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Separatism, Segregation, and Exclusion (2019-11-18)

A victorian era crowd. Steampunk art from the Dover Steampunk Sourcebook, 2010. A victorian era crowd. Steampunk art from the Dover Steampunk Sourcebook, 2010.
A victorian era crowd. Steampunk art from the Dover Steampunk Sourcebook, 2010.

Eons ago in internet time, I took what was already labelled a "gender anthropology" class, and actually it did mostly live up to its billing. It genuinely looked at the many ways gender is socially constructed cross-culturally, fraught as that process is because of what a terrible, colonialist and imperialist mess anthropology still is. We humans love to learn about one another even as sometimes we get totally freaked out by how we are different from one another, so it is not necessary for anthropology to be a negative force and it has had its positive effects in spite of its usual applications. So there is all that baggage, and large class sizes for even second year anthropology courses for instructors to handle. No easy remit, to be sure, especially when it comes to complex topics like the meaning and uses of temporary or long term social divisions. Alas, the instructor for this class got lost in the pseudo-argument drawn from post-modernism that any form of separatism is wrong, because exclusion is wrong. This is an extreme oversimplification, and can be avoided even in big classes by helping students to think critically about when people are separated. There are two powerful starting questions that will help us think through what's going on and whether it is wrong or right. Please note, starting questions, not the only questions. If you've been reading thoughtpieces for awhile, you've probably seen at least one of them several times already.

  1. Who is doing the separating?
  2. Who benefits from the separation?

It makes a big difference who is doing the separating. "Segregation" and "apartheid" are particularly associated with two places and times: the Jim Crow era united states, and apartheid era south africa. In those times and places, racialized people were officially and actively separated from people who thought they were white. "Whites" had the monopoly on force and good jobs, and they enforced this separation with "law," practices not enshrined in law but socially agreed on to rain humiliation on racialized people, and unlawful on the books but socially sanctioned rape, murder, and arson. And of course, these practices are not wholly in the past, although the official laws are. The people doing the separating here were the "whites," who were using the separation to enact and reinforce structures of racial oppression. They were the primary beneficiaries because it enabled constant access to racialized people as cheap labour and entertainment. This was the case even though "whites" suborned the segregationist rules all the time, precisely in order to access "coloured labour" on the cheap.

Canada is not innocent of this kind of crap. Besides the attempt to genocide Indigenous peoples outright, considerable effort using a similar combination of law, condoned violence, and humiliating practices were used to cordon Indigenous peoples on reserves and conveniently let them loose again when greed called for cheap labour. And yes ladies and gentlemen, canada was just fine with slavery until england said it wasn't, and vicious mistreatment of blacks in canada remained and in many places still remains socially acceptable. These racist principles were then reimplemented against other racialized peoples, as indeed they were in the united states and many other countries. Hence the existence of "China towns" and other so-called "ghettos" which are often simply areas where racialized people have been pushed to congregate or are especially visible. There is no inevitable correlation between labels like "ghetto" or "slum" and housing quality or crime levels. It's worth reading that sentence at least twice, because it is so contrary to what the usual propaganda about racialized communities in the mainstream media says.

I have read bell hooks on what it was like in the southern united states for her community when school desegregation was imposed by law there. Now, logically, if this was being carried out in a just manner, then the kids bussed to other schools would be the non-racialized kids. This could help redistribute funding more fairly among the schools, and lessen the stress on the racialized kids who were already dealing with terrible racism and didn't need to have more on their plates. Furthermore, african american communities had worked furiously to build up their own schools for their kids because otherwise their children were not only unsafe, they were not getting a decent education. Those schools were systematically destroyed, and african american children were bussed out to majority "white" schools where they suffered the worst impacts of desegregation, including the effective destruction of their access to decent education. It seems to me at least that "white america" dealt out desegregation with a heavy side of "fuck you" while patting themselves on the back on how liberal they were and how bad exclusion was. Desegregation is the right end goal, but the means did not actually work to that end, nor the greater end of ending structural racism.

African americans never created the structures of oppression affecting them. The counterstructures they and other racialized peoples have built are not the cause of their oppression, but their defence against it. Yet these defences are often falsely portrayed as somehow "the oppression" instead of what they actually are. This is the same reversal as often shows up in moderation on "social media" and comment boards, where a person is punished for pointing out racist comments or whatever and told they are the problem, not the person or people actually making the shitty comments. Separation, exclusion, segregation, whatever you want to call it by people who hold greater socio-economic power, as manifested by their greater wealth, ability to call upon state violence, behave violently themselves without punishment, and control of the space to speak and act publicly, for the purposes of maintaining those manifestations of greater socio-economic power by oppressing others, is wrong. Which means if a bunch of rich white guys make an exclusive golf club only they attend and just play golf in it, well they're being snobs but they aren't doing wrong – no matter how much their snobbery gets our goat. (As well it should.) However, the minute their golf club becomes a place where they make all their business deals and coordinate oppressive actions to add to their riches and power because both depend on stealing from and oppressing everybody else, then they are doing wrong. And contrary to popular belief, as P. Tittle noted in her post On the Rad Fem Doctrine of Separatism, "Here's the thing. Men are already separatists. (So really we have no choice.)... Men already exclude women from anything, everything, important. (Any inclusion is tokenism: a false symbol, a PR move.)" So we should be critical when men complain that they are being excluded, even when there are intersections of oppression in the mix. Alas, especially when there are intersections of oppression in the mix. Those virtual intersections don't provide shortcuts anymore than their physical counterparts.

When women or gays, or lesbians, or any other oppressed community creates a community and space in which only people like them are welcome in, they are not by default oppressing anyone. That does not mean they aren't, or couldn't. Life is too damned complicated for that, especially because many of us are caught at multiple intersections of oppression in the current social conditions. But mere separation is not the oppression. We always have to go back and ask, who is doing the separating, and why are they doing it. It makes a key difference whether people are choosing to stand apart in certain times and places, or being systematically pushed out by others. On top of that, as already noted, it matters what their socio-economic power is, and how they are directing it. It is easy, but sloppy and frankly dangerous to simply declare any "exclusion" bad just because "someone" is left out. It's also a junior high school quality claim, which means it is intended to ring our potentially unresolved insecurities and bypass our capacity to think and empathize.

I think we can agree that a claim designed to fuel or resurrect insecurity and get around our ability to think and consider the concerns of others is a dishonest and unproductive one. (Top)

Not So Ineffective Words, Again (2019-11-11)

Still from Laurence Olivier's 1948 film version of Hamlet, prince of denmark. Still from Laurence Olivier's 1948 film version of Hamlet, prince of denmark.
Still from Laurence Olivier's 1948 film version of Hamlet, prince of denmark.

In the course of reading P. Tittle's older blogposts on hellyeahimafeminist.com, I happened on one discussing Men and Words, in which she noted what she had been told by a male commenter about men's view of words and her reflections on that. It's quite interesting that this male commenter stated that in the context of comment threads and the like, words aren't taken seriously, they are part of a competitive game. Tittle considered the implications of this, especially in light of her own experience, which suggests that this way of viewing words among men is not restricted to the internet in north america. The implications are indeed disturbing, since it is not helpful and downright dangerous if men are taught more widely in mainstream cultures that words are not to be taken seriously, that conversation is in effect a competitive sport. For my part, it seems to me that the competition aspect is the key thing to hone in on in terms of where this is coming from. In "western" mainstream culture, incredible pressure is put on male humans to be competitive from the moment somebody notices they have a penis and testicles. They don't all succumb to the pressure all the time, but if the exchange of words is mostly a sort of competition within an immediate crowd of chattering men, then when that crowd is supposed to be getting something practical done, chances are it isn't getting done at all. Tittle's post was in purpose and length much like a thoughtpiece here, drawing together some interesting observations and pursuing some implications of them if they hold rather than making a fully parsed argument, so it shouldn't be pushed further than it is meant to go. Instead, I would like to contribute a few more observations to the question of how words are treated differently depending on context, especially social context.

One of my favourite quotes from Catherine MacKinnon is this one, "Men's power to force the world to be anyway their mind can invent means that they are forever wondering what's happening out there." The power MacKinnon is referencing is of course that of men, especially those who are wealthy and think they are white, to impose what they want or expect on the world, no matter what it takes. "What it takes" is no small matter. Men of the wealthy and think they are white persuasion have been doing their utmost to wipe Indigenous peoples out on Turtle Island for centuries now, and they started this attempt by reframing Indigenous peoples not as people but literally as part of the landscape or as animals in the mainstream sense – beings unable to speak and therefore inferior. Marilyn Frye reflected on this in her essay "To Be and Be Seen: The Politics of Reality" in a way that complements MacKinnon's comment all too well.

...there is a peculiar mode of relating belief and action which I think is characteristic of the construction of phallocratic reality, according to which a project of annihilation can be seen to presuppose the non-existence of the objects being eliminated. This mode is an insane reversal of the reasonable procedure of adjustment of one's views so that they accord with reality as actively discovered: it is a mode according to which one begins with a firmly held view, composed from fabulous visions of oneself, and adapts as one's project the alteration of the world to bring it into accord with that view.

A powerful example of this strange practice was brought to my attention by Harriet Desmoines, who had been reading about the United States' expansion across the North American continent. It seems that the white men, upon encountering the vast and rich mid-continental prairie, called the prairie a desert. They conceived a desert, they took it to be a desert, and a century later it is a desert (a fact which is presently somewhat obscured by the use of megatons of chemical fertilizers). Did they really believe that what they were seeing was a desert? It is a matter of record that that is what they said they saw.

By now any alert reader is wondering what this tells us about men not taking words seriously, because Frye seems at first glance to be contradicting MacKinnon. Except that she isn't. She is making the point that the men refused to believe what they saw, in favour of imposing their ideas. A common metaphor used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the europeans invading Turtle Island was one that posited "uncivilized" places as opponents in a competitive fight that had to be bested and forced to obey the supposedly superior humans.

Okay, so then the question seems to me to be, when do rich men who think they are white actually take what they say among themselves and to others seriously? What conditions are in place? Based on my various encounters in real life and the formalized descriptions in history and "social studies" textbooks, words are deadly serious whenever such men expect to get something for themselves. To actually get something, not just wile away time or have an invigorating shouting match. That something often consists of power over someone, something, or someplace, either directly by physical interaction or indirectly by means of money. The sorts of times and places of such male uses of words are, funny enough, all the commonly accepted elements of "public life" in a patriarchal society. The courts, parliament, the market, and any place of entertainment. The "power over" may seem trivial as long as we aren't personally on the wrong end of it, such as the power a group of men at a strip club have over strippers, or giving a less fraught example, getting taken seriously when hiring someone to fix the car.

Yet in the end, Tittle's point still stands with respect to rich men who think they are white. They don't take words seriously, because they apparently believe that whatever they say goes, one way or the other. They can always make what they want to happen, happen. No need to take whatever the current wordpile of the day is too seriously, because they can always fix it. Or it doesn't matter whether or not it is fixable, so long as the difficult consequences can't reach them. The hubris of walking through the world behaving like they are terrestrial gods would be funny if it wasn't so desperately dangerous. (Top)

Androgyny (2019-11-04)

1572 miniature portrait of Elizabeth Tudor by Nicholas Hilliard, courtesy of Lara Eakins' excellent tudorhistory.org website, july 2019. 1572 miniature portrait of Elizabeth Tudor by Nicholas Hilliard, courtesy of Lara Eakins' excellent tudorhistory.org website, july 2019.
1572 miniature portrait of Elizabeth Tudor by Nicholas Hilliard, courtesy of Lara Eakins' excellent tudorhistory.org website, july 2019.

Among my research readings of late has been a small selection dealing with women as participants in learning, teaching, and performing rhetoric. As usual, women have done all of these things and managed to do them in even the most hostile environments. Quite apart from whether they were doing so in order to challenge oppression they were experiencing because of their sex, this participation is intriguing in its suggestion that it is some way fundamental. We humans need to speak effectively to one another, which need not mean persuasively, it can simply mean to speak in a way that your audience is able to hear and understand what you are actually saying. This can be trickier to do than it might seem at a brief glance. One book in particular dealt with this issue as part of what author Cheryl Glenn characterizes as a "regendering" of the history and historiography of rhetoric, Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition From Antiquity Through the Renaissance. I was particularly struck by her discussion of Elizabeth Tudor, who had to have rhetorical brilliance and a hell of a lot of luck on her side to survive to take the throne in the first place. Glenn discusses the major elements of Elizabeth Tudor's rhetorical toolbox, including several key pages on her manipulation of the image of the androgyne.

Unfortunately it is basically impossible for me to link to any sensible articles online about "androgyny" or the androgyne image. My preference would be to link to some pages that summarize the nature and origins of this image in antiquity, because those are the precedents that Elizabeth Tudor would have started from. She read and spoke fluently in latin and greek, and despite her social class and position was no dilettante. One version I can refer to is Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium, in which he tells how humans began as four legged and two headed, perpetually joined together in heterosexual and homosexual pairs eventually torn apart by a jealous Zeus. The heterosexual joined pairs would then be an example original androgyne. As the text continues, the symposium participants – who are too hungover to drink much and therefore sobre enough to cope with an erudite philosophical discussion – eventually begin to discuss something that sounds more like current notions of androgyny. In this case, men who behave like midwives of excellence in the soul, that is combining "feminine" and "masculine" techniques to help another man achieve excellence.

