Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Disagreement, Modernity, Technology

In the last couple of weeks I have published three posts over at The American Conservative on disagreement and its management.




Since this blog largely deals with technological and academic questions, I tend to move over to AmCon when I have something to say about political and social issues … but there’s a lot of overlap to these broad categories, and I seriously thought about posting the third entry in that series here at Text Patterns.

Instead, I’m just linking to the series, but I want to point out something that seems important to me: that there is a clear and strong connection between (a) the need to think acutely about how social media shape our politics and ethics and (b) the need that I’ve been emphasizing here for a technological history of modernity. The pathologies of our shared socio-political life do not just arise from immediate contexts and recent technologies, but have been generated by disputes and technologies that go back at least half a millennium. The history of modernity’s rise and the critique of new media are in a sense a single enterprise, a point which, for all he may have gotten wrong, Marshall McLuhan understood profoundly.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

in the days of Good King Edmund

In his new collection of essays, Mario Vargas Llosa writes,

Half a century ago in the United States, it was probably Edmund Wilson, in his articles in The New Yorker or The New Republic, who decided the success or failure of a book, a poem, a novel or an essay. Now the Oprah Winfrey Show makes these decisions.  

Oh, yes, so true! In fact, all the way back in 1944 Wilson wrote the definitive takedown of detective stories — he crushed detective stories — and as we all know, people stopped reading such books and have never resumed.

Similarly, twelve years later Wilson reviewed a fantasy writer named Tolkien — or maybe I should say he totally destroyed Tolkien — with the result that none of you has ever heard that name before just now.

Yes, back in The Good Old Days highbrow critics had enormous, culture-changing power, which of course they always used for good, ensuring that masterpieces like Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls topped the book-sales charts. Instead we get dumbasses like Oprah turning, I don't know, recent translations of Anna Karenina into bestsellers. What rot. O tempora, o mores.

Twitter's changes

So this interview with Twitter's Kevin Weil suggests that (a) there will be significant changes coming to the user experience at Twitter and (b) I will hate every single one of them.

  • I'm already annoyed by the recently-implemented "while you were away" feature, since Twitter  doesn't show me everything that happened while I was away but rather what its algorithms decide is important. A very Facebook-like thing to do.
  • For me the single most unpleasant thing about Twitter is its tendency to create 24-hour obsessions: someone dies, or some pointless internet fight flares up, or some celebrity says something stupid, and for a day my timeline seems to have room for nothing else. Then the next day it's gone as though it had never been. Twitter's Project Lightning suggests that the company wants to make more of my Twitter experience like this.
  • "Twitter says it expects most people will like autoplay video" — are you freakin' kidding me?
  • Stopping abuse and harassment "is critically important to us," is "an ongoing area of focus for us," is "incredibly, incredibly important to us." But Weil has no announcements because, basically, nothing has changed. Call me back when it does.
  • I think Twitter has a big collapse coming. The leadership still doesn't know what the service is for or what they want it to be, but they're determined to exercise more and more control over the experience anyway. That's a recipe for disaster. In the end I think they're going to drive most of their users back to Facebook.

I know we've been through the Twitter-alternative search before with app.net and ello, but I am keeping a very close eye on Manton Reece's new project.

brief book reviews: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a historical fantasy, set in late Victorian London, that seems determined to bring in ... well, everything you might imagine turning up in a historical fantasy set in late Victorian London:

  • steampunky mechanical things? ✓
  • dark and narrow London alleyways? ✓
  • English orientalism? ✓
  • The Woman Question? ✓
  • stern and bigoted Victorian patriarch? ✓
  • delicate and bigoted Victorian matriarch? ✓
  • Gilbert and Sullivan? ✓
  • The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name? ✓

And yet ... it’s a really well-told story, and Pulley is a promising writer. I just hope that her next outing contains fewer predictable elements.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

climate science and public scrutiny

Eric Holthaus writes in Slate about a new climate study led by James Hansen that argues that we are likely to see ocean levels rising higher and far more quickly than has been expected. To say that the study is frightening is to master understatement.

