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Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: tech (page 1 of 2)

everyone knows

Reading this Jessica Grose piece — so similar to ten thousand other reports made in recent yers — on the miseries induced or exacerbated by digital technologies in the classroom, I think: Everyone knows all this.

Everyone knows that living on screens is making children miserable in a dozen different ways, contributing to ever-increasing rates of mental illness and inhibiting or disabling children’s mental faculties.

Everyone knows that engaging creatively with the material world is better for children — is better for all of us. 

Everyone knows that Meta and TikTok are predatory and parasitical, and that they impoverish the lives of the people addicted to them. 

Everyone knows that social media breed bad actors: each platform does this in its own way, but they all do it, and the more often people engage on such platforms the more messed-up and unhappy they become. 

Everyone knows that the big Silicon Valley companies do not care how much damage they do to society or the environment; they care only about what Mark Zuckerberg likes to call DOMINATION. The occupational psychosis of Silicon Valley is sociopathy. The rise of LLMs is simply the next big step in this sociopathic program. 

Everyone knows all this. Some people, for their own reasons, choose to deny it, but even they know it — indeed, probably no one knows all that I’ve been saying better than Mark Zuckerberg and Shou Zi Chew and Sam Altman do. 

So our problem is not a lack of knowledge; it’s a deficiency of will and a malformation of desire. St. Augustine explained it all to us 1600 years ago: My actions are determined by my will, and my will is driven by what I love. We do badly by our children because we do not love them sufficiently or properly; we do badly by our neighbors for the same reason; we do badly by ourselves for the same reason, because narcissists — and one of the things everyone knows is that all the forces named above breed narcissists — do not rightly love themselves. 

Those of us who care about the future of our children, our neighbors, and ourselves don’t need to repeat what everyone already knows. We need to devote our full attention to one question and one question only: How do we love rightly and teach others to love rightly? If that’s not our constant meditation, we’re wasting our time. If we cannot redirect our desires towards better things than Silicon Valley, AKA Vanity Fair, sells, then nothing, literally nothing, will get better. 

4/26/15: Pilgrim's Progress (13) — Welcome To Vanity Fair! | 12:13

placing bets

The last four of Ted Gioia’s seven hypotheses about meaningful progress:

4. The discourse on progress is controlled by technocrats, politicians and economists. But in the current moment, they are the wrong people to decide which metrics drive quality of life and human flourishing.

5. Real wisdom on human flourishing is now more likely to come from the humanities, philosophy, and the spiritual realms than technocrats and politicians. By destroying these disciplines, we actually reduce our chances at genuine advancement.

6. Things like music, books, art, family, friends, the inner life, etc. will increasingly play a larger role in quality of life (and hence progress) than gadgets and devices.

7. Over the next decade, the epicenter for meaningful progress will be the private lives of individuals and small communities. It will be driven by their wisdom, their core values, and the courage of their convictions — none of which will be supplied via virtual reality headsets or apps on their smartphones. 

The ongoing existence of this here blog is based on almost exactly these assumptions. It’s a bet that people want what’s best about the world

ADD revisited

On the first day of my Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century course — mentioned here — I played for my students a few minutes of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. We paused to talk a bit about the musical language of late Romanticism, about Rachmaninoff’s gift for lush melody, etc. Then I played them this: 

Hard to believe it was composed by the same man, isn’t it? But (I suggested) that’s the difference between a young Russian composer in 1901 — he wrote that concerto when he was 27 — and a middle-aged Russian composer living through overwhelming political turmoil and world war. In time of desperate need Rachmaninoff, not a churchgoer, turned to the liturgical and musical inheritance of Orthodoxy to make sense of his world, to begin the long healing that would be necessary. 

But the healing didn’t happen. Russia was further broken by the war, then entered the long nightmare of Bolshevik rule, and Rachmaninoff became one of many exiles. In some ways he never recovered from this experience. Many years later, while living in California, he lamented his inability to compose music: “Losing my country, I lost myself also.” (Exile versus homecoming — one of the themes of my class.) But the All-Night Vigil remains, for me, one of the transcendent works of music. Rachmaninoff himself thought it perhaps his best composition. 

But I have another motive in having my students listen to this music, which is to get them to listen to music. People these days, especially but not only young people, have music on all the time, but that’s not the same as listening to it. Indeed, as Ted Gioia and Damon Krukowski have documented repeatedly, Spotify — and pretty much all my students use Spotify — positively wants its users to unlisten, to merely have music on in the background, in part because that allows the company to shift from actual music made by human musicians to AI-generated neo-Muzak. The tiny amount that Spotify pays musicians  is already shameful, but it’s too much for a company that doesn’t have a workable business model, so the best way to limit costs is to cut human musicians out of the game altogether. But this will only work if Spotify can habituate its users to empty, mindless schlock, made up of endless variations on the same four chords

I’ve made it a classroom practice in the last year or so to indulge in theatrical rants against Spotify, which is fun for me and for my students. They argue with me and I denounce them, all in good humor. But for all the smiles, I am quite serious. Spotify is creating in millions and millions of its users a new kind of Attention Deficit Disorder, not one that has them jumping from one thing to another, but rather has them in a kind of vague trance state. Spotify is like soma from Brave New World in audio form.  And to be in such a state is to experience a deficit of attention, an inability genuine to attend to what one is hearing. 

So one of the things I am doing in this class, and will be trying in other classes, is to get my students to spend five minutes listening to music. I forbid digital devices in my classes, so they just have their books and notebooks in front of them — they can of course be distracted from the music, but it’s not automatic, not easy. If listening is the path of least resistance, then maybe they’ll listen. I’ve started with five minutes, but I hope to work our way up to longer pieces. My dream — and alas, it is but a dream — is, one Holy Week, to sit together with my students and listen to the single 70-minute movement that is Arvo Pärt’s Passio

Mark C. Taylor:

I do not think human beings are the last stage in the evolutionary process. Whatever comes next will be neither simply organic nor simply machinic but will be the result of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between human beings and technology.

Bound together as parasite/host, neither people nor technologies can exist apart from the other because they are constitutive prostheses of each other. 

But which one’s the parasite and which the host? Add odd point to be omitted, considering its importance. 

Talia Barnes:

I traded my smartphone for a dumbphone to simplify my life. Then I revived my iPod. Then I bought a GPS. Then I bought a point-and-shoot camera.

You might wonder whether life is really simpler this way. Wouldn’t it be far more convenient to use a single device to accomplish all of these tasks?

Technically, yes. Psychologically, no. 

This is correct. 

Cassiodorus College

For a few years, starting around a decade ago, I blogged at The American Conservative. Sometime in the not-too-distant past, they memory-holed all my posts — without bothering to inform me that they’d be doing so. Classy move, folks! Anyway, I might occasionally re-post stuff I wrote there — assuming I can find the drafts on my hard drive. (If I were desperate to retrieve anything, which I’m not, I could of course eventually find it with the Wayback Machine.) Here’s one to accompany my School for Scale idea. 


I think the world needs a quirky and extremely rich venture capitalist to fund my great project, Cassiodorus College. Tag line: Where the New Liberal Arts Meet the Old. Foundational courses will include:

Memorization and Recitation. An introduction to mnemomics, both through modern techniques and history. Books assigned will include The Art of Memory by Frances Yates and The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence. Attention will be given to memorizing long poems, long speeches, meaningful numerical sequences, and nonsense.

Reading: Natural and Formal Languages. An exploration of the very different skills required to read natural languages and formal languages, especially computer programming languages. A key question will be: Why is computer code easier to write than to read, while natural language is generally the other way around. Attention will be given to the neuroscience of reading but also to the conditions under which reading can be intensely pleasurable.

Composition: Natural and Formal Languages. A course devoted to the exploration of three compositional modes: writing English essays, writing computer code, and the mediating experience of writing English essays while using markup languages, primarily HTML and LaTeX. The first part of this course will begin by having students spend extended periods hand-writing memorable poetry and prose in commonplace books, alternating that with typing into a terminal code examples from Donald Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming. Only very gradually will they progress to writing their own essays and their own code.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Stolen directly from Edward Tufte, whose books will be our texts. However, we will also explore the ways in which the various software tools available for making graphs, charts, and the like constrain our organizational and display choices. We will also give attention to the principles of excellent design, including the design of text.

Mathematical Reasoning and Rhetoric. An introduction to mathematics as a mode of thinking and a subsequent exploration of how the best principles of mathematical reasoning are routinely defied when numbers are presented to the public. Tufte is useful here too, for example, on how faulty presentation of data can lead to disasters.

Care of Plants and Animals. An idea stolen from W. H. Auden, who said that in his “daydream College for Bards” every would-be poet should tend a vegetable garden and care for a domestic pet. A great idea not just for bards. 

Please get in touch if you’re filthy rich and want to bankroll this glorious endeavor. 

1947 10

 

Leon Shamroy, writing in American Cinematographer in 1947:

Not too far off is the “electronic camera.” A compact, lightweight box no larger than a Kodak Brownie, it will contain a highly sensitive pickup tube, 100 times faster than present-day film stocks. A single lens system will adjust to any focal length by the operator merely turning a knob, and will replace the cumbersome interchangeable lenses to today. Cranes and dollies weighing tons will be replaced by lightweight perambulators. The camera will be linked to the film recorder by coaxial cable or radio. The actual recording of the scene on film will take place at a remote station, under ideal conditions. Instead of waiting for a day —or days, in the case of shooting with color — electronic monitor screens connected into the system will make it possible to view the scene as it is being recorded. Control of contrast and color will be possible before development.

It is not too difficult to predict the effect of such advancements on the production of motion pictures. Economically, it will mean savings in time and money. Since the photographic results will be known immediately, it will be unnecessary to tie up actors and stages for long periods of time. The size and sensitivity of this new camera will make photography possible under ordinary lighting conditions. Shooting pictures on distant locations will be simplified. generators, lighting units, and other heavy equipment will be eliminated, thus doing away with costly transportation.

Home invasion:

For those of us who have been using Mastodon for a while (I started my own Mastodon server 4 years ago), this week has been overwhelming. I’ve been thinking of metaphors to try to understand why I’ve found it so upsetting. This is supposed to be what we wanted, right? Yet it feels like something else. Like when you’re sitting in a quiet carriage softly chatting with a couple of friends and then an entire platform of football fans get on at Jolimont Station after their team lost. They don’t usually catch trains and don’t know the protocol. They assume everyone on the train was at the game or at least follows football. They crowd the doors and complain about the seat configuration.

It’s not entirely the Twitter people’s fault. They’ve been taught to behave in certain ways. To chase likes and retweets/boosts. To promote themselves. To perform. All of that sort of thing is anathema to most of the people who were on Mastodon a week ago. It was part of the reason many moved to Mastodon in the first place. This means there’s been a jarring culture clash all week as a huge murmuration of tweeters descended onto Mastodon in ever increasing waves each day. To the Twitter people it feels like a confusing new world, whilst they mourn their old life on Twitter. They call themselves “refugees,” but to the Mastodon locals it feels like a busload of Kontiki tourists just arrived, blundering around yelling at each other and complaining that they don’t know how to order room service. We also mourn the world we’re losing. 

I’m a bit concerned about micro.blog — I don’t use Mastodon — for just this reason. That’s why I wrote a few months ago, “On micro.blog, you have absolutely no incentive to flex, shitpost, self-promote, or troll. You’re there to post interesting things and/or chat with people. Nothing else makes sense.” 

convo

Me: Good grief, it’s just one thing after another. 

T: No kidding. Today the plumber spills toxic chemicals all over our kitchen floor, yesterday it was the sound on the TV going wonky. 

Me: Before that my Kindle died. 

T: Before that the ice maker in our fridge died. 

Me: Before that our internet ran at a glacial pace for several days. 

T: And it’s searing hot. And there’s no rain. 

Me: I got a new vinyl record and it keeps sticking. CDs eventually wear out. Also, the drawer of my CD player keeps sticking. 

T: Your life is suffering. But you know, everything wears out. 

Me: Nothing works. [pause] Well, there’s one thing I can count on. 

