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robertogreco : iterestedness   1

6, 31: Nixtamalization
"Broadly, you’re getting three things here:

First, reminiscences, because “I saw an unusual thing once and, on reflection, here’s what I think of it” is one of my favorite things to read.

Second, criticism of cultural criticism, especially of the tech industry. From the fact that I work in this industry, you can guess that I think there are at least a few beautiful, wholly worthwhile things here. From the fact that I’m not a complete psychopath, you can guess that I think the industry as a whole is enormously broken. My ideas about this are not very lucid, but I try to clarify them using actual experiences and numbers and introspection. One opinion you’ll see a lot is that complaining about epiphenomena – the taste of Soylent, creepy wording choices in Facebook press releases, the fact that some tech workers are rude – is fine or whatever, but it doesn’t replace serious inquiries into cultural and economic problems like systemic sexism or child labor.

What I fear is a cultural framework around technology like the one around pro sports, where a merry enterprise has grown an industry based on “a subtle but insidious form of child abuse”, but popular criticism is stuck on the level of nitpicking stars’ public behavior. To take high technology’s potential for good seriously is to take its potential for bad seriously, and to take its potential for bad seriously is to get beyond the “they call us users, which is also what drug addicts are called!!!” horseshit.

The tech industry, or its subculture, or the network itself, is neither independent of nor a seamless part of the society around it. It has its own potentials, its own points of rigidity and articulation, that are not understood in one glance. Studying it is like studying anything else. You need sweat and rigor: to build a ship that floats, that catches the wind, that can be sailed and improved by other people. You also need enchantment and humility: to have been out of sight of land and imagine, involuntarily, the abyssal plains and mountains far under you, and realize that your mind will never encompass everything as it is at once.

In this decade we have a lot of loud commentators who are very keen on certain conclusions about the network – that it’s good or bad, shaped like this or that – but don’t show the rigor or the humility. The commentators themselves are not a bad blight, as blights go. Better to have reflexive Luddites and unreflective transhumanists selling tweet-sized answers to Wikipedia-sized questions on the lecture circuit than to have locusts, or bears, or superflus, or gray goo, or dictators, or weevils.

But we can do better, I hope. We will apply more of what we already know about people to technology made and used by people. It’s a very slippery thing to talk about people, personhood itself, at the scale where experience happens. People speaking for themselves can do it. Good fiction does it, and very good narrative history. Nonfiction tends to be terrible at it. There is a big exception. It’s the structure that’s been home to a sizable plurality, maybe even a majority, of the most serious intellectual work of the last three or four generations: feminism. (Other fields have been able to talk about lived personhood, obvs, but it’s feminism that’s coordinated all these insights into productive mosaics. Third-wave feminism is the single most useful collection of ideas of what people are like. So it is that if in 2014 you read something generally about humanness that doesn’t feel like it was written by Howard Hughes on DMT, it’s likely using a hundred years feminist scholarship as a foundation.) The first of many problems, of course, is that a lot of the tech culture shares the larger culture’s suspicion that feminism is just patriarchy through a mirror, and we all know patriarchy is for crap, so.

And we have weird ideas about the future. We think that technology is more about the future than other things are. We think that to make people work for a better future, we have to convince them that things are getting worse. (The evidence is that the most important things are getting better for most people.) We think that we can make climate change not come true after it’s already come true. On the whole of course I suspect the future of people is less determined by its being the future than by their being people.

And a special note on meritocracy. The following is pandering to most readers, but occasionally someone thanks me for my “newsletter about how the tech industry isn’t really that bad” or something, so I’d like to draw a line. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of several institutions that people could move in under their own power. I’ve appreciated them partly because they’re so rare, especially in tech. The idea that the economy is an objective sorting of people according to innate virtue onto a scale of income is on a level with the idea that our fates are woven by the Norns. Maybe a bit below, in that the Norns were fictional but describable, while merit is both fictional and circularly defined. Smartness is a concept that I try to avoid, but if I had to choose someone as the smartest I know, with the best ability to analyze and construct complex and subtle ideas, she’s in training as a mid-level social worker and can expect to “““““earn”””””, at her career peak, somewhat less than a middling third-year code monkey making trick websites in SF. I know two different brilliant people stuck in subsistence retail jobs to take care of their sick relatives. I know two different eldercare nurses who are made to take extra work hours. You can take your meritocracy and shove it so far up your ass it chips your teeth."

"By request, though in some consternation about acting as if I have the answers, I suggest two rules of thumb:

1. When you meet someone, examine your first impression carefully. Consider what kind of person you reflexively think they are, and start interacting with them from the assumption that they’re sick of being treated like that kind of person. Defer to basic sensitivities and to common sense, of course. The idea is to actively negate biases rather than trying to ignore them, and it seems to land me in more interesting conversations.

2. Think of times you’ve changed your mind about something important. Think especially of the ways that people tried to talk you out of it that failed before you did come around. Then, when debating, use ways of arguing that have worked on you. Maybe more importantly, don’t use ways of arguing that only entrenched you."
2014  charlieloyd  firstimpressions  listening  assumptions  conversation  mindchanging  openmindedness  iterestedness  debate  debating  arguing  argument  meritocracy  technology  siliconvalley  fiction  patriarchy  feminism  humility  rigor  criticism  nuance  complexity  systemsthinking  epiphenomena  internet  web  mindchanges 
november 2014 by robertogreco

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