Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Brothers in Arms

I was at a family event in Chicago recently, and so naturally had a couple of run-ins with my wingnut brother, the one who not only reads Ann Coulter but hangs out with her. In other words, he lives in a moral/political reality as opposite as possible to mine. I don՚t think we planned it that way, but as an outcome it is almost tiresomely cliched, like those old movies where one brother becomes a cop and the other a gangster.

It doesn՚t take much to set us off. Since he was in town for his step-son՚s graduation from Northwestern, I quite innocently asked him about the commencement speaker, which led us by some inexorable process to the closest current wingnut political brainworm, namely being outraged that several such speeches by Republican types had been cancelled due to the Stalinist fervor of the politically correct. Condoleeza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christian Lagarde (head of the IMF) all have had their right to free speech gravely trampled on.

Natually I thought this was high-order bullshit, if only because people like that have absolutely no problem getting their views into the public sphere, whether or not a particular speaking gig is interfered with. Doesn՚t matter, because there is an infinite stock of equally lame reasons for frothing available to a member of the Fox News Borg. Soon after we had exhausted that topic, we somehow were onto how it was the fault of labor unions that the US economy was a basket case.

Later, a few minutes of Googling was enough to show that his whole spiel was even more bullshity than I had previously thought. Rice and Lagarde withdrew from speaking because they were faced with protests (that is, other people exercising their free speech rights). Ali՚s offer to be presented honorary degree at Brandeis was withdrawn when her remarks calling Islam “a nihilistic cult of death” came to light, but in the process of doing so the university extended her an offer to come be a speaker at any time, which was entirely proper, given that a commencement speech is an honor – universities should provide a place for controversial speakers to be heard, but not necessarily be granting them honoray degrees.

Well, despite severe temptation I didn՚t restart the argument when I saw him next. I didn՚t want to be the one to make a family gathering into a shouting match, and we managed to be relatively pleasant to each other for the rest of the trip. I don՚t regret that, but I do kind of regret not initiating the meta-conversation that might actually be interesting to me, if not him: how is that we have built for ourselves such entirely separate worlds of discourse? How is it that two people with the same background should fasten on such different understandings of how things are? This is what I wanted to say; and perhaps it would at least create a shared feeling of mutual incomprehension; allowing us to find common ground in our lack of common ground.

That did not happen, sadly. So I continue to think of him as a slave to crappy ideas that nobody with an ounce of an intelligence should take seriously, and he continues to think I՚m a boring member of (what he considers as) the establishment who doesn՚t have the courage to break with the mainstream. Our lives don't intersect very often, which may be for the best, since I can't imagine any way to reconcile our points of view.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Software Studies

Everyone I hope has read the classic and much-loved children՚s book The Phantom Tollbooth. But you may not remember that the plot revolves around a longstanding fraternal feud between the kings of two separate intellectual domains: Aziz, The King of Dictionopolis, ruler of the land of words, and the Mathemagician, whose domain is numbers. Until their conflict is reconciled, no peace can be found in the world of the mind. Like most wars, it seems almost senseless from the outside. What are these two kings fighting about? They each have their land and have no real use for the other՚s, so no material interest drives them. No, it must be some abstract war of pride and place, an eternal struggle for dominance between equal opponents. Certainly Milo, the protagonist (admittedly a bit dull) can՚t see the point of it.

This storybook war is quite obviously based on the real-world cultural disconnect between the humanities and the sciences. While this divide has been around forever and isn՚t going away anytime soon, fortunately there have always been plenty of people willing to be double agents and smugglers, engaging in valuable commerce between two realms that like to pretend that they have nothing to do with one another. I like to think that the computation is a major route for such intellectual vagabonds of uncertain loyalty, and certainly I՚ve always been drawn to those who expressly aim at transgressing the boundaries.

Computation was birthed by the sciences, and is in universities normally a branch of engineering or math departments, and computer people have always been mostly of that ilk. But there have always been other kinds of people involved: call them digital humanists, those who had deep roots in something more human than dry mathematics. Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, Ted Nelson come to mind. The MIT Media Lab was initially created in the school՚s architecture department precisely to avoid being the narrow nerdish viewpoint of straight engineering. Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert, who co-founded the Artificial Intelligence lab in earlier decades were key early players there as well. Both of the latter were accomplished mathematicians but were not satisfied to work within the strictures of that field, and sought to find deep connections between mathematics, mind, and culture.

