Thursday, January 29, 2015

17th century solutions for 21st century problems: internet mobbing

Michelle Goldberg, via JTL:
Social media has done away with all that. Nobody gets a presumption of good faith anymore, and we’re all subject to loud, public judgment by people who might not share any of our underlying assumptions about the way the world works or the rules of intellectual debate. In the past, The Baffler might have published something that pissed off feminist readers, but most of those readers would share The Baffler’s broader worldview, and would be less likely to excoriate it. Even if they wanted to publish a response, there wouldn’t be many venues except the publication’s own letters section. Outsiders simply wouldn’t notice. 
There is value, of course, in the new regime. The price of bigotry is much higher, the ethical blind spots concealed by clubby consensus are much more easily exposed. But the pressure to conform is also far more intense. The distance between what writers—or, at least, some writers—say to each other and what they say publicly is growing. That’s not oppression, but it is a loss.
This is essentially a description of the problems of over-exposure. I've been thinking about this for a while with respect to student journalism, which illuminates the problem more clearly, since most people will agree that no mere college student deserves be subjected to an online mob for writing a dumb op-ed, even if they're less certain about the extent to which a professional writer could be said to "deserve" such a response. I obviously link student journalism here all the time, though I prefer reportage of the absurd to op-eds. But I also think we were all a lot better off before student newspapers went online.

This was briefly A Topic last spring when that Princeton guy's essay on privilege earned him the vociferous scorn/praise of the entire country and old-new TNR ran a piece attacking adult media for giving this guy a platform. But they never had! They covered the coverage, which we might say (and Phoebe did say) was bad form, but the essay was published in a college magazine. The problem is that college writing is too accessible to, and too eagerly overexposed by the "semi-professional" media (the really professional media only gets to it after it's gone viral). Phoebe pointed out that these are not children and they're old enough to consent to the publication of their work. There is no question of violated privacy in these cases. But there is a question of what effect subjecting 1) inexperienced student writers and 2) even professional writers to the levels of public scorn previously reserved for politicians accused of pedophilia will have on journalism.

The optimistic possibility is that it will toughen writers up. In these early days of massive, personally threatening smear campaigns, writers will still be sensitive, but after such attacks become a regular feature of the job, it's possible that writers will shrug them off more easily and continue to write what they will. After all, the pain is acute but rarely long-lasting; the internet mob needs to be fed regularly, and so rarely spends very long draining a particular victim before being attracted to the blood of another.

The pessimistic possibility is that instead of toughening up sane people who, on account of possessing normal levels of pain, guilt, and fear, react rather poorly to these sorts of attacks, these publishing conditions will instead elevate writers who are not quite as sane and who can withstand such attacks because they enjoy or at least don't mind being the objects of intense universal scorn.* This is something I've particularly wondered about student journalism - whether early and frequent over-exposure to vicious and pointless criticism will inure younger writers to all criticism, hardening their faith in their own (immature) instincts and raising their estimation of writing that is mere provocation and offense.

If Goldberg's account is right, then some types of writing are better when they come out of many small and partially closed-off institutions in which the basic assumptions necessary to build arguments on are broadly accepted, because every debate can't be over fundamentals. Like clubs and cliques, they flourish under conditions that are not perfectly transparent and to some degree exclusive. Exclusion need not be active rejection of would-be members; self-selection is sufficient, as all members of high school social loser cliques know. Subscription to a publication, for example, is a form of self-selecting inclusion. (But active rejection does raise a club's stock, as all sorority girls know.) This dynamic is reflected in the casual experience of  how much more useful and productive it is to argue with your own partisans, and how common it is for even the most sincere "bipartisan" discussion about any concrete topic to end in a standstill over questions like, "But what even is freedom?" These questions have their place, but re-arguing them incessantly is neither useful nor interesting. Even the objections to an argument are often more incisive and compelling when they come from the writer's own side than when they come from the opposition.** So good political writing (maybe also other kinds of writing?) might rely to some extent on what Goldberg calls "ethical blind spots concealed by clubby consensus."

