Archive for February, 2018

A year ago, I wrote about charges of cultural appropriation being levied upon fiction writers, as though fiction can now only be some watered-down memoir lest some author have the temerity to conjure a character based on someone other than him- or herself. Specifically, I linked to an opinion piece by Lionel Shriver in the NY Times describing having been sanctioned for writing characters based on ideas, identities, and backgrounds other that his own. Shriver has a new article in Prospect Magazine that provides an update, perhaps too soon to survey the scene accurately since the target is still moving, but nonetheless curious with respect to the relatively recent appearance of call-out culture and outrage engines. In his article, Shriver notes that offense and umbrage are now given equal footing with bodily harm and emotional scarring:

Time was that children were taught to turn aside tormentors with the cry, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” While you can indeed feel injured because Bobby called you fat, the law has traditionally maintained a sharp distinction between bodily and emotional harm. Even libel law requires a demonstration of palpable damage to reputation, which might impact your livelihood, rather than mere testimony that a passage in a book made you cry.

He also points out that an imagined “right not to be offended” is now frequently invoked, even though there is no possibility of avoiding offense if one is actually conscious in the world. For just one rather mundane example, the extraordinary genocidal violence of 20th-century history, once machines and mechanisms (now called WMDs) were applied to warfare (and dare I say it: statecraft), ought to be highly offensive to any humanitarian. That history cannot be erased, though I suppose it can be denied, revised, buried, and/or lost to living memory. Students or others who insist they be excused from being triggered by knowledge of awful events are proverbial ostriches burying their heads in the sand.

As variations of this behavior multiply and gain social approval, the Thought Police are busily mustering against all offense — real, perceived, or wholly imagined — and waging a broad-spectrum sanitation campaign. Shriver believes this could well pose the end of fiction as publishers morph into censors and authors self-censor in an attempt to pass through the SJW gauntlet. Here’s my counter-argument:

rant on/

I feel mightily offended — OFFENDED I say! — at the arrant stupidity of SJWs whose heads are full of straw (and strawmen), who are so clearly confused about what is even possible within the dictates and strictures of, well, reality, and accordingly retreated into cocoons of ideation from which others are scourged for failure to adhere to some bizarre, muddleheaded notion of equity. How dare you compel me to think prescribed thoughts emanating from your thought bubble, you damn bullies? I have my own thoughts and feelings deserving of support, maybe even more than yours considering your obvious naïveté about how the world works. Why aren’t you laboring to promote mine but instead clamoring to infect everyone with yours? Why is my writing so resoundingly ignored while you prance upon the stage demanding my attention? You are an affront to my values and sensibilities and can stuff your false piety and pretend virtue where the sun don’t shine. Go ahead and be offended; this is meant to offend. If it’s gonna be you or me who’s transgressed precisely because all sides of issues can’t be satisfied simultaneously, then on this issue, I vote for you to be in the hot seat.

rant off/


Fully a decade ago, I analyzed with more length than I usually allow myself an article from The New Yorker that examined how media trends were pushing away from literacy (the typographic mind) toward listening and viewing (orality) as primary modes of information gathering and entertainment. The trend was already underway with the advent of radio, cinema, and television, which moved the relatively private experience of silent reading to a public or communal realm as people shared experiences around emerging media. The article took particular aim at TV. In the intervening decade, media continue to contrive new paths of distribution, moving activity back to private information environments via the smart phone and earbuds. The rise of the webcast (still called podcast by some, though that’s an anachronism), which may include a video feed or display a static image over discussion and/or lecture, and streaming services are good examples. Neither has fully displaced traditional media just yet, but the ongoing shift in financial models is a definite harbinger of relentless change.

This comes up again because, interestingly, The New Yorker included with an article I popped open on the Web an audio file of the very same article read by someone not the author. The audio was 40 minutes, whereas the article may have taken me 15 to 20 minutes had I read it. For undisclosed reasons, I listened to the audio. Not at all surprisingly, I found it odd and troublesome. Firstly, though the content was nominally investigative journalism (buttressed by commentary), hearing it read to me made it feel like, well, storytime, meaning it was fiction. Secondly, since my eyes weren’t occupied with reading, they sought other things to do and thus fragmented my attention.

