When the National desk gets together to discuss stories, it can be a grim half-hour. We dissect natural disasters. We reconstruct mass shootings. We delve into political scandals and all manner of domestic tumult. Recently, though, we added a new feature to our morning meetings aimed at inspiring us and boosting our creativity before we embark on another long day of editing the news.
We read a poem.
BOOK IT! wasn’t a monolith; it allowed for flexibility. Outside of the basic rules, each participating teacher set their own requirements. At my school, you needed to write down three books you’d read in order to qualify—and given the amount of students who tried to exploit the system, the teacher had to really believe you’d read them. I was the kind of rapacious little weirdo who regularly devoured upwards of a dozen books a week, so meeting the program goals wasn’t exactly a challenge. Bringing up multiple slips every few days became a ritual for me, and an undoubtedly exasperating one for the teachers who had to deal with my smug little face. My mother didn’t have to pay to feed me in between errands or after soccer games for years. We had a pretty good thing going, until one year, my teacher placed a limit on the number of slips we could get signed, specifically to halt the spread of my pizza empire.
Once that draconian rule came crashing down upon my head, my mother decided other arrangements had to be made. We needed to call in reinforcements: Nanny.
IN 1971, Terence McKenna’s younger brother Dennis heard a buzzing sound in his head. He was high on mushrooms in the Colombian rain forest, and he was confused. He thought that the sound (“on the absolute edge of audible perception,” as he later described it), might be some form of communication — a message from the natural world. He decided to try to send a message back and began to hum a single, prolonged tone. When he found the right frequency, the two sounds — the one in his head and the one coming from his vocal cords — seemed to join together into a single noise, “suddenly much intensified in energy.” He became convinced that he had found a direct channel of communication between the mind and the natural world. “The intermediary is the body,” he wrote. Whether he knew it or not, McKenna was embodying a concept that would become an enduring feature of American life: the concept of “feedback.”
Today, the term is mundane, the stuff of boardroom meetings and questionnaires. But it wasn’t always so. In his new book, The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in ’70s America, Daniel Belgrad tells the story of this odd and influential idea’s development and spread. “Feedback” was first popularized during World War II, when it was used by military engineers to refer to the dynamics of a self-regulating mechanical system that “fed” some of the results of its outputs “back” into itself as inputs. In the following decades, this vision began to seep into all sorts of other arenas of American culture. By the 1970s, this included a constellation of practices and beliefs that are now widely categorized — other than by an aging faction of hippies and a few Silicon Valley execs — as nonsense: thinking very hard about the interior lives of house plants; going to the Colombian rain forest to eat psychedelic mushrooms; and standing around with a group in a swimming pool in Northern California, hyperventilating to the point of unconsciousness in order to understand what it is like to be a dolphin.
Nguyen’s ambitious debut is a mash-up of reflection, growth, and rumination on death. In a world that seems increasingly chaotic and divided, Nguyen offers a refuge with his humble, distinct take on race relations in America, and smart analysis of the ways technology shape our personal and public lives.