Distinguishing objects and indistinct worlds
25 September 2021
I am preoccupied with the question of why humans insist on separating objects from each other (and themselves) when materiality knows no boundaries. Our world is full of objects. On my desk I can distinguish my computer, my phone, some seet headphones (Shure SRH840s), a globe, a pile of books, and so on. I understand them all to be distinct from and independent of each other. But I also know that the light from the monitor affects the colors on the books' covers, that the CPU is bound to the speakers in my headphones through electric pulses that connect to my ear drums through the rattling air pulsing to digital information encoding Slum Village, and so on. There is really no way to separate these things. The waves of electricity transform into waves of air that transform into compelling beats. At a more fundamental level, all these objects are continually exchanging electrons and energy with whatever is adjacent to them. In essence, the material world is just a soup in motion, and our brains slice and dice it up into distinct objects.
So do these objects exist? Why do we distinguish them? This is what I am thinking about now, because all our theories, all our explanations, all our ideas, rely on distinguishing one thing from other things. In my graduate class, we are now reading Latour's Facing Gaia, which offers actor-network theory's view of a world made up of perpetual waves of retroaction that broaches no boundaries, that rejects insides and outsides...and yet cannot escape a reliance on these very notions. A problem I think Latour would happily confess to. So how do we recover objects?
One clue lies in our brains' visual processing. The visual cortex is wired to distinguish edges, which allows the brain to identify boundaries between objects. I need to do more research here, but I presume edge detection depends on color differences, continuity of shape, and sometimes relative movement. I am sure the science is fascinating. But the fundamental point is that we are genetically programmed to distinguish objects from their surroundings. It should come as no surprise, then, that our language and concepts build upon this fundamental biological process.
This raises more questions, of course, that I will simply leave hanging here. Do our brains see the "right" objects? Consider the role of visual attention's counterpart, inattentional blindness. Is there a continuum of objectness, thingness, from the concrete, unquestionable thing to the abstract, mutable object (like our theories)? And why would this biological function be programmed in us? Is it because "things" really do exist?
Gaia and humanity
17 September 2021
Apparently I said something reasonably concise and provocative in class today. We are discussing Lovelock's Gaia, and started to explore whether or not humanity was part of Gaia. I offered the following claim (probably based most immediately on Tim Morton's The Ecological Thought) for reflection before next class.
Even though humans are part of nature, we still conceive of nature as something outside of ourselves...in order to understand ourselves as a part of nature.
Summer and information
25 August 2021
The summer is essentially over. My daughters just returned to online classes, and my own classes begin in ten days. Consequently, it seems like time for a quick review of the summer and some thoughts on the information-theoretical approaches to consciousness, life, and individuality that I've been reading.
For a vacation, my summer was bursting with work. At my parents' house, I basically have to compress a year's worth of house and yard maintenance into the one month I am there. I also had to coordinate activities for my kids all by myself, since my wife stayed in Korea to recover from a year and a half of stay-at-home schooling. We lucked out and I managed to get the girls into a local, one-week overnight camp at the Mystic Seaport, where they learned how to sail and generally had a fantastic time. I also managed to get them together with friends they hadn't seen for two years, including a paddleboarding experience and old school summer lake swimming. Dovetailed into this, I had to coordinate vaccinations and shopping, cooking most meals, and generally running around trying to get things done. The work seems to have paid off for everyone else and therefore for me. My wife got to relax. My mother got some company. And the girls developed some autonomy.
But surely more interesting is that I've been reading information-theoretic approaches to biology and consciousness. My current research considers the ways in which we can or cannot consider cities to be thinking, acting individuals. The final outcome is not clear to me (otherwise it wouldn't be interesting), but I am confident that my new work will contribute to how we think of (urban) policy making in the era of algorithmic decision making. For whatever reason, I've fallen into reading papers that are trying to recode our understanding of everything under the rubric of information theory. Proponents seem to claim that information constitutes a more fundamental base for describing the world than materialist reductionism.
