Days of Distraction

If you look around, there is always something that you feel thankful for. After some heavy rainout, the sun is out. Fabulous weather outside, I love how the morning sun shines into the room and lights up my study. As I tap on the keyboard,  I feel the warmth behind me. Indeed there are always things that you will feel joyful about.

That is when you do not start thinking about how increasingly there are more rules and regulations that make you feel  a sense of doom. Are these rules there to safeguard your interest and protect you from harm or  are they merely rules for you to obey ?  As things are, we are feeling disorientated trying to cope with the pandemic given all the information that are being disseminated, implementation of more rules by authorities  is far from assuring  while our overall morale is already affected. I find my thoughts more fragmented  than ever and  I end up not accomplishing much by the end of the day. Are we in the era of distraction?

Some  people believe that  evil is the core of humans. Jean Jacque Rousseau believed that humans possessed a natural goodness and that a good government must have the freedom of all its citizens as its most fundamental objective. Mencius believed in the innate goodness of humans. In A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the science fiction movie directed by Steven Spielberg, even the outdated A.I robots known as Mecha appear to possess more goodness than some of the humans.A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a beautiful film that was made twenty years ago. It is loosely based on Supertoys Last All Summer Long, a short story written by Brian Baldiss in 1969. The science fiction story deals with humanity in an age of intelligent machines

Do you think that the more developed we are,  humans are becoming more evil as we have to be astute and sharpen our wits to navigate ourselves through the changing landscape of the modern world ?  Is civilization turning us evil? Whether humans are born good or bad is the moral debate of all time. The theme that underlies every box office hit and best-selling fictions is the fight between good and evil. Perhaps we are merely changeable and inconsistent but beyond good and evil. There is so much we do not and cannot know so we are just moving along and trying to make sense of it all. As we are social beings, we tend to have a predilection to conform to social norm and rules. Who sets the norm? Inevitably most people follow the norm so that the society can function. Who makes these rules and why so many  rules  and who are they for ? The more rules there are, there will always be those who are intent on bending the rules and try to circumvent them, consequently the rest of us find ourselves caught in a web of rules  and red tape that are baffling and unsettling. It feels very Orwellian. Can these rules be possibly made for the common good by benevolent authorities?

  ‘ In the hands of a benign government, powerful surveillance algorithms can be the best thing that ever happened to humankind. Yet the same Big Data algorithms might also empower a future Big Brother, so that we might end up with an Orwellian surveillance regime in which all individuals are monitored all the time.’

  •  21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Chapter 3 ‘Liberty’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Harari writes that ‘we might end up with something that even Orwell could barely imagine: a total surveillance regime that follows not just all our external activities and utterances, but can even go under our skin to observe our inner experiences.’  That is too frightening a future to think about and will render any privacy laws a white elephant.

I have a wandering mind and I find administrative matters dreary and bothersome. Sadly, we seem to be increasingly weighed down with  more administrative stuff in general. We are consumed with figures, data, rules  and rising amount of  bureaucracy behind which is evidently processed by algorithms. I am definitely disappointed about  how the law is not about safeguarding the individual’s  right and interest. The purpose of  the law  has been misapplied  just like language has been used to allow those in more powerful position to control the ordinary people.

We are swimming in a whole lot of information about the happenings around the world and at the same time we are also  coping with much  that do not add up as we busy ourselves with our daily rituals that include reading and replying emails. The Trial by Franz Kafka and The Room by Jonas Karlsson come to mind.

The Room was written by Swedish actor and writer, Jonas Karlsson and translated from Swedish by Neil Smith.

In The Room, Björn comes to feel incredibly alienated from his colleagues. He is thrilled to discover a small, secret room where he can work in the civilized manner he deserves and his efficiency yields exemplary results but his strange behaviour drives his colleagues to a point of no return. The room might have been a figment of Björn’s imagination as the other colleagues see that he stands by the wall between the lift and the toilets when he tells them there is a room.

The Room is an insightful take on corporate culture. Karlsson’s writing is minimalist and easy to read. It is an exhilarating story about how far we will go- in a world ruled by conformity- to live life on our own terms. If we pay attention, everyone of us needs a place or a mode ( physically or metaphorically)  to re- centre ourselves  whenever things overwhelm so as not to be overcome by whatever is happening.

Due to its surreal narratives and its theme on alienation, The Room reminds me of The Trial although they are about two different kinds of hierarchy. The Room is delightful and hilarious but not The Trial.

