Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

reasons for decline

Alex Reid

From a national perspective, the number of people earning communications degrees (which was negligible in the heyday of English majors 50-60 years ago), surpassed the number getting English degrees around 20 years ago. Since then Communications has held a fairly steady share of graduates as the college population grew, while English has lost its share and in recent years even shrank in total number, as this NCES table records. In short, students voted with their feet and, for the most part, they aren’t interested in the curricular experience English has to offer (i.e. read books, talk about books, write essays about books). 

Scott Alexander

Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.

And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.” 

So maybe — just maybe — it’s not "read books, talk about books, write essays about books” that’s the problem. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"not to waver with the wavering hours"

I've just been teaching Horace's Epistles, and it strikes me that Horace ought to be the man of our social-media moment — the man who shows us another and better way.

In the first of those Epistles, Horace writes to his patron Maecenas — the one who bought him his Sabine farm that allows him to escape the noise and frenetic activity of Rome — to describe what he’s up to:

… my ambition to advance myself
In the sort of project that, if carried out
Successfully, is good for anyone,
Whether rich or poor, and its failure is bound to be
Harmful to anyone, whether he’s young or old. 

This “project” is, he says, to “devote myself entirely to the study / Of what is genuine and right for me, / Storing up what I learn for the sake of the future.” (I am quoting from David Ferry’s wonderful translation.) He needs to be on his farm to pursue this project, because life in the city, with its constant stimulation, creates too much agitation. And as he writes to another friend, Julius Florus (I.3), “if you’re able to learn to do without / Anxiety’s chilling effect, you’ll be able to follow / The lead of wisdom up to the highest reaches.”

Later (I.18) he exhorts Lollius Maximus to “interrogate the writings of the wise,”

Asking them to tell you how you can
Get through your life in a peaceable tranquil way.
Will it be greed, that always feels poverty-stricken,
That harasses and torments you all your days?
Will it be hope and fear about trivial things,
In anxious alternation in your mind?
Where is it virtue comes from, is it from books?
Or is it a gift from Nature that can’t be learned?
What is the way to become a friend to yourself?
What brings tranquility? What makes you care less?
Honor? Or money? Or living your life unnoticed?
Whenever I drink from the cold refreshing waters
Of the little brook Digentia, down below
Our local hill town, what do you think I pray for?
“May I continue to have what I have right now,
Or even less, as long as I’m self-sufficient.
If the gods should grant me life, though just for a while,
May I live my life to myself, with books to read,
And food to sustain me for another year,
And not to waver with the wavering hours.” 

The “wavering hours” waver because they’re charged with the nervous energy that comes from a too-busy life, a life of agitation and anxiety. As a youth Horace studied philosophy in Athens, and there he would have learned about the inestimable value of ataraxia — a peaceable and tranquil spirit. Because if you don’t have that, then you become a victim of your circumstances — and, especially in our time, a victim of propaganda.

Reading old books is a very valuable thing, because it takes you out of the maelstrom of “current events”; and it’s especially valuable to read old books like those by Horace because they will tell you quite directly how vital it is for you to learn this lesson.

Monday, April 16, 2018

propaganda and social media

Reading Ellul on the massive and pervasive consequences of propaganda in the twentieth century, I found myself over and over again thinking: This is how social media work on us. For instance, that passage I quoted in my earlier post — "to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today's events his life by obliterating yesterday's news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented” — seems even more true as a description of the person constantly on Twitter and Facebook. Many other passages gave me the same feeling:

Man, eager for self-justification, throws himself in the direction of a propaganda that justifies him and this eliminates one of the sources of his anxiety. Propaganda dissolves contradictions and restores to man a unitary world in which the demands are in accord with the facts…. For all these reasons contenporary man needs propaganda; he asks for it; in fact, he almost instigates it. (159, 160) 

Or this:

Propaganda is concerned with the most pressing and at the same time the most elementary actuality. It proposes immediate action of the most ordinary kind. It thus plunges the individual into the most immediate present, taking from him all mastery of his life and all sense of the duration or continuity of any action or thought. Thus the propagandee becomes a man without a past and without a future, a man who receives from propaganda his portion of thought and action for the day; his discontinuous personality must be given continuity from the outside, and thus makes the need for propaganda very strong. (187) 

Thus the very common type of Twitter user who expresses himself or herself almost completely in hashtags: pre-established units of affiliation and exclusion.

And yet — Russian bots and political operatives (who have turned themselves into bots) aside — social media lack the planned purposefulness intrinsic to propaganda. So they must be a different kind of thing, yes?

Yes and no. I think what social media produce is emergent propaganda — propaganda that is not directed in any specific and conscious sense by anyone but rather emerges, arises, from vast masses of people who have been catechized within and by the same power-knowledge regime. Think also about the idea I got from an Adam Roberts novel: the hivemind singularity. Conscious, intentional propaganda is so twentieth century. The principalities and powers are far more sophisticated now. I’ll be thinking more about this.

"a revisionist blizzard of alternative theories"

Tim Adams on the media in Putin’s Russia:

In this culture war, disinformation was critical. Russian TV and social media would create a climate in which news became entertainment, and nothing would quite seem factual. This surreal shift is well documented, but Snyder’s forensic examination of, for example, the news cycle that followed the shooting down of flight MH17 makes essential reading. On the first day official propaganda suggested that the Russian missile attack on the Malaysian plane had in fact been a bodged attempt by Ukrainian forces to assassinate Putin himself; by day two, Russian TV was promoting the idea that the CIA had sent a ghost plane filled with corpses overhead to provoke Russian forces.

The more outrageous the official lie was, the more it allowed people to demonstrate their faith in the Kremlin. Putin made, Snyder argues, his direct assault on “western” factuality a source of national pride. Snyder calls this policy “implausible deniability”; you hear it in the tone of the current “debate” around the Salisbury attack: Russian power is displayed in a relativist blizzard of alternative theories, delivered in a vaguely absurdist spirit, as if no truth on earth is really provable.

Social-media propaganda directed at Americans works the same way: in contrast to earlier forms of propaganda, which sought to arouse people to action by alerting them to new and previously unseen truths, this kind of propaganda is meant to be soporific: it seeks to make people indifferent to what’s true, incurious, and accepting of whatever addresses the emotions to which they are most fully enslaved.

Long ago William Golding wrote a witty little essay called “Thinking as a Hobby” in which he identifies three levels of thought. Grade-three thinking, “more properly, is feeling, rather than thought”; it is ”full of unconscious prejudice, ignorance, and hypocrisy.” Grade-two thinking — which Golding came to practice as an adolescent — “is the detection of contradictions.... Grade-two thinkers do not stampede easily, though often they fall into the other fault and lag behind. Grade-two thinking is a withdrawal, with eyes and ears open.” Grade-two thinking is shouting “FAKE NEWS” and asking people whether they always believe what they’re told by the lamestream media, or pulling out your ink pad and rubber stamp and stamping BIGOT or RACIST on people who don’t line up with you 100%. I would say that such behavior is not “lagging behind” so much as digging in your heels and refusing to move — which herds of animals do far more frequently than they stampede.

When grade-two thinking is challenged its perpetrator will typically fall back to grade-three, as David French discovered: ”The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: ’fake news’ and ’the other side is worse.’

I’m reminded of an encounter at my church. People know that I opposed both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. They often ask what I think of the president’s performance. My standard response: I like some things, I dislike others, but I really wish he showed better character. I don’t want him to lie. I said this to a sweet older lady not long ago, and she responded — in all sincerity — “You mean Trump lies?” “Yes,” I replied. “All the time.” She didn’t answer with a defense. She didn’t say “fake news.” We’d known each other for years, and she trusted my words.

For a moment, she seemed troubled. I wanted to talk more — to say that we can appreciate and applaud the good things he does, but we can’t ignore his flaws, we can’t defend his sins, and we can’t let him define the future of the Republican Party. But just then, her jaw set. I saw a flare of defiance in her eyes. She took a sip of coffee, looked straight at me, and I knew exactly what was coming next: “Well, the Democrats are worse.”

