The Convivial Society: Vol. 1, No. 3

Time, Death, and Remembering

“What anthropologists distinguish as ‘cultures’ the historian of mental spaces might distinguish as different ‘memories.’ The way to recall, to remember, has a history which is, to some degree, distinct from the history of the substance that is remembered.”

— Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text (1993)


I’ve found it difficult to begin writing about the topic I’d identified for this opening section of the newsletter. The difficulty has been twofold. First, I wanted to take my point of departure from an item that deals with incredibly sensitive realities, namely grief, memory, and death. Secondly, having chosen that point of departure, it’s not been entirely clear in which direction I should go. So, finally, I will do what I often do in any case: begin writing and see where we end up.

On February 7th, Fast Company published a story titled, “Watch a Mother Reunite With Her Deceased Child in VR.” The title gives you the gist of the piece. In its imperative mood, though, it does a bit more. Watch, we are instructed. My immediate response was to this imperative rather than to the contents of the article. Why ought I to watch this? It seems the sort of thing that ought to be shielded from public view, something I, at least, had no business intruding upon. It’s becoming increasingly clear that my reservations on this score are quixotic and quaint, but I’m afraid I’m becoming obstinate about insisting upon them.

“Therefore, it appears to me,” Ivan Illich wrote in a speech honoring Jacques Ellul,

“that we cannot neglect the disciplined recovery, an asceticism, of a sensual praxis in a society of technogenic mirages. This reclaiming of the senses, this promptitude to obey experience, the chaste look that the Rule of St. Benedict opposes to the cupiditas oculorum (lust of the eyes), seems to me to be the fundamental condition for renouncing that technique which sets up a definitive obstacle to friendship.”

It is tangential to Illich’s point here, but it seems to me that the chaste look in the age of digital media involves not only a reclaiming of the senses so that we might see what is truly there, but also a refusal to gaze upon that which we ought not to see (indeed a recovery of the category itself). In this case, it is not necessarily a matter of illicit or obscene images, but of any phenomena in which we have no real part even if they are offered up to us freely by the participants, insofar as these are extracted by an emerging net of top-down and bottom-up surveillance and documentation, which is transforming the private and social human environment into little more than raw material or standing-reserve to be extracted for profit and social capital. To put it in Kantian terms, we risk transforming ourselves and others into means rather than ends in themselves. Put more straightforwardly, we are being primed to render others as merely things to be used.

So while I have not watched the clips that accompany the story, the author gives us a picture of what is going on: “… [the mother] stands in front of a massive green screen while wearing both a VR headset and what appear to be some sort of haptic gloves. In the latter, she and her daughter talk, hold hands, and even have a birthday party complete with a lit cake.” Except that, tragically, the girl is deceased.

I have two daughters and I have absolutely no words with which to express what their loss would entail for me. So, to be clear, I tread here with great care and with absolutely no desire to pass any kind of judgement on the mother. I want to note, rather, how the author frames her discussion after describing the project and explore its meaning.

The author wonders how far off we are from something like this being more widely available. She then asks the inevitable questions—

“And what sort of impact will that have on the grieving process? Will seeing a loved one in VR help people find closure and move on following a death? Will some people become addicted to this virtual world, spending more and more time in it and less and less in the real one?”

—before proceeding down predictable paths: What if it doesn’t stop with VR, she wonders—digital avatars of the living and the dead, android clones—some company or other is already working on them. Comparisons to a Black Mirror episode. An Ivy League expert assuring “There is nothing wrong or unethical about it.” A final empty gesture toward the possibility of regulation: “Rather than letting startups offer the public the chance to interact with virtual versions of their dead loved ones — undoubtedly at a cost — maybe we can make the technology available only to people who’ve submitted to a screening with a psychologist.”

As I read this story, I was reminded of how historians of technology have observed that one of the first uses imagined for new media technology has often been conjuring the dead. It was true of electricity, the telegraph, the phonograph, and the telephone. In a similar vein, a few weeks ago I read about how holograms of dead musicians are now going on tour to keep revenue streams alive—necrocapitalism, Adam Elkus aptly called the phenomenon.

Death is the one enemy we all have in common, of course, so it is not surprising that its overcoming is among the many consolations we’ve sought from the power of technology. While conjuring the dead through the telephone, as the “phone-voyants” of the early 20th century claimed to do, may now strike us as a fool’s (or huckster’s) errand, the dream of conquering death by technical means, already announced by Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century, remains a tantalizing object of desire. Death, viewed in this light, appears merely as one more technical problem to be solved by the application of proper technique.

Beyond the matter of death, we might also consider the fear that reality is being overtaken by simulation, and, more pointedly, that these simulations will increasingly serve to anesthetize segments of society who are unable to succeed or adequately navigate its hostile terrain.

The more pressing reality to reckon with here, however, seems to me to be the matter of memory. That memory is involved seems obvious at first, but then not entirely so. Whatever else is happening here, we might say, someone is being aided in the work of remembering, specifically in remembering someone who has passed away. But, someone might wonder, these are not, in fact, memories. The VR experience is a novel one, not a recreation of some past event.