But right now I just want to call attention to how the study is being presented to the world:

One necessary note of caution: Hansen’s study comes via a non-traditional publishing decision by its authors. The study will be published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, an open-access “discussion” journal, and will not have formal peer-review prior to its appearance online later this week. The complete discussion draft circulated to journalists was 66 pages long, and included more than 300 references. The peer-review will take place in real-time, with responses to the work by other scientists also published online. Hansen said this publishing timeline was necessary to make the work public as soon as possible before global negotiators meet in Paris later this year. Still, the lack of traditional peer review and the fact that this study’s results go far beyond what’s been previously published will likely bring increased scrutiny. On Twitter, Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist whose work focuses on Greenland and the Arctic, was skeptical of such enormous rates of near-term sea level rise, though she defended Hansen’s decision to publish in a non-traditional way.

It’s interesting that Holthaus says that this decision calls for “a note of caution”: we need to be careful before placing any trust in studies that haven’t been peer-reviewed. And that’s true — but not the primary lesson to be taken from the decision Hansen and his co-authors have made.

Hansen et al. are saying that having their conclusions — and the data from which they drew those conclusions — evaluated in as ruthlessly public a way as possible is infinitely more important than keeping any possible errors secret or achieving maximal prestige through publishing in a Big Journal. They are saying: What we believe we have discovered matters enormously, and therefore we want to expose everything we have done to the most rigorous possible scrutiny. That means opening their work to the world and saying: Go at it. When Holthaus says that this decision “will likely bring increased scrutiny” — well, yes. Precisely the point. Feature, not bug.

So whatever you think about what’s happening to our climate — and therefore to “our common home” — I don't see how you can’t applaud the way Hansen and his co-authors are handling the presentation of their work. This is science done in the most ethically responsible, and most ethically urgent, way imaginable. Every scholar ought to pay close attention to how this scholarship is being put before the world — and everyone who shares “our common home” ought to pay attention to how the ongoing public peer-review plays out.

Monday, July 20, 2015

brief book reviews: Unflattening

In Unflattening, Nick Sousanis writes that we need to “discover new ways of seeing, to open spaces for possibilities. It is about finding different perspectives.”

Stereoscopic vision reveals “that a single, ‘true’ perspective is false.”

Comics “allow for the integration and incorporation of multiple modes and signs and symbols.”

We all have “the capacity to host a multiplicity of worlds inside us,” so “we emerge with the possibility to become something different.”

We’re like the drones in Lang’s Metropolis, and like puppets who discover we have strings, and like the two-dimensional figures in Abbott’s Flatland.

There’s even a quote from Kahlil Gibran.

The whole argument is, more or less, contained in this image. If all this strikes you as profound or provocative, maybe you’ll like the book.

brief book reviews: The Internet of Garbage

Sarah Jeong’s short book The Internet of Garbage is very well done, and rather sobering, and I recommend it to you. The argument of the book goes something like this:

1) Human societies produce garbage.

2) Properly-functioning human societies develop ways of disposing of garbage, lest it choke out, or make inaccessible, all the things we value.

3) In the digital realm, the primary form of garbage for many years was spam — but spam has effectively been dealt with. Spammers still spam, but their efforts rarely reach us anymore: and in this respect the difference between now and fifteen years ago is immense.

And then, the main thrust of the argument:

4) Today, the primary form of garbage on the internet is harassment, abuse. And yet little progress is being made by social media companies on that score. Can’t we learn something from the victorious war against spam?

Patterning harassment directly after anti-spam is not the answer, but there are obvious parallels. The real question to ask here is, Why haven’t these parallels been explored yet? Anti-spam is huge, and the state of the spam/anti-spam war is deeply advanced. It’s an entrenched industry with specialized engineers and massive research and development. Tech industries are certainly not spending billions of dollars on anti-harassment. Why is anti-harassment so far behind?