Jacques Ellul argued half-a-century ago that the purpose of propaganda is to “provide immediate incentives to action.” But propaganda that encourages us to dig in our heels, or just drift with the social-media current, is propaganda all the same. What remains absolutely essential from Ellul’s book is his understanding that the person “embroiled in the conflicts of his time” (49) is most vulnerable to propaganda — and he could not have imagined a society so locked into the current instant as we denizens of Social Media World are. I’m going to close this post with a long quotation from Ellul that was incisive in relation to his own time but is devastatingly accurate about ours. I’ve put some especially important passages in bold; and I’d like you to notice how Ellul anticipates Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Here goes:

To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; be is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events. Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events. We already have mentioned man's inability to consider several facts or events simultaneously and to make a synthesis of them in order to face or to oppose them. One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but be does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man's capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandist, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within a few weeks. Moreover, there is a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual against an excess of information and — to the extent that he clings (unconsciously) to the unity of his own person — against inconsistencies. The best defense here is to forget the preceding event. In so doing, man denies his own continuity; to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today's events his life by obliterating yesterday's news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented.

This situation makes the "current-events man" a ready target for propaganda. Indeed, such a man is highly sensitive to the influence of present-day currents; lacking landmarks, he follows all currents. He is unstable because he runs after what happened today; he relates to the event, and therefore cannot resist any impulse coming from that event. Because he is immersed in current affairs, this man has a psychological weakness that puts him at the mercy of the propagandist. No confrontation ever occurs between the event and the truth; no relationship ever exists between the event and the person. Real information never concerns such a person. What could be more striking, more distressing, more decisive than the splitting of the atom, apart from the bomb itself? And yet this great development is kept in the background, behind the fleeting and spectacular result of some catastrophe or sports event because that is the superficial news the average man wants. Propaganda addresses itself to that man; like him, it can relate only to the most superficial aspect of a spectacular event, which alone can interest man and lead him to make a certain decision or adopt a certain attitude. (46-47)

Maybe I should blog a read-through of Propaganda.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Edmund Wilson on Marxism


I have just re-read, for the first time in decades, Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station — which, it appears, NYRB Classics has allowed to go out of print, which is nearly a tragedy. It is a truly remarkable book — it is difficult to imagine anyone of our own time (least of all a journalist) handling ideas with such assurance and such verve, seeing in them the kind of drama that we typically associate with action heroes. The structure, the pacing, the style — all are superb. Perhaps the best thing about the book is how it centers itself on Karl Marx himself, bookended by predecessors (Proudhon, Robert Owen) and successors (Lenin, Trotsky). As a portrait of Marx it has not, to my knowledge, been equalled.

Wilson's Freudianism, though essentially wrong, is actually quite helpful to him in understanding the Marxists, because, as he rightly points out, the great deficiency of most Marxist analyses of society is their oversimplified picture of human motivation. There’s even a passage where Wilson seems to be anticipating the rise of modern behavioral psychology and especially the role it plays in understanding of economic behavior. ”Prices are the results of situations much more complex than any of these formulas, and complicated by psychological factors which economists seldom take into account.… Let us note the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx. It is the shortcoming of economists in general that each one understands as a rule only one or two human motivations; psychology and economics have never yet got together in such a way as really to supplement one another” (294, 295).

On the psychology of Marx himself Wilson is especially acute. After tracing Marx’s lifelong near-poverty, and his struggles to provide for his family, and his embarrassment when one of his daughters had to hire herself out as a governess, and his constant dependence on his friend Engels to keep the Marxes out of the poor house — Engels, who worked as a manager in a factory owned by his arch-capitalist father — Wilson writes:

Such is the trauma of which the anguish and the defiance reverberate through Das Kapital. To point it out is not to detract from the authority of Marx’s work. On the contrary, in history as in other fields of writing, the importance of a book depends, not merely on the breadth of the view and the amount of information that has gone into it, but on the depths from which it has been drawn. The great crucial books of human thought – outside what are called the exact sciences, and perhaps something of the sort is true even here – always render articulate the results of fundamental new experiences to which human beings have had to adjust to themselves. Das Kapital is such a book. Marx has found in his personal experience the key to the larger experience of society, and identifies himself with that society. His trauma reflects itself in Das Kapital as the trauma of mankind under industrialism; and only so sore and angry a spirit, so ill at ease in the world, could have recognized and seen into the causes of the wholesale mutilation of humanity, the grand collisions, the uncomprehended convulsions, to which that age of great profits was doomed. (311-312) 

That is an extraordinarily rich and provocative reflection.

One final point, only tangential to Wilson’s narrative: he is also very good on the ways in which a conviction that one is on “the right side of history” compromises one’s ethics:

History, then, is a being with a definite point of view in any given period. It has a morality which admits of no appeal and which decrees that the exterminators of the Commune shall be regarded as wrong forever. Knowing best – knowing, that is, that we are right – we may allow ourselves to exaggerate and simplify. At such a moment the Marxism of Marx himself — and how much more often and more widely in the case of his less scrupulous disciples — departs from the rigorous method proposed by “scientific socialism.” (283)

Yep. I see it every day.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

r beny

I think I first came across the music of Austin Cairns (AKA r beny) on Soundcloud, where he has a page you should check out, but he also posts some things just to YouTube, of which the piece above is a superb example. It has a quality that I especially prize in ambient music, which is that it rewards just as little or as much attention as you choose to give it. You can play this in the background as you work, but if you choose to focus on it there’s enough going on to fully occupy your musical neurons. (This cannot be said of much ambient music.) And there’s something oddly fascinating about watching his hands show up from time to time to make their delicate adjustments to the machine — it almost seems a living thing. 

And of course I really really want a Digitone now. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

empire and critique

Many years ago I wrote an essay on the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in which I looked at what I believed to be a neglected element of his novels: their critique of the Igbo society they describe. 

One of the most-quoted passages in his work comes from his autobiographical essay, “Named for Victoria, Queen of England,” because it is there that he describes his discovery of his literary calling: "At the university I read some appalling novels about Africa (including Joyce Cary's much praised Mister Johnson) and decided that the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else no matter how gifted or well intentioned.” And so he was set upon a path: "Although I did not set about it consciously in that solemn way, I now know that my first book, Things Fall Apart, was an act of atonement with my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son.” 

But Achebe was a prodigal who had not really chosen to walk apart from his people: that choice was made by his father, who had become a Christian as a young man and, with the zeal common to the new convert, set himself quite apart from the culture he had grown up in. (When Achebe was a boy his father forbade him to eat with non-Christians in their town.) Achebe may have decided to come back towards the world that his father had rejected, but he did not simply despise his father’s choice, and had a sympathetic understanding of what drove him to it. In Things Fall Apart, one of the characters, a boy named Nwoye, is a portrait of Achebe’s father, and he is drawn to Christianity because he sees it as offering an alternative to some of the practices of his society that seem to him cruel — for instance, the belief that twin babies are evil and must be left to die.

Achebe discusses this very matter in that same autobiographical essay, though this passage is almost never quoted: 

And in fairness we should add that there was more than naked opportunism in the defection of many to the new religion. For in some ways and in certain circumstances it stood firmly on the side of humane behavior. It said, for instance, that twins were not evil and must no longer be abandoned in the forest to die. Think what that would have done for that unhappy woman whose heart torn to shreds at every birth could now hold on precariously to a new hope. 

Achebe wants to honor the integrity and the beauty of the culture his father set himself against — but not at the price of denying or even obscuring its flaws. This is a particularly powerful theme in Arrow of God, which I believe to be the best of Achebe’s novels, where a priest and clan leader called Ezeulu insists that white Europeans have come to be dominant because they have not been resisted: 

Let me ask you one question. Who brought the white man here? Was it Ezeulu? . . . How many white men went in the party that destroyed Abame? Do you know? Five.... Five. Now have you ever heard that five people — even if their heads reached the sky — could overrun a whole clan? Impossible. With all their power and magic white men would not have overrun entire Olu and Igbo if we did not help them. Who showed them the way to Abame? They were not born there; how then did they find the way? We showed them and are still showing them. So let nobody come to me now and complain that the white man did this and did that. The man who brings ant-infested faggots into his hut should not grumble when lizards begin to pay him a visit. 

Ezeulu is not wholly right about this — but he is not wholly wrong either, and Achebe shows quite clearly that the other clan leaders unwisely neglect his counsel — seeking their own individual prestige rather than the good of the clan as a whole — which furthers the division of the people. 

So that’s what my essay is about: Achebe as not just a celebrant but an interpreter and critic of Igbo traditional culture — his elevation of “humane behavior” as the standard by which the Igbo people and the English imperialists alike should be judged.