T: What’s that? 

Me: Books. They always work. No internet, they still work. No electricity, they still work. Drop them in the bathtub and they get a little wonky, but you can still read them. The books on my shelf — in a hundred years, in two hundred years, they’ll still be readable. The only thing you can really count on in this vale of tears is books

T: Truth. 

Andy Crouch:

What I say to students is, you are not unhealthy people in a normal world, despite these statistics that show how anxious, lonely, and depressed young adults are. What you are is normal people in an unhealthy world. It’s not healthy to be anxious, lonely, and depressed, but it is a natural response to a world that is not asking you to become anything, and is not giving you confidence that you can overcome difficulty — one that’s dissociating the different parts of you, compelling you to spend a good part of your time with your body disengaged and your mind occupied. It’s totally understandable that our young people are experiencing such distress, because the world we’re asking them to live in — this world of easy everywhere — this world of superpowers, is not good for them. It would be very odd if, in this world, people were doing just fine. It’s not at all surprising that they’re struggling and feeling disconnected. 

You can be almost certain that people who sneer with ready contempt at today’s college students don’t spend much time around them. Our young people have been given a raw deal, and most of them play it better than we have any right to expect. And the ones who don’t? They’re twenty years old. How put-together were you at age twenty? 

Paris Marx:

The Amazon store experience, while presented as frictionless, contains a lot of friction—so much so that many people are excluded from entry. On top of the complex surveillance system, every customer needs to have a smartphone, have downloaded the Amazon app, logged in to an Amazon account, and connected a means of payment. When an Amazon Fresh store opened in West London in March 2021, a journalist observed an old man trying to go in to pick up some groceries, but he gave up when he was told all the steps he would have to take just to enter. “Oh f*** that, no, no, no — can’t be bothered,” he said, then kept walking to reach a normal grocery store. But in the future he may run into similar issues at even more stores, as countries like Sweden pioneer a cashless economy and the Amazon model inevitably spreads.

The extension of inequities, and even the creation of new ones, is a key part of the frictionless society that gets hidden by the digital services that claim to increase convenience and reduce barriers to consumption. Researcher Chris Gilliard coined the term “digital redlining” to describe the series of technologies, regulatory decisions, and investments that allow them to scale as actions that “enforce class boundaries and discriminate against specific groups.” In the same way that biases in artificial intelligence systems were long ignored, if not purposefully hidden, to protect companies’ business interests, these frictionless tools also claim they will eliminate inequities, even as Gilliard argued that “the feedback loops of algorithmic systems will work to reinforce these often flawed and discriminatory assumptions. The presupposed problem of difference will become even more entrenched, the chasms between people will widen.”

annoyance

I like Independent Publisher, the WordPress theme you’re looking at, but I’m not crazy about it. I prefer Davis, the theme I was using before — but Davis just underwent an update that undid the custom CSS I was using to tweak it. Davis does something that many themes do, something indefensible and unforgivable: it renders all block quotes in italics. This is stupid, because sometimes such quotations contain italics of their own, which are wiped out by the CSS. Typically, it’s possible to use the Custom CSS feature in WordPress to fix things like that, and in the past I did that — but this new update has made the theme impervious to such changes. No matter what CSS I add, the theme ignores it. So I am back to Independent Publisher, which is … okay. Fine, I guess.

The whole situation is yet another reminder of how frustrating life in the indie web world can be if you don’t possess the tools you need to Do It Yourself. I really really don’t have the time to learn how to write my own WordPress theme … but that’s probably what I should do. Sigh.

Of course, another alternative would be to leave WordPress altogether for an alternative platform, but I suspect that will have to wait until I retire. Because that is a big job.

excerpt from my Sent folder: nodes

I try to make the best of the blogging environment, but I have always been fascinated by Jorn Barger’s early-web idea of what he called “single-layer web design” — it’s ironic that he is sometimes called the inventor of the weblog, because while he was one of the first to create a reverse-chronological list of links, that’s pretty much all they were, links, not developed ideas. Almost all of his Robot Wisdom site has disappeared since he abandoned the web some 20 years ago — I think the only thing left is this mirror of his James Joyce page

But when I started making my actual home page, this is the model I had in mind: all the relevant information and necessary links on a single page, written in absolutely bare-bones HTML. And if I had the technical chops to do it, I’d ditch the blog and make my entire web presence a series of about five pages, each of which would be a kind of topical node, and each of which would continually in revision. Maybe one of them would be a Barger-style link-weblog, or I might just use micro.blog for that.

For example: like you, I am deeply attached to revising my posts — one recent case:

Unnamed

Thirteen revisions is on the low side for a longer post. Often I’m correcting spelling errors or tweaking the style, but sometimes I go in and use a <mark> tag to highlight; I might add an UPDATE, or, if I don’t like the way an update would make the post look, I’ll hop over to txt.fyi and write up an appendix and then link to it (I should probably make a page at ayjay.org, since txt.fyi could disappear at any time, but usually I’m too lazy). I also will sometimes help generate what I think of as internal dialogism — sorry for the fancy language — by using the <details> tag.

But what I really want is the ability to make several pages that use all these tricks and more: highlights, details, footnotes, appendices, digital sticky notes, and (maybe above all) versioning — the ability for readers to diff, as it were.

Four or five topical nodes, ever-expanding, linking out and back, commenting on itself, inviting commentary from others, etc. etc. THAT would be the coolest thing ever, to me. In fact, I might start experimenting with a basic page structure that would allow a first approximation of this vision….

Silver Jubilee – by Damon Krukowski – Dada Drummer Almanach:

[Maurizio Lazzarato:] “Small and sometimes very small ‘productive units’ (often consisting of only one individual) are organized for specific ad hoc projects, and may exist only for the duration of those particular jobs… Precariousness, hyperexploitation, mobility, and hierarchy are the most obvious characteristics of metropolitan immaterial labor. Behind the label of the independent ‘self-employed’ worker, what we actually find is an intellectual proletarian… It is worth noting that in this kind of working existence it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish leisure time from work time. In a sense, life becomes inseparable from work.” 

This matches my long-term experience with digital media far better than Gates’s “content is king.” Content is not what is rewarded in this online economy, because content is produced by immaterial labor, and labor is in no better a political state to demand fair compensation now than it was before digital technology. If anything, our ability to organize has been reduced as we have been isolated by the processes described in Lazzarato’s essay. After all, the foreman is right here in our homes. I’m typing on one now. 

See: Self-taylorizing

IMG 3535

I love it when former students of mine do cool things, and with this book Nate Anderson has done a cool thing. I’ve just started the book but I am very much looking forward to the rest. 

Nick Russo:

To wrap up his rowhomes project, Hytha’s planning to sell a collage of all 100 images that comprise it, and he expects the collage to sell for as much as $40,000. In the meantime, Hytha has been meeting with local organizations that specialize in home repair and tangled titles in an effort to figure out how to put the money to the best possible use. Whether it ultimately helps Philadelphians with rowhome repairs, tangled title resolutions, or both, Hytha’s donation will help protect the historical legacy and architectural vibrancy of the city’s oft-neglected neighborhoods. In so doing, what started for Hytha as an art project celebrating the tragic beauty of urban decay in Philadelphia’s built environment will have become a force counteracting that very decay.

Hytha shows us, then, that it’s possible to use NFTs without severing economic action from morality, and further, that the new technology actually opens up new frontiers for local civic engagement. With sufficient skill, hard work, and good fortune, struggling artists now have a realistic chance at becoming powerful community pillars—all while doing what they love. Moreover, while NFTs are often criticized for being detached from the world and devoid of real value, Hytha shows us that it’s possible to ground them in one’s environment and use them to help people appreciate the physical world instead of escape from it into cyberspace. 

An argument worthy of serious reflection. 

Andy Crouch on invitation and repair

From Andy Crouch’s new book:

To rebuild households would begin to undermine Mammon itself. If we lived this way together, we would begin to fundamentally change our economy in the most literal sense and eventually change the structure of economic life more broadly — what we value, measure, and reward. To begin this kind of economic restoration does not require us to change the practices of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, or the European Central Bank — or even to know, exactly, what ought to replace them. We just (just!) have to redirect our energies away from Mammon’s domain and turn toward a realm where Mammon has nothing to offer. And then we need to invite others to join us under that new shelter. 

Well, there’s Invitation & Repair right there. (Also a rhyming with my recent stuff on principalities, powers, and demons.) 

One name for “a realm where Mammon has nothing to offer,” as Wendell Berry noted in his 1984 essay “Two Economies,” is the Kingdom of God: 

For the thing that so troubles us about the industrial economy is exactly that it is not comprehensive enough, that, moreover, it tends to destroy what it does not comprehend, and that it is dependent upon much that it does not comprehend. In attempting to criticize such an economy, it is probably natural to pose against it an economy that does not leave anything out. And we can say without presuming too much, that the first principle of the kingdom of God is that it includes everything; in it the fall of every sparrow is a significant event. We are in it, we may say, whether we know it or not, and whether we wish to be or not. Another principle, both ecological and traditional, is that everything in the kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it. That is to say that the kingdom of God is orderly. 

Andy and Mr. Berry between them have said much of what I would want to say about Invitation and Repair! (But there may be a few elements of what Berry calls the Great Economy still remaining to be explored.) 

Brad East has an outstanding essay-review on Andy’s book at The New Atlantis. Please read it — and The Life We’re Looking For!

self-Haysing

As Nikil Saval pointed out some years ago, “The arc of scientific management is long, but it bends towards self-Taylorizing.” (See further development of these ideas in this essay by Alexa Hazel, and a few comments by me, on related matters, here.)  

I might coin an analogous phrase: The arc of creative product development is long, but it bends towards self-Haysing. 

Thou Shalt Not Whitey Schafer 1940

For several decades the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, governed what could and could not be shown in movies. I was thinking of it the other day while watching Ernst Lubitsch’s glorious Trouble in Paradise (1932), made just pre-Code and therefore full of Inappropriate Content.

A very funny moment early on comes when the two thieves-pretending-to-be-aristocrats, played by Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall, are having dinner together and gradually revealing what they’ve pinched from each other. He returns her brooch; she returns his watch. They resume their meal and then after a moment he says, “I hope you don’t mind if I keep your garter.” Her eyes widen and her hand inspects her leg as he displays the garter, kisses it tenderly, and replaces it in his pocket. 

Trouble 1200 1200 675 675 crop 000000

The Hays Code did away with such immoralities. Eventually it was repealed in favor of our current movie rating system, and now we can have anything, right? Right? Well…. 

Alan Rome has a fine essay in The New Atlantis on recent developments in the Star Trek world in which he points out that earlier installments in the series were governed by a kind of liberal idealism: “In Star Trek’s future, the United Federation of Planets is a liberal-democratic regime encompassing hundreds of different alien species, all devoted to peace, freedom, and equality. The Federation is the United Nations writ galactic, led by an Americanized humanity.” But more recently it has become necessary to cast strong doubt on all that nonsense: “Government is somehow both the only possible guarantor of justice and also structurally implicated in all social evils. The current system is therefore illegitimate and needs to be dismantled in favor of some sort of utopian solution.” That no one seems to know what that Utopia might look like is another of Rome’s points, but for now I just want to focus on the fact that a series like Picard cannot do anything but portray any existing social system as hypocritical, complicit in oppression, structurally unjust, etc. etc. That’s intrinsic to the Code. 

As Foucault spent his career demonstrating: Written Codes are strong, but Codes unwritten are stronger. And I don’t think I need to list the ways in which recent movies and TV shows have exhibited a frantic determination to depict all that Must Be Shown and to refrain from depicting all that Must Not Be Shown. I also don’t think I have to list the ways in which this kind of manaical ticking of checkboxes inhibits creativity. It’s self-Haysing: disciplining yourself in order to avoid being disciplined by others, and that’s always kind of pathetic. No need to belabor this point. I just want to make a few others: 

  1. Whether written or unwritten, Codes are always present, though some periods (like our own) are more prone to code fetishizing than others;
  2. While you will surely approve of some Codes and disapprove of others, they always inhibit creativity; 
  3. But they also inspire creativity, because real artists look for ways to evade the force of Codes or, through jujitsu moves, use them to advantage; 
  4. Figuring out whether in any given case a Code is more productive than destructive is not easy, though as a general rule, the more feverishly people strive to enforce a Code the more destructive it is; 
  5. And, finally, if you don’t like what the current Code is doing to movies and TV, there’s a vast body of work out there that you’ll like better.