I would reproduce here part of my text from the post I blogged in 2020 about The Trial by Franz Kafka

https://thereadingroom374231461.com/2020/06/20/something-happened/

From the beginning of the story, Kafka  sets the tone of his writing in a fashion that makes you feel bleakness and doom  particularly with regards to the legal process. The mood suggests oppression. In The Trial the representatives of the law are somehow described as functionaries who follow orders in a robotic manner and fulfil their duties without understanding or attempting to understand the Law.  It is apparent from the story that the execution of the legal process was perfunctory and inexplicable. 

 In the story, on his thirtieth birthday, Josef K, the protagonist  is  arrested and it is never disclosed to him nor the readers the crime that he has committed . He is a bank clerk who is steadily achieving  success in his career path and he  comes across as confident and arrogant. However as the story progresses, he finds himself  getting distracted and his work at the bank is terribly affected. Upon hearing about his arrest, his uncle from the country insists that he seeks legal representation and introduces him to his old lawyer friend,  Herr Huld who is on sick bed when K and his uncle visits the latter. Strangely enough, the chief clerk of the court happens to be visiting Herr Huld when K and his uncle calls on him. K becomes frustrated with the lawyer  who has been conveying all the information about the tangled workings of the court and K gradually grows weary of his lawyer’s endless talk and seemingly minimal action. In the meantime, it has become common place that people come to know about K’s arrest and one of his bank clients suggests that he contacts a painter who paints portraits for the court. K takes client’s  advice and contacts Titorelli the official Court painter who provides him with more information about the Court and the painter offers to use his connections to aid K’s cause.  The painter has inherited the connection from his father and he claims that his position unassailable. He also tells K that the Court is impervious to proof that is brought before it.

Titorelli had pulled his chair up nearer the bed and went on in a subdued voice:

‘ I ought to have started by asking you what kind of acquittal you want. There are three possibilities, namely actual acquittal, apparent acquittal, and postponement. Actual acquittal is , naturally , the best, the only thing is I haven’t the slightest influence on that kind of verdict. In my opinion there isn’t a single person who could influence a verdict of actual acquittal. The deciding factor there is probably the innocence of the accused. As you’re innocent, it really might be possible for you to rely solely on your innocence. But then you wouldn’t need help either from me or anybody else.’

K was nonplussed at first by this neat exposition ,but then he said just as quietly as the painter

 I think you ‘re contradicting yourself.’

‘How?’ Titorelli asked patiently, leaning back with a smile.

Although the book was written around 1914, the parable of alienation is relevant in the present era where with excesses of bureaucracy, we cannot guarantee that the  rule of law is understood in  the only way it must be interpreted and applied. 

The Trial is a posthumous publication. Kafka passed on in 1924 and his friend Max Prod had it published in 1925. The dreamlike tale resonates in the face of rising bureaucracy.

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Recently, I came across a  short story entitled The Lesson written by Fernando Sorrentino, a writer from Buenos Aires. It was written in Spanish and translated into English by Clark M. Zlotchew. It is a brilliant story about corporate hierarchy, paper work that does not make sense and the boss who gives a lesson that only serves to be patronizing.

The short fiction is about a young graduate who works as an errands boy in an insurance company. Every day his task is to bring stacks of reports to a place before calling it a day. In the character’s narration :

‘Up there a kind of dossier was kept active in which, five minutes before leaving the premises, I had to — without fail — leave a bundle of papers containing summaries of all the tasks carried out in our section that day.

One day he meets the general manager Don Fernando at the elevator. They both get into the elevator  and he does not know what to say in the presence of the captain of industry. He is uncomfortable and remains silent until they reach the ground floor. Don Fernando invites him for a coffee. So they end up at the cafeteria where Fernando gives him a ‘lesson’ that does not make any sense.The Lesson a short fiction by Fernando Sorrentino is brilliant.  Below is the link for the full text.

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Less723.shtml

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Yuval Noah Harari writes that we humans have conquered the world due to our ability to create and believe fictional stories and we are bad at knowing the difference between fiction and reality.

Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal, that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings.

Reality is still there. You cannot play a part in any make-believe drama, but why would you want to do that in the first place? The big question facing humans isn’t what is the meaning of life?’ but rather,’how do we get out of suffering?

  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Chapter 20 ‘MEANING’, Yuval Noah Harari

The landscape  is always changing. Change is the only constant. Of course if you know the truth about yourself and are clear about your path, nothing should make you miserable even if the ‘norm’ is changing. But that is easier said than done. When things overwhelm, we need to find a mode or a space where we can re-centre ourselves, but we are inclined to escape from our reality by immersing ourselves with social media posts and entertainments easily accessible. As we engage ourselves in all the games and  entertainments  that bring us pleasure and temporary release from all the data,  news and bureaucracy , we are distracted and may no longer know what our reality is.

 

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