I had a lot of trouble getting it published. (Eventually it ended up in this book.) I sent it out to several journals, and each time the peer reviewers made more-or-less the same reply: You can’t say that. My argument, one claimed, is “profoundly offensive.” Another said that the world didn’t need another “justification of the colonial enterprise.” I thought to myself: I’m not saying these things about the flaws or blind spots of traditional Igbo culture, Achebe is saying them. But I suppose my sin was pointing out what any decent person would have passed over in discreet silence. 

I recalled this experience when I read this post by Nigel Biggar about the response he has received to his claim that the moral legacy of colonialism is a mixed one. Rhetorical Leninism once more: Biggar’s claim makes him indistinguishable from Cecil Rhodes or for that matter Colonel Reginald Dyer. One must deal in moral absolutes or be absolutely damned. But if we’re truly to learn from history we need to be able to see more than what our predecessors got wrong. Most human beings — and all cultures without exception — are mixed bags. Chinua Achebe understood that. 

Enough said on that. But another thing nags at me: I don’t understand why Biggar thought that the best response to his critics on social media was to report them to their bosses. I guess this is the New Normal — maybe especially in the U.K.? I saw a comment the other day (can’t remember who said it) that whenever anyone in the U.K. says something on Twitter that’s even slightly controversial someone else reports them to their local police: “Hey, this person obviously needs to be arrested.” But I don’t like it. And when well-established academics do it it’s far less seemly than when woke students try to call down administrators on noncompliant professors or fellow students. Trying to get someone in job trouble for incivility doesn’t seem very … civil. 

Monday, April 9, 2018


Screen Shot 2018 04 08 at 12 09 57 PM

I’m quite late to this party, but I recently started using Freedom and I really like it. What led me to it was my realization that, while I have deleted my social-media apps from my phone, I could still access those accounts via the phone’s browser. And once I realized that I could do that … well, this is where Freedom comes in, because I can use it to block those sites on my phone and, when appropriate, on my Mac. So now I have Twitter blocked for all but a few hours a day. 

Friday, April 6, 2018

sad compatibilism

Sohrab Amari writes in Commentary about two kinds of Christian response to the dominant liberal order, the compatibilists and the non-compatibilists: 

 The “compatibilists” (like yours truly) argued that liberalism’s foundational guarantees of freedom of speech, conscience, and association sufficed to protect Christianity from contemporary liberalism’s censorious, repressive streak. The task of the believer, they contended, was to call liberalism back to its roots in Judeo-Christianity, from which the ideology derives its faith in the special dignity of persons, universal equality and much else of the kind. Christianity could evangelize liberal modernity in this way. Publicly engaged believers could restore to liberalism the commitment to ultimate truths and the public moral culture without which rights-based self-government ends up looking like mob rule.

The latter camp — those who thought today’s aggressive progressivism was the rotten fruit of the original liberal idea — were more pessimistic. They argued that liberal intolerance went back to liberalism’s origins. The liberal idea was always marked by distrust for all non-liberal authority, an obsession with promoting maximal autonomy over the common good, and hostility to mediating institutions (faith, family, nation-state, etc.). Yes, liberalism was willing to live with and even borrow ideas from Christianity for a few centuries, the non-compatibilists granted. But that time is over. Liberalism’s anti-religious inner logic was bound to bring us to today’s repressive model: Bake that cake — or else! Say that men can give birth — or else! Let an active bisexual run your college Christian club — or else! 

I have been for most of my career what I call a sad compatibilist: I have tried to describe and promote a model of charity, forbearance, patience, and fairness in disputation to all parties concerned, not because I think my approach will work but because I am trying to do what I think a disciple of Jesus should do regardless of effectiveness. In these matters I continue to be against consequentialism. For reasons I explain in that post I just linked to, I’ll keep on pushing, but it feels more comically pointless than ever in this age of rhetorical Leninism. (And by the way, if you weren’t convinced by the example I give, take a gander at some of the responses to Jordan Peterson that Alastair Roberts collects in this post.)

Speaking of pushing, Amari concludes his post thus: "It is up to liberals to decide if they want to push further.” But as far as I can tell that decision has been made. There are two kinds of liberals now: the Leninists and the Silent — the latter not happy with the scorched-earth tactics of their confederates but unwilling to question them, lest they themselves become the newest victims of such tactics. The Voltairean [sic] liberal is, I believe, extinct. “Not only will I not defend to the death your right to say something that appalls me, I won’t even defend it to the point of getting snarked at in my Twitter mentions.”

What I find myself wondering, in the midst of all this, is whether there is a different way to do sad compatibilism than the one I’ve been pursuing. Do I just keep on banging my head against the same wall or do I look for a different wall? I’m thinking about this a lot right now.

(Cross-posted from my personal blog, Snakes and Ladders, though off-topic here, because I don’t have comments enabled there and someone might want to come back at me.) 

metaphors we fail to think by

Dan Chiasson on Emily Wilson’s Twitter feed:

The conversation spiralled out to other words in the passage, other choices, with Wilson returning to a line she’s used before: “Homeric Greek is a mix of dialects from different ages.” It was a striking invocation of an earlier era’s most resplendent verbal technology, the Odyssey itself, to justify a choice made in the age of Twitter. It reminds us that Homer’s poem, too, was a crowd-sourced database of generations of knowledge, customs, set pieces, and legends. To love the poem is to change it.

Well, no, the Odyssey really isn’t “a crowd-sourced database of generations of knowledge, customs, set pieces, and legends.” Not in the least. This I/O model of thought and art, in which the poet aggregates input and vomits output, does gross violence to the imaginative subtlety with which great poets sift through, responds to, makes use of, and transforms the many stories they have heard and the many human voices from which they have heard them. 

To which one might say, Come on, dude, it’s just a metaphor. But as I have noted before, these metaphors that redescribe humans as computers, and thought as the kind of computation that computers tend to do, are pervasive, and when we use them over and over and over again, we gradually and quite seriously alter and impoverish our self-understanding. We get smaller and simpler in order to resemble our tools. And to me, that joke isn’t funny any more

Thursday, April 5, 2018

a Chinese model for American education?

I am somewhat puzzled by this essay on American and Chinese university students by Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University. Not by all of it, mind you — some of it is easy to understand, for instance this: 

In America, we often read about social justice warriors refusing to listen to points of view from outside the campus mainstream, but we should pay more attention to those engaged students who are creating opportunities in education, health care and access to technology for citizens beyond the university’s walls. Rather than focusing on why kids today don’t have the same fundamentalist commitment to the free market approach to speech as boomers claim to have always had, we should recognize how our campuses abound with productive nonconformists, practical idealists starting up companies and purpose-driven organizations.

I have to admire Roth’s straightforwardness here: When people point to a lack of freedom of speech on your campus, call them fundamentalists and change the subject. But what I’m wondering is whether the whole essay is basically about the free-speech-on-campus issue, though it doesn’t announce itself as such. 

Let’s look at the whole paragraph from which I drew my earlier quote: 

The discussion in Beijing led me to reflect that teachers and students in China, like those in the United States, are thinking hard about how to avoid conformity and indoctrination without just retreating to a campus bubble that has no relevance to the nonacademic world. In America, we often read about social justice warriors refusing to listen to points of view from outside the campus mainstream, but we should pay more attention to those engaged students who are creating opportunities in education, health care and access to technology for citizens beyond the university’s walls. Rather than focusing on why kids today don’t have the same fundamentalist commitment to the free market approach to speech as boomers claim to have always had, we should recognize how our campuses abound with productive nonconformists, practical idealists starting up companies and purpose-driven organizations. In China, more than half a million students each year study abroad, and scores of thousands are majoring in foreign languages and culture. Notwithstanding the central government’s frightening efforts to enforce narrow forms of political and vocational training, exposure to other societies will enrich the country by disrupting increasingly bureaucratized homogeneity. 

Now, Roth writes like a college president, which is to say rather badly, so it’s difficult for me to be sure. But he seems to be making a point of insisting that the Chinese students he met were bold, thoughtful, and willing to challenge the status quo despite studying in an environment in which freedom of speech is profoundly restricted by the government. As far as I can tell, Roth’s argument is that powerful constraints on speech don’t impede the education Chinese students receive or the investments they make in their society — so why should similar constraints be a problem here in America? As long as students are "disrupting increasingly bureaucratized homogeneity,” what’s to complain about? 