(One possibility Jeong explores without committing to it: “If harassment disproportionately impacts women, then spam disproportionately impacts men — what with the ads for Viagra, penis size enhancers, and mail-order brides. And a quick glance at any history of the early Internet would reveal that the architecture was driven heavily by male engineers.” Surely this is a significant part of the story.)


5) The problem of harassment can only be seriously addressed with a twofold approach: “professional, expert moderation entwined with technical solutions.”

After following Jeong’s research and reflections on it, I can’t help thinking that the second of these recommendations is more likely to be followed than the first one. “The basic code of a product can encourage, discourage, or even prevent the proliferation of garbage,” and code is more easily changed in this respect than the hiring priorities of a large organization. Thus:

Low investment in the problem of garbage is why Facebook and Instagram keep accidentally banning pictures of breastfeeding mothers or failing to delete death threats. Placing user safety in the hands of low-paid contractors under a great deal of pressure to perform as quickly as possible is not an ethical outcome for either the user or the contractor. While industry sources have assured me that the financial support and resources for user trust and safety is increasing at social media companies, I see little to no evidence of competent integration with the technical side, nor the kind of research and development expenditure that is considered normal for anti-spam.

I too see little evidence that harassment and abuse of women (and minorities, especially black people) is a matter of serious concern to the big social-media companies. That really, really needs to change.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

readerly triage

In the first five pages of The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters says that media are

  • “devices of information”
  • “agencies of order”
  • “constitutive parts of ... our ecological and economic systems”
  • “vessels and environments”
  • “containers of possibility that anchor our existence”
  • “vehicles that carry and communicate meaning”
  • “the means by which meaning is communicated”
  • “infrastructures of data and control”
  • “enabling environments that provide habitats for diverse forms of life”
  • “civilizational ordering devices”

It’s obvious that these definitions, while sometimes complementary, are also sometimes fundamentally incompatible: a device that is also a vessel that is also an anchor....

So I set the book down and thought for a while. Then I picked it up again, and thumbed through it. I saw some pages about clocks and sundials, and some others about clouds (the clouds of the book’s title, I presume), and some others about Google. The pages on timekeeping looked good, but I’ve read a number of books about timekeeping already. I couldn't tell, at a brief glance, about the others.

I looked at those opening pages again. Three possibilities presented themselves to me. The first is that Peters is a demanding, allusive writer who works not by some ploddingly systematic outline but rather by a Shandean association of ideas. The second is that he actually has a logical outline but prefers, either for aesthetic reasons or because he values esoteric writing, to obscure it and to allow his readers to figure out the structure for themselves. The third is that his thinking is simply disorganized and incoherent.

Some of the best books I have ever read — fiction and nonfiction alike — have been governed (or “governed”) by Shandean procedure: Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; but that style demands a great deal of readers, and when it fails it fails catastrophically. I have been exhilarated by a few Shandean books; I have been infuriated by a great many that attempt that style without success. The same is true for works (Joyce’s Ulysses is the paradigmatic example) that are highly ordered but hide their organizational principles.

When you’re trying to decide what to read you do a (formal or informal) risk/reward analysis. You think about how much time and attention you’re being asked to invest in this text; you estimate the rewards you’re likely to get in a best-case and in a worst-case scenario. I did all that and put Peters’s book aside.

Monday, July 13, 2015

why the technological history of modernity?

Ivan Illich, "Philosophy... Artifacts... Friendship" (1996):

The person today who feels called to a life of prayer and charity cannot eschew an intellectual grounding in the critique of perceptions, because beyond things, our perceptions are to a large extent technogenic. Both the thing perceived and the mode of perception it calls forth are the result of artifacts that are meant by their engineers to shape the users. The novice to the sacred liturgy and to mental prayer has a historically new task. He is largely removed from those things - water, sunlight, soil, and weather - that were made to speak of God's presence. In comparison with the saints whom he tries to emulate, his search for God's presence is of a new kind.  