But, if the internet has made such clubbiness impossible by removing the audience-sorting mechanisms that subscriptions and physical copy once provided, and these institutions wish to persist as clubs rather than universal organizations with no members, then perhaps they will have to revert to some old-timey workarounds. For student journalists, who never relied on subscriptions in the first place, that would mean returning to physical copy so that only your equally stupid classmates will have sufficient incentive to discover and deride your stupid opinions. For professional writers, we might consider that in the 17th century, people who wanted to convey thoughts that could get them imprisoned or exiled sometimes did it by circulating manuscripts (not the fancy kind) through their friends instead of publishing their work through a bookseller. This didn't obviate the dangers of committing thought to paper, of course, but it minimized it. There would only be a few copies of your wayward opinions floating around, and the chances that they might fall into the wrong hands were thus diminished. In the late 20th century, the manuscript form was inadvertently transmuted into the "zine" in some quarters and the "academic book" in others. The former was a very cheap but extremely physically inaccessible manuscript, whereas the latter was in principle widely accessible, but so prohibitively expensive and forbidding that it was in fact rarely accessed. Although neither was expressly created for the purpose of providing cover for clubby speech, they are both well-constituted to have this effect. So, just a suggestion.

Besides, ever since the beginning of the internet, people have been worrying that it's going to destroy real friendship. Maybe the perverse result of making published writing a danger zone of 17th century proportions will be to force writers to rely on actual friends if they hope to disseminate their ideas. Or maybe, this new development in public discourse will demonstrate the utility of the old subscription + print magazine format in a way that the previous efforts to defend print media by fetishizing how amazing it feels to touch paper utterly failed to do.

*Sayeth Locke, clearly anticipating Johnson: "He must be of a strange and unusual constitution, who can content himself to live in constant disgrace and disrepute with his own particular society...Nobody that has the least thought or sense of a man about him, can live in society under the constant dislike and ill opinion of his familiars, and those he converses with. This is a burden too heavy for human sufferance: and he must be made up of irreconcileable contradictions, who can take pleasure in company, and yet be insensible of contempt and disgrace from his companions."
**Exhibit A: Criticism of Straussians from Straussians vs. criticism of Straussians from conspiratorial paranoiacs.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The privilege of silence

This is from Alex Pareene's frenzied cannibalization of Jonathan Chait:
It's not just angry Twitter nobodies, either! "[Political correctness] also makes money," Chait says, using, as his example, one BuzzFeed post about microaggressions that has "received more than 2 million views." I'm guessing that Chait makes quite a bit more money than the person who compiled that post. In fact, that's true of nearly everyone who is presented as a victim of political correctness in Chait's essay, from millionaire comedian Bill Maher to the anonymous professor at a prestigious university: They all enjoy superior social status to the people who are supposedly silencing or terrifying them. It's hard to see how democracy was significantly harmed by Condoleezza Rice not giving a commencement address.
Well, I'd like to know the answer. Is democracy harmed by Condoleezza Rice not giving a commencement address? What is this democracy being described? It seems not to be a formal question of suffrage but of some more amorphous social status equality. The undercurrent of Pareene's gleeful screed is that people who already have "superior social status" don't need to speak (in the broad sense, not just at university commencements), because they already have so much influence, whereas those without "status" are the ones requiring an amplifier. Now, if you reduce "status" to money, as Pareene wants to do here, then you can perhaps sound reasonable saying that the rich should not have so many outlets to speak b/c their money speaks for them, whereas the poor should have all the public microphones because they have no money to buy influence. TNR for the people!

