to professional crisis-mongers whose writings, in essence, are haiku stretched out to tens of thousands of words for an obvious reason:

Honestly, nothing to say in particular.

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