Information theory is based originally on the work of Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, who developed the mathematical strategy for transmitting and receiving information. While their initial focus was on communications networks (and indeed form the core of contemporary ICT), the theory itself has proved broad enough to be applicable across material strata and disciplines. Though I did read Shannon for my master's thesis, for which I used a variation of their information measure developed for ecosystem diversity to measure economic sector diversity, I still find the concepts challenging in their subtlety, especially since it involves quite a bit of math. The measure of information is directly related to the measure of thermodynamic entropy (and indeed goes by the same name). The greater the entropy, the greater the information. In essence, as the number of possible (i.e., unpredictable) combinations or recombinations of the variable of concern (words, letters, atoms, proteins) increases, information entropy increases. This is somewhat counterintuitive, as we would typically think that something perfectly predictable gives us more information. That is, if you know I am going to say, it seems like the communication has more information in it. However, because you know what I will say, there is no new information in the communication. I might as well not have said anything. When you have no idea what I will say, the information in the communication is all new and therefore at a maximum. And this is because I could say an enormous amount of different things.
In The information theory of individuality (2020), Krakauer et al. suggest that higher levels of information correspond to higher levels of individuality. They first separate a system from its environment. They then argue that the less information is shared between the system and the environment, the more individuality the system possesses. This is because the state of the system itself does more to determine its own future state than the environment does. There are a couple of sweet things about this strategy. One is that one can make arbitrary distinctions and explore which divisions exhibit the greatest amount of information in the system. Another sweet thing is that their decomposition of individuality suggests that there are different forms of individuality.
But the coolest thing, which is also implicit in the second, is that it positions individuality as a continuum. That is, there is no such thing a complete individual (except at the corner case of a completely closed system outside of our universe). Rather, systems are simply more or less individual (along a couple of axes). So this theoretical finding raises the question of setting thresholds for individuality at the same time that it underscores the arbitrariness of any threshold.
For cities, the implication is that they could possess individuality even though they share a lot of information with their environment. Also, brainstorming now, this theory would seem to associate action with greater system individuality in that the system itself changes the future state of itself and the environment when it acts. So action would be the system effecting change, which could be weak or partial and commingle with the environment's effect on the system itself. Interesting way to thing about it...if not necessarily an innovation.
Marcuse and Trump
10 July 2021
I've just finished reading Herbert Marcuse's 1936 On Authority, in which his enduring interest in domination may first take clear formation. In particular, he makes the distinction between the authority necessary for any social formation and the authority employed under capitalism to dominate and exploit the working class, which in unified in the concept of surplus repression in Eros and Civilization. Though the monograph comes to a rather abrupt and unsatisfactory conclusion, the last chapter looks at contemporaneous bourgeois theories of authority (Sorel and Pareto, specifically) to argue that as bourgeois theories embrace anti-liberal forms of domination, their theory of the state becomes more abstract. A short section of the chapter strikes me as remarkably pertinent to considerations of the conservative right in Western democracies today.
The unity of bourgeois theory at this stage is negative: it rests exclusively on the united front against liberalism and Marxism. It is the enemy who prescribes the position of the theory. It has no ground of its own from which the totality of social phenomena could be understood. All its basic concepts are counter-concepts.... 
Marcuse then goes on to explain how material contents like race, blood, and people are used to create an empty signifier (my word) of authority that can be replaced by any individual as needed by the interests behind domination.
This has obvious echoes in the current right's reliance on attacking perceived affronts to moral integrity and policies for improving the material well-being of the general population with little positive content. Witness McConnell's statements about his goal being to stop or reverse Democratic legislation rather than to advance anything positive.
In fact, the only positive content in the right's platform appears to be the integrity of the nuclear, heterosexual family. Transgender bathrooms and gay marriage threaten the sanctity of marriage. Etc. And this, too, is striking. Throughout the latter half of the book, Marcuse discusses the importance of the bourgeois family for social domination. The central relation being the close fusion of private property with family, and family members' subordination to the dictates of property. Bourgeois theorists saw the disruption of this "germ" of social structure (the father as "king" of the family) as a major threat to the wider social order. It might just be time to go back to The German Ideology and Marx and Engels' other writings to better understand this. Though self-evidently important, I haven't given it much thought. Plus, it seems remarkably pertinent to Korea's current transformation into a low fertility, late marriage society in which women are increasingly eschewing traditional family roles for something new.