At this point, we are, as it turns out, treading upon an ancient distinction. “Socratic philosophy,” Paul Riceour has observed,

bequeathed to us two rival and complementary themes on this subject, one Platonic, the other Aristotelian.  The first, centered on the theme of the eikōn [image], speaks of the present representation of an absent thing; it argues implicitly for enclosing the problematic of memory within that of imagination.  The second, centered on the theme of the representation of a thing formerly perceived, acquired, or learned, argues for including the problematic of the image within that of remembering.”

In short, Plato encouraged us to think about memory as a matter of bringing to presence some absent thing or person. For Aristotle, on the other hand, “all memory is of the past.”

In light of this distinction, we might say that the VR experience is a Platonic form of remembering. An absent thing is made present with reference to no particular moment in the past. It expresses a different sort of desire than the desire to reconstruct some past event, it expresses a desire for the object whose presence we invoke.

From this perspective, then, VR used to conjure the dead becomes just another aide-mémoire. Although, of course, it’s too trite to put it that way. It becomes an especially powerful and involving aide-mémoire, and one more way in which digital media structures how and what we remember with significant consequences.

While this VR experience is clearly distinctive and rare, it throws into relief a question we may ask of any number of more mundane memory practices. Is it good that I remember in this way? This is not merely a question of what is remembered, although that might be part of it. It is also a question of the manner in which remember. Surely it is good that we remember a loved one lost to us. But to what degree and in what manner? Is it possible to surrender to a form of remembering that unduly circumscribes our action in the present?

That last question arises from my recent thinking about how to rightly order our relationship to time, specifically, in this case, to time past, which we access through memory. While much more might be said, it seems that a rightly ordered relation to the past empowers our action in the present, while a disordered relation to the past inhibits our action in the present. Regret, for example, can paralyze. An inadequate memory of the past, insofar as some map of the past often helps us make our way in the present, can do the same. Interestingly, an obsessive recollection can also burden us in such a way that we find it impossible to move forward, to act.

These disordered relationships to time can manifest themselves at both a personal and societal level. I’ve been thinking, for example, about how digital media enables our immersion in highly personalized streams of remembrance or, additionally, an immersion in niche traditions of memory. A commonly held cultural memory is harder to come by. Consequently, we seem to be unable to move productively forward.

As Arendt observed in her posthumously published The Life of the Mind, “the thread of tradition is broken and that we shall not be able to renew it … What has been lost is the continuity of the past as it seemed to be handed down from generation to generation, developing in the process its own consistency … What you then are left with is still the past, but a fragmented past, which has lost its certainty of evaluation.”

Commenting on Proust in the opening chapter of How Societies Remember, Paul Connerton observed,

“Across generations, different sets of memories, frequently in the shape of implicit background narratives, will encounter each other; so that, although physically present to one another in a particular setting, the different generations may remain mentally and emotionally insulated, the memories of one generation locked irretrievably, as it were, in the brains and bodies of that generation.” 

In the case of Proust’s narrative, the span of twenty-five years was in view when two characters from different generations failed to fully understand one another. In our own age of fractured experience and algorithmically structured remembering, no particular space of time need be involved. We all, as it were, inhabit alternative timelines. If it does not seem that we share a common world, it is, in part, because we have no common memory.

I will give the last word, as I often do in discussions of this sort, to Derrida, who once observed the following: “They tell, and here is the enigma, that those consulting the oracle of Trophonios in Boetia found there two springs and were supposed to drink from each, from the spring of memory and from the spring of forgetting.”

That recognition, of course, only gets us so far and leaves most of the hard work before us.

The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium – John Spencer Stanhope

Sources:
Fast Company article
Illich on Ellul
Riceour’s Memory, History, Forgetting
Connerton’s How Societies Remember


News and Resources

  • Paper out of Stanford: “The Welfare Effects of Social Media.” From the abstract: “In a randomized experiment, we find that deactivating Facebook for the four weeks before the 2018 US midterm election (i) reduced online activity, while increasing offline activities such as watching TV alone and socializing with family and friends; (ii) reduced both factual news knowledge and political polarization; (iii) increased subjective well-being; and (iv) caused a large persistent reduction in post-experiment Facebook use.”

  • A pre-print of John Danaher’s article, “Freedom in an Age of Algocracy,” in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on the Philosophy of Technology edited by Shannon Vallor: “This chapter tries to address the shortcomings in the existing discussion by arguing for a broader conception/understanding of freedom as well as a broader conception/understanding of algocracy. Broadening the focus in this way enables us to see how algorithmic governance can be both emancipatory and enslaving, and provides a framework for future development and activism around the creation of this technology.”

  • On walking and thinking: “What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry.” A few years ago someone got me a copy of a little book whose sole purpose was detailing in a page or two the work habits and routines of famous writers. I remember being struck by two things: lots of drinking and lots of walking.

  • A 1965 paper by the late Hubert Dreyfus: “Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence.”