Glenn notes that while Elizabeth Tudor strategically extended and applied the notion of androgyny to manage the cognitive dissonance her role as a female monarch might cause in england, this did not change conditions for women generally. That is, heedless of her power, Elizabeth Tudor never so much as gestured at changing the laws so that girls and women ceased to be chattel under her reign. Far from it. If anything, she reinforced the generally poor position of girls and women via setting herself up so firmly as an exception given an exceptional destiny. Indeed, her androgyny was far from threatening, and the notion itself was not associated in any way with social change. The late sixteenth century was a while ago, though, and so that may have contributed to the optimism Feminists felt in the 1970s when they attempted to reclaim and reframe androgyny. Their whole point was to break down, preferably for good, sex-role stereotypes and other elements of gender so that nonsensical notions of "femininity" and "masculinity" could no longer be used to oppress anyone. Unfortunately, the androgyny strategy didn't work, as it probably couldn't, since it still effectively takes the male and masculine as default and the female and feminine as aberrations from it. And, it still leaves untouched the notions of "masculinity" and "femininity" and associated sex-role stereotypes in the first place, which is the annoying "gotcha" of the term. (Top)

Clever But Useless (2019-10-28)

A Fitzroy stormglass, photograph by Brudersohn under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, may 2012. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons. A Fitzroy stormglass, photograph by Brudersohn under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, may 2012. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.
A Fitzroy stormglass, photograph by Brudersohn under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, may 2012. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

"Clever but useless" alas is the best description I can think of for what is popularly known as admiral Fitzroy's stormglass. Fitzroy, better known now for being captain of the Beagle the ship Charles Darwin spent some formative time on, popularized the stormglass in hope of helping people prepare for incoming bad weather. This is of course, a laudable hope. Alas, the stormglass doesn't work particularly well, even if you should undertake to reset it by applying gentle heat to dissolve any crystals back into solution and set it back in its holder. Frankly, it is too bad the device doesn't seem to work consistently for predicting the weather and nowadays barometers are just as affordable unlike in Fitzroy's day. I say "too bad" not only with a view to what the stormglass is supposed to be able to do, but also with a view to how neat the crystals can look. There's something to be said for practical tools that are also aesthetically pleasing in other ways. Yet it seems like in principle the stormglass should be able to work.

In terms of its parts, the stormglass is quite simple. It combines a sealed glass vessel mostly filled with a mixture of liquids, and often though not always, a base. My own includes stencilled directions on how to interpret the crystals, although unlike the version the proprietor of OwlCircuits got, it did not include directions on how to reset it. The actual contents of the glass vessel seem to vary by website, although everyone agrees that the chemicals are volatile ones that should not touch the skin. Wikipedia is not a stable source on its own for this sort of thing, but the articles often include excellent references. In the case of the stormglass, the editors linked to Charles Tomlinson's study of the stormglass published in 1863 in the Philosophical Magazine, one of many popular science publications of the period. (It is actually a good read, do have a look.) On page 94 Tomlinson states that the contents of the vessel are usually "camphor, nitrate of potassium and sal ammoniac partly dissolved by alcohol, with water and some air." Today a few of these names are unfamiliar. "Camphor" is an oil extracted from an the camphor laurel, an asian evergreen. A quick web search turns it up as a common ingredient to this day in skin creams. "Nitrate of potassium" is perhaps better known as saltpeter, a component of gunpowder. Sal ammoniac aka ammonium chloride is more often found in welding flux than its usual place in the nineteenth century, smelling salts. All of which to say, if you have the dubious fortune of breaking a stormglass, it's going to stink. An interesting detail Tomlinson highlights is that the directions he found for how to make a stormglass explicitly state the vessel should not be sealed off, but left with a small opening so air can still get in.

The reasons that anyone would expect this set up to work as a weather predictor are not especially consistent, as Tomlinson noted and as a quick perusal of a few search current search results will show. It seemed to me that its responsiveness to weather would most likely relate to barometric pressure and temperature changes, with more response to the former than the latter, since we do know that barometers are decent at helping us predict the weather. These presumably would be expected to affect the process of crystallization in the fluid, and therefore a visual indication of the changing conditions specific to their nature. This also makes sense of the "reset" process, since having crystals already present would bias the results. It sounds plausible and elegant. Other explanations offered get quite wild very quickly, referring to electromagnetic fields and the like back in the nineteenth century, and I have run into what appears to be the same guy commenting on other people's blog entries that it is all about quantum tunnelling and cosmic rays. That does not strike me as plausible. On the other hand, I wonder if the non-hermetically sealed version mightn't work better. In any case, my own experience is that the main thing the stormglass responds to is temperature changes, and the occasional shake to persuade the crystals into settling or regrowing another way. Tomlinson found the same thing in the course of his series of experiments with homemade stormglasses, along with the sad fact that they are not very good thermometers either.

All this said, I can see why stormglasses are a popular gift today, especially the ones with a nicely worked wooden base like the one in Brudersohn's picture. They are great conversation pieces, not least for their curious history, invented by someone now unknown and originally sold from a kiosk on "old London Bridge at the sign of the 'Goat and Compasses'," likely a reference to a tavern. This is really old london bridge, the version that was still lined with houses and shops on each side, a sort of village in its own right and in my view probably a key inspiration for William Gibson in several of his novels. Old london bridge sounds like an interesting place to live and make a living in general principle, although in terms of navigation and other aspects it was probably far from easy. Just to round this bit of rabbit hole exploration, I looked around for any information on why goats and compasses should be associated with one another. Well, it turns out that the "Goat and Compasses" was indeed a tavern, as noted by Patrick Chaplin at his pub history website. He even happened on a newspaper clipping describing theories for the association between goats and compasses, and finally comes to the conclusion that the combination is one of trade signs with nothing especially esoteric about it. (Top)

The New Landed Property (2019-10-21)

An illustration of hungarian knights by Giulio Ferraio published in 1831. Image courtesy of archive.org. An illustration of hungarian knights by Giulio Ferraio published in 1831. Image courtesy of archive.org.
An illustration of hungarian knights by Giulio Ferraio published in 1831. Image courtesy of archive.org.

The debacle of the disney corporations's efforts to extend american copyright terms to infinity for anything disney corp has managed to appropriate has been going on for some time now. The representatives of the corporation aren't even embarrassed about it, and they are apparently unaware of the negative connotations whenever some action or idea is labelled "mickey mouse." Or maybe that's just a canadian thing, admittedly I don't know if this a widely shared way of using the character name in american dialects of english. I have read many articles, most written by americans, though there have been others by people mostly from other countries with predominantly english-speaking populations, talking about the ostensible purpose of copyright law, and how it is being abused. They are appalled, and rightly, that in effect american copyright law is being manipulated in a way that blocks the open expression of creativity, and that this is also true for other laws intended to manage extremely misnamed "intellectual property." Worse yet, those american laws are being forced on other countries in a way that is transparently colonial and just as transparently meant to break open the last few areas the proponents can see exploitable people, things, and ideas in. I must wholeheartedly agree with the vast majority of their critiques. But they are missing the broad side of a barn when it comes to the proper endgame here. The colonialist part is a nasty bonus for the people pushing the bad "intellectual property" law.

Several years ago now, something peculiar and alarming happened formally in the united states to officially reestablish something I understand many americans were rightly proud to have abolished in law. (Getting to practical abolishment in real life is alas, much harder – the law is a place to start, not stop. I was so annoyed on finally figuring this out.) The american courts formally reinstituted property qualifications for voting. That as a practical fact, is what the legal decision equating political donations with speech does. As more than one commentator has pointed out, Bill Gates therefore must inevitably have a hell of a lot more free speech than most people in the united states. Hell, he has more than most people in the world at this point. Any equation that allows property in through the back door as a means to influence politics is a property qualification to have an effective vote. We have already seen this movie, in the broader human version of "we." All we have to do is go look up the three estates in pre-revolutionary france.

Okay, now, let's take a moment to consider the notion of "landed property." wikipedia has a reasonably clear definition of this, "In real estate, a landed property or landed estate is a property that generates income for the owner without the owner having to do the actual work of the estate." Those of us who have dared read Karl Marx for ourselves, especially Capital, and refused to stop at volume one, will have read about the key shift in social and economic power reflected in the shift from political influence being vested in "the gentry," men living off of income generating estates, to it being vested in men who owned powerful industrial firms. Right now we are seeing another such shift, from the men who owned industrial firms to those in the "FIRE" sector, that is, in finance, insurance, and real estate. To the unguarded eye, this might read like a reversion back to political power being predominantly vested in men living off of income generating estates, perhaps now with a few token women added in. The FIRE sector is notoriously unstable, able to generate massive profits and massive destruction. For examples, see the roaring 1920s and the crash of 2008. Or the great land rushes created by colonial governments and speculators across north america through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Many people, most of them men, invested in the new "intellectual property" want something a lot like real estate. But they want the bugs worked out, so that they can't have their free ride eviscerated by somebody else out-clevering them or workers out-cooperating them. On the worker part they are on the same page with the rest of the big rich players about, but real estate is trickier. The best property is the kind that somehow never wears out, that somehow everyone else can be prevented from using or developing on, but that somehow everybody is supposed to need. Land, houses, and the like can't actually work like that. Given enough laws, violence, and propaganda, the new "intellectual property" could fit the bill. That looks like the ultimate endgame to me, especially because the major proponents of this madness are in the so-called "entertainment industry" which has come late to appreciation of "the fan," long after the "sports industry." They aren't getting it their own way so easily as they expected. People engaged in non-sports fan cultures have put considerable thought into the ethics of such genres as fan fiction and other forms of fan art, crowd sourced encyclopaedias and the like. Some of the most instructive discussions of how to ethically balance the acknowledged rights of artists to be paid for their work and distributors to get their bit for getting the material out there are in public fanworks fora.

I suspect many of us have already read about the sour legacy of disney corp's obsession with copyright after making a mint from simply taking from a cultural commons, which other corporations like it are seeking to permanently enclose. Quite apart from the irony of the corporate obsession with demanding that their views of copyright and other forms of "intellectual property" law be accepted and imposed everywhere, while insisting they are not required to obey anybody else's laws or practices in this area, or often even their own. All to create landed property 2.0. (Top)

Respecting "Tradition," Eh? (2019-10-14)

Jean tool caddy from OCDMaker's corner of the instructables website, july 2019. Jean tool caddy from OCDMaker's corner of the instructables website, july 2019.
Jean tool caddy from OCDMaker's corner of the instructables website, july 2019.

I had an interesting experience trying to find a quirky but sensible picture to invoke ideas and things handed down for this thoughtpiece, that is, tradition. This seems a pretty innocuous thing to look up. Apparently nothing is innocuous to look up, especially on the images front, so I am deeply appreciative of the safe filtering options on search engines. A few of the things that were indeed innocuous yet indicative of far less innocuous stuff on the edge of getting swept up were quite startling. Still, in the end this charming excerpt from OCDMaker's instructions for making a step ladder caddy from a repurposed pair of old jeans works quite well. The old pair of jeans repurposed because they are no longer useful as pants while keeping the still applicable parts and retrofitting them for a new use is usually what "tradition" actually amounts to. This not so true of handed down principles, since they are understood to be quite stable in themselves. For handed down principles usually what we struggle with over time as times change is how to interpret them, how to enact them in new conditions in a good way. And we do have to ask about a principle, who benefits if we take this principle as unchanging? This is hard work, and deeply uncomfortable to do on the principle side of things. This means that invocations of "tradition" can be quite double-edged, and alas, not always carefully informed. Worse yet, some people invoking tradition are simply acting in bad faith.

The point is not to trace a bunch of bad faith invocations of tradition here, since we can find plenty of those without trying very hard just by reading up minimally about slavery. Instead, here I am considering the harder examples, where the invocation is in good faith. In good faith, but not informed by actual traditions. I'm thinking here of the various claims about Indigenous cultures and traditions that far from reflecting Indigenous ways in all their diversity in fact reflect colonizer's constructions of Indigeneity as no less than a state of utter depravity before white people came along to impose christianity, patriarchy, and capitalism, not necessarily in that order. There is no doubt that any Indigenous person needs to refuse the excessive depictions of "Indians" as "noble savages" who are also inevitably doomed and male. Of course we made mistakes, and we no doubt still are, hopefully smaller ones all the time. That's why to my knowledge every Indigenous community has a system of stories and tellings that among many other key tasks warn us about possible mistakes and their outcomes based on somebody else having made them already. This is far more than an order, "don't be like that guy!" I have always been struck by the comment by Apache Elder Charles Henry to Keith Basso, that the stories go to work on people.

Lee Maracle briefly discussed an example of an indirect invocation of tradition as it relates to Feminism in her 2017 book, My Conversations With Canadians.

Now some of our own people are repeating the phrase: "Feminism comes from the outside." I want to say, "So do Levi's," but I bite my tongue and opt for reason. I get why men are doing it. Having only one chief is handy. Not having to deal with women leaders is handy. Actually, it is patriarchy that comes from outside, and feminism is its most effective response. Far from being foreign, feminism is homegrown as a result of the relationship between a Seneca woman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

It's a great quote, isn't it? And that was going to be the main part of this thoughtpiece to work with, until I started reading Cutcha Risling Baldy's incredible 2018 book, We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women's Coming-of-Age Ceremonies. Risling Baldy discusses the role of colonizer models of what Indigenous people are "really" like and what our ceremonies "really" mean, especially the colonizer insistence that everybody is by default patriarchal and views menstruation and therefore women as dirty. Especially menstruation, of course, combined with all sorts of claims about all the things a menstruating woman or her menstrual blood could do to people. Risling Baldy deals specifically with this colonizer nonsense as it has impacted her Indigenous communities, Hupa, Karuk, and Yurok in what is currently labelled california on most maps. She describes how colonizer beliefs about menstruation underlay a focussed effort to end the ceremonies honouring girls experiencing their first menses. She notes how colonizers insisted that powerful women could only mean oppressed men, because in their own societies powerful men meant oppressed women.