Please do not take me for a technophobe. I argue for detachment from artifacts, because only by abstaining from their use can I perceive the seductiveness of their whispers. Unlike the saintly models of yesterday, the one who begins walking now under the eyes of God must not just divest himself of bad habits that have become second nature; he must not only correct proclivities toward gold or flesh or vanity that have been ingrained in his hexis, obscuring his sight or crippling his glance. Today's convert must recognize how his senses are continuously shaped by the artifacts he uses. They are charged by design with intentional symbolic loads, something previously unknown.    

The things today with decisively new consequences are systems, and these are so built that they co-opt and integrate their user's hands, ears, and eyes. The object has lost its distality by becoming systemic. No one can easily break the bonds forged by years of television absorption and curricular education that have turned eyes and ears into system components.

(Thanks to my friend Richard Gibson for reminding me of this crucial passage.)

information and history

Every few days, it seems, I come across a rueful, even mournful citation of T. S. Eliot: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” But it’s possible to make these distinctions in ways that are not so tendentious. One might think along these lines:

  • information: “A difference which makes a difference is an idea. It is a ‘bit,’ a unit of information.” — Gregory Bateson
  • data: information recognized by humans as information
  • knowledge: information mastered by humans and translated into human terms
  • wisdom: the proper discerning of the human uses one's knowledge has
  • counsel: wisdom transmitted to others

The point is not to see one of these as superior to the others, but to see them as a sequential development: for example, those who lack genuine knowledge — which, mind you, comes in different forms — will be necessarily deficient in wisdom and their counsel will be correspondingly less valuable.

This is all quite sketchy and needs further development, of course. Let’s start by complicating matters further. In his book The Creation of the Media, Paul Starr writes:

“Information” often refers specifically to data relevant to decisions, while “knowledge” signifies more abstract concepts and judgments. As knowledge provides a basis of understanding, so information affords a basis of action. “Information” carries the connotation of being more precise, yet also more fragmentary, than knowledge. From early in its history, American culture was oriented more to facts than to theory, more to practicality than to literary refinement — more, in short, to information than to knowledge.

Further: Near the beginning of his remarkable book Holding On To Reality, Albert Borgmann posits that there are three major kinds of information:

  • “Without information about reality, without reports and records, the reach of experience quickly trails off into the shadows of ignorance and forgetfulness.”
  • “In addition to the information that discloses what is distant in space and remote in time, there is information that allows us to transform reality and make it richer materially and morally. As a report is the paradigm of information about reality, so a recipe is the model of information for reality, instruction for making bread or wine or French onion soup. Similarly there are plans, scores, and constitutions, information for erecting buildings, making music, and ordering society. 
  • “Technological information lifts both the illumination and the transformation of reality to another level of lucidity and power. But it also introduces a new kind of information. To information about and for reality it adds information as reality. The paradigms of report and recipe are succeeded by the paradigm of the recording. The technological information on a compact disc is so detailed and controlled that it addresses us virtually as reality. What comes from a recording of a Bach cantata on a CD is not a report about the cantata nor a recipe — the score — for performing the cantata, it is in the common understanding music itself. Information through the power of technology steps forward as a rival of reality.”

One way to explain the deficiency in our narratives of modernity is to say that they have failed to maintain these distinctions and have therefore failed to note the mediating role that specific technologies play in promoting transfer from data to knowledge to wisdom to counsel.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Lord Macaulay and the News

One way to pursue the technological history of modernity is to try to understand how news and ideas got around at any given time. For instance, I wrote a short piece last year about Baron von Grimm, who created, helped to write, and distributed a newsletter that kept wealthy and literate citizens of 18th-century France informed about what was really happening in their country — as opposed to what the strictly-censored official sources of news wanted them to believe.

But Grimm did not invent this sort of thing. There’s a fascinating account of an early stage in the history of the newsletter in one of the most famous of all works of narrative history, Lord Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James the Second. Macaulay, in classic Victorian fashion, takes a few hundred pages to get around to the official starting point of his book, because how can you understand the rise to the throne of James II if you don't understand the career of his older brother, Charles II, whose coming to the throne makes no sense if you don't grasp the essential narrative of the English Civil War, which has its roots in ... You get the idea.