I don’t know why people think it’s so important that there are always new products being developed that will suit them. If there’s one thing that our current moment does well, it’s to make available to us the great cultural achievements of the past, in multiple forms and formats. If I don’t like Old Disney, there’s Woke Disney; if I don’t like Woke Disney, there’s Old Disney. Break bread with the dead, is what I say. (But also maybe stock up, just in case.) 

universal neighborliness

Re: my earlier post on an Ezra Klein column, I want to add that the universality of Christianity takes a very peculiar form, because it is a universality that also emphasizes neighborliness, a particular care for those who are nearby. Thus Matthew Loftus:

We cannot love “the whole world” except in abstraction, nor work for the mutual benefit of everyone in the same way that we can take care of our children or our sick neighbor. We must not fail in our duties to those close to us, even if our love ultimately does not stop there. Only by honoring the relationships that we have with others based on our common humanity and our common interchanges of trade and culture can we honor the God who created those people and places. Our local affections will have universal implications for how we use technology, farm the land, and execute trade. And in the global realm as well as the communal, love and sanity require limits.

I have forbidden the use of the EMR [Electronic Medical Records] in my mental health clinic at the hospital, at least for now. As I scribble my notes on paper, I look to the parent, sibling, child, or friend who has accompanied the patient to the clinic. When I ask how well the medications are working, sometimes the patient will say they are fine while their companion smiles and tells me the truth. Rarely do patients come alone; some friends or family members pay a day’s wages for an hour-long bus ride to the hospital to accompany their suffering loved one. I like to think that no one in our hospital suffers alone because the cultural ethos here forbids it. 

Please do read the whole thing. But this is key: “Our local affections will have universal implications.” And, conversely, our universal commitments will necessarily have local instantiations. 

I think Charles Dickens understood this paradox very well, as we see in the greatest of his novels, Bleak House. There we note Mrs. Jellyby practicing her “telescopic philanthropy” — meditating always on the suffering of the people of Borrioboola-Gha while utterly neglecting her own children — and the “business-like and systematic” charity of Mrs. Pardiggle. As Esther Summerson says, “Ada and I … thought that Mrs. Pardiggle would have got on infinitely better if she had not had such a mechanical way of taking possession of people.” When pressed by Mrs. Pardiggle to join in her “rounds,” Esther has a profound response (even if Mrs. P can’t grasp the import of it): 

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. 

Words to live by, say I. And let me conclude with words still wiser, from Helmut Thielicke’s great sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan: 

You will never learn who Jesus Christ is by reflecting upon whether there is such a thing as sonship or virgin birth or miracle. Who Jesus Christ is you learn from your imprisoned, hungry, distressed brothers. For it is in them that he meets us. He is always in the depths. And we shall draw near to these brethren only if we open our eyes to see the misery around us. And we can open our eyes only when we love. But we cannot go and do and love, if we stop and ask first, “Who is my neighbor?” The devil has been waiting for us to ask this question; and he will always whisper into our ears only the most convenient answers. We human beings always fall for the easiest answers. No, we can love only if we have the mind of Jesus and turn the lawyer’s question around. Then we shall ask not “Who is my neighbor?” but “To whom am I a neighbor? Who is laid at my door? Who is expecting help from me and who looks upon me as his neighbor?” This reversal of the question is precisely the point of the parable.

Anybody who loves must always be prepared to have his plans interrupted. We must be ready to be surprised by tasks which God sets for us today. God is always compelling us to improvise. For God’s tasks always have about them something surprising and unexpected, and this imprisoned, wounded, distressed brother, in whom the Saviour meets us, is always turning up on our path just at the time when we are about to do something else, just when we are occupied with altogether different duties. God is always a God of surprises, not only in the way in which he helps us — for God’s help too always comes from unexpected directions — but also in the manner in which he confronts me with tasks to perform and sends people across my path. 


P.S. I meant to schedule this to post tomorrow – sorry for all the stuff in one day. If I don’t post anything for the next day or two, just read this post several times. It’ll do you good. 

This WSJ article about people returning to landlines and ethernet cables — that’s my tribe, man. Now, I don’t have a landline (yet?) and I use ethernet only at my office — but my use of wireless technologies is gradually diminishing because … well, because they suck. They’re not reliable. Apple’s iCloud is terrible, so my primary backup strategy involves an external hard drive (supplemented by Backblaze, which as far as I can tell is flawless); Bluetooth is, I believe, the most unreliable technology in widespread use, so I have returned to wired headphones. I’m gradually restoring the status quo of twenty years ago, when my access to the internet was through one device that sat on a desk. And that sounds great.

critique and repair

Here’s my friend Sara Hendren, a couple of years ago, on critique and repair:

We’re seeing critique in the public sphere: criticism of leadership, of the weaknesses in our infrastructural systems, of our cultural confusion about acting collectively. Critique is alive and well (thank goodness!). What are its modes of action? Critique unmasks hidden or suppressed realities. It reveals ugly truths. It subverts or even negates mainstream or inherited or lazy narratives. We’re seeing its vivid power in every variety: in words and images, in books and popular culture, and naturally, on social media. It’s a beautiful (and alternately wrenching, and always vital) thing to witness.

We’re also seeing rhetorical acts of repair: proposals for new worlds that might be prototyped anew in the wake of disaster. There are calls for new models of business and medicine and education, newly flexible work structures, new forms of architecture and urban planning, new service models for community safety. The longer work of these reparative ideas has yet to be tested, but if we stay with just the rhetorical — these first acts of naming and calling for repair — we can identify its complementary modes of action. Repair language suggests new futures. It invites possibility. Perhaps it translates ideas from the past that might be reinvigorated or more accessibly understood, or perhaps it enchants by asking: what if? What if this new different thing could come to life?

This is great stuff.

I’ve been wanting to respond to Sara’s outline-for-thinking for some time (the text file in which I’m writing was created a year ago) but I keep hesitating. I hesitate because I’m thinking about this:

Understanding each mode [critique and repair] as a post — as a vantage with a view of the horizon that is necessarily partial, with particular assets and with unavoidable drawbacks — is one way to sidestep the often corrosive debates about “civility” that tend to explode in urgent times. Instead of policing the tone of others, wanting either less or more anger, less or more imagination and kindness, we might instead ask: What is my post? And what might be the alternate, equally productive posts of others, the ones who may well be moving toward a shared horizon? We don’t have to be the same. Each project is different, its actions and its affordances. By occupying one, you gain some things and you lose some things—and by occupying the other, the same is also true.

I am more skeptical about critique than Sara is, but that may be because, as she puts it, repair is what I have seen as my post, my calling — which might make me insufficiently appreciative of those who see critique as their post.

Also, in some follow-up thoughts, Sara describes a certain mode of “technological critique” which involves “the articulation of urgent socio-political questions made real in things. Things-to-think-with, which is not just for the gallery viewer. They’re public technologies with high stakes attached.” This notion of designed and constructed entities as critique evades some of my concerns, because my skepticism about critique arises from its loose and careless deployment of language. The deployment of things — well, that’s different.

But most of us think of critique as something done with words; so maybe I should just plunge ahead. And isn’t that what a blog is for? — plunging ahead, I mean, even if only to retreat later. Floating trial balloons and then waiting for them to be shot down, or shooting them down yourself. So … some thoughts, presented in aphoristic form but subject to later development:

1) The prospect of critique appeals — it looks easy, which is one reason why so many people try it — but is very difficult to do effectively; the prospect of repair intimidates, but almost any sincere attempt at repair is helpful or at least instructive (to those who perform it and those who observe).

2) The dominant venues of our discourse today — social media and other online environments — promote the degeneration of critique into snark or mockery by their encouragement of (a) the mere performance of virtue and (b) a distancing, physical and otherwise, from the objects of one’s critique.

3) Critique tends to do its best work when the critics know that they must share a substantive lifeworld with the people they are critiquing — even as they argue that the contours and structures of that lifeworld must become radically different than they are.

4) Actual repair is hard to dislike. The I-did-the-best-I-could-with-what-I-had ethos of There, I Fixed It inspires as much admiration as derision.

5) Repair without critique hobbles; critique divorced from repair corrodes.

6) Asking “How can I improve this situation?” is almost always a better question than “Whose fault is this?” — and indeed, that second question can become more useful and meaningful when it is asked as part of the process of answering the second.

7) Les Murray, “Politics and Art”:

Brutal policy,

like inferior art, knows

whose fault it all is.

8) Lesslie Newbigin: “The redemption with which He is concerned is both social and cosmic, and therefore the way of its working involves at every point the re-creation of true human relationships and of true relationship between man and the rest of the created order.”

the low bar

An excellent post by John Siracusa (a) outlining the most elementary features that the UI of any video-streaming service should have and (b) showing how rarely (if ever) the existing services meet that low bar. This is something that I think about almost every day: How absolutely incompetent the coding is of the streaming services I use. And in my experience music services are almost as bad.

(Apple’s purchase of Primephonic last year gave me a tiny bit of hope that I’d eventually have an app that allows me to listen to classical music without, for instance, having to deal with truncated and hence incomprehensible track listings for classical music — but I’m still waiting for Apple’s version of the service to be released, and am not confident that it ever will be.) 

More generally, it seems to me that UI design in software has been getting worse over the past decade, and I wonder why that is. For instance, Amazon’s Kindle software, on every platform, is buggy, and seems increasingly to be focused more on trying to sell me books than on making my reading experience a good one. Yet another reason — there are several — why I’ve almost completely stopped buying Kindle books, though I still use the device for reading, e.g., Project Gutenberg books. But confusing or inappropriate UI design is not solely the province of Amazon — it seems to be becoming endemic. That’s impressionistic and anecdotal, to be sure; if I weren’t preoccupied by other things I’d try to support my claim. But hey, just read Siracusa’s excellent post. 

Senator Josh Hawley:

To start, large social media companies should be required to become interoperable with one another: Just as you can email someone who uses a different email provider than your own, you should be able to contact and engage with individuals across different social media platforms. In the same vein, large social media companies should be required to permit the use of alternate filtering and sorting algorithms — democratizing content moderation by allowing users to choose which content they wish to view or block, rather than relying on the black-box internal processes of an individual, hyper-concentrated company. 

Agreed, except that the first point is potentially in tension with the second. Perhaps micro.blog should be forced to become interoperable with Twitter, but I should also be able to set my micro.blog account so that I will never see anything that anyone on Twitter says to me — which is precisely the setting I would choose. 

attentional norms

Me at the Hog Blog on “attentional norms” and Zoom:

It has been interesting to watch over the last two pandemic years as the norms associated with videoconferencing have coalesced. My experience strongly suggests that the attention level expected on Zoom (and other videoconferencing platforms) is quite remarkably low — medieval-churchgoing low. Obviously, there will be exceptions to this norm — no one feels free to look away when the Boss is giving a speech — but I can’t remember the last time I was on a Zoom call in which participants were not regularly cutting their video and audio, or just their audio, to talk to people in the room with them. Or they just walk out of frame for a few minutes. Or they type away furiously on Slack or email or WhatsApp or iMessage. And no one who does this acts inappropriately, because such fidgeting and alternations of attention are permitted by the norms that have emerged. 

It’s fascinating to me how these norms emerge. No one chooses them, they just happen; and when a lot of people are using one technology, they happen quickly. As I say in the essay, they also change, but they seem to change a lot more slowly than they emerge; and there’s nothing any one person can do to change them. When you’re a teacher, as I am, you have to be very observant about those attentional norms and choose the technologies that match your pedagogical purposes. Because you’re wasting your time if you try to enforce norms that are different than those people have absorbed from everyone else. 

