Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

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? Boone 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.  

Friday, March 9, 2018

conversation and equality

When I spoke at Duke a couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to visit with some of the students of Walter Sinnot-Armstrong. (Walter is a delightful fellow, by the way, and has a book coming out later this year, Think Again, that I am presumptuous enough to see as an excellent sequel to How to Think.) The students were supposed to have read my book, and by the quality of their questions I suspect they actually had. One of those questions has stuck with me, and I have been mulling it over. 

“Your book,” the student said, “seems to presume an equality in status and power. When you tell people to seek out the best representatives of opposing views, or to try to articulate those views as accurately and fairly as possible, you’re assuming that everybody at the conversational table is there on the same terms. But what if they’re not? What if some people are marginalized, excluded, oppressed? Is it really appropriate to ask them to be so thoughtful towards those who are, at best, complicit in exclusion and oppression?” 

It’s a fair question. I responded by saying that when you are literally at the table together (as we were at that moment) there is at least a limited kind of equality, one that is real even if it doesn’t erase all the political and social inequalities that afflict our society; and, that limited and local equality presents certain tactical challenges: How may it best be used by people who believe themselves to be marginalized and oppressed? And, I said, a case can be made for engaging people respectfully even when you don’t actually respect them — simply on the “know your enemy” principle. 

This is a version of the debate over civility, which has been going on with waning and waxing intensity for longer than most of us realize — it certainly didn't begin with the rise of social media. Stephen Carter’s book Civility appeared in 1998, and was immediately attacked by Randall Kennedy in The American Prospect: "The civility movement is deeply at odds with what an invigorated liberalism requires: intellectual clarity; an insistence upon grappling with the substance of controversies; and a willingness to fight loudly, openly, militantly, even rudely for policies and values that will increase freedom, equality, and happiness in America and around the world.” I suspect Kennedy would, like Walter Sinnot-Armstrong’s shrewd student, see my book as a recipe for subtly maintaining the inequalities of the status quo. 

This preference for militant and rude argument is not confined to the left. Consider, for instance, these words by my old friend Paul Griffiths

I recently, and freely, resigned my chair in Catholic Theology at Duke University in response to disciplinary actions initiated by my dean and colleagues. Those disciplinary actions, in turn, were provoked by my words: critical and confrontational words spoken to colleagues in meetings; and hot words written in critique of university policies and practices, in support of particular freedoms of expression and thought, and against legal and disciplinary constraints of those freedoms. My university superiors, the dean and the provost, have been at best lukewarm in their support of these freedoms, preferring to them conciliation and accommodation of their opponents. And so, I reluctantly concluded, the word-struggle, the agony of distinction and argument, the search for clarity by dramatizing and exploring difference—these no longer have the place they once had in the university.

Harsh and direct disagreement places thought under pressure. That’s its point. Pressure can be intellectually productive: being forced to look closely at arguments against a beloved position helps those who hold it to burnish and buttress it as often as it moves them to abandon it. But pressure also causes pain and fear; and when those under pressure find these things difficult to bear, they’ll sometimes use any means possible to make the pressure and the pain go away. They feel unsafe, threatened, put upon, and so they react by deploying the soft violence of the law or the harder violence of the aggressive and speech-denying protest. Both moves are common enough in our élite universities now, as is their support by the powers that be. Tolerance for intellectual pain is less than it was. So is tolerance for argument.

There are a great many complex issues here, and I’m still trying to work through them, and will continue to post on these matters as I am able to get some clarity. Two of my chief interlocutors in the coming posts will be friends of mine. One is Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a working draft of whose book-in-progress Generous Thinking is posted here. The other is Chad Wellmon, whose proposal for a “modest university” may be read here

But let me start by making a few distinctions: 

  • between (to borrow phrases from Griffiths) “harsh and direct disagreement” and “aggressive and speech-denying protest,” i.e., no-platforming; 
  • between how we may treat our colleagues and how we may treat our students; 
  • between public universities and private ones, or, more generally, between those that claim to be open to all and those that have a distinctive mission to particular groups of students (e.g., HBCUs and religious colleges); 
  • between conditions that prevail within the university and those that prevail in the general society, extramurally as it were. 

I’ve dealt with some of these issues in previous essays — here’s one and here’s another — but I haven’t yet achieved full clarity. (In that second essay in particular I am trying to lay a foundation for better thinking about these issues.) I’m hoping to inch closer to that in future posts, which will not come immediately but over s period of time, and interspersed with other things. Please help out in the comments if you can! 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

farewell to Twitter?