  • “Deepfakes and the Epistemic Backstop”: “This paper prepares for that danger by explicating the unappreciated way in which recordings have so far provided an epistemic backstop to our testimonial practices. Our reasonable trust in the testimony of others depends, to a surprising extent, on the regulative effects of the ever-present possibility of recordings of the events they testify about. As deepfakes erode the epistemic value of recordings, we may then face an even more consequential challenge to the reliability of our testimonial practices themselves.”

  • In 2015, Jonathan Lipps, a programmer with a deep interest in the philosophy of technology, had the opportunity to visit the philosopher Albert Borgmann in Montana. Lipps, an admirer of Borgmann’s work, had been in the process of blogging through Borgmann’s classic title, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. Written in the mid-80s, that book is definitely still worth reading. And here is a link to the first of four posts on Lipps’s site in which he transcribed his informal and informative conversation with Borgmann: “Interviewing Borgmann, Part 1.”

  • There’s a chance that the star Betelgeuse, the red supergiant that forms Orion’s right shoulder, could explode in the very near future causing a supernova lasting several months and rivaling the brightness of a full moon. I don’t know, I’m not sure we’re in any mood for dark portents.


Re-framings 

— The Distance from Our Food: Stepping into the mud of a moral ecology of production and consumption” by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft in The Hedgehog Review:

“Whether in the United States or elsewhere in the developed world, we mostly eat plant and animal foods whose life cycles we never come near. We experience them as products, not life forms. They reach us after so much processing that their origins are obscured. Consider the corn oil in an energy bar or in a cardboard box of breakfast cereal. Consider the pork chop, taken from an animal fattened on corn during a brief life so unpleasant that cameras are, by and large, banned from industrial feedlots and slaughterhouses.

Distance can breed ignorance of the ecosystems and individual animal lives that feed us ….

But it is too cheap and easy to say that proximity is good and distance bad.”

— From “How to Grant Your Child An Inner Life” by Jess Row:

“There aren’t many places where children and teen-agers can go today to escape the noise of others—especially us, their (usually) benevolent overlords, who trade passwords, touch I.D.s, and credit-card numbers for 24/7, immersive, surround-sound access. Earlier this year, well before we had agreed, my daughter rode the subway for the first time by herself. Her usual subway partner, a couple grades older, unexpectedly had to stay late for a drama rehearsal; there was no other obvious solution, so she sent us a quick text and departed, not waiting for permission. I imagined all the worst-case scenarios first. Then I thought of her sitting quietly on the train, with her backpack in her lap, listening to music, reading, or just looking around her, feeling the sheer largeness of the world, the strangeness of being one person among so many others, unwatched.”


The Conversation

A reminder that this is the section where I tend to stick personal updates, works in progress, shameless self-promotion, etc.

The next issue of The New Atlantis, which includes my revised talk in D. C. from last November, is off to the presses. It may be that I’ll have a link to share in the next installment. I may also have a link to share for a piece in Real Life, provided I wrap it up in the next day or two.

I once read a tweet that humorously captured the evolution of a writer’s attitude toward their editors. It began with the first submission and an expression of disdain for any editor that would dare change a word. It finished with something like “Please take this inarticulate jumble of words and turn it into something actually good.” Bottom line: good editors are a gift, and I’m grateful to them.

Regrettably, I had no editorial assistance in compiling a collection of essays from my recently shuttered blog into an ebook a couple of months ago. I’m happy to say that this has not kept some folks I respect deeply from giving it a good word, most recently the aforementioned Albert Borgmann as well as Shannon Vallor and Tom Chatfield. Many of you have already picked up a copy, for which you have my thanks. If you haven’t or if this is the first you’re hearing of it, click through and take a look.

Not only did I not have any editors, I have no publicity department. So, if you think the work merits it, please do share. You can also support my work by becoming a paying subscriber to this newsletter or passing along a link. To those who already are, know that your support is important to me and I’m deeply grateful for it.

Indeed, grateful to all of you for reading along.

Till next time, my best to each of you,

Michael

The Convivial Society: Dispatch, No. 2

Iowa, Pseudo-Events, and Hyperreality

The Iowa caucus affair last night was a masterclass in hyperreality.

The relevant facts are as follows. It was the long-anticipated kickoff to the primary season in an ever-expanding election cycle that now seems more or less co-terminous with the president’s four-year term. Iowa has an outsized place in this process, as it traditionally holds the first-in-the-nation caucus. Last night, under intense media scrutiny and pressure for immediate results, a complex system buckled, a new app made everything worse, results were withheld, and a collective meltdown ensued.

There are currently any number of accounts of what exactly happened, who was to blame, and what this will mean for the candidates and their campaigns. I will link to none of it because, frankly, none of it matters.

What matters, in my view, is that this whole affair illustrates the deep disorders of our hyperreal political culture, indeed of the all-encompassing hyperreality within which we move and breathe and have our being.

Let’s start with this, a take that became increasingly common through the evening and which I continued to hear reiterated this morning.

Mr. Levitz and those who have echoed this sentiment, inadvertently disclosed a fundamental truth about the situation: basically, the Iowa caucus was a pseudo-event.