UPDATE: Everything I try to say here is said better by Rands: “Do you want to know why you’re fatigued at the end of a long day of video conferences? It’s because your brain has been straining to collect essential information that is no longer there.” 

free and forever

I want to write here about something I don’t understand.

My friend Robin Sloan alerted me to this post by a passionate advocate of crypto/blockchain’s power to … well, something awesome, I guess, though no matter how many times I read posts like this I can never tell exactly what is supposed to happen.

Now, that may be because writers like this fellow, Jacob, are writing for insiders – people who already know the details, who already have clear use cases in mind, who are already excited about the future of blockchain and crypto and web3. But when I ask knowledgable people about these matters, I always get pointed to posts just like this one, which are, you know, right there on the open web for all to see. So I think questions like the ones I am raising here are legitimate to raise.

So: Jacob is particularly excited about what he calls “hyperstructures”: “Crypto protocols that can run for free and forever, without maintenance, interruption or intermediaries.”

Wow, for free! But hang on a sec … Later, expanding on that definition, he says, “there is a 0% protocol wide fee and runs exactly at gas cost.” So when he says that hyperstructures can run for free, what he actually means is that no additional cost is imposed over and above the cost of making transactions, which is something that fluctuates, fairly dramatically, according to supply and demand.

But they run forever! Well … let’s look at the expanded definition of “forever”: “It runs for as long as the underlying blockchain exists.” Okay, so how long is that? “Hyperstructures … can continuously function without a maintainer or operator, and they can run for as long as the underlying blockchain is running — which can be at the very least a decade.”

So “forever” means “at least a decade” and “free” means “whatever the gas cost is when you make an exchange of any kind.”

See, this – along with the seemingly complete inability of anyone involved with this stuff to tell me one thing I could use it for – is what makes people call crypto a big con game. Maybe it isn’t! But I can’t find any of the advocates for it who can, or are willing, to explain why it’s not. 

Jamie Zawinski, formerly of Mozilla: “Anyone involved in cryptocurrencies in any way is either a grifter or a mark. It is 100% a con. There is no legitimacy.” Elsewhere he says: “Cryptocurrencies are not only an apocalyptic ecological disaster, and a greater-fool pyramid scheme, but are also incredibly toxic to the open web, another ideal that Mozilla used to support.” Admirable clarity from JWZ. 

two quotations on web3

Ameera Kawash

Web3 aims to seize on the communicative motives of social media and fuse them more directly with transactional ones, as every interaction can be recast as a transaction backed by the blockchain.

Moxie Marlinspike

I don’t share the same generational excitement for moving all aspects of life into an instrumented economy.

unbribed

The Magnificent Bribe — Real Life:

Nearly 50 years ago, long before smartphones and social media, the social critic Lewis Mumford put a name to the way that complex technological systems offer a share in their benefits in exchange for compliance. He called it a “bribe.” With this label, Mumford sought to acknowledge the genuine plentitude that technological systems make available to many people, while emphasizing that this is not an offer of a gift but of a deal. Surrender to the power of complex technological systems — allow them to oversee, track, quantify, guide, manipulate, grade, nudge, and surveil you — and the system will offer you back an appealing share in its spoils. What is good for the growth of the technological system is presented as also being good for the individual, and as proof of this, here is something new and shiny. Sure, that shiny new thing is keeping tabs on you (and feeding all of that information back to the larger technological system), but it also lets you do things you genuinely could not do before. For a bribe to be accepted it needs to promise something truly enticing, and Mumford, in his essay “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” acknowledged that “the bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe.” The danger, however, was that “once one opts for the system no further choice remains.”

This is a useful survey of Mumford’s work, and a reminder of how little what I call the Standard Critique of Technology has progressed in the intervening half-century. That’s why I am increasingly focused on seeking some way of evading the situation that Mumford so incisively and disturbingly identifies: “once one opts for the system no further choice remains.” There is of course a radical way to become unbribed: to go off the grid, to disconnect wholly. But is there a way less radical? Throwing the toothpaste away is simple enough, though perhaps not easy; but can you get it back into the tube? That’s what I, coward and weakling that I am, want to know. 

This by Kevin Kelly is useful: “Class 1 problems are caused by technology that is not perfect, and are solved by the marketplace. Class 2 problems are caused by technology that is perfect, and must be solved by extra-market forces such as cultural norms, regulation, and social imagination.”

two quotations on the metaverse

Nick Carr:

Facebook, it’s now widely accepted, has been a calamity for the world. The obvious solution, most people would agree, is to get rid of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has a different idea: Get rid of the world. […] 

His goal with the metaverse is not just to create a virtual world that is more encompassing, more totalizing, than what we experience today with social media and videogames. It’s to turn reality itself into a product. In the metaverse, nothing happens that is not computable. That also means that, assuming the computers doing the computing are in private hands, nothing happens that is not a market transaction, a moment of monetization, either directly through an exchange of money or indirectly through the capture of data. With the metaverse, capital subsumes reality. It’s money all the way down.

Clive Thompson:

The truth is, a thriving metaverse already exists. It’s incredibly high-functioning, with millions of people immersed in it for hours a day. In this metaverse, people have built uncountable custom worlds, and generated god knows how many profitable businesses and six-figure careers. Yet this terrain looks absolutely nothing the like one Zuckerberg showed off.

It’s Minecraft, of course. 

(I am not returning to blogging as such, not until 2022 at the earliest, but it occurred to me this morning that I still need a place to put quotes I want to remember and use later, so I’ll keep using the blog for that.

thoughts on Glass

And by Glass I mean this.

  1. Holy cow is it beautiful. I’ve seen people saying “This is what Instagram used to be” — no. Instagram never looked this good, this clean. Photographs are all you see unless you swipe to get more details.
  2. I’m just following a few photographers right now, none of whom I know — I just used the discovery page and followed the ones whose photos caught my eye. But the result already is an infinite scroll of beautiful photographs.
  3. I am not nearly photographically skilled enough to be on the site … but now I sort of want to be.
  4. That said, I am an open-web and (better still) indie-web kind of guy, and Glass is not that. You can only see the photographs from within the app. It’s another walled garden, if not yet a walled factory.
  5. So while I’ve posted a few photos there, I’m not likely to invest any further, except maybe to try cross-posting from micro.blog, where I currently post my photos.

two quotations on innovation and influence

Joseph Bernstein:

Facebook is full of ugly memes and boring groups, ignorant arguments, sensational clickbait, products no one wants, and vestigial features no one cares about. And yet the people most alarmed about Facebook’s negative influence are those who complain the most about how bad a product Facebook is. The question is: Why do disinformation workers think they are the only ones who have noticed that Facebook stinks? Why should we suppose the rest of the world has been hypnotized by it? Why have we been so eager to accept Silicon Valley’s story about how easy we are to manipulate?

Within the knowledge-making professions there are some sympathetic structural explanations. Social scientists get funding for research projects that might show up in the news. Think tanks want to study quantifiable policy problems. Journalists strive to expose powerful hypocrites and create “impact.” Indeed, the tech platforms are so inept and so easily caught violating their own rules about verboten information that a generation of ambitious reporters has found an inexhaustible vein of hypocrisy through stories about disinformation leading to moderation. As a matter of policy, it’s much easier to focus on an adjustable algorithm than entrenched social conditions.

Dan Wang:

I find it bizarre that the world has decided that consumer internet is the highest form of technology. It’s not obvious to me that apps like WeChat, Facebook, or Snap are doing the most important work pushing forward our technologically-accelerating civilization. To me, it’s entirely plausible that Facebook and Tencent might be net-negative for technological developments. The apps they develop offer fun, productivity-dragging distractions; and the companies pull smart kids from R&D-intensive fields like materials science or semiconductor manufacturing, into ad optimization and game development.

The internet companies in San Francisco and Beijing are highly skilled at business model innovation and leveraging network effects, not necessarily R&D and the creation of new IP. (That’s why, I think, that the companies in Beijing work so hard. Since no one has any real, defensible IP, the only path to success is to brutally outwork the competition.) I wish we would drop the notion that China is leading in technology because it has a vibrant consumer internet. A large population of people who play games, buy household goods online, and order food delivery does not make a country a technological or scientific leader. 

This juxtaposition offers much to reflect on, but one brief comment: The idea that Silicon Valley is meaningfully innovative and the idea that Silicon Valley shapes our social order are the products of the same PR machine, and so perhaps should be subjected to what Con Law calls “strict scrutiny.” As Wang often points out in his fascinating analytical work, one of the biggest differences between China and the USA is that China thinks technologies made of Atoms are more important, and more worthy of major investment, than technologies made of Bits. As Dan Wang says elsewhere — oh crap, I’m ruining my #twoquotes post with a third quote, oh well — anyway, this is a good point: 

The internet is important, and we’re likely still underrating its effects. But I don’t think that we should let innovation be confined entirely to the digital world, because there’s still too much left to build. The world isn’t yet developed enough that everyone has access to shelter, food, water, and energy at a low share of income. Hundreds of millions still live in extreme poverty, which means that manufacturing and logistics haven’t overcome the obstacles of delivering cheap material comfort to all.

I am not in any way rescinding, or even questioning, my long-held view that Facebook is evil and should be destroyed. But if Bernstein is right, then Facebook is more of a symptom than a cause of our social afflictions, and we are even more screwed than I have thought we are. And if Wang is right, then smart people who have some influence need to turn their attention to technologies of Atoms.

All this is of course related to my recent posts on climate change and geoengineering.  

tablets

When the iPad came out, more than a decade ago, I tweeted that I didn’t especially want an iPad but would really love an e-ink tablet, one on which I could read books and magazines and PDFs, and then make annotations on them. That didn’t seem very likely at the time, but now some of those devices have been produced, and I recently tried a couple of them.

The first device I bought was a reMarkable tablet, which features

  • excellent build quality
  • responsive software, especially its handwriting recognition
  • very good OCR of handwriting
  • reliable syncing 

The one problem I had with it turned out to be an insurmountable one. The device has no light of any kind, and the color of the screen is a disconcertingly dark gray; I found the contrast between black type and the gray screen so limited that I couldn’t read anything on the device without strain, except in the very brightest light. It was perfect outdoors, but usable indoors only at my desk, where I could point my desk lamp directly at the screen. So I had to return the reMarkable – with regrets, because it’s a cool device in other respects. I’m sure people with younger eyes than mine can enjoy it.

So after returning the reMarkable, I bought the Kobo Elipsa, which seemed more promising largely because it does have a so-called ComfortLight, which works well. However, that was the only good thing about the device. The build quality is mediocre at best – it feels flimsy – and the software is so unresponsive that I just couldn’t use it. I would tap something on the screen, the software keyboard would either not respond at all or respond only after a delay of several seconds. Writing with the included stylus was painful, so long was the delay between the movement of the stylus and the appearance of text on the screen.

If the reMarkable tablet featured the same lighting that the Elipsa does, I would’ve kept it and been very happy with it. It’s better-designed and better-built.

Finally: both companies make it hard to return their devices. You really have to hunt on the reMarkable website to find the page that tells you how to initiate a return, though once you do find that page the process is relatively straightforward. Kobo, though, doesn’t let you initiate a return without engaging a representative in chat or on the phone. And that’s a very slow process – they seem to be hoping that you will get tired of the delays, give up, and keep the device you don’t really want. When you obscure and complicate the process of returning devices, you make me disinclined to buy anything else from your company.

editing tools

The kind of work I’m doing right now — my critical edition of Auden’s book The Shield of Achilles — is somewhat unusual, but some readers might be interested in the tools I’m using to get it done.

The first thing I did was to go to AbeBooks and order four copies of early editions of the book, two of the American edition (Random House) and two of the British (Faber). These need to be scrupulously compared for differences.

I selected one of them — the earliest, which means an American edition (the book came out here several months before it did in the U.K.) — and made it my working copy. Before annotating it, I took photos of every page of the book. Then I went through the book with a highlighter, marking every word or phrase that I believe will require annotation.

