The Canadian weird

Over at the Literary Review of Canada website you can read an essay I wrote on some new books of short stories: That Tiny Life by Erin Frances Fisher, Tiger, Tiger by Johanna Skibsrud, Zolitude by Paige Cooper, and When We Were Birds by Maria Mutch.

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The war, on film

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching movies about recent American military actions. What do they have in common? In the first place, the desire to tell true stories in highly conventionalized ways. In the second, presenting themselves as being non-political. I don’t think they’re all that successful in either regard. They’re decent action flicks, but if you’re looking for something more you’re not going to get it.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
American Sniper (2014)
13 Hours (2016)

We the Internet

The use of teasing headlines is well established as a hallmark of Internet news sites. The reasons for them are also pretty clear: they are designed as click-bait, which is a way of keeping viewers on the site while more ads are fed to them. That’s the point of making us click a link to “read more,” and it’s the whole point of writing headlines like this.

There’s another characteristic of Internet headlines that has become almost as common and that I find less easy to understand. This is the use of an inclusive point of view, usually signaled by the pronoun “we.” As in “We can’t stop talking about [whatever]” or “[Something] happened and we’re amazed!” Such headlines can also be prescriptive, announcing that “We need to” do this or “We need to stop ” doing that.

This is not the sort of headline writing that you see in print. In fact, I have a hard time even imagining such a headline in print, at least at any time before the current dispensation, when the boundaries between print and digital publication have blurred. On many online news sources, however, it has become nearly ubiquitous. Why?

Obviously it’s mean to be catchy. Every headline is meant to be catchy. But what is it about Internet publication that has given rise to this particular form of expression? I’ve called it “inclusive,” in part to set it apart from the “royal we.” I don’t think that’s how it’s meant. Instead, the author is apparently looking to adopt a sort of collective voice, expressing a common sense proposition that “we” would be foolish to disagree with.

Is striking such a note also meant to irritate? Like most Internet writing, there is a real value to pushing people’s buttons. So when your immediate response to such a presumptuous headline is to think “Speak for yourself,” then the headline has done its work. Perhaps you’ll even be drawn to make a comment!

At least I think that’s part of what’s in play. Perhaps another part of it has to do with the way that news sites on the Internet are so divided into political silos that the headline is meant as a bit of preliminary streaming. “We” all think this, and if you aren’t one of us then you probably shouldn’t be here. Or: This website is a community of the like-minded, and it addresses itself specifically, and exclusively, to those who identify with the sentiments expressed in the rest of this headline.

Whatever the explanation, I can’t say I’m a fan of these headlines. They seem to want to co-opt my agreement with whatever they’re going to say before they’ve even said it. At one point that might have been enough to get me to “read more,” but I’ve learned to ignore them. This leads me to hope that they may go away. I know that’s probably wishful thinking, but I like to believe that at some point the Internet will start getting better.

Screen time

I was recently re-reading Pierre Berton’s 1967: Canada’s Turning Point and was struck by the following factlet: among Canada’s middle class (54% of the population) the average time spent watching TV in 1967 was six hours and twenty-six minutes every day.

This seemed high to me, but not impossible. 1967 was still early days, right around the time stations were beginning to broadcast in colour. I wondered how things compare today, but then thought that given how much has changed this would be like comparing apples and oranges. We don’t speak of TV watching any more but “screen time,” which encompasses all of the time spent “consuming media” on our various devices.

It was only a bit later that I was watching a podcast with Timothy Snyder where he mentioned that the most recent (2016) Nielsen study had it that Americans spend over 10 hours a day looking at screens. This really did impress me. That’s well over half your waking hours! I looked around for some information and found a CNN story on the report that Snyder was referencing. Perhaps the most startling reveal in it was that the number was up a full hour from what it had been only the year before.

But wait, it gets worse! I thought that the amount of time people spent working in offices where employees have to look at screens for nearly eight hours a day might be skewing the results. But according to the report teens are spending 9 hours a day “consuming media,” and I assume most of this is not work related. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if work was included in the original figures. This is from the story as reported by CNN:

“We examine large trends in penetration, users and usage across all platforms, show how different demos and race/ethnicity groups spend their media time, and explore the contributions of heavy users,” Glenn Enoch, Nielsen’s senior vice president of audience insights, wrote in a letter accompanying the report.

So, the report concluded that out of 168 hours in a week, we spend more than 50 with devices, said Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology at Iowa State University, who was not involved in the report but has studied how too much screen time affects children.

“The work week still takes up 40 of those hours, sleep at seven hours a night is 49, and if we assume all personal care — such as eating, bathing, dressing, preparing food — is three hours a day, then we have 58 hours a week left over for all other things,” Gentile said.

“This includes hobbies, sports, spending time with children, spending time with friends and romantic partners, reading, learning, exercise, participating in a faith community, volunteer work, house maintenance,” he added. “If people are spending over 50 hours a week with media for entertainment purposes, then there’s really no time left for any of the other things we value.”

Either screen time really is an addiction or else we don’t really value those other things in life we’re presumed to care about (friends, family) very much. Or both. Whatever way you look at it, this strikes me as scary. We really are giving up on reality.

Gaslighting

Blinded. By the light.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching two film adaptations of the Patrick Hamilton play Gas Light: the 1940 version directed by Thorold Dickinson (which I liked the best) and the more famous 1944 film directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman (who won an Academy Award).

The only reason I wanted to watch these movies is because the phrase “gaslighting” has become so popular in political discussions that I wanted to see where it originated. I came away thinking it’s a stretch to apply it to political propaganda and the lies presidents tell. But then, the plot of the two films (which comes from a play by Patrick Hamilton) is so ridiculous in the first place, why not?

The English beast

Over at the Canadian Notes & Queries website my review of David Goudreault’s Mama’s Boy (an English translation by JC Sutcliffe of La bête à sa mere) has been posted. I really enjoyed this little book, which is just the first part of a trilogy.

Sutcliffe’s translation of François Blais’s Document 1 is also very good. Both books are published by Book*hug, who have done a first-rate design job as well. Definitely worth checking out.

Billion dollar babies

A recent cover story in Forbes Magazine heralds Kylie Jenner, who is a month shy of turning 21, as being the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.

Some have criticized Forbes for their definition of “self-made,” arguing that Jenner was born into wealth and celebrity. This is true, but today she is apparently worth more than the rest of her extended family combined, so I guess she must have done something on her own. I wouldn’t deny her the title.

I also wasn’t too surprised at her age. We’ve been hearing about boy billionaires for years now, and the tech industry in particular has already thrown up more than a few. If Jenner does become a billionaire in the next year or so — and once you’ve accumulated that amount of wealth, increasing it becomes almost inevitable — then she’ll be beating out Mark Zuckerberg, who became a billiionaire at the age of 23. These things happen in our lottery economy.

What I did find surprising was just how lucrative the cosmetics industry is. When Lilian Bettencourt died last year she was said to have been the richest woman in the world, due to her having inherited the L’Oréal fortune from her father. But Kylie Jenner only launched her own cosmetic brand in 2016 and Forbes today values it at nearly $800 million (it did an estimated $330 million in sales last year). That’s amazing growth. Markups and profit margins in cosmetics I know are high, but this sounds like a license to print money.

There doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between cheap and very expensive cosmetics, either in terms of what they cost to produce or how well they actually work, so marketing is very important. Jenner has taken her name and fame and successfully branded herself, as is often recommended to young entrepreneurial types. Her stunning success, in other words, is another example of the triumph of celebrity in our time, as if any more were needed after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This is something that I think we really need to be more concerned about.