Against the digital detox

Matthew J. X. Malady gave up his mobile phone, social media, etc. for three days. His experience doesn’t fit the typical detox trope, one which states that giving up our devices “frees” us and allows us to reconnect and see the world in new ways. It’s a trope I’ve been sympathetic towards in the past.

Mr. Malady’s main takeaway: Going without made him less curious. Writing for the New Yorker:

During the world’s longest weekend, it became clear to me that, when I’m using my phone or surfing the Internet, I am almost always learning something. I’m using Google to find out what types of plastic bottles are the worst for human health, or determining the home town of a certain actor, or looking up some N.B.A. player’s college stats. I’m trying to find out how many people work at Tesla, or getting the address for that brunch place, or checking out how in the world Sacramento came to be the capital of California.

Rethinking Censorship

I’ve long been intrigued by the issue of censorship in China. I think it’s an issue that’s often over simplified here in the states. We tend to think of Chinese censorship as a blanket redaction of certain so-called heretical thoughts, when in fact there’s much more nuance to examine. But there was research published in 2013 that indicated that Chinese censors crack down on calls to assemble and protest more than incendiary words against the government.

I also find some merit to the argument that since the Chinese know the materials they ingest are censored, they evaluate information with a more critical eye than even those members of a free society do. It’s also widely known that there are various clever ways around the restrictions.

This recent New Yorker article, Travels with My Censor is a thoughtful and personal account of an American author whose work is available for purchase in mainland China. The author, Peter Hessler, went on a week-long book tour with the man who censors his work for publication in that country.

The following excerpt is especially illuminating:

[…] Western commentary about censorship often turns inward, portraying limitations in other countries in a way that celebrates our own values. One of the most striking qualities of foreign portrayals of censorship in China is the apparent lack of interest in Chinese readers and editors. Two of the most prominent recent feature stories about the censorship of foreign books—long pieces in the Times and in the South China Morning Post—fail to include a single comment by a reader in China. Neither quotes a Chinese editor by name. The articles have not been censored, of course, but nevertheless each has a gaping hole at its center. As long as Chinese readers remain unknown, and editors appear shadowy and symbolic, it’s difficult to understand them or to feel much sympathy.

In the West, there’s a tendency to approach censorship with a high-handedness that would seem inappropriate if applied to other issues of development, like poverty. There may in fact be more similarities than we realize. The drive for improved access to information, which includes education, contact with new ideas, and freedom of expression, is at least as complex as everything that it takes to improve living standards. A term like “self-censorship,” which is a favorite in the West, puts the blame on individuals in ways that may not be right. There’s no economic equivalent—we don’t have a neat two-word phrase that describes the things that poor people supposedly do to perpetuate their own poverty.

I realize that I lack the first-hand experience to speak on this issue with any authority, much like the aforementioned writers for the Times and South China Morning Post. But I can at least point out our contradictory credos and gross over simplification on the topics of free speech and censorship in China.

On That Jony Ive Piece You’ve Already Read

This piece deserves all the attention it’s been getting this week. It’s full of amazing bits of prose like:

Ive’s career sometimes suggests the movements of a man who, engrossed in a furrowed, deferential conversation, somehow backs onto a throne.

and:

I asked Jeff Williams, the senior vice-president, if the Apple Watch seemed more purely Ive’s than previous company products. After a silence of twenty-five seconds, during which Apple made fifty thousand dollars in profit, he said, “Yes.”

And this part resonates with me a lot. We do need more people who care about what they do.

We were in the fast lane of I-280, in squinting low sunshine. When I asked for examples of design carelessness, Ive cranked the conversation back to Apple. He has the discipline to avoid most indiscretions, but not always the facility to disguise the effort. “At the risk of sounding terribly sentimental, I do think one of the things that just compel us is that we have this sense that, in some way, by caring, we’re actually serving humanity,” he said. “People might think it’s a stupid belief, but it’s a goal—it’s a contribution that we can hope we can make, in some small way, to culture.”

Read it here {new yorker}.

Editing Advice from One of the First New Yorker Editors

Paul Carr:

Flipping back through an old (1959) copy of the Penguin paperback edition the other day, I landed on Thurber’s long extract from a memo by New Yorker copy editor Wolcott Gibbs, in which Gibbs shares with Ross some of his rules for editing the magazine’s fiction writers.

Gibbs offers colorful, no-nonsense advice like this:

Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said’. ‘He said morosely, violently, eloquently, so on.’ Editorial theory should probably be that the writer who can’t make his context indicate the way his character is talking ought to be in another line of work. Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chaney might be able to do it, but he is dead.

Read all the advice here.