I grabbed a pencil and, on the pages and on sticky notes, made initial comments on ideas that need to go into my Introduction, calling attention to related passages.

Then I returned to the photos of the text. I opened the Photos app on my Mac, navigated to the photo of the first page, and typed the keyboard shortcut I use to invoke TextSniper. TextSniper is a fabulous app. When you invoke it you get an area-selection tool. Draw a rectangle around any text on your screen and TextSniper OCRs the text and copies it to your clipboard. There are other ways I could do this: for instance, I could scan the book into a PDF and then use an app like PDFpen to OCR the whole text. But that brings in a lot of extraneous material, for instance anything in the pages’ headers and footers. With TextSniper I get precisely the text I want — and it is the most accurate OCR tool I have ever used, by a long shot. So Photos to TextSniper to BBEdit — and very shortly I had a complete text of the book to work from.

Next: Markup — in Markdown. In this case basically headings and italics — pretty simple work that only took a few minutes. I went from a bunch of digital photos to a clean, accurate working text in little more than half an hour.

As soon as you start the work of textual editing you need to generate comments (about formatting, for instance) and queries for the eventual copy editor. And since Microsoft Word is the lingua franca of publishing, I therefore had to convert my Markdown file to Word. Most of the time I use pandoc for such conversions, but I find that Brett Terpstra’s Marked does a better job of preserving line breaks — and a book of poems has a lot of line breaks.

(So why not just paste the OCR’d text directly into Word, instead of using a text file as the intermediate stage? Because, as you surely know, structuring text in Word is a nightmare. You try to turn one line into a header and Word decides to make the next paragraph part of the header and change the typeface of the previous paragraph. And then you can’t figure out how to fix it. A plain-text file structured with Markdown is precise. My primary governing rule of writing and text-editing: Never open Word until you absolutely have to.)

Okay, so then I had my accurate, ready-to-be-annotated text in a Word file. Which left me with one final workflow problem to solve: adding the annotations, which in the published edition will appear at the end of the text. There are several ways to do this, involving split screens or external monitors or even second computers. But here’s what I did: I got out my little-used iPad and connected it to my MacBook Air with Sidecar. Now I can look at the Word file of the book’s text on the iPad and add annotations in BBEdit on the Mac. Baby, I got a stew going!

Little Platoons

Matt Feeney’s Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age is a fascinating and provocative book that, in my judgment anyway, cries out for a sequel.

Before I go any further I should say that I’ve known Matt for years – we used to be co-conspirators at The American Scene – and we’ve corresponded occasionally since then, though not recently.

If there is any one idea that conservatives are thought to share, it’s the belief that a healthy society needs healthy mediating institutions. This is the burden of Yuval Levin’s recent book A Time to Build, and Yuval (also a friend) makes this argument about as well as it can be made. We do not flourish either as individuals or as a society when there is nothing to mediate between the atomized individual and the massive power of the modern nation-state. That’s why it’s always, though especially now, “a time to build” those mediating institutions that collectively are known as “civil society.” 

The really brilliant thing about Matt’s book — written by someone who, like me, possesses a conservative disposition but might not be issued a card by the people who authorize “card-carrying conservatives” — is its claim that in some areas of contemporary American life the mediating institutions are not too weak but rather too strong. And what he demonstrates with great acuity is the consistency with which those institutions, from youth soccer organizations to college admissions committees, have conscripted the “little platoon” of the family to serve their needs — indeed, to get families to compete with one another to serve those institutions’ needs: 

What happens, though, when citizens direct their suspicion not at a coercive government but at their peers, with whom they find or feel themselves, as parents and families, in competition? I join a chorus of scholars and writers in observing that such a competitive mood abides among parents today. Less noticed is how such competition creates new forms of subservience and conformity among families. In this environment, the intermediate bodies of civil society, cornerstone of the conservative theory of republican liberty, sometimes become demanding bosses, taskmasters, and gatekeepers in the enterprise of winning advantage for our children in a system of zero-sum competition. 

As a result,  

Under these conditions, the anxious and competitive citizen-parent looks to certain “voluntary associations,” certain institutions within “civil society,” not as bulwarks against coercive government but as ways to gain advantage over other families, exclusive paths to better futures. From boutique preschools to competitive sports clubs to selective colleges and universities, desirable institutions become bidding objects for future-worried and status-conscious families. 

Thus, “the era of intensive parenting is defined by the rise of a sort of hybrid entity, an institutional cyborg that is part organization and part family.” 

Matt is not by any means opposed to these mediating institutions as such — there’s a wonderful section on how he learned, through walking his kids to school every day and then hanging out for a while with teachers and other parents, how a school really can be the locus of genuine community — but looks with a gimlet eye, a Foucauldian gimlet eye, on the ways that, right now, in this country, a few such institutions form, sustain and disseminate their power over families.  

He’s scathing about college admissions, especially the turn towards “holistic” admissions processes which serve to transform mid-level administrators into eager shapers of souls. He mentions a Vice Provost at Emory who laments the imperfection of his knowledge of the inner lives of applicants, and continues: 

If you recall that, twenty or thirty years ago, admissions departments weren’t even mentioning authenticity, were not treating the therapeutic search for true voices and true selves as the goal of their investigations, and if you devote a moment’s thought to the absurdity of this search, you will be tempted to laugh at Vice Provost Latting’s hysterical protest against imperfect knowledge. But, laughable as this and other admissions testimony is, on its merits, I would like to present a good reason not to laugh. Setting up a yearslong, quasi-therapeutic process in which you goad young people to lay bare their vulnerable selves to you, when this process is actually a high-value transaction in which you use your massive leverage to mold those selves to your liking, is actually a terrible thing to do. 

Yes, it is. And I am glad to hear someone say it so bluntly. 

In his conclusion, Matt admits his reluctance to give advice to parents in such a coercive and panoptic environment, and that’s perfectly understandable. In any case, the primary function of the the primary purpose of the book is diagnostic: he wants to show us the specific ways in which these various mediating institutions co-opt families, and even in some cases make the families hosts to which they are the parasites. I don’t think that the book would have held together as well if it had tried to include parenting advice in the midst of everything else. But it is obvious that Matt has thought quite a lot about what it means to be a responsible parent in our time – he has a great riff on why he’s okay with the fact that his oldest daughter is the only person in her class who doesn’t have a smartphone – and I would really like to hear more from him about how he conceives of the positive responsibilities of being a parent, the dispositions and actions which strengthen that little platoon. I don’t think he needs to do this in a pop-psychology self-help way; Matt is by training a philosopher and I think philosophical reflection on this topic, so essential to human flourishing, would be welcome from him.

But the book provides a great service simply by teasing out the ways in which families are not served by but rather are made to serve these parasitic institutions — and the ways in which we are manipulated to do so ever more intensely by our felt need to compete with other families. As we are always told, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem. 

I have long had an intense hatred of the telephone — even in the face of eloquent testimonials like this one from Suzanne Fischer — but finally I am ready to be won over. And the key to this change of direction, as Joanna Stern explains, is: Zoom. After a year-plus of Zooming, I now find myself delighted when I get to use the phone instead. I can talk while lying on the sofa with my eyes closed! 

I have a theory: Google has changed how college students interact with their teachers. I estimate that 90% of the questions that students email to ask me are already answered on their syllabus and the webpages linked to from the syllabus. But hardly anyone thinks to look at the syllabus before firing off an email question. My theory is that they are strongly habituated to dealing with a question by asking Google, and in relation to our class, I am Google. 

qi

On the one hand, it’s good to stretch yourself intellectually; on the other hand, when you do so you might pull a muscle. In my recent essay on Cosmotechnics, I got in over my head — delightfully so, for me, but it led to at least one embarrassing error.

In my first footnote I talk about Yuk Hui’s use of the word qi and I get it wrong. I received a very kind email from a Sinologist named Nils Wieland explaining my mistake:

qi 氣 is the Qi non-Chinese speakers have heard of as some sort of energy or spirit, which Yuk Hui romanizes as Ch’i.

qi 器 doesn’t have the same popularity, it’s a standard Chinese word meaning container, vessel or instrument, and it’s the Qi from Yuk Hui’s Dao-Qi-duality.

(Both qi’s sound exactly the same, so I guess differentiating them by romanization is a good approach; what’s odd is that he chose the nowadays standard Pinyin spelling for the less famous qi – throwing people off 😉 )

Dammit! I knew something like this had to be the case; you wouldn’t believe how long and fruitlessly I googled the question. Again, this is what happens when your reach exceeds your grasp — and (trying to be meaningfully self-reflective here) I think on some level I was afraid that if I contacted a Sinologist I’d get the information but would also be told that my whole essay was nonsense. And I really wanted to write that essay.

I also have received a very kind message from Tongdong Bai, whom I quote in my essay, pointing to other work of his on the political implications (or lack thereof) of Daoism. Nils Wieland suggested some further reading too. So while I am embarrassed at my rookie error I have some interesting next steps to take in this project.

Manorial Technocracy

This morning I have a post up at the Hedgehog Review on “Our Manorial Elite.” The core idea, as you’ll see if you click through, comes from Cory Doctorow, or rather a historian friend of Doctorow’s. “[Bruce] Schneier calls [our current arrangement] ‘Feudal Security,’ but as the medievalist Stephen Morillo wrote to me, the correct term for this is probably ‘Manorial Security’ — while feudalism was based on land-grants to aristocrats who promised armed soldiers in return, manorialism referred to a system in which an elite owned all the property and the rest of the world had to work on that property on terms that the local lord set.”

What the rabble who stormed the Capitol building have unwittingly done is to consolidate (a) the social power of the enormous transnational tech companies and (b) the intimacy of those companies’ connection with the United States government. Given the recent usefulness of Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon to the currently dominant political party, what are the chances that a Democratic Congress will pass legislation curbing their power, or that, should some such bill emerge, a Democratic President would sign it into law?

So let me bang this antique drum one more time: You need to own as much of your turf as you can. I explain why and how, in detail, in this essay. Avoid the walled gardens of social media, because at any moment they could appeal to digital eminent domain and move the walls somewhere else, and if they did you’d have zero recourse.

Now, to be sure, even when you “own your turf” you don’t really own your turf — as the people who run Parler have recently discovered: they didn’t just lose their access to Apple’s App Store and Google Play, and their data storage account with Amazon’s AWS, they lost their text message and email service provider. I was reminded of just how vulnerable my own digital presence is last year when there were plans to sell the .org domain to a private equity firm. That situation has been avoided for now, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but there are no guarantees going forward. When I’m on the open web, I own my data — which is a big deal, since the owners of the walled gardens also own your data — but I don’t own the power to share my words and images with others.

I hold no brief for Parler, which I am glad to see shut down — it has been a foul thing by any reasonable measure — but as I note in my Hedgehog post, the big social media companies are making up their rules as they go along, and in so doing setting the standards for other, smaller companies to follow. So are the other big companies: As Glenn Greenwald points out, the planning for the assault on the Capitol wasn’t done on Parler, it was done on Facebook — yet we don’t see Apple banning Facebook from its App Store, do we?

The smaller, the more vulnerable. If I were to say something controversial enough, my own hosting company, the wonderful Reclaim Hosting, could give me the boot. It’s not at all likely, of course, but my point is that it’s possible. I could be fired by Baylor, Google and Apple could shut down my accounts, I could probably be cut off by my ISP. I think the only thing left would be a landline phone, which, if I’m not mistaken, we in the USA still have fairly strong rights to use. But I don’t have a landline. (Maybe I should remedy that?)

It’s possible, then, for any of us to be not just shamed or dragged on social media but really and truly digitally shunned — to be completely cut off from every possibility of electronic discourse and community. I don’t see how you can’t be concerned about this possibility. So even a lawyer for the ACLU — which has in recent years explicitly refused to support speech that it doesn’t approve of — says, “I think we should recognize the importance of neutrality when we’re talking about the infrastructure of the internet.”

