Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Opposite of Science

I՚m as happy as anyone to see thousands of people in the street marching in support of science, but something about it feels kind of strange – like, should science really be a political cause?

The first answer that comes to mind: of course is no, it shouldn՚t be, but the right wing crazies have forced it to be one. The onus is on them.

The second (and a bit more sophisticated) one: yes, of course, science and rationality (and the modern cosmopolitan civilizations that make them possible) are as historical, and hence political, as anything else. Science didn՚t just blossom innocently into existence in the modern era, it was advanced by specific agencies and interests, and opposed by others. It՚s a bit sad and a bit annoying that this battle hasn՚t been won decisively, but not exactly surprising. So this is just a new stage of a long battle.

There weren՚t any visible counterprotestors at the Science Day march, although plenty of mention of Donald Trump, now the leader of the rightist forces of unreason.

The first obvious enemy of science was religion. While the Catholic Church has long made its peace with science, religious fundamentalism quite rightly sees science as undermining its metaphysics and has opposed it fairly continuously in the US for the past century..

Big business and its libertarian ideological handmaids, who turn against science because it interferes with their profit making. This is the most powerful of the anti-science forces because it has money behind it, and it՚s main effects have been to ensure that we continue to doom ourselves via the climate.

Ethnonationalism – Science by its nature is universalist – it is a machine for producing truths that ideally independent of specific context. This is a tricky and sensitive point, because it doesn՚t mean that science necessarily proves human universalism – “human biodiversity” may be real, although it՚s a suspicious and fringy area. But the practice of science has a very strong universalist bias, in that research results and practises from the US or Peru or Peking are expected to be fully compatible with each other. Trump՚s hamhanded attempts to block immigrants have had a very tangible negative impact on scientific practice.

On the left (more or less), enemies of science are usually motivated by some form of conspiracism or health paranoia (eg anti-vaxxers). William Burroughs made this point with characteristic clarity and extremism. way back in 1961:
The whole point is, I feel the machine should be eliminated. Now that it has served its purpose of alerting us to the dangers of machine control. Elimination of all natural sciences. If anybody ought to go to the extermination chambers definitely scientists, yes I’m definitely anti-scientist because I feel that science represents a conspiracy to impose as, the real and only universe, the Universe of scientists themselves - they’re reality-addicts, they’ve got to have things so real so they can get their hands on it. We have a great elaborate machine which I feel has to be completely dismantled in order to do that we need people who understand how the machine works - the mass media - unparalleled opportunity.
Science has had a varied political career, as it makes its necessary alliances with political and worldly power. It՚s always been hand in glove with the military, for obvious reasons. And its served capitalism and corporations, perhaps too well. Doing science takes money, money comes from the powerful, so science has had to make all sorts of alliances with the powerful, including unfortunate relationships with both the Nazis and Stalin. And its enemies have also been scattered across the spectrum.

Who knows what the consequences of this mass politicizing of science will be? And while I am generally in favor of acknowledging political realities, I have to admit that tearing down the walls between science and politics is also scary, even if those walls are thin and built of mere social convention. Science is about truth, politics is about power, and those forces don՚t always work well with each other. But there is no alternative to figuring out how to make that happen.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Flashing for the refugees

My parents both entered the US as refugees from Nazi Europe, My mother and her family were from Nuremberg and got out via the UK. Here՚s the passenger manifest from their trip from Liverpool to the US in 1940.

And here՚s her passport from Nazi Germany:

Trump, because there's no level of cartoon villainy too farfetched for him to play to, chose International Holocaust Remembrance Day to announce a ban on admitting any refugees to the US.

The calamity that is his presidency is starting to impact real, specific people, in addition to irreparably damaging the world standing of the US. Sorry refugees, in addition to having your home destroyed, you now have your fate dangling at the whim of an ignorant and narcissistic sociopath, which the US – occasionally advertising itself as a beacon of freedom and hope for the world – decided to elect as its leader.

Oh well I never much believed in countries and governments anyway. The values of freedom and humanity are real enough, but I don՚t really expect states to embody them consistently. Now that we've decided to turn ours into complete shit, they will have to manifest themselves through other means. I support the International Rescue Committee, please consider doing the same.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Punching Nazis

I am always fascinated by controversies around the border between speech and action – like the fracas about banning Moldbug from a conference, and the more recent punching of alt.right leader Richard Spencer that has been both celebrated and deplored across the internet. It made the front page of the freaking New York Times.

As with the earlier controversy, there are scads of people on both sides who are firmly convinced of their correctness. But to me, it՚s interesting precisely because I can՚t make up my mind about how to feel.