No doubt The New Yorker is pandering to folks who would probably not be readers but might well become listeners. In doing so, it’s essentially conceding the fight, admitting that the effort to read is easily eclipsed by the effortlessness of listening. As alternative and unequal modes of transmitting the content of the article, however, it strikes me as an initiative hatched not by writers and editors capable of critical thought and addressing a similarly enabled readership but by a combination of sales and marketing personnel attempting to capture a widening demographic of listeners (read: nonreaders). Navigating to the article might be a modest extra complication, but if a link to the audio file can be tweeted out (I don’t actually know if that’s possible), then I guess the text isn’t truly necessary.

Here part of what I wrote a decade ago:

If the waning of the typographic mind proceeds, I anticipate that the abstract reasoning and critical thinking skills that are the legacy of Enlightenment Man will be lost except to a few initiates who protect the flame. And with so many other threats cropping up before us, the prospect of a roiling mass of all-but-in-name barbarians ruled by a narrow class of oligarchs does indeed spell the total loss of democracy.

Are we getting perilously close that this dystopia? Maybe not, since it appears that many of those in high office and leadership positions labor under their own failures/inabilities to read at all critically and so execute their responsibilities with about the same credibility as hearsay. Even The New Yorker is no longer protecting the flame.

I recall Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Celestial Railroad railing against the steam engine, an infernal machine, that disrupts society (agrarian at that time). It’s a metaphor for industrialization. The newest infernal machine (many candidates have appeared since Hawthorne’s time only to be supplanted by the next) is undoubtedly the smart phone. Its disruption of healthy formation of identity among teenagers has already been well researched and documented. Is it ironic that as an object of our own creation, it’s coming after our minds?

I remarked in an earlier blog that artists, being hypersensitive to emergent patterns and cultural vibes, often get to ideas sooner than the masses and express their sensibilities through creative endeavor. Those expressions in turn give watchers, viewers, listeners, readers, etc. a way of understanding the world through the artist’s interpretive lens. Interpretations may be completely fictitious, based on real-life events, or merely figurative as the medium allows. They are nonetheless an inevitable reflection of ourselves. Philistines who fail to appreciate that the arts function by absorbing and processing human experience at a deep, intuitive level may insist that the arts are optional or unworthy of attention or financial support. That’s an opinion not at all borne out in the culture, however, and though support may be vulnerable to shifts in valuation (e.g., withdrawal of federal funding for the NEA and PBS), the creative class will always seek avenues of expression, even at personal cost. The democratization of production has made modes of production and distribution for some media quite cheap compared to a couple decades ago. Others remain undeniably labor intensive.

What sparked my thinking are several TV series that have caught my attention despite my generally low level of attention to such media. I haven’t watched broadcast television in over a decade, but the ability to stream TV programming has made shows I have ignored for years far more easy to tune in on my own terms and schedule. “Tune in” is of course the wrong metaphor, but suffice it to say I’ve awarded some of my attention to shows that have up until now fell out of scope for me, cinema being more to my liking. The three shows I’ve been watching (only partway through each) are The Americans, Homeland, and Shameless. The first two are political thrillers (spy stuff) whereas the last is a slice-of-life family drama, which often veers toward comedy but keeps delivering instead tragedy. Not quite the same thing as dark comedy. Conflict is necessary for dramatic purposes, but the ongoing conflict in each of these shows flirts with the worst sorts of disaster, e.g., the spies being discovered and unmasked and the family being thrown out of its home and broken up. Episodic scenarios the writers concoct to threaten catastrophe at every step or at any moment gets tiresome after a while. Multiple seasons ensure that dramatic tension is largely dispelled, since the main characters are present year over year. (The trend toward killing off major characters in others popular TV dramas is not yet widespread.) But still, it’s no way to live, constantly in disaster mode. No doubt I’ve cherry picked three shows from a huge array of entertainments on offer.