Perhaps its the influence of the Phantom Tollbooth that drew me to them; I՚ve tried to follow these luminaries in various ways and done my own bit to tunnel underneath the borders, although I wasn՚t always thinking of it in that way. At the the Media Lab, I was part of a cabal that was trying to be even more interdisciplinary than the official line, and so we explored connections between largely technical areas like AI and some of the more rarefied products of the humanities. This was in early 90s, more or less, so just before computers started the process of taking over all of human culture. Since then there has been a small and refined explosion of work in what is apparently now called “digital humanities”.

So I have been (out of the blue, and somewhat unaccountably) been invited to an academic workshop at UC Santa Cruz in this area (whose goal is producing a book for this series). This is a field which I have only a tenuous and out-of-date connection to, but I can՚t turn down a chance to live the life of the mind, if only for a day. But I don't really know what the hell is going on in this field. This post represents a few days of light cramming; I may have a post-workshop followup.

So what is digital humanities? Well, people in the traditional humanities (literature, arts, philosophy, and of course “critical theory”) are not stupid and can see just like everyone else that the world is getting eaten up by software and digital technology. This includes both the everyday human world that is their subject, and the professional academic world of teaching and publishing. Naturally they want to get a foothold in the eating side of this revolution, lest they among the eaten.

That is the crass way to think about it though. There is actually interesting stuff going on!

Some branches of digital humanities (not counting people who are more like new media artists here, to limit myself to the scholarly):
  • applying computational techniques to traditional questions in the humanities (eg, doing large-scale textual analysis to learn how language and idioms change over time)
  • media theory: taking the approach of an art historian / social theorist to the new forms of human communication such as the web and Facebook (hero: Marshall McLuhan)
  • software studies: treating computational artifacts themselves as texts to be analyzed; thinking about the role of human values in their creation.
The latter is the most apt to induce spluttering from a mainstream technologist (and hence is the most interesting -- the other aspects seem like worthwhile academic pursuits but don't seem like they are likely to rock my world). While Moby Dick and the source code of the Emacs editor I am using right now are both “texts” in some very abstract sense, they are pretty different kinds of things and it is not immediately clear that they cast any useful light on each other.

They do, of course, meet at one point: the human reader and writer. That is to say, the same person may at different time interacting, creating, interpreting both kinds of texts, along with many others. And it՚s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the mental machinery used for both kinds of texts is the same: both require parsing into small chunks with formal relationships to each other, for instance. Both require creativity in their creation, although of fairly different sorts. Literature requires creativity in its reception as well; does software? Arguably yes, especially in the common case where one programmer is trying to understand another՚s code (for purposes of fixing or extending it).

But the real thing that the humanities brings to the software table is the idea of critique, or in other words, the idea that it is a perfectly proper and useful thing to do to take a cultural product (aka text) and dissect the ways in which it works, how it relates to its subject matter and its audience, what it tries to say about the society that produced it and what it actually says, what effects it has on that society, what values it embodies, and what values we should be applying when we sit in judgement. And techniques for doing so.

This is something that is almost entirely missing from the engineering culture that most software people are trained in, and it's pretty clearly desperately needed. Software is eating the world, very smart people and corporations are busily figuring out how to eat faster and more effectively, and there needs to be better ways to think about this process, to critique it and possibly even resist or redirect it. I՚m not sure these obscure academic fields will do it, but they are better than nothing.

And I՚m looking forward to the day when software critics become major cultural players, passionate minds on the order of Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs who can teach us new ways to read the latest releases on Github.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Steelmanning the homophobes

A few days ago the popular left blogger Atrios asked why in the world did opponents of gay marriage care about it so much? Opposition to abortion is understandable – the story about baby-killing is easy to get even if you disagree – but why should people get exercised to such an extent over granting some rights to others that don՚t affect them personally? The answers his commenters provided were not that impressive, they were all variations on: they are assholes, they are afraid of their own urges, they are worried that their social privileges are under attack. etc. An example:
Bearpaw01 • 2 days ago
They care because privilege.

