Readings and Resources
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 10
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. The pace has been a bit brisk of late. I’m making up for an unusually slow stretch at the start of the year. But, to borrow a line from Ivan Illich, I continue to aspire to a “learned and leisurely” rhythm. In any case, in this particular installment you’ll find an assortment of articles, essays, etc. with a bit of accompanying commentary from me in most cases.
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News and Resources
It’s great to have one’s writing taken seriously and responded to in a smart and productive essay. So I was delighted to read Robin Berjon’s “Retrofuturism: Back to Having a Future,” which he wrote in conversation with my previous installment on internet temporality. It’s good. You should read it.
Cory Doctorow writes about the Luddites:
“The critique of Luddism as anti-technology is as shallow a reading of the Luddites as the critique of science fiction as nothing more than speculation about the design of gadgets of varying degrees of plausibility.
In truth, Luddism and science fiction concern themselves with the same questions: not merely what the technology does, but who it does it for and who it does it to.”
Real Life Magazine continues to produce a stream of consistently good essays on all facets of digital culture. For example, here is a recent, characteristically thoughtful piece by Lauren Collee on time in digital culture, “Temporal Belonging: The timeless, futile effort to fix circadian rhythms with tech.” I commend the whole thing to you, but here’s a bit that I found intriguing:
“The daily-task format promises a limited sphere of intervention, unlocking more ‘free time’ away from the internet. This is misleading: in confining itself to a randomized two-minute window, apps like BeReal also extend their reach over the entire 24-hour cycle, creating a daily event which is preceded by anticipation, and succeeded by reflection (looking over other’s posts, watching the reactions roll in).”
What I read into this observation is yet another subtle reminder that a significant, unnoticed part of our problem, if we wish to see it as such, is that we constantly find ourselves trying to self-consciously and reflexively recreate what had, at some point, happened without such self-awareness, and for which the unreflective character was an essential rather than accidental feature.
I’ll also highlight Collee’s opening discussion of a 1998 Swatch campaign featuring Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Lab: “‘Now is now and the same time for all people and places,’ Negroponte was quoted on the Swatch Internet Time website. “Cyberspace has no seasons. The virtual world is absent of night and day. Internet Time is not driven by the sun’s position, it is driven by yours — your location in space and time.” As was usually the case with such exuberant predictions about the internet, there was little awareness about any potential adverse consequences. Temporalities of affinity may have certain advantages, but they also fray the social fabric. Personalized time can be also be a very lonely time.
A disturbing piece in the Times, “The Unseen Scars of Those Who Kill Via Remote Control”:
”Drone crew members said in interviews that, while killing remotely is different from killing on the ground, it still carves deep scars.
‘In many ways it’s more intense,’ said Neal Scheuneman, a drone sensor operator who retired as a master sergeant from the Air Force in 2019. ‘A fighter jet might see a target for 20 minutes. We had to watch a target for days, weeks and even months. We saw him play with his kids. We saw him interact with his family. We watched his whole life unfold. You are remote but also very much connected. Then one day, when all parameters are met, you kill him. Then you watch the death. You see the remorse and the burial. People often think that this job is going to be like a video game, and I have to warn them, there is no reset button.’”
One framing of remote killing is that it detaches the operator from the victim thus eroding whatever modicum of moral restraint might emerge in a more direct encounter. Perhaps this was once the case with earlier iterations of the technology. It seems apparent from the descriptions in this report that such is not the case. Indeed, the opposite seems more likely, at least for the operators if not for their “customers.”
Alan Jacobs in the Hedgehog Review, “Injured Parties Considering the Wider Effects of Harmful Speech.” Just prior to the paragraph below, Jacobs refers to the concept of “civil inattention” or “tactful inattention” put forward by the sociologist Erving Goffman. I found those to be useful elaborations or more specific varieties of my general insistence that we must learn to practice strategic silence online.
“Our current social media platforms, especially Twitter and Facebook, are best understood as madhouses in which we have incarcerated ourselves. It is wise to check yourself out if you possibly can, but if you cannot, then your best strategy for maintaining your own mental equilibrium and aiding in the restoration of healthy social proprieties is to practice this tactful inattention. Do not acknowledge the more vocally assertive of the lunatics. Transfer your attention, instead, to those who have been wounded by defamatory speech, and, if you cannot induce the offending speakers to apologize or recant, you can at least do your part to restore the honor of the injured parties. The law will do what the law will do, but we must do what we can, in all possible charity, for our neighbors, our larger social order, and our own sanity. Drawing equally on the imperatives of a bygone legal system and on the best practices of visitors to madhouses, we must develop social strategies to help us repair the human wreckage created by social media.”
An annotated bibliography from landscape historian Daegan Miller: “Earthward: The Ecology of Vision”:
“About twenty years ago I was first punctured by a question whose barbs have yet to release: how do photographs work? It’s not so much the technical questions that interest me — though I’m not incurious as to how one manipulates photo-sensitive chemicals and pixels and shutter speeds — but the sensual one: how do photographs work on me? … What follows is a small shelf-full of books, an intellectual history of learning to see ecologically.”
I was struck by this line from Susan Sontag cited by Miller: “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.... In place of a hermeneutics of art we need an erotics of art.”
His influence on my thinking is perhaps not as obvious as Ellul’s or Illich’s or Arendt’s, but W. H. Auden is another of those among dead with whom, to borrow Auden’s own formulation, I seek to “break bread.” Here is a recent discussion of Auden’s work by Alan Jacobs in Harpers.
