For testy patrons of La Lanterna, life’s a beach

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By Harry van Versendaal

Seventy-seven-year-old Vinicio complains that his favorite blue plastic chair has been shifted from the spot where he’d left it the day before. Rene fumes when finding his sun lounger stacked and chained up with others at the far corner of the beach, before pinching it back with a bolt cutter in a superhuman effort that leaves him red-faced but gleaming with vindication.

The all-too-human daily rituals of the elderly patrons of La Lanterna, an unassuming vintage-feel pebble beach in Trieste, on Italy’s northeastern coast, are humbly yet beautifully captured in “The Last Resort” – the latest film by Thanos Anastopoulos, co-directed with filmmaker Davide Del Degan, who was born in the Italian seaport – which was awarded the Hellenic Film Academy award for best documentary on Tuesday.

“The movie is about turf wars. About where each person will put their chair, their table, or their towel. People always fight about things like seats and locks, they just give them different names,” Anastopoulos said in an interview after the movie screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival earlier this month. “The film is about the little flaws of human nature – in fact, about human nature per se,” he said.

Like the beach locals fondly refer to as “El Pedocin,” or Little Mussel, Trieste itself is no stranger to turf wars.

For most of its history, the city has been a microcosm of European tensions, often changing hands between different powers. For about three centuries it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s only seaport and commercial hub, drawing different ethnic groups and gradually evolving into a capital of literature and music. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Trieste’s annexation by Italy after World War I led to its decline. The city’s character barely survived Mussolini’s “Italianization” campaign, and in 1945 Trieste was occupied by Tito’s Communist Partisans, who had already seized the Istrian Peninsula, in the northern Adriatic. Under diplomatic pressure from the Western allies, the Yugoslav troops eventually withdrew from the city. After World War II, Trieste was recognized as a free state, though it remained under military occupation until 1954, when it was returned to Italy. The city these days hosts a mixture of Italians, Serbs, Slovenians, Greeks, Jews, Austrians and Germans. Some of the history is presented in archival material in the film.

“These are the childhood years of most people on that beach. Some of them feel a certain nostalgia for the glorious past of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, although it’s something they never actually experienced,” Anastopoulos said.

The characters – themselves products of the city’s history – speak in Triestino, an Italian idiom infused with neighboring dialects, which is barely understood outside the city’s limits. “When the movie was played in Italy it featured subtitles. Subtitles are indeed necessary anywhere it may screen,” the director said.

A philosophy graduate-turned-filmmaker, 52-year-old Anastopoulos has directed three fictional films – most famously the 2008 drama “Diorthosi” (Correction), an existential tale set against the backdrop of a Greece struggling to come to terms with its migrant newcomers.

Anastopoulos’s previous film, child-kidnap thriller “I Kori” (The Daughter), was made amid the country’s financial meltdown and very much conveyed the anger and frustration. “I needed to make another movie, to restore my faith in man, the belief that not everything is lost,” said Anastopoulos, who has lived in Trieste with his Italian wife since the birth of their son in 2007.

His wife used to take their son to El Pedocin when he was still a baby. Interacting with the regulars there brought back memories of his own childhood, when his father, a winter swimmer, would drive him to the beaches of Alimos or Kalamaki on Athens’s southern coast. “When I saw this community of bathers I already felt some connection to them,” he said.

Created in 1890, the beach, just a stone’s throw from the city center, is famous for a 3-meter-high cement wall that segregates the men from the women – allegedly the only such divide in Europe (which, interestingly, appears to have a liberating effect on its patrons). “I became fascinated by that wall. It made me think about borders, divisions and identities – all mixed up with the city’s particular history,” Anastopoulos said.

No feature film had ever been made about El Pedocin; every so often, instead, it would appear in brief news reports about its peculiar wall. So Anastopoulos was really surprised to find out that while he was preparing for the film, another Italian director was making similar plans. Born in Trieste, Del Degan was brought here by his grandparents.

The Greek and the Italian met and agreed to join forces. After all, they were both animated by the same vision. “We wanted to tell a story about the human adventure. What it is like to live, to grow up, to experience loss, and to die,” Anastopoulos said.