A few weeks ago I deleted my private Twitter account — it was a good way to keep up with friends, but I found it impossible to control it (via disabled RTs, muted strings, etc.) well enough to prevent the frustration from exceeding the pleasure. That left me just with my public account, which I have been using primarily for linking to my own writing (e.g. blog posts like this one) and to cool things I’ve read by others. But I really really want to be out of the Twitter ecosystem completely — for obvious reasons: everybody knows that Twitter is horrible, there’s no need to belabor that point — so I have now deleted the public account too.

My chief concern with being off Twitter altogether is that I’ll be unable to provide a signal boost to people who are writing or making interesting things that other folks might not notice — and for that reason I could, I must admit, come back. So when Twitter notifies me, 29 days from now, that my account is about to be deleted, I might have a moment of weakness and log back in. (Twitter does prompt you when your account is about to be deleted ... doesn’t it?)

I am aware, of course, that most people who read this blog get to it via my Twitter links, so I am perhaps making myself more marginal than ever. Who will even see this post? But if you happen to see it, and want to see more, please try RSS. It’s great. Most of the cool things I read or see are posted here, or on my personal blog, or on my Pinboard page. And all of those have RSS feeds.

P.S. Have I written before about quitting Twitter? Have I quit Twitter before? Yes on both counts. I am pathetically irresolute. 

UPDATE (a few days later): Several people emailed me pleading with me to come back to Twitter, just for linkage. I guess for a great many people RSS is just a foreign technology. And since I can set up automatic posting to Twitter, why not? So that little experiment didn’t last long….

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

why I got it wrong

Obviously it’s good to admit you’re wrong when you’re wrong — because we’re all gonna be wrong, often — but it’s even better to try to understand how you went astray in the first place.

So why did I misinterpret Graeber and Wengrow’s argument? I think I did so because I have seen all too often a series of steps — steps of assumption rather than argument — by which the family is associated with patriarchy and patriarchy with tyranny and oppression, and the very familiarity of this narrative led me to assume that G&W were participating in it. "Oh, that again.” So my awareness of other people’s typical assumptions neatly turned into an assumption of my own.  

Also, even though one of the chief themes of my recent book is the necessity of taking some time before responding to anyone, I plunged right into writing that blog post without pausing to reflect. And I think I did that because I am aware of just how common the anti-family stance is among intellectuals of the past 75 years or so — I was made aware of that some years ago when I read Christopher Lasch’s brilliant (and too-little-read) Haven in a Heartless World, which convincingly traces the emergence of a dominant sociological account of the family and shows how that account eventually generated governmental policies that have done enormous damage to families and the individuals who constitute them.  

So Lasch made me aware of, and sensitive to, certain common presumptions among intellectuals in our time. And I’m glad he did. But that sensitivity made me prone to over-reading G&W's account. “Many intellectuals think this, G&W are intellectuals, therefore G&W think this.” Not my most logical, or charitable, moment. 

I think the lesson here for me is that when I hold a minority position on some issue within a given community of inquiry, and know that it is a minority position, I must remember how easy it is to attribute the majority position  to anyone in that community I happen to come across — even when there is no actual evidence that they hold it. (I emphasize communities of inquiry because a minority view in society as a whole might be a majority one within a particular community, and vice versa.) For those of us who have a good many unpopular opinions, there’s a constant temptation to make the Ah-ha! move, the gotcha move. 

Now, it may turn out that G&W do affirm the critique of the family that Lasch identifies. If they do, and if they do not convince me that that view is correct, then I may well lash them with Lasch. But I promise to wait and see — and then to think it over

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

hunters, farmers, and time

In a wonderful review-essay in the most recent issue of The New Atlantis, Adam Roberts argues that farmers were the first time-travelers:

It is certainly possible to imagine our hunter-gatherer ancestors living in some bestial, continuous present of consciousness, their experience of time pricked out with moments of intensity — the chase, the kill, the satisfaction of a full stomach — but indifferent to the distant future.  

But it is quite impossible to imagine farmers prospering in such a frame of mind. Once we humans began to depend on planted crops and domesticated animals, our new mode of life absolutely required us to think ahead: to anticipate setbacks and think through solutions, to plan, to map out the future world — indeed, many potential future worlds.

Time travel as mental exercise must have begun at least that early. And that makes this focus on recent modernity look a little parochial. We are not so special. Indeed, thinking in this way of the future’s origins might make us rethink some of the metaphors we use to articulate our sense of time. Gleick is good on the limitations of these figures of speech — for example, time, as he shows, is not really “like a river.” Farmers, the original time travelers, are likewise prone to think of rivers not first as modes of transport but means of irrigation. Might time be the same for us — not a vehicle for taking us somewhere, as a horse is to a hunter, but a resource to make fertile what we have and hold dear?  

