One of the benefits of reading several books at the same time, is that occasionally a chapter that I have just finished from one book will somehow find resonance in another. Today I felt this, despite that James Bridle’s New Dark Age and Adrienne Clarkson’s Belongingare very different books.
From the blurb to New Dark Age:
As the world around us increases in technological complexity, our understanding of it diminishes. Underlying this trend is a single idea: the belief that our existence is understandable through computation, and more data is enough to help us build a better world.
Bridle’s chapter on Computation is exceptional. There is so much I would love to share but I will leave you this excerpt:
To take another example from aviation, consider the experience of being in an airport. An airport is a canonical example of what geographers call ‘code/space‘. Code/spaces describe the interweaving of computation with the built environment and daily experience to a very specific extent: rather than overlaying and augmenting them, computation becomes a crucial component of them, such that the environment and the experience of it actually ceases to function in the absence of code…
That which computation sets out to map and model it eventually takes over. Google sets out to index all human knowledge and becomes the source and the arbiter of that knowledge: it became what people think. Facebook set out to map the connections between people – the social graph – and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships. Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between the model of the world and reality – and, once conditioned, neither are we.
James Bridle, New Dark Age, p.37, 39.
Belonging, on the other hand, is a set of Massey Lectures from journalist and former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson that addresses the paradoxes of citizenship. In her first chapter she tells several stories that express how our identity and our sense of belonging are deeply dependent upon each other.
If we remove our sense of belonging to each other, no matter what our material and social conditions are, survival, acquisition, and selfish triumphalism will endure at the cost of our humanity. Under extreme circumstances, each and every one of us is capable of a mentality that brings about the abandonment of children, the lack of cultivation of human relationships, and the deliberate denial of love.
Adrienne Clarkson, Belonging, p. 3.
To bring these two ideas together: Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between the model of the world and reality, and if we let ourselves become conditioned to substitute our standing in social media with our sense of belonging in our social structures, neither will we.
Today the poet, Mary Oliver died. I don’t read much poetry and until today, the only words I knew of hers were these two lines:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
But today I finally read the poem from where those lines are from:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
-- Mary Oliver
And so I did not realize that this poem was about a grasshopper and about how to be idle and to be blessed.
The fable concerns a grasshopper (in the original, a cicada) that has spent the summer singing while the ant (or ants in some versions) worked to store up food for winter. When that season arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger and begs the ant for food. However, the ant rebukes its idleness and tells it to dance the winter away now.
From what I remember of the ant and the grasshopper, is the ant is hard working all year round building his house with his community and gathering food and resources and the grasshopper likes to jump around, playing in the meadow enjoying himself. When Winter comes, Ant is prepared and ready to get through it. Grasshopper, is not. The message is that hard, steady work pays off, and jumping around, simply for enjoyment, does not.
I think this way of thinking is dated. Our economy no longer supports slow, steady efforts that pay big dividends. It used to be that one got a job and worked till retirement and then got a pension for the rest of one’s life. This is no longer true. One needs imagination and entrepreneurial skills to be successful today, so maybe finding your passion by jumping around the meadow, and identifying what makes one happy is a good exercise.
My son received a Fitbit for Christmas. Since receiving it, it’s clear that he enjoys its ability to track his steps. He’s already quite active and so he’s using the device largely to recognize and acknowledge his existing behaviour rather than as a means to encourage any change in behavior. At the moment, the other functionality and measures of the device aren’t of interest to him.
But they are to me.
When I was reading up about his particular Fitbit, the feature that I was personally most interested in was its silent alarm feature. I immediately recognized that this was a solution of my current problem of how to start my day earlier without waking up my husband with an alarm from my phone.
And so every night my son lends me his Fitbit. And every morning, after the silent alarm rouses me out of bed, I remove it and set it aside for him and I start my morning routine.
What amuses me is that already the dashboard analytics of the device suggests that every evening, the resting heart rate of my son suddenly drops.
The app had a new UI and once I got my bearings, I noticed a tab with a red notification, marked “unknown” with over 100 data points over the course of several years. As a bit of background: the scale works by guessing who is who based on differing weights, and lets you name those people and the people in my house all had different weights when I bought it, making it easy to track us.
But there was an unknown person.
