25th September, 2017
On experts, empires, privilege, and elites.
The terrorists of capitalism
We’re being devoured by people infected with the Damnable Trinity of capitalism, white supremacy, and kyriarchy. They are munching on people’s bones and baying to those infernal gods while our blood drips down their faces. It’s like Fenrir swallowing the Sun, except it’s their gratuitous greed and empathy-void, single-mindedness devouring our planet and our species in violent, strong-armed swoops. This while they have the audacity to scold us with lies about having ‘earned it’. This, while having the arrogance to say that their wealth means they outworked us all.”
via Alexis Morgan
The unfairness of digital markets
It is becoming increasingly apparent that widespread deployment of algorithmic tools can intensify, rather than reduce, the chasm between the wealthy and the vulnerable. This is the issue Ezrachi and Stucke address as behavioural discrimination. With ever-increasing hoards of data, firms can engage in near-perfect dynamic price discrimination, flipping our attributes, likes and fancies into individually enclosed and tailored worlds. Overall, they argue, this is corrosive to social welfare, because the more vulnerable among us end up paying more. The authors’ assessment of where this is heading is of the most sober kind: absent legal intervention, perfect discrimination will likely become the new norm… In the digital world – and indeed the physical one into which the ruling class of platforms and super-platforms are rapidly encroaching – it seems it is the law of the fist that reigns supreme. And for us, as consumers and as citizens, it is “a descent from king to slave on the data treadmill”.
The superficiality of elite identity
Given that this class’s identity depends on a form of consumption that revolves around the display of cultural capital, it’s unsurprising that so much of the elite’s intellectual and political life is merely gestural… The cultural “products” that [hold] particular prestige for the educated elite—HBO dramas, TED Talks, podcasts, documentary films—are consistent with the gestural (one might say lazy) nature of elite intellectual activity. Consuming these products… Listening to a podcast or watching a TED Talk certainly exhibits and enhances cultural capital, but those are merely acts of passive consumption, rather than of intellectual and aesthetic engagement.”
The whiteness of artisanal culture
The character of craft culture, a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism, is not merely overwhelmingly white — a function of who generally has the wealth to start those microbreweries and old-school butcher shops, and to patronize them — it consistently engages in the erasure or exploitation of people of color whose intellectual and manual labor are often the foundation of the practices that transform so many of these small pleasures into something artful. A lie by omission may be a small one, but for a movement so vocally concerned with where things come from, the proprietors of craft culture often seem strangely uninterested in learning or conveying the stories of the people who first mastered those crafts.”
28th August, 2017
The ideology behind technology
Too many of us don’t recognize that the decisions made in the design of these products and services constitute a coherent ideology, let alone wonder where that ideology comes from. Too many of us fail to see these products and services as places where distinct values are being enacted. And as a result, too many of us fail to understand these products and serves as contested, or at least eminently contestable, sites. (This includes a surprising number of people who pride themselves on their degree of wokeness in virtually every other facet of their lives.) It becomes far easier to perceive these aspects of the world around us, though, if we take a little time to understand how software functions.”
What Blade Runner teaches us about being human
In Puschak’s view, Blade Runner diagnoses the condition that “all the freedom of modern society, all its secularism and egalitarianism and choice, conceals a darker side to the coin: the side on which human identity isn’t determined by society, but by the individual, making its formation, by definition, problematic.” Indeed, we could see the shift from societally determined identity to individually determined identity — framed positively, the long march toward freedom — as one of the main threads of the past few centuries of human history, here represented by Deckard’s struggle with “the gradual breakdown of the only identity he’s ever had.”
via open culture
Rediscovering our innate goodness
The contemporary turn towards nihilism that lionises the individual at the expense of the collective has made the idea of cultivating a more beautiful soul appear hopelessly idealistic and disconnected from ‘hard realities’. In a realist’s world, we seek utilitarian ends under the guise of pragmatism, turning away from the illusiveness of an immaterial and ultimately unattainable ideal. The mystery and poetry of human nature has been stripped from our daily experience at the expense of our imaginations and our will to envision a more beautiful world. Yet, the social and environmental ills induced by our unfettered economy of instrumentality are proving anything but pragmatic for the long-term sustainability and wellbeing of our species. If we still harbour hope in the human propensity for goodness, then we ought to contemplate anew the poetic, revolutionary figure of the beautiful soul that might once again provide a vision for deepening our intellectual, moral and emotional faculties in the service of a more just and progressive future for us all.”