Displacement and relocation
8 July 2021
Yesterday I presented my paper (with Danielle Labbe) on injustice and gentrification in Hanoi. It didn't go well. And it's my fault. I didn't prepare early enough or thoroughly enough. I had too much material and had to cut it down to meet the time limit. So I hastily hacked away pieces of my argument. As a result, the logic of the argument didn't flow. I'm definitely disappointed with myself. But I guess I've learned the lesson that it is time to start rededicating myself to higher quality work.
The more interesting aspect of the presentation, however, was a question about the difference between relocation and displacement, which might be better framed as dislocation and displacement. One part of the paper itself argues that displacement is not necessarily a negative experience, even though we typically assume that it is. In the gentrification literature, displacement has referred to the physical relocation of a household out of their neighborhood. In gentrification, this dislocation is involuntary and therefore experienced as unjust and negative, which fits our definition of gentrification ("the production of space for progressively more affluent users that is experienced as unjust"). Davidson and Lees (2010), building on Tuan (1977), argue that gentrification can also entail a phenomenological displacement. Even if a person is not forced to relocate, the transformation of their neighborhood disrupts their livelihood or threatens their identity. People's lived experience is displaced. This is also assumed to be negative, but I do not think this is necessarily so. In our case of periurbanization in Hanoi, Danielle determined that many residents experienced neighborhood transformation and the subsequent phenomenological displacement in a positive. Farmers wanted their arduous working lives displaced by easier, more profitable jobs. Residents welcomed the infrastructural trappings of modernity, like better transportation, better drainage, and more attractive buildings. Even if there was initial resistance, most residents came to welcome the displacement of their traditional lifestyles onto new modern practices. Were this experienced an unjust, we would consider it gentrification, but since it is embraced, it cannot be designated gentrification.
Displacement, then, is a broader term that includes dislocation. "Dislocation", or "relocation", can be considered a physical displacement, a movement from one place to another. Though this is a form of "displacement", this term can also refer to phenomenological transformations triggered by a transformation of space and spatial practice around the individual. It could also refer to the psychological experience of dislocation. Moving to a new neighborhood can cause feelings of displacement, or not belonging to a place. When this is voluntary, like moving to a new country for new experiences, the phenomenological displacement is experienced as a positive event. In fact, many people actively seek out such displacement through tourism. Again, if the displacement is not experienced as unjust, if it is not involuntary, even dislocation can be a positive experience.
One should also further consider the use of "displacement" in psychoanalysis and Derrida, but haven't the time now. I must involuntarily displace my energies onto work that must be done.
Xinjiang and the strange flex
23 June 2021
An article in The Guardian today reports on an aggressive exchange in the UN human rights council. Canada, leading a group of over forty countries, expressed grave concerns over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet and demanded immediate, unfettered access to facilities to ascertain the truth. But rather than directly respond the accusations, the Chinese representative adopted authoritarianism's standard playbook of whataboutism, a strategy that has worked well for China (and Trump!) in the past. Specifically, it raised it's own concerns about Canada's human rights abuses against indigenous peoples in the past, highlighting the recent discovery of over two hundred unmarked indigenous children's graves in British Columbia.
This seems like a strange flex to me. There is no question that European peoples horridly treated the indigenous populations of North America in their colonial conquest of the continent. But the responses that I've read so far focus on national efforts to recognize and address these uncomfortable truths. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, responded, "In Canada, we had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Where is China’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Where is [China’s] truth?" While this is a solid response, it overlooks the obvious and damning implications of the Chinese attack. That is, responding to accusations of human rights abuses by bringing up Canada's tragic history of abuse, exploitation, and destruction of indigenous peoples is an implicit admission that China is engaged in similarly horrific abuses. The underlying argument---at its strongest---seems to be that the situation in Xinjiang and elsewhere is not as bad as what took place in North American history. But it's still bad!
But I suppose if there is no justifiable defense, one must grasp at straws.