Tell me in the comments if I have this wrong. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

capability and reliability

There is no question that the Macintosh is a far more capable device than the iPad or iPhone. BBEdit has a far wider range of capabilities than any iOS text editor; the Mac version of OmniGraffle is much more powerful than its iOS counterpart (this is true of almost every app that is available both on MacOS and iOS); on the Mac I can interact with the file system in ways that are impossible on the black box that is iOS; the power of Unix from the command line is infinitely greater and more flexible than anything iOS can do. Examples could be multiplied indefinitely. 


  • When I wake my Mac from sleep it immediately drops its wi-fi connection and takes 30-60 seconds to get it back, whereas when I wake an iOS device from sleep it connects to wi-fi immediately. 
  • When I stream music over Bluetooth from my Mac, the signal drops on average once per song, and often I have to open Activity Monitor to force-quit the Bluetooth processes to get it working again, whereas my iOS devices stream music flawlessly. 
  • Many websites feature video that plays immediately and smoothly from iOS but won’t play on the Mac at all. 
  • On my Mac I have my Dock set to be hidden and to activate when I mouse over to the right border of the screen. This works perhaps one-third of the time  —the rest of the time mousing to the right side of the screen does nothing — so I am gradually training myself to use command-tab all the time to change apps. On iOS the various ways of shifting from one app to another work the same way all the time. 
  • Relatedly, split view on the iPad works far more smoothly and consistently than the same feature does on the Mac. 

The Mac is a highly capable device, but it isn't a consistently reliable one. By contrast, iOS devices are in my experience highly reliable, but are not as capable as I need them to be. The overall situation kinda stinks. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

back to the blog with MarsEdit

As I’ve noted several times over the years, I do almost all my writing in a text editor, BBEdit. But when I write a blog post in BBEdit, the process of getting it onto the blog is not as straightforward as it might be. I write a post in Markdown, convert it to HTML, and copy it to my clipboard. Then I open a browser tab for the relevant blog/blogging platform — WordPress for my personal blogs, Blogger for this one — paste in the text, add some tags, and hit Publish. 

I can do all this very quickly, and save a step or two with Keyboard Maestro, but even so it’s not ideal. The estimable Dr. Drang has written some scripts to post directly from BBEdit to WordPress, but I lack the skills to make those work for me, and I can’t even imagine having the skills to write an equivalent script for Blogger. So… 

I’ve owned Daniel Jalkut’s blogging app MarsEdit for a long time, but just recently have dedicated myself to using it every day — and it’s great, a marvelous piece of software. You can write in rich text, HTML, or Markdown (the last slightly awkwardly, but it works) — it even lets me edit a post in BBEdit if I want. MarsEdit offers very convenient options for pasting in links, and also serves, if you wish to download your previous posts, as a backup for your blog. 

For me, one of the most useful features of MarsEdit is the ability to draft a post in any of my blogs and then with a dropdown menu change it to a different blog (this feature aids in cross-posting also). 

When I’m done drafting and adding tags, I click “Send to Blog” and it uploads flawlessly, every time. 

MarsEdit has been around a long time, and I hope will be around for a long time to come. Frustration with most of the dominant social media platforms has led to a mini-revival of blogging, which I hope will become a full-scale revival. Austin Kleon has been blogging daily for several months now; Dan Cohen has gone “back to the blog”; Gordon White recently wrote, "Last night, sitting by the outdoor fire, drinking and ranting into a wordpress window as in the days of yore was joyous.” The great Warren Ellis has noticed: "My RSS reader is starting to get nicely repopulated, and the more people who notice this, the better the world gets.” 

Let’s do this thing. Let’s bring back the blog. And if you have a Mac and want to make blogging as simple and seamless as possible, use MarsEdit

back to the iPhone

A few years ago I set aside my iPhone and returned to a dumbphone. I liked it. The Punkt is well made and has an elegant design, and I might — might, I say — have switched to it permanently except for one thing: it’s a 2G phone and my carrier, AT&T, dropped support for its 2G network. So the phone was bricked.

I thought about changing carriers but that would have required me to shift my whole family over; and in any case there was no guarantee that any carrier I switched to wouldn’t drop their 2G network eventually. So back to the iPhone I went. 

It took me a while, but I have figured out how to use the iPhone in a way that works for me. Here are the key elements:

1. I deleted all social media apps from the phone, including email, with the sole exception of Instagram. Also, the only notifications I get are for communications (phone calls, texts) from my family.

2. My favorite recreational activity is hiking, and I have replaced those social media apps with some absolutely wonderful apps for spending time outdoors: AllTrails, PeakVisor, Night Sky, and Rockd. I really cannot overemphasize how dramatically these apps — along with Google Maps, which may be the very best app yet made for iOS — have increased my enjoyment of being out in the world.

3. I deleted most of my music from the phone, keeping only ambient stuff I listen to while working and trying to sleep — and also for the latter the SoundCloud app (there’s a lot of wonderful ambient music on SoundCloud) and Naturespace, whose nature recordings are the best I’ve heard by far. 

And that’s basically it. With this setup, the absolutely essential element of which is the deletion of social apps, I actually enjoy the iPhone. Turns out it’s a pretty cool device when you get rid of … um … people. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

no, go ahead and quit Facebook

Siva Vaidhyanathan contends that people currently on Facebook should not delete their accounts but rather stay and try to change it:

So go ahead and quit Facebook if it makes you feel calmer or more productive. Please realize, though, that you might be offloading problems onto those who may have less opportunity to protect privacy and dignity and are more vulnerable to threats to democracy. If the people who care the most about privacy, accountability and civil discourse evacuate Facebook in disgust, the entire platform becomes even less informed and diverse. Deactivation is the opposite of activism.

As you might guess from the tweet posted above, I am not especially sympathetic to this argument. It seems to me that there is no connection at all between deactivation and activism: a person could pursue both or neither or one rather than the other. Vaidhyanathan argues that “Hope lies ... with our power as citizens. We must demand that legislators and regulators get tougher. They should go after Facebook on antitrust grounds.” But this can be done by people who don't have Facebook accounts.

He says that “Our long-term agenda should be to bolster institutions that foster democratic deliberation and the rational pursuit of knowledge. These include scientific organizations, universities, libraries, museums, newspapers and civic organizations.” This too can be done by people who don't have Facebook accounts.

He says “If we act together as citizens to champion these changes, we have a chance to curb the problems that Facebook has amplified. If we act as disconnected, indignant moral agents, we surrender the only power we have: the power to think and act collectively.” Again, no Facebook account is required to think and act collectively.

It’s only in his concluding paragraph (the first one I quote above) that Vaidhyanathan comes close to making an argument for staying on Facebook — or, in my case, returning to it, since his logic would demand not just that existing users stay on but that non-users sign up. “If the people who care the most about privacy, accountability and civil discourse evacuate Facebook in disgust, the entire platform becomes even less informed and diverse” — well, then, I suppose that people like me who do care about “privacy, accountability and civil discourse” need to run to Facebook right away. But does this make sense?

I don't think so. If I see people being swept away by a powerful flood, it is unlikely that my best course of action is to leap into the water with them. I would do better to try to bring them to the safety of the shore. To put the case less metaphorically, it would make more sense for people to bring knowledge and sweet reason to Facebook if they could be sure that their friends regularly saw their knowledge and sweet reason. But the company’s algorithms are written in such a way that that’s highly unlikely. Even those who take delight in knowledge and sweet reason are unlikely to take the incredibly complicated and often fruitless steps a user has to take to bring any kind of sanity at all to a Facebook feed.

So I continue to think that deactivation-plus-activism is the way to go — not least because if there is anything that could drive Facebook to make actual changes to their platform (as opposed to the make-believe changes they regularly announce), it would surely be a significant drop in their user base.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

contexts, conditions, and intersecting monologues

If there is a line that I’ve quoted more than any other over the years, it is this one from Rebecca West: “There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.” (It took me a long time to track down that original statement — before I did I inadvertently paraphrased it.) For as far back as I can remember, I have been troubled by the pervasiveness in human encounters of misunderstandings, cross purposes, inaccurate assumptions — by the extraordinarily wide range of ways in which we manage to avoid having meaningful and fruitful interactions.