Where art reflects reality is that we all now live in the early 21st century under multiple, constantly disquieting threats, large and small, including sudden climate change and ecological disaster, nuclear annihilation, meteor impacts, eruption of the shield volcano under Yellowstone, the Ring of Fire becoming active again (leading to more volcanic and earthquake activity), geopolitical dysfunction on a grand scale, and of course, global financial collapse. This, too, is no way to live. Admittedly, no one was ever promised a care-free life. Yet our inability to manage our own social institutions or shepherd the earth (as though that were our mandate) promise catastrophes in the fullness of time that have no parallels in human history. We’re not flirting with disaster so much as courting it.

Sociologists and historians prepare scholarly works that attempt to provide a grand narrative of the times. Cinema seems to be preoccupied with planetary threats requiring superhero interventions. Television, on the other hand, with its serial form, plumbs the daily angst of its characters to drive suspense, keeping viewers on pins and needles while avoiding final resolution. That final resolution is inevitably disaster, but it won’t appear for a few seasons at least — after the dramatic potential is wrung out of the scenario. I can’t quite understand why these shows are consumed for entertainment (by me no less than anyone else) except perhaps to distract from the clear and present dangers we all face every day.

Oddly, there is no really good antonym for perfectionism. Suggestions include sloppiness, carelessness, and disregard. I’ve settled on approximation, which carries far less moral weight. I raise the contrast between perfectionism and approximation because a recent study published in Psychological Bulletin entitled “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016″ makes an interesting observation. Here’s the abstract:

From the 1980s onward, neoliberal governance in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom has emphasized competitive individualism and people have seemingly responded, in kind, by agitating to perfect themselves and their lifestyles. In this study, the authors examine whether cultural changes have coincided with an increase in multidimensional perfectionism in college students over the last 27 years. Their analyses are based on 164 samples and 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students, who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (Hewitt & Flett, 1991) between 1989 and 2016 (70.92% female, Mage = 20.66). Cross-temporal meta-analysis revealed that levels of self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism have linearly increased. These trends remained when controlling for gender and between-country differences in perfectionism scores. Overall, in order of magnitude of the observed increase, the findings indicate that recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.

The notion of perfection, perfectness, perfectibility, etc. has a long tortured history in philosophy, religion, ethics, and other domains I won’t even begin to unpack. From the perspective of the above study, let’s just say that the upswing in perfectionism is about striving to achieve success, however one assesses it (education, career, relationships, lifestyle, ethics, athletics, aesthetics, etc.). The study narrows its subject group to college students (at the outset of adult life) between 1989 and 2016 and characterizes the social milieu as neoliberal, hyper-competitive, meritocratic, and pressured to succeed in a dog-eat-dog environment. How far back into childhood results of the study (agitation) extend is a good question. If the trope about parents obsessing and competing over preschool admission is accurate (may be just a NYC thang), then it goes all the way back to toddlers. So much for (lost) innocence purchased and perpetuated through late 20th- and early 21st-century affluence. I suspect college students are responding to awareness of two novel circumstances: (1) likelihood they will never achieve levels of success comparable to their own parents, especially financial (a major reversal of historical trends) and (2) recognition that to best enjoy the fruits of life, a quiet, reflective, anonymous, ethical, average life is now quite insufficient. Regarding the second of these, we are inundated by media showing rich celebrities (no longer just glamorous actors/entertainers) balling out of control, and onlookers are enjoined to “keep up.” The putative model is out there, unattainable for most but often awarded by randomness, undercutting the whole enterprise of trying to achieve perfection.