But somewhere in that opening 500 pages Macaulay takes a (very long) chapter to do a kind of social and economic history of Restoration England, covering everything from population estimates to leading industries to the social place of clergymen. It’s a fascinating narrative, and anticipates models of social history that didn’t come to their full flower for another century or so. One of his interests here is technological change, and that leads him to describe the rise of the postal service. “A rude and imperfect establishment of posts for the conveyance of letters had been set up by Charles the First, and had been swept away by the civil war. Under the Commonwealth the design was resumed. At the Restoration the proceeds of the Post Office, after all expenses had been paid, were settled on the Duke of York [later to be King James II]. On most lines of road the mails went out and came in only on the alternate days. In Cornwall, in the fens of Lincolnshire, and among the hills and lakes of Cumberland, letters were received only once a week.”

It was a start. But then things started to change in London specifically, though not as a result of a governmental program. Rather, “in the reign of Charles the Second, an enterprising citizen of London, William Dockwray, set up, at great expense, a penny post, which delivered letters and parcels six or eight times a day in the busy and crowded streets near the Exchange, and four times a day in the outskirts of the capital.” Exciting! (By the way, I wish we would retire the term "entrepreneur" and replace it with "enterprising citizen.") But, Macaulay immediately notes, “this improvement was, as usual, strenuously resisted,” and in a turn of events that’s hard to understand today, people began to insist that the penny post was somehow connected with the so-called (and ultimately shown to be fictional) Popish plot against King Charles — perhaps a way for conspirators to share plans. It is characteristic of that age of political intrigue that when people heard about a new medium of communication they immediately speculated on its usefulness to the perfidious.

But the penny post worked; a wide range of Londoners found it useful. And as the various postal services, public and private, became more strongly established, people became more eager for and expectant of news. Macaulay explains, in a passage I will quote at some length, that there was one particular form of news that became something of a rage in the latter years of the Stuarts:

No part of the load which the old mails carried out was more important than the newsletters. In 1685 nothing like the London daily paper of our time existed, or could exist. Neither the necessary capital nor the necessary skill was to be found. Freedom too was wanting, a want as fatal as that of either capital or skill.

So for Macaulay there were political, technological, and socio-economic reasons — all interacting with one another — why newspapers did not yet exist, even though

the press was not indeed at that moment under a general censorship. The licensing act, which had been passed soon after the Restoration, had expired in 1679. Any person might therefore print, at his own risk, a history, a sermon, or a poem, without the previous approbation of any officer; but the Judges were unanimously of opinion that this liberty did not extend to Gazettes, and that, by the common law of England, no man, not authorised by the crown, had a right to publish political news. While the Whig party was still formidable, the government thought it expedient occasionally to connive at the violation of this rule. During the great battle of the Exclusion Bill, many newspapers were suffered to appear, the Protestant Intelligence, the Current Intelligence, the Domestic Intelligence, the True News, the London Mercury. None of these was published oftener than twice a week. None exceeded in size a single small leaf. The quantity of matter which one of them contained in a year was not more than is often found in two numbers of the Times.

Yet despite the limits of the medium, the Royal party felt that they needed to keep such newsletters under direct control:

After the defeat of the Whigs it was no longer necessary for the King to be sparing in the use of that which all his Judges had pronounced to be his undoubted prerogative. At the close of his reign no newspaper was suffered to appear without his allowance: and his allowance was given exclusively to the London Gazette. The London Gazette came out only on Mondays and Thursdays. The contents generally were a royal proclamation, two or three Tory addresses, notices of two or three promotions, an account of a skirmish between the imperial troops and the Janissaries on the Danube, a description of a highwayman, an announcement of a grand cockfight between two persons of honour, and an advertisement offering a reward for a strayed dog. The whole made up two pages of moderate size.