I do not believe that if we just eliminate misunderstandings we will all get along wonderfully, world without end, kumbaya. Not at all. It may be that when we eliminate misunderstandings we will discover that our conflicts are even deeper than we had previously assumed. But should that discovery happen we would at least be having the right debates — debates about actual as opposed to imagined differences. 

Because this tendency towards fake conversation, intersecting monologues, has been such a long-standing concern of mine, much of my work as a teacher and writer has been devoted to addressing it. (I have tried to do this while also maintaining my work on the religious dimensions of modern British literature, which has … not been easy, since the two lines of interest do not always overlap — though in my forthcoming book they do, thanks be to God.) I have sought to explore the consequences for our social order of human beings’ fallenness (that’s what my book on original sin is about) and finitude, our being necessarily limited in scope through having only one person’s experience and ability (that’s what much of How to Think is about, and also my recent essay on “ecclesial plurality”). I have sought to describe the ways that the distinctive technological environment of our current social order makes certain kinds of pseudo-conversation inevitable and more genuinely dialogical encounters almost impossible — which leads me to, among other things, advocacy for the open web, as in this recent essay

In short, I am interested in the contexts within which our conversations take place: those intrinsic to our human condition, those specific to a particular culture with a particular ideology, those conditioned and directed by technology. And — this is the heart of the matter — I do all this because I know as a Christian that I am commanded to love my neighbor as myself, and I want to promote the possibility of such love as widely as possible, for myself and others. 

So I spend most of my energy as a writer and teacher not in stating and defending positions on The Issues Of The Day, but rather in striving to cultivate circumstances under which there can be neighborly conversations about such issues, conversations that have at least a chance of being fruitful. I have views on many of The Issues Of The Day, of course, and often quite strong convictions, but there’s little point in announcing them until the conditions are created in which we can hear one another, and respond to one another, humanely. (That doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes succumb to the temptation to weigh in, though; not does it prevent me from doing so in less than loving ways.) 

I concluded my essay “Wokeness and Myth on Campus” with these words:

The question we must then ask is: Can our colleges and universities be places in which this endless clashing may be accommodated, and the resulting cultural momentum be encouraged, made fruitful? I have my doubts. But if this conflict is to be fruitful, or even just bearable, it will happen only if we understand the cognitive constraints under which we all labor, and only if we acknowledge the reality of life within the mythical core, with all its experiences of defilement and desecration. Cheap talk about “critical thinking” and “the free exchange of ideas” is clearly no longer adequate to the challenges we face. 

In that essay I don’t argue that student protestors are right or that they are wrong; rather, I try to identify and describe how they think, so that allies and critics alike can engage with them more constructively, so that there can be fewer intersecting monologues.

Similarly, in that essay on the open web and “a small ethics towards the future” I write, 

To the extent that people accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, they will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the European Union, transnational). Among other things, these trends will bring, in turn, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting. The scope of local action will therefore be diminished, and will come under increasing threat of what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Einstein, spooky action at a distance. This is how nation-states become wholly owned subsidiaries of transnational corporations. This is how Buy-n-Large happens. 

And of course much of my writing on this blog fits the same general description. I hope you see the pattern. 

I don’t regret any of this work — it was on my heart and I had to deal with that somehow — but if you look at it objectively it is hard to imagine a more colossal waste of time. I just try to take comfort in the words of a Nobel Prize-winning poet: 

Life is sad, life is a bust 

All you can do is do what you must 

You do what you must do, and you do it well 

I’d do it for you, honey baby can’t you tell? 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Facebook, again

I know many people who spend considerable time on Facebook, and as far as I can tell, very few of them know about the current scandal and among the handful who know, very very few care. I think almost everyone likely to be seriously troubled by Facebook’s behavior has already ditched the service. Given Mark Zuckerberg’s silence on all these matters, I assume that Facebook’s strategy is simply to ride out the storm by sheltering in place, and my expectation is that that strategy will be successful. I would be surprised if a year from now Facebook isn’t stronger than ever. To be sure, I would be very pleased by any fall in that nasty company’s fortunes, but that’s neither here nor there; at this point I’m pretty sure that they can spend their way out of any difficulties. 

UPDATE: So Zuck hath spoken, and offered an apology that, as many observers have pointed out, leaves Facebook’s business model of mining and selling its users’ data firmly in place. So what’s to come, especially since Zuckerberg has agreed that maybe Facebook should be regulated by the government? 

1. If regulation does happen, it will probably have the effect that Michael Brendan Dougherty predicts in one of the most thoughtful responses to this whole kerfuffle. Nobody in the media minded when Facebook’s data was being used in a very similar way to benefit the Obama campaigns; but now we have a panic. "Silicon Valley is just making up the rules as they go along. Some large-scale data harvesting and social manipulation is okay until the election. Some of it becomes not okay in retrospect. They sigh and say okay so long as Obama wins. When Clinton loses, they effectively call a code red.” 

If I can add my own prediction to [Niall] Ferguson’s it would be this. To the center-Left, it doesn’t matter how much Silicon Valley’s tools enable extremists in the Third World, or how much wealth they extract from the public treasuries through their tax-sheltering arrangements. All that matters is that the new tools continue to keep the center-Left in power, and make them look glamorous and smart. This is a deal that Silicon Valley will take. 

If regulation happens it will almost surely proceed along the lines Dougherty sketches. 

2. But regulation will require effective bipartisan action by Congress — by this Congress. So who are we kidding? 

Therefore, I’m sticking with my earlier prediction: at the end of this whole tempest-in-a-teapot, the tempest will have remained safely enclosed in the teapot that belongs to the tech punditocracy; no significant number of people will leave Facebook; and Mark Zuckerberg's business model will remain the same as it has been all along. 

UPDATE 2 (April 4, 2018): From The Ringer’s report on Zuckerberg’s conference call with the press today: 

Have several weeks of negative Facebook headlines and a #DeleteFacebook hashtag actually caused people to abandon the social network? “I don’t think there’s been any meaningful impact that we’ve observed,” Zuckerberg said.

That’s not a huge shock. According to the social media analytics firm Keyhole, #DeleteFacebook was tweeted about 364,000 times in the month of March, when the current controversy was cresting. #DeleteUber racked up 412,000 tweets in early 2017 when that company was going through its own PR nightmare, even though Uber has a much smaller user base. For now, the threat to leave Facebook seems to be a hollow one for most people.

Still sticking with my prediction. Nothing substantial will change at Facebook, and nothing substantial will change for Facebook. 

one more plea for RSS

As I’ve said many times over the years, I’m a big fan of RSS as a way of reading the internet, though I have had little success convincing others that it’s the way to go — that’s why I’m back on Twitter. Most of us who praise, and for that matter just use, RSS have become rather self-conscious about our attachement to the Good Old Internet Days — we tend to use a lot of “old man shakes fist at cloud” images.

But darn it, there are good reasons for using RSS! As Molly McHugh recently wrote, in one of several pieces I’ve read about Digg Reader’s demise,

The end of Digg Reader is another blow to chronological consumption of the internet. Users are curators of their internet experiences, from who they follow on Instagram to what news sources they see on Facebook, but no one is entirely responsible for what content is put in front of them. User input is selected and fed into these machines, which then decide what is laid out in feeds and when; often, that tends to be viral, salacious content.... RSS readers are not social applications, and they certainly are not flashy—which is probably why they are a dying breed. Headlines aren’t altered for maximum shareability by the platform, and the simplest among them eschew images altogether. Readers are nothing more than a timestamped list of stories from places the user trusts.

Why isn’t RSS more popular? As McHugh rightly says, “There is no argument as to whether RSS readers are better than Twitter or Facebook for news gathering; they are.” However: “there is no currency in a self-contained internet experience; how far something can move across the web is its value.” As long as we want clicks and likes and shares and RTs more than we want genuine understanding, we’ll use social media platforms rather than RSS.

So does RSS have a future at all? Bryan Alexander considers that question:

A giant company (Google) exited the RSS space. One smaller company (Digg) jumped in, then exited. Are all of the other RSS readers provided by start-ups and tiny firms? Has RSS reading become that marginalized? Are we this bound up with the “helpful”, AI-driven feeds so many experience through Facebook and the like? For another science fiction reference, we might collectively accustom ourselves to benevolent AI oversight, as with Iain Banks’ Culture universe (thanks to Crainist for the idea). This is one future path.