IIT and the urban mind
21 June 2021
Integrated information theory (IIT) would argue that there is no urban consciousness. I am thinking actively about cities and agency lately. Arguably, one critical component of agency is the capacity for making conscious decisions. So I have been looking at theories of consciousness for clues to thinking about cities' minds. Over the weekend I finished Koch's The Feeling of Life Itself (2019), which is a phenomenological defense of IIT. His argument does not favor the existence of a collective urban mind.
Koch begins with the neo-Cartesian notion that all we know is built out of our experience, and that at least most of us experience ourselves as conscious. (Of course, we only know our own consciousness, but it is easy to accept the claims of others.) In essence, he argues that this experience itself is our consciousness, or alternatively, consciousness is experience itself. He proposes that our experiences adhere to five axioms: our experiences are structured, informative, definite, consistent, and independent. That is, our experiences have an organization that relates its various aspects (e.g., the spatial relation of a dog next to the tree), which in turn means that there is a non-zero amount of information contained in them (i.e., they are not completely random). Structure, in my reading, also gives experience a definite character that holds together independently of our other experiences. Being a neuroscientist, Koch posits that this structure has a neural correlate of consciousness (NCC), which is basically the structure of our brain's neural network.
He then uses this notion of non-zero information can be parsimoniously defined by an irreducible network of relations that have their correlate in neurons. If a portion of the network of experience can be removed without changing the experience itself, then it is not part of the experience. That is, for Koch, every experience can be described by a unique combination of neural signals, while all other neural activity remains passive background noise. And when that unique combination is active, it is our conscious experience. (This raises the question of whether any neuron can be eliminated without some incremental disturbance of the experience, but I am willing to accept this claim.)
Having established the postulated neural correlate of individual conscious experiences as independent and irreducible, he takes the step of suggesting that the maximally informative network at any one given time is consciousness at that time. While there may be smaller components that independent and irreducible, if they are part of a larger, more information-rich, integrated, and irreducible Whole, then they are not consciousness; that large Whole is consciousness. This conception of consciousness opens up some intriguing possibilities. On one hand, it means that a brain could have multiple consciousnesses acting in parallel so long as they were completely independent. On the other hand, if neurons in multiple brains could be tied tightly together, then we could see the emergence of a consciousness that integrates the two brains into one. It also means that every thing that is irreducible, that contains information, has an experience of some sort, however feeble. Even atoms floating in space just above absolute zero have some sort of experience.
But it also means that cities probably do not have their own consciousness. Koch suggests that the integrated information of tightly interwoven individual brains will have higher local maxima that their combination over the comparatively sparse networks of urban interaction. Consequently, experience (and hence consciousness) will remain localized. People will not lose themselves in an urban hive mind.
Koch's argument relies on our acceptance that experience belongs only to the maximally integrated neural correlate and that more diffuse networks and experiences do not exist as consciousness. It is not clear that we should accept this claim. If even atoms can have a weak form of independent experience, why can't we posit weak forms of interdependent (or weakly integrated) experience that overlaps with denser nodes of experience? Are we to say that atoms have no experience once they become part of a molecule, a molecule when it becomes part of a cell, a cell of an organ, and an organ of a body? These combinations surely represent greater levels of structure and information, but they do not obviate the information of simpler structures. Koch's definition is definitely parsimonious, which has its appeal, but the theory itself (in a sense) deletes information.
I wonder if combining this strategy with Maturana and Varela's notion of autopoiesis would be more robust. In some interpretations, their idea implies that we draw boundaries around difference systems depending on analytical need. If integrated information is roughly analogous to autopoiesis, then we should be able to talk about the consciousness of identifiable unity, even if it overlaps with others. And that sounds like fun.
Specialization and generalization
10 June 2021
I firmly believe that society needs both specialists and generalists. We need specialists to zoom deep into the nitty gritty details of concrete situations so that we can take localized action and challenge the limits of generalized theories. On the other hand, we need generalists to tie together the different approaches to concrete situations so that we can take comprehensive action and challenge the biases inherent in narrow specializations.
