Creative Immiseration

“These tools represent the complete corporate capture of the imagination, that most private and unpredictable part of the human mind. Professional artists aren’t a cause for worry. They’ll likely soon lose interest in a tool that makes all the important decisions for them. The concern is for everyone else. When tinkerers and hobbyists, doodlers and scribblers—not to mention kids just starting to perceive and explore the world—have this kind of instant gratification at their disposal, their curiosity is hijacked and extracted. For all the surrealism of these tools’ outputs, there’s a banal uniformity to the results. When people’s imaginative energy is replaced by the drop-down menu “creativity” of big tech platforms, on a mass scale, we are facing a particularly dire form of immiseration.

By immiseration, I’m thinking of the late philosopher Bernard Stiegler’s coinage, “symbolic misery”—the disaffection produced by a life that has been packaged for, and sold to, us by commercial superpowers. When industrial technology is applied to aesthetics, “conditioning,” as Stiegler writes, “substitutes for experience.” That’s bad not just because of the dulling sameness of a world of infinite but meaningless variety (in shades of teal and orange). It’s bad because a person who lives in the malaise of symbolic misery is, like political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s lonely subject who has forgotten how to think, incapable of forming an inner life. Loneliness, Arendt writes, feels like “not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” Art should be a bulwark against that loneliness, nourishing and cultivating our connections to each other and to ourselves—both for those who experience it and those who make it.”

-Annie Dorson, “AI is plundering the imagination and replacing it with a slot machine.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. October 27, 2022

Strikes me as another example of the two computing revolutions. One is to make things easy with a touch interface. The other requires having deep knowledge of a complicated topic, such as building machine learning models – not to mention having the resources to do so at the highest level.

The point I would make is that creativity by proxy is still creativity. You may not understand how the A.I. generates its content, but we still can have an aesthetic sense about what is good and what isn’t that the A.I. doesn’t provide.

Xi Jinping Studies

“The Fourteen Imperatives are shorter. They all include the phrase ‘adhere to’ and are essentially a list of what party members must do to implement XJPXSDZGTSSHZYSX. Party members must adhere to: 1. party leadership over all endeavours; 2. people-centred development; 3. comprehensive and in-depth reform; 4. a new vision for development; 5. the people running the country; 6. socialist law-based governance; 7. core socialist values; 8. improvement of people’s lives through development; 9. harmony between humanity and nature; 10. a holistic approach to national security; 11. absolute party leadership over the people’s army; 12. the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ for national reunification; 13. the building of a global community with a common destiny; 14. the full and rigorous implementation of party discipline.”

-Long Ling, “Xi Jingping Studies.” London Review of Books. October 20, 2022

Probably the most interesting thing I’ve read about China in awhile. Maybe something to pair with this discussion with Diana Choyleva. Or if you prefer text, try this piece, also from her, “Xi Jinping Wins Big at China’s 20th Party Congress.”

Matt Levine’s The Crypto Story

“There was a moment not so long ago when I thought, “What if I’ve had this crypto thing all wrong?” I’m a doubting normie who, if I’m being honest, hasn’t always understood this alternate universe that’s been percolating and expanding for more than a decade now. If you’re a disciple, this new dimension is the future. If you’re a skeptic, this upside-down world is just a modern Ponzi scheme that’s going to end badly—and the recent “crypto winter” is evidence of its long-overdue ending. But crypto has dug itself into finance, into technology, and into our heads. And if crypto isn’t going away, we’d better attempt to understand it. Which is why we asked the finest finance writer around, Matt Levine of Bloomberg Opinion, to write a cover-to-cover issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, something a single author has done only one other time in the magazine’s 93-year history (“What Is Code?,” by Paul Ford). What follows is his brilliant explanation of what this maddening, often absurd, and always fascinating technology means, and where it might go.

—Joel Weber, Editor, Bloomberg Businessweek introducing Matt Levine, “The Crypto Story.” Businessweek. October 25, 2022

Probably the most lucid discussion on cryptocurrencies you can read, right now.

Coin of My Realm: Meaning

I’ve been thinking on this tweet a bit lately. How do we determine what is the coin of our realm? What is important to us?

I wanted to expand on this tweet. Isn’t really “what others offer” is a question of what we value in ourselves, and in other people? Lets leave aside the fact that this is a transactional model of relationships. Instead, let’s focus on the value. If we really want to understand what we value, I think the real question comes down to time.

How do you spend your time? With whom do you spend it? Because, when it comes right down to it, the only thing each of us has of any value is who we are as people and how we spend our time. Everything else just expands our agency within that framework.

I have been spending a lot of my time lately doing writing, providing support via Discord & Telegram and doing some minor programming for a cryptocurrency called Ergo. I’ve learned a lot about:

  • How cryptocurrencies work
  • The psychology of people in the cryptocurrency space, which is indicative of people more generally
  • Learning to use new software tools

The last is an interesting development, I’ve never collaboratively worked on a project using git. I have use it to provide back-ups and versioning for my own work, such as configuration files, bash scripts and so forth. But, it’s a different experience to work collaboratively with someone else with it. The collaboration has value, independently of the code being created or the ideas behind it. This is something that is missed in the above tweet.

Things change so fast in the cryptocurrency space, and it is filled with people trying to make quick money. Or, “life changing money,” which normally means they can stop working and do whatever they dream of doing, perhaps driving cross country in a Lamborghini. Wen lambo? This is a question often asked, jokingly, but it is also serious.

Given the environment, integrity is very important because there is such a lack of it. Most people are hoping to strike it rich, which means there is a large pool of people that can be scammed.

Beyond the get rich environment, it is also interesting thing to note how little agency people have in the space. At the level of the cryptocurrency itself, there are wild price swings, and much of the variance is market manipulation. Imagine all the problems of the stock market, without most of the regulatory restrictions.

But, it is also clear that the restrictions that are in place are there to benefit certain people, just as much as they are to protect people involved. So, there’s a distrust of larger governance, particularly governance by a state.

In its place, in cryptocurrencies, you have governance by unelected bodies, software developers, investors and other interested parties. It’s never governance by people using the cryptocurrency, in any form whether it is democratic, the choosing of representatives, and so forth.

Best case, it’s a meritocracy. Often, these meritocracies have a benevolent dictator, and while they may wish for more user input, do not know how to move from where they are at to a system where people using the tool are deciding how it should be used and what capabilities to develop.

Without any kind of real governance and input into the decision-making processes necessary to be a functioning entity, discussion tends to devolve into who has the biggest microphone and who can shout down opposing points of view. You might say this is the defining feature of our times, when people have little agency over the things they care about.

One solution to this problem is to care about different things. If you limit what you care about to the things that you have agency over, then you don’t have to argue about it with other people. You can simply do the thing.

Of course, anything sufficiently large is going to require organization beyond mere individuals. But, moving our scope out that wide quickly limits our agency. Most of us scope our concerns so they are beyond any real action on our part. It’s why we develop what the Unabomber describes as surrogate activities, or things we do that serve as a substitute for real agency over things that matter. It’s why people decide to run marathons, climb corporate ladders, or whatever. We set goals such as these when life is unfulfilling.

Where can we find meaning? Where can we find agency? I think the answer to this question in our age is the same answer Voltaire gave in Candide: Il faut cultiver notre jardin, or tend your own garden. Narrow your concerns to a few people. People that show themselves to be unworthy of concern? Remove them from your garden. Spend your time and energy on projects you control and involve yourself in the lives of people you know around you.

Those people don’t need to be “insightful”. Gardens need shade as well as fruit, and every tree and plant can bring something different to the ecosystem. But, we need to thoughtfully engage with the question: what is the garden for? Is it to grow the biggest, best vegetables? Or, maybe there’s something bigger to be found there, such as meaning and agency.

Herd Standards

“Recently criticism has begun to recognize more widely and to analyze in more detail the ways in which far-ramifying commercial organization makes for the dominance of herd standards. We have been shown, for example, how the syndicating of newspapers and magazines degrades their contents to what will please the majority; how, through the box-office, the majority dominate theatre, moving picture house, even opera and concert; how, in dealing with the careless and the gullible, advertising and propaganda tend to be substituted for intrinsic quality. On Justice Holmes’ ideal of ‘doing a thorough piece of work into which he put all his strength, and leaving it unadvertised’ an Englishman’s comment was ‘Can you imagine anything more un-American?'”

-Daniel Gregory Mason, “Artistic Ideals I. Independence.The Musical Quarterly. v. 12, No. 1 (January 1926), 1-7.

No Comment: Cow Dung Capitalism

“Unadulterated cow urine and dung have always been procured from cow-shelters by the traditional for use at home and in temple pujas. What’s recent is the array of therapeutic and beauty products flooding the market that use these as ingredients. There are face packs, bath scrubbers, mosquito coils and incense sticks that contain cow dung. There are creams, cough syrups, body oils, health tonics, weight-loss tonics, and floor disinfectants that contain distilled cow urine. You name it, they have it. And the names of gau mutra or gau arka (cow urine) or cow dung are not hidden away in long lists of fine print on the packages. It is star-lighted right up front as the chief ingredient in bold letters. You can go to a neighbourhood shop and buy it, or drop by a fancy mall and have it bar-code billed before it’s popped into your shopping bag. And, if you so wish, you can even go online and click—or finger tap—yourself a delivery…

….When Laxmi Rao, a 63-year-old corporate trainer in Delhi, first raised a glass filled one- fourth with a mixture of one drop of gau ark (distilled cow urine) and water to her lips, she didn’t feel the slightest twinge of nausea. She has an interest in alternate forms of therapy and had been suffering from knee pain and acidity for several years. A recommendation from a friend and some quick online research on the medicinal attributes of cow urine led her to give the mixture a shot. “I wasn’t queasy at all,” she says. “I was more like, ‘What the hell, let me give this a try’.” She knocked back the concoction in almost one whole gulp.”

-Lhendup G Bhutia, “Cow Dung Capitalism.” Open. September 16, 2016

Sociology/Psychology of the Last Five Minutes

I used this in conversation, and I had forgotten where I had seen it. I think this might be the original source for me:

Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald’s opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand. Thomas Friedman is concerned.

You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place; a baby who is crying now will stop crying sooner or later. Exhaustion, or a change of mood, or a passing sound, or a bright light, something, always happens next. But for the parents the wait can feel the same as forever, and for many pundits, too, now is the only time worth knowing, for now is when the baby is crying and now is when they’re selling your books.

And so the death-of-liberalism tomes and eulogies are having their day, with the publishers who bet on apocalypse rubbing their hands with pleasure and the ones who gambled on more of the same weeping like, well, babies.”

-Adam Gopnick, “Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?” The New Yorker. March 20, 2017

I probably came across the reference in John Naughton’s online diary, which is excellent and worth using an RSS reader for.

US Approves Google Plan To Let Political Emails Bypass Gmail Spam Filter

“The US Federal Election Commission approved a Google plan on Thursday to let campaign emails bypass Gmail spam filters. The FEC’s advisory opinion adopted in a 4-1 vote said Gmail’s pilot program is permissible under the Federal Election Campaign Act and FEC regulations “and would not result in the making of a prohibited in-kind contribution.”

The FEC said Google’s approved plan is for “a pilot program to test new Gmail design features at no cost on a nonpartisan basis to authorized candidate committees, political party committees, and leadership PACs.” On July 1, Google asked the FEC for the green light to implement the pilot after Republicans accused the company of giving Democrats an advantage in its algorithms.

-Jon Brodkin, “US approves Google plan to let political emails bypass Gmail spam filter.” ArsTechnica. August 12, 2022

Who does this serve? Does it serve the person using Gmail or does it serve someone else?

My suggestion: Don’t use Gmail. Protonmail is probably the easiest alternative to set-up and use.

Our Technology Sickness—and How to Heal It

“Because of the digital revolution, our lives are being transformed by three grand bargains. The intellectual bargain: we have more knowledge but less capacity to concentrate and focus. The social bargain: we are much more available but much less attentive. And most importantly, the emotional bargain: we are much more connected, but much less empathetic. When we trade away skills for power, attention for availability, empathy for connectivity, and quality for quantity of relationships, we sign up to a Faustian pact that we do not even know exists—one that gives us more control over the outside world, but less control over our inner world.

What then is to be done? What shifts in thinking and behavior will help us reverse course?

1. A philosophical shift: Less choice, more freedom…[essentially, a variation of the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. The longer you travel down a path and narrow your scope, the more interesting the path. More options means you are in a space more people travel.]

2. A cultural shift: Attention over availability…Our humanity should not be measured by how much attention we attract but by how much attention we devote to what matters. [Or, as has been said elsewhere, “Focus on nourishment rather than poison.”]

3. Remedial technologies [and behaviors. The idea is to train an incompatible behavior. It is possible to turn Airplane Mode on your phone, a remedial technical solution. But, turning your phone off and reading a book accomplishes the same thing and removes technology from the equation. The Amish might be a good reference point.]

4. A Talmudic shift…Jews are expected to be conversant with all sides of a controversy, but in their lived behavior they are expected to follow one position among many. Such a culture ensures that one’s intellectual world is much more expansive than the world of one’s lived practice. [Or, don’t let your politics define the ideas you are allowed to engage with.]

—Micah Goodman, “Our Technology Sickness—and How to Heal It.” Sources. Spring 2022

Excellent essay, all the way around. Recommended.