This view would imply that science fiction is at root a farming literature.  

I am intrigued by this idea, and responded to it in an email to Adam that I’m going to adapt for this post. (I should mention here that Adam and I are these days thinking together about fantasy.) If "science fiction is at root a farming literature," could we not say that the Primal Scene of fantasy is the disruption of the lives of farmers by hunters? And that that disruption is (to stick with Freudian categories) a kind of return of the repressed, the nightmarish recurrence of something that the farmers thought had been banished by their forethought, i.e., their time travel?

It is not just fantasy, of course: when Horace retreats to his Sabine farm he is surely escaping the “hunters” of Roman politics; and when Machiavelli is exiled by the fierce hunters of Florentine politics to the countryside what does he do? He enters his study and practices the time travel of conversing with long-dead men. Maybe the founding myth of this particular pattern is Cincinnatus’s returning to his plow. (On the Lawn of the University of Virginia there is a statue of George Washington standing with the fasces, his plow behind him — and immediately across the Lawn there is another statue, of Jefferson sitting and contemplating this scene. It’s marvelously ambiguous.)

But what if the genre of fantasy uniquely finds its fons et origo in the fear of the return of the repressed hunters? Think of Odysseus’s encounter with the Kyklopes and his deep repulsion at the fact that they do not farm but just eat whatever comes up out of the ground — and then he immediately goes on to note that they have no politics either, and simply deal out whatever they think is justice to their own families. They are hunter-gatherers and therefore uncivilized, as are Penelope’s suitors of course, who behave in exactly the same way. And so the killing of the suitors and the subsequent purging of the halls of Odysseus are a prefiguration of the Scouring of the Shire.

So maybe science fiction is fundamentally about the hopes of farmers, and fantasy about their fears. If the history that David Graeber and David Wengrow sketch out  —the one I described in my previous post — is correct, and there was no smooth sequential abandonment of hunting and gathering in favor of farming but rather a very long period of mixed economies, mixed cultures, then the survival of these complexities into modern literature is not wholly surprising.

Monday, March 5, 2018

rewriting ancient history

This fascinating article by David Graeber and David Wengrow challenges a strongly established historical account — one, they say, having its origins primarily in the work of Rousseau — that posits, in the early human era, egalitarian hunter-gatherer cultures displaced by farming cultures that brought technological progress but also social inequality. That narrative is, shall we say, problematic:

That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way. 

Graeber and Wenbow think the existing evidence — which necessarily is rather spotty — tells a different tale:

Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. To the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. 

You can read the essay for their argument, which I think is strong, if not utterly compelling. (It will be interesting to see the responses it gets from paleohistorians and archaeologists.) For now, I just want to call attention to the concluding paragraph:

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place. 

What I find noteworthy here is the pre-cooking of the evidence. The “historical verdict” isn’t in yet, but Graeber and Wenbow, miraculously, already know what it will say: that when we peer into the distant past we see that the great impediment to human freedom is not the technological and capitalist order created by farming, but rather, yes, the family. The family is the monster in the closet of human prehistory. It is the family that must be destroyed. [UPDATE: Graeber and Wengrow do not say this, and I was wrong to claim that they do. See Graeber’s comment below. I've also struck through some of my extravagantly premature conclusions below, while leaving them visible in order to accept the shame I deserve.]

To which my first thought is, more or less, this. And my second thought is that I’m tempted to blog my way through Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization.

But beyond that, I’ll just note that it’s pretty sad that this from-the-ground-up reconsideration of history, this utter dismantling of conventional narratives, this opening of the door to radical new possibilities, is all in the service of … reaffirming and reinscribing the decontextualized, autonomous subject of the liberal order. Graeber and Wenbow throw out the historical narrative pioneered by Rousseau in order to provide a slightly different justification and celebration of Rousseau’s picture of the human being. “I love to tell the story, … to tell the old, old story …” It seems yet another illustration (as if any were needed) of Patrick Deneen’s thesis that liberalism fails through succeeding, and when confronted by that failure, always replies with the demand for mo’ better liberalism. Graeber and Wenbow lack the imagination to think their way beyond what in our time is the most conventional of all anthropologies. It turns out that a thoroughgoing revision of our understanding of early human history just happens to confirm everything Graeber and Wenbow already believe. What were the chances? 

I have more to say in another post about hunters, gatherers, and Adam Roberts. Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

back in the saddle

Hi. I’m back. Not sure how much I’ll be posting, but I have a great many ideas that I want to try out, so please join me in the comments. A few little notes about what I’ve been up to: 

More soon!