“All the themes of Auden’s later verse converge on a rejection of the heroic and triumphal modes, and the substitution of a different register, that of the repeated and the mundane. In the second half of his career, Auden patiently worked out, in both prose and masterful verse, the implications of his homemade anthropology—his own account of what his friend Hannah Arendt would later call, in a 1958 book, The Human Condition. That anthropology ultimately centers on two core propositions: that we are prone to trust and love what breaks our hearts, and that we are creatures alongside the birds and the social insects, albeit creatures who, as he says in one poem, have ‘assumed responsibility for time.’ We must live simultaneously in nature and history, though we forever are tempted by those prophets who tell us we can only take full refuge in one or the other.”
That line which Jacobs’s picks out, “assuming responsibility for time,” was the title of a 2020 installment that I still think is one of the better things I’ve published here.
You likely read or heard about Jonathan Haidt’s big April essay in the Atlantic, “After Babel: Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” The thesis is pretty straightforward: social media is ruining America. In the New Yorker, Gideon Lewis-Kraus takes an admirably fair and honest look at Haidt’s claims. Frankly, Lewis-Kraus is to be commended not only for his analysis but for the spirit in which it was presented. Basically, he found that it is difficult to support Haidt’s most dire claims with existing data.
Lewis-Kraus, and the scholars he consulted, are probably right. Haidt’s case is difficult to defend given existing research. Interestingly, however, they all seem to approach this in similar fashion: they grant that Haidt is right to be concerned, but they’re simply not sure if he is concerned about the right things and in the right measure. Lewis-Kraus is also to be commended for the running acknowledgement that it may be difficult to measure and quantify the kind of effects we’re looking for. I remain skeptical that we can rely merely on social scientific data to ground our action. That may very well be a symptom of the deeper (Babel-like!) delusion of mastery and management. But along those lines, this was a particularly interesting observation:
“Gentzkow told me that, for the period between 2016 and 2020, the direct effects of misinformation were difficult to discern. ‘But it might have had a much larger effect because we got so worried about it—a broader impact on trust,’ he said. ‘Even if not that many people were exposed, the narrative that the world is full of fake news, and you can’t trust anything, and other people are being misled about it—well, that might have had a bigger impact than the content itself.’”
Well, that’s kind of the point isn’t it? I mean, that consequence Gentzkow describes is a consequence of social media, which acts as a massive assortment of feedback loops from the social body to the collective consciousness, such that it generates all manner of distorted and disordered actions.
Finally, on this score, I’ll say that the allusion to the Babel narrative amounts to little more than window dressing (curiously, the Atlantic seems to have removed the reference from the title). When Haidt writes, with reference to the tower, that social media platforms “unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together,” he seems to be overlooking the fact that in the Hebrew story the destruction of the tower was not something to be lamented. The destruction of the tower was an act of judgment on the hubris of the builders. I think there was an interesting direction in which to take that story, but I’m not sure this was it.
I’ve been enjoying Erik Hoel’s newsletter, The Intrinsic Perspective. Consider, for example, this installment from April, “How to Prevent the Coming Inhuman Future”:
”So, in some ways, keeping humanity human should be as central a pillar to longtermism as minimizing existential risk (the chance of Earth being wiped out in the future), both because of the innate moral value of humanity qua humanity and also because for inhuman futures we cannot make moral judgements regardless.”
Read the whole thing.
This is a pretty remarkable illustrated explanation of how a mechanical watch works by Bartosz Ciechanowski. The blog contains earlier, similarly impressive posts about other technologies including GPS and cameras.
I’ve been remiss in failing to mention earlier a recently launched website called Thinking After Illich. It’s a wonderful resources for all things Illich masterminded by Sajay Samuel, a friend and co-conspirator of Illich’s. If you’re at all interested in Illich’s work—and, of course, you should be—then take a look.
“The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating.”
— In Simulacra and Simulation (originally published in 1981), Jean Baudrillard argued that “we live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” “Information devours its own content,” he added. “It devours communication and the social.” I’ve shared these lines before, two years ago or so, but they came to mind again recently and I think they’re worth considering. More:
“Rather than creating communication, [information] exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning. A gigantic process of simulation that is very familiar. The nondirective interview, speech, listeners who call in, participation at every level, blackmail through speech: ‘You are concerned, you are the event, etc.’ More and more information is invaded by this kind of phantom content, this homeopathic grafting, this awakening dream of communication. A circular arrangement through which one stages the desire of the audience, the antitheater of communication, which, as one knows, is never anything but the recycling in the negative of the traditional institution, the integrated circuit of the negative. Immense energies are deployed to hold this simulacrum at bay, to avoid the brutal desimulation that would confront us in the face of the obvious reality of a radical loss of meaning.”
“Information exhausts itself in the act of staging communication” seems like an apt description of some of the dynamics I tried to describe in the last post, specifically about how online discourse so quickly becomes about itself rather than any ostensible object.
— Pieter Breughel’s Tower of Babel (or, better, the most famous of them), c. 1563:
I recently enjoyed chatting with Georgie Powell for the Freedom Matters podcast. You can listen to it here.
As always, I trust this finds you all well and healthy. Thank you for reading. Thank you for sharing my writing. Thank you for your encouragement and support. You can always reach out by replying to this email, although I’m often much too slow to respond. Some of you have been getting long overdue replies, though. So there is hope!