We can only go forwards

I was talking to my partner the other day about how unlikely it would be for us to have children, and the tremendous sacrifices it would take on both our parts to raise a happy, well-adjusted child. One thing that kept coming up was the extreme difficulty it would be to raise a child away from screens and algorithmic content, when both of us are hopeless addicts ourselves. To us, and I think to most people, it’s a given that providing children with access to screens would be severely unhealthy for their developing brains, in some unique way. And that if you can raise a kid into their early teens without too much exposure to screens, your job is done.

But recently, I’ve been reading some stuff that challenges the “unique” bit, which really upsets this whole entire narrative.

Before the internet we had television sets. They came in the 50s and proliferated in our homes and by the 90s the average American was spending 6 hours a day in front of their sets. Descriptions of television and the culture around it at this time paints a fascinating picture that is very similar to how we think of internet culture today – cynical, ironic, self-referential to the point of blindness to the real, hyperreal.

pov: David Foster Wallace tells you to touch grass (1990)

It’s honestly kind of weird that I forgot about this, considering how much anti-tv stuff was drilled into me throughout elementary school. People were banging on about this a lot back in the day! But maybe it’s not that weird, since it’s been like 12 years since the first iPhone was released and then the internet sort of ate the world.

What does it mean to say that the irony poisoning isn’t new? That we’re three generations removed from a culture untouched by screens and mass media?

I think, first and foremost, it means that there’s no pure world, no strongtime that we can return to by logging off and touching grass. Not any longer.

It also means that every aspect of our lives and culture have been shaped by it. Depriving a child of a tablet might be in some ways akin to not teaching them how to read. I’m honestly not sure if there’s any real way of opting out of this culture, besides joining the Amish. If you’re not down for a life of churning butter and sexual repression, the only way forward is to make new theory and new strategies for the new world that we live in.

So this brings me to this recent piece that I can’t stop thinking about: Michael Cuenco’s “America’s New Post-Literate Epistemology” for Palladium Mag.

I think it’s a super insightful piece, that also doubles as a great survey of the media studies field, which first established in the 70s to critique television culture. I tried to find an excerpt but it’s such a weird, expansive piece that it’s really not possible. So instead here’s a brief summary of one section:

Modern humans interact with content by way of a never ending stream of articles, takes, and countertakes. Issues never feel solved, they only disappear from the timeline due to waning interest in due time. Reflecting this, there’s now a societal disinterest in reaching any sort of closure, and maybe even the feeling that the desire to have closure is somehow juvenile or naive. We should categorize this type of media interaction as having something closer to an oral nature rather than a literate one because of a lack of clear sequence, structure, or hierarchy in the information.

In oral structures, when we interact with new content, we can form associations between them and older stuff that we’ve seen pretty easily, but it’s much more difficult to form conclusions, to reach definitive endings. In this world it becomes increasingly difficult to think in terms of linearity, in terms of doing something and getting somewhere, to produce programs and manifestos and five-year plans.

Literate—but non-liberal—China has a goal: national rejuvenation by 2049. This is a concrete master plan bounded by a progressive notion of time, with numbered steps and specific metrics, and the planners are concerned with the reshaping of space.

Meanwhile, post-literate America has no long-term goals. Identity-slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Defund the Police” may sound like goals, but they are in fact what McLuhan called “mythical environments,” which “live beyond time and space” and are therefore untethered to concrete linear action in the physical world. By when exactly is America supposed to be great again? Are there any metrics to help us determine if it is on track to becoming great? How precisely do we defund the police? What happens after?

One important thing to note is that the authors are actually quite ambivalent to this shift, from the literate to the post-literate. Sure, Cuenco seems to say, there’ll be growing pains as we make the switch in our epistemology, but can we really say that we’ll be worse off afterwards?

Of course, being a literate troglodyte in this “post-literate” world, my response to the question is an unequivocal yes. It seems objectively terrible, and what’s worse is how much I recognized my own style of thinking reflected in the description of oral culture, since I’ve been terminally online since I was twelve, and a pretty hopeless tv addict before that.

In adolescence, I began to see issues in hues of grey instead of black and white, and to see societal problems as parts of an ever-shifting ecosystem, paralyzingly wicked and complex instead of anything a single person could affect. Throughout high school and most of university I cultivated and refined this way of thinking. I think the pendulum is now starting to swing in the other direction. I want to develop my ability to think linearly. (I don’t think I’m like, abjectly terrible at this, but I think I could be better.)

So I’ve been taking time to read books again, lots of them, sequentially, from start to finish. I’ve started volunteering, and then working full-time for grassroots mutual aid organizations that do things right now, instead of returning to the public service policy positions I interned for, where my job was to analyze consideration after consideration for policies that might launch 10 years later. (This is important work, but I don’t think it’s the work for me any longer.) I’m trying to get back into the habit of writing, because blog posts need beginnings and middles and ends.

And I go on regular walks, and although I don’t touch the grass, I admire the wildflowers.

Links Retrospective – Rest of 2019

It’s weird how school terms seem pretty ok when you’re in them but then when they’re done you’re like “wow, that sure was, a brickload of stress I was under, I had no time to do anything!” You think I’d be used to it after like 4 years.

Anyways, now that I have dealt with both exams and a case of what was likely bronchitis that my friend had thoughtfully gifted me from all the way across the pond, I’m finally ready to finish what I started. So here are the some of the most interesting things from the internet that I’ve read in the latter half of 2019.

As a reminder, the articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the months in question. 

August

The Anglosphere Has Always Had Three Genders (Archive)
Death is Bad Blog, 2019

I see almost everyone on both sides acting as if traditional American society has only two genders, and I don’t think this is right. It’s at least half-wrong, anyway. Because since its inception, American society has always had a third gender option for women, and I think this is true for all anglophone cultures for several centuries now. I speak, of course, of the tomboy.

I think this is an interesting theory, and honestly based on the feminist theory I’ve read it seems like it could be valid. But my own, lived experience as a tomboy is messier. My tomboyness 100% had a performativity aspect to it, and my tomboyness changed the things I was allowed to do, restricting in some places and expanding in others.

As a girl, I really liked some of the affectations of femininity – the colour pink, wearing dresses, doing my long hair in elaborate ways. but I had to act as though I didn’t. In return, I was allowed to climb trees and fences, and bring worms home when it rained, and play with beyblades with the boys in the sand pit. I think some part of me knew that I was making a bargain at the time, because the world would not accept me in its entirety. And I decided that I valued wearing dresses less than I value the freedom to climb trees. And I feel like this story of sacrifiting bits of yourself so that you’re legible to others in your society, isn’t innate to tomboyhood, or even femininity. It just sounds like part and parcel of being human, and (sigh) living in a society.

Ra (Archive)
Sarah Constantin, 2016

Ra is a specific kind of glitch in intuition, which can roughly be summarized as the drive to idealize vagueness and despise clarity.

This wasn’t like, the first time that I read this essay, but at the end of my internship deep within the guts of the federal welfare machine, as I began to see more and more of the picture, it was a piece that kept coming to the forefront of my mind. 

What’s interesting is that I think I started the term off very anti-Ra, but by the end, I was seeing many benefits that come from vagueness. It’s not a glitch in intuition, it’s a tradeoff. The vagueness is intrinsically powerful in many ways – although it is a dangerous path that is conducive to corruption and systemic rot. All in all, it’s not a tradeoff I would make, but I can see why others might. I think anyone who works in a large company or organization should read this piece, and come to their own conclusions.

September

Untitled microfiction piece (Archive)
Grimelords, 2014

There’s six guys who live in this flat and all they do all day is play WoW and watch movies.

Short and tender piece about the university experience, if you’re a certain type of nerd.

Warcraft: LFG (Archive)
Left Conservative, 2016

Think about this the next time you wonder why, as we have more loot, more sex, more games, and more media that fits our tastes than ever before, we’re also less satisfied than we’ve ever been.

A cool microcosm of what modernity does.

October

It’s not “them” — it’s us! (Archive)
Betsy Leondar-Wright, 2006

“But let’s say that some working-class people did nevertheless manage to get into this organization. What would we do to make sure they felt uncomfortable and to stop them from taking leadership?” The group launched in with gusto: “A dress code — nothing but tuxedos and evening gowns!” “Fancy food — caviar and champagne!” “The real business takes place at the golf course at the country club!”

No-one said anything like “tofu.”

An old piece, but one that is still so incredibly useful and informative for building cross-class coalitions. 

The Music of “Hustlers” and the Soaring, Stupid National Mood Circa 2008 (Archive)
Jia Tolentino, 2019

I started crying a little, because Usher’s “Love in This Club” was playing. It’s a song with synths that shudder like lasers, and a central looping riff so triumphant and brimming that it sounds like someone telling you that you’re never going to die. As the song played, a flash of pre-recession memories emerged from beneath eleven years’ worth of increasingly subdued expectations: I was in college, and things often felt that good and endless, even though the wad of bills in my pocket was a bunch of greasy ones from waiting tables and my roommates and I were blasting “Love in This Club” in our wood-panelled living room, wearing clearance American Apparel and chugging leftover keg beer, hoping that we wouldn’t see any mice. It feels unseemly and indulgent to get nostalgic about something so dumb and so close to the present, and yet “Hustlers” helped me realize how many people have begun to remember the brief period just before the recession in a similar way.

