Belonging vs. Computation

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 Belonging are 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.

What if the grasshopper was right?

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.

Which makes me think that this is a poem might also be about Aesop’s fable, The Ant and Grasshopper

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.


What is the morale of the story? Who is right? The ant or the grasshopper?


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.

Instead, consider this answer:

Or this one:

Or this one: The Summer Day by Mary Oliver.

Fitbits for conviviality

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.

screen capture of Fitbit metric

It reminds me of Matt Haughey’s LoT Story:

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.

An IoT story“, A Whole Lotta Nothing, November 4, 2018

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.

Why the Landline Telephone Was the Perfect Tool“, Suzanne Fischer, The Atlantic, Apr 16, 2012

I would write more but the silent alarm on my son’s Fitbit reminds me that it is time to go to bed.

Everyone loves a Canadian boy

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.”

If you don’t think you are ever going to read the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, I strongly recommend reading All Our Relations in its stead.

I’m not entirely sure what I am going to write about in this blog in 2019. When I first conceived of The Magnetic North, I had hopes to write about technology, utopia, and the Anthropocene.

But if today’s writing is any indication, it is going to be about the Canada that we need to see. We need a Canada in which every child is loved.