Until that neutrality in enshrined in law, we are all at the mercy of our manorial technocracy. But if we stay outside the walled gardens, we are safer and more free. I would encourage all of you to ditch Twitter, ditch Facebook (including Instagram), ditch all of them and learn how to live once more on the open web. The future of our democracy just might depend on it.

Cosmotechnics

My essay in the just-out edition of The New Atlantis — if you want to read it now, please subscribe to this excellent journal, and even if you don’t want to read it at all, please subscribe to this excellent journal anyway — begins with a description of what I call the Standard Critique of Technology, or SCT. That critique has been articulated, in varying terms but with a significant conceptual unity, by a group of thinkers I very much admire, including Albert Borgmann, Ursula Franklin, Ivan Illich, and Neil Postman. An excerpt:

The basic argument of the SCT goes like this. We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, to reshape us in their image. These technologies, therefore, might be called prescriptive (to use Franklin’s term) or manipulatory (to use Illich’s). For example, social networks promise to forge connections — but also encourage mob rule. Facial-recognition software helps to identify suspects — and to keep tabs on whole populations. Collectively, these technologies constitute the device paradigm (Borgmann), which in turn produces a culture of compliance (Franklin).

The proper response to this situation is not to shun technology itself, for human beings are intrinsically and necessarily users of tools. Rather, it is to find and use technologies that, instead of manipulating us, serve sound human ends and the focal practices (Borgmann) that embody those ends. A table becomes a center for family life; a musical instrument skillfully played enlivens those around it. Those healthier technologies might be referred to as holistic (Franklin) or convivial (Illich), because they fit within the human lifeworld and enhance our relations with one another. Our task, then, is to discern these tendencies or affordances of our technologies and, on both social and personal levels, choose the holistic, convivial ones.

The problem with the SCT isn’t that it’s wrong — it’s admirably incisive and acute — but that it has, so far anyway, been powerless. In this essay I suggest an alternative approach — a kind of alternative to critique itself — that draws on, of all things, Daoism, approached by way of the work on “cosmotechnics” by the philosopher Yuk Hui. It’s not a definitive treatise that I have written but rather an exploration, an attempt to trace some new paths for thinking about technology and technopoly.

If Then

There are many books that I admire and love that I never for a moment dream I could have written. Right now I’m reading an old favorite, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, to my wife, and as I do so I am every minute aware that I could not write this book if you gave me a million years in which to do so.

But every now and then I encounter an admirable book that I wish I had written, that (if I squint just right) I see that I could have written. I had that experience a few years ago with Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, and I’m having it again right now as I read Jill Lepore’s If Then. What a magnificent narrative. What a brilliant evocation of a moment in American history that is in one sense long gone and in another sense a complete anticipation of our own moment. Oh, the envy! (Especially since if I had written the book it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is.)

We are afflicted by our ignorance of history in multiple ways, and one of my great themes for the past few years has been the damage that our presentism does to our ability to make political and moral judgments. It damages us in multiple ways. One of them, and this is the theme of my book Breaking Bread with the Dead, is that it makes us agitated and angry. When we, day by day and hour by hour, turn a direhose of distortion and misinformation directly into our own faces, we lose the ability to make measured judgments. We lash out against those we perceive to be our enemies and celebrate with an equally unreasonable passion those we deem to be our allies. We lack the tranquility and the “personal density” needed to make wise and balanced judgments about our fellow citizens and about the challenges we face.

But there is another and still simpler problem with our presentism: we have no idea whether we have been through anything like what we are currently going through. Some years ago I wrote about how comprehensively the great moral panic of the 1980s – the belief held by tens of millions of Americans that the childcare centers of America were run by Satan worshipers who sexually abused their charges – has been flushed down the memory hole. In this case, I think the amnesia has happened because a true reckoning with the situation would tell us so much about ourselves that we don’t want to know. It would teach us how credulous we are, and how when faced with lurid stories we lose our ability to make the most elementary factual and evidentiary discriminations. But of course our studied refusal to remember that particular event simply makes us more vulnerable to such panics today, especially given our unprecedentedly widespread self-induced exposure to misinformation.

Even more serious, perhaps, is our ignorance – in this case not so obviously motivated but the product rather of casual neglect — of the violent upheavals that rocked this nation in the 1960s and 1970s. Politicians and pastors and podcasters and bloggers can confidently assert that we are experiencing unprecedented levels of social mistrust and unrest, having conveniently allowed themselves to remain ignorant of what this country was like fifty years ago. (And let’s leave aside the Civil War altogether, since that happened in a prehistoric era.) Rick Perlstein is very good on this point, as I noted in this post.

All of this brings us back to Jill Lepore’s tale of the rise and fall of a company called Simulmatics, and the rise and rise and rise, in the subsequent half-century, of what Simulmatics was created to bring into being. Everything that our current boosters of digital technology claim for their machines was claimed by their predecessors sixty years ago. The worries that we currently have about the power of technocratic overlords began to be uttered in congressional hearings and in the pages of magazines and newspapers fifty years ago. Postwar technophilia, Cold War terror, technological solutionism, racial unrest, counterculture liberationism, and free-market libertarianism — these are the key ingredients of the mixture in which our current moment has been brewed.

Let me wrap up this post with three quotations from If Then that deserve a great deal of reflection. The first comes from early in the book:

The Cold War altered the history of knowledge by distorting the aims and ends of American universities. This began in 1947, with the passage of the National Security Act, which established the Joint Chiefs of Staff, created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, and turned the War Department into what would soon be called the Department of Defense, on the back of the belief that defending the nation’s security required massive, unprecedented military spending in peacetime. The Defense Department’s research and development budget skyrocketed. Most of that money went to research universities — the modern research university was built by the federal government — and the rest went to think tanks, including RAND, the institute of the future. There would be new planes, new bombs, and new missiles. And there would be new tools of psychological warfare: the behavioral science of mass communications.

The second quotation describes the influence of Ithiel de Sola Pool — perhaps the central figure in If Then, one of the inventors of behavioral data science and a man dedicated to using that data to fight the Cold War, win elections, predict and forestall race riots by black people, and end communism in Vietnam — on that hero of the counterculture Stewart Brand:

Few people read Pool’s words more avidly than Stewart Brand. “With each passing year the value of this 1983 book becomes more evident,” he wrote. Pool died at the age of sixty-six in the Orwellian year of 1984, the year Apple launched its first Macintosh, the year MIT was establishing a new lab, the Media Lab. Two years later, Brand moved to Cambridge to take a job at the Media Lab, a six-story, $45 million building designed by I. M. Pei and named after Jerome Wiesner, a building that represented nothing so much as a newer version of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Brand didn’t so much conduct research at the Media Lab as promote its agenda, as in his best-selling 1987 book, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. The entire book, Brand said, bore the influence of Ithiel de Sola Pool, especially his Technologies of Freedom. “His book was the single most helpful text in preparing the book you’re reading and the one I would most recommend for following up issues raised here,” Brand wrote. “His interpretations of what’s really going on with the new communications technologies are the best in print.” Brand cited Pool’s work on page after page after page, treating him as the Media Lab’s founding father, which he was.

And finally: One of Lepore’s recurrent themes is the fervent commitment of the Simulmatics crew to a worldview in which nothing in the past matters, and that all we need is to study the Now in order to predict and control the Future:

Behavioral data science presented itself as if it had sprung out of nowhere or as if, like Athena, it had sprung from the head of Zeus. The method Ed Greenfield dubbed “simulmatics” in 1959 was rebranded a half century later as “predictive analytics,” a field with a market size of $4.6 billion in 2017, expected to grow to $12.4 billion by 2022. It was as if Simulmatics’ scientists, first called the “What-If Men” in 1961, had never existed, as if they represented not the past but the future. “Data without what-if modeling may be the database community’s past,” according to a 2011 journal article, “but data with what-if modeling must be its future.” A 2018 encyclopedia defined “what-if analysis” as “a data-intensive simulation,” describing it as “a relatively recent discipline.” What if, what if, what if: What if the future forgets its past?

Which of course it has. Which of course it must, else it loses its raison d’être. Thus the people who most desperately need to read Lepore’s book almost certainly never will. It’s hard to imagine a better case for the distinctive intellectual disciplines of the humanities than the one Lepore made just by writing If Then. But how to get people to confront that case who are debarred by their core convictions from taking it seriously, from even considering it?

HEY

I was pretty excited when I learned about HEY, because it’s been a long time since anyone did any real innovation in email, even though email remains a major part of our lives. Gmail was the last innovator, and I put that in the past tense because that service has received only minor tweaks in the past decade, and its really significant ideas were implemented fifteen years ago. I decided to drop the hundred bucks necessary for a HEY account, and since then I’ve continued to work in my existing email setup while forwarding all my mail to HEY, just to give it a corpus to work on.

You need to do that because HEY requires some training to learn your email needs. Whenever an email comes in from a new sender, HEY doesn’t put it in your inbox — which it, rather unfortunately, calls your Imbox — but rather asks you what you want to do with emails from that sender: decline to receive it (at which point it disappears), file it along with receipts and other businessy things in what HEY calls the Paper Trail, move it with newsletters and the like into the Feed, or send it to the Imbox. HEY remembers your decisions for each sender and in the future follows your instructions. So there’s a good deal of training to be done at first, but over time that lessens. I’ve been dropping in a couple of times a week to work through the arriving mail, so if I do decide that I want to employ it full-time it will already be largely usable.

It’s a brilliantly designed service, I think, elegant and attractive and efficient, and I think the appeal increases in proportion to how badly you feel punished by your email. HEY basically says, “Throw out everything you have ever thought about email and do things our way.” It offers very few options to customize the service, and it can only be accessed through its website or its apps: basically you can follow the HEY way or there’s no HEY for you at all. And that’s not a criticism! — a controlled, uniform experience is really the whole point of the service. If like me you have worked hard over the years to develop a system for managing email, and that system works reasonably well, then you might not want to discard all that work to embrace a different system. But if you’re feeling defeated by email, then HEY is likely to be a really good answer.

There’s one main reason why I can’t now use HEY: All of my email, from all the accounts I have, are channeled into Gmail: from there I can reply to messages using the address to which they were sent. When I get a message at my Baylor address, especially if it’s internal, I need to be able to reply from my that address, and Gmail spoofs that address adequately. That allows me to have all my messages from all accounts in one place, organized using the same set of rules — rules which are also, by the way, applied equally on all my devices, which is not true of, say, Apple’s Mail app. (Even after more than a decade, you can’t set any rules at all in iOS, which is frankly ridiculous.) If I were to shift from Gmail to HEY, I’d have to go back and forth between HEY and another email client, which would be annoying. But if HEY ever implements the reply-from-the-account-to-which-the-message-was-sent option (RFTATWTMWS, as I like to call it), then it might be a real option for me.

technocracy is impossible

I’m re-reading Kim Stanley Robinson‘s magnificent Mars trilogy right now, which might be something to blog about in the coming days and weeks, so why not get started?

Not long ago I was in a Zoom conversation with several people, one of whom is a very distinguished scientist, and he told me that when he read my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 and got to the end, he felt that I had given short shrift to the virtues of technocracy. He thinks technocracy would be a pretty good thing, especially as compared with the plausible alternatives. The conversation veered onto other paths soon after that, possibly more fruitful ones, but before it did I sketched out an answer that I want to develop a little more fully here — because it’s a little different than the view I (implicitly) endorse in that book, which is that Technocracy Is Bad. What I think I now want to say is Technocracy Is Impossible.

You see, in the strict sense there cannot be a technocracy as such, and Mars trilogy proves that point. If you read that story, you will discover that it is really more about politics than it is about the exploration of Mars, or perhaps it would be better to say, it demonstrates irresistibly that none of our scientific or technological pursuits can be detached from deliberations about the character of our lives together, that is to say, deliberations about politics.

Right from the beginning of the story there is great debate, forceful and even sometimes hostile debate, among the First Hundred — the 100 (or, to be precise, 101) people who are sent from Earth to start the first Mars colony — about what sort of society they should form once they get there. They are theoretically responsible to the national governments that sent them and to the U.N., but one of the things that becomes clear to them as even as they’re on their way to Mars is that upon arrival they’re going to have to make their own decisions about how to order their common life. And so a great deal of the book is about, for lack of a better phrase, political philosophy.