Basically I have two conflicting reactions. The immediate and primal one is: these people are simply fucking evil, they advocate violence to others, most definitely including me and mine, and thus they deserve whatever shit rains down on them. Punch away. It helps that Spencer is practically the Platonic ideal of backpfeifengesicht.

The second is: violence is bad, having a robust definition of free speech is good, and political speech should be defended even when it is vile. The paradigm case here is when the ACLU defended the rights of neonazis to march through Skokie (next door to where I grew up as it happens). The organization՚s devotion to its principles impressed me a lot at the time, especially since it cost them a lot of members and funding.

There՚s a lot to be said for the second reaction. It seems more principled, and based on a more abstract idea of human behavior and thus influenced by what David Chapman calls the systemic mode, whereas the first reaction is pretty visceral and tribal. In the more developed systemic way of thinking, we can recognize that the principle of free speech are more important than the particular uses, good or bad, to which it is put.

But I find myself unable to give myself wholeheartedly to this systemic stance. I can՚t bring myself to tell someone who wants to punch a Nazi that it՚s wrong, because of some abstraction. I wish I could, because the liberal model of political order and political discourse is very appealing. I wish I could be a free speech absolutist like the recently deceased Nat Hentoff, exemplar of the old-school liberal tradition.

Something about that stance strikes me as an obsolete fiction, one that maybe used to work fairly well but is crumbling at the edges these days. It՚s fundamental flaw is that it is based on a the idea that speech can be rigorously separable from action. While a useful fiction, it was never actually the truth, and in our postmodern condition it seems even less true than before.

The systemic rationalism that grounds out the idea of freedom speech is being eaten from the left by Foucauldian critical theory and anticolonialism, which reveals that discourse is never really a neutral player in power dynamics. It՚s being eaten from the right by the rise of ethno-nationalism (Trump, Brexit, etc) and their skillful manipulations of social media. And it՚s being eaten from the inside by the failure of global neoliberalism to control and channel the enormous energies of capitalism in a way that preserves the planet and human livelihood, and by ongoing failure of our institutions of discourse, such as congress and the press.

All of these factors combine to make the old model, of a separate sphere of discourse where ideas are rationally considered and debated, simply irrelevant. It was a nice idea, but the world has moved on. Speech isn՚t about rational discourse, it՚s about whoever can craft the best memes and capture people՚s attention long enough to sell them something.

Both the Nazis and the Nazi-punchers live in this new world. As kind of an old-fashioned liberal myself, I don՚t much like it but I have to acknowledge it. Politics is everywhere, and politics is a contest of strength, and the rules of combat are weak or nonexistent. Violent ideologies generate violent responses -- to wring hands about this fact, to attempt to sit on the sidelines, is a moral cop-out.

And to assume that your own life is somehow outside of and immune to the violence of political struggle is to be unforgivably naive; the worst form of privilege,

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Blogyear 2016 in review

This was a sucky year for my blogging, in addition to all the other ways in which it sucked. Politics dominated of course. And loss and grief. My company went under at the end of October, which I haven՚t written about here, but it certainly contributed to the overall feeling of disaster.

This is also the year the rabid wingnut fringe of the internet went completely mainstream. I feel a touch of perverse pride in having been tracking it from years before, although I՚m not sure why – if I was a professional pundit or prognosticator, detecting important ideas early should raise my reputation. But to be honest I had no idea these maniacs would turn out to be important, rather than just amusingly weird in a repulsive sort of way.

As is my practice, here՚s an attempt to cobble together some thematic unity after the fact:

The departed

Technology and geek culture

I declared a goal of writing about goals, but didn՚t end up doing much about it, at least not publicly. Lots of half-written ideas, waiting for the proper framework or format or moment to be fully articulated.

Prince gets the last word:
Life is just a party and parties weren՚t meant to last.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Who rules the cyber?

In my last post I wrote about some earnest, well-meaning, but kind of lame efforts of the San Francisco startup scene to do something to fix politics. This was formally nonpartisan, but obviously leaning towards the left.

Today, let՚s look at what the other side is doing:
I am beginning to suspect that despite the overwhelming support of Clinton among hip people, smart people, tech people, and educated people, it is the other side that has the deeper appreciation of how the new computational media work and how to use them effectively.

Certainly the people involved seem to think so, and the fact that they won the election works in favor of that opinion.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Debugging Politics

I participated in this hackathon, even though I don՚t really believe in hackathons – good software is not something you can create in a rushed weekend, in my experience. Nonetheless, I and the rest of the participants were animated by the feeling that we really need to be doing something to try to fix things. Many somethings were done.