I have always positioned myself as more of a generalist than a specialist. I love being able to range across disciplines and will hopefully someday be able to tie my knowledge together (or maybe conclude that it isn't desirable to do so). But that doesn't save me from self-doubt. When I see the depth of knowledge some colleagues can muster around a given topic, I get jealous. It amazes me. And the doubt begins to creep in. Perhaps I'm just a superficial dilettante? Maybe claiming to be a generalist is just a means of avoiding the boring and hard work of narrowly focusing on something. Can I publish if I am so broad?
Such thoughts resurfaced the other day, perhaps amplified by my transition into new areas of research. I started thinking about the books I am reading right now.
- Prebisch, Raul. 1950. “The Economic Development of Latin America and Its Principal Problems.” Economic Commission for Latin America.
- Koch, Christof. 2019. The Feeling of Life Itself. The MIT Press.
- Melville, Herman. 1851. Moby Dick
- Maturana, Humberto Rumesin, and Francisco J. Varela. 1991-08-31. Autopoiesis and Cognition. Springer Netherlands.
- Fainstein, Susan S., and Lisa Servon. 2005. Gender and Planning: A Reader. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
- Matthes, Eric. 2019. Python Crash Course. Random House LCC US.
Thinking over the list I felt pretty self-satisfied, actually. It ranges all over the discplines, from hard science to classic literature, from economics to biological theory, from computer programming to urban planning. I thought that even if I'm not narrowly specialized, at least I am broadly knowledgeable. Even if I am not a Renaissance Man, I can at least pretend that I am on the way.
MFW I realize that the average college student has a similar reading list!
Aging and risk aversion
27 May 2021
The fascinating and brilliant Albert Hirschman wrote an essay called The Principle of the Hiding Hand. Though some academics question the accuracy of the hiding hand concept, the idea itself has an instinctively compelling logic that Malcolm Gladwell apparently brought to life in the mid-2010s (I was unaware of this until just now). The basic notion is that people would not undertake difficult projects if they had a realistic assessment of the costs involved. In the context of development, a government might commit itself to building a dam to provide electricity, but even after careful cost projections, new challenges always arise. Cost estimates might be too low. Unanticipated geological features might be revealed that require new engineering strategies. Local resistance may stymie forward momentum. That is, all these costs were hidden when the decision was made, and it may be that they would be large enough to dissuade the government from undertaking the project if they really knew ahead of time. Instead, the sunk costs of commitment, planning, and investment force the government to forge forward. The struggle to move forward may result in new innovations, and the result produce unanticipated benefits as well. But the basic concept remains the same: if the government had a genuinely accurate understanding of the costs and difficulties involved, they may choose not to embark on the project to begin with.
It struck me this morning that this logic might explain the commonly assumed risk aversion of older individuals relative to younger individuals. Younger people are genuinely more willing to take larger risks with their lives and careers than older people. Older people get stale and boring, sticking to the tried and true rather than embracing the bracingly new. The standard explanation is that older people have more invested in maintaining the status quo. They might have kids, a partner, a house, a community. Meanwhile, younger people, unburdened by possessions and obligations, have less to lose and more to gain by taking bigger chances. But perhaps there is a role here for the hiding hand. Perhaps young people are ignorant of the difficulties, challenges, and costs involved in their decision and take the plunge out of ignorance. Meanwhile, people with more experience might better anticipate these costs and challenges, leading them to do a more accurate cost-benefit assessment that militates against taking the plunge. Having greater commitments and investments would also push the cost-benefit analysis into negative territory. So the risk aversion of older people is probably due not just having more to lose but also to their ability to see what the hand is hiding.
Zach Bush MD and COVID-19
24 April 2021
So a good friend of mine who studies holistic medicine suggested I check out Zach Bush MD. So I've been watching some videos. This was more or less my response.
He's a smart dude.
In particular, I watched the "innate immune system" video from his website, which seems to encourage us all to get COVID so that the human race (or perhaps the global virome can evolve) can evolve. And ultimately, I think he's pulling a fast one...at least as far as COVID-19 goes.