They adopted a purely observational style, stripped of any narration or commentary. Shooting lasted one year. During those 12 months, the crew visited the beach 128 times, collecting 200 hours of film. Production lasted five months. The movie’s running time, 119 minutes, could alienate more impatient viewers.

Days pass and seasons change on El Pedocin as mammoth Turkish container ships come and go in the background. Some of the frailer patrons will not return. But when September rolls around, we see Federica sitting on the pebbles, gently stroking her pregnant belly.

Bulgarian postman with a noble message

The Good Postman

By Harry van Versendaal

Ivan, the postman of a mostly deserted Bulgarian village on the border with Turkey, is running for mayor on a rather unconventional message: If he wins the election, he will welcome Syrian refugees, who now creep silently through the rural terrain, so they can settle in the village’s many vacant, dilapidated properties and breathe new life into the settlement.

Golyam Dervent (pop. 38) – known as as the “great gate” due to its location – is the setting of Tonislav Hristov latest documentary “The Good Postman,” which is screening at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and resembles a microcosm of the drama that has been unfolding in Europe since the outbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis. Bulgaria has joined other nations in the Balkan region in taking a hardline response to the influx of migrants and asylum seekers into the continent. Less than two decades since removing a massive border fence designed to keep people in, authorities in the former Soviet satellite have built a new one along the border with Turkey – this time to keep people out.

Shot over the course of a regional election campaign, the camera follows Ivan, a gentle-mannered, silver-haired man who lives alone, pitting his inclusive, progressive vision against the xenophobic, we-had-it-better-under-communism alternative put forward by his rival, who resembles a washed-up Hollywood has-been. (In what is probably the film’s most funnily surreal moment, the latter delivers a confused speech from the village cafe patio overlooking a vacant field to the futuristic sounds of a vintage Casio keyboard synthesizer). The elderly villagers’ reactions are mixed.

“The Good Postman” premiered in 2016 at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), where it was nominated for Best Feature-Length Documentary, before screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Beautifully crafted, with stunning wide-screen cinematography and a wonderful score by Petar Dundakov, Hristov’s documentary, his fifth, exposes the strange world of small-town politics, the estrangement of the political elites, the stinging poverty in the EU’s backyard, the harrowing misinformation surrounding the migration debate, and the nuances of the human character.

“I heard on the news that they’re bad people who kill Bulgarians,” a young girl is heard saying on a TV news bulletin playing in the background. “But maybe not everyone is bad,” she adds.

One thing bound to draw protests from purists is that the Bulgarian filmmaker, and writer Lubomir Tsvetkov, appear to have staged at least some of the scenes. “Minimal interference doesn’t mean maximum reality. It can actually be the total opposite. Sometimes you have to interfere to get as close to the truth as possible,” Tsvetkov said in a recent interview.

The election result (spoiler alert) is not what any of them would have hoped for. Although it’s hard to see how things could change in Golyam Dervent. Ten years after joining the European Union, Bulgaria remains one of the bloc’s poorest and most corrupt members. Meanwhile, public opposition to immigration is strong. In a recent survey, 73 percent of Bulgarians said they would back a total ban on citizens of Muslim-majority nations entering their country. The same poll found that 77 percent view immigration as a threat to the country, up from 47 percent in 2015.

The Swiss guards of EU border agency Frontex seen patrolling for migrants traipsing through the rural terrain are unlikely to move out anytime soon.

Thessaloniki doc fest pays tribute to iconoclast art critic John Berger

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By Harry van Versendaal

Organizers of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival will pay tribute to English art critic and author John Berger, who died earlier this year.

Berger, whose groundbreaking 1972 BBC television series and book “Ways of Seeing” is credited with transforming the way in which a generation looked at and understood art, is the subject of two documentary films which will be showcased at the annual event taking place in the northern port city from March 3 to 12.

“The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger” is a four-part cinematic portrait crafted over five years by his actress friend Tilda Swinton, together with Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz.

Also screening is Cordelia Dvorak’s “John Berger: The Art of Looking,” an intimate take on the man’s personality and work on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

Now in its 19th year, the festival will screen more than 210 documentaries – both shorts and feature-length works – by directors from all over the world.

