Archive for January, 2014

Risk and Reward

Posted: January 18, 2014 in Culture, Idle Nonsense

A couple of my coworkers were griping recently about Chicago weather, even before recent extreme cold brought by the polar vortex (which is expected to return). Complaints focused on the cold and wind, but driving in the snow was singled out for special attention. I prepare for weather, but it wouldn’t occur to me to complain too much about it. Their reticence to go out and brave the elements brought to mind how in my youth we never thought twice about it; we were always outside, even on subzero days. The more snow, the better, and we would spend snow days off from school greedily and deliriously happy out on the hills from 9 a.m. until dark, not even stopping for food. I remember coming in one time soaking from sweat and snowmelt, the inside wrists of my sleeves completely caked with ice buildup I hadn’t even noticed. That boyhood sledding was on hills formed from worn-down bluffs carved long ago by the Missouri River in the northern suburbs of Kansas City. Chicago has no such hills, so winter sports here are of a fundamentally different sort, as I suppose they are in the Rockies and other mountainous climes.

Recently, I caught sight of an ad for the Hammerhead Pro X sled, offered for around $150:
It’s a far cry from the basic wood-and-steel sled of my youth, though those traditional types are still available. If the Hammerhead, made from high-tech materials, is built for speed and control (and adults), sleds of my youth were definitely more inclined toward reckless abandon. Indeed, it always seemed to me that the reward of all that climbing, cold, and effort was being enough out of control to have some fear but enough in control to master both sled and fear. We took our sleds over and off every jump and ramp and drop we could find, sometimes ending with bloody noses when the landing was too hard. I also saw my share of fools who risked a lot more than I ever did on toboggans and cafeteria trays — something they often regretted in hindsight. My one such learning experience was being goaded into riding off a ramp on top of a piece of sheet metal or metal siding someone had brought, which launched me somewhat higher into the air than I expected and with complete loss of control since there was absolutely nothing to hold onto. Luckily, no injury resulted, just a hard landing on my butt. A favorite memory is once executing a 360° powerslide on a patch of refrozen snow crust and then sledding straight out of it. I tried to repeat it several times that same day without success; it was a once-in-a-lifetime move.

The reward of extreme sports is something now left to far younger people than me. I blame Mountain Dew and the X Games for raising the risk bar higher and higher, with predictable results. I participate in endurance sports, but obstacle races, mountain biking (including downhill on ski slopes), skiing and snowboarding, and a variety of other risky endeavors are now things of the past for me. The rewards are no longer worth the risk.

I have watched, blogged about, and embedded my share of TED Talks over the years I’ve been active as a blogger. As a cottage industry for the cognoscenti, TED is an impressive, multinational undertaking being fed into by lots of impressive scientists, researchers, and know-it-alls. What’s not to like? One spends about 12 min. watching and listening to someone simplify complex issues, recommend a handful of impossible solutions, and make promises to roll up one’s sleeves and do the hard work, but then one forgets about it all the next day. Or one might watch another talk, or a series of talks, to get the brain goosed before moving on. The most succinct criticism I have heard of the phenomenon called it insight porn. So after my initial excitement with TED and its voluminous insights, I grew to be more and more skeptical of various speakers’ claims. This was especially true after I learned that Allan Savory admitted to having been instrumental in wholesale murder of 40,000 African elephants — a massacre undertaken with the full authority of scientific consensus (at the time, which Savory is now attempting to reverse — oops, his bad).

In light of my misgivings about TED, I found it curious that a TED Talk by Benjamin Bratton has attracted lots of positive attention. His subject is TED Talks themselves, and he makes his case in a TED Talk, which is reproduced as a transcript in an article by The Guardian. There is much to admire in Bratton’s analysis but more perhaps to find objectionable. He occupies a difficult position, both behind the curtain and before it, which creates recursive conflicts. (I’m rather fond myself of busting through rhetorical frames, but I try not to stand inside them at the same time.) Further, I read the article before watching the talk in video form and found quite a difference between the two media. The lack of visual distractions and audience response to the jokes in the transcript allow me to penetrate much deeper. I suspect that a large part of that is not being entrained by sympathetic response.

Bratton offers several worthwhile insights, among them the cult of the solution (my term, not his), which becomes hypothetical since implementation rarely goes forward. This is true especially when it comes to reconceptualizing fondly held myths and self-delusions about what science and sociology can really do for our understandings about the ways the world really works. That’s one of Bratton’s related criticisms: the nonworkability of TED Talk solutions. It’s ironic that Bratton observes so many TED Talks founder on practicality when at the same time his initial anecdote about a scientific presentation failing to motivate the listener (be more like Malcolm Gladwell and engage the emotions, transforming epiphany into entertainment) receives serious derision. There’s room for both interpretations, but some circumspection is needed here. Nothing could be more obvious than how various political and corporate entities have succeeded in motivating the public into action or inaction through propaganda, marketing campaigns, and emotional manipulation, whereas the sober, objective posture of scientific inquiry has failed utterly to get action on an extremely pressing civilizational disaster quite different from the one Bratton envisions. (Regular readers of this blog know what I’m referring to.) Bratton actually takes note of GOP dominance of messaging (what he calls bracketing reality) but fails to connect the dots.

The T-E-D in TED

Bratton also objects that the technology-education-design orientation of TED ought to be instead tech-econ-design. This reconfiguration got by my internal bullshit sensor on video, but the transcript fares less well. For instance, he notes that TED often delivers placebo technoradicalism (no lack of clever word formations) but concludes that it fails precisely because we’re too timid to actually embrace technology with enough gusto. He doesn’t seem to get that technological advance is at best mixed and at worse disastrous (e.g., hypercomplexity, WMDs, nuclear mismanagement and accidents, overconsumption of resources leading to population overshoot leading back to overconsumption). Bratton apparently still worships the tech idol, failing to recognize that the world it has delivered serves us rather poorly. Further, neither education nor economics have turned out to be much of a panacea for our most intractable problems. I’m unsure what Bratton thinks exchanging one for the other in the context of TED will accomplish. Last, redefining design as immunization rather than innovation sounds like something worthwhile but is the same hypothetical, unrealizable solution he criticizes earlier. The notion that we can engineer our way out of problems if only designers wise up and others stop gaming systems for profit or self-aggrandizement begs quite a lot of questions that go unaddressed.

In spite of his disavowal of a simple takeaway, Bratton offers standard PoMo word salad filled with specialized jargon:

… it’s not as though there is a shortage of topics for serious discussion. We need a deeper conversation about the difference between digital cosmopolitanism and cloud feudalism … I would like new maps of the world, ones not based on settler colonialism, legacy genomes and bronze age myths, but instead on something more … scalable … we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think …

Really changes how we think? For someone who writes about “entanglements of technology and culture,” Bratton has a serious misconception about how the brainchild of the Enlightenment can ultimately win the day and deliver salvation from ourselves. Myth and story and narrative are not mistakes to be replaced by rationalism; they are who and how we are in the world. They don’t go away by wagging the bony finger of science/tech but are only slowly forgotten, revised, and replaced by yet other myths, stories, and narratives. The depth of our entrenchment in such cultural baggage is one of the very things forestalling change. We can peer behind the curtain or see from outside the bubble sometimes, but we can’t escape them. We never could.