The Convivial Society, No. 16

Memory, Self, Culture

"However, beside these technical and purposeful effects, for which the alphabet can be used as a tool, its mere existence within a society also says something to the members of society, something which rarely if ever has been written down. As the alphabet began to make it obvious that speech can be fixed and sliced into visible units, it became a new means to think of the world as well. Plato already noticed in the Cratylus (42.4d) that letters had come to be considered as the elements of speech. Thus words became the atoms of statements, and the act of speaking could be conceived as the production of language which in turn can be analyzed into its units. Some Greeks turned this symbolic alphabetization of utterance into a paradigm of the metaphysical constitution of the universe." 

— Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text

[In light of the spike of new subscribers since the last installment, a brief orientation. First of all, welcome to this small little corner of the republic of newsletters, as Warren Ellis has put it. As to what you will find: First, above, a quote, almost always from Ivan Illich's works, usually Tools for Conviviality, from which this newsletter, in part, takes its name. Immediately below, there's usually a short essay that sometimes sets the thematic tone for the installment. Below that, two sets of links. The first collected with a view to current news, trends, generally helpful resources, and occasionally something or other I found interesting. The second, usually only two or three items, with a view to a longer view that helps us better take the measure of contemporary developments. Finally, you'll see some links to any recent items I've published and a brief parting note. My general aim is to provide a newsletter that is serviceable for both those who are very much in the tech world, either as journalists, scholars, or practitioners and for those who are not but have a sense of its importance and would like to learn more about it. That's a broad target and for that reason easy to miss. Nonetheless, that's what I'm aiming for. If you find it useful, pass it along.] 

In a recent piece at Aeon, Gene Tracy wondered how much we could afford to forget if we train machines to remember? It's an important question. Unfortunately, the essay never really gets around to giving an answer, at least none that I can discern. Neither do readers get the sense that this is a question which has already received a considerable amount of attention from both contemporary scholars and ancient writers. Mostly, we get a series of relevant data points. For example, some young scientists think that educating for the future means less memorization and more emphasis on creativity (oblivious, apparently, of the trends in education over the past hundred years or so). We learn that civilizations have slouched off certain skills in the past. We get some hackneyed questions: will we forget how to drive or how to spell? We get a brief discussion of transactive memory networks and, of course, some extended mind talk, too. Tracy then focuses on "smart machines," which he takes to be "memory partners like no other." 

In the end, we're left with generally optimistic closing remarks about how memory adapts and evolves: "Some of that evolution invariably involves forgetting old ways, in order to free up time and space for new skills. Provided that older forms of knowledge are retained somewhere in our network, and can be found when we need them, perhaps they’re not really forgotten."

So how much can we afford to forget? We'll need to turn elsewhere for answers. In truth, the piece doesn't even position us to seek those answers well. I was mostly struck by what was not discussed. First, there was no discussion of what differences there might be between externalized and internalized memory. Discussions of this sort often assume there is no difference. As long as we have access to the pertinent information what difference could there be between knowledge stored on the cloud or in the mind. And if we buy into extended mind theory, then I suppose there can be no difference:  the cloud simply is part of the mind. But it seems to me that this begs the question. It already assumes that there is no real difference, or else it takes into consideration only the sort of knowledge for which there may be no difference:  knowledge as merely instrumental data. In other words, if you conceive of all knowledge on the model of something like memorizing phone numbers or playing Jeopardy!, then, sure, I suppose it would seem as if it mattered very little at all whether that knowledge resided in your mind or on an external database you could readily access. Thus also the idea of the mind encompassing the databases becomes more plausible. Or so it seems to me. But is all knowledge, or more to the point, all that we remember, some of which might not even be reducible to knowledge per se—is it all simply discreet and easily transferable data points?

The genesis for this line of thought began as I contemplated the fire that consumed the roof and spire of Notre-Dame de Paris. Like so many others, I was saddened by the loss, and I thought for sometime afterwards about why exactly. What precisely was lost in the fire? Was it merely wood and glass? Clearly not. Some have read a kind of allegory about the church into the destruction of cathedral. We need not go so far in order to realize that something more than physical materials had been lost.

Alissa Wilkinson wrote eloquently about the kind of loss involved:  "Places and buildings, I believe, get heavier and more brooding with the weight of memories, almost as if they retain memories of their own. You can feel that weight most anywhere throughout the world — especially, I suspect, if you’re used to the newness of American buildings." It recalls Michel de Certeau's reflections on place:  "There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not." "Haunted places," he goes on to say, "are the only ones people can live in." In a rather backhanded way, Harvard art historian Patricio del Real testified to this reality when he declared, "The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation."

Alexis Madrigal tells the remarkable story of an American scholar of medieval architecture, Andrew Tallon, who in 2010 began to digitally scan the cathedral:  "Tallon and Blaer’s laser data consist of 1 billion data points, structured as 'point clouds,' which software can render into images of the three-dimensional space. Stitch them together, inside and out, map the photographs onto the precise 3-D models, and you have a full digital re-creation of incredible detail and resolution." Tallon succumbed to brain cancer on November 16, 2018. He was 49 years old. His work will undoubtedly figure in whatever reconstruction work is undertaken on the cathedral. 

Remarkable as Tallon's work was, useful as it may prove, dense in data as it may be, it can only capture one layer of the reality that is Notre-Dame de Paris. It can tell us very little if anything about the accretion of memories and meanings for which the cathedral was a depository. 

As I write this, I'm reminded of a couple of paragraphs from Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Zuboff is discussing CEO Ginny Rommety's vision for IBM. She cites Harriet Green, director of IBM's push to become "'the Google' of ubiquitous computing," who explained the "opportunity" IBM was trying to seize: "You know the amount of data being created on a daily basis—much of which will go to waste unless it is utilized. This so-called dark data represents a phenomenal opportunity ... the ability to use sensors for everything in the world to basically be a computer, whether it's your contact lens, your hospital bed, or a railway track."

Zuboff eloquently unpacks the significance of this vision:

"The message is that surveillance capitalism’s new instruments will render the entire world’s actions and conditions as behavioral flows. Each rendered bit is liberated from its life in the social, no longer inconveniently encumbered by moral reasoning, politics, social norms, rights, values, relationships, feelings, contexts, and situations. In the flatness of this flow, data are data, and behavior is behavior. The body is simply a set of coordinates in time and space where sensation and action are translated as data. All things animate and inanimate share the same existential status in this blended confection, each reborn as an objective and measurable, indexable, browsable, searchable 'it.'

From the vantage point of surveillance capitalism and its economic imperatives, world, self, and body are reduced to the permanent status of objects as they disappear into the bloodstream of a titanic new conception of markets. His washing machine, her car’s accelerator, and your intestinal flora are collapsed into a single dimension of equivalency as information assets that can be disaggregated, reconstituted, indexed, browsed, manipulated analyzed, reaggregated, predicted, productized, bought, and sold: anywhere, anytime."

I cite Zuboff here to suggest that we are, in fact, collectively experiencing a moment of profound temptation. It might be useful to characterize the nature of the temptation as a digital age variant of what Heidegger described as the reduction of nature to "standing reserve" for our own projects; it has no value as such, it is only valuable insofar as it is for-something. "The revealing that rules in modern technology," Heidegger further explained, "is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such." To speak of a digital age variant of this way of being in the world is simply to recognize that it is not only the stuff of the world that is conceptualized in this manner but also information about the world captured by increasingly sophisticated array of sensors. We might say, then, that the revealing that rules in contemporary technology is a challenging, which puts to nature and humanity the unreasonable demand that it supply data which can be extracted and stored as such. 

My first encounter with Ivan Illich came in reading In the Vineyard of the Text, his study of developments in medieval reading technologies and their cultural consequences. One line in particular has always remained with me:  "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.” Illich, it seems to me, was right, and we are in the midst of a cultural transformation that rather darkly illustrates his point.

de Certeau
del Real​

News and Resources

  • The New York Times wants you to know about how How China Is Using A.I. to Profile a MinorityThe New York Times also wants to sell premium ads based on how an article makes you feel: "A year ago, without ceremony, The New York Times piloted ad placements based on the emotions certain articles evoke. 'Project Feels' has now generated 50 campaigns, more than 30 million impressions and strong revenue results." There is no great gulf fixed between these two situations. See also the promise and peril of 5G networks

  • "VCV’s AI will read your face in a job interview": "Additionally, facial and voice recognition identifies a candidates’ nervousness, mood, and behavior patterns to help recruiters assess whether a person is a good cultural fit for the company." And what can be better suited to soothe one's nervousness and enhance one's mood than knowing you are being observed by a machine that will ostensibly make judgements about you on just that basis? 