Meanwhile, the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki (Warehouse B1, Thessaloniki Port) will host an exhibition of original artwork by Berger. The show, organized by TDF and the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki – State Museum of Contemporary Art, is the first of its kind since Berger’s death. Some 30 drawings and paintings, video footage and copies of his books will go on display.

A round-table discussion on Berger’s legacy will take place at the same venue on March 8, starting at 7.30 p.m. Speakers will include Berger’s editor and biographer Tom Overton, and Antonis Kotidis, professor emeritus at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s Art History Department.

A committed Marxist and vehement critic of capitalism, Berger trained as a painter, but soon turned his hand to writing. He worked as an art critic for the New Statesman for 10 years.

Berger’s novel “G” bagged Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1972. Reacting to reports of slave labor that had enriched the sponsor Booker McConnell, Berger famously pledged to donate half his prize money to the Black Panthers, who were, as he put it, “the black movement with the socialist and revolutionary perspective that I find myself most in agreement with in this country.”

“He showed us how to see, not as individuals, but together,” BBC arts editor Will Gompertz said on the news of Berger’s death. “He showed us how to see art not as a relay race of individual geniuses but as a kind of companionship.”

Having lived for many years in a farmhouse in the French Alps near Mont Blanc, Berger died in Paris in early January. He was 90 years old.

Documentary films take center stage in Thessaloniki

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By Harry van Versendaal

As fake news, alt-facts and post-truths infect the world like a disinformation disease, fact-finding films can serve as a welcome antidote.

In its 19th annual iteration, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) will host more more than 213 nonfiction films (64 Greek productions) on a wide range of critical subjects including politics, human rights, art and the environment and two brand-new sections on cinema and food. Hosted at the flagship Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on Aristotelous Square and the red-brick and steel complex on the docks, the 10-day event runs from March 3 to 12.

The full lineup has not yet been made public, but the organizers have already announced a few of the most powerful offerings among the latest in international documentary production.

In “Austerlitz,” acclaimed Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa observes crowds of visitors at the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps while subtly examining intricate questions such as historical memory, respect, morality and normality.

Directed by Benthe Forrer of the Netherlands, “The Chocolate Case (Tony)” follows the efforts of investigative journalist-turned-activist Teun van de Keuken and his colleagues to explore child slavery in the chocolate industry all the way to their eventful launch of the world’s first “slave-free” chocolate bar.

Another TDF highlight is “Tower,” a groundbreaking reconstruction of the August 1966 sniper attack at the University of Texas at Austin that left 18 people dead. Director Keith Maitland brings together rotoscope animation, archival footage and present-day interviews, lending dramatic immediacy to an account of what is widely considered the first modern mass shooting.

Festival organizers have prepared a tribute to award-winning Russian director Vitaly Mansky. Born in Lviv, Ukraine, in 1963, Mansky has over the years shot in excess of 30 films that have been showcased at more than 400 international film festivals around the globe. He has worked extensively with amateur private footage shot in the years of the former USSR, before returning to his roots to meet his family members in his latest work, “Close Relations.” In between, Mansky crafted several remarkable features, including his 2015 “Under the Sun,” an unforgiving exposure of North Korea’s powerful propaganda apparatus. The film, which follows an 8-year-old girl as she prepares to celebrate the Day of the Shining Star, the birthday of late strongman Kim Jong-il, sparked a diplomatic tiff between Moscow and Pyongyang after its release.

Joining forces with the quinquennial exhibition Documenta (14), organizers have also prepared a tribute to the work of Italian avant-garde filmmaking duo Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. Since breaking into the film scene in 1986 with “From the Pole to the Equator,” an arty, experimental comment on the dark side of Western civilization, the directors have mostly depended on found archival footage to make films about war, colonialism and exploitation.

Years of storage lend nuance to collection of images

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Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Paris, 1985.

By Harry van Versendaal

For Constantinos Pittas, a good photograph must elevate the prosaic to the preternatural, the banal to the magical.

Strolling one 1985 evening in Paris’s Parc des Buttes-Chaumont as the gates were about to close, Pittas saw the otherwise commonplace spectacle of a couple sitting on a bench. Basking in a ray of dying light peeking through the trees at dusk, the pair appeared to be floating in space. Without a second thought, Pittas pressed the shutter button.