But "social status" is precisely that sort of slippery thing that doesn't simply equate with money. What gives a university professor or a journalist or a policy advisor or even "millionaire comedian Bill Maher" their status is not their incomes, but their speech. They all won their superior social status by speaking. Pareene's response is that it is precisely their ambition to influence through speech that renders their speech suspect. Because they've spent their lives speaking and achieved a reputation for it, their speech should be quieted by the unpracticed producers of I guess Buzzfeed posts who, by virtue of lacking such ambitions, possess more authentic voices. (Like Ta-Nehisi Coates, apparently, a man of no ambition or practice in the arts of rhetoric.) On one hand, we should amplify marginalized voices by hiring them at places like the Atlantic and TNR, but on the other hand, they're no longer marginal once they're on these mastheads. So, huh.

Pareene, to the degree that he makes any sense at all here, demands a sort of bifurcation: status disjointed from influence. Those with high status (= money) are obliged to yield the podium in order to even things out for those of low status, who will be compensated with opportunities to complain about their lack. So, aspiring young person, you have a choice: you can use your talents to attain a comfortable life of silent disengagement, or a wretched and impoverished one from which you will be permitted to engage in public harangue of the silent privileged. That's democracy. So, which will it be?

On the broader dynamic of speech policing, I refer you to Julian Sanchez's depiction of the social process whereby the center-left position in all questions is demolished first by the center-left's own temerity in the face of the rhetoric of the far-left, then by their fear of being identified with the right. But I think if we slot actual people into his abstract in-group and out-group positions, we might have to conclude that the degeneration of which Chait complains is his own fault.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Snow day!

Cambridge, oblizzerated:

Mt. Auburn St., being skiied

Harvard Sq., being empty except for us

Widener Library, being sledded by us

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The John Locke theme park for kids

Peeps, there is a theme park in Mexico (and elsewhere, but not the US) where children can pretend to be adults and role-play adult jobs and earn and allocate their property in responsible ways. They drive cars, pay taxes, and try one another in court for littering. The writer wants to criticize this endeavor for being too corporate capitalist and scripted, and its founder for being some sort of crypto-fascist, but it seems pretty fantastic to me, and moreover almost unbelievably Lockean. It's Lockean not just in its conception of how children learn and what they should learn, but it apparently also has Lockean political underpinnings:
KidZania tries to be sensitive to local mores, but López also sees a role for the company in implicitly promoting the values of a Western, market-driven democracy...A few years ago, López’s marketing department came up with an origin myth for KidZania: kids, having seen what a mess adults had made of the world, founded their own country, whose borders children cross every time they visit the park. A KidZanian Declaration of Independence was written, which outlines the six “rightz” of childhood: to be, to know, to create, to share, to care, and to play. It concludes with the national motto: “Get ready for a better world.” To López’s frustration, children who visit KidZania are largely unaware of this invented history. He hopes eventually to educate them about it—perhaps by producing a KidZania movie...
Well, for what it's worth, Locke also says that children should not be taught much about politics until adolescence, and that childhood instruction should be of a more generally ethical character. Which this place is: "It was like being in a reimagined Las Vegas, with the celebration of virtue substituted for the celebration of sin." Virtue seems to be primarily of the civic variety and so potentially a bunch of tepid mush: 
KidZania worked with the local government to develop activities that are intended to promote good citizenship: road safety, health, awareness of civic institutions, environmental sustainability, and tolerance of difference among individuals and groups. The program emerged from a series of crime-reduction recommendations made by Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, who had been hired as a consultant by the Mexico City government a decade ago.
Nonetheless, this is probably no worse than the environmentalist alarmism targeted at children at every city aquarium I've visited in the US in the past decade (a surprisingly large number). The civic-mindedness is a little un-Lockean, but I accept this modification because Kidzania still seems amazing. The closest experience I had to this as a kid was the children's museum outside Chicago, where I once went with a friend's family and which featured a grocery store with mini-carts and plastic food that was so deeply absorbing that I have no difficulty believing that Kuwaiti kids are truly entranced by the activity of faux-petrochemical engineering a helmet in a child-sized plastics plant. Or delivering DHL boxes. Yes, it sounds dull. But also, so is grocery shopping. And yet. And then there is this point:
“We are empowering them to become independent,” [Lopez] said. “What they love most, on the second or third visit, is their independence. They have their own kidzos; they can make their own decisions. This is their world, where they are not being told what to do. Even if you go to Disneyland, you are guided—you are supposed to walk a typical way. But here children are by themselves. We don’t tell them anything. Just cash your check, get money, and start spending money—that is the only thing we tell them.”
Apparently however, child profligacy varies by nation, and Japanese children entirely lack it. (Perhaps they should avoid expansion to Germany...) This quote is a bit unfair, since elsewhere the article admits that kids can also earn money in the park by doing jobs (like delivering DHL boxes), so it seems like Lopez wasn't suggesting that independence was for the sake of buying lots of stuff. In fact, it's not really clear from this article whether Kidzania features any shopping in the usual sense since no stores are described. In any case, compare the above sentiment with Locke, below:
Were matters ordered right, learning any thing they should be taught, might be made as much a recreation to their play, as their play is to their learning...For they love to be busy, and the change and variety is that which naturally delights them. The only odds is, in that which we call play they act at liberty, and employ their pains (whereof you may observe them never sparing) freely; but what they are to learn, is forced upon them; they are called, compelled, and driven to it.
The fact that all the role-playing is scripted really sticks in the writer's craw, but ultimately the liberty of children is only "acting at liberty." Adults have to control behind the scenes. A courtroom with no script would result in no trial. Fine on most days, but not if you want to show kids how a trial works. So as far as the possibilities of acting at liberty are concerned, this place seems fantastic. I will take my future hypothetical and hypothetically Spanish-speaking children here to make them into good Lockeans.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Schooling movies