The unknown tab was interesting since the data started at a different number than any of us and then steadily fell. A lot. And there was years of data. At first, I thought it had to be data from another account on Nokia’s servers leaking into my profile. Who else lives in my house and could do this for years? I logged into the website to double check the logs.
I couldn’t think of anyone it could be. After a couple days of thinking it over, I finally noticed an obvious pattern in the data. It was only one recording a week, for years. Always around noon. Always on the same day.
Oh shit. I know who it was. It was our housecleaner.
This is a good reminder that ‘personal’ tools or ‘smart tools’ are built not to be shared. They are built to measure and track known users. Any use generates data and that data both reveals and betrays use.
I think we need to insist that our tools be convivial:
So what makes a tool “convivial?” For Illich, “tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user.” That is, convivial technologies are accessible, flexible, and noncoercive. Many tools are neutral, but some promote conviviality and some choke it off.
It is the first day of 2019, a year in which I have resolved to write more. I haven’t written anything on this blog since just before the election of 2016. No further explanation is necessary.
Some days ago, I was in a Holiday Inn in Burlington, Ontario. I was in the city to visit family and we opted to stay in a hotel to be less of a burden. We had been to this particular hotel before, and like our previous stay, we found that the hotel was filled with eight year old boys and their fathers as there was nearby hockey tournament. And this was fine. We knew not to book a room near the atrium lest the hockey dads would get too drunk and start singing through the night.
During our breakfast at the hotel, I passed a table as I made my way to the buffet table. There was middle-aged man and a small boy eating breakfast. The boy was wearing a t-shirt reading, Everyone Loves a Canadian Boy.
And I was a bit thunderstruck when I saw it.
It might be necessary for you to know that just before breakfast, I was reading the 2018 Massey Lectures, Tanya Talaga’s All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, which explores the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples. I had just finished the third lecture, The Third Space that describes the scale and the depth of the horrific abuse that Indigenous boys and girls have endured at the hands of those who were supposed to care for them.
And so when I read the T-shirt, I thought to myself, “That’s just not true. It’s never been true.”
The GOP presidential candidate has generated an absurdly long list of lies, fraud, and promises that curdles the blood of anyone who believes that the rights and freedoms of the United States are for all Americans regardless of creed or colour. It chills the blood of those who fear for the most vulnerable among us. And yet his polls rise.
Perhaps you are like myself and unsure how much consternation should be thrown at the feet of cable news and how much should be hurled at the men and women who find it easier to bring themselves to vote for a leader supported by Putin and neo-Nazis than for a woman and/or a Democrat.
It makes me wonder, has it always been about identity politics?
How much of the racism and misogyny – now shamelessly out of the open and now somehow – absurdly – beyond public rebuke – was already there, quiet, just waiting for a cue to express itself?
On the other hand, how much of what we see is just the loud and virulent audience participation of a few – not unlike the crowd that boos the bad guy in wrestling or MMA – who have no real power outside of the arena when the audience no longer has an audience?
How many conscientious objectors are among the GOP, silent but resolute in their belief that what is seen on television is not the America they live in nor the America they want.
2016 earned its title of annus horribilis many months ago when David Bowie and then Prince, passed on and left us with their music. Bowie and Prince did not transcend the societal boundaries placed around them but they did extend the boundaries of music, style, sexuality and identity for themselves and for all of us.
One answer to 2016 is more Prince. One answer to 2016 is more David Bowie.
I believe another answer is to hold your nose and get involved in every level of politics you can.
And I’ve been thinking still of a whole other coping mechanism to fight against the fear and rage shown to us on television and our social media feeds at every hour of the day that can mirror itself in our own nervous systems if not checked.
And that answer is – paradoxically – to let go of want.
And there is another, subtler reason you might find yourself convinced that things are getting worse and worse, which is that our expectations outpace reality. That is, things do improve — but we raise our expectations for how much better they ought to be at a faster rate, creating the illusion that progress has gone into reverse.
Perhaps my expectations for a world that forms to my will is a problem unto itself. Perhaps it a fundamental problem of how most of us understand ourselves in our world.
What if we treated everything the way we treat soccer and Tetris – as valuable and virtuous for being exactly what they are, rather than for what would be convenient, or for what we wish they were instead, or for what we fear they are not? Walks and meadows, aunts and grandfathers, zoning board of appeals meetings and business trips. Everything. Our lives would be better, bigger, more meaningful, and less selfish.