One of the things we are occasionally reminded of in the first book of the trilogy, Red Mars, is the international celebrity of the First Hundred. People back on Earth obsessively watch video of the colonists, and enter passionately into their debates:

So nearly everyone had an opinion. Polls showed that most supported the Russell program, an informal name for Sax’s plans to terraform the planet by all means possible, as fast as they could. But the minority who backed Ann’s hands-off attitude tended to be more vehement in their belief, insisting that it had immediate applications to the Antarctic policy, and indeed to all Terran environmental policy. Meanwhile different poll questions made it clear that many people were fascinated by Hiroko and the farming project, while others called themselves Bogdanovists; Arkady had been sending back lots of video from Phobos, and Phobos was good video, a real spectacle of architecture and engineering. New Terran hotels and commercial complexes were already imitating some of its features, there was an architectural movement called Bogdanovism, as well as other movements interested in him that were more concentrated on social and economic reforms in the world order.

All of this makes more sense if you have read the books and know the characters, but even if you haven’t, I think you’ll get the general picture. Terrans are not only interested in what the colonists will do to organize life on Mars, they‘re reflecting on the implications of those ideas for life on Earth.

For me, here’s the key thing: When you have an environment completely dominated by scientists and engineers — the only non-scientist we meet is a psychologist, sent to provide therapy to the colonists — there is no agreement among them about what kind of life they should live together. That is, scientific and technological expertise does not correlate with any particular mode of social and political organization. Scientists can vary just as much in their beliefs about what kind of life is worth living as any randomly selected group of people in a society. They don’t even agree about the importance of technology. Rule could theoretically be given over to people who have demonstrated certain kinds of scientific or technical knowledge, but we would be wrong to think that everyone who has the same level of STEM achievement will have the same views about politics. When you read Robinson’s great trilogy you will understand not only why this might be so but why it must be so.

Therefore it makes no sense to say that the decisions of political leaders should be governed by “the science.” Leaders should pay attention to scientists, dramatically more than the current Presidential administration does, but an immunologist will say one thing, an epidemiologist something slightly different, an economist something altogether other. The various sciences and academic disciplines will not speak with a single voice, indeed will not speak at all: individual scholars will speak, and what they say will arise from a combination of their scholarly expertise and their beliefs (derived from non-scientific sources) about what matters most in life, and a good political leader will have the general intelligence and moral discernment to sift the various messages he or she receives and make a decision based on all the relevant input. Which is another way of saying that there are not, nor will there ever be, charts and algorithms that can substitute for political judgment. Alas for the U.S.A. that political judgment is precisely what our leadership lacks.

sticky

The best thing about paper sticky notes is that they’re sticky — that is, you can easily attach them to another sheet of paper, to a computer, to a wall, whatever. and then detach and move them when necessary. I want a digital version of that. That is, I want the ability to create a digital sticky note and attach it to any file on my computer — so that when I open a particular PDF, for instance, I see the sticky on the page to which I have attached it. Ditto with a text file or a photo or a movie — any file. I’d like each note to have the features that Stickies on the Mac have: multiple background colors, rich text, live links, and a clickable title bar that shrinks the note. Oh, I’d also like this on iOS, and there it should be possible to create handwritten stickies with an Apple Pencil.

Ideally each sticky note would have an ID that’s representable in a link, so you could put in one note attached to a file a link to another note attached to another file.

Because of the way Apple sandboxes apps these days such a thing could probably be created only by Apple itself, and that’s not going to happen. Still, a guy can dream. Such a feature would be incredibly useful to me.

what’s in my bag

The Cool Tools site does a regular series in which people describe what they carry around and what they carry it around in. I thought I might do my own entry in the series, even though I don’t have affiliate links. 

First comes my Tom Bihn Synapse 19 backpack, which I find to be brilliantly designed — with the right number of pockets in all the right places — extremely comfortable to wear, and sufficiently rugged that I will probably have it for the rest of my life. (I’ve had it for seven or eight years and it still looks basically new.) The chief things you’ll find inside it are … 

  • My 12” MacBook, in Tom Bihn’s bespoke sleeve
  • Apple AirPods Pro 
  • Pentel Energel pens 
  • Palomino Blackwing pencils + sharpener 
  • Leuchtturm A5 Hardcover notebook 
  • Kindle Voyage
  • Whatever books I happen to be teaching at the moment 
  • Ibuprofen and hand sanitizer 

Other things come and go but those are the permanent essentials. I’m not adding links (except to the Tom Bihn site) because the most obvious place to link to is Amazon and I don’t really want to promote Amazon. Just search for items you’re interested in! 

Automata, Animal-Machines, and Us

What follows is a review of The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, by Jessica Riskin (University of Chicago Press, 2016). The review appeared in the sadly short-lived online journal Education and Culture, and has disappeared from the web without having been saved by the Wayback Machine. So I’m reposting it here. My thanks to that paragon of editors John Wilson for having commissioned it. 

1.

The last few decades have seen, in a wide range of disciplines, a strenuous rethinking of what the material world is all about, and especially what within it has agency. For proponents of the “Gaia hypothesis,” the whole world is a single self-regulating system, a sort of mega-organism with its own distinctive character. By contrast, Richard Dawkins dramatically shifted the landscape of evolutionary biology in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene (and later in The Extended Phenotype of 1982) by arguing that agency happens not at the level of the organism but at the level of the gene: an organism is a device by means of which genes replicate themselves.

Meanwhile, in other intellectual arenas, proponents of the interdisciplinary movement known as “object-oriented ontology” (OOO) and the movement typically linked with it or seen as its predecessor, “actor-network theory” (ANT), want to reconsider a contrast that underlines most of our thinking about the world we live in. That contrast is between humans, who act, and the rest of the known cosmos, which either behaves or is merely passive, acted upon. Proponents of OOO and ANT tend to doubt whether humans really are unique “actors,” but they don’t spend a lot of time trying to refute the assumption. Instead, they try to see what the world looks like if we just don’t make it.

In very general terms we may say that ANT wants to see everything as an actor and OOO wants to see everything as having agency. (The terms are related but, I think, not identical.) So when Bruno Latour, the leading figure in ANT, describes a seventeenth-century scene in which Robert Hooke demonstrates the working of a vacuum pump before the gathered worthies of the Royal Society, he sees Hooke as an actor within a network of power and knowledge. But so is the King, who granted to the Society a royal charter. And so is the laboratory, a particularly complex creation comprised of persons and things, that generates certain types of behavior and discourages or wholly prevents others. So even is the vacuum itself — indeed it is the status of the vacuum as actor that the whole scene revolves around.

For the object-oriented ontologist, similarly, the old line that “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is true, but not primarily because of certain human traits, but rather because the hammer wants to pound nails. For the proponent of OOO, there are no good reasons for believing that the statement “This man wants to use his hammer to pound nails” makes any more sense than “This hammer wants to pound nails.”

Some thinkers are completely convinced by this account of the agency of things; others believe it’s nonsense. But very few on either side know that the very debates they’re conducting have been at the heart of Western thought for five hundred years. Indeed, much of the intellectual energy of the modern era has been devoted to figuring out whether the non-human world is alive or dead, active or passive, full of agency or wholly without it. Jessica Riskin’s extraordinary book The Restless Clock tells that vital and almost wholly neglected story.

It is a wildly ambitious book, and even its 500 pages are probably half as many as a thorough telling of its story would require. (The second half of the book, covering events since the Romantic era, seems particularly rushed.) But a much longer book would have struggled to find a readership, and this is a book that needs to be read by people with a wide range of interests and disciplinary allegiances. Riskin and her editors made the right choice to condense the exceptionally complex story, which I will not even try to summarize here; the task would be impossible. I can do little more than point to some of the book’s highlights and suggest some of its argument’s many implications.

2.

Riskin’s story focuses wholly on philosophers — including thinkers that today we would call “scientists” but earlier were known as “natural philosophers” — but the issues she explores have been perceived, and their implications considered, throughout society. For this reason a wonderful companion to The Restless Clock is the 1983 book by Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility 1500–1800, one of the most illuminating works of social history I have ever read. In that book, Thomas cites a passage from Fabulous Histories Designed for the Instruction of Children (1788), an enormously popular treatise by the English educational reformer Sarah Trimmer:

‘I have,’ said a lady who was present, ‘been for a long time accustomed to consider animals as mere machines, actuated by the unerring hand of Providence, to do those things which are necessary for the preservation of themselves and their offspring; but the sight of the Learned Pig, which has lately been shewn in London, has deranged these ideas and I know not what to think.’

This lady was not the only one so accustomed, or so perplexed; and much of the story Riskin has to tell is summarized, in an odd way, in this statement. First of all, there is the prevalence in the early modern and Enlightenment eras of automata: complex machines designed to counterfeit biological organisms that then provided many people the vocabulary they felt they needed to explain those organisms. Thus the widespread belief that a dog makes a noise when you kick it in precisely the same way for for precisely the same reasons that a horn makes a noise when you blow into it. These are “mere machines.” (And yes, it occurred to more than a few people that one could extend the logic to humans, who also make noises when kicked. The belief in animals as automata was widespread but by no means universal.)

The second point to be extracted from Trimmer’s anecdote is the lady’s belief that these natural automata are “actuated by the unerring hand of Providence” — that their efficient working is a testimony to the Intelligent Design of the world.

And the third point is that phenomena may be brought to public attention — animals trained to do what we had thought possible only by humans, or automata whose workings are especially inscrutable, like the famous chess-playing Mechanical Turk — that call into question the basic assumptions that separate the world into useful categories: the human and the non-human, the animal and all that lies “below” the animal, the animate and the inanimate. Maybe none of these categories are stable after all.

These three points generate puzzlement not only for society ladies, but also (and perhaps even more) for philosophers. This is what The Restless Clock is about.

3.

One way to think of this book — Riskin herself does not make so strong a claim, but I think it warranted — is as a re-narration of the philosophical history of modernity as a series of attempts to reckon with the increasing sophistication of machines. Philosophy on this account becomes an accidental by-product of engineering. Consider, for instance, an argument made in Diderot’s philosophical dialogue D’Alembert’s Dream, as summarized by Riskin:

During the conversation, “Diderot” introduces “d’Alembert” to such principles as the idea that there is no essential difference between a canary and a bird-automaton, other than complexity of organization and degree of sensitivity. Indeed, the nerves of a human being, even those of a philosopher, are but “sensitive vibrating strings,” so that the difference between “the philosopher-instrument and the clavichord-instrument” is just the greater sensitivity of the philosopher-instrument and its ability to play itself. A philosopher is essentially a keenly sensitive, self-playing clavichord.

But why does Diderot even begin to think in such terms? Largely because of the enormous notoriety of Jacques de Vaucanson, the brilliant designer and builder of various automata. Vaucanson is best known today for his wondrous mechanical duck, which quacked, snuffled its snout in water, flapped its wings, ate food placed before it, and — most astonishing of all to the general populace — defecated what it had consumed. (Though in fact Vaucanson had, ahead of any given exhibition of the duck’s prowess, placed some appropriately textured material in the cabinet on which the duck stood so the automaton could be made to defecate on command.) Voltaire famously wrote that without “Vaucanson’s duck, you would have nothing to remind you of the glory of France,” but he genuinely admired the engineer, as did almost everyone who encountered his projects, the most impressive of which, aside perhaps from the duck, were human-shaped automata — androids, as they were called, thanks to a coinage by the seventeenth-century librarian Gabrial Naudé — one of which played a flute, the other a pipe and drum. These devices, and the awe they produced upon observers, led quite directly to Diderot’s speculations about the philosopher as a less harmonious variety of clavichord.