If you ever want to relive 2007, here is one very excellent way to do it.

November

Why Are My Students Afraid of the World? (Archive)
Christopher Schaberg, 2019

I’m talking about discomfort with the physical world outside our campus buildings, things like sitting on grass: many students just won’t do it.

A new(?) phenomenon, that seems simultaneously tragic, dangerous, and inevitable.

The Real Class War (Archive)
Julius Krein, 2019

The socioeconomic divide that will determine the future of poli­tics, particularly in the United States, is not between the top 30 per­cent or 10 percent and the rest, nor even between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The real class war is between the 0.1 percent and (at most) the 10 percent—or, more precisely, between elites primarily dependent on capital gains and those primarily dependent on profes­sional labor.

The last few years have brought about a new “discovery” of working-class immiseration—a media phenomenon arguably pro­voked by renewed elite anxieties. As a result, the story of a declining working class is now broadly understood. It is, after all, decades old, and it was entirely predictable if not exactly intended. Much less understood, however, is the more recent reshaping and radicalization of the professional managerial class. While the top 5 or 10 percent may not deserve public sympathy, their underperformance relative to the top 0.1 percent will be more politically significant than the hol­lowing out of the working or lower-middle classes. Unlike the work­ing class, the professional managerial class is still capable of, and re­quired for, wielding political power.

This maps on very well to the class-based discussions that I’m seeing online and in-person (in my very academic crowd, being a uni student and all).

December

What Is a Take? A Trans Feminist Take on the 2019 British Election Results (Archive)
Grace Lavery, 2019

At some point in the last, say, five years, the phrase “hot take” both started to appear less frequently in conversations about online culture (especially Twitter), and the apparently more neutral term “take” has seemed to appear more frequently. The shift seems to have entailed a subtle shift in tone, too. The phrase “hot take” was usually fairly scornful, indicative of a callow or insincere attempt to gin up controversy for the sake of getting attention, much like “clickbait.” Another term from the same period, “thinkpiece,” possessed an even stronger critical association: the typifying thinkpiece was self-indulgent, unfocused pie-in-the-sky; the term carried the sense of intellectual irresponsibility, an inability or refusal to grasp things as they actually are. In that sense, then – and this will be a hot take for some, and a very cold one for others – that the object scorned by the term “thinkpiece” is conceptually indistinguishable from the object once scorned by the term “theory.” We have never lacked for terms to indicate our contempt for those whose thinking is piecemeal, or who fail/refuse to knead the pieces into a larger thinkloaf. 

A really weird and interesting piece, and a good example of what queer theory can contribute to one’s understanding of the world. I wanted to excerpt the entire thing.

Probably the best take you’ll get on the new star wars movies ugghhhhh (Archive)
Kuiperblog, 2019

Rogue One might be the only film since the original trilogy that really understood what, exactly, Star Wars was before it was Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. 

As someone who doesn’t care about Star Wars, this was an extremely interesting piece of analysis that made me care more about Star Wars.

 

Okay! Those are the links. Hopefully the next retrospective wouldn’t be like, 6 months late, but we’ll see 😛

Notes from the Salon: Social Class

[Editor’s note: this piece was ported over from Less Wrong on March 13, 2020, and backdated to the original publication date. Minor edits were made for clarity.]

This is a write-up of some interesting points raised at a tea party “literary” salon I held on October 6th, 2019. It is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of the topic. It is conventional for attendees to do all the suggested readings before salon starts, so some parts of the write-up might not make sense without that context.

Assigned readings: Siderea on Class, Thoughts on the “STEM” class

Economic Class vs. Social Class

Economic class and social class are not the same thing. The two are decoupled, but only partly. You can be wealthy but lower class (e.g. a skilled tradesman making 6 figures) or poor but upper class (e.g. an adjunct professor at a prestigious university). Everyone at the salon was in the same social class: the class that attends semi-ironic and entirely sober literary salons, likely G2 on Church’s ladder. But it would be a mistake to assume that everyone in the room belonged to the same economic class – there is a much broader distribution of economic classes in attendance.