“I felt as if it was the first time I was really seeing a couple sitting on a bench,” he says staring across the table at the photograph, now hanging on the wall of the French Institute in Athens (IFA). “It was like two units becoming one,” he says.

More than 30 years since that day, Pittas, now 59, comfortably recalls the story behind nearly every photograph in his current exhibition, “Athenians & Parisians.” The event comes in the wake of his breakout show at the Benaki Museum late last year, a warmly received collection of previously stowed-away black-and-whites shot in the still-divided Europe of the 1980s. The spin-off exhibition at IFA showcases a selection of images captured in the Greek and French capitals around the middle of the same decade.

Athens and Paris naturally lay on the same side of the Iron Curtain, the infamous divide between the free world and totalitarianism aptly captured in his “Images of Another Europe: 1985-1989.” But for Pittas, who now lives in a coastal suburb northeast of Greece’s sprawling, unruly capital, the connection between these two Western metropoles also has a personal dimension.

Pittas moved to Paris in the early 1980s to pursue postgraduate studies in civil engineering at the Ecole des Ponts ParisTech. It was his first time away from home and although he soon realized that civil engineering was not his thing, his time there did not go to waste.

“I made my first meaningful observations about life and about people during the two-and-a-half years I spent there,” he says.

Dwindling resources made him return to Athens to look for work, but distraction was around the corner again.

“I soon found myself wandering around the city streets taking photos,” he says.

Then a skinny, curly-haired youth in his early 20s, Pittas would pound the city’s sidewalks 12-13 hours a day, taking breaks on the Athens-Piraeus urban electric railway (ISAP). A self-taught photographer, Pittas’s understanding of the medium came from his voracious appetite for cinema: Bergman, Tarkovsky, Wenders, Kurosawa and generous helpings of film noir. He relied on a German-made pocket-size Minox 35GT, reputedly the smallest full-frame 35mm camera ever built, and always shot from waist level for that stealth effect.

By 1984, he was done with the Athens photos. A year later, he jumped into a blue Pony-Citroen and started zigzagging across Europe to cities on both sides of the divide with a romantic (if ironically prophetic) ambition to bring the people of the continent together in a single photo book.

“I was familiar with Paris, so I decided to make it my first stop. In a way Athens and Paris are my life’s two biggest milestones,” he says.

The project went on until 1989, when Berliners took their sledgehammers to the Schandmauer – the wall of shame. Events, Pittas thought at the time, had killed it. Thousands of negatives were boxed away in a basement. They sat there for a quarter of a century, until he recently decided to share a selection with the world.

“It makes me happy that some of the things I saw in the two cities back then are now being showcased side by side,” Pittas says.

The work is street photography at its finest: spontaneous, beautiful and telling a story. It is rarely upbeat; the faces are mostly pensive or grim.

“You always see what is close to your state of being. It’s all a projection. You cannot escape your nature,” he says. “That’s why I do not really believe in photojournalism.”

Coming in the wake of a traumatic seven-year military dictatorship, the 1980s were a transformative, if in some ways contradictory period for Greece. Politics was dominated by populism, polarization, clientelism and corruption – all widely seen as the source of many of the country’s woes today. In the economy, living standards and consumption grew while actual productivity nosedived.

Meanwhile, turning a deaf ear to the anti-Western, anti-capitalist rhetoric of socialist governments, an emerging middle class went on to embrace popular culture, consumerism and an individualistic lifestyle, pretty much in line with the rest of the increasingly globalized Western world.

Now, after seven years of austerity measures, which brought an abrupt end to a controversial period of economic well-being, the photos of Athens have gained an additional layer of interest.

“The identity of the faces has not changed. You can tell that family structure is still dominant here, that it pretty much shapes people. Middle-class families tend to keep their members in check,” Pittas says.

“You don’t see the hordes of lonely people like you do in other big European cities. Ties are stronger here,” he adds.

Change is more evident in the urban environment.

“Neighborhoods used to have a stronger identity back then. Working-class neighborhoods had more character. The uniformity we see today was not there,” he says.