Bear in mind, Risling Baldy is speaking to the specific history of her own communities, and her focus is on them, not reassuring the reader that not all missionaries, miners, soldiers, and whoever else absolutely shared these images and acted on them. For this thoughtpiece, it is fair to acknowledge that there were and are non-Indigenous people who have opposed such images and their imposition on others. I leave as a puzzle for the reader the question of why and how that opposition and difference was so ineffective when europeans and their descendants on Turtle Island witnessed Indigenous ways of living and understanding the world.

So in the end, the correlate to referring to tradition is always to check whose account of our traditions we are encouraged to accept. Is the notion of "tradition" actually being manipulated by people, especially settlers, who would like very much to co-opt our desire to revitalize our own traditions as we continue as peoples into the future so that we end up re-colonizing ourselves instead? Are we ourselves unwittingly invoking colonial nonsense, or in the case of an accurate account of past practice, have we forgotten that we are not just allowed but required to consider what we are revitalizing. Are we revitalizing tradition in a good way? If the practice has gone awry for whatever reason so that simply doing the same thing would not be helpful to our communities, what has gone awry and what is the good way the practice is intended to express? How do we revitalize that, and let the mistakes go? These can be tough questions. It seems to me though that Indigenous peoples have faced down tough questions before in a good way, after all, that is how it is that we're still here. (Top)

No, Not All "White Middle Class" (2019-10-07)

UPDATE 2019-09-15 - By scratching the surface here, I seriously mean only scratching the surface. Let's take Joan Sangster's recent One Hundred Years of Struggle, which explores the history of women's suffrage in canada. One of the first women she discusses is Mary Ann Shadd Cary, an african north american born in the united states who lived in canada for several decades and while working hard as an anti-slavery activist took time out of her busy schedule to advocate for women's rights and found her newspaper the Provincial Freeman.

UPDATE 2020-08-09 - I have happened on two excellent articles recounting some stories of not so white and middle class participants in the british suffragette movement via the wonderful radical feminist sources. First, the article by Louise Raw at Woman's Place UK, published 12 july 2020 is Standing on the Shoulders of Giantesses: Working-Class Women Suffragettes. Second, a new york times article, Meet the Brave but Overlooked Women of Color Who Fought for the Vote, dated 24 july 2020. For a nuanced and thoughtful exploration of how the abolitionist and women's vote movements came apart after going through so much together during the nineteenth century, see Ta-Nehisi Coates' 18 october 2011 article published with the atlantic, which has not had nearly enough uptake, The Great Schism: From Their Onsets, Suffragists and Aboilitionists Shared Many of the Same Values, So What Caused the Movements to Split Apart? I think the following paragraph is an excellent teaser. "And yet, I find myself in sympathy with both Stanton and Anthony. They were not latter day Geraldine Ferraros, or white supremacists like Kearney or Felton. On the contrary, the two spent much of their early careers very much devoted to the cause of black people, and took their share of abuse for it. When the goal – abolition – was achieved, they hoped for some reciprocity. It did not come. 'When I think of all the wrongs that have been heaped upon womankind,' wrote Stanton. 'I am ashamed that I am not forever in a condition of chronic wrath.'"

UPDATE 2020-08-31 - Another excellent companion article to this one is Victoria W. Woolcott's Suffragists Used Hunger Strikes as Powerful Tool of Resistance, originally published on the conversation and signal boosted on consortium news. An interesting added detail is the information about suffragette influence on Gandhi. For a much better overview of black women's history and relationship to white women, including their powerful analysis of the meaning of sex versus gender for women and how that varies – or doesn't – with "race," see TD's 15 july 2020 piece on medium, A (Very Long) Letter to My Sisters: A Contextualized Response to the Appropriation of Black Womanhood in Trans Activism.

UPDATE 2022-05-22 - I have happened on yet another excellent place to start learning about the complexities of racialized women's participation in feminist organizing, Women's suffrage, Women of Colour at the the english website voting counts. Also see National Museum of African American History and Culture Five You Should Know: African American Suffragists

UPDATE 2024-05-11 - The Liberation School website has its share of gems, including a solid article on the history of the "second wave" of feminism in the united states by Donna Goodman, The Untold Side of Second Wave Feminism: A Multinational, Politically Diverse Movement (21 march 2019). The article was originally a book chapter, which may be the cause of some of the strange formatting. Unfortunately Goodman still can't let go of the false claim that women working only within the household is traditional to the united states let alone in other places. Of course, this does not denythe desire of many women then and now to make being a "stay at home" mother or spouse (or both) a chosen possibility rather than a response to duress. Goodman also cannot refrain from conflating the present-day claims that "LGB" always included "TQ" when it did not, and blaming Feminists for the serious antiwoman movement going by the label of "gender identity," although to be far she would insist she is giving credit rather than placing blame. Neither credit nor blame is due to Feminists for that.

I do realize that the misrepresentation of political movements that challenge the status quo by the mainstream media is to be expected. Many of them are so egregious as to be irresponsible, and the persistent attempts to derogate any "wave" of Feminism as mainly middle class and white is among the worst examples. All too often, even Feminists accept and repeat this nonsense, even though it is bluntly ahistorical and vastly overextended. Part of what makes it so infuriating is how it denies and erases the lifework of working class and/or racialized women who have played major roles in Feminism throughout its histories and places. They were involved, and they did and to this day do extraordinary work, because resistance to oppression is perennial, and women have been overcoming barriers to working together to end all of the oppressions that affect them for at least centuries in the "western world." A key Feminist finding is that we have to watch out for the rhetorical tactic of picking out "exceptional women" who are customarily presented in a way that cuts them off from their own social and political milieus, rendering them into aberrations from what "women like them" are assumed are or were like. When the tactic is applied to Feminists who cannot be labelled white and middle class, it neatly reduces the woman so represented into a token and declares other people like her by default uninterested in Feminism in one fell swoop. It also damages the effectiveness of genuine critique of parts of the Feminist movement that are indeed too white and middle class, which is absolutely crazymaking.

On the right is a reproduction of one of Sojourner Truth's calling cards, used in the original process of "making calls," that is, short visits closed by an exchange of cards like this one. As the caption on this card notes, Truth also used her cards to help fund her work as an activist for women's rights and the abolition of slavery. Contrary to portrayals even in her own lifetime by white journalists, she was from new york and was likely bilingual in both low dutch and english. Oddly, I have found late twentieth century Feminist authors who declare that she was invisible in the american suffrage movement, but this seems quite unlikely in her own time. She was a famous and vigorous public speaker who worked across the united states for over a decade, and the speech that is now known under the title of "Ain't I a Woman?" is one of the most well-known and frequently reproduced in a controversial version edited to make her seem to speak in a dialect of southern english. (Her wikipedia article briefly summarizes this incident.) She dictated her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth and it was first published in boston in 1850, went through three more revised and expanded editions (i.e. 1853, 1875, 1884) before Truth's death, and continues in print to this day. Her image and words were regularly featured in Feminist writing and art in the 1970s and 1980s, as the challenges of working with women from different class and cultural backgrounds forced women to face the fact that a person can be oppressed and an oppressor, and a shared axis of oppression does not change that, only hard work to identify and refuse the habits of oppressing can.

One of Sojourner Truth's calling cards, currently held by the berkeley art museum and pacific film archive in california, courtesy of the Berkeleyside. The docket from Truth's fight to release her son from slavery were refound by archivist Jim Folts in early 2022. One of Sojourner Truth's calling cards, currently held by the berkeley art museum and pacific film archive in california, courtesy of the Berkeleyside. The docket from Truth's fight to release her son from slavery were refound by archivist Jim Folts in early 2022.
One of Sojourner Truth's calling cards, currently held by the berkeley art museum and pacific film archive in california, courtesy of the Berkeleyside. The docket from Truth's fight to release her son from slavery were refound by archivist Jim Folts in early 2022.

Unsurprisingly, there were indeed powerful working class white women activists in Feminism before the twentieth century. A not always recognized member of this category is Mary Wollstonecraft, whose birth family rapidly descended from the upper middle class thanks to her father's squandering of his inheritance. She herself had to work for her living, including as a governess and especially as a writer. Today she is recognized as not only an early Feminist but also as a moral and political philosopher who was famous well before she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Another member of this category is Helena Gutteridge, a tough-minded and determined woman who left home early to acquire an education and support herself by wage work. She participated in the more radical suffragette wing of the british women's suffrage movement, and in 1911 she emigrated to canada where she continued working for votes for women and added a busy schedule of labour activism to her activities. Gutteridge insisted on developing both cross-class and cross-issue alliances, and didn't allow attempts to label her as "too much" of one sort of political label or another. I think her sharp wit and irrepressible optimism would have appealed to Mary Daly, a twentieth century Feminist regularly accused of and misrepresented as being middle class, heedless of the fact that she was from a working class irish family in boston. This probably had not a little to do with the fact that she had to complete two doctorates in order to land her academic positions, and she certainly didn't spend her career currying favour with elites. Over the course of her eight major books, her intellectual development and philosophy developed far away from initial rather tentative liberal Feminism to radical Feminism and a far better understanding of racism and how it must be challenged. Yet another example is the late linguist Suzette Haden Elgin, who was from the Ozarks and also wound up having to do two doctorates to finally get a full time academic job.

The closer to today, the easier it is to firmly disprove claims that Feminism is white and middle class, and that furthermore racialized Feminists especially had had it up to the back teeth with their erasure by journalists, historians, and alas, too many white Feminists. From the groundbreaking books This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa to All The Women Are White, All The Blacks Are Men, But Some Of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, non-white Feminists were refusing invisibility and silence for themselves and their foremothers. It was they who insistently recovered and referenced their earlier counterparts. The role of poets in Feminism generally is quite impressive, including Audre Lorde, Laguna Pueblo-Lakota author and activist Paula Gunn Allen, and in the nineteenth century Mohawk E. Pauline Johnson whose writings include the not nearly famous enough short story "A Red Girl's Reasoning," and the critical article "A Strong Race Opinion: On the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction." Johnson's work may surprise some readers today for its intersectionality and frank discussions of matters we are encouraged to believe "victorian era people" never talked about. Johnson is another woman who despite coming from a what would now be considered an upper middle class family was herself working class, earning her living via journalism and performing her poetry.

Obviously I am barely scratching the surface here, having touched on barely three countries and less than twenty different women. They participated in Feminism in different ways and with different levels of radicalism. Claims that Feminism is white and middle class can be intended as a good faith critique, and from other Feminists very often is exactly that. But once is too often when it is applied in a way that far from being an honest critique attempts to create a weak form of Feminism by refusing to acknowledge the existence of actual women who cannot be described by one or both of those terms. (Top)

Traditional Hand Me Downs (2019-09-30)

Medieval slinger, drawn by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, 1874. Image courtesy of old book illustrations, september 2019. Medieval slinger, drawn by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, 1874. Image courtesy of old book illustrations, september 2019.
Medieval slinger, drawn by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, 1874. Image courtesy of old book illustrations, september 2019.

At least a decade ago now, I found myself in what canada has labelled the northwest territories, just a couple of hours from the official border with alberta, which at least then was primarily marked by a single highway sign. It was high summer, and I was expecting to participate in an outdoors event for a few days, camping. My colleague who had argued for and managed to get permission for three of us to attend on office time had assured us that it was a sort of cultural camp run annually by the surrounding First Nations, and a great time all around. A great opportunity to see some traditional culture and network a bit on behalf of our employer. Not my sort of event, although I appreciated the chance to improve my understanding of cultural protocols in those First Nations. Learning how not to accidentally be a horrible guest is always a worthwhile thing, and if nothing else always reminds you how creative people really are. For instance, the ways that you can be firmly informed that actually you had best pack up and be on your way again without saying a direct word. At that event, I felt right away that we were directed to set up our tents on a former parking lot full of gravel was a pretty powerful hint. Then someone had wonderful good fortune, and brought in a moose. Which we were firmly not invited to help eat. The colleague who had managed to finagle us to this event in the first place finally wilted and agreed to go home at the end of day two.

Before the end of that second day though, the third member of our trio had managed to persuade a community member to sit and chat with us. In the course of the conversation, the subject of tradition came up. Now, my colleague at that time (her views may have changed since then) had very strong beliefs about what it meant to be Indigenous, especially about how one went about being Métis, since she is Métis like myself. At that time she was quite sure that the only way to really be Métis was to have grown up in the bush, learning plants and hunting. Our host listened to these ideas, expressed more or less subtly, about what "tradition" means, and whether Métis or any other Indigenous people are assimilated just because they happen to live in a town or city. Then, after reminding us that everyone changes, he stated firmly, "What counts is principles. The principles we hand down, when we do that and act according to those principles, that makes us who we are." That is the tough thread that keeps us in touch with our ancestors. This gave me a lot to think about.

"Tradition" literally speaking simply means whatever is passed down over time within a community or family. I found most dictionary definitions emphasized religious ritual and civic holidays, which was intensely annoying. Not that these are not traditions, and I get the idea is to try to use widely known illustrative examples in definitions. The trouble is the examples misinform at least as much as they inform, because we pass down far more than just rituals in those senses. Among other things we have received from our ancestors are ways of making a living, rules and guidelines on how to treat friends and strangers, what constitutes a proper meal, even notions of what things count as what we do for fun versus what we do as work or duty. In other words, principles and ideas, as my colleague and I learned from our host in the northwest territories. This understanding helped me make sense of a question that had always bothered me. Non-Indigenous people seem quite certain that only a very narrow band of appearance and behaviour is permissible for an Indigenous person to be declared "authentic." For the moment, never mind how completely weird and creepy it is that there are non-Indigenous people who feel that they have a right to declare whether Indigenous people are authentic or not. My response to such non-Indigenous claims about Indigenous people has been to ask, then how to do we know what makes somebody from england authentically english? Is anybody from england really english anymore?

Please bear in mind, I am not attempting to provoke here. This question baffled me for a long time. Let's suppose that we narrow things down to the idealized and yes, wrong and racist but also persistent image of a "real englishman." That means of course that the image will be of a man who is white, and probably upper middle class, like – David Cameron. I saw a news photo of him suffering an embarrassing wardrobe failure because his middle had outgrown his tuxedo shirt and still haven't recovered, though I am sure he has. Anyway, there you go. Standard issue englishman for the current day and age, wearing standard western wear in the sense of suits and ties, that sort of thing. Now, think back to the original queen Elizabeth of england, Elizabeth Tudor. In her time, the mid sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries, the standard issue englishman would have shared a lot of features with David Cameron. Except for his clothes, which would have been doublets and hose, and assuming he was in a similar social bracket he would have probably had some extra accoutrements he was allowed to wear in the way of personal weaponry. English has changed significantly since that era, and if he was socially ambitious chances are good he would also have spoken french and perhaps italian. The food he would have eaten would be different although in many cases made with similar ingredients. Being rather well off, chances he would have been if not a courtier and therefore living from rent, then a merchant or perhaps a lawyer. Ah, and he would be churchgoing to the nearest anglican establishment, since being catholic was not an especially socially-enhancing attribute at that time. Actually, better yet let's go for the full stereotype and pick out a shipgoing type, which means we can use the image of Francis Drake to stand in for him.

I suspect the question is now quite obvious. These two "standard englishmen" are different in terms of clothes, language, religion (I have no idea if Cameron is anglican, but anglicanism has certainly changed in the intervening centuries), and while the labels for the possible professions of the elizabethan man are still in use, the jobs referred to by them are no longer the same either. If nothing else, the tools for carrying them out are different. After all, nowadays we have computers, telephones, and many other things unthought of in the elizabethan period. These sorts of differences between then and now, when observed in members of Indigenous nations, are often held up as evidence of their assimilation, their failure of authenticity, their ceasing to be Indigenous. Well then, logically if we apply the same standards to David Cameron, he isn't an englishman at all. In fact, there can be no real englishmen anymore. Of course nobody applies such standards, and they are quite clear about why. First, he's a white male from england, and second Indigenous people are supposed to be outside of time and disappearing. So far no one has told me that what David Cameron and Francis Drake must share that makes them both englishmen besides place of birth and mother tongue is that they adhere to similar, persistent principles embedded in english culture. Admittedly, stating bluntly what those principles apparently are could be quite uncomfortable considering english history.

Practically speaking no one can reduce what makes a nation a nation over time into a few simplified principles. I think it could be an excellent exercise to try writing out the principles at play in your own culture – it might even be a great exercise for a social studies or anthropology class, where even people who consider themselves to be from the same culture could identify different principles and disagree about which apply. (Top)

Thoughts on "Liberation Theology" (2019-09-23)

Truth be told, I have always been uneasy about "liberation theology," and for a long time had considered whether it might not be mostly due to the fact that it is so associated with aggressive missionaries and churches whose dogmas I am highly skeptical of. (As I understand it, "liberatory theology" is something else.) After all, on the surface it seems like there really should be lots to like about liberation theology. "Liberation," right? That's good, being all about freeing people from oppression. But then again, the "theology" part is painfully contradictory to the "liberation" part, with rationalizations under the rubric of theology making up critical pillars supporting almost any oppression we can name. Okay then, so maybe the point is to be theologically radical by challenging oppression instead. Well, that seems positive. I have certainly read articles and books that refer to the role and actions of people who were inspired by or official practitioners of liberation theology who did good things and found great meaning and drive from its tenets. The generally agreed on definition of "liberation theology" is that it is a combination of marxism and roman catholicism specifically developed in latin america.

Illustration from fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers, intriguingly of a princess carrying away the prince. Image original by Robert Anning Bell, from the early twentieth century, courtesy of old book illustrations, september 2019. Illustration from fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers, intriguingly of a princess carrying away the prince. Image original by Robert Anning Bell, from the early twentieth century, courtesy of old book illustrations, september 2019.
Illustration from fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers, intriguingly of a princess carrying away the prince. Image original by Robert Anning Bell, from the early twentieth century, courtesy of old book illustrations, september 2019.

Learning these specifics did not tamp down my unease at all. The roman catholic church remains one of the richest organizations on the planet, and among its achievements in what non-Indigenous people call latin america are projects like the jesuit reductions where Indigenous peoples were imprisoned, enslaved and worked to death all to "save" them, of course. Currently the roman catholic church remains busy with its attempts to hide and enable the pedophiles among the clergy before they are caught and charged, then fend off the charges, then claim it is reforming to stop such predators from embarrassing the church. The same church that still argues that women have no right to control over their own bodies, and that abortion is a sin, while remaining careless of the conditions of life even of the children given up to the orphanages and other institutions they run. Still, I understand that latin american clergy engaged in liberation theology inspired work may be challenging their clerical superiors by getting involved in such political activities and openly criticizing capitalism. A rotten institution does not guarantee rotten members, to be sure, and we could argue that latin american clergy working on alternative economies, redistribution, and the like are actually attempting to rectify the harms done by their institution.

Still, there is some more important perspective on liberation theology and its underlying rationale worth having, succinctly stated by economist and historian Michael Hudson in a recent episode of the guns and butter podcast, transcribed at naked capitalism.

America is a mixed economy. Our government has always subsidized capital formation in agriculture and industry, but it insists that other countries are socialist or communist if they do what the United States is doing and use their government to support the economy. So it's a double standard. Nobody calls America a socialist country for supporting its farmers, but other countries are called socialist and are overthrown if they attempt land reform or attempt to feed themselves.

This is what the Catholic Church's Liberation Theology was all about. They backed land reform and agricultural self-sufficiency in food, realizing that if you're going to support population growth, you have to support the means to feed it. That's why the United States focused its assassination teams on priests and nuns in Guatemala and Central America for trying to promote domestic self-sufficiency.

The key tie here is of course to "population growth." Oh, and so much for my thought that perhaps the clergy in latin america might even be challenging their superiors by opposing capitalism as we know it. No, it all goes back to the fact that no matter what the facts of the real world show, the catholic church is obsessed with enforcing what it defines as "population growth." This means as many babies as possible borne by women debarred from any form of contraception or freedom from coerced heterosexuality, babies who will of course have to be baptized catholic. We may rest assured that the only reason that Indigenous ways are treated with less disdain than before is because the second favoured catholic strategy after trying to destroy everybody who has a different religion is to attempt to co-opt their religion instead. Having grown up in the settler state of canada, I have read a fair number of historical accounts about colonial france explaining the drive to increase the french catholic population in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the theory that this would inevitably increase the coercive power of the nation overall. For france at that time, I suspect this had more to do with fielding a big army, and later more to do with industrialization. For the catholic church, this always goes back to the practical goal of swamping all other religions by sheer mass.

Alas, it seems to me that these connections unavoidably taint "liberation theology." It still brooks a hell of a lot of oppression, and ironically the trouble with any oppression is that it undermines improvements in other areas until challenged and overcome. This is easy to miss in the immediate drive towards what can feel like absolutely good work in all its aspects, work that may seem further validated by the murder of priests and nuns who have been murdered in the course of doing it. (Top)

Walk This Way (2019-09-18)

Back in may, Maria Popova published her annotated reading of Lauren Elkin's book Flaneuse, and among the striking reflections she quoted from the text, one stood out especially for me in this day and age of pressure to live inside steel and plastic bubbles labelled cars, not least because I still don't have one of those bubbles. Elkin expressed her suspicion of vehicle-based culture with its authoritarian turn, adding that such a culture is bad for women. This should be a deeply thought-provoking and indeed troubling point for all of us to wrestle with as we reach for our walking shoes and sandals. Perhaps it would have struck me less, if the block I am currently living on had not been deliberately built without sidewalks, as if no one would ever walk the streets. Instead there are begrudging yellow tabs added to one of the street signs emphasizing that there is no exit, except in excruciatingly tiny print that most of us might never notice, for pedestrians. Little cut-through paths were added later to allow walkers to get out of the originally closed lots to where the actual sidewalks are.

17th century Techialoyan Indigenous land record manuscript map, courtesy of the u.s. library of congress, may 2019. 17th century Techialoyan Indigenous land record manuscript map, courtesy of the u.s. library of congress, may 2019.
Seventeenth century Techialoyan Indigenous land record manuscript map, courtesy of the u.s. library of congress, may 2019.

For my part, I have been a major walker since I was very small. Admittedly originally this was not by choice, but knowing no better, or that my family lacked regular access to a car or money for the bus, we walked. It was no trouble to me to walk over a kilometre to what we referred to as "the corner store" – the store is still going strong – for the occasional pop or chocolate bar when money allowed. Of course, for an adult that isn't far at all, but for a child, that is no small feat. We walked to a mall that now it is possible to take the bus to, although the bus takes so long to get there walking would be faster, the cruel fate of bus routes set up to serve an area far too large. Under such conditions, a city can seem much smaller and greener. It is not unlikely that the fiercest defenders of the little green space left in most cities are in fact the walkers, the people who walk by choice and those who don't have a choice, and nevertheless love those aspects of their home places. So-called "developers" are rarely familiar with the liveable elements of cities since they seem to so rarely to be actual citizens of the city, or if they are, they certainly don't walk places. These are the sorts of planners who see people other than their crowd as a bug, not a feature of the city. The physical presence of those "other" people, evidence of them, seems to be a source of great annoyance for the planners.

Jane Jacobs unpacked this unfortunate mindset in the course of her extensive writing about cities and how best to deal with the challenges they can pose to decent living. She extolled the importance of foot traffic as a means to deter bad behaviour because people are present in community, ready to manage and solve problems. I can't deny that sometimes her descriptions sound a bit utopian in comparison to what most of experience today, but her mistrust of the authoritarian tendencies of city planners has never been proved wrong. Those tendencies are very strong, as they strive to create the perfect, clean city, with everything and everyone having a place and being in its place. Supposedly aimless walkers need not apply for their projects, not least because the general thinking that we get done by walking is often unpleasantly labelled "wool gathering" or bluntly as time wasting, heedless of the many problems we solve. This is one of many nasty outcomes of late stage capitalism, in which anything not done to make somebody else money is "wasting time." Walking can be some of the best help for mild mental distress: it may not resolve deeper trouble, but it may help you pull together what you need to take the steps needed to find that resolution. Walking puts us back in our bodies and centres us again even if a big part of what we do during our perambulations is think. The paradox probably pleases the part of us that is most disgusted with rules and fond of puzzles.

Of course, the people who are rather hostile towards people out walking, especially women out walking, know exactly why they are opposed, though they may cloak their beliefs in claims about "safety," "efficiency," or even "respectability." Being "respectable" is still a thing, even now in our supposedly anti-victorian age. They know that walking expresses autonomy, the fact of existence of a person in the world. On some Indigenous maps, like that above, a representation of footsteps, a stylization of where people walk, also firmly states, "this place is ours." A person out walking, including people who "walk" using wheelchairs and other assistive devices are asserting their existence, that they have a right to the places they go under their own power. (Top)

General Purposeness (2019-09-11)

Quite some time ago I made my way to the nearest purveyor of small appliances in order to replace my tea kettle. This is a wonderfully mundane task, and simple besides. My main criteria were it had to be electric, some colour other than white, have an auto-off switch for when the water boiled, and that wonderful innovation, a carafe that could be lifted away from the plugged in base for pouring. In other words, I was seeking an ISO-standard tea kettle, if you like, barring the separate base part. I expected it to take a bit longer to find, but still not too much trouble. After all, when push came to shove, a tea kettle really only needs to do two things: boil water, and shut itself off after it has been boiling for more than ten to fifteen seconds. If any of us insists, we can use tea kettles in additional ways, especially if they have wide lids. I have known hard up students who have managed to use their tea kettles as de facto hot plates, and I understand there are entire cookbooks written for repurposing coffeemakers in this way. Still, that is not the specific point of a tea kettle, and generally that's not what we expect. There are good reasons to boil water separately even now in an era of more regular access to some sort of stove.

Victorinox multitool via the victorinox website, may 2019. Victorinox multitool via the victorinox website, may 2019.
Victorinox multitool via the victorinox website, may 2019.

So I found myself caught between laughter and disbelief as I tried to find a dumb kettle among the shelves and shelves of so-called "smart appliances." Once I had narrowed things down to the section with just kettles in it, I had to parse out kettles with special little computers in them that permitted a person to do things like set it to keep the water warm, keep it on the boil, reboil it after so many minutes, and I think a couple of other things. A few of them were wifi connected, which in light of how infamously insecure so-called "IOT" devices are, sounded like a recipe to have my home burnt down by the current equivalent of a script kiddie. Kettles boil water fast to begin with, which means they give their outlet and associated wiring a sharp kick. Modern electric kettles can take less than ten minutes easily, so it seems quite pointless to me to start the kettle before I have even gotten back to my house. If I throw it on, change my shoes and dump my backpack somewhere, there's the water almost boiled already. Which is not to say that I didn't consider for some time the kettles with the fancy options for setting the water to be kept at a certain temperature and the rest, because those were not all wifi equipped by any means. For me at least, that still didn't meet my personal use profile for a tea kettle, although I can appreciate that my friends and students who live in a residence without their own kitchen might see those units quite differently. On the other hand, to me that isn't so much a kettle anymore as it is a hot plate with a built in carafe, and I'm not sure a good old-fashioned twist knob to set the temperature wouldn't do just as well.

A while after the search for the new tea kettle, I found myself considering whether or not to send my toaster off to the nearest second hand store. Overall it doesn't get much use these days after all, and it mostly gently drops crumbs in a corner of the kitchen cupboard, looking a little sad. It is a modern toaster too, in that it has a little light to re-emphasize when it is on, plus a "keep warm" setting you activate with the push of a button and little racks that can be adjusted to fit sliced bagels. Why, it is practically a hipster toaster. I came quite close to sending it on its way, especially considering the hipster part. Then I thought back to my foray into the small appliance shelves to replace my tea kettle. Although I wasn't looking for a toaster, I noticed that few of them indeed weren't "smart" in some way, and that the reign of the awful toaster oven was nowhere close to over. Suddenly I realized that actually, it would be a good idea to hang onto my dumb toaster after all. It works, and hipster bagel toasting features aside, I don't need a phone app to tell it how to mess up my toast.

As commentators on computers have said again and again as the internet becomes more and more of a swamp and the slow-moving disaster known as the "internet of things" happens, computers are general purpose machines. That is their nature, which makes them both powerful and dangerous. Powerful, because we can effectively reprogram them to do myriad tasks. Dangerous because we are not necessarily the only ones who can program them, and sometimes people can be persuaded to shove a computer into a tool where it is at best gilding the lily. I do wonder how many people have thought through the accidental security benefits of the fact that world war ii codebreakers used computers that could not be reprogrammed remotely, and that due to the materials and time available were in fact not as general purpose as they could have been. Those aren't bugs but features. It was undoubtedly less convenient to have to send around intercepts in air tubes and the like rather than transmit them electronically in some way, but the point was that electronic transmission could have been eavesdropped on, and of course there were limitations on materials available. In other words, they were working with the entirely sensible assumption that somebody none too friendly would want to access their information for malicious purposes. Unfortunately, this is the sensible perspective to take with any electronic device, let alone computers designed to include networking ability.

Perhaps it is ironic, but the general purpose nature of computers, is a giant, catastrophic bug in the many places that we are being encouraged to consider placing them. As tools for art and communication, computers make considerable sense. They have not been applied in ways that took account of such key values as privacy and safety, which are not a luxuries but human rights to have and human responsibilities to respect, or the human right not to be condemned forever for having said something appalling when you were an obnoxious, narcissistic teenager and didn't know better. In other words, computers are out there with no clear determination to design and manage them in a way that does not support or increase authoritarianism. Even if the "internet of things" fails sooner rather than later, the marketing drive for it is helping ensure that nevertheless the authoritarian systems general purpose computers can be abused to build get built. (Top)

Perceived Lawlessness (2019-09-04)

As so many governments try to force into existence a present that never existed in the past that they claim makes it not just better but authorized by already having happened, they extend their efforts to trying to at least end usage of newer textbooks and block renaming of streets and buildings and removal of problematic monuments. I actually might even agree that some of those problematic monuments could stay, if a counter-monument could be placed beside them of equivalent size and prominence which tells the wider story that makes the originals problematic. Sometimes that could be a really productive step, even if only as a temporary arrangement before both monuments were removed. Just like americans need to be reminded that most of their civil war monuments are actually recent structures produced to not so subtly tell African Americans that Jim Crow would continue and get worse, canadians need to be reminded that the majority of their confederation monuments that pretend to celebrate "peace, order and good government" were put up in and around 1967, generally referred to as "the centenary." It is a widely held conceit across the political spectrum of historians that "peace, order, and good government" was what everybody got when "canada" was created, regardless of whether or not they had consented to join or actually had "peace, order, and good government" already. Oh yes my friends, before europeans began showing up, there was certainly all three of those things in place all over the americas.

UPDATE 2020-06-24 - I have happened on an excellent article that delves into the reframing of Indigenous legal orders as "criminal" and criminal invader practices as those of "legal settlers" among those compiled for the theory and event special issue on colonial unknowing. See specifically Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark's Criminal Empire: The Making of the Savage in a Lawless Land.

In this there were true parallels to asia, in that there was a wide range of governments and polities, some of them fighting with each other in ways we would characterize now as warfare, some in ways that seem strange because they were ritualistic means of containing conflict that could spiral out into outright fighting on a large scale. The thing there wasn't, for the most part, were strange brain virii that allowed people to fool themselves into thinking they had found the only way to live, and that way was so superior they had the right and obligation to impose it on everyone else, including slaughtering everyone else to manage the imposition. Various scholars have tried to argue that perhaps the Mexica and the Inka had such ideas in mind, but that begs a lot of questions about the actual evidence at hand even in the earliest confused and bizarre records made by europeans.

The iconic illustration of chaos theory, often referred to as the lorenz attractor, courtesy of wikimedia commons, january 2006. See quanta magazine for a recent update on the history of this diagram. The iconic illustration of chaos theory, often referred to as the lorenz attractor, courtesy of wikimedia commons, january 2006. See quanta magazine for a recent update on the history of this diagram.
The iconic illustration of chaos theory, often referred to as the lorenz attractor, courtesy of wikimedia commons, january 2006. See quanta magazine for a recent update on the history of this diagram.

Various scholars have written about the unequivocal evidence for Indigenous governance and other modes of social ordering, which if they had not been present would have rendered european projects simply impossible. The resulting social and physical environment would have been too difficult to deal with, since europeans arrived completely unable to dress for the various climates, know how or what to eat safely from local plants and animals, and were often ill and malnourished in the first place. If there had been no massive, continents' wide and length trading systems, after the first few hundred or so beaver pelts had been traded, the europeans would have run out of possibilities to make profits from. It would have been like the infamous story of Frobisher's diamonds, in which he gathered mineral samples from what is currently referred to as the northwest territories. Well, I have referred to these as "samples" but apparently he had his unhappy crew dig and pack away over 200 tonnes of rocks in his ships in the course of his second voyage. In any case, after the expense and controversy of assaying the ore had passed, the end result was the rocks were found to be worthless, and the english crown lost significant interest in land fall in the americas, opting instead to pursue the still current obsession with a "northwest passage."

Meanwhile, various political and moral philosophers were busy rewriting the little they had heard or read about Indigenous peoples to serve as "evidence" for their favourite theories. More often than not, they started from the assumption that there were no laws, no governments, no communities. n fact, the basic model seems to be of at most the perfect patriarchal family, in which a despotic male keeps control by outright force or preventing the others in his "family" or "band" from eating. Nobody has any clothes or housing, everyone wanders around vaguely with no destinations known or anticipated at the whim of the alpha male. That this doesn't even describe non-human animals didn't trouble too many people in europe, not least because it was too convenient. The less well-meaning saw what the infamously lost Columbus did, people easily taken as slaves, about whom no qualms need be felt because they needed "disciplining" and weren't christian. The notion that "christianizing" these people would shore up the wobbling temporal power of the catholic church was certainly in play, and of course every effort had to be made to deny that they had any right to their land or labour, so that "free" land and an easy living could be promised to various mercenaries. More often, european powers saw the americas as a source of easy riches and a convenient place to dump the "surplus population" of the poor, many of whom had been convicted as criminals for being poor in the first place. Being visibly poor was a great way to get arrested and sent to hard labour. When the galleys were short of men, or the factories short of cheap labour, it didn't take much for naval officers or proto-capitalists to find official means to grab the supposedly idle poor. For many europeans, secular law was as arbitrary and senseless as the divine law that took the lives of helpless infants.

I have not yet encountered anything written about how the insistence that Indigenous people couldn't possibly have "law" or "government" infected or affected the actions of europeans who came to the americas. Many of them expected a so-called "howling wilderness" in which they would have to beat off the "savages" with superior force and live in perpetual stockades. In canadian literature this was labelled "the garrison mentality" by Northrop Frye, when referring to its much later reflex in what canadian authors were writing, at least in his view. Considering the resurgence of literally gated communities and winking at violence against racilaized people in at least northern north america, the label has unfortunate utility. Europeans came to the americas mostly expecting it to be a matter of constant warfare to stay alive here, apparently in part by analogy to their often appalling circumstances in europe. They came expecting it to be a lawless free for all, and they insisted on acting like it was a lawless free for all. It puts me in mind of Cutcha Risling Baldy's blogpost on why she used the television show Walking Dead to teach her students about the european invasion of california and subsequent genocide against all Indigenous nations who were already there.

It seems to me at least that fundamentally mainstream thought starts from the premise that in reality there is no law anywhere. There is no "peace, order, and good government." Not really. Instead, if the trio exists anywhere, it is only within the tiny confines of the latest version of the palisaded fort, within the few people holed up inside it, who work together to deal with everything "beyond the pale" as if it were a lawless free for all. I suspect that it is no coincidence that "beyond the pale" likely began as a reference to the porion of ireland beyond the foothold the english established when initiating their longterm project of takeover of ireland and genocide of the irish. (Top)

Whose Convenience? (2019-08-27)

Photograph of a mid to late nineteenth century piece of furniture designed to hide a chamber pot and likely also prevent it from being tipped or knocked over, Wellcome Trust item L0057869 under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license via wikimedia commons, august 2019. Photograph of a mid to late nineteenth century piece of furniture designed to hide a chamber pot and likely also prevent it from being tipped or knocked over, Wellcome Trust item L0057869 under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license via wikimedia commons, august 2019.
Photograph of a mid to late nineteenth century piece of furniture designed to hide a chamber pot and likely also prevent it from being tipped or knocked over, Wellcome Trust item L0057869 under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license via wikimedia commons, august 2019.

A growing trickle of articles suggests that more and more people are questioning the ostensible rationalization for increased surveillance and insertion of computers even where it makes no sense in our lives: convenience. For example, quite apart from the growing corpus of articles (and books) questioning the actual utility and value of "artificial intelligence," economics blog naked capitalism's posts include the especially pointed Technology, Convenience... and Death from 20 may 2019. The piece traced the "convenience" mantra versus the actual results and the messages about life, the body, and plain humanity these various technological pseudo-fixes entail. It would be easy to think that these are new concerns, driven by the ongoing implosion of formerly respected airplane manufacturer boeing and the eerie explosion of the tesla car company. In fact, these issues were picked up quite early on with sensible warnings and workable proposals for course changes to boot. See Margaret Wertheim's 1999 The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet and David F. Noble's 1997 The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. Both of them point out the lack of real conflict between science and religion as practised, and furthermore how the development of computers and the internet recreate particularly authoritarian views rooted in the medieval era in europe. There is a wide range of threads to unravel and think through related to this, from tracing the "secularization" of the dubious notion of "the rapture" as "technological singularity" or space colonization for the select few to attempts to recreate supposedly godlike powers on Earth via total surveillance. But for the moment, I would like to go back to that stubborn word "convenience."

UPDATE 2019-07-09 - In my recent read of Meredith Broussard's Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World (MIT Press, 2018), she briefly recounts a key example of "learned helplessness" leading not only to a ridiculous waste of time and knocking around daft non-solutions, but also a key illustration of sex-role stereotyping in action. Broussard quotes an anecdote about Marvin Minsky recounted by Stephen Wolfram, the latter (in)famous for the writing a giant book about "a new way of doing science" that never explains what the new way actually consists of, the former for being a key figure in the early development of computer programming. The anecdote deals with a question about caring for houseplants, which after some discussion about using nanobots to deal with it, Minsky finally admits he is hopeless with such living beings and has to defer to his wife. Broussard's paragraph on the next page (80) is particularly apropos here.

"Because humans have a long and successful history of dealing with plant problems, this conversation suggests a certain learned helplessness in these scientists. It wasn't hard to diagnose houseplants 'without the web' in the 1980s. You could go to the local florist with a description... You could go to the local hardware store to discuss your plant problems. You could telephone the local agricultural extension office. At any of these places, there would be a community member with the appropriate horticultural knowledge. People know how to deal with plant problems; civilization is practically synonymous with horticulture.... Deploying bots on houseplants is a fun idea, but it's simply unnecessary."

Please note that all of the options Broussard mentions involve actually going out and talking to other people, especially people who might well be strangers. The horror of the unknown and unpredictable among the men who mostly control computer-related technology by rights would have been recognized and handled as the pathology it is if their paranoia were not so useful to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning groups.

Quite apart from its life as a euphemism for "toilet," convenience is widely understood to describe a state of being easy to do or access. So a step stool is convenient if it is available close to where it is used to reach a high shelf, or opening a can is convenient with the help of a pull tab top. Logically then, our expectation on being told that computers or software will make some aspect of our lives more convenient means that we expect that aspect of our lives to become easier. An internet-connected, computer equipped refrigerator is supposed to make grocery shopping less fo a chore, just like little rfid tags on the soap in the laundry room set up to allow automatic online ordering of new supplies when levels get low. On one hand that sounds sort of good, but since I open my fridge and use what's in it every day, and use the soap in my laundry room too, I'm generally aware of the state of my supplies. But the argument from those who insist our homes should be "smart" is that then I wouldn't have to be aware. Just as various remote monitoring set ups would make it so that I wouldn't have to be present, or even pay attention unless the system sent me an alert. Yet this still doesn't make much sense to me, because there is the cost of getting so-called "smart" gear, then the labour of setting it up, then sweating the now exponentially increased likelihood of some sort of security breach. If your house should be cracked, or your baby monitor, or simply your internet router, you have non-trivial headaches to deal with. That is not at all convenient, and the resultant inconvenience is not easily removed.

With this in mind, we need to ask some critical questions about this notion of "convenience from technology." "Convenience" may seem an obvious and unquestionable good, but at any time it won't hurt us to question what strikes us as obvious and unquestionable. Specifically, we need to ask "convenience for who" and "convenience for what." As should be no surprise to anyone, the people most convenienced by shoving a computer and an internet connection into anything and everything possible are those most interested in surveilling us. The usual beneficiaries of this being of course advertisers first and foremost in late stage capitalism, and then authoritarian-inclined governments and their agents, from spy agencies to police. Whether the "smart" whatever is secure for a short time or never, they always win, while the rest of us struggle to cope with the equivalent of radioactive fallout in the form of inappropriately shared and revealed personal information. So, convenient for serving a dangerous and hubristic project of providing certain men with what they believe to be godlike powers of knowledge and pretended control. They of course provide tempting morsels of the same pretended powers to men with less money and social influence in the form of the various devices manipulated by men engaged in stalking and other such anti-social behaviours.

I have read and watched a range of ideas about what the future of human life would be like in "developed" countries based on the assumption that as much of the daily work of maintaining our bodies is delegated to machines as possible. The authors invariably believe they are describing the best of all worlds. In these imagined futures, women are at last relieved of the drudgery of housework and childcare not by men taking on their fair share but by having androids and "smart devices" take up the work instead. Your briefcase or backpack will check your calendar for the day and tell you what to pack and refuse to let you pack an unhealthy lunch. Personalized advertising will be sent direct to your communication devices, maybe even your retinas, who knows. No matter how manically happy the narrator in these scenarios, I always come away wondering how they can be so delighted about what is an obvious dystopia of total surveillance in which you are not actually allowed to make your own decisions.

Yet that seems too surface a complaint. Thinking about it harder, I found myself remembering a now very old Dilbert cartoon, in which the Pointy Haired Boss' assistant cheerfully does practically everything about his job for him. It becomes clear in a few panels that she is training him into helplessness. Of course, this is meant to be a joke, and I don't actually think that the various techno-boosters hope to train all humans into helplessness so that they may eventually manipulate them at will. Not because having so many basic elements of day to day living wouldn't make humans helpless, but because that isn't the way they view having those tasks taken over. No indeed, such "delegation" is no doubt considered an increase in efficiency and rationality which is meant to solve a whole range of practical problems such as improving health by preventing us from choosing bad food and missing work outs to improving our productivity by releasing more of our time for work, to finding yet another way to allow capitalism to expand a bit more. No doubt they find it impossible to believe that it could be a serious problem for humans to lose basic skills like how to properly clean clothes or manage their own food. All of which suggests that a great many of these techno-boosters don't do this stuff for themselves in the first place, and that they don't understand how complex these tasks actually are. Nor that our minds and bodies can't be separated, or how important to our personal and social health it is that we take active part in making and reshaping our own immediate environment. (Top)

The Pleasure Machine (2019-08-20)

Liberty bell slot machine, photograph by Nazox under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license via wikimedia commons, october 2007. Liberty bell slot machine, photograph by Nazox under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license via wikimedia commons, october 2007.
Liberty bell slot machine, photograph by Nazox under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license via wikimedia commons, october 2007.

I read Yanis Varoufakis' curiously uneven book Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism recently, struck by the mix of wonderful on point definitions and analogies and unfortunate periodic clangers. Nobody can write or say something that nobody else will find something to argue with of course, but the contrast was so startling that it really stood out. One of the best sections is when Varoufakis unpacks the difference between commodities, things produced explicitly for sale, and goods, which are not produced for sale as such at all, and may have important experiential value that putting a price on them would eviscerate. He does a marvellous job of showing how these points are not mere sentimentality. Another excellent section is in the eighth chapter, when he discusses what we can call "the pleasure machine."

Varoufakis describes his version of the machine very carefully, and apparently he was also duly impressed by the first big Wachowski hit, The Matrix. In Varoufakis' version of the machine, you can choose to enter the machine, though after doing so it would be difficult to tell if you had actually gotten out, if you could. The machine is designed to give you a completely pleasurable experience. You'll have all the sorts of experiences you like, and none of the other kinds. He leaves it to us to ponder whether this means the machine would ever allow you to interact with other real people, since then the machine would have to prevent those people from somehow preventing you from experiencing something you like, even by accident. Still, suppose if you made the choice to enter the machine and have these experiences without any particular concern about that. A person could reasonably take this at face value and wonder what concerns a person could possibly have, or how anybody could possibly want to leave again. For his part, Varoufakis points out a difficulty in that the machine can only provide the sorts of experiences you find pleasurable when you enter it. This could be okay for quite a long time, but as he notes, the experiences and actions we find pleasurable change significantly over that same long time. We may still enjoy things we did as teenagers for instance, yet not in the same way. Our ongoing experience and growing maturity shifts what we appreciate.

Although he doesn't say this explicitly either – the original genesis of this book was as a sort of long letter to his then nine year old daughter, so this is to be expected – but by design the machine is unlikely to challenge us in the ways we depend on to mature as we age. For better or worse, those experiences our parents obnoxiously label "character building" are important for our developing self-knowledge and ability to face down difficulties. But the process of facing them down is not pleasurable. In their own inchoate way, I think the Wachowskis were groping towards this in the original Matrix, via Agent Smith's declaration that "entire crops were lost" when the construct humans were plugged into only provided what the machines understood to be the human definition of paradise. Of course, we have no idea what the machine definition of this for humans would actually be, so there is plenty of room for things to go wrong if the machine is equipped to decide. There is at least as much room to go wrong if the programmers are all human but also possessed of very narrow views of what pleasurable experiences are.

Let's take this a little further along, and consider what an early sort of "pleasure machine" is like in real life. The photograph illustrating this thoughtpiece shows one, an early slot machine. No fooling, this was a pleasure machine of its time as surely as its computerized counterparts are today. The fun was supposed to come from just the same sources as now: the chances of winning, the excitement of the whirling symbols, the action of inserting a coin and pulling the handle on the infamous "one-armed bandit" with the accompanying sense of defying convention, the ringing bells and rattling gears. The photograph is a bit deceptive in that this is one machine alone, when as we know such machines were and are arranged in rows. People lost and lose fortunes playing these machines, seeking to catch the apparently random drop that gets them the prize. For the time they spend playing, all troubles are gone, blocked out by the game and the pursuit of the chance. Oh yes, these are pleasure machines. And they are addictive. It is unlikely that the inventor of the liberty bell slot machine knew anything about dopamine and adrenaline and the ways our pleasure responses can be profitably and dangerously hijacked by noise, lights, and dangling a prize just out of figurative reach, especially if our lives are difficult to face. Still, he managed to take what we can now refer to as primitive advantage of these very factors, and made a profit.

Here we are today, and as we speak there is an entire industry fixated on making pleasure machines, seeking the one area of stable profit left in late capitalism, which is gambling. That industry is not the gambling industry as such, but the software industry. If there is one thing almost anyone can vouch for from experience, it is that newer computers and devices with computers foisted into them against all good sense do not work better. In fact, even something as apparently bland as the most common computer operating systems are now full of random behaviours and shut downs that make it a sort of perverted game of "try to save your work" before something goes wrong or you are interrupted for a security update that may be anything but. Meanwhile, the drive to increase the reach of so-called "social media" which is full of seemingly random alerts if not from other people than from the automated systems of their providers, along with all the pathologies of on-line mobbing they can encourage. There is something sad, and striking, in how well "social media" and indeed much of popular culture continues to reproduce the sorts of experiences that would please boys between the ages of roughly twelve and seventeen. These pleasure machines, both literal and virtual, are all about that population, and many of the founders of the various "social media" and software purveyors got their start in the business at close to those ages. And so they coded and valourized – valourized both in the sense of made money from and marked as more valuable than other possibilities – what they knew and valued at that age.

So in effect we have a myriad of pleasure machines, many designed to behave much like the liberty bell slot machine, even in times and places where that is completely inappropriate. True to Varoufakis' and the Wachowskis' intuition, they have fossilized a narrow snapshot of possible pleasures. It will be interesting to see how many people will realize that contrary to what we have been encouraged to believe, we have never consented to enter the machine, and there are plenty of reasonable ways out. (Top)

Strategic Emissions Cuts (2019-08-13)

Plan of a medieval manor from the 1923 'historical atlas' by William R. Shepherd. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons, august 2007. Plan of a medieval manor from the 1923 'historical atlas' by William R. Shepherd. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons, august 2007.
Plan of a medieval manor from the 1923 'historical atlas' by William R. Shepherd. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons, august 2007.

Now that the usual suspects think they can make money from the fast-moving climate changes induced by human-driven global warming, suddenly news stories and advertising are proliferating with new messages all about the individual virtues we should all be pursuing. If only we would be adequately virtuous towards the environment on an individual basis, there indeed would be salvation. So it is that we are being encouraged to eat insects, or eschew meat, or cut our electricity usage and reduce our carbon footprint. Now, leaving aside the question of what protein we eat, which is not solved by vegan or vegetarian diets, of course why wouldn't we avoid wasting electricity and other forms of energy, thereby reducing our carbon footprints. It's a bit like talking about "raising educational standards" as Ken Robinson points out: of course let's raise educational standards, why would we lower them? The harder problem to face is that the real source of trouble rests with the major energy wasters and users, and they do more than most human populations do on a net basis anyway. I should also add for the folks out there who like to snipe that canadians ought to cut their emissions first because they use the most, that a great many of those major energy users and wasters are indeed busy destroying the lands and waters currently labelled canada. But making the general canadian population freeze in the dark won't fix that, nor would making the american parallel population in alaska.

The major energy users and wasters are typically either raw product refiners, or massive manufacturers. The first category includes such outfits as ore processors – many hydroelectric dams have been built explicitly to permit cheapened aluminum processing, for example – log finishing, pulp and paper refineries, and of course such monstrosities as the money burning tar sand refineries in northern alberta. The second category includes the factories that turn out seemingly endless thousands of plastic junk in various forms, from bags to bottles, let alone more complex items like cars and computers. Despite the amazing profits in building this stuff, somehow among the first subsidy demands made to support these enterprises are near free energy, water, and land. I leave the exercise of sorting out how a profitable business can need subsidies if it is in fact profitable to the reader.

Another huge category is of course industrialized monocrop agriculture, which is completely dependent on major energy inputs to generate the fertilizers and poisons used to force the crops to grow in cycles matched to "their" markets. At this point even animals should be referred to as crops in that context, because the drive is to make them more and more like plants. Pigs, cows, whatever you can name, these animals are being bred to produce more, be more docile, and spend less energy on growing or doing whatever they might have done left to their own devices. This is a terrible way to treat any creature we intend eventually to eat, whether it has legs or roots. The huge role of energy-gulping machinery is a key factor here at all times, especially when the agribusiness companies are seeking to automate wherever they cuts the costs they can;t avoid by downloading them onto the public purse.

In effect, the key thing that has to stop, as numerous authors of officially published books and papers have said again and again, is industrial capitalism. I would go even further with the subset of those writers and thinkers who argue that it is capitalism period that has to stop, because its very logic demands perpetual expansion and more destruction because that destruction can be monetized, while whatever goods that happen for free cannot. (By "goods" here I mean not only objects we may like but also altruistic or simply pleasant interactions and safe weather.) If this seems implausible, consider the current efforts by major corporations to lobby for bans on attempts to ban plastic bags and other plastic items. Ending plastic use alone will not fix the complex challenges we have to face either, but in effect those corporations have given away what a key element of their profits and supply chain plastics are.

Neither plastics, nor these huge industrial set ups are necessary to decent, complex human lives. Before plastics were in everything, there was indeed complex technology and sensible ways to store food and the rest. There is nothing about a complex form of life that demands the proliferation of machinery and computers that we are fending off right now. I concede that if all those industrial concerns were somehow shut off for good tomorrow, it would be rather surprising, and in many parts of our lives we would be inconvenienced for awhile. But we humans are quite adaptable, and we can cope with such changes. The growing reach of authoritarian systems in our lives cannot, nor can they cope with widespread resistance to authoritarianism beyond the individual level. But there is a subset of people who would certainly prefer that most of us stick to what serves authoritarianism, and the sad fact is, individualized, hyper-liberal solutions fit the bill just fine. Furthermore, if most of us somehow solve the riddle of stopping global warming by individual acts of abstinence and continuing to somehow consume fast enough to keep capitalism from eating itself, you may rest assured that it isn't us who will experience much benefit.

I think we need to be far more strategic about emissions cuts than that. (Top)

Closed Workspaces (2019-08-06)

A quote from Andrew Park's animation of Dave Coplin's talk on the future of the office for the rsa, september 2013. A quote from Andrew Park's animation of Dave Coplin's talk on the future of the office for the rsa, september 2013.
A quote from Andrew Park's animation of Dave Coplin's talk on the future of the office for the rsa, september 2013.

There have been cracks in the reputation of the supposed "bullet-proof" solution to getting more work out of office workers in less time, the "open plan office" from nearly the beginning. This may be surprising to read, but it does make sense. To my knowledge the deliberate construction of workspaces without offices is an approach more typical of architect's businesses and similar types of work where a team of collaborators work together with a principal to write project proposals and ultimately design and carry them out. In some types of work a continuous "open plan office" environment may indeed make sense, being a good fit both culturally and practically. I can certainly agree with anyone's argument that the inclusion of team working spaces that can be used over extended periods rather than attempting to ad hoc them using short term meeting room bookings could add significantly to the effectiveness of people working in office teams. Whether we actually want to increase management's ability to ruthless exploit those they think they are managing is a question that we can gently set aside for now. In the real world, even a microsoft staffer like Dave Coplin has noted the problems with "open plan office" layouts, and studies like that published in july 2018 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B are pretty clear that the results of these layouts are typically the opposite of the ostensible reasons for introducing them.

Okay, so these layouts are not working as the label says they should, but they are popular against all the evidence with neoliberal wonks in and out of government. As soon as we see such huge disconnects between evidence and claimed reasons for doing something, we should be taking a second look. So let's see. As Coplin notes, one thing that this type of layout is very good for as implemented, is for making workers subjected to it feel that they are continuously under surveillance, continuously being watched for the least slip. As the quote of Andrew Park's animation of Coplin's talk show, people seek to recreate a sense of privacy as well as force down the level of overstimulation created by an environment now full of more noise, visual distractions, and yes, smells. Maybe people are emailing each other from three desks away, and that is a level of interaction that is skyrocketing as the paper I mentioned already notes. So far as I know, no one has looked into whether this has had knock on effects on worker solidarity, for better or worse. I am inclined to doubt that it is for the better, and management rarely has an issue with that. In the anecdotal case of an organization I know well, a major response to the new layout has been working from home whenever a person has no on-site meetings. People regularly flee the office so they can get some work done by taking it home, which wreaks havoc on any effort to work a standard work week. Hmmm.

Then there is the nature of constructing these so-called "open plan office" spaces. As you can well imagine, they take a lot less to construct. After all, there are no walls, except for the few offices that are set up anyway, for management. The examples of this I have seen place management in the centre looking out to the windows, across the collaborative working spaces. Said spaces don't get much use because they are too noisy for the neighbours to tolerate, including the further neighbours at the edges whose desks are part of cube farms. Of course, maybe this is a canadian thing. Maybe this is in part a weirdity of the canadian case, where cube farms have been relabelled "open plan offices" or "open offices" and the debacle goes on from there. These are cheaper and quicker to set up. Staff get moved around on a regular basis to respond to position changes, health accommodations, and mysterious rumblings with no detail to explain them. Plus, you can potentially cram a lot more people into a cube farm than in offices, and really turn up the screws of ambition by making the cubeys feel how their status is inferior to those who rate offices and can therefore do things like not try to figure out how to jam their winter jacket into a 20 centimetre wide locker while avoiding soaking the lot with their winter boots. (Full disclosure, I have never been other than a cubey myself.)

Well, obviously I am not impressed per se with the ostensibly "open plan office" which is actually very closed. But I really think that there is a wonderful baby in the bathwater to hang onto here, in the form of a space that is less formal and set aside so that teams can get together for group working sessions when that makes sense. Rooms with good light, tables and chairs they can move around – something reminiscent of a respectfully designed classroom. Of course, in late stage capitalism, the majority of us are hardly likely to get that at work! (Top)

No Recruiting (2019-07-30)

World war one recruitment poster from canada directed at irish immigrants and descendants, archives of ontario war poster collection (C 233-2-4-0-198), july 2019. World war one recruitment poster from canada directed at irish immigrants and descendants, archives of ontario war poster collection (C 233-2-4-0-198), july 2019.
World war one recruitment poster from canada directed at irish immigrants and descendants, archives of ontario war poster collection (C 233-2-4-0-198), july 2019.

Honestly, I don't know what to make of it. Way back in the bad old days, when people my age walked uphill both ways to school and had to listen to cassette tapes through mini-muff style headphones, there were a few topics considered absolutely verboten in schools, right up to senior high. Even more verboten if you had the dubious fortune to attend a parochial school. Sex period, let alone sex outside of marriage of course – even in the 1990s. Any sexually transmitted disease or infection, communism and socialism, and any suggestion that people below the age of majority could ever be activists or politically curious in their own right. I got roundly scolded in junior high for asking concerned questions about nuclear weapons, because how dare I ask or think about things that shouldn't have been my concern. Never mind that these questions came up after a school assembly was called so that we could be subjected to a lengthy talk from a nuclear industry advocate. (Seriously.) But if you really wanted to get your figurative clock cleaned, all you had to do was hint even vaguely at the idea that there are people in the world who are not heterosexual. You could poke at sex-based stereotypes if you insisted, but to question heterosexuality was a serious taboo. Meanwhile, a moral panic was still in full swing, in which various talking heads insisted that even the slightest mention of such a thing around the tender ears of people below the age of majority, especially children in primary grades, was tantamount to recruiting and bending them into sexual perverts. Totally ridiculous, but a real thing. People get embarrassed and insist that such claims are indeed foolish now while also understandably reserving the right to ask tough questions about what is age appropriate and reasonable to tell young people about homosexuality and whether they have to live according to sex-based stereotypes or not.

Now, in the good new days I guess, there are in many english-speaking countries entire curricula put together by people who may or may not be educators, actively spreading new narratives about "gender identity," how to recognize yours, how to behave according to it (this part confuses me because if you just need to recognize it, surely you don't need lessons on how to be what you are?), and how to go about getting it validated by others. When I was in school, if there had been course packs and posters and things put together to tell you all about how you could be homosexual, how to behave to demonstrate your homosexuality, and how to go about getting acknowledged as one by all and sundry – well, it would not have ended well. It is one thing to acknowledge that people are homosexual and even bisexual via children's books or courses carefully graded according to the age and level of understanding of children, with the aim of teaching them not to treat such people with fear, contempt or violence. But attempting to influence children's sense of their own selves is a whole other ball game that makes even me pretty uncomfortable. The lines aren't easy to draw here, especially in this strange time of resurgent sex-based stereotyping driven by capitalism and authoritarian impulses.

Let's consider things from a slightly different angle. Like most people, I was completely oblivious to sex or sexuality until I hit puberty. That's pretty ordinary. As that uncomfortable process went on, I was struggling to make sense of how and why my experiences were so different from those of many of my peers. I didn't want anybody to try to tell me what I was or should be – let me tell, you, I was mightily sick of being told every day that I must be a heterosexual female who had a pathetic inability to act and dress according to sex-based stereotypes of females and must really be interested in sex with boys. I wanted to be left alone with some trustworthy information to sort things out. Knowing that there were other ways to be a woman and that women could love each other in fulfilling emotional and sexual ways was a real life saver. It was hard to find information that simply set out the possibilities, instead of trying to persuade me of something. It was also hard to find information that stated clearly and unequivocally that nobody had the right to treat me or anyone else badly because we weren't much interested or able to perform certain stereotypes. I didn't find any of that until well into my adulthood, which is really too bad. Overall, I came out of all that (pun not quite intended) thoroughly untrusting of attempts at recruiting anybody for anything, in any of its forms, from proselytizing to military propaganda.

So personally I would be totally comfortable with books and classes that teach children of all ages that nobody should ever be bullied or otherwise ill-treated for not behaving according to a sex-based stereotype or ideas about what their "gender" is supposed to be. Makes good, solid sense. As children enter puberty and begin to have questions about sexuality, that's where things get tough because it seems that adults have a terrible time refraining from trying to push kids in particular directions that are not necessarily respectful of their boundaries. In english-speaking societies, the principle that people below the age of adulthood should be protected so that they may grow into full-fledged adults sometimes seems more honoured in the breach than the practice. It is hard to figure out how to set out information and possibilities without slipping into more or less subtly pressuring pubertal children in particular directions. Being older and at least a little wiser, I realize part of the challenge is that puberty is also right around when we begin making more decisions for ourselves, and the adults in our lives need to step back and let us take those decisions on. But there are still decisions we can't make on our own for awhile longer, no matter how sure we are we know what we're doing. I have to agree that it takes awhile for us to be able to successfully make life-changing decisions in an informed way and then manage the impacts of those decisions.

All of which is to say, I still disagree with people who try to claim that merely acknowledging the existence of homosexuals and anybody else who does not live according to sex-based stereotypes is recruiting and a danger to children. Not all of them are raising the issue in good faith. But on the other hand, there are genuine concerns about what is appropriate and respectful of children as they grow into adults and begin to deal with questions about how to comport themselves and what their sexuality is. I can agree that we need to be careful and rigorously examine materials intended to teach children about sex, "gender," and the various stereotypes they are presented with from day to day. It's not always comfortable to carry out those examinations and debate the materials, but then again, discomfort does come with stepping up to tough questions. (Top)

You Can't Have It Both Ways, Redux (2019-07-23)

Roman era representation of the deity Janus, one of the Roman deities of liminality, in his case the hinge between the new and old year. Photo by Loudon Dodd, july 2009 via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. Roman era representation of the deity Janus, one of the Roman deities of liminality, in his case the hinge between the new and old year. Photo by Loudon Dodd, july 2009 via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
Roman era representation of the deity Janus, one of the Roman deities of liminality, in his case the hinge between the new and old year. Photo by Loudon Dodd, july 2009 via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

I have received some fascinating responses to the first You Can't Have It Both Ways thoughtpiece, but had not expected to add anything to this particular theme. Yet the issue of the relationship between firmspace and cyberspace, "real life" and what we plan to do or think we do online remains as contested as ever. And yet another example of where we can't have it both ways, like it or not. Complex relationships like that between the different "spaces" tend to draw sharp outlines around responses that preferentially disadvantage the all too familiar types of people we hear of being disadvantaged already every day. Therefore women, people who don't think they are white, poor people whether they think they are white or not, and anybody else who somehow does not match the cookie cutter outline labelled "white heterosexual middle class or higher male with a chip on his shoulder." And people affected by online threats or general abuse via asocial amplifiers are not just being wilting little flowers when they protest, report, and try to get their concerns taken seriously. As more than one person in their account of online stalking and abuse has said, knowing that there was reluctance to respond to their concern because what happens online is perceived by authorities unfamiliar with the internet as "not real" and therefore "not dangerous," they took care to document a record of longterm abuse and evidence of "plausible threats." That is, threats delivered alongside such firmspace information as address, knowledge of their routine, or an ability to invoke action in their town via locals who followed the same online groups and fora. Yet something pretty odd is going on here.

Feel free at this moment to spend a few minutes with your favourite search engine looking up examples. Among the people who have issues of this sort to deal with, you can start with journalists at any website or publication attempting to cover news and ask critical questions about just about any issue you care to come up with. If you want to see examples particularly tied to the video gaming community, Brian Kreb's site is an excellent place to start. Or look up the british site mumsnet, or just about any major Feminist publication, blog, or article by a known Feminist writer. It doesn't matter whether you or I agree or not with any of the people who have been subjected to online threats and abuse. It does matter that there seems to be a serious double standard when it comes to the responses to reports of threats and/or abuse. Have a look at the ongoing dumpster fire that has twitter in one corner, automattic in another, and of course facebook and google in the other two. Anyone who has had the grave misfortune of dealing with abusive individuals of any sex or background will know all too well that practised and determined abusers are appallingly good at manipulating others and weaponizing systems intended to help their potential victims avoid and/or put a stop to their behaviour. I think there is a strong argument that this has certainly been achieved via the "gaming" of reporting systems on asocial amplifiers and other crowdsourced databases. Feel free to look up information on the latest mass shooting or vehicle attack and note that the instances when they have not written online about their hostility and potential future plans or have not already engaged in abusive behaviour on line are far from numerous.

I have thought about this a lot, because on one hand, the police can happily insist that a person should not be perturbed by online abuse. We should just grow up and turn off the computer, leave asocial amplifiers, and so on. In principle that does sound like a potential solution, all too often condescendingly framed. Except, somehow all that vanishes the instant one of these people, the vast majority of whom are male, acts in firmspace by setting up a swatting, engaging directly in a mass shooting or other violence or murders their estranged girlfriend or wife. Then their online behaviour becomes a major point of interest, something to be carefully sifted for evidence about their actions and intentions. Suddenly their online behaviour is real. And the people affected by their actions may or may not have been able to just "shut off the internet." More like than not they couldn't, if they have to use a cell phone daily or access the internet for work. Even if they did, that couldn't protect them by itself. It certainly couldn't protect those who were caught in mass violent acts which depend on affecting as many strangers as possible. But this is ridiculous. Firmspace and cyberspace are not hermetically sealed off from each other.

Wait, an especially critical reader may be thinking. All I am talking about here is violence and threats, and only a minority of people are targeted by those. Yes they shouldn't be and they should have considered recourse implemented in a thoughtful manner, and the duty of recourse should not be fobbed off onto so-called "artificial intelligence" algorithms that have been trained on heavily biassed data. That is hardly anybody, and the bugs just have to be worked out. So who cares, right? Well, I take the point that so far I have not discussed a very broad set of examples. How about this. Have another look using your favourite search engine, into the apparently proliferating attempts to use someone's previous online activities to drop them from contention for a job, particularly in the united states where economic conditions are so difficult people feel unable to refuse to hand over their asocial amplifier passwords because then they are sure they won't get the job. They are being coerced by quite a powerful indirect threat, including people who may have behaved despicably as teenagers and young adults but then have generally sorted themselves out and are busy being responsible human beings. I do agree that a record of not continuing to behave despicably and clearly taking steps to be properly accountable should lead to their earlier bad behaviour being set aside. The people making the threats in this case are not the same as in those other examples, and are in fact far more common. Some of them work in areas like border control, where they like to impose warrantless searches on electronic devices owned by people who are not rich. Many of those people are travelling for work, and they can't necessarily do without the internet or their work devices. Should they just submit and not complain then, because they can't leave the internet and it isn't "real" anyway, as the border service agent threatens to have them arbitrarily locked up?

By the way, I don't mean by this that cyberspace and firmspace should have this type of relationship between them. As thinkers ranging from Bret Victor to Maria Popova have noted, the internet is in a state of terrifying and terrible flux. There is an ongoing effort underway to remake it into the ever-watching, ever-recording virtual panopticon of nightmares, a virtual panopticon that never forgets, is managed by completely unaccountable people, and is somehow able to reproduce itself like a pernicious infection. The same folks busy with that project would also prefer that we treat the internet and its various services as a conversational medium and a faith-based belief that everything we could write, say, or do through it is ephemeral. So you put together the most ugly website of all time when you were twelve, it's long gone now. Maybe. There are also a great many people who are seeking to put an end to the surveillance infections and shift services and interactive spaces into truly ephemeral mode analogous to a conversation in firmspace rather than imitations of permanent etchings in crystals from cosmic particles. They are also designing ways for the internet to remember properly what it should remember, and struggling with the questions of what projects like the internet archive are doing. There is preliminary evidence that it is possible to suborn the archiving functions established in that project, and over time the leaders of the project have struggled to design appropriate archiving rules. This is really hard, because both remembering and forgetting are not automatic, they are social constructions. They are political by nature, no matter how hard we try.

We can argue about whether this is a bug or a feature, but the fact remains that we can't have it both ways. We can't treat the internet as "just a toy, just turn it off" one minute, then double down on how real it must be when it intersects unavoidably with firmspace. This isn't just about being logically consistent. It is about being ethical and opposing seriously oppressive tendencies in both cyberspace and firmspace. Much as Cicero comes across as a lousy guy, he nevertheless passed on a great tool to help us out when struggling with complex issues like this. He seems to be the earliest person who asked "cui bono?" "who benefits?" when faced with a particular argument. Who benefits, when, and how, when claims are made about the relationship between firmspace and cyberspace are made? (Top)

Search Engine Repair (2019-07-16)

Scan from the 1930s era 'Autocar Handbook' by Andy Dingley, july 2011. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons. Scan from the 1930s era 'Autocar Handbook' by Andy Dingley, july 2011. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Scan from the 1930s era 'Autocar Handbook' by Andy Dingley, july 2011. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

I've written several thoughtpieces on what is wrong about the web, and several on what is right about the web. Considering the thoughtpiece just before this one, I think it is fair to conclude that what is working in favour of pseudo-platforms like facebook, google, or twitter is sheer peer pressure within the social groups that predominate in using them. Google is a bit unusual in that it began on the back of a real need online, a need for a way to find stuff in all the websites out there after they became too numerous to curate via your own and a few friends' bookmark collections. Personally I don't have a use for an online bookmark curating and social service like pinboard right now, but clearly that is a real need for a lot of people as well. Practically speaking much of what makes the services that have taken over the niches of bulletin board services, instant messaging, and the like is a fancy looking application that can run on a cell phone and packed full of privacy invasion software. Yet of course people want to share news, argue, and so on, and they want to do so both online and in person. There is still real hope of killing surveillance capitalism and surveillance period online dead – criminals were found and captured without all this stuff before, it just meant people had to do the work themselves instead of hoping to fob off most of the effort on computers.

Many scholars, developers, journalists, and writers before me have noted the major positive features of the web and the internet more widely that are in danger right now include:

  • decentralization, it does not inherently have to be based in one or a few servers;
  • flexibility, it can be applied to many positive uses that involve sending and receiving data;
  • it supports interconnections between people with potentially simple and cheap equipment;
  • it has developed into a new version of "the press" in the proper sense, a device to reproduce what we have to say and share it with others;
  • it is based on free and open standards that can be updated in a democratic way;
  • we can turn it off.

I'm serious about the last one. It matters that we can turn the internet off. It matters that we know we can. We need that knowledge and the perspective it supports, because as more and more of us are learning, all this good stuff will not happen without our applying scrutiny and work to making it happen. Corporations are going all out in an effort to centralize the internet in their few patches of servers into which they would like to virtually herd us and mine us mercilessly. It's the next nastily logical phase of treating people as so-called "human resources." While it won't be easy to fix the mess things have gotten into to date, things are nowhere near as far gone as the various corporate owners and shills would prefer we believe.

One great place to start is to deal with the search engine problem. I once appreciated duckduckgo when it actually seemed to be respecting privacy. These days among the few still actually doing so as far as the record shows for now is mojeek and wouldn't want search engine businesses of its type to go away. There is a place for them online. But we need search engines with different priors to help keep those with privacy philosophies like duckduckgo stick to those philosophies and generally keep honest until capitalism and its mess of perverse incentives is gone. In that case, we need not only peer to peer search engines and other approaches to decentralizing those services. We need free software search engines whose code can be audited and run for free by libraries and schools of all types and for nominal fees by businesses who are running their own servers. The copies of the code they run must also be auditable. I find myself thinking of something analogous to websites where you can run the code for a webpage through a checker to spot errors and problematic bits like deprecated tags and tags that work but aren't set up properly. Anyone who is going to use a search engine should be able to run a check on the search code just as easily and quickly. The indexes that are the other key part of search engines should be stored across servers, not sequestered in just a few nodes, and also free for anyone to audit.

This sort of approach suggests right away that we need some more places to run servers. A friend of mine suggested that besides schools and libraries, a great home for servers and to host private email service is the post office, which is a brilliant point. Before the internet or even the telegram, we had mail, and the whole reason to start applying electromagnetic and later electronic ideas to sending messages was for speed. What makes post offices a great fit is that every town should have one, or one that can be re-opened, they are properly held and administered as a public service, and they can complement what is already out there while making use of infrastructure we have already built. Oh, and helping insure more people have jobs in their own towns and support the development and ongoing lives of communities they love and yearn for. Meanwhile, with a stronger mandate to provide a portion of the internet infrastructure themselves, public libraries and public education can play a role in helping people who wish to to use this new style press we've got and support the development of new people-based approaches to content moderation and conversation moderation in cyberspace. The fact of the matter is, many of the social pathologies we are observing online can't be automated away. The underlying issue is that we have been fooled into treating "the web" and "the internet" as somehow communities that don't count, where we don't have to perform the social tasks that prevent any place, be it virtual in cyberspace or physical in firmspace, from becoming a cesspool.

Don't get me wrong. This is not an instant fix nor is it an approach that I think will be easy to do socially. Technically I suspect it is far simpler than anybody would expect before trying it. Doing it will involve making mistakes and pissing off selfish and entitled corporate tycoons who think they should make all the rules for the rest of us. Those hardly sound like drawbacks to me. (Top)

Cyberethics (2019-07-09)

Screen grab from the Doctor Who special 'The Five Doctors' -- a lamentably bad episode, but it did have some good lines. Image courtesy of the bbc via the internet archive, march 2019. Screen grab from the Doctor Who special 'The Five Doctors' -- a lamentably bad episode, but it did have some good lines. Image courtesy of the bbc via the internet archive, march 2019.
Screen grab from the Doctor Who special 'The Five Doctors' – a lamentably bad episode, but it did have some good lines. Image courtesy of the bbc via the internet archive, march 2019.

Late twentieth century english pop culture may be no more profound than its predecessors, but it is at least as redolent of intriguing one liners bundled into unexpected places. Take for instance the original Doctor Who, which had its share of "multi-Doctor" episodes, with the "Five Doctors" demonstrating that having that many leads can be forced to work, but it works badly. I won't wander off into how paradoxically bad the story is for how clever the gimmick is to somehow shove all the bits together. Instead, I'll wander off on a one liner that was more in character for the alien delivering it than the rest, and also rather thought provoking in spite of its surroundings. The screengrab illustrating this thoughtpiece is from right around when the "Cyber-Leader" declares "Promises to aliens have no validity." On one hand this line is banal. On the other, it is a chilling summation of the fundamental attitude of most of the people who have managed to acquire a great deal of money and access to the personal information of millions if not hundreds of millions of people. It is also stylistically perfect in its own awful way. We only wish that evil was marked by the ludicrous rants of Bond villains and the careful bowdlerizations represented in silent films and children's cartoons by the moustached and oddly enough, british RP-speaking bad guy, "Curses!"

"Others" are aliens, and promises to them, commitments to them don't count. The Cybermen, like most cartoon villains, apply this principle on the basis that they have greater force at their disposal and less vulnerability to attack than others. Well, that is the assumption that such villains make in the context of such stories. Such people certainly exist in real life, but it is probably more common to encounter wrongdoing by people who deem the others they deal with as simply too stupid to take seriously. The presumed stupid don't deserve to be taken seriously, and what could they do to their presumed cleverer betters, who will have thought up all their possible modes of retaliation and blocked them? Pick a current tech millionaire and you'll have an example of one of these. It isn't necessary to be perceived or perceive yourself as a villain to get caught up in this attitude. Take those driven by the fire of "right makes might" described by philosopher Minnie Bruce Pratt, whose certainty of their righteousness makes them able to dismiss any rights of or responsibilities to those who don't share their views. All together, I think the key feature these mindsets have in common is the application of a sort of "dehumanizing" filter. And such filters are particularly rampant in what is still misnamed the "technology industry," including versions of the bare three that I have outlined here. It is hardly news that this is the case. Nor is it news that speaking of others in dehumanizing ways makes it all too easy to rationalize treating them horribly, including supposedly acceptable references like "human resources."

Yet there is also a paradox embedded in this if we are so unwary as to assume that people who take and enact such views have no ethics at all. Far from it. They most certainly do. Sometimes that sentence may need to be adjusted to "we" or "I" most certainly do if perchance you have unwittingly come to accept rationalization of terrible exploitation or oppression of someone else. A very uncomfortable spot to be, especially if realizing you're there brings the cognitive dissonance crashing down on you at last because the rationalization can no longer fend it off. The distress cognitive dissonance causes becomes its own rationalization for punishing the person who challenges another person's habit of dehumanizing certain others. Hence the repeated banning and suspension of women, people of colour, and homosexuals when they refuse to accept oppressive behaviour by others on "social media," who are blamed for instigating the whole thing by either obviously not being white, male, and straight online or else for refusing to accept behaviour that everyone had officially agreed wasn't supposed to be happening on the first place. Good, bad, or indifferent, people who have accepted dehumanization of some group of people will likely have agreed that such ideas and actions in line with those ideas don't happen in their crowd. As I noted in a previous thoughtpiece, without being challenged on this they recreate those very same biases in the new spaces and tools they create. And they may do it with a set of ethics that they are sure they enact in their minds, and a completely different set embodied in the real world by what they literally do.

In light of some recent political developments in the world abroad and closer to home, I have been puzzling over this. Practically all of us are being dehumanized by somebody for some reason. Some of the most prominent ones today are tied to economics and insistent stereotypes of people who are poor, rich, in debt, involved in the stock market, and so on. There are major players in politics and the economy who are quite unblushing about their contempt for those they consider stupider, poorer, or weaker than themselves. So how the people who are objects of this contempt manage to find these people palatable and do things like give them money or vote for them is quite baffling at a glance. Please note I am focussing on being the brunt of contempt here, so questions of intelligence or wealth are not at play here. I don't think supporting such players indicates the supporters are stupid, ignorant, or so poor and vindictive they would just like to lash out at everybody and supporting those who despise so many seems a great way to go about it. There are too many people engaged in fandoms of people like the current head of the united states government, or the canadian government for that matter, let alone various sorts of pundits for coercion to be a good explanation either. Even the notion that a ten percent coercion rate is enough to keep the rest in line doesn't fit. Even outright dictators don't actually do that to get into power or win their original adherents, they engage in the really nasty stuff after they have power in hopes of perpetuating it.

Maybe the awful truth is that it is all about a thing we used to get taught about when I was in high school, the thing we were supposed to resist at all cost for fear of becoming dope fiends randomly having sex at the drop of a hat. The descriptions did seem that silly even at the time, because this seemed to be the only way that fully developed adults could imagine they could communicate risk and consequences to younger people not fully able to envision such longterm stuff yet. The "thing" was labelled "peer pressure," the subtle coercion of the people we like, respect, and live with every day to think or at least act in certain ways in order to fit in. The truth is, we never outgrow our vulnerability to peer pressure, nor our willingness to apply it and likelihood to do so without any conscious thought. Right now I have friends who are unbearable to talk to if certain subjects like alleged russian election interference or criticism of sex-based stereotypes comes up, because if topics of that sort come up, within fifteen seconds they have gone into "right makes might" mode and they are soon angry that I do not share their views or beliefs on those topics. All it takes is merely not sharing them, that alone is challenge enough. This is such a precarious state of mind to be in, that I wonder if this mightn't be a reasonable and non-condescending explanation for the extraordinary levels of anxiety and rage expressed against not oppressors or propagandists but the oppressed and the innocent. The anxiety and rage are real too, not false. All of us have excellent reasons for being anxious and enraged right now. So it seems to me that peer pressure is being used to redirect that negative emotion, which is not necessarily a bad idea in principle, except the redirection is not into effective channels. And that makes awful sense too, because we're struggling with plenty of terrifying involuntary change, which discourages voluntary change, logically enough.

Here's another thing, though. Fear and anxiety are both temporary. Holding back from change is also temporary, even if we have to dress up the change as not really changing to do it, a way of dressing up change that historically we humans are pretty good at. Let's hope between the lot of us we manage to pick some good duds for some better options. (Top)

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Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:19