You may remember that it was the American historian Daniel Boorstin, who coined the term in his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America.

“A pseudo‑event, then,” he explained, “is a happening that possesses the following characteristics:

(1) It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it.

(2) It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced.

(3) Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous.

(4) Usually it is intended to be a self‑fulfilling prophecy.


Boorstin also gave us the expression “famous for being famous,” which is about as apt a summation of the ontology of pseudo-events as you’re likely to find.

The tacit admission in the tweet above is that the Iowa caucus matters mostly as a pseudo-event, that is in being talked about and that for an increasingly short window of time—maybe one morning’s news cycle … maybe. Without that, what good is it?

Which is why the mishaps last night were so costly. It was not simply that our eventual knowledge of the “real” results was in jeopardy—although there may be something to that, too—but, more importantly, it’s that the value of the event in the economy of the hyperreal was threatened, and its hyperreal value was what mattered most.

Image result for baudrillard"

Hence, the discussion quickly became one of saving some of that value and the obvious way to do that was simply to get on with a speech claiming victory of some sort and getting air time for it, which several of the candidates proceeded to do. Then, of course, the dynamics of the pseudo-event kicked in again as participants argued over whose speech was covered appropriately, etc. It’s worthing noting that the hyperreal environment exists chiefly for its own sake. While some may be more adept at co-opting certain of its forces, it finally exists for itself.

This is why James Gleick’s tweet here misses the point.

Yes, he’s right, that assumption is not warranted. We don’t need to know immediately and the desire for immediacy is part of the problem, but that no longer matters. It hasn’t mattered for years. In the currently-existing media-political environment, waiting a day or a week is unthinkable.

As I put it in my own contribution to the unfolding hyperreal moment: It's not so much an attention economy as it is an economy of care. Tomorrow, no one will care. The habit of immediacy atrophies the capacity to extend care toward the past or the future.

Digital media renders the present a black hole, everything is sucked into it: the past and the future, as well as our emotional and cognitive resources. Or, as Alan Jacobs, drawing on Thomas Pynchon has put it, it collapses our “temporal bandwidth.”

To be clear and draw this dispatch to a close, it’s not that the Iowa caucus debacle was somehow unique or distinctive. Rather, it was a moment of clarity, it was, in the literal sense, apocalyptic, a pulling back of the veil. The failure of the system, the glitch, disclosed something about the nature of our everyday reality, to which we grow increasingly numb even as we are exhausted by it. Indeed, the failure is our best chance to grasp the true nature of our situation.

So while my first instinct was to label the whole mess a pseudo-event, the less flip, more disconcerting reality is that labeling something a pseudo-event was reassuring because it assumed our ability to identify "real"-events. The role of the obviously fantastical is to reassure us of the reality of our ordinary experience. Presently, that distinction is tenuous at best. Who can draw the line? What part of the proceedings last night can one deem real as opposed to fake or artificial? What aspect wasn’t already shot through with qualities of a pseudo-event or overlaid with the textures of hyperreality?

As the author Tim Maughan recently tweeted, “everybody got excited about postmodernism, nobody was ready for postmodernity.” That seems about right.


This is a Dispatch from The Convivial Society. Ordinarily these go out to paying subscribers and supplement the main newsletter, which is freely available to all. If you’d like to get these periodic dispatches, you can subscribe through the link below (if you’re here for the first time, you can subscribe to the free newsletter through the same link). Also feel free to share however you like. Alternatively, do neither and carry on.

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The Convivial Society: Vol. 1, No. 2

“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man's very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”
— Jacques Ellul, Technological Society (1954)


I’ve become fond of saying that in the digital age, all information is misinformation. Of course, that requires some qualification, but, when I can get away with it, I just leave it at that. Admirer of Marshall McLuhan that I am, I nonetheless have no facility with the kind of koan-like provocations he deployed as probes in order to elicit understanding from readers rather than simply convey information. This line about dis/information is about as close as I come. If I were to qualify it, I’d do it simply by saying that in the digital age, all information is potentially also misinformation. But, honestly, I think that rather weakens the point.

What I am trying to get at is the epistemic and affective consequences of information super-abundance created by digital media and the related collapse of trusted institutions/authorities that might serve as a guide through the overwhelming cacophony of information we are all flooded with at any moment on any given day. The consequences, I’d say, are persistent cognitive exhaustion yielding either epistemic nihilism or potentially violent sectarianism. Sure, in practice, most of us will end up somewhere in between, but those are the poles whose gravitational pull we will find ourselves resisting in the present digital media environment.

I first formulated the line “all information is disinformation” while thinking about the inadequacies of fact-checking is an antidote to mis/disinformation online. It’s a tactic best suited for another age. In the context of digital media it may simply make the problem worse. As is the case with many of the issues arising in digital contexts, the underlying dynamic is abundance rather than scarcity. Under those circumstances, simply adding more information compounds the problem. Media scholars have been making this case for some time now and have offered some strategies for how to mitigate the damage, but I’m not sure those will get us much further. They are measures of containment, which, sure, is better than nothing.