Cyberpunk as a guide for surviving hyper-consumerism
From the perspective of large tech companies like Apple, we have to use manufactured items for their standardized manufactured purpose. Innovation has been consigned to the boardroom, the R&D lab or the Silicon Valley start up. We no longer literally “own” what we own. Copyright, intellectual property, and the very concept of economic exchange have become disgusting shams under these policies. Technological prescriptivism would rob us of our ability to tinker, to create, to experiment… we are to become naught but predictable and ever profitable consumers.
THIS is where we can learn from Cyberpunk. Those interested in Cyberpunk can quote William Gibson ad nauseum on this: “The Street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturers never imagined.” What Gibson is saying: characters in Cyberpunk overcome the assigned manufactured purpose of the things around them.
Cyberpunk fiction is filled with individuals owning what they own but simultaneously do not “own.” It’s filled with individuals who subvert prescribed use.”
Is art a currency for an insane world?
Art as alternative currency shows that art sectors already constitute a maze of overlapping systems in which good-old gossip, greed, lofty ideals, inebriation, and ruthless competition form countless networked cliques. The core of its value is generated less by transaction than by endless negotiation, via gossip, criticism, hearsay, haggling, heckling, peer reviews, small talk, and shade. The result is a solid tangle of feudal loyalties and glowing enmity, rejected love and fervent envy, pooling striving, longing, and vital energies. In short, the value is not in the product but in the network; not in gaming or predicting the market but in creating exchange. Most importantly, art is one of the few exchanges that derivative fascists don’t control—yet.”
Has the smartphone destroyed a generation?
Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”
via The Atlantic
Will our migration towards the stars restore our sense of place, and self?
Today, we are more disconnected from the stars than ever before. Even utilitarian attachments have fallen away, as the markers that form our sense of place in the wider world have shifted from the distant to the local. Navigators once used the stars as reference marks; the GPS units in modern cellphones refer instead to a constellation of artificial satellites in orbit around the Earth, synchronised to atomic clocks in ground-based laboratories… We have lost a part of our selves in the process.
24th July 2017
Has carnival and the grotesque made an unhealthy comeback?
With Prospero-like flourish, he then unleashes a carnivalesque riptide, sending scholastic, dynastic and ecclesiastic seriousness head over heels. The deadweight of social hierarchies and the everyday dread of natural disasters were thrown over, if only for a short time. While this reversal of roles ignites bouts of laughter, it does not lead to enduring change. Turned inside out, the world of carnival paradoxically reminds its practitioners of the rightness of a world up-righted. Rather than spurring rebellion, the practices of carnival amount to little more than the theatrics of rebellion, a safety valve to release social tensions. They do not offer any way to think critically about social conventions, much less new ones. Occasions for misrule are scheduled and scripted, not spontaneous; events inscribed in the calendar, they are eagerly anticipated, then nostalgically recalled when the page of the calendar turns… On 8 November 2016, however, the carnivalesque was transformed: from a sharply limited and defined ritual, it was granted a four-year lease on our political institutions.”
The case for expertise
Expertise is necessary, and it’s not going away. Unless we return it to a healthy role in public policy, we’re going to have stupider and less productive arguments every day.”
via the Federalist
Why every tech worker needs a humanities education
Ruefully—and with some embarrassment at my younger self’s condescending attitude toward the humanities—I now wish that I had strived for a proper liberal arts education. That I’d learned how to think critically about the world we live in and how to engage with it. That I’d absorbed lessons about how to identify and interrogate privilege, power structures, structural inequality, and injustice. That I’d had opportunities to debate my peers and develop informed opinions on philosophy and morality. And even more than all of that, I wish I’d even realized that these were worthwhile thoughts to fill my mind with—that all of my engineering work would be contextualized by such subjects.”