Pittas is no longer keen to raise his camera in the city he first explored and experimented with.

“I find it impossible to shoot this complete lack of hope that I see in Athenians’ faces today, this air of resignation. It’s as if the sky has fallen on their heads,” he says.

“The faces I see in the streets of Athens remind me of those I came across in the countries of the communist bloc. It’s all a bit scary,” remarks the photographer.

It’s clear that his bygone journeys across the former Soviet satellites continue to inform his perspective on Greece’s current predicament.

“If we compare ourselves to what other people on the continent went through, our situation is not that terrible,” he says. “The difference here is that we were spoiled. A society that’s totally dependent on the state will inevitably suffer when the state runs into trouble.”

Although his photos are free from in-your-face political commentary, the man does not shy away from voicing his political opinions in public. He does so on a less sophisticated yet more direct medium: Facebook.

“I used to be allergic to politics and political debate. If I talk politics today, it is in reaction to the awful things we’ve had to put up with in the past couple of years,” he says in reference to Greece’s leftist-led government.

This lingering malaise has naturally generated a wave of nostalgia for the pre-crisis years – a reflex that often comes with a certain level of oblivion about the era’s part in creating the mess of today.

“Athenians & Parisians” is taking place on the sidelines of the much-publicized “GR80s” show at the Technopolis cultural complex in downtown Gazi, which is a political, social and cultural anatomy of Greece in the 1980s. The event has sparked a wave of nostalgia, as large crowds flock to see, among other items, a splendid reconstruction of an archetypal 1980s flat.

Pittas admits that part of the response to his long-buried body work is a result of this backward-looking mood.

It’s not all bad.

“Nostalgia is fed by a desire to return to an idealized time, which may coincide with our youth, or what we may regard as being innocent when it was probably anything but,” he says.

“But it could also spark a soul-searching process that helps us understand how we ended up where we are today,” he says.

None of that takes away from the value of the work, or from the existential fulfillment that this born-again photographer experiences today when seeing his work receive long-overdue recognition.

“I find it amazing that something I once did in the spirit of youthful frivolity seems to make sense to people today, to tell them something about their lives,” he says.

“Athenians & Parisians” (French Institute in Athens, 31 Sina, tel 210.339.8600, http://www.ifa.gr) runs through March 31. “GR80s: Greece in the 80s at Technopolis” (100 Pireos, Gazi) runs to March 12.

Rewinding to the era of analog politics

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October 1988. An ecstatic crowd waving PASOK flags cheers Andreas Papandreou, then prime minister of Greece, on his return to Athens, at the now-defunct international airport in Elliniko. Papandreou had been admitted to Harefield Hospital in the UK for treatment for the heart complaint that plagued his later years. The moment went down in history for his gesture to Dimitra (Mimi) Liani, an Olympic Airways stewardess who was to become his wife, urging her to come down the stairs. Playmobil installation from the ‘GR80s’ exhibition at the Technopolis complex

By Harry van Versendaal

Although defying any single interpretation, the 1980s was certainly a transitional and transformative period for Greece, which had only just emerged from a traumatic seven-year dictatorship.

The ongoing “GR80s” exhibition at the Technopolis cultural complex in the downtown Gazi district is an unprecedented as well as ambitious attempt to deliver a political, economic, social and cultural anatomy of that decade.

Political scientist Lamprini Rori, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University and co-curator of the political segment of the exhibition, talked to Kathimerini English Edition about the main sociopolitical characteristics of that era, its contradictions and a legacy often lamented as the roots of Greece’s current conundrum.

What differentiates the 80s in Greece from the previous and following periods?

On a symbolic level, it was PASOK’s rise to power and the consolidation of its hegemony. The 1980s shaped the key characteristics of the Third Greek Republic. First of all, Greece gained membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), a fact which, notwithstanding the tactical anti-European rhetoric of the early PASOK, led to a significant flow of European funds into the country. However, it was also the decade that saw the consolidation of the country’s mainstream parties, the sweeping renewal of political personnel, the strengthening of political participation, the introduction of measures in the direction of social liberalization, the deregulation of the radio and television landscape. Economic prosperity encouraged the rise of individualism, the recognition of minority rights and identities, the consolidation of social cohesion. The populism and polarization brought by the ascendance of PASOK gradually ebbed over the next decade, the positions and the discourse of the two main parties gradually converged, while the economy underwent a gradual modernization, as several sectors passed over to the free market.