These discussions tend to arise in political contexts. But in the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about all of this in relation to the unfolding coronavirus situation. You may have already gotten a taste of the theories circulating widely, often disseminated by verified accounts on Twitter. Needless to say, the whole affair is disconcerting even apart from such speculations. It takes but a few moments of scrolling, however, to find oneself a bit panicky.

I raise that point to debut another provocation that’s been kicking around my mind for some time now: we’re all conspiracy theorists now.

Here’s the longer version. When we have a superabundance of information and a failure of trusted institutions, any effort to make sense of a situation, to connect the dots, will seem (and perhaps feel) not unlike conspiracy theorizing. The materials are there in the massive digital archives we all dip into constantly. The urge to make sense of things is more or less a given. All we need is a provocation, say the assertion that a baseball player was wearing a hidden buzzer to signal the pitchers next pitch. Within minutes, we’ve all got our dark-rimmed-Kevin-Costner-in-JFK glasses on. Or this …

It’s disconcerting, when you start noticing it, just how common the conspiratorial style has become. (Not that long ago while sitting at a local restaurant, I caught my first “Epstein didn’t kill himself” discussion in the wild.)

I suspect this trajectory has roots in the Kantian admonition to think for ourselves, to reject all authority, to reason everything from the ground up. If, like Kant, you could devote your days to intellectual labor under conditions of relative information scarcity, then maybe this makes sense. 

Maybe this is why it still seems plausible for a certain class of twitter user, whose day is still taken up with “knowledge work.” But, for most people, I suspect this ideal is altogether implausible. Even if you had the moral resolve, who has the time to adjudicate every claim and counter-claim you encounter, even if limited to the sane and serious ones? (Consider too, along these lines, that we staked democratic governance on the ideal of the informed citizen.)

We’ve always needed to trust in order to know. The more there was to know, the more we’d need to trust. Unfortunately, at present, many are finding it increasingly difficult to trust, just as our need for genuine knowledge and judgment grows.

In this light, polarization and group loyalty may be understood as a psychic/epistemic defense mechanism, exacerbated by the architecture of social media platforms. So, too, apathy, indifference, and varieties of ironic detachment. 


News and Resources

  • “There’s No Such Thing As ‘Ethical A.I.’” by Tom Chatfield: “This is the fact that there is no such thing as ethical A.I, any more than there’s a single set of instructions spelling how to be good — and that our current fascinated focus on the ‘inside’ of automated processes only takes us further away from the contested human contexts within which values and consequences actually exist.”

  • A lovely reflection from Colin Horgan on encountering images of deceased loved ones on Google Street View and the passing of his mother.

  • Came across a months-old thread by sociologist Nathan Jurgenson in which, reflecting on responses to his book The Social Photo, he explains “my general take isnt that tech ‘accelerates’ or ‘amplifies’ social processes, as most seem to say. instead, i tend towards describing how tech make those things more obvious or ‘explicit.’”

    This resonated with me. I’ve long been trying to articulate the significance of the hypertrophied self-awareness that is engendered by digital media, never quite satisfactorily. In an installment of the newsletter last November, I tried to get at this via Benjamin’s concept of the optical unconscious. Just as photography or film, as in the case of the freeze frame, made it possible to perceive optical realities that had previously escaped our conscious awareness, so to the apparatus of digital media makes it possible to perceive aspects of social life that would have passed unnoticed or only faintly perceived. My sense is that this persistent meta-awareness has serious and as of yet unaccounted personal and social consequences.

  • In an en masse violation of Amazon’s communications policy, over 300 employees posted critical comments on Medium highlighting various aspects of Amazon’s operations which they deemed unethical and unjust. I did not read through all of the comments. Many of them focused on well-known issues: climate change, enforcement of immigration policies, partnerships with oil and gas companies. But one lone comment on Amazon’s Ring cameras caught my attention:

    “The deployment of connected home security cameras that allow footage to be queried centrally are simply not compatible with a free society. The privacy issues are not fixable with regulation and there is no balance that can be struck. Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back.”

    Two things stuck out here. First, the concern not merely with specific cases of nefarious uses but with the creation of general conditions that are inhospitable to our stated values. Second, the stark realization that regulation is not a sufficient response the problems generated by this technology. I welcome this admission. While regulation may often be a necessary and important tool, believing regulation can sufficiently address the challenges posed by new technologies may be misguided. It tends to assume that we can go on using the technology in question and mitigate its undesirable consequences if only we steer it appropriately. What we must consider is that, as this Amazon employee suggests, the best case scenario for certain technologies is simply that they not exist. Whatever goods they may secure do not outweigh the harms their use generates, even if they are regulated to the full extent possible.

    Another underlying problem here tends to be that we have a difficult time recognizing and deliberating about unquantifiable harms and goods. How do you measure the sort of harm to a free society generated by the pervasive adoption of networked cameras, which then play a central role in mediating the experience of community for users? And if it cannot be measure, we find it difficult if not impossible to address because we have lost any public moral frameworks that do not proceed from technocratic assumptions.

