Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Visible strings

I saw Avenue Q over the weekend, which was pretty fun. It's a basically a Sesame Street parody where puppets and humans play a bunch of characters living in an outer borough of New York and having real-world problems like shitty jobs, not getting laid, etc. The puppet characters are controlled by on-stage puppeteers who dress in black and enact their puppet's voice, singing and facial gestures alongside the puppet, which creates a strange doubling effect. It's not immediately obvious to my overly rational mind why you need puppets for something like this, but not quite getting it is part of the fun. Some great songs too, I think Schadenfreude and Everyone's a Little Bit Racist were the standouts.

Anyway, by an amazing coincidence I just came across this passage in What is Iconoclash? by Bruno Latour, an introduction to an exhibit he curated and which has just been reprinted in On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods:
Is this made or is this real? You have to choose! What has rendered constructivism impossible in the Western tradition? It is a tradiion that, on the other hand, has constructed and deconstructed so much, but without being able to confess how it managed to do it. If westerners had really believed they had to choose between construction and reality...they would never have had religion, art, science, or politics. Mediations are necessary everywhere. If you forbid them, you may become mad, fanatic, but there is no way to obey the command and choose between the two polar opposites: either it is made or it is real. That is a structural impossibility, and impasse, a double bind, a frenzy. It is as impossible as to request a Bunraku player to have to choose, from now on, either to show his puppet or show himself on the stage.
Latour's project in this exhbit is to conflate the role of mediating representations in religion, sciecnce, and art, and attack the despised role of icons that's been part of Westend culture since the second commandment's prohibition of graven images. Latour wants to rehabilitate icons, fetishes, and other items which are both constructed by humans and yet are channels of something greater -- divinities, or truth.

That reminded me of album cover, which my parents had and made an impression on me at an early age:

Which in turn reminded me of how Gerry Sussman dedicated his doctoral thesis in artificial intelligence to Rabbi Löwe of Prague (of golem fame), because he was the first to recognize that "God created man in his own image" is recursive.

And as it happens, Latour opens his latest book with a cousin of the Pygmalion story, about a sculptor who creates a statue of Jupiter so convincing that he trembles before it. His point is that this is a mocking fable, and in reality the people who build fetishes -- figures that are then worshipped -- are not so naive, they know exactly what they are doing, they are not fools. Rather it's the act of construction that makes feteshes authentic receptacles of the divine. Moderns, on the other hand, want to split the world into what is constructed and what is natural, and deny that anything constructed can be godlike. It is one thing for god to make man, but allowing man to make god is firmly disallowed. Latour's world picture is more networklike, construction does not move strictly in one direction from god to man to puppet, but is something more pervasive. Recursion does not emanate downwards from a single point, but is the active process by which all things reflect one another.

Hm, in my attempt to mirror Latour's style I'm getting far too fancy for myself. Really, what he's up to is very simple, and intersects directly with what I do for a living. He wants to expose the machinery of construction that underlies science (and in this new book, religion). But where he and other constructivists are misunderstood is that this exposure is not meant to destroy or undermine science, but to ground it more firmly in reality. Reality and construction are not enemies, and examining the machinery of construction won't ruin science any more than seeing the puppeteers on stage ruins the show.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters

Here's a really excellent post by Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist whose work is new to me, about the emergence of hierarchy and leaders in groups that start out acephalous, with particular applications towards the ongoing revolutions in the Mideast. She cites the iron law of oligarchy, and the underlying dynamic of preferential attachment that generates it. Also the related tendency of movements to coaselse around charismatic authority.
Both of these processes are so widespread in human history that it would be foolish to ever discount them. But to discount them by hoping that social media, as it stands, can provide a strong-counter force would be naïve.
Preferential attachment generates the power-law distribution of connectivity that network theorists have noticed for some time. Social media does not flatten these emergent hierarchies, in fact it makes them much worse:
In fact, if anything, it is quite likely that preferential-attachment processes are part of the reason for the rise of oligarchies and charismatic authorities. Ironically, this effect is likely exacerbated in peer-to-peer media where everything is accessible to everybody.... Thus, networks which start out as diffuse can and likely will quickly evolve into hierarchies not in spite but because of their open and flat nature.
She also mentions The Dispossessed, which treats the question in fiction, showing an anarchist society consciously battling back the emergence of power relations (like me, she had a youthful attachment to the book).

The reality of charismatic leaders is an annoying pheonomenon that I've noticed both in academia and in industry. The people who acheive major success have a certain personal magnetism that verges on magical. The clustering around charismatic leaders is somewhat hidden in academia, but frankly acknowledged business, here for example:
People with a real vision can communicate ideas with almost a spiritual charisma that energizes people around them to go a step beyond normal boundaries, to solve a technical problem, sign on as a team member, or invest resources, when conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise.
I'll admit to being jealous, because (to put it mildly) that's always been a quality I've lacked. So despite being pretty good at some aspects of "the vision thing", I've been frustrated by an inability to sell my visions. I find both leading and following to be highly problematic, but the flat society of The Dispossesed looks like it's going to be a long time coming.

Friday, February 18, 2011

St. Augustine, O.G.

[I wrote this back in November but never got around to posting it. The uprisings in Egypt and the confused right-wing reaction to it make it seem more relevant, somehow].