So, in the first half of the video, he does a great job of explaining how our immune system works (at least to my knowledge). Viruses enter our bodies and our immune systems use existing defenses to keep the virus at bay or they develop new defenses. And we do this all the time. So far, so good. But then he pulls his first fast one. He says that the adaptation represents an "instability" in our innate immune system, but this is just because our immune system hasn't developed a response to that particular virus yet. Once it has, that response floats around with the other 10^15 responses as part of our innate immune system. So the notion of "innate" is a moving target for him. "Innate" only means that the immune system already has a response. For him, once we develop a response to a new flu variant (our "adaptive rsponse"), it is part of our innate immune system. Our entire immune system/virome has evolved and continues to evolve in this way. What I'm trying to say (I think!) is that he is creating a false binary between innate and adaptive that makes it sound like the innate is something ancestral and pure.
The second fast one comes with his dismissal of the vaccine. First he is telling us that the adaptive response to new viruses provides our inner virome with new genetic information (totally agree). But then he doubts that there are viruses we are not prepared for. "What are the chances that your innate immune system would encounter a virus is wasn't prepared for?" By his own numbers, there are only 10^15 inside us and 3*10^31 in the environment around us (soil, air, sea). That is a huge number of viruses never encountered, magnitudes more than are inside us. So it's actually highly likely that we would encounter a new virus...and it probably happens all the time.
That's where we get to number three. Most of the new viruses we encounter don't pose any risk. But some do. Some, like SARS-CoV-19, successfully exploit our cellular machinery by convincing it to produce even more copies of the virus. So some viruses are more dangerous than others. Zach Bush MD seems to consider all viruses to be equivalent in their relationship with our bodies. This is a false equivalence. The implication of this equivalence is that we should just let those whose immune systems cannot protect themselves die as part of the evolutionary process. Fine to say until it's people you know whose lives are threatened.
The fourth fast one is that he speaks as though the effects of the vaccine are ultimately different from the effects of encountering the virus in the wild. In my view, this is not the case. The whole point of a vaccine is to introduce the viral information in a safe way (inert viral DNA or mRNA) that prompts the innate immune system to launch an adaptive response that will create the antibodies/antigens needed in case the body encounters a live and vicious version of the virus. In essence, all a vaccine does is consciously and deliberately give our immune systems the viromic information it needs to fight a virus rather than wait for a chance encounter. Reaching herd immunity through vaccination just reflects the processing of new information and helps the virome stabilize.
Then he tosses in the falsehood that COVID-19 is rewriting our genome, but that's another discussion for another time.
So, while I find his position a bit disingenuous, I actually agree with a lot of what he is saying. His basic message in the videos I've watched seems to be that if we are healthier and live healthier lives we won't get as sick and that we can live healthier lives by cleaning up our environment. He uses much more complex and technical terms, but I think bottom-line that is what he is saying.
Anyway, that's what I think after a few hours of listening to him. Maybe you have a different take, reader?
Shock G and the eternal underwater
23 April 2021
Shock G is now underwater riming on a permanent basis. RIP.
The loss of Shock G today has really touched me. Obviously, the man was a creative force and hip hop innovator. First and foremost, he and the rest of Digital Underground perpetuated the magic that is Parliament-Funkadelic. In doing so, they moved California hip hop beyond basic gangster rap, moving the medium into realms of lyrical creativity still to be matched. Second, Digital Underground was Oakland Blank Panther conscious, particularly on Sons of the P. Third, they are just plain funky. Other people are thrilled that they basically discovered and made Tupac, but I'll DU any old day. (There's much more, of course, but my daughter is calling me away to experiment with TNT in Minecraft.)
But I'm also touched because Digital Underground was more or less synonymous with my time in San Francisco. I saw Shock G dance The Humpty Dance at a club South of Market. I'm sure I sat on BART listening to Sex Packets on a CD Walkman. Quite simply, DU is inseparable from my SF experience. More frighteningly, Shock G was just a few years older than I am. And when your idols are the same age and move on it brings mortality to the forefront.
Wish thenI could share some Heartbeat Props.