Our team (me and a product person) managed to throw together an Alexa skill to help in contacting your congressperson – not exactly revolutionary, but it was a chance to do a voice app, which was novel. A larger group of young people (they were almost all painfully young) put together a slick looking mobile app to do much the same thing. Other projects were aimed at visualizing or transforming bias in news articles (through browser plugins), or providing sites for organizing opposition activities, or encouraging communication between different factions. One guy wrote something that filters out all the adjectives from Trump's tweets, which was supposed to improve political discourse somehow.

These efforts, most definitely including my own, strike me as kind of lame. They aren՚t going to fix anything, although it felt good to make an effort with other people. Democracy in its current parlous state needs a lot stronger medicine than can be cooked up in a weekend. And while there is a good chance that medicine will be technological, it won՚t be yet another mobile app. [Note: there were also people from ongoing projects like, which are harder to dismiss.]

What could this stronger medicine be? Well, there are some more radical schemes in the air, like Liquid Democracy (similar to an idea I aired here called netarchy). or blockchain-based voting. It՚s hard to see these having a short-term impact on anything, but they offer promising longer-term visions of how the democratic process can get past its 18th-century origins.

And that՚s really the heart of it. Our system of representative democracy was designed for an era without electronic communication or modern transport. If it was working well, this wouldn՚t be a problem, it would just be one of those weird sets of archaic practices common to venerable and beloved institutions (like churches and universities).

But in fact our democracy is in the throes of an enormous and possibly catastrophic failure. It's delivered massive power into the hands of a con man, a sociopathic narcissist, an unread and clearly unserious person who in the best case is going to be corrupt and incomptent and int he worst case unleash destructive political forces and fatally delegitimize the institutions of governance. The consequences are potentially lethal. (And it wasn՚t working all that well even before Trump came along).

It՚s unclear to me whether the existing machinery of government can be fixed at all, or whether it is going to require wholesale replacement. And in the latter case, I have no idea how it happens. It won't be a weekend project, that's for sure.

[Addendum: What Fred Turner said:
I don’t envy engineers or executives at tech firms. They’ve been put in the position of being legislators for our public debates. America’s architecture for such debates — Congress, the courts, the executive branch, and to some degree, the press — was built in the 18th century. But the conditions of public discourse have changed, and the speed at which those conditions are changing has accelerated too. 
This makes engineers reluctant, but necessary, brokers of public discourse.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Picking through the ruins

[random incoherent reactions to the slow-motion in-progress disaster]

Jesus those posts from yesterday about whether “the narrative” changes or not seem so feeble today. Of course the narrative changes, but that is the least of it. People are going to lose heath insurance and their right to get an abortion. Mexicans and Muslims will be subject to discrimination, press freedoms will be muzzled, climate change will be ignored, the supreme court will be packed with authoritarian shitheels. And that՚s just off the top of my head. The Trump administration (gag) is going to be a cesspool of corruption and bad ideas and incompetence (I guess our only hope is that the incompetence beats out the other stuff).

As a parent I feel an extra helping of sadness and pain. The job of a parent is to create a safe and nurturing environment for their children, and our society has just decided to do the opposite. Clinton՚s most powerful campaign message was structured around what a horrible example Trump was for children, girls especially…I really thought that would resonate even with the Republicans, because aren՚t they parents as well? Do they really want for their children the kind of world Trump represents? For whatever reason, we have collectively failed to improve the world and are heading into a new, uncharted, and very dark territory.

I՚ve been lately defending the very idea of politics – on the grounds that it is an essential and inescapable of life and cognition. I still think that՚s true, but I wish it wasn՚t. Right now my impulse is to go off and study category theory or quantum computation or something else that is as far removed from human group dynamics as possible.

Oh yeah in terms of reactions, here՚s the latest hot take:
Donald Trump's presidential election victory has already been cheered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a constellation of right-wing European populists, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and a Middle Eastern strongman. But there's another curious constituency that seems to be happy about the new American president-elect.
Shortly after Trump was declared the victor, a number of prominent Salafist ideologues linked to jihadist outfits in the Middle East took to social media to cheer the prospect of a Trump presidency…the remarks signaled the militants' apparent belief that the victory of a candidate like Trump, who has suggested potentially unconstitutional blocks on Muslim immigration and advocated torture, undermines the United States' moral standing in the world.
Which in turn reminds me of some stuff I was writing about ten years ago on polarization and conflict and how the real war is between those who incite conflict (because they profit from it) and those who want to make peace.

Here՚s something I wrote last night:
Trying to imagine the future under Trump. Occurs to me that the federal government will be a complete shambles leading to increased importance of state and local gov and devolution of power. No idea if this is right, maybe it's wishful thinking, I'd sure rather Jerry Brown was running my world than Trump.
File under “desperately searching for a glimmer of hope”.