  • Thoughtful piece by Aaron Lewis on alt accounts as identity R&D. It recalled Sherry Turkle’s work, which Lewis cites, on identity in the early ‘90s, when our use of the internet tended not to be tightly wedded to our legal name and identity. I’m admittedly conflicted about Lewis’s more sanguine take on the play of identity afforded by alt accounts, but I understand there appeal as a respite from the demands of an exhausting and demeaning experience of the self that characterizes social media as it is currently practiced by many of us. I suppose that my reservations amount to a suspicion that digitally mediated identity play/work will ultimately satisfy.

    Lewis cites this paragraph from McLuhan, and I’ll include it here:

    “The instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence — violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.”

  • Ian Bogost on how the smartphone turned every place into any place. This is a good piece. It illustrates how digital media tends to offer freedom from certain constraints associated with time and space. This is offered to us in the name of flexibility and convenience, but, of course, there are costs.

    I did, however, quibble with one element. Bogost writes, “Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people.” I think that a case could be made that the opposite is closer to the truth. Prior to industrialization, the home was the site of all manner of work, production, and entertainment. This point does not seem incidental. The pattern, it seems to me, goes like this: the home was a place of production, until we became chiefly consumers. Then we had to leave the home to consume. Now digital technology has just brought consumption into the home … or anywhere.

  • Nick Carr on the problem not of context collapse but of content collapse: “Many of the qualities of social media that make people uneasy stem from content collapse. First, by leveling everything, social media also trivializes everything — freed of barriers, information, like water, pools at the lowest possible level. A presidential candidate’s policy announcement is given equal weight to a snapshot of your niece’s hamster and a video of the latest Kardashian contouring.”


Re-framings 

— If you’ve been reading my stuff for a long time, this paragraph may ring a bell. I’ve cited it a time or two over the years. It is taken from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence. In it Fermor recounts his stays at various monasteries during his travels throughout Europe and Turkey in the early 20th century. This is his description of his initial encounter with the rhythms and silence of the monastery. What has struck me in reading this is the notion that we are all carrying about a “tremendous accumulation of tiredness,” simply as a matter of living in the modern world. Naturally, I suspect that presently the situation has only been aggravated. Tiredness, exhaustion, burnout—these are our most characteristic states.

“The most remarkable preliminary symptoms were the variations of my need of sleep. After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church — Mass, Vespers and Compline — were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness. The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movements and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity.”

— Relatedly, in the last newsletter I passed along Jonathan Malesic’s more recent reflections on work and rest also grounded in monastic experience. Unfortunately, I failed to include a link, so here it is: “Taming the Demon.”


The Conversation

I’ve finally submitted a revised version of a talk I gave in November to the fine folks at The New Atlantis. After the excellent editors there whip it into shape, it should be out in their next issue. I’ll pass along a link when its available.

This past week, as some of you know, I sent out the first of what I’m calling Dispatches, shorter occasional reflections sent to paying subscribers. If you’re interested in receiving those and in joining the discussion through comments or if you’d just like to support this work, then consider subscribing. If not, please continue enjoying the newsletter guilt-free.

Cheers,

Michael

The Convivial Society: Vol. 1, No. 1

“A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others. People feel joy, as opposed to mere pleasure, to the extent that their activities are creative; while the growth of tools beyond a certain point increases regimentation, dependence, exploitation, and impotence.”
— Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (1973)


In the last post on the now defunct blog, I proposed nine theses regarding the culture of digital media, an absurd and preposterous gesture and the sort of thing one can more or less get away with in a blog. Of course, like so much else that went on there, I offered them up as provocations to further thought or as theses for disputation. In one of these, I suggested that just as oral culture privileges honor, digital culture privileges shamelessness.

That was a relatively strong claim, and I hesitated before publishing the post, but, ultimately, decided to let it stand. What I had in mind was actually something I went on to feel rather acutely of late. It was, simply put, the feeling that, to thrive or even exist in the culture of digital media, one has to rather unrelentingly offer up more and more of oneself in ways that make one, initially at least, more than a little uneasy.

In part, I’d been feeling this way because, as most of you know, I’ve been hawking my wares recently. First, a collection of my writing over ten years on the blog (yes, of course, I’m going to share a link again) and then the paid subscription option on this here newsletter. I’m not sure I can convey to you how uneasy I am with all of that, but I convinced myself to do it and to try to do it as graciously as I could manage. To my mind, I succeeded to the degree that I could act shamelessly.

But it’s not just a matter of selling goods. I remember the dis-ease with which I composed and then published my first blog post, the trepidation with which I uploaded a picture to Facebook circa 2006, the meticulous care with which I composed my first few tweets. My experience has been one of growing gradually more comfortable with publicizing myself, by which I simply mean making public aspects of myself that I would have ordinarily considered private or of little to no interest to others. Not all of this amounted to overcoming shame, precisely, although, of course, that depends to how exactly we define shame. It is not exactly that I thought I was doing something wrong about which I should feel ashamed, but rather that there was something rather untoward about the whole thing.