The above is from the preface to the recently published, Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games by game designer and scholar Ian Bogost. It’s a book that has given me much comfort during this past bad week. Play Anything starts with an exploration of boredom – not unlike the late David Foster Wallace in his unfinished work, The Pale King. But Bogost, unlike Wallace, doesn’t believe the cure for boredom is within ourselves but outside of ourselves once we pay a different kind of attention to the world around us.
Bogost then moves on to his real target – the ever present layer of irony that smothers our day and age. Play Anything is a difficult book to summarize. Between trips to Walmart and other excursions in pursuit of a greener lawn, Bogost slowly builds his case that it is working within materials and systems of constraint that brings us a sense of freedom and that fun is the opposite of happiness.
(Speaking of games, while I did not play The Witness – the 2016 game about exploring an abandoned island and solving puzzles, I did watch a ridiculous number of videos watching other people playing the game. Here’s a slight spoiler: in one part of the island of The Witness, you can watch a small series of videos from within the game and this particular video is strangely fitting).
I want to be clear – while I am considering giving up wishing for a better world, I am not giving up working towards a better one.
Between the rise of Donald Trump and our rising sea levels – the time to fight for our future is now.
Over the last week, several people in my social media circles have been wondering out loud if we should reconsider how we spend our attention especially when horrific violence is perpetrated specifically to generate a mass spectacle.
We got to ask ourselves where the line is between empathy and voyeurism is, and how we pick the targets of our concern.
For myself, I know that when I’m online at the same time something horrific is happening I feel terrible but I’m not sure that my following along accomplishes anything other than the sick feeling in my stomach as the images, speculative details, and the immediate hot-takes unfold and scroll before me.
Knowing that I can’t continue this way, I thought I would divert some of my attention from the news of the world and cast it towards the formal visual arts. I’m doing so not because I’m looking for answers but I’m looking for a better understanding… of what? I don’t even know. If I had to rationalize why I’ve decided to spend more time looking at art, I can tell you this story: there was a passage in At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails* that described a particular philosopher’s definition of art as ‘anti-technology’ in that art is not meant to “do anything” and this definition pleased me.
*I don’t have the exact wording of this passage because I lent the book to a friend who has taken it on vacation
It was recently my birthday and to celebrate I took the day off of work before exactly knowing how I wanted to spend the day other than not-at-work. I was debating between several options for short day trips but once I learned that The Cranbrook Art Museum was featuring a special exhibition called Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, it was as if the decision was made for me.
I was delighted to discover that the exhibition covered more than the work of traditional visual artists. It also considered the work of architects, radical social and political movements as well as graphic designers who were particularly attuned to the intersection of information and mass media.
As I did the museum shuffle through the rooms, I recognized some of the creators whose work was present (Stewart Brand, Archigram, The Diggers) but there were many who were new to me. There was so much to see, experience and absorb and rather than work through the art slowly, I bought the exhibition’s catalog for future study.
To be honest, I don’t know what makes one particular exhibition more exceptional than another once you you’ve set aside one’s personal taste for the art within. Or perhaps I should say, that because I enjoyed the art so much, I can’t objectively judge whether the collection of art made up a particular strong exhibition.
This happens as much in our feelings about art is in our feelings toward people. If you develop a “love” for, say, science fiction films, you no longer see them as you do other films; it becomes difficult to consider them outside your own love for the larger genre. A friend ask, “Should I see this sci-fi film?” You say, “Well, if you like science fiction films you will like it, otherwise…” When our love is too great, our taste blinds us. The designer Jason Kottke once described this on his popular Web site a new viral video as “so perfectly in the kottke.org wheelhouse that I can’t even tell if it’s any good or not.”
I picked up the book… why, well, because of the book I have no confidence in my ability to explain my choices relating to taste because what I have learned is that taste is complicated and there is a lot of scientific evidence that suggests that our rationales are largely rationalizations and not reasons:
Our ability to express an affective judgement about something happens in the range of milliseconds. This is a great skill for a complex world, a filtering mechanism for effectively navigating the crowded marketplace of life. But shortcuts come at a price: We may miss what we might really prefer, we may discount something we will later come to love, we may be misattributing the source of our liking.