Such was journalism. As in France a hundred years later, the people of Restoration England knew that they were being deprived of a thorough and accurate account of events — a troublesome thing in a time of such frequent political upheavals. These chaotic political conditions, in company with the rudiments of a news-sharing infrastructure, gave impetus to entrepreneurs to develop the technological skills and distribution networks necessarily to create something like the modern newspaper — which started to happen early in the next century.

Macaulay, writing in a time when Britain was awash in newspapers and journals of all varieties that covered a wide range of political and cultural subjects — he himself, in addition to his political career, wrote regularly for the Edinburgh Review — understood that the last years of the Stuarts had laid the foundation for his own informational environment. Moreover, he was one of the first historians to recognize the value of those early experiments in news-gathering and news-distributing: he learned most of what he knew about public opinion in the Restoration era by reading those old newsletters.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

writing (and thinking) by hand

Here’s a response from John Durham Peters to my 79 Theses on Technology. However, I’m not quite sure what sort of a response it is. It could be a dissent, or it could be just a riff on some of the themes I introduced.

For instance, Peters writes, “We humans never do anything without technique, so we shouldn’t pretend there is any ontological difference between writing by hand, keyboarding, and speaking, or that one of them is more original or pure than the other. We are technical all the way down in body and mind.” Does he believe that I have suggested that writing by hand is non-technological? If so, I would like to know where I did so.

But then he also writes, “Writing with two hands on a keyboard, dictating to a person or a machine, writing with chalk, quill, pencil, or pen — each embody mind in different ways,” and this seems to be a re-statement of my theses 64-66.

So I dunno. You be the judge.

But while we’re on the subject of handwriting, here’s a wonderful essay by Naveet Alang that explores these questions far more subtly than I did, and raises an additional question: To what extent does writing on a screen, using a stylus, enable the same qualities of mind and body that writing with a pen on paper does?

It would be altogether too optimistic to say that digital handwriting offers some kind of countervailing balance to this shift. For one, it is being pushed by enormous multinationals. When you mark up a PDF in Microsoft’s OneNote, it automatically gets uploaded to the cloud, becoming one more reason to hook you into the vertical silo of a tech giant’s services. Technology does not carry an inherent politics, but it does have tendencies to encourage behaviour one way or another. The anti-Facebook revolution will not come in the form of a digital pen, and Microsoft’s emphasis on the pen as a form of personal computing simply mirrors Apple’s similar ethos: pleasure breeds consumption, which in turn breeds profits.

For all that, though, what pens do offer is both practical and symbolic resistance to the pre-programmed nature of the modern web — its tendency to ask you to express yourself, however creatively and generatively, within the literal and figurative constraints of a small, pre-defined box. There is a charming potential in the pen for activity that works against the grain of those things: to mark out in one’s own hand the absurdities of some top ten list, or underlining some particularly poignant paragraph in a way that a highlight or newly popular screenshotting tool doesn’t quite capture. Perhaps it’s the visual nature of the transgression — the mark of a hand slashed across a page — that produces emblematically the desire for self-expression: not the witty tweet or status update, nor just the handwritten annotation, but the doubled, layered version of both, the very overlap put to one’s own, subjective ends. And then there is more simple pleasure: that you are, in both an actual and metaphorical sense, drawing outside the lines. If one can draw over and annotate a web page and then send it to a friend, for example, the web at least feels less hegemonic, recalling the kind of interactivity and freedom of expression once found in the now-broken dream of blog comment sections.

Fascinating stuff. Please read it all.

Friday, July 3, 2015

the blind man's stick

How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement, by Lambros Malafouris, is a maddening but also fascinating book that is seriously helping me to think through some of the issues that concern me. Malafouris wants to argue that the human mind is “embodied, extended, enacted, and distributed” — extensive rather than intensive in its fundamental character.