And if machines could prompt philosophy, do they not have theological implications as well? Indeed they do, though, if certain stories are to be believed, the machine/theology relationship can be rather tense. In the process of coining the term “android,” Naudé relates (with commendable skepticism) the claim of a 15th-century writer that Albertus Magnus, the great medieval bishop and theologian, had built a metal man. This automaton answered any question put to it and even, some said, dictated to Albertus hundreds of pages of theology he later claimed as his own. But the mechanical theologian met a sad end when one of Albertus’s students grew exasperated by “its great babbling and chattering” and smashed it to pieces. This student’s name was Thomas Aquinas.

The story is far too good to be true, though its potential uses are so many and varied that I am going to try to believe it. The image of Thomas, the apostle of human thought and of the limits of human thought, who wrote the greatest body of theology ever composed and then at the end of his life dismissed it all as “straw,” smashing this simulacrum of philosophy, this Meccano idol — this is too perfect an exemplum not to reward our contemplation. By ending the android’s “babbling and chattering” and replacing it with patient, careful, and rigorous dialectical disputation, Thomas restored human beings to their rightful place atop the visible part of the Great Chain of Being, and refuted, before they even arose, Diderot’s claims that humans are just immensely sophisticated machines.

Yet one of the more fascinating elements of Riskin’s narrative is the revelation that the fully-worked-out idea of the human being as a kind of machine was introduced, and became commonplace, late in the 17th century by thinkers who employed it as an aid to Christian apologetics — as a way of proving that we and all of Creation are, as Sarah Trimmer’s puzzled lady put it, “actuated by the unerring hand of Providence.” Thus Riskin:

“Man is a meer piece of Mechanism,” wrote the English doctor and polemicist William Coward in 1702, “a curious Frame of Clock-Work, and only a Reasoning Engine.” To any potential critic of such a view, Coward added, “I must remind my adversary, that Man is such a curious piece of Mechanism, as shews only an Almighty Power could be the first and sole Artificer, viz., to make a Reasoning Engine out of dead matter, a Lump of Insensible Earth to live, to be able to Discourse, to pry and search into the very nature of Heaven and Earth.”

Since Max Weber in the 19th century it has been a commonplace that Protestant theology “disenchants” the world, purging the animistic cosmos of medieval Catholicism of its panoply of energetic spirits, good, evil, and ambiguous. But Riskin demonstrates convincingly that this purging was done in the name of a sovereign God in whom all spiritual power was believed to dwell. This is not simply a story of the rise of a materialist science that triumphed over and marginalized religion; rather, the world seen as a “passive mechanical artifact world relied upon a supernatural, divine intelligence. It was inseparably and in equal parts a scientific and a theological model.” So when Richard Dawkins wrote, in 2006,

People who think that robots are by definition more ‘deterministic’ than human beings are muddled (unless they are religious, in which case they might consistently hold that humans have some divine gift of free will denied to mere machines). If, like most of the critics of my ‘lumbering robot’ passage, you are not religious, then face up to the following question. What on earth do you think you are, if not a robot, albeit a very complicated one?

— he had no idea that he was echoing the argument of an early-18th-century apologist for Protestant Christianity.

Again, the mechanist position was by no means universally held, and Riskin gives attention throughout to figures who either rejected this model or modified it in interesting ways: here the German philosopher Leibniz (1646–1716) is a particularly fascinating figure, in that he admired the desire to preserve and celebrate the sovereignty of God even as he doubted that a mechanistic model of the cosmos was the way to do it. But the mechanistic model which drained agency from the world, except (perhaps) for human beings, eventually carried the day.

One of the most important sections of The Restless Clock comes near the end, where Riskin demonstrates (and laments) the consequences of modern scientists’ ignorance of the history she relates. For instance, almost all evolutionary theorists today deride Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), even though Lamarck was one of the first major figures to argue that evolutionary change happens throughout the world of living things, because he believed in a causal mechanism that Darwin would later reject: the ability of creatures to transmit acquired traits to their offspring. Richard Dawkins calls Lamarck a “miracle-monger,” but Lamarck didn’t believe he was doing any such thing: rather, by attributing to living things a vital power to alter themselves from within, he was actually making it possible to explain evolutionary change without (as the astronomer Laplace put it in a different context) having recourse to the hypothesis of God. The real challenge for Lamarck and other thinkers of the Romantic era, Riskin argues, was this:

How to revoke the monopoly on agency that mechanist science had assigned to God? How to bring the inanimate, clockwork cosmos of classical mechanist science back to life while remaining as faithful as possible to the core principles of the scientific tradition? A whole movement of poets, physiologists, novelists, chemists, philosophers and experimental physicists — roles often combined in the same person — struggled with this question. Their struggles brought the natural machinery of contemporary science from inanimate to dead to alive once more. The dead matter of the Romantics became animate, not at the hands of an external Designer, but through the action of a vital agency, an organic power, an all-embracing energy intrinsic to nature’s machinery.

This “vitalist” tradition was one with which Charles Darwin struggled, in ways that are often puzzling to his strongest proponents today because they do not know this tradition. They think that Darwin was exhibiting some kind of post-religious hangover when he adopted, or considered adopting, Lamarckian ideas, but, Riskin convincingly demonstrates, “insofar as Darwin adopted Lamarck’s forces of change, he did so not out of a failure of nerve or an inability to carry his own revolution all the way, but on the contrary because he too sought a rigorously naturalist theory and was determined to avoid the mechanist solution of externalizing purpose and agency to a supernatural god.”

Similarly, certain 20th-century intellectual trends, most notably the cybernetics movement (associated primarily with Norbert Wiener) and the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner, developed ideas about behavior and agency that their proponents believed no one had dared think before, when in fact those very ideas had been widely debated for the previous four hundred years. Such thinkers were either, like Skinner, proudly ignorant of what had gone before them or, like Wiener and in a different way Richard Dawkins, reliant on a history that is effectively, as Riskin puts it, “upside-down.” (Riskin has a fascinating section on the concept of “robot” that sheds much light on the Dawkins claim about human robots quoted above.)

4.

At both the beginning and end of her book, Riskin mentions a conversation with a friend of hers, a biologist, who agreed “that biologists continually attribute agency — intentions, desires, will — to the objects they study (for example cells, molecules),” but denied that this kind of language signifies anything in particular: it “was only a manner of speaking, a kind of placeholder that biologists use to stand in for explanations they can’t yet give.” When I read this anecdote, I was immediately reminded that Richard Dawkins says the same in a footnote to the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene:

This strategic way of talking about an animal or plant, or a gene, as if it were consciously working out how best to increase its success … has become commonplace among working biologists. It is a language of convenience which is harmless unless it happens to fall into the hands of those ill-equipped to understand it.

Riskin, who misses very little that is relevant to her vast argument, cites this very passage. The question which Dawkins waves aside so contemptuously, but which Riskin rightly believes vital, is this: Why do biologists find that particular language so convenient? Why is it so easy for them to fall into the “merely linguistic” attribution of agency even when they so strenuously refuse agency to the biological world? We might also return to the movements I mention at the outset of this review and ask why the ideas of OOO and ANT seem so evidently right to many people, and so evidently wrong to others.

The body of powerful, influential, but now utterly neglected ideas explored in The Restless Clock might illuminate for many scientists and many philosophers a few of their pervasive blind spots. “By recognizing the historical roots of the almost unanimous conviction (in principle if not in practice) that science must not attribute any kind of agency to natural phenomena, and recuperating the historical presence of a competing tradition, we can measure the limits of current scientific discussion, and possibly, think beyond them.”

ethical evaluation

I’ve been trying to think about Apple’s deep embedding in a corrupt and tyrannical Chinese regime, and what that means for me, for my long-term commitment to Apple’s products. My first approach to the problem was a rough sketch of the issues involved in the use of any technology: 

TechEvaluation

But as soon as I did this I realized that I was conflating certain categories that might better be kept distinct. For instance, “usefulness”: What makes something useful? A leafblower is useful in the sense that it moves a great many leaves around quickly; but a rake, while it moves those leaves much more slowly, gives its user more exercise without endangering his or her hearing, and those are valuable features. The ideal balance of the different kinds of usefulness will vary from person to person. It drives me nuts when I’m sitting outside and a lawn service shows up at a nearby house: here comes the deafening racket of the leafblowers, which will drive me inside for the next half-hour at least. But those guys are trying to make a living, which the use of rakes would make it considerably harder for them to do. I get that. I hate it, but I get it. 

Or: Linux is useful in the sense that I can do almost any computer-related task on it, but such a task will often be, for me anyway, dramatically more difficult than on more polished systems. So I rank Linux as not especially useful to me

The other axis, that of ethics, is even more difficult. Apple’s Chinese entanglements massive compromise the ethical status of the company, and in more than one way. (Which is worse, obedience to the demands of the Chinese government or the exploitation of Chinese labor?) But Apple also deserves some praise for its commitment to privacy and its truly wonderful work in making its computers accessible to a wide range of users. I don’t know how to make an ethics spreadsheet, as it were, that assembles all the relevant factors — including comparisons to the available alternatives — and gives them proper weighting.

In the end, I think most of us make this kind of decision by some kind of sixth sense, an un-unpackable feel for what’s the best, or the least bad, option in the given circumstances. I wonder if that sense is wholly irrational or whether, on some deep and inaccessible level, it’s actually finding a means to weigh what we don’t consciously know how to weigh. 

confuser

I wrote recently about software that’s hostile to users who lack an ideally functioning sensorium, but software can also be hostile to users who lack an ideal knowledge base. Often I find myself looking through the preferences for an app, with checkboxes or toggle switches, and see next to those options terse descriptions that make no sense to me. I don’t know whether to check the box or not because I don’t know what my choice will do. This happens when the makers of software assume that all of their users will know most of what they know about their software, or at least about that particular category of software.

I could illustrate this point with some examples, but I really don’t want to. Making software is hard — especially for independent developers who have limited staff and limited budgets, and most of the software I own comes from such developers. (All of the software I love comes from such developers.) I have no interest in shaming people who may well be scrambling to debug or update their code and have no leftover time for communicating more clearly with their less-than-perfect users. But if any software developers want to get better at this kind of thing, they could learn a thing or two from Shirt Pocket, the makers of SuperDuper.

SuperDuper — the official name concludes with an exclamation point but I ain’t doing that — is a fantastic tool for backing up your hard drive and making it bootable, so if you ever find that your computer won’t start up you can do so from the backup disk. I’ve owned SuperDuper for fourteen years and have used it countless times for keeping my data safe.

When you’re ready to copy your hard drive, this is what you see:

explanation

Notice how the app explains, fully and in plain English that dogs and cats can read, precisely what the app is about to do. Even if you know almost nothing about how computers work, you can figure this out.

Now, SuperDuper does all this because it’s an extremely powerful app — you have just given it permission to do things with all of your data, and making the wrong decision about all your data could be catastrophic — so a developer might say that you don’t need to be this explicit in apps, or preferences within apps, that have far lower stakes.

But why not do it? Why not try to make using your app more comfortable for users who don’t fully understand how your app works? Sure, full descriptions take up more room in your Preferences window, but that’s a soluble design problem. And full descriptions give those users more confidence. They make us think that you’re on our side.

As I said, I don’t want to shame anyone. But I took the time earlier this week to send emails to a couple of developers, explaining how uncertain I am about some of their preferences. “I think checking this box will do X, but I’m not sure — maybe it’ll do Z instead.” They haven’t replied.

scale is the enemy

Jeffrey Zeldman:

Along those same lines, can the IndieWeb, and products of IndieWeb thinking like Micro.blog, save us? Might they at least provide an alternative to the toxic aspects of our current social web, and restore the ownership of our data and content? And before you answer, RTFM.

On an individual and small collective basis, the IndieWeb already works. But does an IndieWeb approach scale to the general public? If it doesn’t scale yet, can we, who envision and design and build, create a new generation of tools that will help give birth to a flourishing, independent web? One that is as accessible to ordinary internet users as Twitter and Facebook and Instagram?

I think that’s the wrong question. Of course the indie web cannot scale. But that’s a feature, not a bug. Scale — as-big-as-possible, universal-not-local, something-for-everyone scale — is the enemy. It’s the biggest enemy that community and fellowship and friendship can possibly have. If it scales, I want no part of it. 

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