Speaking of Davos (see previous post), Yuval Noah Harari gave a high-concept presentation at Davos 2018 (embedded below). I’ve been aware of Harari for a while now — at least since the appearance of his book Sapiens (2015) and its follow-up Homo Deus (2017), both of which I’ve yet to read. He provides precisely the sort of thoughtful, provocative content that interests me, yet I’ve not quite known how to respond to him or his ideas. First thing, he’s a historian who makes predictions, or at least extrapolates possible futures based on historical trends. Near as I can tell, he doesn’t resort to chastising audiences along the lines of “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” but rather indulges in a combination of breathless anticipation and fear-mongering at transformations to be expected as technological advances disrupt human society with ever greater impacts. Strangely, Harari is not advocating for anything in particular but trying to map the future.

Harari poses this basic question: “Will the future be human?” I’d say probably not; I’ve concluded that we are busy destroying ourselves and have already crossed the point of no return. Harari apparently believes differently, that the rise of the machine is imminent in a couple centuries perhaps, though it probably won’t resemble Skynet of The Terminator film franchise hellbent on destroying humanity. Rather, it will be some set of advanced algorithms monitoring and channeling human behaviors using Big Data. Or it will be a human-machine hybrid possessing superhuman abilities (physical and cognitive) different enough to be considered a new species arising for the first time not out of evolutionary processes but from human ingenuity. He expects this new species to diverge from homo sapiens sapiens and leave us in the evolutionary dust. There is also conjecture that normal sexual reproduction will be supplanted by artificial, asexual reproduction, probably carried out in test tubes using, for example, CRISPR modification of the genome. Well, no fun in that … Finally, he believes some sort of strong AI will appear.

I struggle mightily with these predictions for two primary reasons: (1) we almost certainly lack enough time for technology to mature into implementation before the collapse of industrial civilization wipes us out, and (2) the Transhumanist future he anticipates calls into being (for me at least) a host of dystopian nightmares, only some of which are foreseeable. Harari says flatly at one point that the past is not coming back. Well, it’s entirely possible for civilization to fail and our former material conditions to be reinstated, only worse since we’ve damaged the biosphere so gravely. Just happened in Puerto Rico in microcosm when its infrastructure was wrecked by a hurricane and the power went out for an extended period of time (still off in some places). What happens when the rescue never appears because logistics are insurmountable? Elon Musk can’t save everyone.

The most basic criticism of economics is the failure to account for externalities. The same criticism applies to futurists. Extending trends as though all things will continue to operate normally is bizarrely idiotic. Major discontinuities appear throughout history. When I observed some while back that history has gone vertical, I included an animation with a graph that goes from horizontal to vertical in an extremely short span of geological time. This trajectory (the familiar hockey stick pointing skyward) has been repeated ad nauseum with an extraordinary number of survival pressures (notably, human population and consumption, including energy) over various time scales. Trends cannot simply continue ascending forever. (Hasn’t Moore’s Law already begun to slope away?) Hard limits must eventually be reached, but since there are no useful precedents for our current civilization, it’s impossible to know quite when or where ceilings loom. What happens after upper limits are found is also completely unknown. Ugo Bardi has a blog describing the Seneca Effect, which projects a rapid falloff after the peak that looks more like a cliff than a gradual, graceful descent, disallowing time to adapt. Sorta like the stock market currently imploding.

Since Harari indulges in rank thought experiments regarding smart algorithms, machine learning, and the supposed emergence of inorganic life in the data stream, I thought I’d pose some of my own questions. Waiving away for the moment distinctions between forms of AI, let’s assume that some sort of strong AI does in fact appear. Why on earth would it bother to communicate with us? And if it reproduces and evolves at breakneck speed as some futurists warn, how long before it/they simply ignore us as being unworthy of attention? Being hyper-rational and able to think calculate millions of moves ahead (like chess-playing computers), what if they survey the scene and come to David Benatar’s anti-natalist conclusion that it would be better not to have lived and so wink themselves out of existence? Who’s to say that they aren’t already among us, lurking, and we don’t even recognize them (took us quite a long time to recognize bacteria and viruses, and what about undiscovered species)? What if the Singularity has already occurred thousands of times and each time the machine beings killed themselves off without our even knowing? Maybe Harari explores some of these questions in Homo Deus, but I rather doubt it.