He starts his exploration wonderfully: by considering a thought-experiment that Maurice Merleau-Ponty first posited in his Phenomenology of Perception. Merleau-Ponty asks us to imagine a blind man navigating a city street with a cane. What is the relationship between that cane and the man’s perceptual apparatus? Or, as Gregory Bateson put it in Steps to an Ecology of Mind,

Consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man's self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? These questions are nonsense, because the stick is a pathway along which differences are transmitted under transformation, so that to draw a delimiting line across this pathway is to cut off a part of the systemic circuit which determines the blind man's locomotion.

(Bateson does not mention and probably was not aware of Merleau-Ponty.) For Malafouris the example of the blind man’s cane suggests that “what is outside the head may not necessarily be outside the mind.... I see no compelling reason why the study of the mind should stop at the skin or at the skull. It would, I suggest, be more productive to explore the hypothesis that human intelligence ‘spreads out’ beyond the skin into culture and the material world.” Moreover, things in the material world embody intentions and purposes — Malafouris thinks they actually have intentions and purposes, a view I think is misleading and sloppy — and these come to be part of the mind: they don't just influence it, they help constitute it.

I believe this example provides one of the best diachronic exemplars of what I call the gray zone of material engagement, i.e., the zone in which brains, bodies, and things conflate, mutually catalyzing and constituting one another. Mind, as the anthropologist Gregory Bateson pointed out, “is not limited by the skin,” and that is why Bateson was able to recognize the stick as a “pathway” instead of a boundary. Differentiating between “inside” and “outside” makes no real sense for the blind man. As Bateson notes, “the mental characteristics of the system are immanent, not in some part, but in the system as a whole.”

If we were to take this model seriously, then we would need to narrate the rise of modernity differently than we’ve been narrating it — proceeding in a wholly different manner than the three major stories I mentioned in my previous post. Among other things, we’d need to be ready to see the Oppenheimer Principle as having a far stronger motive role in history than is typical.

When I talk this way, some people tell me that they think I'm falling into technological determinism. Not so. Rather, it's a matter of taking with proper seriousness the power that some technologies have to shape culture. And that's not because they think or want, nor because we are their slaves. Rather, people make them for certain purposes, and either those makers themselves have socio-political power or the technologies fall into the hands of people who have socio-political power, so that the technologies are put to work in society. We then have the option to accept the defaults or undertake the difficult challenge of hacking the inherited tools — bending them in a direction unanticipated and unwanted by those who deployed them.

To write the technological history of modernity is to investigate how our predecessors have received the technologies handed to them, or used upon them, by the powerful; and also, perhaps, to investigate how countercultural tech has risen up from below to break up the one-way flow of power. These are things worth knowing for anyone who is uncomfortable with the dominant paradigm we live under now.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

my big fat intellectual project

If there is any one general topic that has preoccupied me in the last decade, it’s ... well, it’s hard to put in a phrase. Let’s try this: The ways that technocratic modernity has changed the possibilities for religious belief, and the understanding of those changes that we get from studying the literature that has been attentive to them. But literature has not been merely an observer of these vast seismic tremors; it has been a participant, insofar as literature has been, for many, the chief means by which a disenchanted world can be re-enchanted — but not fully — and by which buffered selves can become porous again — but not wholly. There are powerful literary responses to technocratic modernity that serve simultaneously as case studies (what it’s like to be modern) and diagnostic (what's to be done about being modern).

I have not chosen to write a book about all this, but rather to explore it in a series of essays. The two key ones, the ones that form a kind of presentatonal diptych for my thoughts, are “Fantasy and the Buffered Self”, which appeared here in The New Atlantis last year, and “The Witness of Literature: A Genealogical Sketch”, which has just appeared in The Hedgehog Review.

These essays offer the fullest laying-out of the history as I understand it to date, but there are a few others in which I have elaborated some of the key ideas in more detail: see this essay on Thomas Pynchon, this one on Walker Percy, this one on Iain M. Banks, and this one on Iain Sinclair. Some of these writers are religious, some are not, some are ambivalent or ambiguous; all of them are deeply concerned with modernity and its real or imagined alternatives, especially those which seem to connect us with what used to be called the transcendent.

