Saturday, November 21, 2009

Phil Agre, an appreciation

[updated below]

Phil Agre, a friend and former UCLA professor who I've often mentioned on this blog, has gone missing, and some of his friends are organizing an informal search of the streets. As far as anyone knows, he had some sort of severe mental breakdown and is presumed to be homeless somewhere in LA.

Phil was one of the smartest people I knew in graduate school. More than smart, he had the intellectual courage to defy the dominant MIT sensibilities and become not just an engineer but a committed critic of the ideology under the surface of technology, especially as it was applied to artificial intelligence. He was a leader of the situated action insurgency in AI, a movement that questioned the foundations of the stale theories of mind that were implicit in the computational approach. Phil had the ability to take fields of learning that were largely foreign to the culture of MIT (continental philosophy, sociology, anthropology) and translate them into terms that made sense to a nerd like me. I feel I owe Phil a debt for expanding my intellectual horizons.

Phil was a seminal figure in the development of Internet culture. His Red Rock Eater email list was a early predecessor to the many on-line pundits of today. Essentially he invented blogging, although his medium was a broadcast email list rather than the web, which didn't yet exist. He would regularly send out long newsletters containing a mix of essays, pointers to interesting things, and opinions on random things. He turned email into a broadcast medium, which struck me as weird and slightly undemocratic at the time, but he had the intellectual energy to fuel a one-man show, and in this and other matters Phil was just ahead of the times -- now the web is stuffed to the brim with outsized personalities, but it wasn't so back then. Here's one of the last recorded posts on RRE, on Vaclav Havel, which includes an explanation of what Phil termed "issue entrepreneurship". I picked this out at basically at random from the archives, and it typifies the insight, clarity, and urgency of Phil's writing:
What is needed and missing in the United States is the other major component of Vaclav Havel's life story -- the intellectual seriousness that believed down deep that the world is made of ideas and that the health of a society depends on the health of its language. ... Civilization cannot survive when language becomes the terrain of a thoroughly instrumentalized political war. Vaclav Havel and his colleagues won a contest of decency against the dead hand of an authoritarian system that had nothing living inside it. Today's authoritarians are altogether more resourceful. Today's civil society will have to discover a correspondingly deeper meaning in its own ideals.
Some of Phil's better-known essays include:
  • What is Conservatism and What is Wrong with it? - cuts to the heart of our present politics.
  • Networking on the Network: an early guide to using the Internet to build intellectual communities and careers.
  • How to Help Someone Use a Computer - excellent practical advice. This particular bit I use all the time: "Whenever they start to blame themselves, respond by blaming the computer... When they get nailed by a false assumption about the computer's behavior, tell them their assumption was reasonable. Tell *yourself* that it was reasonable."
  • The Practical Republic - An examination of the importance of social skills in the creating of citizenship
Phil was constantly dispensing excellent advice. I wish I had taken more of it.

The tragedy is that for all his intellectual engagement and instruction of others in social skills, something seems to have gone wrong with Phil's own social life. The energy he poured into his writing seems to have left him little to spare to form close relationships -- or something like that, something that allowed him to slip away from the society about which he had so much to say. It is somewhat mystifying that a UCLA professor with a huge Internet following could just vanish with nobody noticing, but that is what seems to have happened. When Phil's voice suddenly ceased a few years back, I assumed he had decided to focus on a book or some other major project. Apparently everyone else made the same assumption. I've been out of the academic circuit for years, that's my excuse, but I don't quite understand how those in the loop could have let this happen. It's a stunning indictment, but I can't say exactly of whom or what.

This reads too much like an obituary. I hope to hell it isn't, and that Phil finds his way back from wherever he's gone off to. We still need him.

[update: the news as of early 2011 is that Phil is in good physical health but wishes to be left alone; the people who were searching for him are going to respect that wish.]


riffraff814 said...

I'm not sure it's an indictment of anyone, except perhaps Phil, himself. As an adult in a free society, Phil often made the choice toward privacy. That very innate behavior of his caused many to feel as if they would be intruding should they offer ... to help? to talk? Had he, instead, formed a bit more of a social web of contacts who would notice his withdrawal and feel comfortable remarking to him upon it, things would (I hope) have gone differently.

The onus is on Phil, in many respects, to allow us in and indicate what we can do for him. We can not force ourselves upon him.

I do hope he returns and gives us an opportunity to extend ourselves on his behalf. I can tell there are many who are aching to do so.

jlredford said...

I too remember RRE with fondness. He described "On Bullshit" long before Harry Frankfurter did. I only had the pleasure of meeting Agre once, and found him charming. I too don't know how a person with such an obviously wide social circle could just disappear without anyone noticing. Sure, California is full of lost people, but I doubt it's as deliberate as the previous commenter suggested. Sometimes the meds run out and you just can't get it together enough to refill.

riffraff814 said...

I don't think Phil deliberately isolated himself. I rather think he failed to deliberately integrate himself socially while, as you say, the meds had not yet run out. I know that his physically present colleagues saw him slipping away, but were unable to do anything both for legal reasons (adult in a free society) and for social reasons (zone of privacy that Phil carved out). Perhaps those who were socially close with Phil spoke up as much as they could. I don't know them or what they have done. I only know my own feelings of loss.

I do worry that he is at a marked disadvantage right now and is unable to make his needs known (to himself or others). The Los Angeles I know isn't full of lost people, but it is full of places one can lose oneself if one chooses to.

TGGP said...

Ilkka Kokkarinen would have a field day with this story. I don't think his personal problems means there was necessarily anything wrong with his ideas though, as a sort of reverse halo-effect.

I couldn't get past where he said conservatism was incompatible with civilization. He had just stated that the Egyptians and Romans were characterized by conservatism, and they're prototypical civilizations. The thing about conservatism having to re-invent itself each generation makes sense in the current context, saying that it's about aristocracy doesn't.

mtraven said...

TGGP: Who? OK, I can Google, but why should I care?

Agre's Conservatism essay does go a bit overboard in my opinion in projecting the current split between conservatives and democrats back through thousands of years of history. If I had to guess, when he said that conservatism is "incompatible with civilization" he meant that it's incompatible with the sort we would like to have, one that is dynamic, innovative, at least somewhat rational.

When reading that (or anything outside your comfort zone) I suggest not getting hung up on individual assertions and trying to imagine the sort of world the author is trying to convey. That's a trick I may have learned from Phil, now that I think about it.

TGGP said...

When reading that (or anything outside your comfort zone) I suggest not getting hung up on individual assertions and trying to imagine the sort of world the author is trying to convey.
Mencius Moldbug has quite an imagination and writing talent to convey it. His individual assertions are often contradictory or just false. That trait indicates to me a sort of performance art rather than dedication to truth. When Bryan Caplan argues that other famous philosophers were just as bad as Rand, I don't take that to indicate that I should give Rand a chance. It tells me to discount the rest of them along with her.

mtraven said...

Facts are facts, but "conservatism" is not a well-defined thing, so if Agre tells a story about conservatism that doesn't match your preconceived notions, a sensible response to is to think if there is some other reasonable definition of "conservatism" that makes the rest of his story make sense.

I suppose the reason Moldbug's writing was initially interesting to me is because it required this sort of effort for me to read. What assumptions does it take to make this stuff make sense, given that it it conflicts at almost every point with my values? Unfortunately he got way too far out of step with reality for me to continue. I think it was the point where he insisted that journalists and academics were the most powerful people in the world; and the corollary that the entire Western world was run out of Cambridge MA, where I finally said enough. A pity, because the core of his belief system is coherent and is at least worth arguing against.

Bryan Caplan believes that "Ayn Rand was an excellent novelist". The mind boggles. As to philosophy in general, see the tagline above, or you would probably like David Stove who I tackled earlier. But actually I am (sometimes) more favorably disposed towards philosophy than that stuff would indicate. Most philosophy is crap of course, but most of anything is. Like Agre's piece, you need to make an effort to understand what it is trying to say, what kind of conversation it is part of.

hoyhoy said...

Phil's essay on conservatism is fantastic. He articulates many of the various half-formed thoughts I've had regarding their rhetoric much better than I ever could. I don't find anything he wrote controversial in the least.

Sebastien said...

I think Phil should perhaps have used a different word than "conservatism" because that term already has a lot of baggage. Perhaps what he writes about could simply be called "elitism", as in: "elitism is the domination of society by an aristocracy."