One would think that the rising disgust at giant social media and other tech firms might drive people back to RSS, as an open, easy to use standard. Perhaps we’ll see the RSS reader equivalent of Mastodon. There will be a reactionary movement growing in strength. RSS could ride alongside people seeking social media detoxes and setting up their own, tiny social networks. Call it the Butlerian Jihad for RSS and the open web. That’s another way forward.

Or maybe a small number of us will tend the open flame, huddled around a shrinking number of oddball RSS reader, stolidly blogging away. We’ll be like the Amish in Pennsylvania, plodding along while the others whiz past. Or we’ll become something like a minority religion, somewhat tolerated, sometimes disdained, often sidestepped.

I’ll be content as a member of that despised tech-Amish tribe, if it comes to that, but I’m not going to give up on the possibility of a Butlerian Jihad against social media platforms and for the open web. And along those lines, if you haven’t read my recent essay on tending the digital commons, please do.

If a Butlerian Jihad is going to happen, the geeks will need to get on board with it, and perhaps lead it — but will they? Bone Gorges is a little worried about that, and has some important words for said geeks:

The more worrisome trend is content that's not available through RSS simply because there's no feed mechanism. A shamefully large number of my geekier aquantainces have moved their blogs to Jekyll and other static-site-generation tools, which don't appear to have feed support out of the box; and – this is the "shameful" part – since these folks, geeky as they may be, think so little of RSS, they don't bother setting up the secondary plugins or whatever necessary to serve feeds. I expect that kind of behavior from lock-up-my-content companies and technically-clueless organizations that rely heavily on proprietary and bespoke software, but not from people who ought to know better.

For all of its lumbering bloatedness, one of the truly wonderful things about CMSes like WordPress is that they give you things like RSS – along with a pile of other boring-but-critical-to-the-future-of-the-open-web tools – by default. You don't need to make the decision to support RSS readers (or responsive images, or markup that is accessible to assistive technologies, etc) – the system provides them for you, and you have to go out of your way to turn them off.

Those who build their own systems for old-school things like bloggish content distribution, or who rely on teh new hotness to do these tasks in ways that are slicker than the old-school tools, should beware the dangers of discarding the automated systems that are the result of many years and many minds and many mistakes. If you must reinvent the wheel, then do your due diligence. RSS feeds, like other assistive technologies, should not be an afterthought.

Geeky folk, please read and heed!

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Tyranny of Metrics

One of the great themes of Aristotle’s work on ethics and politics is the need for human judgment. In the Politics, when he describes the virtues that the “master craftsman” (architekton) of the state must have, chief among them is practical wisdom (phronesis). In the Ethics he points out that no matter how carefully laws are written, they will always be incomplete by virtue of their generality — their relevance to a given case will always have to be determined by judges, judges who therefore need to possess the virtue of equity (epieikeia) in their decision-making: that is, the ability to decide, with tact and shrewdness, just how the law should be applied in a given case.

There are few things that the Modern Moral Order despises more than human judgment. One could argue that the chief energies of the MMO have been devoted to the elimination of such judgment, to render phronesis and epieikeia wholly unnecessary. What drives the MMO is what Taylor calls “code fetishism” or “normolatry.” In our time, one of the primary manifestations of code fetishism is, in the title of Jerry Z. Muller’s important new book, The Tyranny of Metrics. From the Introduction:

Schemes of measured performance are deceptively attractive because they often “prove” themselves by spotting the most egregious cases of error or neglect, but are then applied to all cases. Tools appropriate for discovering real misconduct become tools for measuring all performance. The initial findings of performance measurement may lead poor performers to improve, or to drop out of the market. But in many cases, the extension of standardized measurement may be of diminishing utility, or even counterproductive — sliding from sensible solutions to metric madness. Above all, measurement may become counterproductive when it tries to measure the unmeasurable and quantify the unquantifiable.

Concrete interests of power, money, and status are at stake. Metric fixation leads to a diversion of resources away from frontline producers toward managers, administrators, and those who gather and manipulate data.

When metrics are used by managers as a tool to control professionals, it often creates a tension between the managers who seek to measure and reward performance, and the ethos of the professionals (doctors, nurses, policemen, teachers, professors, etc.). The professional ethos is based on mastery of a body of specialized knowledge acquired through an extended process of education and training; autonomy and control over work; an identification with one’s professional group and a sense of responsibility toward colleagues; a high valuation of intrinsic rewards; and a commitment to the interests of clients above considerations of cost. 

It is noteworthy — and from where I sit very interesting — that Muller came to write this book because of his experience as the chair of an academic department. Much of a department chair’s job in the American academy today involves manipulating the metrics of assessing “learning outcomes” — as described in this essay by Molly Worthen. (There are advocates for more nuanced and humane models of assessment — Kate Drezek McConnell, for instance — but if you’re a professor and you get to deal with someone who thinks the way McConnell does, you’re very lucky.)

Of course, the reign of metrics extends far beyond the academy. Muller shows it at work in law enforcement — How many arrests is a police department making in relation to what the metrics say the number should be? Is the DA’s office meeting its expected conviction rate? — and in medicine — Hey surgeons, don’t take on difficult cases that might lower your success rate. And I vividly recall the moment several years ago when the gifted designer Douglas Bowman left Google because he wasn’t allowed to design, only oversee A/B testing.

Where does metrics succeed? Among other places, in sports. The analytics revolution has affected almost all sports, and has been wonderfully illuminating. Sometimes advanced analytics tells you that what you believed all along is indeed correct — there are no analytical models of basketball success that don’t put Michael Jordan at the top of the heap — and sometimes you discover that your observations of the game have led you to dramatically overrate some players and underrate others. (The latter discoveries are especially fun.) But all sports are, in one way or another, counting games: you count wins and losses, and count the actions that lead to wins and losses: made and missed shots, strikeouts, completed passes, unforced errors, and so on.

You can sort much of the rest of life that way if you want, I suppose. For instance, in evaluating the design of a website you can ignore such fuzzy notions as “beauty” and simply count the number of clicks associated with various shades of blue. (That’s why Bowman left Google.) You can “teach to the test,” ignoring every aspect of education except the ones that produce higher test scores — and if your job depends on your students’ test scores, teaching to the test is what you’d damn well better do.

And wherever it’s possible to make the metrics better, we should. Something that is not measurable now may become at least partially measurable in the future. The problem is not the use of metrics, it’s the tyranny of metrics. And perhaps the worst consequence of that tyranny is its tendency to make us give up altogether on the cultivation of judgment — of phronesis and epieikeia. Mistrusting judgment, believing that it can never be accurate, our technocracy figures that using whatever metrics we have — and torquing our questions and thoughts and concerns in the direction of existing techniques of measurement and assessment — is the best available option. The fear is that human judgment will never be anything more than emotionally-driven opinion. And you know what? Untrained judgment always will be emotionally-driven opinion. This is what we call self-fulfilling prophecy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mr Norrell and the Modern Moral Order

(Some reflections arising from a class I’m teaching.) 

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes the emergence of what he calls the Modern Moral Order, which is (very generally speaking) comprised of the beliefs that (a) God exists but is not active in the world, (b) God wants us to obey his laws/rules/norms in order to maximize our happiness, (c) the successful obeying of those laws/rules/norms requires a social order built on rigorous discipline, and (d) the requisite discipline is expected of everyone, regardless of social class. In the MMO Christianity is redefined to maximize compatibility with the then-emergent system of modern capitalism; it is a necessarily disenchanted world because in an enchanted world discipline can never yield predictable results: one is always dependent on the whims of beings who dwell largely outside the human order. "Seen from this perspective [of the established MMO], the real telos implicit in the earlier forward steps of humanity - the Axial period, the end of paganism and polytheism, the Reformation - was the bringing of disenchantment, the end of a cosmos of spirits respondent to humans, and the coming of the impersonal order defined by the moral code." We are of course still living with the consequences of these accommodations. 

Taylor explores the long process by which the MMO is consolidated, and by which that consolidation inevitably generates protests and alternatives; the MMO could not but be felt by many as what Weber famously called an “iron cage of rationality.” The various possible routes to re-enchantment are therefore an essential part of Taylor’s story. 