  • Relatedly, Face, a Microsoft facial recognition product, “consistently interprets black players as angrier than white players, even controlling for their degree of smiling. Microsoft registers contempt instead of anger, & interprets black players as more contemptuous when their facial expressions are ambiguous.” From "Racial Influence on Automated Perceptions of Emotions."

  • "AI-Enabled Cameras Meant to Sense Crime Before it Occurs": "Athena sells software that can recognize specific behaviors, like fighting, walking slowly when others are walking fast, virtually anything that aberrates from the norm." Just you're weekly reminder of that the world will be our Skinner box

  • "Researchers Want to Link Your Genes and Income—Should They?": (See Betteridge's Law.) "Hill and like-minded colleagues are working on a science they call sociogenomics. And bolstered by a global boom in biobanking, they have more data than ever before to probe connections between people’s DNA and their socioeconomic circumstances."

  • From 1973, "The Social Ideology of the Motorcar": "'People,' writes Illich, 'will break the chains of overpowering transportation when they come once again to love as their own territory their own particular beat, and to dread getting too far away from it.' But in order to love 'one’s territory' it must first of all be made livable, and not trafficable."

  • "Behind Every Robot Is a Human":  "Hundreds of human reviewers across the globe, from Romania to Venezuela, listen to audio clips recorded from Amazon Echo speakers, usually without owners’ knowledge .... According to Amazon, users can opt out of the service, but they seem to be enrolled automatically."

  • I linked to a review of Nolan Gertz's Nihilism and Technology in a previous installment. This one by James Poulos at The New Atlantis is better. 

  • Here's an extension for Chrome that replaces the suggested replies in Gmail with lines of poetry.

  • I don't know, this seemed mildly disconcerting: "U.S. Navy drafting new guidelines for reporting UFOs.


From Ursula Franklin's 1989 Massey Lecture, "The Real World of Technology"

"It is my conviction that nothing short of a global reformation of major social forces and of the social contract can end this historical period of profound and violent transformations, and give a manner of security to the world and to its citizens. Such a development will require the redefinition of rights and responsibilities, and the setting of limits to power and control. There have to be completely different criteria for what is permissible and what is not. Central to any new order that can shape and direct technology and human destiny will be a renewed emphasis on the concept of justice. The viability of technology, like democracy, depends in the end on the practice and on the enforcement of limits to power."

Franklin goes on to distinguish between work-related technologies that "make the actual practice easier" and control-related technologies that do not aim at making the practice easier but "try to increase control over the operation." She further distinguishes between holistic technologies and prescriptive technologies. 

Holistic technologies, which bear some resemblance to what Illich calls convivial tools, are, Franklin explains, "normally associated with the notion of craft." Most significantly for Franklin, "artisans control their work from beginning to end." They are specialized in the making of an object rather than in a process, which is the case with prescriptive technologies. More: 

"When work is organized as as sequence of separately executable steps, the control over the work moves to the organizer, the boss or manager ... Prescriptive technologies constitute a major social invention. In political terms, prescriptive technologies are designs for compliance .... Today's real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept there is only one way of doing 'it.'"


A little late for the holiday, but stumbled upon this recently. George Herbert's concrete poem, "Easter Wings": 

Recently Published

On May 8th, The New Atlantis will make available online all of the contributions to its symposium on social media and public discourse, "The Ruin of the Digital Town Square." I contributed a piece titled "The Inescapable Town Square." Click through on the 8th and check out the other contributions as well, I'm in good company. 

A funny thing happened on my way to a fourth consecutive weekly newsletter, I like to think of it as "life." In any case, I also noted via the rudimentary analytics Tiny Letter provides that the rate at which you all were opening up the newsletter had dipped a tad. So I thought I'd give you some time to catch up. Maybe twice monthly is the way to go. We'll see. As always, I'm making all of this up as I go. 

Trust you all are well, fighting the good fight, etc., etc. 



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