Fresh falling leaves and affect
23 April 2021
I've been trying to experience a more open systems, flatly ontological life lately. Inspired by the summary of ideas in Arturo Escobar's Designs for the Pluriverse and Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, I read some Thoreau, in particular his chapter entitled "Ktaadn". "Ktaadn" traces Thoreau's journey away from civilization to a transcendental moment of unity with the Wild in the clouds atop Mount Katahdin in the Maine wilderness. The underlying notion is that there is a blurry line between civilization and the self and the essence of things, their thing-power or noumena. That is there is existence beyond our linguistic apparatuses and our consciousness of self that shapes our selfness through its engagement with that selfsame selfness. This is affect.
Walking tthenhrough the woods (the Wild?) on my way to work this morning, I experienced something that seemed to capture my mood. My attention was snapped away from its thoughts by a crack and a downward whirling of a sprig of three elm(?) leaves perhaps too large and weighty for this early in spring. As the trio caught on some bare branch, I found myself thinking that the rotor-spinning descent was simultaneously a celebratory moment of beauty and a languid contemplation of maturation.
Transition design and gender swapping
20 April 2021
Lately I've been reading Arturo Escobar's Designs for the Pluriverse. The book strives to compile and organize the theory around autonomous designing across different onto-epistemological worlds in the interest of transitioning to a sustainable, convivial future. The basic idea is that we simultaneously create and understand our world through making it. Thus, different understandings of the world lead to different design outcomes (materially, socially, politically, economically, and so forth). And vice versa. One minor example would be designing our drinking instruments with handles. By changing the way we hold our cups, we change the way we use them. With handles, it is easier to manage hot drinks, like tea, and thus leads us to think of cups a holders of hot liquids rather than just cool liquids. It might also lead to new cultural practices of distinction, like sticking your pinky finger out when you lift your cup. More significantly(?), designing our economic production and distribution around markets has led us to think of ourselves as rational economic actors in competition with each other and to embrace cultural practices of competitive exchange and maximizing consumption.
The book is hthenome to a wonderful set of ideas, though I am getting a bit frustrated with it level of abstraction, which will hopefully be resolved in the next chapter or two I read. One of the ideas that has captured my imagination this week is one of the principles of transition design. Transition design is a (Western, designer-centric) approach to designing the transition to a new future. One of its principles, according to Escobar, is that the approach assumes that we are already undergoing a transition...whether we like it or not. Our climate is changing. Capitalism is once again approaching its limits and revealing its contradictions. Technology is creating new ways of connecting and weakening others. And so on. But transition design indicates that our future can o in many different directions. In one simplified set of trajectories, we can plummet into civilization collapse, wallow in incremental actions that perpetuate and prolong the crisis, or embrace a more convivial future. But the transition design thinkers appear to be optimistic. Perhaps that is necessary to achieve the transition: optimism as a design output. Either way, it's refreshing.
And my daughters gave me further cause for optimism this morning. One daughter was talking about how boys from her class were already designing their Halloween plague doctor costumes and how she was thinking about going as Harry Potter. My other daughter responded enthusiastically with "Gender-swap Harry Potter!" There was no questioning the propriety of a girl dressing as a boy. There was the assumption, I think, that gender exploration was a positive form of play. The 21st century may not be so bad after all!
Seasons and Sounds
03 March 2021
Thanks to COVID, thenthenI have spent much more time this year hiking in Bukhansan National Park. I've gone hiking at least once a week for the last year, three times a week when the gym has been closed. It's become familiar enough that I know what lies around the next corner, which rocks are risky, and what names I've given to the different stretches of the trails. It has also allowed me to observe the slow transition between seasons and of seasons.
Over the last two weeks I have been struck by the emerging sounds of spring. One of the beautiful aspects of hiking in the winter, especially after it has snowed, is the dramatic silence. There are no leaves rustling. If there is snow, it mutes any sounds that do emerge. So the drilling of woodpeckers stands out and makes identifying their location simple. It's a peaceful experience.