(Of course, some of this is a matter of age, too, and personality. Having come of age in an analog culture, my mores and manners were shaped in a time when the divide between public and private was decidedly sharper. Born into the present milieu, one might not experience any of my initial reservations at all.)

Thus, it seemed to me that if we asked what it took to thrive in the current configuration of digital culture, the answer would inevitably involve a measure of shamelessness. And, if that word still seems unnecessarily pejorative, thinking about it in as detached a manner possible, I'd put it this way: we're now accustomed to sharing things/moments/images about ourselves that others used to be ashamed of sharing. So, we've learned to have less shame about such things. One can decide if that's bad or not.

In fact, that is exactly how I put it in a twitter exchange that ensued after I shared a link to recent post by Nicholas Carr that just happened to open with the following claim:

“If Instagram showed us what a world without art looks like, TikTok shows us what a world without shame looks like. The old virtues of restraint — prudence, discretion, tact — are gone. There is only one virtue: to be seen. In TikTok’s world, which more and more is our world, shamelessness has lost its negative connotations and become an asset.”

“The rise of TikTok heralds something bigger, though,” Carr went on to argue, “a reconfiguration of media. As mass media defined the twentieth century, so the twenty-first will be defined by infinite media.”

“Infinite media,” Carr then observed,

“requires endlessness on two fronts: supply and demand. Shamelessness, in this context, is best understood as a supply-side resource, a means of production. To manufacture the unlimited supply of content that an app like TikTok needs, the total productive capacity of the masses needs to be mobilized. That requires not just the ready availability of media-production tools (the smartphone’s camera and microphone and its editing software) and the existence of a universal broadcast network (the internet), but also a culture that encourages and celebrates self-exposure and self-promotion. Vanity must go unchecked by modesty.

Needless, to say, I felt (shamelessly) validated upon reading Carr’s post. It seems unquestionably the case that the content machine is like a blob that eats up more and more of reality. As with so much of the culture of digital media, it demands the erasure of certain boundaries and markers. In the culture of digital media, the boundaries between home and work blur so that we might be ever more available as a source of labor. In the culture of digital media, the boundaries between the home and the commercial sphere blur so that we might be ever more available as a source of consumption. In the culture of digital media, the boundaries between public and private blur so that we might be ever more available as a source of data and content.

I would add to Carr’s analysis that endlessness requires shamelessness on the demand side of the ledger as well. It’s not just that the suppliers of infinite media must be shameless in mining more and more of their experience, offering up more and more of themselves to the content machine. It is also the case that we must be shameless in our consumption as well. We must not turn away; we must be comfortable voyeurs, shameless connoisseurs of the lives of others.

As I explained in my twitter exchange on this subject, what most troubles me is not necessarily the alacrity with which we might erode the public/private distinction for ourselves, it is, rather, the degree to which we are willing to blur that line for others.

Martin Heidegger famously claimed that the manner in which technology discloses the world to us is as standing-reserve, that is as raw materials for our projects of technological mastery. Ordinarily, we tend to think that Heidegger had nature in view. The essence of technology is such that we do not see the forest or the river as it is for-itself, but rather we see each only as potential resources for construction materials or energy production.

Increasingly, it seems to me that we are coming to see not only the natural world but the social world as standing-reserve. We do not, in other words, see other human beings as persons to be respected, even in their folly and frailty, perhaps especially in their folly and frailty. We see them resources for the content mill. I am thinking here, of course, of the countless ways we seem prepared to surreptitiously capture the lives of others and share them for laughs, for likes, for retweets, shares, and reactions. And again, as I see it, it is not just that someone out there is prepared to publish the humiliation of others, it is that too many of us are ready to watch.

Byung-Chul Han opens his book In the Swarm with the following observations:

Given the erosion of the distinction between private and public life, neither now retains its integrity and we are in danger of losing the goods and consolations that we might have been available to us in either.

But why bother with a discussion of this sort? Increasingly, it is the kind of the discussion that is bound to strike many as inadequate to our time, unduly concerned as it is with the action of individuals and actions that, frankly, given the scale and scope of our problems, are seemingly trivial. I feel the force of such objections.

At the same time, however, it also seems to me that especially given the scale and scope of our problems, it may be that we need to draw attention again to very basic and fundamental realities. That we must learn again what it means to take responsibility for the good of our neighbor. That we must rediscover our responsibility to tend the social commons that it may be reconstructed in such a way that human beings may flourish in it once again. For as human beings, we depend not only on nature, but on our second nature, the realm of culture; both require our care and our maintenance, both must be cultivated if they are to yield their fruit.


News and Resources

  • This is a short, insightful piece from Robinson Meyer about what the death of iTunes may tell us about our digital habits: “In 1940, the German critic Walter Benjamin wrote about an angel in a Paul Klee painting. The angel looked ‘as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. … The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.’ It is now clear, 80 years later, that the angel is looking at his phone.”

    The piece includes this parenthetical comment, which I’ll take a moment to draw to your attention should you, like me, be among the “old readers”: “(A note for older readers: More time separates us today from the debut of the first iPod than separated the first iPod from the debut of the first Macintosh computer.)”

