Ivo's Recommended Reads #1/2018

Updated: Aug 3, 2018

Happy Sunday, dear friends! Here’s some tasty food for thought to sweeten the rest of your weekends and to provide you with some mental snacks for the upcoming week.


1. Umberto Eco's lessons on fascism.

2. On the marriage of left-wing and right-wing populism.

3. On the rise of the meritocratic aristocracy in the US.

4. On the nature of (virtual) reality.

5. On the intricate relation between love, risk, and tech.


1. Italy is heading for a new government coalition between the populist, left-wing 5 Star Movement and the far-right Northern League. It seems like a good moment to revisit Umberto Eco’s timeless 1995-NY-Books-essay on the essence of fascist politics:

For Ur-Fascism… individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus, the People is only a theatrical fiction.”.

2. Anne Applebaum offers a concise analysis of the bigger picture of the populist alliance that is poised to govern Italy:

“The Northern League turned itself into a far right party, using aggressive language about immigrants, while the Five Star Movement adopted some classic left-wing policies, calling for a universal income and high public spending. Together, they are now set to run the Italian government. Unsurprisingly, they’ve had difficulty writing a joint program. Most of the things they agree on — conspiracy theories about vaccines; opposition to Russian sanctions; a strong rejection of austerity policies — risk creating a backlash. Still, it’s becoming clear that if they don’t share policies, they do share an attitude. They are both incoherent, angry, unrealistic and often anti-science; they are also clever users of information technology.”

3. Matthew Stewart argues that a new class has arisen in the United States. - a class that praises the meritocratic fundaments of its ascendance all the while building walls to cement its position – both willingly and subconsciously. A masterful interdisciplinary analysis published in The Atlantic.

“I’ve joined a new aristocracy now, even if we still call ourselves meritocratic winners…. We’ve dropped the old dress codes, put our faith in facts, and are (somewhat) more varied in skin tone and ethnicity… By any sociological or financial measure, it’s good to be us. It’s even better to be our kids. In our health, family life, friendship networks, and level of education, not to mention money, we are crushing the competition below. But we do have a blind spot, and it is located right in the center of the mirror: We seem to be the last to notice just how rapidly we’ve morphed, or what we’ve morphed into. The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.“

4. Joshua Rothman (The New Yorker) draws a fascinating panorama of our current understanding of reality with the help of cognitive scientists, philosophers, and new applications of virtual embodiment:

“In embodied virtual reality, it’s sometimes possible to glimpse yourself as the virtual object you really are… First, I saw the back of my head, and then my body from behind. I began drifting toward the ceiling. From there, I looked down at my body in its chair, surrounded by swirling spheres. In my mind, silence reigned. No thoughts were equal to the experience. I didn’t feel that I had left my body; I felt that my body had left me…

It’s a big question, when the word ‘real’ makes sense,” [Philosopher] Metzinger said. His brow furrowed. “An interesting possibility is that the whole distinction between real and unreal is misguided.” He gestured toward the flame of the candle on the table between us. “In Buddhist metaphysics, there is the idea of ‘emptiness.’ To realize the emptiness of things is to say, ‘This is neither real nor nonexistent.’ Our perception of the candle refers to something real, in the real world. But this candle—the one we see— it’s mental content. And yet it’s also not true that the experience, the model in our minds, is unreal. It’s ‘empty.’ ‘Empty’ may have been their way of saying that it’s just a virtual model. ‘Emptiness’ could be ‘virtuality.’ ”

5. Jonathan Franzen (New York Times) fears that we increasingly use technology to insulate ourselves from the kind of personal risks that might cause us deep pain or deep pleasure:

“[P]ain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of selfsufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived".

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© 2018 Ivo Nicholas Scherrer