Also, at least some of them care because they're so fucking deep in the closet that they furiously resent the happiness of anyone who isn't.
Those sort of explanations have a degree of validity – I have no particular objections to ad hominem – but they lack something: a sympathetic understanding of the other person՚s point of view. That is, they are descriptions from the outside, which may be quite accurate, but do not reflect the internal experience and thinking of the person in question. That is, they are not proper answers to the question of how homophobes justify their beliefs to themselves. If you find yourself sputtering that these people don՚t deserve to be understood because they or their opinions are awful, well, that is the problem I՚m talking about.

This attitude works fine if you have given up on actually communicating with these people, if you are willing to treat them as wholly other, as mere enemies. And pretty much we have, and by “we” I mean sane intelligent people generally. We are pretty much convinced that the right wing is comprised entirely of people who are insane, morons, corrupt, or some mixture of the three. There is plenty of evidence for this view, of course. But we still have to share a world with them. It feels naive (or more precisely – it violates my self-image as a cynic) but I do actually believe in dialog between enemies. If there is any value to politics at all, then it must be as the pragmatic art of figuring out how to live with people you consider awful, and if you aren't going to hold them at bay by force you have to talk with them.

One of the practices of the rationalist community that I like a lot (actually I figured it out as a principle for myself long ago, but never had a catchy name for it) is steelmanning, roughly, the opposite of employing straw-man tactics in an argument. Instead, you aim your attacks at the strongest arguments for an opponents position, and that way if and when you defeat him you know you have won a genuine intellectual victory, not a mere tactical skirmish.

What I՚m trying to talk myself into here is not exactly steelmanning, because I՚m not that much of a rationalist. I՚m not interested so much in comparing the strength of opponent՚s arguments with my own, because I don՚t really believe there is a common currency that would permit comparison. Both our worldviews are strong for us, but weak for each other. What I am advocating is something more like intellectual empathy, or the imaginative entry into the mind of someone whose values and background may be quite different from your own. This of course is challenging and possibly unpleasant.

Can this be applied to opponents of gay marriage? The standard Bay Area attitude, which I usually share, is that these people are simply jerks trying to interfere with other people՚s rights and happiness just because they are different. But I՚ve studied them a bit, and there are two arguments I have seen them make that seem worth taking a tiny bit seriously. One of them is actually a pretty good argument, although not nearly strong enough to sway the question in their favor. The other is a very bad argument, but it is bad in a way that interests me, since it bears on certain philosophical obsessions.

First, the good argument: Opponents of gay marriage complain that it attacks or “destroys” so-called “traditional marriage”. This mystifies people like Atrios, and me too when I՚m not in deliberate-empathy-for-the-enemy mode. I have quite a traditional marriage and I don՚t feel the slightest threat to it from letting gay people participate in the institution (why shouldn't they suffer along with the rest of us?). But the opponents are quite right, and I wrong, in one very specific sense: marriage is more than just an individual decision that has affects only the two participants. It՚s in part a public, social act, and as such it is an institution of society, and redefining what it means does in fact impact everyone in some way. It doesn՚t destroy the old institution, as opponents like to put it, but it does change it, and we should be honest and acknowledge the fact.

So if we are honest, and we should be, we are kidding ourselves by pretending that the question is merely one of individual rights, because that is a lie. And more specifically, it is a lie that works against the real interests of the left when we buy into it, because it denies the reality of the social.

Understanding the logic of this argument doesn՚t explain the passion that often lies behind it, which was what we were originally interested in. These people not only believe in society and its institutions, but they believe that they are fragile and in constant danger of collapse, or that they have indeed already collapsed. Nostalgia is a big thing on the right, for what are supposed to be simpler and more honest times (this lost golden age may be anything from the 1950s to the 15th century. Gay marriage is just another attack on the fundamental structures of society by its enemies. In short, they feel embattled and fearful. They sense quite rightly the slow but unstoppable shifts in the world, and change is scary, so they want to stop it. So much so that they think (consciously or not) that gay couples are getting married just to mess with them. This is absurdly self-centered of course, but that is how most human thought operates, most of the time. So rather than see gay people who just want to live their lives and be treated in the same way as anybody else, they seem them as primarily a threat to the order of society, and to the moral order of reality.

Well that was an interesting exercise (the second argument, the bad but philosophically resonant one, will have to wait for another time). I՚m trying to work up empathy for other people՚s lack of empathy. It may appear to be morally pretentious, but in my defense I can honestly claim to be largely motivated out of boredom with ossified ways of thinking, rather than some aspiration to sainthood.