  • “From Ethics Washing to Ethics Bashing A View on Tech Ethics from Within Moral Philosophy” (PDF): “Moral philosophy indeed can shed new light on human practices by adding needed perspective, explaining the relationship between technology and other worthy goals, situating technology within the human, the social, the political. It has become urgent to start considering technology ethics also from within and not only from outside of ethics.”

  • “Fairness in Machine Learning: Lessons from Political Philosophy” (PDF): “Philosophical accounts of discrimination and fairness prompt reflection on these more fundamental questions, and suggest avenues for further consideration of what might be relevant and why.”

  • “Don’t force a smile with your lips. Smile with your eyes.” Advice from one of a rising class of consultants in South Korea offering teaching clients how to navigate AI powered facial-recognition hiring tools. Never mind that there is scant evidence that such tools perform as promised (and ample evidence that they unjustly discriminate), it is enough that some people believe they do. "The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism,” Hannah Arendt famously observed, “is not that they are wrong but that they could become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society."

  • “anonymity as culture: treatise” by David Auerbach: “… before so much of our social and professional lives came to be conducted on the Web, social spaces of a different kind existed online. They were populated by people who, for whatever reason, found a sense of belonging in communities built around semi-anonymous, real-time, written discourse.” Insightful report on the culture of anonymous forums, focusing on four key aspects—velocity, irony, self-documentation, and elitism.

  • “For tech-weary Midwest farmers, 40-year-old tractors now a hot commodity”: “The other big draw of the older tractors is their lack of complex technology.”

  • Chris Gilliard on how surveillance technology creates different experiences of space for those surveilling and the surveilled: “Companies make a similar promise with surveillance and security technologies. The claim is that these technologies, integrated into our living spaces, will reduce the “frictions” of anxiety and fear, and increase a sense of safety. Yet rather than ease or eliminate friction, these technologies often increase feelings of unease, anxiety, and fear on the part of both the watcher and the watched. Inasmuch as those tensions (whether acknowledged or not) come from a fear of the other, more cameras, devices, tracking, alerts, and notifications will not deliver on their promises.”

    The dynamic Gilliard identifies in those closing sentences is worth more than a moment’s reflection. It recurs frequently in our experience of various kinds of technology, not only digital technology.

  • Chad Wellmon, who has played an integral role in reshaping humanities education at the University of Virginia over the last few years, offers a deeply informed historical perspective on the question of the humanities and the university: “Finance, football, and fraternities—not philosophy or physics—are the pillars of the modern American university. It’s been that way for more than a century …”


Re-framings 

This is the opening page of The Unnamable Present by the Italian publisher and cultural critic Roberto Calasso. I’ve not gotten very far beyond it at this point, but this has stayed with me.

Jedediah Purdy on becoming a parent in an age of crisis.

“What does it mean to teach a child to live in a time of perennial crisis, always in the shadow of loss? I think about trying to teach him love and wonder first, before he inevitably learns fear. I would like him to be fascinated by a Manhattan red oak, a red-tailed hawk perched in its limbs, or a morel mushroom at its roots, before he thinks, This forest is going to die, with everything in it. When the thought of climate doom arrives, I hope it will arrive in a mind already prepared by curiosity and pleasure to know why this world is worth fighting to preserve.”

— Early last year, Jonathan Malesic visited a monastery in the New Mexico desert that in the 1990s operated a web design business. He came to see what he might learn from the monks about how to better order his relationship to work.

“Over several days of working and praying and eating with the monks, I realized that the ceaseless, obsessive American work ethic was one of those demons, certainly the one that haunted me, and most of the people I knew. We are a society almost totally under its power. We assess people’s value by their jobs and demean anyone who can’t work. We forego vacation time, anxious to prove that we’re indispensable. We drive ourselves to burnout. And we do all this even while artificial intelligence promises to take our jobs. The demon is chasing us over a cliff.”


The Conversation

I’ve re-thought and re-named the last section of the newsletter. Previously, the newsletter concluded with a section titled “Recently Published,” which told a bit about what I was up to on that front, followed by a few more casual comments and a sign off. I’m combining those sections and calling it simply “The Conversation.”

This is were I do want to address you all a bit more casually, sometimes telling you what I’m up to as far as writing and speaking. But I also want this last section to be an invitation to enter into or expand some meaningful approximation of a conversation.

You are always free to reach out via email. I’ve been a bit better of late in getting back to reader emails in a timely fashion, and I intend to continue to do so.

For those of you who are now generous supporters of this newsletter, you will note the ability to comment on this installment. And I do hope you’ll avail yourself of that feature. I’d be genuinely interested in your thoughts about any of what I’ve shared above. Along with me, you’ll be addressing a relatively small and thoughtful group. I’m eager to see this become a space for some valuable exchanges about technology, society, and the good life.

If you’ve not done so already, please know you have a standing invitation to join in.

And please do feel free to let others know about the newsletter as you see fit. No one has to pay a penny to sign up to receive the main offering.

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Cheers,

Michael

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