Gangsters are such a staple of movies and TV that I recently realized that I'm gotten sick of them. The recent film The Town may have pushed me over the edge -- I went to see it mostly for the Boston locale, but who cares about a bunch of Charlestown hoods? Plus I couldn't suspend my belief that said townies, not exactly known for brilliance, were capable of plotting capers worth of the Mission: Impossible team. The HBO show Boardwalk Empire is about the struggles of various factions in 1920s Atlantic City, and does a great job with the costumes and sets. But who cares which set of thugs gets to sell illegal booze? I like Steve Buscemi, but he can't make the story interesting for me. Glorifying gangsters is morally repellent. Even shows which attempt to undercut the mystique of the mafia (eg, The Sopranos) end up making heroes of them. And of course gangster-worship has been fucking up black subcultures for decades now.

Here's JEH Smith, of a generally anarchistic bent, complaining about the popularity of the mafia in the culture and contemplating its relation to the state. He's sort of right I think, in that the existence of the state is what makes non-state thugs possible, just as the grain-stores of civilization empower rats.

Yet maybe it is worth thinking about these people neither as romantic heroes nor as repellent thugs, but as just part of the human ecosystem, and one that has made possible some of the good things we take for granted now, such as jazz and birth control. I can believe that. Under this model, organized crime, despite its obvious failings, is actually in business, delivering goods that are not otherwise available. These goods are often not so good -- drugs, prostitution, gambling, violence. But people want them, the state attempts to ban them, and so entrepreneurs appear as inevitably as dew in the morning grass.

And if the state is just the biggest, most legitimized gang of thugs, as a standard anarchist trope has it, then it's not surprising that it has to deal with parties trying to horn in on its monopoly of violence. But the state is not (in general) just that, states have a magic property that lifts them above mere thuggery. What is that property? Legitimacy, maybe? The ability to institutionally embody social order and justice, no matter how imperfectly? I'm not sure,

Speaking of that: Since I have a rather poor education in the classics, I did not know that the "anarchist" equating of states with criminal gangs actually goes back at least to St. Augustine:
Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a vast scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?

A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention. If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of `kingdom', which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.

For it was a witty and a truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, `What is your idea, in infesting the sea?" And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, `The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I'm called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you're called an emperor."
Um, did I have a point? I think it was that armed gangs are an inevitable part of human society, whether they are respected states or savage thugs. Justice, accountability, legitimacy are devices to keep violence regimes aligned with the broader interests of societies, but they're highly imperfect. Revolutions are exciting because they get rid of a bad regime of violence, but of course scary because nobody knows what the new one will look like. But you need them, because there's no other cure for the tendency of regimes towards sclerosis.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Unauthorized Expertise

My new workplace is an odd mixture of high-end research and bureaucracy that would make Dilbert himself blanch. The other day a manager told one of my colleagues (who has a PhD in computer science and is a co-PI on our grant) that he wasn't supposed to "waste time" developing expertise on some piece of software that had not been officially approved. That led me to create the sign below, of which I must say I'm pretty proud. Although it doesn't bode well for me fitting into the corporate culture.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Academic units with mildly amusing/intriguing names, #4 and #5.

A couple of recent discoveries: First, near my current stomping grounds, the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford, which has gotten very vocal lately on Twitter as it tracks what's going on in Egypt. From there I learned that George Clooney (!) is launching (so to speak) a project to repurpose satellite imagery to support human rights enforcement. Whoah.
Lying at the intersection of social science, computer science, and engineering, the Program on Liberation Technology seeks to understand how information technology can be used to defend human rights, improve governance, empower the poor, promote economic development, and pursue a variety of other social goods.
and at MIT. the home of various younger version of my self, there is The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values:
This nonpartisan center is a collaborative think tank focused on the development of interdisciplinary research and programs in various fields of knowledge from science and technology, to education and international relations.

The Center is founded to honor the vision of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and his call for a holistic education that includes the development of human and global ethics. It will emphasize responsibility as well as examine meaningfulness and moral purpose between individuals, organizations, and societies.
I'm trying to figure out what these have in common with the rest of this series, why they caught my eye. "Amusing" isn't quite right, although these are sufficiently on the fringe of respectable academia as to invite possible ridicule. But that's just it -- they are all efforts to slightly expand the kinds of discourse allowed within a university -- by bringing in religion, ethics, or explicit political agendas, or just by combining discordant elements. I'm all for this kind of thing, and have engaged in similar practices myself, so I don't want to mock, but any particular instance is going to be a somewhat chancy thing in which to invest your attention. But anything that promises to actually expand the space of possible discourses is something that I can't ignore.

I was a math major back in the day, and mathematics is probably the furthest away from interdisciplinary stuff like this, because in math there is no roughly no politics, and very clear standards for what constitutes worthwhile work (that is not entirely true). In places like The Center for Transcultural Vegetarianism, nobody is quite sure what good work looks like, which opens up a space of freedom that typically results in much crap and much worthwhile results too, and gives misfit intellectuals a temporary home.

Hm, and it occurs to me that "Artificial Intelligence Laboratory" may have had the same kind of ring to it back when the first ones were established. Now I'm afraid that field is somewhere between respectable and completely played out.

Previous entries in this series:
  1. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford

  2. The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, Case Western

  3. The Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkley