Monday, May 31, 2010

Support the nontroops

Today we take time to honor those pacifists, deserters, AWOLs, refuseniks, Yossarians, Švejks, self-wounders, conscientous objectors, draft dodgers, hippies, misfits, fake ministers, fake homosexuals, mutineers, etc, who for selfish or principled reasons managed to avoid becoming part of the machinery of war.

Not being privy to the mind of god I don't know who is the more morally upright, the soldier who goes to war for his country and community, or the indivdual who opts out. Maybe it depends on the country, and the war. Maybe it depends on the reason for opting out. But I do know that if everyone opted out, we'd all be better off.

"Colonel Cathcart is our commanding officer and we must obey him. Why don't you fly four more missions and see what happens?"

"I don't want to."

"Suppose we let you pick your missions and fly milk runs?" Major Major said. "That way you can fly the four missions and not run any risks."

"I don't want to fly milk runs. I don't want to be in the war anymore."

"Would you like to see our country lose?" Major Major asked.

"We won't lose. We've got more men, more money, and more material. There are ten million men in uniform who could replace me. Some people are getting killed and a lot more are making money and having fun. Let somebody else get killed."

"But suppose everybody on our side felt that way?"

"Then I'd certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn't I?"

-- Joseph Heller, Catch-22

[Last year's similarly-themed Memorial Day post]

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lost in thought

Lost is coming to a close, with a finale that is almost sure to be a disappointment, at least to naive viewers who demand closure from their narratives. I have some of those feelings myself, but mostly the show has succeeded in driving away those everyday expectations. I really believe that it is a sign of artistic ambition (success is another matter) when a show or other work defies genre conventions and makes the viewer/reader wrestle with them (Bolano's 2666 is another work like that, a novel that refuses to act like a novel and constantly veers off in other directions).

I'm not all that sophisticated myself, and one of my perpetual irritations with the show is how it can't decide if its science fiction or metaphysical fantasy. The island has "pockets of electromagnetic energy", but it also has [spoiler alert] twin brothers who are all but immortal represent the light and dark forces of the universe. Make up your mind, which brought down the plane, physics or metaphysics?

But then it occured to me that maybe the show is more sophisticated than I give it credit for. After all, I am perpetually trying to articulate my own half-baked, vaguely Platonistic notion that non-physical entities (ideas, selves, souls, gods even) have a legitimate form of existence, but that their existence is always implemented/incarnated in physical stuff. When I see people confused about this I just want to smack some sense into them. Well, not to get into that stuff here, but it seems that it applies to the world of Lost. Why can't the electromagnetic energy be a manifestation of the spirits, or vice versa? Why can't ideas be both immaterial and material, and Certs be both a floor wax and a dessert topping?

So the question remains (for a few hours) whether the show, in its wrap-up, can make a contribution to this perpetually thorny philosophical problem while also providing the requisite amount of explosions, deaths, flashbacks, and ominous musical cues?
[[update: well, that was about as disappointing as expected. Ultimately, the show at its core was neither SF nor fantasy, but a very vanilla character-driven drama. Thus the perfunctory and unsatisfying activity at the heart of the island, with the giant cork and all, compared with the rather touching character reunions in the sideways universe as the characters reunited with their true loves and got their memories back. Didn't make much sense, except on the emotional level.]]
On a somewhat related topic, I took the kids yesterday to the Maker Faire, a yearly event that represents a concentrated dose of the artist-techie-hipster-tinkerer community (lots of Burning Man type of stuff, without having to endure a eight-hour drive to the desert). It's related because the people there all engaged in giving material form to ideas. I am somewhat in awe of this. While I view myself as a maker, most of the stuff I make is made of words or symbols. Manipulating actual matter takes too much work. Yet here are these people willing to take the idea of a mobile 15-foot high mobile robotic giraffe, or a vehicle shaped like a cupcake, or a musical instrument involving two giant Tesla coils, and do the hard work of turning them into real physical things. While mostly I admire the sheer effort and energy that go into this, a part of me dismisses it as a waste. There's something in me (and I learned it from the culture I grew up with) that thinks of matter as lowly and values abstraction and disembodiment over anything tangible. I've been fighting against tendency my whole life in various ways, and going to events like the Maker Faire is one way of doing that. The immaterial spirits animating this festival of matter-workers were (ahem) palpable.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


My friend Amy Bruckman has been talking about her failed attempts to maintain separate online personalities for her personal and professional lives. Me too. I have a very vague and gauzy separation of the different facets of my online life, and those from my real life one. (see here also, and look, it's in the NY Times today).

It got me thinking about how I'd like to divide up my online life, assuming I had infinite time to maintain separate masks to different parts of the world:

- personal life: family, friends, real-world activities
- work life: computation, biology, hacking, the internet, business
- intellectual life: thoughts on economics, history, philosophy, polticial science, and other fields I take an amateur's interest in
- cultural life: books, movies, music, etc
- spiritual life: the deepest longings of the soul

Each of these spheres defines a separate imaginary audience, has separate conventions and separate rules for what constitutes an interesting or acceptable interaction. But the boundaries are blurry, the categories collapse into each other (and in some cases could be subdivided further). I can't keep these separate, yet they don't really fit together. I feel like my real self is something like the union of these sets, but discretion indicates I should only post material that is in the intersection of them, which is pretty close to empty.