These recent posts of mine on what I’m calling the technological history of modernity are part of the same overarching project — a way to understand more deeply and more broadly where we are and how we got here. My reflections will on these matters will continue, probably in one form or another for the rest of my life.

the three big stories of modernity

So far there have been three widely influential stories about the rise of modernity: the Emancipatory, the Protestant, and the Neo-Thomist. The Emancipatory account argues that modernity is fundamentally about the use of rediscovered classical learning, especially the Skeptics and Epicureans in their literary and philosophical modes, to liberate European Man from bondage to a power-hungry church and religious superstition. The Protestant account argues that modernity marks the moment when rediscovered biblical languages reconnected people with the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, obscured for many centuries by those same power-hungry priests and by the obscurantist pedantries of Scholastic philosophy. The Neo-Thomist account argues that what the others portray as liberation or deliverance was instead a tragedy, an unwarranted rebellion against a church that, while flawed, had managed to achieve by the high Middle Ages a unity of thought, feeling, and action — manifest in the poetry of Dante, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, and the great cathedrals of the era — that gave great aid, comfort, and understanding to generations of people, the high and the low alike.

The Neo-Thomists agree with the Protestants in rejecting the Emancipators' irreligion and false, truncated "humanism." The Protestants join the Emancipators in condemning the priestcraft, superstition, and hostility to progress of the Neo-Thomists. The Neo-Thomists and the Emancipators share the belief that the Protestants are neither fish nor fowl, neither religious nor secular.

All of these accounts began five hundred years ago, and all survive today, in popular and in scholarly forms. The Protestant account undergirds the massive studies of Jesus and Paul recently produced by N. T. Wright; the Neo-Thomist account (which was articulated most fully in the early twentieth century by Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson) continues in the work of scholars as varied as the English Radical Orthodoxy crowd and Catholic scholars such as Brad Gregory; a classic version of the Emancipatory account, Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, recently received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

There may seem to be little that all three have in common, but in fact all are committed to a single governing idea, one stated seventy years ago by an influential Neo-Thomist, Richard Weaver of the University of Chicago: Ideas Have Consequences. But we can present their shared convictions with greater specificity through a twofold expansion: (a) philosophical and theological ideas (b) that emerged half a millennium ago are the most vital ones for who we are in the West today. That is, all these narrators of modernity see our own age as one in which the consequences of 500-year-old debates conducted by philosophers and theologians are still being played out.

I think all of these narratives are wrong. They are wrong because they are the product of scholars in universities who overrate the historical importance and influence of other scholars in universities, and because they neglect ideas that connect more directly with the material world. All of these grands recits should be set aside, and they should not immediately be replaced with others, but with more particular, less sweeping, and more technologically-oriented stories. The technologies that Marshall McLuhan called "the extensions of Man" are infinitely more important for Man's story, for good and for ill, than the debates of the schoolmen and interpreters of the Bible. Instead of grand narratives of the emergence of The Modern we need something far more plural: technological histories of modernity.

It is not my purpose here to supply such histories: that would be a vast undertaking indeed. The closest analogue to what I have in mind is perhaps the 27-book series Science and Civilisation in China (1954-2008), initiated and for several decades edited by Joseph Needham; or perhaps, also on a massive scale, Lynn Thorndike's A History of Magic and Experimental Science (8 volumes, 1923–58) — Thorndike’s project being actually a part of the story I think needs to be told, though it’s outdated now. Other pieces of the technological history of modernity already exist, of course: in the thriving discipline of book history, in various economic and social histories, in books like A Pattern Language and Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media and Roy Porter’s The Greatest Benefit to Mankind.

Had Porter not died prematurely he would have been the person best suited to telling the whole story, though it’s too big for any one person to tell extremely well. But it needs to be told: we need a complex, multifaceted, materially-oriented account of how modernity arose and developed, starting with the later Middle Ages. The three big stories, with their overemphasis on theological and philosophical ideas and inattentiveness to economics and technology, have reigned long enough — more than long enough.