One of the best meditations on this complex state of affairs — in which people are, in Taylor’s apt phrase, “cross-pressured” by the benefits of a disenchanted world of buffered selves and the longings that afflict us when the portals of selfhood are firmly closed — is Susanna Clarke’s brilliant novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and especially the character of Norrell. I want to home in here on a single word that Norrell uses at a key point in the story — a very fateful word. 

The word comes when Mr Norrell, against his better judgment, has decided to try to raise one Miss Wintertowne from the dead, and summons the figure we come to know as “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.” When Norrell calls out to the gentleman to ask his help, he addresses him in Latin, thus: “O Lar!” Which of course recalls the Roman Lares, and encourages us to ask the question: Are fairies gods? 

Romans would certainly think so, wouldn’t they? So insofar as fantasy is related to fairy tale, and fairy tale to fairies, then fantasy is a genre devoted to exploring a world that, as Thales of Miletus said, is full of gods. 

That the man usually known as the first natural philosopher, this Thales fellow, is also known for saying that “the world is full of gods” is a bit ironic in that so much philosophy (natural and speculative) ever since has been resistant to that move and has striven to disenchant. As do Jewish and Christian theology, for their own reasons. (I’ve mentioned before the oft-noted point that the opening of Genesis 1, which demotes the sun, moon, and stars to created things, is a powerfully disenchanting move.) One way to read all this is to say that our intellectual elites are always pushing us towards disenchantment and we always find stories that allow us to push back and restore, even if only temporarily and partially, our (natural? innate?) preference for a world of many gods. 

The disenchanted world of the MMO, a world purged of gods, is the one into which Mr Norrell hopes to restore magic, and he is almost wholly a creature of the MMO. He is a close cousin of those Manchester magicians who wished to promote “Rational Thaumaturgy”: he condemns the author of a book on The Language of Birds by crying out, “He is mystical, sir! He is mystical!” Norrell is wounded to the depths of his soul when Sir Walter Pole tells him that magic is “not respectable,” because there is nothing he wants more than for magic to be seen as respectable, as a good citizen within the disciplinary society. This is why he always speaks of the restoration of “English magic”: magic for him supports, it never threatens, the established order — including both the MMO and the order of the nation-state. 

He especially admires a book of theoretical magic that lays out thousands of possible magical acts in orderly tables — a thaumaturgical spreadsheet — and though he does not mention it, a footnote tells us that that book excludes as inappropriate (indeed, not at all respectable) magic that requires the employment of fairies. When Norrell expresses his hatred of John Uskglass, the Raven King, the chief items in his bill of accusation are that Uskglass (a) exaggerated the importance to magic of fairies and (b) rebelled against the rightful King of England. 

And yet, when in desperate straits and rightly fearful that his campaign to restore English magic has failed, here he is: O Lar! (So strongly does this run against his convictions that later, when he first meets Jonathan Strange, he denounces the Raven King’s use of fairies and asks “What have I ever achieved that required the use of fairies?” And I don’t think he’s lying; he has simply repressed the discomfiting facts. Which he perhaps needs to do because the consequences of his employment of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair are rippling out further and further.) 

But surely the cause of Rational Thaumaturgy was always impossible. Norrell’s first public work of magic — and what a tour de force this scene is — was to give voice and movement to the statues in York Minster, and when they speak, they speak of all that they have seen over the centuries but that their stony form has disabled them from naming. And the things that they have seen are real — they cry out against murders that actually happened. Perhaps Clarke is just engaging in a marvelous fictional game here, but it’s interesting in that it suggests a version of panpsychism: even the stones have souls and minds, at least, once they are carved into human shape. (See also, later in the book, the figurehead on a French warship who hates the English and is only charmed into co-operation when addressed by a handsome English sailor she takes a fancy to.) Insofar as the magic that Norrell does awakens something that was already in those statues, it is a kind of natural magic. In doing magic at all he is always-already “mystical,” like the author he denounces. And of course that means that he is operating within the world of the Raven King, whose magic is thoroughly natural: his prophecy, the one given to Vinculus, says “The rain made a door for me and I went through it; The stones made a throne for me and I sat upon it.” His use of fairies is only an extension of that natural magic because, as Tolkien notes in his great essay on fairy stories, they are natural, “more natural than we.” (This is surely why, as we are told in the book’s footnotes, that fairies are “beyond the reach of the Church.... no Christ has come to them, or ever will.”) So Norrell is eventually forced, at least in private and to his frenemy Jonathan Strange, to admit that what Strange has publicly declared is indeed true: “It is John Uskglass’s magic that we do. Of course it is. What else should it be?" 

So: enchantment, magic, and fantasy all require an animist world, perhaps even a panpsychic world. They assert its power over against all “disciplinary” efforts at disenchantment and the buffering of selves. This is an argument on behalf of that which is “natural” and, simultaneously and necessarily, on behalf of a world that is “full of gods.”

Cory Doctorow feels pretty good about the future

In this odd little story by Cory Doctorow global warming has dramatically increased temperatures, but it’s not such a big deal. In Burbank, California, in the not-too-distant future, “It was only March, but Burbank was baking: Three days in a row it had hit 120 degrees by noon”; and “the year before, on April 18, a Thursday after a succession of days that vied to top each other for inhumane conditions, the weather app on the hallway wall showing 112 degrees before breakfast.”

But the heat doesn’t seem to be much of a problem because the power companies have gone solar and so much energy is available that Burbank Water and Power effectively pay the people of Lima Street to turn on their air conditioners full blast and send the cool air into the street — which has been covered by awnings that the city delivered to the residents early that morning — and have themselves a block party. (Which they can do because all the people have “work-scheduling apps [that] had been able to rearrange their schedules to give them all an impromptu day off.”)

I don’t know, but it seems to me that Doctorow hasn’t thought through this scenario. The story makes several references to the noise the local parrots make, but if temps can get to 112 before breakfast, then they surely get to 140 or more by four in the afternoon, and I don’t think there are any parrots that can survive in those temperatures. How many animals of any kind can? The story also mentions sweetgum trees along the streets, and I’m not sure they’d do well in 140-degree temperatures either. Anything that did survive in those conditions would need a lot of water, and hasn’t southern California historically had trouble getting enough water? Is that supposed to get easier in a period of global warming? Maybe desalinization works in this imagined future, and surely Burbank would benefit from that, given that the rising temperatures would have raised the ocean levels considerably, and a place like Burbank (20 miles or so from the coast in 2018) is going to be almost oceanside property in such a world.

I just don’t get it. Is the story actually a parody of techno-optimism? Yes, global warming is going to be horrific, but no worries, we’ve got it whipped with solar power and work-scheduling apps! But I suspect that Doctorow is seriously upbeat about the baking-hot future. On the same day I read this story I read a brief essay by him lamenting the current backlash against Silicon Valley (the “techlash”) — or at least lamenting the forms it’s taking:

The long-delayed techlash has an unfortunate tendency to scapegoat early tech pioneers who promoted the idea that technology could make our lives better. These people – people I was fortunate enough to grow up among – are said to have been blind to the potential of technology to harm our privacy, our discourse, and our human rights.

The reality is that these early “techno-utopians” were keenly aware of these risks. They founded organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Free Software Foundation, not because they were convinced that everything was going to be great – but because they were worried that everything could be terrible, and also because they saw the potential for things to be better.

The motto of these pioneers wasn’t, “This is going to be so great.” It was, “This could be great – if we don’t screw it up.”

The people of tech – the people without whom Google and Facebook and Apple and Amazon couldn’t keep the lights on — [are] human beings with agency and willpower, and they are subject to moral suasion. They are capable of building a technological future that gives us the things we love about our technology, without inflicting the harms of these systems upon us.

So all we need is to apply a little moral suasion and the technologists of today and tomorrow will rescue us from the consequences of the actions of the technologists of yesterday. For somehow, someway, the bigger tech capitalism has gotten the more foresight it has developed and the greater has grown its compassion for people and the planet. “‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’”

Monday, March 12, 2018

starting from zero!

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs project is "reimagining cities to improve quality of life.” But what might “quality of life” actually mean? As Emily Badger notes in a recent essay about the tech visionaries of the urban, 

It’s … unclear what you’d optimize an entire city for. Technologists describe noble aspirations like “human flourishing” or “quality of life.” But noble goals come into conflict within cities. You could optimize for affordable housing, but then you may create a more crowded city than many residents want. You could design a city so that every home receives sunlight (an idea the Chinese tried). But that might mean the city isn’t dense enough to support diverse restaurants and mass transit. 

