Category Archives: Philosophy

Esther Dyson: I own my own content

Dyson

Esther Dyson spoke this morning as the key note person for the “I Annotate 2017” conference (#ianno17) in San Franciso. It was time to kiss the Blarney Stone of Capitalism. She started off by telling the audience that as a “content creator” she owned her content, and she didn’t want others making a profit from her content. It’s all about the property and the money. In other words, it’s all about capitalism.

Dyson conjured up an image of the world from the 1960s that might be considered fake news now: “When the internet was created, everyone who was on it was nice.” Dyson seems to have forgotten that the internet began as a military project connected with the Department of Defense, formerly the War Department. Some nice people renamed the department in 1949, so that we wouldn’t have to be reminded that the DOD is about war, not about being nice.

When the internet was created, everyone who was on it was nice.

The current problems with trolls, people spreading hate speech, people driving “content creators” from the web in fear of their lives are real, and Dyson is a bright person seeking solutions. However, her solutions are rooted in typical capitalist rhetoric. She posits, for example, that niceness will be restored by letting “the market” work. Like most people who talk about letting markets work, they don’t mean letting things be. We need controls, rules, a grammar, as she called it.

We all want nice things, but out there in the real world are people who will take our nice things, seize our property, do harm to us. They must be controlled, regulated. Dyson is in favor of regulating the internet.

In the early days of the internet, Dyson held the opinion that anonymity was a good thing. She has changed her mind, and she told the audience that it is always interesting when people change their minds. Dyson’s new view is that anonymity needs regulation too. Anonymous people ought not to be free to say un-nice things on the internet. We could use some software to expunge un-niceness, for example, before it ever gets posted. Apparently, the market won’t fix un-nice people, and so un-nice people will need to be marginalized, or silenced, or forced into some other space in the ether where they will be rendered harmless. Dyson isn’t clear about how all of this could be made to come about, but she wants to help people who are working on such outcomes.

Dyson wants a kind of gated community for all of us, so that the Haves can have their property, their protections. They can have a space where entrances and exits are controlled, property is safe, and ownership valued. It’s the world of capitalism we already have, with many people intent on fashioning creative laws and regulations under the guise of the “free market” to keep certain people out of the game.

Luckily, some audience members objected during the Q & A. One person (Tom) suggested that the internet should allow even un-nice people the right to speak, and a librarian from Cal Tech said, in effect, that un-nice people are the cost of openness. As opposed to the seeming common sense opposition between crime and law, the law cannot be known outside of crime. The institution of law (capitalism) allows crime, opens up the possibility of further crime. Law cannot know itself without its exception (crime). This Hegelian reading of the situation is a bit too academic for the context of “I Annotate 2017,” but some audience members seemed to imply an understanding of the logic. Plug in “un-niceness” wherever “crime” appears earlier in this paragraph, and you have a taste of the logic as it fits into the context of Dyson’s presentation.

Dyson invoked Uber as a salutory example of a company that tries to be nice. That company tries to make sure that its drivers are not doing bad things, are not frauds, according to Dyson. Surely Dyson, in retrospect, would want to reconsider that capitalistic example. Uber is not working for the benefit of its own employees, and CEO Travis Kalanick told an Uber driver who complained to Kalanick about the driver’s growing debt: “You know what, some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.” Kalanick’s statement doesn’t seem so nice.

The premise that language belongs to us, that we own it, needs to be questioned. Dyson does not speak English because she chose that language. As James Baldwin, Jacques Lacan, and Valentin Voloshinov have explained, language does not belong to us. Language is always a social phenomenon. It could not possibly arise other than through communication among different individuals. In its original form it exists outside of the mind of any individual as sounds or as written words that were never the property of the person who learns a particular language. As a blogger, then, it seems odd to imagine you are a “content creator.” Who “owns” language? Its an idea only a capitalist could have.

A Poverty of Possibilities among the Rich

photo of money - Creative Commons

With an Ivy League education, and years of association with some of the brightest people in Washington, D.C., Tim Geithner is still unable to think of any alternative to what happened in 2008.  He missed one of the lessons of It’s A Wonderful Life, which is that people’s money/labor is theirs, and that the bank is a place where collective wealth exists, and can be used for collective good.  In other words, the achievement of the James Stewart character in the film is to show the viewer how to live without banks and bankers, whose interests have little to do with Bedford Falls.  Geithner has convinced himself, in a grand gesture of rationalization, that no alternative existed, and still does not.

It’s like the power grid. You have to make sure the lights stay on, because if the lights go out, then you face the damage like what you saw in the Great Depression or It’s a Wonderful Life. More people lose their jobs, more people lose their businesses, lose their homes, their savings, and they’re devastated. There is not way to avoid those outcomes or protect people against those outcomes, unless you keep the lights on. That requires doing things that are terribly unfair and look deeply offensive. It looks like you are rewarding the arsonist or protecting people from their mistakes, but there is no alternative.
— Geithner in The Wall Street Journal‘s Money Issue (June 2014)

Slavoj Žižek indicates the same problem is at work with Thomas Piketty’s new book on capitalism. The capitalists don’t know how to do without capitalism.  They are incapable of Hegelian negation.  “[Piketty] accepts, as a good Keynesian, that capitalism is ultimately the only game in town; all alternatives ended up in fiasco, so we have to keep it.”