How leaders lose mental capacities that were essential to their rise
Power, the research says, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. .. Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation.
via The Atlantic
Why business leaders need to read more science fiction
Science fiction isn’t useful because it’s predictive. It’s useful because it reframes our perspective on the world. Like international travel or meditation, it creates space for us to question our assumptions. Assumptions locked top 19th-century minds into believing that cities were doomed to drown in horse manure. Assumptions toppled Kodak despite the fact that its engineers built the first digital camera in 1975. Assumptions are a luxury true leaders can’t afford. But assumptions are notoriously hard to beat back, and for a very good reason: They’re useful. They provide us with cognitive shortcuts for making sense of the world. They make us more efficient and productive. The problem is that they fail to update when that world changes, and they stand in our way when we could change the world. That’s why science fiction is invaluable to the ambitious
Hero worship in late-capitalist Hollywood
For the most part, seldom do superhero franchises even pay lip service anymore to the idea that the protagonist is defending benign values, protecting a system, or making the world safe for democracy. He’s simply the strong man we root for to defeat the strong man we root against.”
Why the language of AI zealots is so oddly religious
The prospect creating an AI invites us to ask about the purpose and meaning of being human: what a human is for in a world where we are not the only workers, not the only thinkers, not the only conscious agents shaping our destiny. So we use the words our ancestors have used before us. Just as the world was shaped by the word in some traditions, the ‘logos’ of Christian thought, we are shaped by the word, whether we think of ourselves as secular or not. We usher in the AI future on the wings of angels, because the heavy lifting of the imagination isn’t possible without their pinion feathers – whether we think of them as artificial or divine.”
Marinated in porn
A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic–more prone to permanent change–than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning. The results of the experiment, they claim, are literally a downer.”
The sociology of the smartphone
We need to understand ourselves as nervous systems that are virtually continuous with the world beyond the walls, fused to it through the juncture of our smartphones. And what keeps us twitching at our screens, more even than the satisfaction of any practical need, is the continuously renewed opportunity to bathe in the primal rush of communion.”
A brief and occasional escape from the algorithms, orthodoxies, and well-trodden paths – because:
In ecology the term “edge effect” refers to a place where a habitat is changing–where a marsh turns into a pond or a forest turns into a field. These places tend to be rich in life forms and survival strategies. We are animals that create mental habitats, such as poetry and science, national and ethnic identity. Each of us lives in several places other than our geographic locale, several life communities, at once. Each of us feels both the abrasion and the enticement of the edges where we meet other habitats and see ourselves in counterpoint to what we have failed to see. What I am calling for is an ecology of culture in which we look for and foster our relatedness across disciplinary lines without forgetting our differences. Maybe if more of us could find ways to practice this kind of ecology we would feel a little less fragmented, a little less harried and uncertain about the efficacy of our respective trades and a little more whole.
Alison Hawthorne Deming, Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide
So while other side projects are leaving me with little time for thinking and writing of my own, these from my first journey to the edge of the terrain…
THE END OF WORK
As robots and AI breath down our necks, it’s perhaps time to ask “why work?”.
via The Baffler.
THE FRAGILITY OF PROTEST
How the technology that helps modern movements organize high-profile protests can also keep them from developing the staying power to achieve their long-term goals.
via the Washington Post, a review of Tufecki’s latest book.
PEERING INTO THE FUTURE
An interview with novelist Courtney Maum on imagining the near-future.
via Electric Literature
THE MANY KINDS OF MIND
Why in our quest to understand (and presumably replicate) the human mind we’ve overlooked the enormous diversity of minds we find in the natural world.
via the Times Literary Supplement