Performing upper-(middle)-classness grants you privilege. It costs some amount of money, but not as much as you would think, to perform professional-classness. The harder part by far is knowing what to buy in the first place. To a first approximation, a blazer is more middle-class-y than a hoodie. But a clean-ish hoodie emblazoned with your university seal is a much better signal than a polyester blend leopard-print blazer.

Most people want to make more money, but few people are interested in climbing the social ladder. When you find the class that you belong to and join it, you tend to go “ew” at the people in the classes below you, and “yikes”* at the people in the classes above you.

*Or the equivalent of “yikes”, if you’re in a class that doesn’t say “yikes”

Everyone is “Middle-Class”

The middle class is the only virtuous class – both “lower class” and “upper class” are insults. This results in basically everyone except billionaires and the homeless identifying as middle class. Premium mediocrity is what middle-classness could look like for millennials.

Class is a culture and a performance. For example, someone who makes six figures may choose to get their morning coffee at Tim Horton’s instead of Starbucks or an indie coffee shop. They might make this decision even if they like their coffee not terrible, because it’s more important to them to be seen as a salt-of-the-earth sort, and salt-of-the-earth sorts here in Canada drink Tim’s instead of Starbucks.

A more extreme example of this was outlined in this piece, where a Yale student who was actually broke didn’t realize that all of her classmates were only pretending to be broke. In one incident, she offered to buy a classmate that she knew for 3 years a sandwich, because she thought he was actually on the verge of starving. The classmate graciously broke the act and told her that he actually has a trust fund and was just carefully cultivating a starving artist image. In another incident, her classmates shamed her for not donating to a charity, because they perceived her to be only faking her destitution like the rest of them.

Scott’s cellular automata model of fashion talks about something similar, but what the Yale piece adds is that performing poorness gives the elites an unfounded confidence in knowing how poor people live, which is terrible for society.

That “STEM Class” Piece

The makeup of this Salon session was something like 60% STEM folk, 20% non-STEM folk who work or socialize with STEM folk a lot, and 20% non-STEM folk who don’t interact with STEM folk on a regular basis.

The only thing that the Salon agreed on was that STEM class people pretend more than other classes that they don’t care about class and just wear things they like.

Things we disagreed on included:

  • how accurate the tumblr post was about STEM folk
  • how accurate the tumblr post was about the connection between STEM and the military-officer class
  • whether any single person in the Salon has a good idea of what a representative sample of STEM folk would look like
  • how much STEM folk cared about art, politics, and sports
  • whether the r/uwaterloo subreddit is a decent representative sample of STEM folk
  • if this is the class that’s responsible for the existence of the alt-right
  • whether this is a class or a subculture (e.g. could a similar tumblr post be made for “the lawyer class”?)
  • if “STEM folk” is a real and useful category

Diversifying

People generally don’t deliberately seek to hang out with other social classes. When it happens, it’s usually as a result of another shared interest or trait. You can run into people in another social class at a  comic con, or your sports league, or your very small local queer community. Or if you’re doing a substantial amount of going on first dates with people from dating apps. It still won’t be the entire range of social classes, it’s just a wider range than who you would hang out with by default. Talking to a person in another social class is generally more unpleasant than talking to a person in your own, but this shared experience of being at a con/being queer/trying to date/etc can act like a social lubricant.

Many activist organizers come from the middle- and upper-middle classes. One common trap that they fall into is modelling working- and lower-class activists as sharing the exact same set of aversions that they do, to the upper class. So they think, “as long as we’re not doing fancy dress codes and caviar and country clubs, we’re inclusive”. In truth, working- and lower-class activists often have an aversion to middle-class norms as well — things like tofu, women who don’t shave, and non-hierarchical meeting structures. To make meetings and spaces welcoming towards everyone, middle- and upper-middle class activists should reflect on their own cultural norms, and to what extent it is necessary to impose it on other classes.

Betsy-Leondar Wright, an activist-scholar, suggests distinguishing between essential and non-essential weirdness, where essential weirdnesses are defined as practices that can’t be eliminated without doing great injustice to someone. In other words, essential weirdnesses must be kept, even if they seem offputting to some attendants, because discarding them causes greater harm. Essential weirdnesses are things like “the practice of always speaking out against racist comments” or “having your meetings be secular”.

Non-essential weirdnesses, on the other hand, should be eliminated as much as possible because pushing lifestyle choices onto disinterested working-class people is a misuse of class privilege. Because classes are hierarchical in nature, this is especially important for middle-upper class people to keep in mind. An example of non-essential weirdness is “only having vegan options for dinner”.