What’s worse about Geithner is that he knew what he did looked “like the opposite of what makes sense.”  It’s a Wonderful Life, on a most superficial reading, shows neighbors rescuing a neighbor, friends helping friends, townspeople pulling together for a person in trouble.  Those are alternatives that do not make sense to readers of The Wall Street Journal and to Tim Geithner. They cannot leave important financial decisions up to common people who cannot comprehend why anyone would say it’s utterly plausible to do what is “terribly unfair.”

 

Thinking about the University

A friend of mine has been working on a blog worth viewing, for he has been thinking a great deal about what has been happening to public education. He is in the belly of the beast as an administrator. I do not envy his resulting nightmares. David is a sharp chap, as you will see by browsing his blog. He is a philosopher in a good sense. He is not simply complaining about the  careerist bureaucrats, short-sighted politicians, trustees who cannot be trusted,and regents on governing boards of universities who are sometimes like this regent played by Hugh Laurie. David presents alternatives and insights while being entertaining.  His blog has been added to the list of recommended sites.

photo of Hugh Laurie

Hugh Laurie as Prince Regent

Stanley and His Power Tools Encounter Buzzsaw Lawyer

The moderator seethes sometime before the 45:00 mark, and would have untucked her shirt threateningly at that moment had it not already been so — that’s how upset she becomes, to the point that she does not want to turn over the microphone to the lawyer/columnist/philosopher who shocks part of the assembly. Notice her body language in relation to Romano after the 48:00 minute mark. Before the 4:00 mark, we have an excellent shot of the footwear of many of the participants and audience members, likely a subtle homage to the mentioning of the barefoot stroll that Socrates and Phaedrus take in a certain Platonic dialogue.

Perhaps one or two outsiders to the event recorded in the video would have some questions. An outsider might wonder how this session that demonstrates almost everything but “progress in philosophy” came into being. Did the organizers not know about Carlin Romano? Had they failed to read his articles? Maybe the organizers imagined that Romano’s hostility toward Heidegger made him igitur a friend of analytic philosophy. The other question: Why would Jason Stanley have posted the video of the event allegedly designed to deal with the juxtaposition of progress and philosophy? Now, it is possible that someone using Professor Stanley’s name posted the video, but given the way the event is recorded (repeated camera movements designed to capture Stanley’s reactions to Romano’s planned provocations), it looks as if the person recording the session is pro-Stanley, wants to give Stanley more air time, including a wide shot near the end that captures Stanley apparently urging the crowd to confront Romano.  Had the video started with Romano’s taunts, Stanley and his supporters might have come across on the video as abused academics expressing some not-so-veiled, but arguably justifiable, anger at Romano. Unfortunately, Stanley’s pacing performance at the beginning of the video, littered with self-interruptions and more “you know’s” than Caroline Kennedy, reinforces Romano’s claim later in the video about a general lack of communicative skill among Anglophone analytic philosophers.

For some reason, the video ends when it appears that passionate engagement is headed toward an apex. At least part of the crowd is just beginning to work itself up into a frenzy, with any thought of Hamlet’s comment to Horatio far from any participant’s mind.

The episode

Philosophical Progress and Intellectual Culture from Jason Stanley on Vimeo.

“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly”

Untitled, 30 November 2010, No. 1

Untitled, 30 November 2010, No. 1, created on an Ipad - ©David Hockney

Errol Morris and David Hockney are revising perception. This month, Morris publishes his book Believing is Seeing, a study of the ways viewers interact with photography and make truth-claims based on what they see in photographs.  Hockney is using a series of cameras to demonstrate to viewers that they can see more of the everyday world. He wants people to consider the question: “What can nine cameras do that one can’t?”  Someone could take both Morris and Hockney’s projects as nothing more than acts reinforcing relativism. That would seem to be an impoverished view of two people trying to think carefully about how we see, and how little we see when we insist that we are seeing.

“It’s So Simple, It’s Criminal”



Read Roger Ebert’s review of the documentary.


Reconsidering Metaphor

It was the 18th-century thinker Lichtenberg who said, “A good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on.”  Metaphors can move us, and it was only a few years ago that the philosopher Jacques Derrida reminded us that modern Greek still uses metaphorikos as the word for transportation.  Researchers have now learned that metaphors can help scientists to reconsider their assumptions (translation: transport them to a new locus of thinking) when they are compelled to think out loud in front of other scientists who do not share their preconceptions.  Jonah Lehrer explains the importance of scientists working outside the comfort of a lab consisting of the like-minded:

The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were [sic] protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. At first, the conversation seemed rather useless. But then, as the chemists traded ideas with the biologists and the biologists bounced ideas off the med students, potential answers began to emerge. “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved,” Dunbar says. “They made it look easy.”

When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves [my emphasis].  These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions.

This would seem to suggest, among other things, that scientists could benefit from learning about literature, though few institutions of higher education offer programs designed to take advantage of bringing the two disciplines together.