Suffered the Loss of Expectations

I just finished reading The Dispossessed, a science fiction novel by Ursula La Guin. If you’re worried about spoilers for a 40 year old book, you might not want to read this post. I don’t normally do book reviews here, but hopefully the reasons why I’m writing this will be apparent.

The Dispossessed is a story about a settlement of people on a moon that orbits a ‘mother’ planet that is pretty much Earth-like. The unique thing about this settlement is that they are a society of anarchists – they have no government, no rules, and no laws. We find out later that public opinion and ‘sway’ fill in this absence of rule. As time moves ahead, this settlement starts to develop an influential structure of public opinion that begins to cramp their freedom.

There are many themes in the book, here are a few:

  • walls
  • women’s role in society, sexism
  • the different ways to run a society

Walls are prisons, and when you build a wall to protect your freedom it keeps you locked in just as much as it keeps others out. Walls are also inescapable in the book, each human is self contained by their own wall, in the grand metaphorical way but also in a practical temporal way.

The settlement is a woman’s society, one character says at some point in the middle. It took me a while to pick up on this, but then it becomes obvious, the themes of motherly love, and the possession that women and men feel for each other either as lovers or as parent and child. But, these are relationships that anyone can choose to maintain or not. The Earth-like ‘mother’ planet is run by men. There are wars and inequality there, and nobody can do much about it.

There’s a lot of ideological discussion about society in the book, much of it involves concepts of freedom and time. You’d have to read the book to get it, and to take from it what you feel is worthwhile. Much of this discussion I found reassuring, and looked back on, and reread yesterday, the day after the American election, when I finished it. Some excerpts:

“What we’re after is to remind ourselves that we didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine. If an individual can’t work in solidarity with his fellows, it’s his duty to work alone.”

“Fulfillment is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal.”

“So looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.”

Looking at the Moon

“Why is looking at the moon somehow perceived to be more ‘present’ than looking at your phone?”

This article (well worth the read) about phones, our attention, and all that stuff, doesn’t include the word ‘addiction’ anywhere. Nor does it include the word ‘balance’. It’s a fine article for discussing type of attention, but not about degree.

To answer the quote above: When driving a car (among other things in life) both excessive looking at a phone and looking at the moon are dangerously un-present.

Selling Off Immortality

A blog post on NPR asks Are We Turning Into Machines? It is a big question, but as is often the case, the answer is descriptive and passive:

I’m guilty as charged, by the way. This is no diatribe against the ills of modern technology. Nevertheless, I find it crucial for us to reflect upon what’s going on in real time…

To forego our natural evolutionary past is to forego an essential part of our humanity: It’s to let us become something we are not.

Is it a serious issue or not? Why bother reflecting if you’re already resigned to being ‘guilty as charged’?

There is a lot of room in articles like these for authors to move beyond descriptions of “everyone’s” unhealthy balance of technology use. There is room to describe ways they are trying to achieve and embrace a balance. Or, even to describe what such a balance means to them – this would be a positive step.

This morning on the way in to work I listened to Yuval Harari talk about a possible futures, and a lot of it is depressing. Much of it is cool, for sure, but the parts where mega-rich billionaires achieve immortality and sell it off to less-but-still-rich others is depressing. It is disturbing when he describes a future ruled by data, not elected officials or religion. (Making news stories like this one about Peter Thiel’s political involvement even more scary)

The two essential points that Harari makes were that all of our technology use is not deterministic, and that knowing yourself is really the only way out of a technology/algorithm ruled future. This is all the more reason to stop being passive about the “continuing trend of increased human-machine integration”. Describing (and accepting) ourselves as we relate to machines isn’t knowing ourselves.

The Salvation of Technology

I read a Peter Thiel quote last week that chilled me:

The only thing that matters, he said, is that politics never be allowed to interfere with technological progress, because it’s the latter, not the former, that will be humankind’s salvation. (source)

If human decision and action aren’t its own salvation, if humans have already outsourced free will to technology, then salvation is already lost.

The thing with libertarians is that I doubt very many of them would want to start from point zero – they want the change off the back of the current system, replacing voters with those at the top of the money pyramid. Thiel, a libertarian who just gave a speech at a major political party’s convention, is a billionaire in the tech industry: Of course he wants a wild-west of no regulations for his tech industry. Of course he wants an absence of government involvement – the billionaires would then fill that void.

What matters is making a beneficial society for as many people as possible, regardless of technology progress.


Cultural Racism

I’ve been thinking about that Loury and McWhorter video again – it’s difficult not to think about racism these past few days. Stars and stripes are in the news.

The term ‘structural racism’ comes up at one point in the video, a term that McWhorter takes issue with because of it’s lack on involvement with people, the human. Perhaps the concept is better stated as ‘cultural racism’. Culture does involve people and humans and their learned behavior. Racism is certainly a part of American culture, as it is in many countries around the world. For various reasons, America’s racism is more extreme, more tragic.

Cultures don’t change quickly, they go through centuries of evolution – extended debate, civil wars, policy and law reform, budgets, and elections. The process of cultural change is a process that a culture or society usually undergoes, rather than actively decides. But does this need to be the case? Are we at a point that masses of people, through the help of certain technology, can start to make conscious decisions about the evolution of their culture?

This next election is turning out to be a critical point America’s long struggle with cultural racism. For one political party, it’s still an advantage to avoid openly condemning racism. Until it becomes a disadvantage for that party, until they lose more at the polls than they gain (the only thing political parties care about), they won’t condemn racism.

Technology has been a magnifying glass on society in the social media age – the good, the bad, the lingering behaviors that have been slow to mature. Perhaps technology can also be used as a reactive instrument in confronting exposed cultural flaws. It may be a lot to hope for, but as someone watching America from the outside, I hope the many, many people in America who detest their cultural racism decide to make this next election about racism and racism only.

Technology can help spread the message that if a political party won’t openly condemn racism, then they will never stand a chance at winning an election, regardless of any of their other beliefs. Democracy is meant to be representational, but it can also be representation full of aspiration.

Aspiring towards a conscious shift in culture is a massive outcome to hope for. America itself is also a massive place, with an amazing, still developing, culture.


Technology for Friction

From Evgeny Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here“, a description of a certain type of technology that aims to create friction:

tech seen as 1

tech seen as 2

This seems to me a blueprint for education. EdTech spends a lot of effort on making technology seamless, easy to use, and never technology for the sake of itself. What if educators tried using edtech more for itself, to create friction and perplexity? I wonder if such a strategy cold become mainstream.

Dewey was big on perplexity:

We may recapitulate by saying that the origin of thinking is some perplexity, confusion, or doubt. Thinking is not a case of spontaneous combustion; it does not occur just on ” general principles.” There is something specific which occasions and evokes it.

Why bother using technology to create perplexity?  Many of our habits are established though technology (machines, and devices) – Through habit, we become our machines (Says Wendy Chun). Perhaps a little friction caused by these habit forming machines may encourage thinking and reflection about such habits, which often lie under the touch-screen surface of daily life.



Negotiating Word Meanings – What is Racist?

I watched this video last week of a discussion between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter about various topics surrounding Donald trump and racism. The topic of “Is Trump a racist?” is interesting in itself, but what I enjoyed most is how the two speakers discuss the meaning of the word “racist” and “racism”.

How has the concept changed over the years? To what degree can a concept be attributed to both a culture and a personality? Does language need to differentiate between the two? How does language communicate ideas that exist on a spectrum (ie: color)?

Debating definitions of words is time consuming, but worthwhile. This discussion is a great example of two people negotiating the finer line of language representation: