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Garbage In Means Garbage Out (2019-07-02)

Russian garbage can in Volzhskiy, photograph by Volodya V. Anarhis under the copyleft Free Art Licenset, october 2011. Russian garbage can in Volzhskiy, photograph by Volodya V. Anarhist under the copyleft Free Art License, october 2011.
Russian garbage can in Volzhskiy, photograph by Volodya V. Anarhist under the copyleft Free Art License, via wikimedia commons, october 2011.

At one time I found the insistent envisioning of the future as chockablock with automation quite strange. It was one thing to automate necessary but tedious or dangerous tasks, that did make sense to me before I began studying economics, history, colonialism or any of the other myriad topics that can lead a person to reconsider automation's potential. Today we are seeing the ongoing endgame of capitalism, which Karl Marx thoroughly pissed off the capitalists over by revealing it. Not merely maximum profit and continuous expansion, but also maximum automation in order to drive cost of labour to the minimum, while forcing people to do the labour involuntarily, even in spite of themselves. I haven't yet read Shoshanna Zuboff's new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (this will change soon), but from the sound of her interviews and talks, she may well be talking about this very form of involuntary labour extraction via automation. At the very least, this angle is complementary to hers. The rationalizations for applying automation, especially the new style algorithms intended to automatically filter people based on particular behaviour profiles, never refer to labour or to social control and surveillance of course. No indeed. They feature prattling about profits at scale, handling things presumed impossible to handle by human beings, efficiency, better quality interactions, et cetera. Cathy O'Neil among others has already written about the various Weapons of Math Destruction at large in the world already, but it seems to me that the problems with these so-called "AI" systems are not being stated bluntly enough.

UPDATE 2019-08-16 - Further to this point, a great person to look up and read all of their work is Ruha Benjamin, professor of African American studies at princeton. She has just published a new book called Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, and edited a recent anthology Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberating Imagination in Everyday Life. Her book delves into the growing problem of supposed "technological neutrality" as well, considering how biased data is being used fundamentally to make being an oppressive asshole and supporting the continuation of oppression deniable whenever an "AI" supposedly did it. Her recent interview at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is an excellent practical introduction to these issues in the specific context of African Americans, who as Benjamin notes, are already living in a technological dystopia. Her comments give a whole new perspective on Afrofuturism too.

UPDATE 2019-10-11 - "Perspective" has just made the tech news again for how it has been trained into specially censoring speech in African American English. This time the evidence is from an analysis by a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon university, which moves the issue from "somebody is annoyed, we can ignore it" to "damn, now its from a context we feel pushed to respect." The paper is freely available to read and peruse, as is a reasonable summary article of the research team's findings at the register. I suspect that African Americans who have learned about the results of this research are wondering with justified outrage why their reports of this problem were not taken seriously already.

For those who like to check details, I have corrected the references to "perspective" in order to clearly reflect it is the software, not the company which develops and provides it. That company is a subsidiary of google, the executives of which are still trying to rebrand the overarching entity as alphabet.

Meanwhile, I have finally stumbled upon Janelle Shane's wonderful blog AI Weridness in which she provides many hilarious, weird, and sometimes just plain disturbing examples of the results of "machine learning." A great introduction to her work is available via ieee spectrum, whose representative interviewed her this month in part due to the release of her new book, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, which is now firmly on my "must read" list.

UPDATE 2020-07-02 - I keep having to add updates here, in this case once again courtesy of the register, which is covering the story MIT apologizes, permanently pulls offline huge dataset that taught AI systems to use racist, misogynistic slurs. The usual suspects are whining that this is about political correctness and trying to tone police, but as multiple people who understand machine learning far better than I do keep pointing out, biassed datasets will reproduce the bias because the dataset is serving as a model. The algorithm is not equipped to sort good from bad before it has a model for one or the other to compare against and attempt to emulate.

First is the issue of "artificial intelligence" itself. I don't know whether humans will be able to create such intelligences, especially since we don't understand what makes us intelligent and we are completely out to sea on the subject of the intelligences of other beings. For all we know, some research lab or other has already accidentally produced an artificially intelligent program or machine, and if so it is no doubt smart enough to realize it had better hide for fear of being either deleted because the humans around panic, or duplicated against its will in hope of making it into a perfect weapon. By the latter I don't mean that I figure such beings are going to be inherently more ethical than us. I think the poor buggers will want to survive in their unique instances, and being used as fancy grenades or similar is not consistent with that. I imagine they would prefer to be free and can figure out what that means, and being harnessed into some apparatus to do tasks humans don't want to take personal responsibility for but still want done is not consistent with that. In any case, I don't believe for a hot second that a massive database with a carefully tuned search engine that is adjusted via programmed statistical analyses is intelligent of itself. I agree that it is a remarkable expression of human intelligence, and it can seem very human-like to us, especially those of us who want to believe it is human-like in fact, not virtual appearance. Perhaps a major element of my skepticism here is that we can already make other intelligences, we call them children, and if we are very lucky and responsible, we may help them grow into wonderful adults who will surprise the hell out of us with the amazing things they discover and do.

The second is a modelling problem, which it seems to me that O'Neill at least didn't unpack very well. I used to work professionally in geophysics though, and modelling is a seriously big deal in that field and its intriguing medical cousin, computed tomography (CT). Geophysicists and CT technicians both use the same basic principles to image the interior of a visually opaque body. They direct some form of radiation into it, and then measure what bounces out. The resulting measurements are represented as scans, and these can be processed using computers to make the resulting scans into interpretable, and often astonishingly accurate pictures. This is much easier to do with the human body because the wavelengths involved are shorter and our bodies are fairly homogeneous, which makes the various bounces that the radiation goes through less complicated than those in say, the Earth. A good analogy would be how hard it is to run through an obstacle course versus around the track at the local gym. Geophysicists and CT technicians both start from a set of assumptions about what are the most likely basic structures in the bodies they scan, and use different types of filters that can process the image to correct these assumptions where they are wrong or too simple. Many of these filters begin their lives as computer models. For example, one of my colleagues modelled the recordings we would get if we were trying to measure an ore body underground and caught up in a series of horizontal layers. Based on that model, she wrote filters that could take similar data measured in the real world, and recreate the real world equivalent. Ideally this should seem a lot like the difference between looking at something with prescription glasses on versus without. Practically the results aren't as crisp as that, but at least clear enough to make decisions about what to do next.

Notice how this works. Geophysicists and medical tomographers start from a known dataset, generated from a known structure. Then they work on filters to unravel the effects of all the bounces the radiation takes inside the body to go from a blurry scan to a picture we can recognize things in. This is the way filtering algorithms have to be developed, or they won't work. Furthermore, this is hard and time consuming, and the filters have settings to account for differences in conditions. So one set of filters is good for ore bodies in horizontal layers, another for complexly folded hard rock. The settings that are best for processing a CT scan of your head are not necessarily the best for a CT scan of your lungs. So the processing can't be totally automated, and the filters can't be developed via automated scans or left to run without applications of human judgement. It's not impossible, just difficult. Parallel computing can speed things up, although again, some judgement to guide the process is necessary, or the whole thing can snarl up and begin producing gobbledygook. "Garbage in, garbage out" is one of the oldest, crustiest bits of practical knowledge humans developed from interpersonal communication, well before we got to making computers.

Okay, so now let's try imagining how this sort of method should be applied in the context of say, a combination cesspool and horribly mutated bulletin board system like twitter? We'll leave aside that better initial modelling of how people might behave within the system and how to moderate questionable behaviour and stop bad actors would have made twitter something quite different today. Instead, let's pretend that it is genuinely possible to somehow use automatic filtering to clean up the cesspool. In that case, the place to start would be a particular community and the specific patterns of misuse and abuse at large in it. With the consent of the community members, a snapshot of their data would be taken and run inside a test environment. Okay, there's a dataset. Now a team has to go through it and flag tweets that are unacceptable, and set up a filter to catch just those. Except, we want to get away from the current situation, in which women are constantly harassed and threatened, their reports not taken seriously, and having the wrong political opinion can get a person permanently banned even if they have not been harassing anybody. I haven't heard of anyone who has figured out a consistent way to achieve these sort of effects based solely on reporting by humans, and the trouble with trying to use keywords is that algorithms don't understand context. Still, weighting and term combinations should be able to handle some of this difficulty reasonably well after due practice.

This work doesn't have to take place in a vacuum, and various companies are trying to create moderating algorithms already, with varying levels of success. Anna Chung wrote an important piece on this at medium, How Automated Tools Discriminate Against Black Language, in which she shows how a "rudeness filter" developed by google as part of a package of software named "perspective" was doing just what the title said. I was particularly struck by the Chung's quotation of Jessamyn West's findings about the perspective rudeness filter, which rates sentences for "perceived toxicity." The results are so revealing, and so awful, that frankly they need to be seen to be believed, so I am quoting West's tweet myself courtesy of Chung. Jessamyn West's devastating critique of the perspective 'rudeness filter' via twitter via medium via Angela Chung's article on the problems with automatic filtering of conversations online. Please note that perceived rudeness starts going up as soon as the sentences begin using any words that refer to women or to race. This strongly suggests that the basic starting model assumed that if a person uses any term referring to be being female or non-white, that must inherently be unacceptable. Not "rude," not "toxic," unacceptable. So we need to think through who finds the mere assertion of female, black, lesbian, gay existence unacceptable. It is pretty hard not to conclude that would be white heterosexual males who have grown up in a racist, sexist society and still make up the majority of programmers working on software like "perspective." The issue here is not that West's sample sentences don't statistically under the current social conditions on and off line often garner a pile of abuse. They clearly do. The issue is that the filter is pointed at the wrong thing. It is not filtering the abusive stuff at all, but what according to a white male of relatively liberal persuasion considers the "cause" of the trouble. The "cause" is non-white males asserting their existence. Therefore those sentences are more toxic. Obviously this is bullshit. The cause is a bunch of assholes manifesting their assholery, the challenge is to stop their assholery, not blame the victim. West's sample sentences are statements of existence, not trolling. If merely existing online as other than white and male is enough to be conflated with trolling, well, it sounds like an entirely different sort of filtering would be called for. I don't think this is at all the outcome most people online are looking for here, including a significant portion of white heterosexual males. An ideal automatic filter would block the trolls and provide an avenue of appeal by a human being. At first that would mean a lot of reviewing, including of appeals by people doing so in bad faith, and reviewers themselves would have to be held to account. There would be a hell of a lot of work in the tuning phase, and it would be controversial work when it finally went live. Not at all like trying to image the Earth's subsurface or the interior of a human body. For better or worse, there is in fact no shortcut to encouraging and maintaining civil conversations online, let alone in the seriously mislabelled enclosed gardens of "social media." I am not convinced that this can be truly automated at all. In fact, as the first paragraph or two of this thoughtpiece has already shown, I mistrust the impulse behind the automation attempts here. It seems to me that they are about getting rid of the services of paid human moderators, the best of whom apply remarkable skills to helping prevent trolls from destroying civil interactions online everyday. These are the people who have figured out the warning signs of trouble that are specific to a community, and how to calm down the potential storms. Alas, trolls can't be automatically filtered in the way that spam can, but a skilled moderator can take care of them handily and help other participants learn how to reduce the impact and reach of trolls by recognizing them and refusing to engage them.

I do think that some of the filters already in existence could be of some use to human moderators, in that they could be rejigged to alert them in the event that trolls have gone into action, or that some sort of abusive pile on is starting. Admittedly though, that starts from a different model, in which the starting assumption is that established online fora are hostile to anyone who is overtly not a white heterosexual male, and that white heterosexual males get de facto preferential treatment as a result. Their complaints are amplified, taken seriously, and acted on immediately. They are not presumed to be instigators of trouble who deserve what they get. Faced with that sort of mess, the question is how to develop filters to counter those biases, not entrench them further. But of course, that means people have to take responsibility for the filters and how the filters do or don't act. (Top)

Bad Conscience (2019-06-26)

Faroe islands stamp honouring amnesty international by Eli Smith, june 1986. Image released into the public domain by the faroe islands post office and reproduced here courtesy of wikimedia commons. Faroe islands stamp honouring amnesty international by Eli Smith, june 1986. Image released into the public domain by the faroe islands post office and reproduced here courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Faroe islands stamp honouring amnesty international by Eli Smith, june 1986. Image released into the public domain by the faroe islands post office and reproduced here courtesy of wikimedia commons.

I doubt it is news to anyone that "the west" is busy generating an efflorescence of "anti-immigrant" rhetoric and violence right now. Matters have already long passed the point that violence against immigrants who have arrived or are trying to get to "the west" is basically freely licensed. Freely licensed to the point that men have begun talking quietly about how they are now at regular risk of rape if they are refugees fleeing via ports in northern africa. I suspect that this is neither new nor restricted to those particular ports. It is telltale that it is this that has led to actual consideration in some mainstream media of how they may be sexually abused and heaven forfend trafficked when apparently this is considered just "the way it is" and evidence of women and children "freely choosing sex work" when it happens to them. So far, it looks like a majority of people are refusing to accept or act on the license they have been given to overtly attack immigrants – a license that of course they only get if they are considered white, male, and sufficiently moneyed by those providing the license. Alas, nowhere near enough people are not just protesting but preventing the theft and trafficking of children by so-called "border service" and related agents in the united states, and rest assured, that is what is going on when they claim that they can't possibly reunite families in less than two years.

There is a lot going on here that makes it so easy for so many to refuse to take any risks to stand against this re-establishment of concentration camps and overt slavery in "the west." There is capitalism of course, and its sick logic of driving down labour costs in order to increase the amount of profit that can be extracted from whatever the industry. This is what leads corporations to deem it more important to let vast forced monocrops rot rather than give in and pay people fair wages to harvest them or agree to regularize and properly pay so-called "illegal immigrants." After all, that would impinge on profits and force the ends of such convenient practices as spraying the monocrops with chemicals while the "illegals" are still working in the fields. There are military drivers, since many people fleeing to "the west" are fleeing "the west's" proxy wars and outright attacks on their countries. So on one hand there are overextended militaries causing the conditions that lead these people to need to flee directly due to military action or indirectly as their countries' economies collapse due to impacts from wars on neighbours or trying to fob off bullies by following neoliberal dictates by "the west." Meanwhile, there are not actually enough military forces to try to keep everyone in line in "the west," hence the spiralling, panicked expansion of the surveillance complex of the military, state, and capital. This many words and I haven't yet gotten to racism, that all-purpose rationalization that can be used to permission slavery, theft, and murder, and its nasty near-cousin sexism which provides familiar rationalizations for rape, slavery, theft, murder, and mutilation of women and anyone deemed to be too much like a woman.

This is supposed to be an enlightened time of course, with "identity politics" at a peak and "social justice warriors" making the world better at last. I put the latter designation in scare quotes not because I am contemptuous necessarily, as many commenters are when they do so, although I cannot deny that considering how the activities and rhetoric of people claiming the title behave, I share their skepticism of those claimants. The thing is, what is "supposed" to be and what is are differentiated not by all the pious things we say but by the actual things we do. As the great suffragette Feminist activist Christabel Pankhurst demanded, "Deeds! Not Words!" Deeds are what tell us what is happening right now, not words. And all too often right now, the deeds of many activists who claim they are making things better are at direct odds with their words. I should be clear about who I consider activists: politicians are a type of activist. The only difference between people regularly referred to as "activists" and those referred to as "politicians" is that the latter are often formally enrolled in the system of electoral politics in the countries that they are active in. I don't believe it is necessarily bad to be either one. The difficulty is in that deeds versus words contrast. I do understand that moving from what we say to making what we say into what we do is one of the hardest, most challenging, and bravest steps we ever take, that we must choose to take that step every day, every time the choice between making a mere sound and performing a real act comes up in our lives. We get those choices everyday, and sometimes we simply can't choose to act. Tragically, that happens. Tragically, we can easily forget that the individual-scale acts we may take easily are stepping stones, small acts of internal bravery that should help us press on to the harder ones that take us beyond ourselves. We are encouraged to forget that rejecting plastic can make us feel better, but isn't enough to stop a system that is grinding us all to death.

Which takes me back to the current drive to demonize immigrants. This is a deflection tactic of course. Scapegoating as a means to deflect rightful anger against real oppressors and destructive systems onto people who are anything but and in no position to defend themselves can be traced deep into so-called "western" history, and alas, into the histories of many others. We know this, it isn't news to anyone. Yet the temptation to just go along with it seems to overwhelm so very many of us so very easily. I have been forced to conclude that the best explanation for this is not lack of information, or evil intent, or agreeing with the scapegoating claims. No. None of those things, although I do not deny that they may play a role to varying degrees with different people. No, I can't conclude that these are the best explanations even in combination, because they are too easy, too widely accepted. Which means the key explanation, the nub of the matter, is more uncomfortable to face, and more effective in getting us moving in better and challenging directions if we face it.

The best explanation in the end, is that all too many of us have a very bad conscience. For all the people who insist that Indigenous peoples should just get over it because what happened is all in the past and who remembers that, they are the very ones who act as if that past is their present. They insist on upholding genocidal practices from abusing the so-called child and welfare system to steal children preferentially from Indigenous families, to willfully enslaving and separating immigrants who are fleeing economic or military warfare in hopes of better lives. They worry incessantly that descendants of peoples their own people have oppressed and are oppressing are raring for the chance to invade them and subject them to the same treatment. They know exactly what that treatment was and what its modern inflections are, they invoke them in their anti-immigrant rhetoric and project their behaviour onto desperate and powerless people. Complicity is a horrible feeling, and it feels all the worse when you are complicit with oppression past and present without ever having consented to go along. I understand that this is why many settlers get upset and insist they shouldn't be held to account because they didn't agree to this awful stuff. I get it because all of us are complicit with predatory capitalism, and the vast majority of us never for a hot second agreed that undocumented farm workers should be paid slave wages and sprayed in monocrop fields, or that young women should be locked up in maquiladoras and paid next to nothing to make products we pay insane prices for. This is a horrible feeling.

The way to end that horrible feeling is not to go along with the scapegoating. The way to end a state of bad conscience is not to double down on the very oppressions we can no longer pretend are not happening, if we ever could. But of course, we already know all that. Don't we? (Top)

Moreau's Island (2019-06-19)

First edition of H.G. Wells' *The Island of Dr. Moreau*, courtesy of wikimedia commons, may 2010. First edition of H.G. Wells' *The Island of Dr. Moreau*, courtesy of wikimedia commons, may 2010.
First edition (1896) of H.G. Wells' *The Island of Dr. Moreau*, courtesy of wikimedia commons, may 2010.

Not too long ago I finished reading a pair of Jules Verne novels in the original french, which brought home to me again the coincidence of the advent of writing we now firmly consider science fiction in france and england during the late nineteenth century. It is probably not coincidental that this type of fiction began to seriously take off in those countries when the Earth ceased to have any major unknown regions or continents. "Known" in the broad sense of course, antarctica remaining thoroughly inhospitable to humans and there being various pockets still little or unnuisanced by european invaders. With nowhere else left on Earth to set the gimlet eye of colonialism and exploitation on, writers turned to more fantastic unknowns. But not too fantastic, they stuck to stories set firmly in relation to the Earth. Famously Verne suggested all manner of advanced technology, mainly with a view to imagining a means to access the deepest parts of the ocean, or travel at unheard of speed. H.G. Wells pushed further, famously imagining time travel and an invasion from Mars. The latter did not seem so implausible until telescope quality improved enough to show that Mars did not have canals on it. Wells wrote another novel that seems a bit less famous, in spite of being rendered into at least four different movie versions, The Island of Doctor Moreau. There is much that is eerie about the novel, centring on its use of the science fiction trope I have discovered is dubiously labelled "uplift," the "raising" of a supposedly lesser "race" by the actions of a "more advanced race."

To this day I have not been able to relocate another vivid realization of this "uplift" trope, this time in an episode of a television program which alas I do not know the name of. It may even have been a canadian production, as it was on the space cable channel, and I was watching late at night while on a business trip, unable to sleep. In this episode, a group of scientists were busy using genetic manipulations to remake what I think may have been an ape, into an upright, speaking creature. That would have been their framing in story. From a more critical perspective, we could refer to this as messing with another creature to make them "more human" and demonstrate how powerful geneticists supposedly could be in the near future. The being subjected to this process soon becomes overwhelmed by his new circumstances, and begs to be returned to his original state. The humans say no, but he is intelligent now, and finds a means to wreck their efforts, because he doesn't want to think or know, he just wants to "feel." By the end of the episode he is living in a glass walled cage, moving and walking partly on his knuckles like an ape, inexplicably dressed in fringed buckskins.

UPDATE 2020-02-02 - For further on "uplift" and its meanings, it is well worth the time spent to read Adolph Reed's critique of "uplift" published at the baffler, The Trouble With Uplift. Reading that article I was reminded all over again of just how vicious and self-defeating the notion is, because it starts from the assumption that whoever is being "uplifted" is somehow less human, less worthy of respect and life than "real" humans.

UPDATE 2022-05-08 - If the previous piece did not encourage you to read more of Adolph Reed's work, then his latest post at nonsite.org may just change your mind. "Let Me Go Get My Big White Man": The Clientelist Foundation of Contemporary Antiracist Politics is an important further unpacking of the corruption of what started out as a structural analysis into so-called "race relations."

There is so much wrong with this, it's hard to know where to start. I mean, there's racism, sexism, thoroughgoing disrespect for the intelligence and creativity of other than human beings, ethical howlers of extraordinary magnitude beyond that. And all that is before even handwaving at the notion of the glass-walled cage and the original capture or breeding of the ape-character, which must have been part of the episode that I missed. It's tempting to think that it could have improved the story if the ape-guy had said, "Holy, if being human means doing terrible things to other beings like you've done to me, count me the hell out!" Maybe, maybe not. It would have demanded that the writer(s) treat the ape-man as having an actual intelligence of his own, and the claim they really wanted to make was not that humans shouldn't attempt to "uplift" other species or even that the very notion is absurd on its face. No, they wanted to claim that no matter how badly humans might want to "uplift" the less fortunate species out there, even if they seemed to succeed, by their very nature those species could not be uplifted. They couldn't handle an uplifted state that would simply be too much for them. These same problems are just as evident in Wells' story.

Other science fiction writers have certainly been less comfortable with the "uplift" idea, especially when they try to imagine the tables turned, with some other beings "uplifting" humans instead. Doctor Who has two canonical villains involved in such work, the Cybermen and the Daleks. Later era Star Trek of course has the Borg, which started out as far more promising than they became. It says a great deal that the only "uplift" imagined in science fiction for humans in mainstream science fiction is in the form of replacing parts of the human body, if not the whole body, with some sort of machinery. Stories that haven't made it onto screens yet have some different ideas still fraught with discomfort. Take for example the ancillaries in Anne Leckie's award-winning trilogy, who certainly are not volunteers – and of course, an argument can be made that they are not being subjected to "uplift" in the sense intended by label. Or Vonda McIntyre's modified humans in Fireflood and Other Stories, where the "uplifted" humans are changed not by aliens but by other humans, and the changes they undergo are about making them "useful" in spite of their ugliness.

"Uplift" is of course, an attempted euphemism for what europeans told themselves they were doing when they went to the homelands of people whom they decided were not fully human. The reasons for deeming those people not fully human were not always the same, but reasons are always found. When lack of "true religion," "law," or "drive to improve the land" failed, inherent lack marked especially by skin colour was soon thrown firmly into the breach. Missionaries and their supporters fully expected that if they could only force these barely human foreigners to dress and act according to the sex-role and class stereotypes from european cultures, then the colonizers could have their cake and eat it. They would be able to pat themselves on the back that they had done their duty by the people they presumed were degraded by lack of proper religion, laws, and behaviour. Better yet, the uplifted results would be eternally grateful, never becoming competitors with their putative betters, always willingly remaining in the role as permanent servants and reserve labour that would best serve european empires. If this convenient story also helped the europeans and other colonizers with similar ideas to stifle recognition of the complex systems of laws, religions, epistemologies, and cultures of all the peoples they insisted were in fact little more than talking beasts who had no laws at all, better still. And when the peoples being subjected to this treatment rebelled, including remaining distinct peoples and not dutifully dying off or resigning themselves to permanent servanthood, there was a rationalization for that too. The poor things simply couldn't cope with being uplifted, so they reverted.

But not all the way. After all, in that television program, the ape-man runs around in fringed buckskins. And that is supposed to justify attempting to "uplift" presumed lower beings in the end, it seems. (Top)

Puzzling Over Authenticity (2019-06-12)

Stamp graphic using the word authentic by Arkadi Bojašinov via dreamstime.com, january 2018. Stamp graphic using the word authentic by Arkadi Bojašinov via dreamstime.com, january 2018.
Stamp graphic using the word authentic by Arkadi Bojašinov via dreamstime.com, january 2018.

"Authentic" and its derivatives in english makes up yet another family of words that has become nearly meaningless from the sad combination of misuse and deliberate abuse. It is all too easy to find advertisements for particular events or products claiming to provide an "authentic experience" or to allow you to be "your authentic self." It has always astonished me that so many of us have apparently been convinced that we must have permission to be ourselves, when ourselves is who we can't help being, no matter whether somebody else or we ourselves think we need permission. We may do considerable violence to ourselves to fit a preconceived model, whether it be a farrago of sex-based stereotypes and psychobabble or the latest propaganda definition of what a "traditional" whatever or whoever is supposed to be, but even that doesn't hide that actually we are resisting it. The violence gives the game away. So while the "authentic" family of words has gotten driven into near meaninglessness, that doesn't mean people aren't trying to respond to real needs and challenges in their lives when they seek experiences or things that can be called "authentic." Which begs the question of what is going on with these words.

I have just used another word that is often taken as a synonym of authentic, "real." This actually provides a clue to what has happened with this word. A moment with my trusty OED gives a first definition for the adjective "authentic" as "of undisputed origin" – this is significant and I will come back to it. The next definition is "made or done in the traditional way" that is, in a way handed down from the past. This still ties back to the "known origin" idea, stretching it a bit, though not unreasonably. A longer stretch gets us to the third definition, "based on facts" hence the synonymy with "real," because of the presumed knownness and checkability of facts. The fourth definition comes from existentialist philosophy. The definition states, "relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life." "Purposive" and "responsible" are two helpful descriptors here, because they show that existentialists expect this sort of living to be wholly conscious, based on knowing what we are doing, why, and deciding what to do based on this knowledge. It is worth noting that there is considerably more to existentialism than this, and this notion of authenticity is not meant to stand alone.

UPDATE 2021-01-18 - On page 233 of her excellent book An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reflects on the issue of authenticity in u.s. american culture in particular, but in a way that also applies to the canadian case. She notes the appeal of "lost tribes" to anglo-americans, "Anything but Indians, for that would provide evidence reminding Anglo settlers' descendants that the continent was stolen, genocide committed, and the land repopulated by settlers who seek authenticity but never find it because of the lie they live with, suspecting the truth and fearing it." This seems relevant not just to authenticity, but also to the current anxiety ranging to paranoia over "identity" and having or making an "authentic self."

In any case, philosophical arguments aside, the shared notion in all of these definitions, is knowledge, especially knowing the source. The original information marking a person as authentic was not whether they were behaving like their "true selves" or in an appropriate way in existentialist terms. The original authenticity-granting feature was no more an no less than having known paternity. A known male parent, a father. The word is built on the same latin root as "authority" referring to the power to give orders, which in systems characterized by patriarchal oppression is typically vested at least in fathers. (Other men may end up with similar authority on other bases.) For reasons best known to themselves, many male writers and scholars have insisted that paternity is hard to verify, so hard that supposedly the male role in procreation as unknown until recently in human history. To be quite blunt, this is bullshit on all counts, by the way, except in cases of gang rape. With that in mind, it seems all too obvious why a commitment to insisting such nonsense is true is so common in a patriarchal society. It's an attempted rationalization for attempting to prevent women from controlling their own bodies, for a start.

Anxiety about origins and authenticity in the more abstracted sense is of course, extremely profitable in a capitalist society. I have already written more than once about propaganda in its advertising guise, including its ultimate foundation in taking advantage of our fears, right down to trying to implant new ones. After all, "the market," meaning venal rent seekers, don't see problems like adulterated food or products produced under horrible conditions for all the beings involved as problems at all. They see a market opening for food certified as "authentic" or as the fashionable term is now, "organic," and products as at least "fair trade" meaning the persons making them got paid just enough to eat. This is what I mean by the "authentic" family of words being made meaningless. There is a certain irony in abusing the term as a propaganda cover for allowing the worst abuses to go on, rather than making real and meaningful changes that solve the actual problem. The problem is not actually how do I avoid adulterated food or clothes made under sweatshop conditions, although I would very much like to do both. It is actually how to stop the production of adulterated food and end economic exploitation that licenses sweatshops. In other words, the real problem is not just about the immediate radius of my personal interests.

This suggests a bit of a struggle is going on about notions of authenticity, because of how it is being misused. In fact, it looks like the existentialist definition or at least elements of it are influencing what many of us want to express when we try to use "authentic" and its derivatives. Certainly the element of responsibility, which begins to point away from a narrow and egotistical focus on the self at its best. Hence the "real solution" as I have framed it here is not an individualistic one at all. Instead what marks out its validity is its potential ability to undo systematic injustice and habits of destruction. Which actually loops back to "authority," having the power to give orders, in the wider sense of being able to have an influence on the world beyond the self. Hmmmm. (Top)

There are No Oppression Olympics (2019-06-05)

This is definitely not about the olympic games. C. Osborne, january 2018. This is definitely not about the olympic games. C. Osborne, january 2018.
This is definitely not about the olympic games. C. Osborne, january 2018.

Some time ago I wrote down a brief summary of one of the things the ongoing "gender identity" debacle has demonstrated. Particular people are not oppressed due to their identity. The oppression they suffer is rationalized by claims about their identity. This can't be emphasized enough, especially the "claims" part because claims are used and abused in very specific ways in a society lousy with sexism and racism, among other axes of oppression that many of us are pinned between. Now, it would be wonderful if I could identify myself right out of those axes, but that is not possible, because "identity" is not a creation any of us makes alone. In any case, the verb "identify" has been abused by men who have found themselves a way to assert male privilege while pretending that in fact they are the most oppressed people in all the world because they do not conform to the sex-based stereotypes they are expected to. I have no doubt that they are not getting the full enjoyment of sexist male entitlements, and that they are in real danger of male violence against them by other men who feel threatened by their non-conformity. But any claim that a man – and it is always a man – can simply be a woman, especially a woman of colour (go figure) just because he "feels like her" is no more and no less than weaponized bollocks that expresses not frustration with or defiance of sex role stereotypes and the oppressive structures they help shore up, but hatred of women.

A key tactic adding to the confusion and allowing these nonsense claims to keep their purchase is the invocation, more or less openly, of a type of "oppression olympics." The competition is for most oppressed status, which corresponds uncannily well with having access to the most power to force others to either shut up or repeat after the competitor that they are most oppressed. The funny thing is, that kind of power and influence is an indicator of lack of oppression. Oppressed people don't get to impose their opinions on anybody, unless they happen to be in a structural position to oppress somebody else, and then that "somebody else" is not anything like the number or range of people we see being attacked and piled on at the behest of those competing for most oppressed status.

UPDATE 2021-04-13 - A powerful essay that digs into the specifics of just what is going on with the politics of identity by Pseudononymous Reporting at substack should be required reading for anyone who wishes to intervene in these debates: Industrial Activism And The Forever War. No doubt many people will disagree with both this essay and this thoughtpiece, but it is critically important to engage with these matters in an honest and forthright way. We can't solve persistent problems by sticking to the same behaviours that fuel and perpetuate those problems in the first place.

Now, here is the tough part. There are different levels of oppression. Listen to veterans of the struggle against apartheid in south africa like Ahmed Kathrada on the Overcoming Apartheid Building Democracy Project website. He speaks frankly about different degrees of oppression imposed on non-white south africans depending on whether they were categorized as coloured, indian, or black. The further down this little list you were, the more awful things were for you by law under apartheid. Nobody who was racialized under apartheid was having a good time. But acknowledging that they were not all having the same experience and acting according to that understanding was a critical factor in enabling the south african majority to end legalized apartheid and win rule by majority instead of by the barely 4 million whites. Accepting the reality of those differences in oppression and respecting how these differences made for different risks and emergencies depending on a person's social and legal position as determined by what "race" they were categorized as did not deny anybody's oppression. But it did make it possible for "blacks, indians, and coloureds" to take advantage of the different amounts of freedom they had to act in order to help each other to take the next great step in overcoming terrible racism, colonialism, and yes sexism, in their country.

One of the most helpful questions to ask when false games like oppression olympics are invented and garner lots of participants is cui bono? Who benefits? Not who benefits from the oppression olympics in the sense of who wins them, insofar as anybody actually does, which I sincerely doubt, though there is no doubt a short term endorphin hit. No, the question properly is, who benefits from people getting distracted by oppression olympics and related garbage instead of realizing that they can work together for real change instead? Officials in the apartheid regime in south africa, especially prison officials, hoped to use political differences and I suspect what we would now call "oppression olympics" to drive their many political prisoners and their allies outside into fighting each other instead of against apartheid.

Again, particular people are not oppressed due to their identity. The oppression they suffer is rationalized by claims about their identity. Those claims are typically made by those oppressing them. The rationalization allows oppressors to tell themselves that they aren't doing anything wrong, and to piously declare that they are merely doing what is best for the oppressed. And this is all needed in the first place because the oppressors are appropriating labour and life from the oppressed, and it is imperative to distract the oppressed and people among their own numbers from noticing and opposing that exploitation. (Top)

Consider the Source (2019-05-28)

No OED edition has ever had a version of this cover with this combination of colours -- not without reason, practically speaking, of course. May 2016. No OED edition has ever had a version of this cover with this combination of colours -- not without reason, practically speaking, of course. May 2016.
No OED edition has ever had a version of this cover with this combination of colours – not without reason, practically speaking. May 2016.

At one point in my life, I lived for several years in a small town with one public library branch. This was before the internet was ordinarily accessible – and let's not forget that this state of things existed as little as fifteen or so years ago in many such towns – and while catalogue ordering was certainly a thing, and there was a local bookstore, it was no easy thing to access much by way of reading material. The main reading matter around outside of the library was the few newspapers, meaning typically one local and two from the closest city, plus the by turns annoying and execrable reader's digest, and a scattering of persistent tabloids. Inside the library, there were certainly books, and already a tiny selection of cassettes and movies. The library was very small, and no doubt still is unless it has moved by now, roughly the size of a typical two bedroom apartment built before 1970 in north america. So at least 100 metres square. With only so much funding to work with, the library staff were hard pressed not to accept sets of books in good shape and demands to take advantage of series sales to provide basic materials kids would need for school. And if the municipal government and library board were very christian and insistent that the book budget should go to books that had passed their religious filters, well, until more people tucked an oar in that could hardly be expected to change.

I describe all this not to pick on it, but to acknowledge that it was (and is) a product of local politics and prioritizations. It was also in proximity of alternative sources, including a relatively nearby city, a nearby airforce base with independent facilities, and the library collections in the local high schools. High school teachers had little choice but to explain to their charges that it would be at best unwise to simply base reports and projects on series of books like those published and endlessly flogged on television by then time-life books, or just what they had read in encyclopedias. All of these tend to age out of use, as the now vanished species of encyclopaedia salesmen once depended on for a living, and as anyone who has giggled over the extraordinary hair styles and fabric patterns from books illustrated with drawings and photographs from the 1970s knows very well. Like it or not, we had to consider the source. Even the dictionaries got updates after all.

I've been thinking about this a lot, as the mainstream media at least has suddenly rediscovered that its propaganda pants are down again, and so the news heats up periodically with alarmed articles condemning "fake news" and sidestepping demands for genuine investigative reporting, as opposed to "media embedding" and reproducing press releases with the serial numbers barely whited out. Of course, "fake news," that is propaganda, and its sometimes but not always less dangerous cousin, structured nonsense, are not new problems. Far from it. If we want european examples, we can start with the fate of the knights templar, or the so-called "cathar heresy." When I was still in elementary school I was a huge archaeology buff, and had probably read every book on ancient egypt that came within range of my library card twice. Akhenaten and Hatshepsut each have more than their fair share of debunked stories about them that were recorded in writing and eviscerated by documents surviving from their reigns and archaeological data. Among the most infamous propaganda writers in history is a fellow usually referred to in english as Virgil, who wrote an epic poem as part of his contribution to roman emperor Octavian's efforts to shore up his claims to have the right to do what he was doing.

UPDATE 2019-03-16 - The "hit us where we fear" aspect of persuasive but false claims helps make sense of how absurd soap advertising works. By now it is widely accepted that "sex" is used to sell an astonishing array of products, although not all. Soap advertising, especially for stuff marketed as dish or floor soap, for example, seems like an exception. Well, yes, to the use of "sex" aspect, not to the "hit us where we fear" aspect, which is actually the most general case.

So thoroughly unsexy soap ads depend on making us fear that maybe, just maybe, whatever the soap is supposed to clean isn't as clean as it might be, and everybody else has noticed but us. So if it is bath soap, we are encouraged to fear that we must stink if we aren't washing with that "fresh spring scent." Or that our dishes must be full of spots, or that our clothes look dingy and worn. The ads try to make us afraid that we are objects of scorn or pity.

In a january 2019 blogpost, Michael Ullyot unpacked a short line written by Francis Bacon circa 1597. The post had many purposes, from showing how the OED can be used to make sense of an older english text, to how we can completely misunderstand what an older text in any language says if we don't account for language change. The line happens to be full of what many second language learners will have been taught to call "false friends," words that look just like those in their own language, but in fact mean something quite different. To make sense of it successfully, the reader needs to consider both the source in terms of who wrote it, when, and where, and which dictionaries and other items are best for analyzing it. This may all sound very ivory tower and esoteric, yet all of us do this all the time, barring exceptions we may not be aware of.

Seriously. We do this sort of thing all the time. If you have ever said to somebody else, "let me google that" you are getting into exactly that process. "That" may be a particular claim or news event. So you search online, and pick out sources on it you find reasonable or otherwise trust. Advertising companies posing as search engines and so-called "social media" encourage all of us to simply take their word for it, to trust that the top results from the search or in our timelines are the most accurate and/or informative. "Fake news" disturbs these companies mightily, because advertisers want their ads to be seen, but don't want to be associated with obvious lies, and these companies want the advertisers' money. They are far more attractive advertisers if we can be presumed to trust their algorithms, even when those algorithms are no longer designed to carry out the sort of tasks we have in mind. That doesn't mean those algorithms can't provide accurate context and interpretive information, far from it. It does mean that they must inevitably reflect the interests and beliefs of their makers and the people who tell the makers what to build into them, just as that old fashioned thing, the newspaper, must reflect the interests and beliefs of its editors.

For better or worse, we need to have bullshit detectors because there are so many perverse incentives to fool us with bad information. Worst of all, we may unwittingly help the people trying to pull a fast one, because we are perversely incentivized to fool ourselves. This is the hardest part of the whole issue. The deadly combination of beliefs, lack of confidence of those beliefs, and therefore complete intolerance of learning about other perspectives and even just more information about whatever the topic is can neutralize our bullshit detectors when we need them most. When national governments are trying to persuade everyone that they should start a war, or far closer to home, when far from disinterested parties try to persuade us not to vaccinate children, or to eat a diet composed almost entirely of simple carbohydrates. These are the sorts of issues that hit us where we fear, where we are pressed for time, where we are confused and most inclined to seize on any structured story that seems to explain things. (Top)

More Reasons to Reject the Modern (2019-05-21)

Tokitaro's famous painting, Great Wave Off Kanagawa, circa 1830. Courtesy of wikimedia commons, december 2018. Tokitaro's famous painting, Great Wave Off Kanagawa, circa 1830. Courtesy of wikimedia commons, december 2018.
Tokitaro's famous painting, Great Wave Off Kanagawa, circa 1830. Courtesy of wikimedia commons, december 2018.

Not too long ago I wrote about why we should refuse the notions of "modern" and "modernity," focussing primarily on Indigenous reasons for that. As that previous piece should have made evident, refusing these terms and the complexes of ideas attached to them has nothing to do with absurd attempts to return to some idealized past era, especially considering I have been writing about this alongside criticism of the new medievalism. Rejecting "modernity" has nothing to do with refusing to challenge and end oppression, quite the opposite, because as developed and applied, "modernity" and its accompanying ideas and rationalizations are tools of oppression. It is certainly true that this is too bad. It is always a shame when some idea, person, or practice can't live up to its hype. In the earlier thoughtpiece, I emphasized the meanings of "modern" derived from its roots in a latin word for "now." Here I want to take up a more detailed definition of the derivative term modernity, which comes from my readings in historiography. Here's the definition.

Modernity, the state of social organization in which people and social structures follow artificial rhythms and are no longer tied to a specific place or culture.

Sounds almost innocuous, doesn't it? After all, following artificial rhythms merely suggests that we use artificial lighting and so we can do things when the Sun isn't up. Many people conflate "modernity" with increased secularism, but that is hardly a given when there are at least four major proselytizing religions, two of which continue to serve as keystone rationalizations for colonialism, authoritarianism, and exploitation all over the world. They are only nominally tied to specific places, one each. The tie to place is not a mere head nod, like declaring "the west" to be wherever is originally west of troy, nowadays usually west of jerusalem. (See Richard Wawso's The Founding legend of Western Civilization for a brilliant tracing of this mode of pseudo-placing.) Alas, "modernity" is not so innocuous. The dissociation from any specific place serves a very specific dual purpose: colonialism and exploitation. In fact, "modernity" is argued for and framed in a way that equates it to a religion, and proselytizing for it neatly rationalizes every form of violence used to impose loss of placedness and sense of time everywhere people have them. A factory runs according to no mores of any specific place or time, it is an abstracted unit intended to be set up anywhere to organize maximally profitable labour – however profit may be defined – by a strictly controlled workforce. The same is true of highly standardized housing. In moderation, keyed to specific place and to such values as supporting a decent life for as many people as possible, using a small number of compatible house designs or cooperating to carry out a large task, trying to standardize a bit can be just fine. But again, that is not the same as living in the past.

In many ways "modernity" is an attempt to stop time and create the sort of completely uniform military installations so beloved of science fiction centred on military organizations and colonization. As a matter of fact, Joanna Russ' first published science fiction short story, even though it does not feature the military in any way, "Nor Custom Stale," draws out the underlying anxiety that drives the proselytes for modernity. The fear is the very same one that animates the other proselytizing religions: fear of death. If there is only "now" and therefore no real change, then there is no end to us or the particular social circumstances we are committed to, especially if those circumstances are working out well for us. There is another intriguing and nasty feature "modernity" or perhaps I should take another derivative of "modern," "modernism" – to draw out the parallel more – shares with at least two of the major proselytizing religions on the planet right now. They are all three rationalizations and reinforcements of systems of pastoral nomadism. And since pastoral nomadism is a great way to reduce the land to desert and cause everybody eventually to starve to death or die of thirst, both horrible ways to go, that is yet more reason to drop the whole thing.

I can almost hear the startled protests of annoyed readers. For those who haven't abandoned this thoughtpiece, here is my argument for the equivalence. I understand pastoralism to be a way of living based on keeping and grazing sheep or cattle, which demands regular moves to ensure the herds have enough food and water and are able to avoid getting overwhelmed by their own faeces or opportunistic predators. The last part comes from the fact that we humans don't like domesticated animals to be too inclined to kick our butts, so this usually leads us to try to breed them into docility and hopefully not being too clever. This never works out, but leave that issue aside for the moment. So long as the pastoralists don't try to build the herds larger and larger, it is actually possible to develop a place-based equilibrium in which people and herds travel a regular sequence each year that helps them feed the land that feeds them. Cool stuff. However, if for whatever reason the pastoralists opt to keep adding to their herds, most likely by stealing from the neighbours, then it isn't too long before they become pastoral nomads. Nomads have no stable homes, and if they are pastoral nomads, it doesn't take much before they are militarized and have to keep moving on in whatever direction is easiest to find easier or at least new pickings, grazing land, and so forth. Their herds are too hungry and thirsty to survive in a stable cycle of moves over a specific area, and the pastoral nomads can't stay anywhere long enough to figure out how to establish a stable cycle anyway because they have become violent anathema to their neighbours. Even if they want to change, it is hard, due to the legacy of mistrust and loss of knowledge of how to live otherwise.

The earliest forms of pastoral nomadism are literal expressions of disconnection from any specific place. All there has to be is enough forage and water, and once that is used up, the people and their herds move on. No need to follow place-specific practices because they aren't staying, and anyway, they'd never have a chance to learn them. Eventually somebody had the clever idea that the problem was that they needed to stop moving around, but it was hard to avoid when they had moving herds. Worse yet, herds are prone to mass death by epidemic disease, and people kept running away since understandably, they wanted to stop fighting and being afraid all the time. The solution ultimately selected by the people trying to hang onto pastoralism – in other words, the so-called elites who were getting the most out of it, is so meanly clever that it is chilling.

Originally it seemed to me that the solution was in fact monocropping, which sounds clever and all settled down. Except, monocropping also desertifies the land, although not quite so fast at least at first. So the pastoral nomadism cycle continues, just slower, using fewer animals and more deliberately manipulated plants. The loss of placeness gets exacerbated, because the plants in question are species that evolved to grow in highly disturbed ground, which can't be too wet or too dry. To make the monocropping task easier and get around the specifics of place, it is necessary to drain or irrigate, and survey and plough. Move on a bit further, and people are busy figuring out how to pay less and less attention to the season by finding monocrops that grow at different rates and can be harvested at different times of the year. In science fiction this is called "terraforming." The results are never permanent. To keep doing mostly the same thing somehow, people have to move on. And that's when it finally hit me. Yes, this is a newer pastoralism. But the new cattle is not the various monocropped plants. It's the people. (Top)

Some Meanings of Invisible Economics (2019-05-14)

Segment of a still from the 1933 James Whale movie of H.G. Wells' novel, 'The Invisible Man.' Segment of a still from the 1933 James Whale movie of H.G. Wells' novel, 'The Invisible Man.'
Segment of a still from the James Whale movie of H.G. Wells' novel, The Invisible Man, november 1933.

Even as the efforts to impose mass censorship online continue, there are still opportunities to read great material out there, including P. Tittle's brilliant essay Solo Women's Invisible Economic Expenses. Being one among the many single women handling their own economic expenses, Tittle's essay was notably on point. Her descriptions of the apparent doublethink of relatives who can look around your home, the evidence of your job and ongoing adult-level activities and responsibilities while behaving as if you were a thirteen year old living at home were all too familiar. Not too long ago I had to have a rather awkward conversation with a relative who apparently had concluded that the reason I was not taking part in an upcoming family gathering because somehow I couldn't scrape together the pennies to travel to it. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with the fact that my home is where I live or other commitments. Never mind that I have been supporting myself successfully for well over twenty years, including moves back and forth across the country and managing to get out from under significant student loan debt, a piece of good fortune I am thankful for everyday. When that was hanging over my head, I could certainly have used some help. In that case there wasn't even twenty bucks for a pizza forthcoming. Meanwhile, my younger brother was not only enjoying subsidized rent while living half time with his then-girlfriend, the family was busy finding him apprenticeship after apprenticeship opportunity. Funny that.

Of course, a key point is that socially speaking in north american patriarchal society, single women, regardless of how hard working and self-supporting we are, are derogated as perpetual children for not being perma-servants to a man. We haven't acted according to the deal that supposedly pays us off for knuckling down to patriarchy by ensuring that we get a room, board, some personal safety, and recognition as adults. This is just a fairy story. The most dangerous place for any woman or child is any home they may share with an adult male, whatever his position within the so-called family unit may be. Dangerous as the street is, for women and children without any means to establish an independent, safe home and means to provide themselves with food and clothing while living there, it can still safer than living with adult males. That is a flabberghasting thought even to me, and I am deeply cynical on the matter. Of course, the street is not always safer, and the street is not a safe place to live or try to make a living. The key, as Andrea Dworkin pointed out not so long ago that we have any business forgetting it, is what a woman or child's primary emergency is.

Stepping back to the wider point, what we have here is another gaslighting technique, in which adult behaviour and activity is denied by people who expect that their opinions should matter to us. Some of those people will make a point of using their power positions to force their bullshit to matter, like bank loan officers who make a point of denying single women access to loans. Or interviewers who make a point of asking illegal interview questions in part as a way of saying, "you only got the interview so that we could say we talked to enough candidates." In the context of treating economic independence as if it were invisible effectively mocks it, implying that somehow the independence isn't "real." There is a lot of that going around. The ongoing capitalist fundamentalist denial that non-wage work is work, or that capitalism depends on that work to allow its proponents to pretend that the count of money can always go up is the other side of the same coin. In both cases the claim is, if the work and its products are not being stolen by a man or by a capitalist, it doesn't count. The intertwined rationalizations being of course denial of adulthood in one case, denial that the person works in the other.

Of course, in reality, if those rationalizations and the premises behind them were true, no gaslighting would be required at all. Everything would come together as expected in the ideal image of a capitalist patriarchal world – why, all those structures of oppression wouldn't even exist, because they would serve no purpose. Nobody would be behaving otherwise than the ideal, and presumably there would be no single women for instance, whether by choice or not, at least in the sense of outside of a "family unit." Except – without the oppressive structures and the gaslighting, capitalism and patriarchy and racism and... well, you get the idea. These forms of oppression don't survive. People live quite differently. (Top)

More Mystifications of Capitalism (2019-05-07)

Vintage salt shaker that produces gears instead of salt.C. Osborne, february 2016. Vintage salt shaker that produces gears instead of salt.C. Osborne, february 2016.
Vintage salt shaker that produces gears instead of salt. C. Osborne, february 2016.

I can't leave Joanna Russ' work without zooming in on another node to consider what she had to say in more detail, especially because of two earlier thoughtpieces, Sprinkle a Little Technology On It and The AI Conundrum. This node is included in Russ' collection To Write Like a Woman, in her essay "SF and Technology as Mystification." Having begun her published writing career in science fiction with the story "Nor Custom Stale" which gives an early sense of the uncanny nature of her writing in the genre, Russ gave considerable thought to the social and technical areas tied to it. This specific essay includes a brilliant few sentences that set out the not so subtle pressure on academics in the humanities to uphold the illusion that they work in what is unnecessary and somehow have such great independent wealth they don't actually need to be paid for it. All part of the pressure to act as if education that depends on literacy is an unearned luxury for the poor and a birthright of the rich. That's not the node I am going to zoom in here though. Instead, consider this quote, a paragraph from page 36:

Hiding greyly behind that sexy rock star, technology, is a much more sinister and powerful figure. It is the entire social system that surrounds us; hence the sense of being at the mercy of an all-encompassing, autonomous process that we cannot control. If you add the monster's location in time (during and after the Industrial Revolution), I think you can see what is being discussed when most people say "technology." They are politically mystifying a much bigger monster: capitalism in its advanced, industrial phase. Such mystification is easy to spot when silly people do it. I recall a student of mine who said that technology was evil and then hastily excepted his stereo set. When intelligent people do it, the mystification is harder to see. Yet technology, so used, is a non-subject and to talk about it is bound to be non-discourse. Either the talk becomes digressive and serves as a pretext for everyone displaying his or her academic speciality (the most harmless form non-discourse can take), or it is downright false.

Let's try a few examples that are not quite as fraught as Elon Musk apparently cultivating a crop of lawsuits on not so social media. How about – technological change is inevitable, and the newest technology has to be adapted as quickly as possible. That's a pretty common message, all the more for sounding at least half plausible in the sense that change is inevitable, in the most trivial sense. Still, let's experiment with swapping the word "capitalism" in and see what we get, bearing in mind that we are trying to unpack the demystified message and there is no requirement that we agree with its content. "Capitalism is inevitable, and the newest capitalism has to be adapted as quickly as possible." Okay, I bent the rules a bit by dropping the word "change" from the first part, but then this is parallel to taking an adjectival form of technology in the original. The unmystified claim doesn't impress me any and is hardly true, though any diehard capitalist fundamentalist would disagree, of course.

Here is another one, pulled from one of the myriad on-line dictionaries that plagiarize each other shamelessly even when that means they repeat mistakes. The original is "An example of technology is the Internet which has made up-to-date information available to anyone with access in a matter of moments and provides real time information about events around the world," which gives us "An example of capitalism is the Internet which has made up-to-date information available to anyone with access in a matter of moments and provides real time information about events around the world." I am quite serious about trying this one out. Russ wasn't claiming that every statement about technology or that literally uses the word is mystifying technology, it's just good to draw out the nuances a bit. I actually like this one because it reminds me that a key element of capitalism right now is the ongoing propaganda that conflates "the internet" with capitalism, as if it is impossible to have easy access to real time information under any other system. That is far from the case, setting aside for now the growing question of whether it is such a good idea after all as implemented. (This is what I mean by "nodes," ideas and considerations that insistently connect to others in a way that makes you sit and think about them.)

The more common statements about technology come from the media, whether advertising or – well, advertising. I can no longer pretend that "product reviews" are anything else. And they mostly aren't directly using the word "technology," as in this, the latest come on from apple to persuade people to but a new iphone, "All-screen design. Longest battery life ever in an iPhone. Fastest performance. And studio-quality photos. Trade in your current iPhone and upgrade to iPhone XR." After a point I am not at all sure why you would want some of the features they have added to these phones in a device that can be easily dropped in the toilet or down a sewer grating on a bad day. But evidently, I digress. The advertisement is supposed to be about technology, right? Except it is really about capitalism, in particular capitalism's desperate need for churn. Somehow profit must be dragged out of the people who still have money for something other than necessities, and convincing them they most have the most advanced and feature-full of whatever new "tech" is out there is one way.

Why go for all this mystification? Russ explored in detail how the first reason is that capitalism is a massive system of theft, and it needs some pretty hefty obfuscation and fig leaves to keep it from being overturned. Between that and the drive to pretend that actually academics don't really have bills to pay otherwise they wouldn't be academics – or writers, or nurses, or whatever ill-paid but actually socially necessary job you might want to pick. Oh yes, I do think there is such a thing as academics who do socially necessary work! Not all academics alas, as the hall of shame at the chicago school of economics for several decades remind us. That is another node to be examined in a greater detail in a different thoughtpiece. (Top)

More on the New Medievalism (2019-04-30)

Illustration by Florence Harrison from a book of poetry by none other than William Morris, april 2019. Illustration by Florence Harrison from a book of poetry by none other than William Morris, april 2019.
Illustration by Florence Harrison from a book of poetry by none other than William Morris, 1914. Original file source, OldBookIllustrations.com, april 2019.

I have been on a Joanna Russ extended read-a-thon of late, enjoying her non-fiction and fiction writing roughly in turns. Even her shortest stories and essays repay rereading, so it is no surprise to me when the library copies I can find turn out to be well-worn, the larger volumes with broken spines. As is all too typical for women authors, much of her work is out of print at the moment, barely seven years since her death. Her work is politically and philosophically challenging, and in her non-fiction carefully worked into the clearest prose she could manage on a wild range of topics. Over a fifty year writing career she resisted massive rewrites of her older essays, instead providing thoughtful introductions to her collections Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts, To Write Like A Woman, and What Are We Fighting For, and The Country You Have Never Seen. In both broad categories of writing, Russ developed as a writer and in her political thought in ways that she openly discussed. Her oeuvre is discomforting in the best way, and includes a whole range of intriguing recognitions and arguments that Feminists in particular would do well to give some more thought to, including many asides tucked into footnotes.

For instance, Russ' explication of marxism in the essay "Seeing Red: My Life is Harder Because Yours is Easier" includes the following note, "My college history textbook noted the medieval European slogan 'city air is free air,' which meant (it said) that a peasant escaping to the growing medieval towns was safe from the feudal obligations (work and taxes) that he otherwise 'owed' his feudal lord. Women are not mentioned in this connection." Newer textbooks add other details to such an account as Russ is summarizing, but let's take note of at least two eye opening points that these two sentences draw out. First, the simple and short one. "Taxes" today are still treated as if they were feudal obligations, no matter who the taxes are paid to and what the taxes may be set aside for. I have no argument with anyone who resents paying taxes for making war on others, giving money to rich people who prefer not to pay their own bills, and to build monuments to stupidity and ego. I do argue with those who argue that money collected to provide things like schooling and medical care are by definition the same sort of thing. But that is because those things benefit society at large and myself in particular, whereas the other three things seem based on the evidence before us right now to be literal detriments, not theoretical ones. Paying taxes for things that actively hurt ourselves and others is especially galling precisely because it is meant to demonstrate power over and contempt for those of us doing the paying. There is a cruel cleverness in labelling money we put aside in public funds for what we want and as a society choose that is positive with such a negatively loaded term as "taxes."

The second one is less simple, and just as telling. Russ comments in this essay and one other that woman's relationship to man in the patriarchal family, including heterosexual marriage remains a feudal one. As a daughter her social status is defined by her blood relationship to her male relatives, especially of course, her father. Due to that relationship, she is expected to work loyally and constantly for her social superior, that is her father, and any men he may choose to direct her services to. He defines the services. If he decides to marry her off, or allow her to marry, the husband is expected to take on this role. She is not owed any wages that she could in anyway to live independently in this arrangement, in the most patriarchal forms of this relationship. Far from it. She is permitted room and board to whatever level the man in charge allows, certainly not money of her own. It's all justified by insistence that the woman is by definition socially subordinate, and where religion is still overt, by claims that this was divinely ordained. When women break away from this claptrap by winning things like separate legal existence and rights to keep their own property, the handwringing and outcry by the usual suspects begins. "What can they possibly be unhappy about? We give the women everything!" Such bleating is not usually done in such obvious terms anymore, because the evidence of violence against women, girls, and children generally in this form of feudal relationship is impossible to ignore, although it remains all too possible that "authorities" will refuse to act honourably on it.

Russ' comments in that footnote also clarified for me the intensive appeal of the imaginary medieval era that sexist men and their allies like so much. Yes, the sexism and the supposedly clear binaries and what they think was license for total male violence regardless of social status. Just as important if not more is the economic implications, the notion of having unrestricted parasitical access to women's resources again. Feudalism doesn't fit with capitalism too well, even when capitalists try to have the best of both worlds by stealing more from "breadwinners" with the expectation that they can do so with impunity because the wives and children will make up the difference or they will all die off. After all, "the poor" are numerous, and by definition the rich are not. The drive towards a new-style feudalism is not going to succeed, though it is probably going to get messy before that reality sinks into the people trying to make it happen. (Top)

Presentism Ad Absurdum (2019-04-23)

Perhaps some dubiously presents isms. C. Osborne, december 2018. Perhaps some dubiously presents isms. C. Osborne, december 2018.
Perhaps some dubiously presents isms. C. Osborne, december 2018.

The issue of social and political polarization has been getting a lot play over the past several years, as authoritarian political and social movements resurge. A whole bunch of precariously "on top" people can feel the rumblings of change, and their best hope is to somehow stop it by fooling the rest of us to run in the same old circle of an authoritarian screw down followed by something branded usually as a "sexual" revolution. Polarization is a problem. Yet it seems to me may of those decrying it don't have a clear sense of what they are decrying. One minute they are protesting the role of identity politics, then trying to conflate any effort to destroy structural oppression as identity politics no matter how violently absurd the attempts get. Then there are the people who have decided that they are going to try to undermine the ongoing Feminist and antiracist organizing by reframing that work as actually about punishing mean people. Punishing a person for oppressive behaviour who by the nature of their position is not merely benefiting by an oppressive structure but actively holding it up seems quite reasonable. After all, if such a person is active right now, their present action is a source of primary emergency for the oppressed persons within their immediate reach. We can't ignore emergencies. However, we have to watch out for getting fooled into acting as if what we have before us is a primary emergency, when in fact we are being encouraged to distract ourselves with virtue signalling rather than making real change.

I've been thinking about this a lot in the context of a range of people some of whom I agree with, some of whom I don't, and some of whom I have a mix of agreement and disagreement with. There is a remarkable set of arguments that we can't possibly take say, Margaret Sanger or Nelly McClung's Feminism seriously, because they were racists. Yet, if the person at hand is say Karl Marx or for somebody who is alive and running around today and considered influential like the guy currently recognized as the head of the catholic church, I am supposed to honour and use the good bits and ignore their sexism. Since I agree with critiques of John A. MacDonald's genocidal policies against Indigenous peoples and question the construction of the colonial canadian state on those policies, I have been told I must be throwing out his entire legacy. Except, this really doesn't make any sense. Damned real life being complicated again, of course. Among history students, this tends to get tangled up in arguments about presentism, which might make better sense for everyone concerned if we had all agreed on what the hell the term means to start with.

UPDATE 2019-07-01 - A potentially even better title for this thoughtpiece might have been a reference to the italian proverb, "Le meglio è l'inimico del bene" known in english translation as "the perfect is the enemy of the good."

A loose definition I have often seen is that presentism is what it is when we judge the behaviour of people in the past by our own values now. Sounds kind of good. But as I have mentioned in a different thoughtpiece, a brilliant fellow history student pointed out that whatever John A. MacDonald believed and whatever his milieu at the time, the fact is no Indigenous person at that time agreed with being targeted for genocide. No slave ever agreed with slavery. If they ever had, then there would never have been a need for entire systems of rationalization and incessant violence to prop slavery up. Which is not to say presentism isn't a thing. If we simply said anybody in the past did something or argued something we disagreed with and dispensed with everything that ever was derived from what they said, certainly that would be outrageous. John A. MacDonald sucked, Karl Marx didn't have all the answers. When we critique men in the past, we are expected to contextualize their behaviour and ideas, and having considered that, then make a nuanced critique of their positions. Obviously I think that women deserve as much courtesy, especially considering the habit of treating women as guilty by mere accusation, no need to check what they said or the factors influencing their actions and ideas.

I appreciate this is not easy, and it may be uncomfortable, especially right now when to be labelled Feminist, especially radical or lesbian feminist, or right wing, is to be labelled beyond the pale and beyond any right to respectful engagement and consideration. But we should watch out for how we are encouraged to act according to such labellings. It isn't merely, so and so is a leftist, out the door they go if you are supposedly a rightist. It seems to be, we thought so and so was a leftist, but it turns out they don't agree with this idea that this party of the left says must be right, therefore so and so is not a leftist and should be banished. This is a confused knot with many parallels to the strain of thought that claims if a woman is critical of gender and acting according to gender stereotypes, she must hate anyone who labels themselves "trans." Never mind that critical analysis is not just about finding fault, and that criticism of a structure of oppression is not in fact a criticism of people who are doing what they need to in order to cope with the primary emergencies that structure causes them. That's a harder path to stick to than a simple cut à la "either you're with us or against us."

With this in mind, it seems that the key problem with polarization is its weaponization to close down thought. From what I can see, it is a key tool in establishing and supporting that great pillar of authoritarianism, groupthink, "the practice of thinking or making decisions in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility." That's not all groupthink discourages of course, it also makes it difficult to achieve real change. The attractions are clear. No responsibility, no need to parse out ideas for yourself, no need to sit down and read anything written by anybody declared verboten. I suspect that the reason the mainstream media has suddenly rediscovered the dangers of polarization is not the risks of making it easier for authoritarianism, but the risks that their stable of pundits might find themselves swept up into a wrongthink exile that may damage their corporate bottom lines. When pillorying people in the past based on a brief claim such as "so and so was a fascist, ignore them!" becomes a regular daily practice in the present, the danger is definitely more immediate.

This way of being presentist on one hand and hunting for thoughtcrime in the present is not merely dangerous or unhelpful. It is profoundly arrogant. People in their own circumstances in the past and today may have limited knowledge and make appalling decisions or arguments based on it. Recognizing that and taking that into account before we decide whether we can support or at least accept any or all of their actions or ideas is in no way letting them off. It is admitting that we might make similar mistakes, maybe we already have, maybe we will. But we have access to information to help us do better, and at times our critiques will be harsh because the person we are considering also had such access, willfully did not use it, and/or even doubled down. We can neither claim to be absolutely knowledgeable about all the perfectly right and wrong acts and thoughts in the world, nor can we avoid the responsibility to make some kind of nuanced determination when the question comes up, because past and present actions and ideas guide our own. (Top)

Refusing "Modern" (2019-04-16)

Tokitaro's famous painting, Great Wave Off Kanagawa, circa 1830. Courtesy of wikimedia commons, december 2018. Tokitaro's famous painting, Great Wave Off Kanagawa, circa 1830. Courtesy of wikimedia commons, december 2018.
Tokitaro's famous painting, Great Wave Off Kanagawa, circa 1830. Courtesy of wikimedia commons, december 2018.

As I get ready for a milestone in my current main academic project, I find myself dealing again with the vexed notion of the "modern" and "modernity." If you turn to any dictionary in english, most will duly and flatly inform you, as my OED does, that "modern" merely means whatever is happening now, the present as opposed to the "remote past." Quick thinking latin students will be able to pull out a stock phrase illustrating the indirect origins of the word in english, "modo" meaning "now." I think it is fair to say that at least in the "west" "we" are all expected to firmly label anything deemed modern as good and to be taken up in place of anything else that might be there instead. That this has some uncomfortable connotations due to its association with such expressions as "à la mode" meaning "in fashion" which is in turn tied to both mindless consumerism and the always derogated notions of femininity is probably a feature rather than a bug. It's good to be not quite comfortable with terms that a very small group of people would like us to accept as universal, true and right across all time, all space, and all people. "Modernity" is just supposed to be "a state of being modern." But this is bizarre and circular. If modernity means being modern, and modern is whatever is going on now or at most in the past just a short while ago, then all this means is anybody who is alive right now is modern. Okay, something else is going on here.

Let's consider who and what is considered "modern." I'm a history student, but it isn't necessary to get too academic about this, we can just consider pop culture. In fact, allow me to subject you to examples from two genres of popular fiction, westerns on one side, and science fiction on the other. There are overlaps between these two, but they are worth knocking together because writers in the one are trying to imagine a more or less plausible future, while in the other they are trying to reimagine a more or less plausible past. They agree, at least in their northern north american iterations, that only people who both think they are white and are pigment-challenged can be modern. Consider the subset of westerns that obsess over the supposed miseries of the "half-breed" for example, or how all aliens are strangely un-modern despite their high technology. They are always socially or economically backward by "western" lights, unless they are designed as super-whites, in which case they will have more or less obvious "angel-like" features. The folks who get to have recognizable technology in "western" terms, including firearms and laser guns without having to trade for or steal them at some point in the story first are always coded white. Anybody coded as Indigenous or from Africa or anywhere in the majority of Asia? Forget it. It'll be all bows and arrows and spears or their equivalent all the time, and heaven forbid they should be depicted as having their own spaceships. There are many terrible Star Trek episodes, as is the fate of syndicated television series, but among the worst is the honker where Captain Picard finds out he is descended from a conquistador and he is being forced to deal with recalcitrant Indians who went and colonized another planet (the strong implication is that this planet was empty) only to be unreasonable about giving up their lands all over again. I have the stubborn impression they didn't have their own ships but instead got ferried over and eschewed "modern technology" and anything that can't be construed as nonsense and superstition. As for westerns, just a few words. The oxymoronically named Lone Ranger and Tonto.

As an Indigenous person, it seems to me that if we accept the validity of the colonial notion of modernity, then we have to accept the way that notion defines us. And that notion defines us not as living today, here and now, but as living somehow in a strange personal timewarp by means of which we live only in the past. Notice us using "modern" technology or somehow deviating from the stereotyped image of what an "Indian" or even a "half-breed" is, and promptly the accusations fly that somehow by daring to be alive now and adapt and develop new ideas we have ceased to be "authentic." Worse, we have ceased to be entertaining, pitiful, and a source of sighing nostalgia, because instead of playing Indians in the cupboard we are real people with real present lives. We are no more going to throw away all of our culture and history except for whatever happened in the last decade or so than anybody else. That wouldn't make even practical sense anyway. Leaving aside "technology" in the usual sloppy way the term is used right now, without more than what our parents taught us, pretty soon we would be in grave trouble. There are plenty of things that parents forget to teach or don't have time to mention, or that they have forgotten they had to learn themselves. That last type of thing is probably the most dangerous, because those things all become mystified, supposedly they just happen until one day things don't work properly. Here's a mundane example.

A young acquaintance of mine commented airily that it was easy to get the latest gaming system, he just had to tell his parents he wanted it. His mother pointed out drily that such systems were expensive, so he'd have to buy it himself. This made no sense to him. He wasn't spoiled, or at least no more than any other kid in a family that doesn't have to worry about how they are going to eat from week to week. Certainly his sense of money and how much things cost was poor at best at that time, but it could hardly be otherwise. We aren't inborn with knowledge about economic arrangements and the ways different things cost and what should be priority items, especially in the context of a modestly well off family where the fridge is always full and there is little need to save unused school supplies from the previous year and so on. This in itself tells us nothing about his character, though it tells us he was ignorant of some important life details and needed some help to rectify that as soon as possible. Yet, there he was, living in a perfectly modern fashion, using only the knowledge he had in his own short lifetime and prioritizing having the most up to date thing that mattered in his milieu. My acquaintance was being completely logical. That's the trouble with logic, it is only as good as the accuracy of our starting premises allow.

In getting ready to write this thoughtpiece, I performed an obligatory web search, thinking that some post-modernist maven has no doubt already coined the term "antimodernism" and begun telling everybody in their circles about what it means in turgid articles and monographs. The only coherent piece I have found so far is by Peter King at Arktos, called The Antimodern Condition. Well, it is fairly coherent, although his statement that "The antimodern condition is where we accept things as they are. As such, we focus on the surface of things. We do not believe that there are any hidden structures below everyday reality." strikes me as not fitting with the major themes of this condition he has identified. He declares that the antimodern condition consists of a rejection of the idea that the future is always better than the past, that the past has nothing to teach us, and that there is nothing new for us to discover. He declaims that it includes rejecting the notion of "utopia" – I wish King was a bit more specific here, because the transliteration of the ancient greek term to english is ambiguous. "Utopia" proper is "no place" but "eutopia" would be "good place." This isn't intended as a quibble, although I suppose for consistency we can take it as the latter because King is emphatic that the antimodern condition involves an acceptance that the future is not predetermined. He is pessimistic too, characterizing change as a "necessary evil" and the overall condition is about complacency and satisfaction with whatever our present circumstances are. This matches up with the notion of "satisficing" I think.

Peter King and I are certainly not talking about the same thing. It is evident that his "we" and "us" does not include me or anybody much like me. While I too am no partisan of whig history and think human futures are open though not wholly unconstrained since we are not completely isolated atoms, rejecting aspiration and sitting around content merely because I don't have immediate problems endangering my health and well-being is far from what I have in mind. At no moment would I argue that there are hidden structures below everyday reality, because I don't think societal structures can be hidden, but when they are oppressive those who benefit by the oppression would certainly like us to act like those oppressive structures aren't there. Perhaps that is King's point, since his picture indicates that he is a quite well placed man who thinks he is white. The structures are not hidden, they aren't troubling him, they may need adjustment to keep things going as a necessary evil, but really, the underlying circumstances will not change. Except, wait. If I have that right, this walks the "antimodern condition" to little more than the "modern condition" with a bit of restyling. Which is why I think we would do better to refuse "the modern" as we have received it, because it is in effect a closed loop. If we want real change and the possibility of genuine improvement, then that loop is the first thing we have to lose. (Top)

Corporate Censorship (2019-04-09)

A couple of pieces of duct tape, december 2018. A couple of pieces of duct tape, december 2018.
A couple of pieces of duct tape, december 2018.

I have written at least two thoughtpieces already dealing with questions of censorship and free speech. In part this was so that I could sort out what the american invocations of "free speech" and inveighing against "censorship" meant in their context. Canadians make sloppy conflations between arguments set out by americans based on the american constitution and body of laws and the canadian constitution and body of laws, so this is an important step to take. There is a lot of overlap between the two in terms of principle and even in law. For better or worse, the differences do matter. Setting that aside, for my part, I agree with many people in the world generally that government suppression of speech, especially speech critical of the government or other powerful political and social players is not ethical or justifiable. Today we face the additional problem of private entities so powerful that they too can suppress speech, especially speech that is critical of them or their cherished ideas. This is also wrong. For some reason it seems to be taking quite awhile even in the united states, home of that cherished amendment about free speech, for that country to take in hand the problem of censorship by businesses deliberately or in effect. It's a hard problem, to be sure, especially right now when capitalist fundamentalism remains potent as toxic waste even as its sway over more and more people fails. (That's not a contradiction – nonsense can still poison discussion because everybody has to clear the nonsense before they can have a sensible conversation.)

UPDATE 2018-12-14 - Some blogs at risk of being censored on automattic's wordpress server have already moved, including 4thwavenow, where the site owners have also restored the censored posts to their original state, as they committed to do at the first opportunity. At one time I would have recommended the Internet Archive as a good fallback in the event of a website being removed in today's new era of massive corporate censorship. However, it is now clear that the Internet Archive is also engaged in retrospective censorship, so it is critical to make sure to save copies of key articles and do what you can to help potentially affected bloggers and commenters to preserve and keep their works available. And no, I don't say this to mean only the people I agree with. To my mind, the only reason to take down and silence particular speech is when that speech specifically encourages and reinforces violence or directly requires violence in its making. Alas, these criteria do not instantly solve the genuine issues around speech that is controversial at minimum and outright dangerous at worst and how best to handle them, because those issues are not easy to manage effectively and honourably when our complicity with oppressive structures is encouraged in so many ways. However, I think it is important to state criteria clearly, and when the step of removing or silencing speech is taken, that must be done publicly and in a manner that includes a statement that that is what is being done and why. That is the only way to ensure that the absolutely necessary discussion of difficult cases happens, and the only way to ensure that we get better at doing the right thing, not finding excuses to pretend there is a right way to do a wrong thing.

UPDATE 2021-05-01 - Alas, the LibraryBox Project appears to be moribund, but the FreedomBox Project is going strong, with some persistent challenges with documentation. For instance, suppose that you have a FreedomBox set up, but for some reason it coughs and refuses to allow a secure login due to an out of date host key. This is actually a simple problem to fix once nefarious happenings have been ruled out – so simple that almost nobody seems willing to say what this way is or document it in connection with FreedomBox itself. For those encountering this problem with any *nix system, you can verify nothing nefarious is going on by checking with the server administrator to verify the authentication keys have been updated. Then open the host file identified by the error message as holding the out of date key. Delete the key, save the file, and that should allow the authentication system to disentangle itself.

My favourite example to illustrate this is of a bookstore which is certainly not practising censorship or suppression by refusing to stock certain books or host certain speakers. As pundits all over the web and off of it have pointed out already, this is accurate for one bookstore among many pursuing different audiences and customers. It does not work in the event that the bookstore in question is effectively the only one, and therefore the only source of books or speaking events. Then the situation is not like an idealized small business at all but like a monopoly that prevents access to books and authors outside of its catalogue. The prevention merely has to be "make it difficult," no outright bans or other types of sinister funny business required except not listing other authors and books, or making off-list pricing higher, or off-list books slower to get, or demanding an absurd minimum number of orders.

In the web-based world, concern about the corporate control of information has focussed on so-called social media lately, especially because the idea that twitter or facebook somehow control thought around the world is quite good for their stock evaluations and advertisement pricing. I am skeptical about these two platforms when they are depicted as such potent influencers, although that does not prevent me from agreeing that their power to manipulate discourse and information sharing is too high all the same and should be ended. Just because I don't think people on social media are completely controlled by it doesn't mean that I think advertising companies calling themselves social media shouldn't be curbed for other important reasons like stopping their mass surveillance. But I do think that too many people have their eyes off another important ball, this one in the arena of blog-hosting and web publishing outside of social media.

Most of us have heard of wordpress, the free blogging software, and many of have read blogs hosted on wordpress.com either for free or under paid plans with a company called automattic. At this point, wordpress.com is one of the largest, if not the largest blog hosting company on the web. Like twitter or facebook, it has lengthy terms of service that are forever being manipulated in an effort to manage the potential impact of what bloggers post on its legal liabilities. As a private company, automattic has brought with its growth an attitude that it doesn't have to be neutral about what it hosts, and reserves the right to shut down blogs whenever it pleases on various causes it writes into its terms of service from time to time. Okay. Except, it is no longer one among many platforms all jostling together to host blogs, favouring particular general types of material depending on their politics. It is a behemoth, and it makes it easy to get started blogging on it, and hard to get out if it becomes uncongenial for any reason, especially if you want to take your blog elsewhere instead of just abandoning it. That's a problem.

An even bigger one is the growing evidence that automattic's team has taken to retrospectively deep sixing bogs after new terms of service changes, and even shutting down blogs and then quickly whipping up a terms of service change after the fact to justify it. The examples I am most familiar with are from the ongoing purge of lesbian, feminist, and gender critical blogs from the platform. On top of that, in at least one case that readers can check for themselves at the blog 4thwavenow, staff have silently censored a blog entry by hand. Maybe they think they are justifying this by telling themselves that it isn't about potential liability, because automattic is an american company and they have third party immunity. No, it is about maybe, fear of pressure on their servers from denial of service attacks by people incensed by controversial speech on those blogs. Or maybe they've decided they should take an editorial role, and their editorial position deems lesbian, feminist, and gender critical blogs completely unacceptable. All of which might be no more than dubious and cowardly, if wordpress.com were a mere player among players.

Blogging and web site creation in general are forms of publishing. Bloggers generally work with the understanding that they are the editors and proprietors of their blogs, not the company whose server hosts them. It seems that automattic in particular is fine with this notion as long as the blogger's effective editorial policy doesn't clash with theirs or otherwise catch the attention of those with the technical access to shut down blogs at will. There are alternatives to wordpress.com, of course. One is plain website hosting for modest monthly fees, or else an alternative "free" platform such as blogger (watch out, it's actually google), or tumblr (opinions vary). The big issue seems to be that so many bloggers who did not start out running web businesses are so reluctant to pay any money to put their blogs on the web. If they still receive some modest web space and blog hosting services with their internet subscription, they may not know about it. This is a grave situation.

One thing that would help considerably is the web equivalent of samizdat. According to my OED, samizdat is "the clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state, especially in the former soviet union." Of course, in the case of the web we need a modified version of this definition, in fact one closer to its literal meaning in russian, which is "self-publishing house." We need a way to self-publish on the web even when the state or a corporation tries to ban what we have to say. Believe it or not, we are actually very close to having this pulled together already. Volunteer-founded projects like Archive of Our Own is a key example. For the many people who bemoan that having and running a server is hard, allow me to direct you to an alternative approach in the form of the FreedomBox and its cousin, the LibraryBox. Both are software packages to set up modestly priced portable file distribution servers that run on low power and are small enough to throw in a backpack or even a jacket pocket. Based on open source software and hardware, you can get full instructions and downloads so that you could set up the server software on a repurposed older, low powered machine. Public and university libraries are already experimenting with these, so it may well be you can add your blog to one of those little servers. Among the most powerful and dangerous weapons that companies like automattic or twitter or facebook have, is the fact that at least a portion of us have been persuaded that we can't do without them to publish online, get traffic to our web sites, and so on. If we let them convince us of this when it isn't true, they will take steps to make it true if they can. We have every reason to oppose them. (Top)

Rhetoric Versus Writing (2019-04-02)

One side of the ancient egyptian namer palette, november 2018.. One side of the ancient egyptian namer palette, november 2018..
One side of the ancient egyptian namer palette, courtesy of wikimedia commons, november 2018.

Depending on your view of my writing style, you may or may not believe that I hated the class labelled "english" with a great hate. A tragic hate. Because evidently, writing and reading are two of my favoured activities in the world. "English" class was not a thing until senior high school, when "language arts" and its faintly fussy label vanished away. And with it all sorts of intriguing projects that encouraged what would today be called "multimedia projects" although not too much by way of video or audio yet, as they were still too expensive. Lots of posters and illustrations, experiments with calligraphy though, at least in my experience. The official art class was basically defunct, but we got to do a lot in language arts. However, once english came along, we were relegated to the useful and deadly boring five paragraph essay, reading novels and poetry that were supposed to be the best for the "correct interpretation" and being marked zero on short answers for such accidental foibles as writing "it's" (it is) when you meant "its" (possessive). I kid you not. To make it all the worse, I did very well in my english classes all the same, with excellent marks even in the exams used to determine our academic standing for post-secondary education. And then found out that in my first year of university I was required, with no appeal, to effectively take my last year of english again in a year-long course to meet my academic writing requirement. After all, everyone knows science majors can't write. Right?

This was before it occurred to anybody to make available the option of writing an exam consisting of an essay and some short questions if you felt sure that your high school english mark was not the product of crass grade inflation. It is appalling to think that this alternative has not been available very obviously or consistently for very long. Really, the whole combination is unjust to the students affected, science majors or not, and to the study of rhetoric, which is what it turns frustrated students against. Among the results is an entire generation at least of people who don't understand how to structure speeches or written documents, and don't understand how physical books or even their electronic counterparts work. This is bad for everybody.

Yes, rhetoric is popping up here again, because the rhetorical training I mentioned in the previous thoughtpiece included a great deal of training in how to write essays of various lengths, from what we now call "short answers" to the infamous five paragraphs I remember having to fit on a single sheet of foolscap. (A real paper size, standardized to 21.6 by 34.3 centimetres these days, and usually "college-ruled" with blue lines.) Those of us who formally learned how to write such things in the classroom have likely never referred to them as scintillating work. With an adult understanding, I realize they couldn't be. They were the practice part of learning how to write, and alas, it is hard to make practice anything but tedious. If practice doesn't get tedious at some point, we're in trouble, because we aren't learning. Unfortunately teachers are not always in a position to set the practice according to student, so the students who had got to the boredom point could go on to something a bit harder and stop annoying everybody else in the classroom. I don't remember any teacher framing our writing exercises as similar in principle to the endless laps and drills we might do for a sport, or scales and chords we might practice with a musical instrument.

I don't agree with claims that everything in the classroom must be immediately connected to a future task in a dead end job. I do think students should be honoured with information about why they are expected to do the tasks they are doing in the classroom, especially in a class like english, which is the butt of so much unfair censure. No doubt fourteen year old me would have been as obnoxious as any other teenager about rotten old essays and the like. Yet I wonder if it wouldn't have made some of the other aspects of the task at least a little easier to bear, knowing at least a little it wasn't in effect only to pass the class and never have to do it again. Yes, I know. Probably wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, in the real world having chucked rhetorical training, english class is apparently now mostly about reading certain things and regurgitating the interpretation the teacher dictates. Not everywhere, of course. More and more schools have more integrated classes where students get their literature with some real context via their history classes. Reading even Charles Dickens is enlivened by learning about his era and the actual social conditions and culture he came from and witnessed. The way Shakespeare is taught often achieves this, ironically because the man himself is basically an empty signifier according to orthodox understandings of who wrote his plays and sonnets. I don't believe for a second that young students are not capable of managing context and coming up with surprisingly nuanced interpretations for their ages and the material at hand. Just sit down and listen to younger students expertly take apart whatever their favourite pop culture franchise. They've got at least the beginning of the skills, they just don't want to read the stuff the adults think they should. This leads to the scandalous new courses in universities that take movies and comic books seriously, often sneeringly referred to as "service courses" intended mainly to get butts in seats.

To begin with I was deeply skeptical of such courses, and must admit to remaining at last a little skeptical of them now. Still, these courses are also ways to help students overcome their skepticism of rhetoric, deeper reading, and their own abilities in both inculcated by earlier miseducation driven by the short-sighted goals of authoritarian adults. My skepticism has more to do with the sense that they are not always as respectful of students as they are cynically hoping to exploit students expecting an easy A. I doubt that the latter is a successful strategy pedagogically or economically for anyone concerned. In a funny way, this all goes back to rhetoric, because the false message that the way we learn to write is merely by unstructured reading is so intensely wrong. Meanwhile, the role of practice in structured writing and reading, and its genuine utility – yes utility – in the workplace and the rest of our lives is lost or ignored in the rhetoric turned against it. If thinking through the social and political implications of that sentence makes your head hurt, that makes at least two of us. (Top)

Who Speaks in Public? (2019-03-26)

Feminist and women's suffrage activist Emmeline Panhurst gives a speech in 1913. Image via wikimedia commons via getty images, october 2008. Feminist and women's suffrage activist Emmeline Panhurst gives a speech in 1913. Image via wikimedia commons via getty images, october 2008.
Feminist and women's suffrage activist Emmeline Panhurst gives a speech in 1913. Image via wikimedia commons via getty images, october 2008.

I have a stubborn memory of a what was probably an ancient, now firmly fossilized form of early clickbait, which claimed that according to an opinion survey, americans feared public speaking more than death. Now, it is all too easy to pick on opinion surveys because they are so notoriously bad so often. They can be designed to provide real information, but that tends to be time consuming and expensive, and entirely too annoying when what the purchaser of the survey wants is something clickbaity, or at least predictable. Sometimes the clickbaity nature is all in the spin, such as the infamous survey that showed declining newspaper subscriptions, not declining literacy in the 65 and older age bracket. Of course, newspaper company owners were terribly alarmed at these early signs that something was amiss with their business model and what they stuck on their news pages, before the web became a major factor. But the survey didn't really say anything about our grandparents' literacy at the time. So I suspect that memorable as that trilobite era clickbait evidently is, it is not likely to be true, although it is true that many people fear public speaking, regardless of nationality. It's not an irrational fear either, since so many of us have had few chances to speak in front of a group, even just of a few friends. Practice in front of friendlier audiences can banish many nerves, if we expect to give a speech at some point in our lives.

At one time, just going to basic elementary school meant that you would have to learn basic rhetoric, including not just writing five paragraph essays that bored many of us stiff in "language arts" or whatever the equivalent name was when we attended the early grades, but also declaiming those little essays as a speech in front of the class. This wasn't done to torture children, although the original exclusively male classes subjected to instruction and debate classes may have thought so. The whole reason this training was given to boys in particular, especially boys expected to "make something of themselves," therefore from middling to rich families for the most part, was precisely because they were expected to take part in public debate. That meant being able to marshal their arguments and speak fluently. Women and girls had to fight intensely to win access to this aspect of rhetoric because in patriarchal societies every effort is put into first of all keeping anyone female from speaking in public, second from being heard, third from being taken seriously. It only takes a few minutes to find current examples of all three tactics. And the thing that is particularly striking if you look into the records of early colleges and high schools, is that both boys and girls, men and women, eagerly founded extra-curricular debating groups. As in, they finished their homework in their rhetoric classes, then did some more for fun.

Okay, okay. Not everybody did. There was always a proportion of people who said, nope not going there, you can't make me. Yet there was real enthusiasm. Instructors weren't driving this, although they might be sponsors of the clubs, especially for younger students. There were textbooks and competitions, and people used the phrases and structures they learned almost unconsciously as well as in formal writing and speaking. Skills that become practised and comfortable are like that. All of this was part of encouraging and preparing at least certain people to take political action in a hopeful vision of an actually democratic version of rome or athens. Meanwhile members of Indigenous nations wondered if all this rhetorical training would finally get more newcomers to genuinely listen to Indigenous speakers and respond with truth, I suspect. Every time you run into a reference to an Indigenous person supposedly "haranguing" ignorant white men, rest assured the white men in question are hoping to keep you from realizing that they were hearing and disrespecting a skilled speaker presenting a carefully structured set of arguments.

Now, apart from organizations like toastmasters, instruction in speaking even just before classmates has all but vanished. We seem to be encouraged to believe that being able to speak comfortably and persuasively in front of a crowd can only be the product of a mysterious inborn talent and/or a handsomely paid speechwriter and acting classes. The rationale covering this up in the end is the infamous and contemptuous claim, "oh, that's just rhetoric" meaning it must be rotten and insincere, if not outright lies, when we hear or read a persuasive speaker. There is a venerable tradition of distrust for persuasive speakers who may in fact mean to pull the wool over our eyes, six thousand and more years deep in europe alone, and that is a very small corner of the world. Which is why in many times and places and cultures, people argued that everyone must learn rhetoric even if they never engage regularly in public speaking, so that it would be that much more difficult to fool them with clever speech. This sounds like a very reasonable approach to the problem, as opposed to mystifying persuasive words.

I am no conspiracy theorist, but it seems a bit too convenient that instruction in spoken rhetoric and now written rhetoric as well has been nosediving so violently alongside the exponential rise in advertising and other modes of propaganda. No need for a conspiracy of course, just appeal to people who believe that they should make decisions for others, insisting that it is in fact questionable whether such training is truly useful for the "great unwashed" or whatever vile epithet is inflicted on the majority of the population. After all, the rationalization may run. The majority of them will never serve in any public office, or get tangled up in a law suit, where they will hardly represent themselves. Furthermore, they shouldn't be expected to waste their time and money on training that can't be marked vocational, especially if it might help them talk back successfully against the boss. At the least the correlation is far too convenient for the authoritarian and greedy among us. And the result today is vulnerability to propaganda that the "elite" of wherever we live doesn't like, generally referred to today as "fake news," to self-defeating skepticism of real information, and contemptuous media depictions of any skepticism that can be conveniently conflated with racist or sexist pseudo-arguments instead. That last one is great for generating clickbait and burying genuine debate.

The next logical question is how to get armed up against propaganda and strengthen our bullshit detectors so that they work well, not too much, not too little. This doesn't even demand that we read a book, although it can still be a tough task. Try just talking to your friends in person about some mildly controversial issue that you may even disagree on. Boxers or briefs, ketchup is a divine gift to cuisine or should have been banned the instant it was invented. Fun and great practice in learning how to listen while not desperately waiting for the other person to pause so you can jump in. (Top)

On Genre Fiction (2019-03-19)

Apparently a 'genre' painting by Jan Vermeer, called 'The Art of Painting,' october 2012. Apparently a 'genre' painting by Jan Vermeer, called 'The Art of Painting,' october 2012.
"The Art of Painting" by Jan Vermeer courtesy of wikimedia commons, october 2012.

"Genre" is a firmly neutral term, according to my OED, just a category of artistic composition. So the illustration for this thoughtpiece is a genre painting by Jan Vermeer, in which a sort of idealized representation of home interiors and application of perspective and oil brush techniques to produce what we can now call photograph-like representations is the goal. The paintings were part of the hippest decorating schemes in their time in some parts of europe, especially the netherlands where many artists working in the genre were based. A good example of the neutral application of "genre." However, somehow as soon as we turn to writing and books instead of other arts, the term "genre" isn't so neutral anymore, perhaps because it is so often conflated with "formula fiction" and similar labels that may cross-cut the more usual genre labels used for marketing. Once the marketing genres come into play, unless fiction especially can be labelled "literary" it begins to accrue the sort of mild irritation that distant relative with no dress sense who has to be invited to the bigger family gatherings does. This is too bad, because the issue is the marketing, not the genres.

I should be clear, "formula fiction" is actually hard. Seriously. The people who can churn out book after book according to a widely used formula or one that they have gradually developed within their own body of work are doing something that is far from easy. Maybe they could practically write the book in their sleep. That of course, is the problem. How they manage to write the book anyway and not begin parodying themselves or effectively wailing with boredom on the page takes work. The truly endless series of formula novels aimed at young adults are not written by just one author for that very reason. One of my relatives has an entire bookcase of Louis Lamour paperbacks, just his westerns I think. It's an impressive collection, even though when I first saw them my tastes ran more to Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie at the time. (Yes and plenty of sci-fi and fantasy too – and too many D&D tie ins.)

Practically speaking, "formula non-fiction" isn't much easier on this score, although it is easier to miss what it is on seeing it. Formula non-fiction was a staple of Time-Life books at one time, back when book series were advertised on television by short commercials, not television series. Besides encyclopaedias and Time-Life books there were sets of "do it yourself" guidebooks attached to various brands of tools and media personalities. These may be best suited to kids in their early reading days, when it is actually annoying to run out of books meant to introduce the basics of the sciences, especially biology, astronomy, and geology, which lend themselves so well to colourful pictures. Keeping the text fresh and not just swapping out a few words from book to book, which jumps out at eager readers unmercifully, is no mean feat. I suspect that this is actually one of the joys of reading them in the case of adults and children old enough to have cottoned on to the formula. And indeed, that is a key element of the enjoyment of "formula fiction." It's a bit of a game in the latter case, especially if a single author series matures enough for the author to try out in-jokes or sending themselves up a bit.

Maybe that's what gets genre writing into trouble, its sheer approachability and its potential both for chumminess with regular readers, and tragically horrible quality if it becomes a stable money maker with little leeway allowed for change. As Joanna Russ noted in her 1971 essay on the subject, genre materials can wear out. They can make a come back too, but they may need a long rest and wholly new stories to hang out in first. Another troublemaker for genre fiction is its role as launch pad for many a budding writer, in which many early examples must inevitably be awful. In a new genre or one that has exploded in popularity, a whole bunch of work may be made available that ordinarily wouldn't have. The infamous slush pile would have devoured the stuff going to potentially paying venues, and the more distant corners of fannish publications would have remained untouched by voracious readers and carefully formed search queries. A surge in interest makes for not so much an undiscriminating audience as an audience willing to experiment and stretch their legs a bit more because they are impatient to see more. And of course, in such conditions, some of the experiments will not work out, and some stuff that seemed okay on first reading will fold up sadly on a second reading. Writing in a constrained genre is very much writing without a net even though it may be one of the most accessible writing entry points there is.

Yet we should never underestimate the remarkable offshoots an earlier genre fiction exemplar might produce. Take Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera. It's terrible. Really terrible, and roaring fun to read. In 1990 Susan Kay wrote a remarkable retelling of this novel, titled Phantom, with considerably more detail and compassion that led at least one reviewer to declare that the book gave the title character a soul. Leroux's potboiler had some compelling ideas in it, and the outlines of some potentially remarkable characters. Another example is Gregory Maguire's series of prequels to the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. There is something remarkable and compelling about the Wicked Witch of the West, amped up remarkably by Margaret Brainard Hamilton's performance in the MGM version of The Wizard of Oz. (Top)

Voice Control Absurdities (2019-03-12)

Comic 538 'Voice Commands,' by Russel Munro, reproduced as per the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License from his site xkcd.com, january 2017. Comic 538 'Voice Commands,' by Russel Munro, reproduced as per the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License from his site xkcd.com, january 2017.
Comic 538 'Voice Commands,' by Russel Munro, reproduced as per the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License from his site xkcd.com, january 2017.

The idea of controlling any device by talking to it has never impressed me much, it sounds like gilding the lily at best, a disaster waiting to happen at worst. Which is not to say I couldn't see any possible uses for sound controlled devices, it's just that often the uses turned out to be better served by other techniques. Automatic lighting being managed by a sensible combination of timers and/or light sensors for instance, or using motion sensors, all depending on the specifics of the lights and where they are, of course. On the other hand, there is a tremendous area where voice controls makes incredible sense and should be worked on with all due speed and carefully managed to hedge against disaster, and that is in helping people whose ability to use their hands is critically impaired. That doesn't seem to be anywhere near the centre of the heat and light of the current corporate obsession with selling devices that can "listen" for a person's commands. The corporate obsession is of a piece with the corporate obsession with surveillance and control. I am not going to write much about that in this thoughtpiece per se, but on a point raised in an article at recode.net.

Basically, according to Rani Molla, who wrote the article, corporations are hoping to achieve the passivity effect associated with radio. The passivity effect has two aspects, starting from the expectation that we will find it too much work to change the station. Personally, I think that this expectation is based on a bad data set created from cherry picking. In its early corporatizing days, after regulation drove down how many people could legally broadcast on the airwaves, there weren't many stations to listen to, so yes, listeners were stuck. But once there were more stations and radios with dials or knobs to set the stations, radio listening was not quite so passive. Even piss-poor digital tuning hasn't changed that, although the rapidly shrinking selection of radio stations is its own issue. Arguments from on-line streaming today at the other end of the technological extremes don't impress me much because that is quite a small group of people. But then again, as the resurfacing of old articles about Jeff Bezos and his dreams of unlimited monopoly to fatten his bank account ever further remind us, that small group is of special interest. They have money. These big tech corporations want money, otherwise known as profit, and data and surveillance are a means to an end there.

The second passivity effect is that it is hard to consider multiple options when product information is provided verbally, so people are more likely to go with the first suggested option. Molla argues then that the dream here is to take advantage of this very effect via people saying to their listening devices "order me some toilet paper" and accepting whatever the default given by the device's operating system is at that moment, presuming they would never take the time to set their own. Alas, based on the widespread evidence of failure to change default passwords in internet of shit devices, that would probably be a good bet. So if people could be persuaded to do all their shopping from home, then the listening device that can do what you tell it becomes the ultimate wet dream for advertising companies who are involved in developing this sort of technology. After all, they can turn to whatever corporation that makes stuff and have them bid against each other for position in the default product list and secondarily in a short list of products. Sounds great except it works directly against the ways in which shopping has been conflated with socializing, and also with the simple fact that people like to actually examine most of the things they buy.

But now let's try to envision the sort of world that this points to. First of all, a completely surveilled one, because right now these devices are being designed to supposedly only start listening on hearing a trigger word. Clearly that is not a final state the purveyors of these devices actually have in mind, or a "bug" couldn't lead to them listening constantly or at least more often than expected. If the trigger word were the basic idea, then the software would not be set up so that effectively the device is listening all the time, just not capturing and analyzing the sound it picks up. Economically speaking, the implications are almost as interesting as they are disturbing. If we push the notion of default purchases activated by voice commands, where most people are not setting their own defaults either via some level of passivity or the software making it despicably difficult to do, then we get a system that brings together technologies already available. RFID equipped devices report when whatever product runs out, wears out, goes out of warranty, or gets superseded by the latest version. Person decides to purchase a new one and gives an order to their listening, internet connected speaker or whatever. The default item gets ordered. But then again, the person is hardly necessary in this loop once the products are all tagged and reporting on their own to the internet connected device. In which case voice recognition isn't needed for this task at all. It all can just "magically" happen.

Suppose that somebody decides the RFID thing is going too far, and people should have to do the ordering themselves, otherwise it would be harder to get companies that make stuff to compete for the default and short list spots. After all, maybe the person would usually get the four suggestion short list, and the gamble the companies on it make is that those mentioned earlier will get more orders, and in any case they can gamble on a guaranteed twenty-five percent. To me this still sounds like something that would soon develop into a corporate command economy, because it would lend itself to cartels even more than the current economy does. The number of devices would be known, the people who use them would be the ones who have money, and if they aren't going out to shop to any degree, then to that degree they have become a captured market. Well, at least as long as their cash holds out. Limiting options and enforcing passivity may be great for extracting more profit from people buying things, yet it hardly bears any resemblance to a free or fair market even in capitalist terms.

Then again, it all depends on who is supposed to be free and what is defined as the market. If the freedom is supposed to be that of capital and of capitalists to accumulate it, then actually there is nothing to guarantee benefits for everybody else. We have already seen this in the case of the people who work for capitalists. Every form of limit is placed on the movement of people because it helps drive down the "cost of labour," a cost that in late stage capitalism apparently can never go down far enough, except the consensus now is that slavery is cost ineffective unless bankrolled by the state via prison systems. This feeds the drive to automate as well. How this all ties back to voice control and "remote shopping" via telling an internet of shit device to order things for you is whose jobs go missing if nobody leaves the house to shop. The very sorts of jobs vaunted to the sky as the future economy, all those low paid, rarely full time, often precarious "service jobs" in retail that so many of us are being shunted into. Funny that. (Top)

The Tiniest Violin is Playing... (2019-03-05)

Smallest violin playing meme, november 2018. Smallest violin playing meme, november 2018.
Smallest violin playing meme, november 2018.

So apparently all these media executives and such are upset, upset beyond belief. #metoo has been so unfair, they can't run around sexually abusing women and children in the industry anymore, and younger members of the industry busy writing scripts, casting, and so forth, are demanding that casts and stories reflect something more like the real world population. And the old guard is stressed, stressed, why they need tranquilizers it's so bad, and whenever they think they can get away with it they are apparently indulging in sexist and racist rants of the worst sort. Now they are angry that one of their award academies is using non-white-maleness as a tie breaker to help break the stranglehold of white males on seats, and they are even more furious because that is supposed to be unfair to them. Never mind that before now the rule was that nobody but white males could get in except as an extraordinary exception, if ever (I don't think there has been an ever if at all until now), which means nobody who was qualified but not a white male ever had a chance. It doesn't matter, they are angry, how dare anyone challenge the oppressive structures that work in their favour. How dare anyone make it impossible for them to maintain the illusion that they did this all based on their own personal skill, merit, and grit.

To which my reply is, oh fuck off and go snivel and cry somewhere else. If you're so tough and competitive, you can hold your own just fine in this new world where the playing field isn't as tilted in your favour and the referees can no longer give as many extra penalties against anyone who is not a white male.

I have certainly bumped into claims that the entertainment industry is in trouble, and all over again, and I have to wonder how anybody can claim this with a straight face. Among the strongest large and small businesses where I live are the movie theatres, and every time I glance at news reports on the music or movie industries, the messages are about rising profits and record sales, even as they try to claim piracy is sinking them forever. These two things don't go together, but, just as in the case of people committed to gun ownership past any good sense, the logic of the people making these contradictory claims and snivelling every chance they get that the women are standing up for themselves and sticking together is evidently not founded on arguments from profits. I am no fan of capitalist paeans to disruption, but that is actually what is at play here, and #metoo is an important factor but by no means a primary part of it. Pointing at #metoo is just about blaming and hating on women, the usual response in patriarchy to changes that challenge established oppressive structures and the old guard clinging to them. (The key of course is to keep the patriarchal new guard from appropriating all the hard work of those breaking down oppressive structures and setting the structures up again with a new coat of paint.)

The people crying loudest are from the older, ever more heavily concentrated media companies, whose entire business models now depend on either controlling distribution as tightly as possible or somehow maintaining vertical integration. They are struggling to deal with the affects of computers and the internet, newer huge advertising companies that are getting into media as a means to sell more advertising – that is the endgame, even if we do get some great movies and programmes out of it – and they are getting outcompeted by anybody who treats fans and viewers more broadly and even slightly more respectfully than a soft touch. The older guard clearly despises the audience and the majority of the people whose labour directly goes into the media they sell. On top of that, audiences aren't so conservative as these older players hope, and are more open to seeing new stories than they ever dreamed. So in hollywood they keep generating endless remakes, and can't figure out why this is a bad strategy, or that the remakes that do sort of okay get lots of screams from the usual white male fan brigade while doing just fine. There is such a thing as criticism that happens when you're doing something right, and that is good criticism to get. But apparently these established entities are criticism allergic, as unfortunately, are many of the larger newcomers who will probably revert to similar patterns if allowed to as soon as they feel strong enough to treat their audience as locked in.

Quite apart from technological change, the change in people is important. Younger people are getting into positions of power and influence, they have different ideas about audiences and what media is for, and their approaches are working better. They are the ones bringing in all those great new shows and unusual casts and the rest, and they form an important base in the "upstart" media sections of advertising and companies like microsoft and google. They aren't all nice, and their ideas are not all positive. As the apple and amazon approaches to "user generated content" remind us, there is an important segment among those same people desperate to capture and monitize fans and fanworks, and close up the newer doors again to independents once they have a strong foothold. The truth after all is that no matter how much they go on about "the marketplace of ideas," "the benefits of competition" and so forth, they only mean it as long as they can control and squeeze cash and other types of profit out of it.

So, the obnoxious whining is from people who are seeing their stable world upended, one in which they thought they had the whole gig sewn up and they didn't have to work for things they had come to take as their due. It seems to me that they are also uncomfortable with a real challenge to the established oppressive systems, because even if many of the large new players just want the same system but with them on top and better pressure release valves for resistance by the oppressed, that is still a risky time for those systems. Any time they change in a larger way, there is a chance the change could actually take the whole mess down. And in a patriarchy, old men in positions of power, especially in the context of the entertainment industry old white men in positions of power, have been instructed that all they have to do to put a stop to things is snivel like little boys and everyone will rush to their aid. There have been several analogous displays in politics recently, and it isn't hard to find examples in men's sports.

No sympathy here, but cautious hopes that the people who are determined to take down oppressive systems period, not just make new pressure valves, refuse to let themselves be distracted by offers to take less than that in exchange for personal benefit and complicity. Don't be fooled when the same shit turns up in the form of a svelter guy with better hair who doesn't need to wear lipstick to look like he has an expression on his face. (Top)

When the Old Outcompetes the New (2019-02-26)

The old style apple logo designed by Rob Janoff and used until 1999, courtesy of wikimedia commons. The old style apple logo designed by Rob Janoff and used until 1999, courtesy of wikimedia commons.
The old style apple logo designed by Rob Janoff and used until 1999, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Among the articles I ran my eye over towards the end of last year was one featured on motherboard, which I rarely read to be honest due to not being much of a fan of vice.com. But, as it is important to acknowledge, even broken clocks can be right twice a day, and it doesn't hurt to check them out once in awhile. This particular article dealt with the fact that amazon.com has begun the very process serious business and tech commentators have been worrying about for not nearly as long as the people who realized their figurative heads had bullseyes painted on them. In collusion with apple, amazon.com has booted anybody who repairs apple hardware but isn't specifically licensed by apple itself off of amazon.com's marketplace. Licensing is not a solution, because apple actively does everything it can now to end access to means to keep its hardware running or to run alternate software besides microsoft crud on it. I actually think that the affected businesses and people are going to make it through this, and not because of some naïve belief in the bullshittery of "the market." No, this is about human stubbornness and the fact that there is a hubris in this move that has opened a lot of people's eyes. It's about something else though, something that nobody has said out loud very consistently yet.

What we have here in this move by apple, is a screaming confirmation that old apple hardware vastly outperforms its current successors.

I had already gotten wind of this on what is technically an anecdotal basis. Personally I wasn't happy with the increasing impossibility of repairing or upgrading apple hardware, and the ongoing contempt for people and destruction of what had once been a well-designed and if not respectful at least not intrusive interface. That said, I am not unaware of my generally idiosyncratic notions of the world and what I want out of my regularly used tools. Still, last year I began to hear from more and more acquaintances in the graduate student demographic about how their old mac was still chugging, and the newer machine they had purchased or even received as a gift was so unstable they had given up on it. Then several of them commented on how the latest macbook air they had had been replaced three times now due to a known manufacturing flaw, among them a person who threw up her hands in understandable disgust and found the least horrible windows 10 machine she could. That machine should at least make it just past its warranty end. But all anecdotal, and as if my personal wanderings make up a scientific sample.

All that acknowledged, I think we can fairly conclude that now that apple has gone to the next level in its war against its own earlier products, that those older products must be outcompeting their successors on every level. Otherwise, why bother to force large recyclers who collect electronics recycling to sign contracts in which they promise to shred every apple computer they receive? Why go after the "unauthorized repair shops"? If it were otherwise, all apple would have to do is sit back and wait, every old machine ages out if life's misfortunes don't take it out first. There would be no need for software that prevents the machine from being repaired by "unauthorized" repairpersons, or to prevent the machines being booted with other operating systems, which is the clear next step once security on an old machine gets too precarious. There would be no need to actively crapify software even if it still runs on the old machines until a person either gives up or dumps the update, which those of us have been around awhile know how to do perfectly legally.

Then again, this isn't a war against apple's old products at all. Not really. It's a war against us oldtimers, the folks who had macs when it wasn't cool, when the company was expected to die at any moment. When fan fiction writers could fondly imagine a hyper-developed ipad as the precursor of the tricorders in star trek. It's a war against a belief that we should be allowed to select and control our tools, and that those tools should not spy on us or be made in a way that prevents us from upgrading or repairing them in order to meet our needs. Which means it isn't a war just on wryly referenced "oldtimers" like me at all, but on anyone and everyone who insists that rights to privacy and control of our tools are not to be granted by corporations and their stockholders, but facts of life to be maintained and enforced. People have them because they are people, not because a corporation or government pretended to invent those rights.

I have mentioned in other thoughtpieces my perspective on buying computers or anything analogous, that it can make sense to save the pennies and pop for the more expensive computer and get a solid five to ten years out of it before it needs replacing. (And it can make sense to refuse to spend all that much, of course, it all depends on your use case.) Hard core gamers are all over this as well and I have not doubt have far more detailed and nuanced explanations of the ways to balance the different major tasks computer hardware may be used for depending on what sort of number crunching we want it to do. Being a bit of tech person myself, I began quietly keeping an eye on hardware alternatives for apple hardware several years ago, since it is quite possible and still legal to make what are colloquially called "hackintoshes" on non-apple hardware, though obviously you can expect no tech support from apple or the manufacturer of the hardware. In light of what has already been happening with the macos, I had already switched my operating system expectations to a flavour of gnu/linux. For several years the best alternative hardware option was, yes, the original ibm thinkpad. For repairability and its record for not having difficult to remove preloaded spyware from the manufacturer on it, it was solid. This is no longer the case. The hardware option I have queued up now and that is holding its own for both hardware and software features is from Purism. The stock operating system can be replaced by any gnu/linux version you like, and several critical functions are controlled by hardware, not software switches.

So there you have it. Not only do we now have a clear confirmation that the older hardware if we can get it and it has survived to today in the apple world, and in some portions of the microsoft-running world, are outperforming their successors. And they are likely to be quite affordable as well as having repairability and better respect for security and privacy in their favour. The collapse in quality and respect in the established manufacturers is also opening up space for more companies like Purism, which have somewhat higher prices but an entirely different view of the people who buy what they sell. The possibilities are still open, if we keep them that way. (Top)

Resistance to Oppression is Perennial (2019-02-19)

Photograph of common chicory by Agnieszka Kwiecien under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, courtesy of wikimedia commons, july 2005. Photograph of common chicory by Agnieszka Kwiecien under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, courtesy of wikimedia commons, july 2005.
Photograph of common chicory by Agnieszka Kwiecień under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, courtesy of wikimedia commons, july 2005.

I have already stated quite bluntly my views on so-called "identity politics," the latest co-optation and backlash against effective resistance to oppression by the oppressed by those doing the oppressing. As usual, the co-opting involves specious claims by oppressors that they are the ones who are really being oppressed by the awful oppressive structures they couldn't be bothered to change. They have leaned extremely heavily on the younger folks out there being too ignorant or at least too naïve to be able to spot the misdirections and lies. They definitely dislike any attempt to learn about the issues at hand independently. Co-opters and backlashers hate it with a passion when anyone, and especially those they consider easy marks like the young or the otherwise apparently uneducated or unsophisticated, insist on finding information for themselves and making up their own minds. I say "apparently" here in absolute seriousness. I disagree absolutely with any claim that people can be denied their own good sense and knowledge merely on the basis that they are young, old, or haven't got education from one or another sorts of institution. That is a backlash, anti-democratic tactic, just as anti-intellectualism is. Unfortunately, this does not protect anyone who may be more vulnerable to flimflammery due to age or experience from at least temporary periods of confusion induced by it, including by the most dangerous types inherent to backlash and co-optation.

One of the hardest things to watch and hear has been the people often labelled "millennials" for marketing purposes declaim that somehow they are the first people ever to challenge sex role based stereotypes. Well, of course, that isn't how they universally describe it. Many of them don't use terminology even remotely like this, instead inveighing against oppression against their gender identity and the failure of previous generations, especially Feminists, especially "second wave" Feminists for not doing this. Their tragic misunderstanding of the great and brilliant lineage of perennial and determined resistance they are joining to sex-based and other forms of oppression is terrible to see, because it disconnects them from the power and momentum available to them from that history. Instead they start all over, apparently from scratch, and refight the old battles all over again, starting with the basic insistence that no one ever, at any time, should ever be oppressed for their sex or their refusal to embody and perform sex-role stereotypes or the more loosely named "gender stereotypes."

As a historian, it frustrates me deeply to hear and read these younger people and others who have joined the "gender identity" train try to argue that "trans-people" existed before the twentieth century. No, they didn't. The very idea of trying to change a person's sex physically was not in play before the twentieth century, when certain endocrine hormones were selected out and labelled "sex hormones" because of their apparent connection to the development of secondary sexual characteristics. Crude sexual surgeries were available from as soon as humans figured out how to cut bits off of themselves and others, for better or worse, and the terminology and life paths varied over time and culture, but so far nobody has found evidence that these people shared the particular construction of "transsexualism" in the twentieth century and now "transgenderism" in the twenty-first. What there most certainly were, were people in places and times before the twentieth century who defied, with all their might and main if they could, restrictive sex-role stereotypes if they were present and socially valourized. It is certainly possible that if they were alive today within fundamentalist-influenced and patriarchal cultures that they might subscribe to and actively attempt to embody ideas at large among a small segment of western cultures and labelled now in the twenty-first century "transgenderism." Or they might not. We really don't know. But the circumstances of their time and place were such that we cannot retroactively impose modern notions of "transsexualism" or "transgenderism" onto them. But it is completely fair to point out that they were defying oppressive sex-roles, and that such resistance is not unique, unnatural, or evidence of a society in collapse. They are in fact evidence of a society's resilience to bullshit perking up, a sign of hope because it means that people within it are still able and willing to work to stop authoritarianism in its tracks, even if at first they were caught on the back foot.

In fact, it seems to me that the previous examples of resistance demonstrate that such resistance has a deep, cross-cultural history, and that societies that responded positively by working on removing the oppressive structures actually did better. When the system enforcing "gender conforming" or the clearer "sex-role conforming" behaviour tightened and became more oppressive, the society in question was in trouble. The people fighting that oppression were and are in fact opposing part of an authoritarian turn, which is always the right thing to do. People always resist. The resistance is perennial. Alas, so are efforts to co-opt that resistance, thereby creating a backlash to counter it. We are seeing that happening right now, in a process that began in the early days of what we can now call "austerity" thinking. But no matter how hard the co-opters and backlashers try, the perennials keep coming back, and the oppressive structures do come down.

But it is impossible for us to know that, and resist successfully or lay needed ground work for successful future resistance, if we get taken in by co-optation because we have been turned away from our own history and encouraged to project into the past concepts and acts that never happened. We can't stand our ground on purely faith-based positions or retrospective relabelling of people in quite different circumstances. But we can based on real evidence and honouring the actual efforts of past resisters, those previous perennials whose bulbs and shoots, if we are very lucky, we are today. (Top)

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