Monday, January 21, 2013

The scaffold sways the future

I do a lot of holiday posts, for reasons that aren't clear to me. It’s not like I do a lot of observance in real life, but they provide a nice theme to crystallize thought, and their annual reappearance provides a sort of long rhythm to what is otherwise a pretty formless stream.

So, here’s a couple of past posts on MLK Day. And here is MLK himself:
I have not lost faith. I'm not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven't lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing "We Shall Overcome" because Carlyle was right: "No lie can live forever." We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right: "Truth pressed to earth will rise again." We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell was right: "Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne." Yet, that scaffold sways the future. 
Is there an arc to the universe, and does it bend toward justice? If so, how does that work exactly? Yes I am a crudely materialistic engineer contemplating the spiritual and wanting to hack it, to understand, invade, and improve it. It feels slightly silly. Unlike King, I can’t simply summon faith, I need to know the wiring diagram.

Justice is one of those things (like Truth and Beauty) that act as cosmic attractors, that pull people and reality itself towards them. More than just exerting a passive gravitational pull, it inspires passion in people. The arc bends, but individuals must do the work of bending it. This must be something like what someone from King’s religious world would call doing the Lord’s work, and what we modern Jews call Tikkun Olam.

The concept of justice seems to have deep biological roots, predating humanity (that link goes to a paper on cheating in primates by Marc Hauser, who himself was caught cheating). That may represent the starting point of King’s arc. Humanity is somewhere further along. The endpoint is not really visible to mortal eyes, yet we have these capital-letter names for it, and some like King claim to be able to see through the murk of the present into the far distance and want to lead us there. But as usual humanity is caught somewhere in the uncomfortable middle between ape and angel.

The implementation of justice relies on the ability to consider people on a level playing field, where my rights and freedoms are the same as yours and his. This is exceedingly unnatural, because obviously the human in the mythical state of nature privileges himself, his family, his friends above random strangers on the other side of the world. I never liked Peter Singer’s utilitarian ethics, because it is impractical, and because it ignores this basic fact of human psychology. It starts from a place we haven’t gotten to and perhaps can’t get to.

I am more interested in the practical and humble psychology of justice and empathy, how we go about constructing this would-be universal sense of justice, this ability to treat every human being with equal dignity and equal rights. It might be unattainable, it might not even be desirable, but it exerts a pull on the arc of humanity nonetheless.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Does anybody else find it weird that there should be an academic citation style tied to the offerings of a single company? To me, it seems like a minor but telling episode in the continual erosion of the commons, or more precisely the cultural secession of control of the means of communication to private enterprises.

Minor, in that who really cares about citation styles, especially in light of all the far more significant ways in which corporations have ate away at academia. Telling, in that it means that “tweet” has become part of the general machinery of communication, a generic term like Kleenex or Xerox (or Google) that just happens to be owned by a corporation.

We have accepted tweeting into our lives, just as we have Facebooking and all the other similar platforms for social life. In Twitter’s case, I sort of implicitly trust the company not to do anything too stupid, not to change the rules too drastically (this is in part helped by their radically simplified model). With Facebook, it’s quite the opposite, we are resigned to them changing the rules all the time, knowing that we will grumble and complain and a very few folks will loudly resign from the FB world, and everyone else will go on.

I myself tweeted last year:
sɹəʌɐɹ⊥, əʞıW (mtraven). “Oh please, if FB can "sabotage what it means to be human" then your humanity wasn't much good in the first place.” 30 May 2012, 4:00 p.m. Tweet.
FB won’t make us less human, because human is a very expansive idea, there are many ways to be human. But it does threaten to change human culture in ways we don’t quite understand. It seems roughly analogous to what happens when privately owned shopping malls displace genuine public urban street life – you get something cleaner, more managed, more pleasant in many ways, but also sterile, depoliticized, and subtly or not-so-subtly oriented towards getting you separated from your cash.

Academia is supposed to be an island somewhat isolated from commercial pressures and fads of the moment, the part of society that is able to consider both the long term and the common good. If it was stronger and functioning properly, it would have come up a better way to refer to chunks of social media conversation, something that was more general and more archival.

In this case, they fucked up even the job of setting a standard for Twitter, since they didn’t include the URL or unique id that would have actually made reference possible. This makes me think that there were no technical people involved in this, and it is a case of some poor humanist grudgingly forced to acknowledge a new reality. They would have done better to embrace it more fully.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The good die young

I don’t have much new to say about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz. Like many, I was deeply affected despite only a glancing personal acquaintance with him. He seemed to embody the aspirations of a whole class of people, someone who combined intelligence with energy, compassion, and engagement, and (most miraculously) was effective at it. The untimely death of someone so seemingly blessed seems to require an almost mythic explanation. He is Youth and Genius, crushed with an indifferent brutality by the Combine, the Man, the System he wanted to change.

I distrust such capitalized stories about what are after all real individual people, not cosmic forces. But in this case the match between reality and grand narrative is too strong to ignore. It might explain why so many people who barely knew Aaron (myself included) feel so affected, because this incident resonates at frequencies that are deep within us all.

Did he know he was enacting this sort of grand tragedy? I don’t see any indication of that. That in itself is affecting, the thought that this brilliant polymathic youth was not aware that he was unleashing vast destructive forces against himself.

As readers know, I’ve got an obsession with the idea of agency. As soon as this story broke, people were arguing about who to blame for this tragedy: was it the prosecutor’s fault? Or was it “depression”, the catch-all explanation of our age? The mythic perspective undermines all that talk. Tragic protagonists like Oedipus and Macbeth are the agents of their own destruction, and yet they aren’t. They are pawns of fate, drawn to their doom by forces stronger than they are. Blame is an inadequate concept, a petty local view of a grand cosmic process.

I distrust such grand narratives but find myself drawn to them nonetheless. While Aaron’s family and friends mourn him as an individual, the rest of us can’t help view his story through the lens of myth. So in that spirit:


Somewhat inspired by this post by the blogger formerly known as IOZ, who has resurfaced with a new site.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Announcing the BOOCK

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the hot new thing in education. Today, I’d like to introduce the next step beyond the MOOC: the BOOCK. A BOOCK is a Basic Object Offering Content And Knowledge.

Like MOOCs, BOOCKs provide a vast array of knowledge in an readily accessible way at very low cost. Unlike MOOCs, BOOCKs offer real-time random access and are accessible to those without internet connections. Unlike MOOCs, a BOOCK once obtained will remain your physical property forever. BOOCKs have a long and distinguished history; their format has been refined for hundreds of years; they may be stored indefinitely on shelves with no additional backup; and they have institutional support in the form of editors and publishers. BOOCKs require no power and are thus perfectly usable in third-world villages, wilderness trips, and post-collapse hellscapes.

We expect BOOCKs to revolutionize education. Whereas in the recent past, students were faced with online courses with annoying, poorly recorded videos, stupid “Now Johnny” question-and-answer interfaces, and toxic levels of hype; now students have virtually unlimited access to knowledge at their own pace.

Many BOOCKs are already available at local stores; those still stuck in the internet age can also find them online if you must.