The main lesson I have learned from all television and movie depictions of school (any school - grade school, high school, college, even grad school) is that it's a place of incredible emotional and social growth where no one ever studies. Classes consist of four-minute lectures comprised of inspirational cliches from which everyone learns all there is to know about both the subject at hand and the world at large (because the former is a metaphor for the latter). Some characters are smart and others less so, which we learn when other characters refer to them as smart or less so. To gesture at the idea of studying, we are sometimes shown brief montages of page-turning and note-taking and coffee-drinking. Knowledge is actually a molecule that attaches itself to caffeine, for convenience of intake. But mainly, there are shenanigans being undertaken and non-academic personal crises unfolding and intense social bonds being forged. At the end of it all, the characters are always launched into exciting futures (elite colleges, law schools, jobs) that you'd think would've required something more than their strong social bonding records to secure.

But, I still totally watch these movies and shows, if for no other reason now than that Netflix has so few good options that aren't five-season, hundred-hour commitment shows. So recently, after watching Mystic Pizza, I followed Netflix's recommendation to watch Mona Lisa Smile. Ok, yes, Mystic Pizza was not a great film, but since it was very of its moment, it was at least possible to get a vague sense of America from it. I use this possibility to redeem my watching of many bad movies. But what manner of monstrosity is Mona Lisa Smile? It is a movie inspired by someone's having come across those 1950s advertisements for home appliances featuring grinning housewives and thought, "What if all these women are actually frustrated physics PhDs forced into housewifery by the slavish mores of the benighted past?" No matter that the women are models and not housewives, and unlikely to have ever taken physics. This imagined injustice can be imaginatively rectified through film! Let us imagine these housewifey models when they were yet on the cusp of doom, still studying physics in an elite New England college but already being pressured into marriage and a life of modeling vacuum cleaners in the pages of Redbook... How can we demonstrate to these pitiful young things that 2003 called, and it very much frowns on their choices?

