Showing posts with label free will. Show all posts
Showing posts with label free will. Show all posts

Friday 15 January 2021

The Power of Insignificance

 George Eliot by Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade

 [ . . . ] the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
                                     George Eliot, Middlemarch

The Greatest English novel of all time

Does anybody read George Eliot anymore?  I have come to believe that Middlemarch is the greatest novel ever written in the English language.  For sometime I was convinced that the accolade had to go to one of Thomas Hardy's many novels.  Hugh Hood, novelist and my professor of the 19th-century novel, assured our graduate seminar that the title of greatest and most influential novelist belonged to Charles Dickens.  The officious, online award of number one is invariably given to James Joyce's Ulysses--that novel that everyone knows about but almost no-one has read.

Literature is "an arrangement of words"

Literature, it is commonly claimed, is "an arrangement of words."  This may not sound like much, but stop to consider:  arrange a bunch of atoms one way and you get a slug, arrange them another way and you get Claudia Schiffer, another and you get Elon Musk.  (You can insert your own examples.) In writing, the range of possibilities is from an inarticulate twitter tweet to Eliot's Middlemarch.  Having been through the novel a couple of times now, I know that I can drop my index finger on any one of its 880 pages and I will discover a sentence that impresses me in its construction, its euphony, its rhythm, its humour or irony or pathos, but mostly I will find myself saying "ahah, yes that's exactly right and the right way to say it," or I find myself full of new questions, wonder and insights.

Durrell's Alexandria Quartet

When I was an undergraduate in the 70s, a local newspaper asked some of my professors to provide a list of their top ten great novels.  A number of them listed Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.  I had to wait for retirement to find time to read its 896 pages (884 in some versions).  I understood immediately why it would be the choice of English professors.  For one thing, in my list of newly learned words (yes, I keep such a list), the Durrell novel accounts for about 80% of the entries.  Durrell's luxurious descriptions of scenes and scenery are comparable to the landscape paintings of the Dutch masters.  There is a texture, refinement and sensuality in his prose that is breathtaking. At the same time, getting to the end of the story is torture.  "Please, dear god, not another layered description of a tortured artist and heavy breathing against a purple horizon, without any clue about what is really going on!"  For reasons that escape me, we must read to around page 800 before Durrell reveals the plot which has governed the action of the novel from the beginning.  Prior to this point, we have been reading a philosophical prose poem.

The Age of pornography

We live in the age of pornography.  In this era, it is difficult to grasp the argument that Durrell was denied the Nobel in Literature because there was too much sex in his novels.  We might struggle to appreciate Eliot's subtle allusions and characters so trapped in decorum, propriety and protocol, that a hint of scandal would destroy a reputation and, consequently, a life, and a gesture or gestalt might alter a character's destiny.  Contemporary readers of Middlemarch will be tested because the first kiss of the young lovers whose fate ties the story together does not occur until chapter 83 of the novel's 93 chapters.  I wonder if the kind of readership that such literary works require isn't on the verge of extinction.

If you were young, beautiful and independently wealthy, would you marry this man? 

The patriarchy might well dismiss Middlemarch as a "women's" novel.  It was, after all, written by a woman, largely about women (in particular, the heroine, Dorothea Brooke),  and is addressed, arguably, to a female readership.  Mary Anne Evans was, doubtlessly, very aware of this likelihood when she chose to write under the pseudonym George Eliot.

Much of the mystery, intrigue and suspense of the novel is generated by the young, beautiful and independently wealthy Dorothea Brooke's decision to marry an elderly, sallow pedagogue, the Reverend Edward Causaubon.  The theme and plot of the novel might be disparagingly reduced to the search for a mate or, more precisely, finding the right husband (which invariably involves finding the wrong husband first), but the majority of classic English novels could be similarly reduced.

John Locke

The portrait above is not of Reverend Casaubon but of John Locke, the English philosopher, academic, political theorist and medical researcher.  It is via this portrait that we are told, in a dialogue between Dorothea and her sister, Celia, what Mr. Casaubon looked like:

"How very ugly Mr. Casaubon is!"  
"Celia! He is one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw. He is remarkably like the portrait of Locke. He has the same deep eye-sockets." 

         "Had Locke those two white moles with hairs on them?"

Dorothea's imagining that Casaubon approximates John Locke goes a long way in explaining her attraction to him.  In fact, the heroic male figures in the novel, both objects of Dorothea's admiration, Dr. Lydgate and Will Ladislaw, show clear intimations of Locke.

The Power of Insignificance

Nothing that I have written so far in this post is what I originally intended to say. My intention was to write on a theme that I had mentioned tangentially in previous posts:  the advantages of insignificance.  I have felt at ease expressing my opinions because, ultimately, they were not significant enough, not widely read enough, to cause a backlash.  As a relatively unknown, retired academic, I have the privilege of saying what I think without much risk.  I have even considered that I have the additional benefit of operating autonomously and independently within the "degrees of freedom" described by Daniel Dennett which I referred to in The Mystery of the Off Switch.  However, the morning after I published "The Mystery of the Off Switch" post, in which I said some unflattering, in fact, pretty damning things about big technology companies, I was suddenly and absolutely cut off from the internet.

On Being Rich, Famous and Powerful

This is probably the best example of "sour grapes" that I have ever written on this blog, but I have often felt that I was not as envious of men with wealth and fame and position as I should be.  No doubt, if I was offered any one of these possibilities, I would accept it, but mostly out of curiosity rather than a burning desire.  Even when I consider wealthy, famous, powerful men whom I admire, I find little evidence that they are/were happier than I have been over most of my life.  When I consider, in particular, the freedom which they have enjoyed--or not--I find myself concluding that important is the opposite of free.

How did I end up writing about Middlemarch?

As I was musing on "insignificance," I rediscovered the penultimate paragraphs of Middlemarch. [Spoiler alert:  If you are planning to read the novel for the first time, you might want to skip these quoted paragraphs.]

Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea's second marriage as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Middlemarch, where she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin — young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. Those who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been "a nice woman," else she would not have married either the one or the other. 

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

"We insignificant people" have the power to make the lives of many Dorotheas great, by making them difficult, by forcing them to defy us (as was done with Saint Theresa and Antigone).  We are the butterflies that cause distant hurricanes. "With our daily words and acts," we can also affect, for good or ill, the lives of those around us. Dorothea herself chose to be insignificant.  Her strength and virtue showed in her decision to be insignificant; her strength and virtue showed more clearly in relief against the foil of insignificance, but ultimately, she showed that there is freedom, power and virtue in insignificance.


Today, I received an email "letter of apology" from my internet provider for the interruption caused to all of their subscribers which was beyond their control.  I wondered, self-mockingly, if I should send the company my "letter of apology," explaining that everyone lost their web access because of nasty things I had written on my blog.  No, I continue to believe in the power of my insignificance.  Although, I must admit, there was a moment when the thought crossed my mind that I had lost the power of my insignificance.  Thankfully, I am happy to report that I remain unworthy of anyone's surveillance but, at the same time, I am reminded that we must all work to protect the freedom of our un-surveilled insignificance.

Monday 4 January 2021

The Mystery of the "Off" Switch . . . Solved! Sort of.

Where's the "on" switch?

Just when I was feeling so smart because I'd bought myself a new fancy-pants Mac computer, I had to spend 45 minutes looking for the power switch to turn the damn thing on.  Then I had the problem of figuring out the right way to turn it off.  In the early days of personal computers, people mocked the fact that you had to choose "on" to turn your computer off.  Though I thought myself more savvy when I bought my Mac, apparently, pressing the near-invisible "on" button was not the right way to turn it off.

"OK Boomer"

These "OK Boomer" moments became a motif--these days people say "meme"--in my encounters with technology.  Every time I dealt with a new "app" (why does everything have to have a nickname, abbreviation, initialism or acronym which obscures its meaning?  A sour-grape complaint for another day), I ended up asking "how do you turn it off?"   The millennial response was a look of wonderment which asked "How does one communicate with an alien life form from another planet?"  The more empathetic answer was "You don't have to."

It's called a light switch!

In my world, when you walked into a darkened room, you flicked up on a switch and the lights came on.  As you left the room, you flicked down on the switch and the lights turned off.  (Granted, some electricians don't get the whole up/down thing.)  Even if "I didn't have to," when I was finished with an application, I wanted to turn it off. Banking applications usually displayed "log out" or "sign out" possibilities (apparently "turn off" is verboten in the big-tech world).  Banks even recommend that after I "log out," I should "empty cache." (I should learn how to do that someday.)

Who knew there was a plan?!

Over and over again, I went looking for the "off" switch in a computer application, only to discover that it would take three clicks beyond a particular hotlink, if I was lucky enough to choose the right hotlink in the first place.  Often there simply was no off switch.  Then the application would suddenly appear on my screen when I rebooted my computer.  To turn off the application, I would have to delete it, but even deleting it was not enough.  I would have to "uninstall it" which meant buying "uninstall software" or deleting six or seven files in various folders.  And hopefully I would not delete the file which was essential for the operating system.  "These are terrible design flaws," I thought naively.  Then I watched the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.

The Dystopia is now!

The backbone of the film is a string of interviews with insiders from big tech companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, etc, etc.  In turn, they each confessed that they had created a monster.  Then, ironically, some admitted that they themselves were being consumed by the monster they had created to consume the rest of us.  They struggled to give the monster, the underlying problem, a name.  The groundwork for a near-future dystopia has been laid out, they tell us.  If, today, you are a typical teenager addicted to social media, then the dystopia is now.  The tipping point, we are told, was 2011, with dramatic increases in tween and teenage girls committing self-harm and suicide.

There Is no off switch!

Given the scale and the stakes, the anachronistic problem of a stubborn, aging Boomer who wants an off switch seems minor, insignificant, even silly.  But it tells us what the problem is:  there is no off switch.  The epiphany which The Social Dilemma provided for me was that social-media companies measure success by one single metric:  how much time does a user spend looking at a screen.   As I clicked one hyperlink after another looking for an off switch, becoming more aimlessly lost and pissed off, then went to Google and Youtube looking for a solution, all the while thinking how terribly these tech companies and designers had failed, at the other end, they were celebrating their success at having gotten me to extend my screen time.  (CGP Gray claims that getting me angry is what creates viral social media.  See This Video Will Make You Angry.)

Calling Social Media an "addiction" may be an understatement

Not surprisingly, in The Social Dilemma, the attachment to social media, particularly among the young, is described as an addiction.  Any behaviour which you are unable to control is aptly described as an addiction.  The word "addiction" brings to mind images of someone scruffy in a hoodie lurking outside a schoolyard selling cocaine and ecstasy.  The image to imagine in the case of "social-media addiction" is the user, a teenage girl for example, at one end, and, at the other end, an army of billionaire tech execs, engineers, psychologists, neurologists, designers, sociopaths and other influencers with one objective:  getting that user to keep staring at her screen.  Unfortunately, this image only brings us to the mouth of the rabbit hole.

 Free Will and determinism

In response to my post on Free Will and Determinism, two of my readers (thanks Seb and Ken!) recommended Daniel Dennett's work on the subject.  In his lecture, entitled Herding Cats and Free Will Inflation, Dennett argues that while the laws of physics may determine beginnings and endings, in between, there are inevitable instances of "degrees of freedom" (even when talking about machines).  These instances, these degrees of freedom, offer human individuals some opportunity for independence, for autonomy, for self-control.  In the abstract debate over free will, what really matters, according to Dennett, is our ability to act independently and autonomously.  In this context, Dennett underlines that "there is now a multi-billion-dollar competition among various giant companies to pull your strings, to control your attention."

Dennett argues:

The capacity of individuals and companies to distract you and to clamp your degrees of freedom so that you just don’t think about things that you really should be thinking about because you’re so distracted by all these other things which you can’t help looking at, and thinking about instead. The competition for your attention strikes at the heart of your freedom, your ability to think for yourself.

An agent who controls your attention controls you. 

Down the rabbit hole!

Further down the rabbit hole in The Social Dilemma, we learn the "agent" controlling us isn't an individual, isn't a group or a company.  In the first instance it is an algorithm and, inside the company, only a handful of people understand the algorithms, but even they don't know what the programs responding to the algorithms are doing or how they are doing it in real-time.  The machine (server plus software) has been instructed to get users to look at screens as long as possible.  The machine has been programmed to teach itself how to best accomplish this task.  The machine learns through trial and error.  It has billions of lab rats (that would be us) and can perform millions of tests in a relatively short period of time to figure out how (based on our personal data) to keep us looking at a screen.  What works; what doesn't, and everything in between. Based on the machine's study of my data and past behaviour, it calculates where best to hide the off switch from a Sour Boomer like me, while littering my path with images of the elderly man I would like to look like and a series of ab exercises sponsored by a local gym franchise.

Understanding the stakes

Jaron Lanier asserts and Dennett concurs that if you think a company like Facebook wants your data so they can sell it to a third party, you have no idea what game is being played.  Your data is too useful, too valuable, to be sold to a third party.  Certainly, Facebook has proven that your data can be successfully monetized by matching your data with the products of an advertiser. But even monetization isn't the whole story; after all, we are talking about companies that are already the richest companies in the history of the world.  They can change you, me, and the teenage girl who wants plastic surgery to look more like her filtered Snapchat photo.  Lanier argues that a subtle one-percent change in the world, in how we think and feel and are, is a greater measure of power than anything that can be accomplished with a few billion dollars.  Why would they do this?  For the worst of all possible reasons:  because they can.

Why Is the Vagina Masculine? And What’s the Alternative?

“Vagina” is masculine  I first came across this factoid thirty years ago in Daphne Marlatt’s novel Ana Historic .   It came up again more r...