It is often claimed that the roots of Greece’s current woes lie with the 1980s. If that is true, how do you account for today’s nostalgia for the era?

Demonizing or idealizing the 1980s are both distorted interpretations of the impact of events during that period. The main millstones which surfaced in the 1980s and which we are still – to a bigger or smaller extent – dragging along today, are the hijacking of the state by vested interests, populism, the understanding of politics as a zero-sum game, and fiscal derailment. Statism and clientele ties were less so, not because they did not affect the present situation, but because they were around before the 1980s, only to basically balloon during that decade. To be sure, we should not forget that between that time and the present, the country had various opportunities to modernize itself and correct many of the distortions of the 1980s. These were not seen through.

At the same time, however, the decade was a milestone for social mobility, the redefinition of identities, and the foundation of the middle class in the economic, political, social and cultural fields. It was in a sense the decade of security, not so much in the geopolitical sense – despite the fact that its end also marked the end of the Cold War – but more in the psychosociological sense of the term. This is the root of today’s nostalgia, given the fact that this era came to a close with the onslaught of the financial crisis.

There is a certain contradiction about the 1980s, as the anti-Western, anti-capitalist rhetoric of PASOK appears to have been accompanied by the rise of pop culture and consumption. How do you account for that?

Although [late Socialist prime minister] Andreas Papandreou promoted the idea of Greece as a country of the semi-periphery dependent on the capitalist centers of the West, PASOK’s anti-Americanism in the political arena was mainly founded on the relationship between Greece and the USA following the civil war and, above all, on the role of the USA in the 1967-74 military coup. PASOK’s anti-Westernism did not so much have a Marxist twist, but a historical and nationalist one, allowing it to forge a coherent narrative with anti-Turkish and pro-Arab dimensions.

At the same time, the rise of the middle class, the mass contact with Western models through the mass media and the process of individualization which unfolded on the level of values and lifestyle allowed strong influence from the centers of the by then postmodern West, at least in terms of cultural models. Historical anti-Americanism and cultural pro-Westernism effectively coexisted among individuals and across society, legitimating pop culture and consumerism among the local population. Greeks did not just accept these elements, but adopted them en masse. Gradually, the Westernization of cultural production overpowered the widespread rhetoric of anti-Westernism.

“GR80s: Greece in the 80s at Technopolis,” 100 Pireos, Gazi. The exhibition runs to March 12.

Social media: Taming the dark side

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By Harry van Versendaal

About a quarter of the global population is now on Facebook, yet only a small fraction seem aware of the world-shattering implications of this reality. Facebook and other social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat have irreversibly transformed the landscape of human interaction to an extent that was unthinkable only a few years ago.

They have changed the way we do things.

It’s not all good. In a new book called “Look At Me!” (Iolkos, in Greek), Athens-based journalist and new media analyst Manolis Andriotakis discusses the pitfalls of our increasingly wired world: distraction, obsession, fabrication, ruthless self-promotion, addiction to the dopamine rush, dwindling attention spans (the average time spent on any web page is now down to eight seconds, so chances are that few people will read beyond this point).

Andriotakis, a tech-optimist author of a 2008 book on blogging and director of a short documentary on Twitter released in 2012, couples his warnings with pragmatic advice on how to tame the dark side of social networking and put these new tools into meaningful service.

He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the challenges of virtual living, the lessons of the recent US election, his regular digital detoxes and about how posting too many cat pictures can be bad for your career.

In a recent article for The New York Times, computer science professor and writer Cal Newport said that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media, he argued, weaken this skill because they are engineered to be addictive. Have we perhaps overestimated the role of social media in building a career?

Social media are indeed engineered to distract your attention. You need the tools, the critical ability and the skills to regulate their use so that you do not end up hostage to them. This book is about taking control. Engaging in social media is not some form of meditation; it’s not some daily habit to which you can let yourself go completely. If you allow that to happen, you can be completely sucked in. It happens to me too. Whenever I let my defenses down, I lapse into obsessive use that is very hard to escape.

Career-wise it can be a useful tool to promote your work, to enrich and distinguish your professional identity. But, again, it’s easy to lose focus and indulge in shallow self-promotion.

Is it not elitist to place an arbitrary sense of purpose on people and social media? One person may like posting cat pictures while someone else may enjoy looking at them. Is it imperative that they have a strategy?

Sure. But Newport is talking about career-building. And if you are being screened for a job, having too many cat pictures on your wall could prove bad for your career. You need to build up your defenses, yet the average user doesn’t do that. My point is: Take a step back and think. It’s the case with every new technology. You can hurt other people. You can also hurt yourself.

Are social media nurturing a new type of man? A narcissistic, distracted and hypersexual man at that? Or is this a case of old symptoms manifesting themselves through a new, potent vehicle?

Social media are certainly a new vehicle, but they can also cultivate new symptoms. We are dealing with a new technology that accelerates, empowers and stimulates. It presents us with a challenge. And the manner in which we – as individuals and as a collective – choose to deal with this challenge will determine whether social media will drag us down or help us evolve.

Why do people feel an irresistible urge to share their lives online?

There is something both sick and healthy in the need to share. The healthy part is rooted in the act of sharing, in the need to feel that you are a member of a larger community, and you want to reach out to people. People can, for example, share a health problem because it could help others prevent it.

But there is also a dark side which usually comes in the form of narcissism, self-promotion, or the urge to manipulate other people. I couldn’t say on which side the scale is weighted or whether you can always tell between good and bad.

It seems that “likes” have become a new social currency. How problematic is that?

Likes are the result of a complex psychological mechanism. The shallow, first level is certainly dominant – particularly on Instagram. However, although the volume of likes is not always a safe indicator of actual value, this is by no means exclusive to the realm of social networks. In any case, social media give you the opportunity to make sophisticated content more accessible.

Are people’s online identities the same as their regular identities?

No, you are not the same person. You construct a persona. It may even be a better version of yourself, a sexier, a sharper, more interesting self. Ultimately, the way you communicate your message, the attitude, often says more about you than the message.

Does it concern you that online interaction often eclipses face-to-face interaction?

You might as well be a hypocrite out there in the real world and an honest person in the virtual one. If you wish to construct a lie, you can do so in either world.

Facebook is accused of winning Donald Trump the US presidency by propagating fake news and helping generate the bulk of his campaign’s 250 million dollars in online fundraising. The tech-optimism of liberal pundits seems dead in the water. Are social media value-free?

Well, social media did not help democratize China, where you still rely on VPNs [internet connections that bypass the country’s firewalls and online censorship] to get round its “Great Firewall.” In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly blocked access to Facebook and Twitter. Authoritarian governments can shut down the internet or build bot armies. In fact, it looks like the bad guys can make a more effective use of social media. Trump played dirty and he won. The lesson of his campaign was that playing dirty can be very effective. It’s as if the right to play dirty has been democratized. The question is, how can you outplay these guys? It’s a machine of war.

You like to take a break from the internet about once a year. What do you gain from staying unplugged?

My digital detox, as it were, helps me protect my mental health and my relationships. It helps me refocus. The internet feeds addiction, grandiosity, narcissism. You cannot wipe these out. They exist in all of us, and they exist in me too. The break allows me to reboot and clear my head.

In your book, you raise the issue of the need for digital education. You are basically recommending a way of doing things on the internet. That could raise eyebrows among those who cherish the disorderly nature of the online world.

I am not suggesting here that everyone should conform to a common purpose. I too celebrate the fluid nature of the internet. I would hate to be in a world full of predictable people or people who were serious all the time.

What I have in mind, rather, is a more holistic approach. You need to understand that most of what you do online is build connections with other people. You are not just talking to yourself. What you say can have an impact on other people, it can hurt other people, or it can backfire. Your words are not balloons floating up into the sky.

It would be better not to sleepwalk into the internet. But this is unfortunately how most people immerse themselves in social networks. Inevitably, they fail to see both the risks as well as the opportunities.

You can find out more about Manolis Andriotakis’s at www.andriotakis.com.


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