It’s also not clear from her essay whether the Sidewalk Labs people are genuinely thinking about these issues. Badger quotes the CEO, Dan Doctoroff: 

“The smart city movement as a whole has been disappointing in part because it is hard to get stuff done in a traditional urban environment,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “On the other hand, if you’re completely disrespectful of the urbanist tradition, I don’t think it’s particularly replicable. And it’s probably pretty naïve.”

What counts as being “disrespectful of the urbanist tradition”? (Also, is there only one urbanist tradition?) What is the “it” that isn’t particularly replicable? I find myself wishing that Badger had pressed for clarification here. Because it sounds like this is going to be a typical Google strategy: find a sandbox — in this case in Toronto, "800 acres of underused waterfront that could be reimagined as a neighborhood, if not a full metropolis, with driverless cars, prefabricated construction and underground channels for robot deliveries and trash collection” — and set the ship’s course straight for Utopia. 

In other words: Silicon Valley’s reincarnation of the Bauhaus. From Tom Wolfe’s not-always-fair-but-always-funny From Bauhaus to Our House

The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince [Walter Gropius] talked about "starting from zero." One heard the phrase all the time: "starting from zero." Gropius gave his backing to any experiment they cared to make, so long as it was in the name of a clean and pure future. Even new religions such as Mazdaznan. Even health-food regimens. During one stretch at Weimar the Bauhaus diet consisted entirely of a mush of fresh vegetables. It was so bland and fibrous they had to keep adding garlic in order to create any taste at all. Gropius' wife at the time was Alma Mahler, formerly Mrs. Gustav Mahler, the first and foremost of that marvelous twentieth-century species, the Art Widow. The historians tell us, she remarked years later, that the hallmarks of the Bauhaus style were glass corners, flat roofs, honest materials, and expressed structure. But she, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel — she had since added the poet Franz Werfel to the skein — could assure you that the most unforgettable characteristic of the Bauhaus style was "garlic on the breath." Nevertheless! — how pure, how clean, how glorious it was to be ... starting from zero!

Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Henry van de Velde — all were teachers at the Bauhaus at one time or another, along with painters like Klee and Josef Albers. Albers taught the famous Bauhaus Vorkurs, or introductory course. Albers would walk into the room and deposit a pile of newspapers on the table and tell the students he would return in one hour. They were to turn the pieces of newspaper into works of art in the interim. When he returned, he would find Gothic castles made of newspaper, yachts made of newspaper, airplanes, busts, birds, train terminals, amazing things. But there would always be some student, a photographer or a glassblower, who would simply have taken a piece of newspaper and folded it once and propped it up like a tent and let it go at that. Albers would pick up the cathedral and the airplane and say: "These were meant to be made of stone or metal — not newspaper." Then he would pick up the photographer's absentminded tent and say: "But this! — this makes use of the soul of paper. Paper can fold without breaking. Paper has tensile strength, and a vast area can be supported by these two fine edges. This! — is a work of art in paper." And every cortex in the room would spin out. So simple! So beautiful ... It was as if light had been let into one's dim brain for the first time. My God! — starting from zero!

But those guys failed because they didn’t know what to do when they got to zero. We’re cool, though, because we have A/B testing now

Saturday, March 10, 2018

more on offensive ideas

In response to my previous post on this subject, my friend Chad Wellmon sent me a link to a (paywalled) essay by his colleague Elizabeth Barnes on the value of responding to offensive ideas. Barnes makes a useful distinction between ideas that are deeply offensive but not widely or seriously held — an argument in defense of rape, for instance — and the ideas of, say, Peter Singer. 

So what’s the difference with Peter Singer? His views are, from my perspective at least, no less offensive than the pro-rape argument. Yet he strikes me as different for the simple reason that, when it comes to a description of what many people think or what many people’s everyday views imply, Singer isn’t wrong.

Most people would, of course, be far too polite to say what Singer says. But Singer’s claims about the comparative value of disabled lives follow naturally from the casual remarks that disabled people and caregivers hear all the time. They’re implicit in the grave "I’m so sorry" quietly whispered to my friend after colleagues meet her beautiful, smiling daughter for the first time. They’re the unspoken message when another friend is reassured, just after her son is born: "But you can have another child." They’re the natural conclusion of a well-meaning doctor remarking to me, on learning that I don’t have children: "Oh, that’s probably for the best — your children might’ve inherited [your condition]."

I seriously doubt that the well-intentioned people who say these things would endorse Singer’s conclusions. But Singer is right that his conclusions flow straightforwardly from these sorts of common attitudes. For this reason, I find myself strangely grateful for the brutal honesty of Peter Singer. He says explicitly what others only gesture at implicitly. 

(Barnes has a rare medical condition that, as far as I can tell, does not threaten her life but makes that life more difficult in various ways.) Now, someone might argue in response that if Singer’s arguments indeed extend commonly-held views, that’s all the more reason to ignore them — to push them further and further to the margins. Barnes: 

People worry that grappling with offensive views gives those views undue legitimacy. But in the case of someone like Singer, the views have legitimacy whether or not I choose to engage with them. To state the obvious, the arguments of the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University are going to matter whether or not I pay attention to them. But, more important, Singer’s views already have legitimacy because people will continue to think about disability in ways directly relevant to his arguments regardless of whether progressive academics decide those arguments are simply too offensive to be discussed. (After all, as Singer himself wryly notes, the sales of Practical Ethics tend to increase whenever there are calls to "no platform" his talks.) Even Singer’s views on infant euthanasia aren’t a dystopian thought experiment. At least one major European country (the Netherlands) openly practices infanticide in some cases of disability.

If ideas have actual social and political purchase, if they are doing work in the world, then it’s rather naïve to think that by ignoring them we could somehow delegitimize them. That’s simply wishful thinking. 

In the talk I gave at Duke in January, called “Embrace the Pain: Living with the Repugnant Cultural Other,” I tried to make a case similar to the one Barnes makes, though on somewhat different grounds. I also think my argument is a kind of response to the thoughtful comments Alastair Roberts made on my earlier post. 

Anyway, here’s an excerpt: 

So, if we dare to embrace the pain while striving to minimize the harm, what does that look like? And how does it help us deal with our RCO? How can the presence of my RCO in my community to be seen as a feature rather than a bug? It begins with the understanding that we come together, temporarily, in this place so that we may play a certain complex and meaningful game, a game that involves trying out intellectual and personal positions, testing my beliefs and my identity in relation to others that are doing the same — and playing this game under the guidance and direction of people whom we all trust to run it fairly and with our flourishing in mind. With that framework in place, then, we might be able genuinely to hear Mill’s word of warning: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” In a healthily functioning academic community, these words can be heard as a health-giving challenge rather than a threat to be feared.

In such a community, my RCO can therefore play a role in strengthening and clarifying my convictions — even if that’s the last thing he would want to do! Recall my opening promise that, following G K Chesterton, I would try not to ask you to consider that you might be wrong. To take a couple of extreme examples: Do we really want a world in which Elie Wiesel seriously considers whether the Nazis might have been justified after all in implementing their Final Solution? Or where Malcolm X pauses to consider whether white supremacy is, after all is said and done, the best social order? I think not. But that doesn’t mean that — even in the big and uncontrolled outside world, and still more in the semi-controlled realm of academic conversation — we don’t benefit from a better understanding of what people we disagree with think, and why they think as they do.

Chesterton deplored the movement of modesty from “the organ of ambition” to “the organ of conviction.” He doesn’t want you to be modest about your convictions, but rather about your ambitions — by which he means all the ways you hope to put your convictions into effect. He wants you to be confident about your ends but critical and even skeptical about your preferred means to those ends. He wants you to consider all the different ways you might get to the goal you treasure — and in this endeavor your RCO can help, even if, again, he wouldn’t want to.

I also argued in that talk that we stand a better chance of getting people to, as Roberts puts it in his aforementioned comments, “stress-test” their beliefs under two conditions: if we are able to cultivate a game-like character in our campus conversations and if we faculty members work much, much harder to create an environment in which our students trust us to manage and direct those games. 

A postscript: at dinner after my talk I sat next to Bob Blouin, the Provost of the University of North Carolina, and he commented that he thought that faculty would do a better job of cultivating their students’ trust if they felt trusted by administrators. Well, yes. Precisely.