Of course, the real irony is that the only reason to have a blog is to scream to the world, "me, me, look at me, I'm so interesting, I'm so great". If so, what's the point of hiding yourself behind a set of masks? But you could say something similar about human communication in general. We are always putting on a mask, staging an act, constructing a persona. The difference is that in the physical world we can use the structure of the physical environment to manage and cue the different roles we play.

The great sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a great deal about the techniques people use to stage their public life, in books like Interaction Ritual and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. For example, he talks about the distinction between front and back regions, based on the areas within theater. On stage, a certain performance takes place, back stage the artifice is relaxed, but other types of performance take place. Goffman identifies similar structures in work life, for example, a medical office, where certain rules of conduct apply in areas where patients are, and others where doctors and staff congregate behind the scenes (or a the seating area and kitchen of a restaurant, to take an even clearer example).

Goffman talks about how different roles are played out in different contexts and how the tension between front and back areas is exploited by (for example) shills, who are members of the team putting on a performance who pretend to be members of the audience to channel energies of the actual audience memebers. In the land of the internet, shills are sometimes called sock puppets, which doesn't quite capture the institutionalization of such activity as found in casinos and elsewhere. Lee Siegel got mocked and fired for his sock-puppetry (although he hasn't lost his pundit licensesince he still publishes thumbsucker books and essays in the NY Times), but could he plausibly claim that he was just giving vent to the separate personas that we all have. Would the offense have been the same if the New Republic hired an intern to post enthusiastic comments on his blog (eg, if there was a real separate person performing the role)?

The Internet erases all boundaries and cueing strategies, and as more social life is conducted through social media it is harder to know how to act. Are we onstage or backstage, and what is the nature of the show we are in? Random bits of banter that people exchange as teenagers come back to haunt them as adults, in job applications or other formalized situations. The deep structure of social life is dissolved; we're left putting on an act without knowing who it's for; whether at any particular time its supposed to be serious or funny, formal or informal.

The old-school internet didn't have these problems. "Social media" consisted of email lists; the archives of such things were generally private, and it was no problem to present one face to a list concerned with knowlege representation and another that dealt with anarcho-surrealist art, if those happened to be two of your interests. The advent of Google and Facebook has changed that. Is this some kind of unstoppable dynamic, sort of like how global capitalism flattens boundaries and winds up with everybody connected and competing? Or will there be a reaction, with people withdrawing and figuring out ways to put boundaries around parts of their lives?

Just in the last few weeks, Facebook has been subject to severe criticism for its increasingly cavalier approach to privacy. Durkheim (via Goffman) sums up why:
The human personality is a sacred thing; one does not violate it nor infringe its bounds, while at the same time the greatest good is in communion with others.
Goffman's work partly undermines this idea. In his detailed descriptions of social interaction, the persona is a carefully forged tool for getting a job done, a construct, a mask. The sacred part is hidden inside somewhere, occasionally shining through, protected by the concentric boundaries of social space. Because Facebook and other social media blithely destroy these boundaries, they are in effect desecrators.

[update: found an academic treatment of this problem: The problem of conflicting social spheres
: effects of network structure on experienced tension in social network sites, by Jens Binder et al]

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Fictional borders

JEH Smith points out in a couple of excellent posts that ethnically speaking the Hispanics were here first so we have a bit of nerve asking them to produce papers to prove their "legality". I loved this because it took a view of the issue that is zoomed up a couple orders of magnitude from the stuff in the newspapers, and highlights the essential fictiousness of states and borders. And how the demographic and economic facts on the ground can trump such fictions, no matter how much effort is made to translate the fictions into walls of concrete, barbed wire, and guns.

Taking the god's-eye-view of situations that are hopelessly unresolvable on the ground is fun. Whee!
The that the American West was only able to appear as Anglo territory, for a spell, as a result of a relatively recent (late 19th century) and concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing. It is astounding to me that people have to be reminded of the historical fact that in order for the American West to become white, other people had to be displaced.... the population of Mexico is somewhere between 60 and 80% Mestizo, and that for them the line drawn by the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 reflects no natural or deep-seated historical boundary.
There is a cultural-geographical family there that cannot be made to fit with the arbitrary borders of states.... But the fact that it is proving difficult to maintain the Anglo identity of the borderlands needs to be understood in terms of geography, demography, and history, not as a testament to the scofflaw character of the 'illegals'.
The northern limit of Latin America in fact extends well to the north of the US-Mexican border, and the relatively recent efforts at Anglicization do not change this historical reality.
Ethnic conflict is no joke, even if it plays out slowly over a scale of centuries. The current dust-up in Arizona is minor league and hopefully not a harbinger of more intense forms of conflict. When ethnicities face each other across a porous, fictional, and unstable border, the alternatives are conflict ultimately resulting in extermination or expulsion on the one hand, or multiculturalism or hybridization on the other. It's clear which is the preferred path, but it's also clear what happens in the normal course of history:
Now I happen to think that ethnic cleansing simply is the default activity of the human species. This is something that is perfectly easy for archaeologists to acknowledge when attempting to explain why the pottery shards of one civilization are found at a certain depth in the ground, and those of another civilization at a lower depth. Let's not play stupid: it's because the lower guys were driven out or exterminated. Why? Because their land had stuff the higher guys wanted. That's human history in nuce, yet for some reason people prefer to pretend that the human present is governed by different rules than the past...