But spring is coming. And the sounds are changing. Last week was quite warm and birds were singing their welcome to spring. New birdsong reverberated off the bare rocks and through the empty branches. The coming spring was being heralded. Today was even noisier, but it was not due to the birds. Over the last week, the snow and ice that had blanketed the streams and muffled the rippling water had melted. In their place, newly melted snow from a late winter storm was rushing over the rocks with a fury not heard since the fall. The sound, though boisterous, was almost intrusive.
Spring begins to sing.
Winter break and new starts
27 January 2021
Let me first note that what I am about to relate may simply be a new form of procrastination.
I spent a good chunk of my morning moving bookcases around to make some books more accessible and to open up a little more space. Yesterday I took down a delicately drawn map of Yangon, which had been obscured behind a wardrobe. I also conducted a preliminary reorganization of some of my books to clear away piles designed to designate immanent reading material that were blocking other rows of books. It had been a turbulent example of thought in action, though in truth more potential than actual action.
The details aren't really important. What I believe they represent may be. I believe my actions of the last several days have been marking a transition from one phase to another. I recently applied for full tenure, and there is no reason not to expect it to be granted. Korea's system is fairly transparent and quantitative, and I have far surpassed the minimum requirements to acquire tenure. I presume the security of tenure is starting to sink in and birth the freedom of thought and exploration that it is designed to do.
Over the past decade, I have focused my energies on exploring the export of Korean new towns and apartment complexes overseas. I was even fortunate to receive a large grant from Korea's National Research Foundation that allowed me to learn about Myanmar and Vietnam in particular and research more generally. The three-year grant was from 2015 to 2018, but the research and paper writing lingered as I tried to clean up many of the loose ends. There are at least a half dozen papers my colleague and I wrote that never made it past their initial draft or presentation. I felt compelled to complete them, to ensure that the effort was not wasted. But two days ago I finally gave myself permission to let them go and close up shop. I may go back to them at some point or in some form, but I am no longer obliged to do so.
Rather, I can look forward to a new project or two. Two projects have been simmering away for a couple of years, while others have been cooling on the back burner. The first project is converting my Introduction to Development course into a book (of some sort). The second is---at least initially---a more radical departure that will take time to come to fruition. I want to explore the role of systems theory in urban history and theory and link this to artificial intelligence. The fundamental premise is that our societies are moving inextricably toward AI-driven policy making and operation. Since AI is based ultimately on cybernetics and systems theory, we need to come to grips with this history in urban planning. Hopefully, something useful will emerge.
Trump and COVID success
26 January 2021
As we pass 400,000 deaths in the US due to COVID-19, this is your friendly reminder that a bit less than a year ago, Trump outrageously tried to lower expectations by claiming that he would consider his government successful if it kept COVID-19 deaths below 200,000.
Trump and impermanence
8 January 2021
Like many, I have spent the last several days doomscrolling, reading political journalism, and listening to Congressional speeches in an effort to make sense of the assault on the Capitol building. It's not that I'm surprised that Trump's tenure has brought us to this point. Rather, it reflects my worry about the future of my country.
My thought is that America's democratic tradition will hold fast and secure a reasonable form of government for the foreseeable future. Much of this is contingent on how well the Biden administration can deradicalize the far right. In my view this will require a much more equitable distribution of wealth, and I do not know that I trust Biden's crew to deliver on this. If they don't, problems are likely to worsen. If we do, there is hope.
But I am mainly writhenting to offer my overly simplistic interpretation of Trump's act of sedition. I see it as the dramatic, climactic season finale of the Trump (shit)show. The Presidency has provided us with a never ending series of dramatic moments, plot twists, and characters driven by a narrative of good versus evil for both sides of the political fence. So it's appropriate that the season finale would culminate in an apocalyptic showdown between the forces of good and evil.
My suggestion ithens that---despite the very real negative consequences of Trump's administration---it has engaged Americans, if not the world, in a reality TV show underscored by the same fundamental themes that drive the success of the Star Wars franchise and similar vehicles. And I believe my suggestion that it really was "just" a season finale is borne by Trump's message today that clearly stated that there would be an orderly transition to a new administration and that despite everyone's disappointment this is just the beginning.
Stay tuned for Season 2.