I agree with much that was written about the book in this review from The New Yorker and found the book was somewhat disappointing because, disappointingly, it is very difficult to say anything definitive about taste. I did particularly enjoy the chapter on “The ecstasies and anxieties of art” where so many of the variables relating to taste come into play and conflict: the expert versus the beginner, context versus content, the emotional response versus a more intellectual approach, observing versus judging, and being fashionable versus being timeless.
One thing that is known is that they do not look at paintings very long. When Jeffery Smith, who for many years headed the Office of Research and Evaluation at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, analyzed the viewing times of Met visitors across a variety of paintings — including Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer and Lautze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware — he found the median viewing time for a painting was seventeen seconds.
From Vanderbilt I have learned that we pay more attention to the things that we like and we like the things we pay more attention to. And so with that message primed in my short term memory, I somehow I come across this video from Amy Herman who dropped by the offices of Google to discuss her book “Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life” and decided to watch it because I had decided that I was going to learn more about the visual arts. And I’m so glad I did, but it was for reasons that surprised me.
Amy Herman was once Head of Education of The Frick Collection in New York City. In that position, she developed a special class for medical students to help them get past the various forms of myopia that doctors can develop that can make it difficult to see symptoms that they don’t expect. That class was based on the work of the Yale Center for British Art but what Amy Herman did after was her own – she developed a similar class for law enforcement and then eventually, for many of various security and military bodies of the United States.
What I particularly responded to in her talk was Herman’s premise that every professional must be accountable for their observations and how those observations are put into words.
At the end of the talk, she again stresses the importance of words after giving a couple of examples of how essential that our words match our observations and not what we expect to see, including one that brings race into play.
In this course, you think about your observations and perceptions, you keep your inferences, biases and assumptions in check, you’re careful about your choice of words. You ask what you know, what you don’t know and what do need to know. If you think about all those concepts, I think it makes you a sharper professional.
Herman suggests that if you are to be a professional that serves the public, it is both in your best interest and in the public’s best interest to adopt a practice that takes the time, care and effort towards the act of observation before jumping to conclusions and actions that may prove, with time and reflection, completely unwarranted.
To me, this can be read as a demand for accountability in a deeply human way.
And it can start by all of us taking the time to observe and be aware of the ways of seeing art.
It is Sunday evening and the last moments of the first weekend of July. I’m at home in my living room in Windsor Ontario. The last two months have been the driest in a decade and area farmers are using words like ‘frightened’.
I’m back after a week’s vacation in Denmark. Can we now define ‘vacation’ as designated time in which we find more novelty and enjoyment IRL than online?
The Age of Earthquakes is a re-working of The Medium is the Message by Marshall McLuhan. While McLuhan’s court jestering in the House of Don Draper always left me cold, I found The Age of Earthquakes much more emotionally resonant. Perhaps this is because I’m currently struggling -and I really mean struggling – with how much of myself I want to be online.
The only section of the book that I didn’t particularly enjoy was dedicated to the idea of the Singularity. This is a terribly dark thing to confess but I don’t believe our planet’s resources are plentiful enough to carry us into to a future in which we have to worry about our computers reaching consciousness.
What’s a much more interesting idea, to me, is the idea of the ‘End of Technology’ which Douglas Coupland recently put forward in his essay, What if There’s No Next Big Thing in e-flux magazine. That being said, this particular piece is more about the possible end of “capital A” Art than of technology. For more about the possibility of an end to technology, I would recommend listening to the episode The Future in which Benjamin Walker both considers how our present social media landscape was predicted years ago on television as well as the end of Moore’s Law.
Is it wrong to desperately want an end to technology?
In her recent dystopia, Oryx and Crake, which concentrates on biotechnology, Margaret Atwood also portrays the collapse of civilization in the near future. One of her characters asks, “As a species we’re doomed by hope, then?” By *hope*? Well, yes. Hope drives us to invent new fixes for old messes, which in turn create ever more dangerous messes. Hope elects the politician with the biggest promise; and as any stockbroker or lottery seller know, most of us will take a slim hope over prudent and predictable frugality. Hope, like greed, fuels the engine of capitalism. — Ronald Wright, “Rebellion of the Tools”, A Short History of Progress.