And that is how Mona Lisa Smile came to be. Perhaps the entire philosophy of history of studio films consists in the view that what is essential about any moment in the past is its style of dress. If the clothes and hair are reproduced faithfully, the past has been accurately captured. But the main thing (which is to say, why I watched it) is that it's a school movie, and a real winner in that genre. It features very typical college students, the kinds of girls who memorize all their textbooks without ever cracking them. They are both brilliant and extremely stupid, since not one of them has ever thought to wonder what makes art good, so they must be instructed in the idea of feelings. The character tasked with leading these naifs is an art history grad student who not only never works on her dissertation but does not appear to have one, though that is apparently no barrier to academic employment. (She says that her "research" shows that Picasso will be just as important in the future as Michelangelo is in the present. I, for one, had not known that one of the subfields of art history was fortune-telling.) What is striking is that we are never given even one suggestion of what might make art good, despite the many harangues that Julia Roberts delivers to her class about the Meaning of Life. The problem may be that the Meaning of Life turns out to be version of "choose your choice," and has no connection to art as either a discipline or an activity. (No one in the film is inclined to choose art.) So the girls fail to grasp this meaning and get married anyway, and immediately after their weddings which everyone in greater Boston attends, they buy fully-furnished houses in the environs of Wellesley and their husbands are promoted to "junior partner" of something, having been lowly college students just the week before. So it turns out that in spite of the film's strenuous ideological axe-grinding, it shows us that in 1953, you really could have it all, and in one fell swoop.

One day, there will be a truly great school movie made that depicts how studying is not only the main thing people do in school, but also the pleasures of study and the way it illuminates the world, and not in an "X is a metaphor for LIFE" way. I'm certain it will happen. So I'm waiting.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Getting warmer

Since my last post, the necessity of walking outside for almost an hour each day in the New England frost has driven me to seek warmth in such technologies as are readily available to the cost-conscious, internet-enabled cold person. My roommate recommended Uniqlo's Heattech line, and since there is now a Uniqlo in downtown Boston to which I can free-return any recommendations that did not pan out, I purchased a wide variety of supposedly self-warming (and simultaneously self-moisturizing!) leggings, tights, socks, and also yes, legwarmers (there was a $75 minimum for free shipping). They arrived. The sizing was wildly variable. I found the ones that fit and tested them on this fine 20-something-degree day.

Here is the verdict: Japanese technology can't fix the cold. Cold makes you feel cold. There is no getting around this misfortune. I wore the "extra warm" leggings under a pair of jeans, with the regular-warm socks and fleece-lined boots. The nice thing about Heattech is that it's thinner and softer than regular cotton leggings and socks. The less nice thing is that it's not noticeably warmer than them. It is somewhat warmer when you are inside and already warm, but expose the Japanese techno-miracle to the 21-degree day, and your flesh will still feel exactly like it's being exposed to a 21-degree day.

The legwarmers do look pretty fantastic, but I'm almost 30, so I think the time to wear fantastic legwarmers may be past. I am keeping one of each bottom though, because soft and thin are tangential goods, even if the longed-for good of warmth has yet to be found.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Failures of technological progress

Why can we have phones that converse with us and servers that store eleventy billion dissertations' worth of data, but not umbrellas that don't flip in the wind, or socks and gloves that actually keep toes and fingers warm when it's freezing? Why can't something be done to systematically diminish the static charge generated by every warm fabric? Why can't there be rainboots that are simultaneously waterproof and breathable? The catalog of minor but persistent aggravations caused by everyday weather conditions is so vast and the number of people affected by them so large that affordable and sensible solutions to these inconveniences would seem to be highly remunerative. So why, in 2015, am I still being tormented by winter?

Thursday, January 01, 2015

A probing retrospective

2014 was a lot like 2013, which in turn was like 2012, and I expect 2015 to follow the well-worn tracks laid by its predecessors. The only major change may be that I actually finish my dissertation. Maybe. As yet though, there remains no urgent reason to take such drastic measures. But maybe this year will give me one.