Category Archives: Utopia

Cyborgs and Aesthetics

In countless dystopic stories, such as more recent films of the Terminator franchise, robot-controlled future Earth is a post-apocalyptic hellscape.

In many ways, this imagery seem intuitive. Indeed, a world in which humanity has been pushed to the brink of destruction by robots bent on the eradication of mankind, seems like it ought to be rather bleak.

But I wonder – how much of this imagery is driven by our own sense of self-importance? Or rather – why don’t cyborgs care about aesthetics?

To be fair, there are a number of reasons why such an assumption might be reasonable. If nuclear weapons were unleashed during the early days of the robot uprising, for example, there would surely be terrible repercussions.

But which side, do you suppose, would turn to nuclear weapons first?  Would cyborgs, bent on destroying the petty beings that created them, move to eradicate humanity using our most deadly weapons?

Or would humanity, terrified of the powerful beings we created, move to destroy them before they destroy us?

I’m rather convinced that it is humanity which would do the nuking.

More generally, there’s the sense that robots, dedicated beings of practicality and efficiency, would gladly sacrifice aesthetics to advance the end they are programed seek. The future is a post-apocalyptic hellscape because, to a robot, it hardly matters whether the environment is a hellscape or not.

I’m not convinced of that either. Are aesthetics, indeed, aspects of pure fancy with no practical connotations? A clear day is not only a beautiful sight to behold, it is important for the lungs; no matter how ‘indestructible’ a cyborg may be, exposure to nuclear radiation – or shielding thereof – is likely to be costly.

And, of course, is there no value in beauty in itself? It’s easier, perhaps, to think that cyborgs wouldn’t have capacity for such appreciation – that the awe of the universe is something humans can uniquely behold.

Yet, isn’t that the very aspect of consciousness? The very moment when intelligent becomes intelligence?

Perhaps that moment when a computer becomes alive, when it thinks for itself, “I am,” perhaps that, too, is the moment it realizes – this is a remarkable world we live in.

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The Odd Policy of Even

After much debate, the City of Somerville announced a change in policy earlier this week: snow emergency parking will now alternate sides of the street.

For those of you who don’t live in snow-laden cities, there is a general principal of winter snow removal that it is particularly hard to do when there are parked cars in the way. For that reason, municipalities typically restrict parking during winter storms.

Different communities have different strategies, but in Somerville, it has always been the rule that during a snow emergency you can only park on the odd side of the street.

The result of this, from an even-side resident’s perspective, is that snow plows favor the even side of the street and push more snow onto even-side sidewalks.

In a normal year, this is annoying. When you get a record breaking 110.6 inches of snow, it is a problem.

The real problem, you see, with snow plows, is that they have a remarkable ability to destroy hours worth of labor in mere minutes. I myself live on a corner – so I’m on the even side of one street and the odd side of another.

On the even side it is a constant battle – you go out and shovel, the plow snows you back in. You go out and shovel, the plow snows you back in. While the struggle itself might be enough to fill a man’s heart, it’s also incredibly frustrating.

And, it makes me feel like I should leave a note for passing pedestrians: sorry, I’m trying to do my civic duty, but the snow plow keeps ruining it. Apologies in advance if you come through at an un-shoveled time.

Last year, there was great tumult around the odd-only snow policy. Every time the City of Somerville posted an announcement about a new winter storm, there was a flurry of Facebook comments: Why can’t we alternate the ban?

This is, I believe, a fairly common practice among municipalities. If the winter starts in an odd year, snow parking is odd only. If the winter starts in an even year, snow parking is even only.

This is, arguably, more fair. A point that was raised many times by many citizens over many years, but perhaps most vociferously last year.

So it was exciting too see Mayor Joe Curtatone announce:

After careful review, and with significant community feedback, we have determined that the best and most logical next step in our ongoing efforts to provide excellent snow removal operations in Somerville is to alleviate some of the traditional hardships for residents living on the even side of the street where snow and ice buildup from plowing operations.

Nice work, City of Somerville.

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High Modernism and Network Science

It seems appropriate, somehow, that I’m reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State before beginning my Ph.D. studies.

Scott warns against the dangers of a state which undertakes “utopian social engineering.” He sees a recipe for disaster comprised of four elements. The first seems innocuous: “the administrative ordering of society…by themselves, they are the unremarkable tools of modern statecraft.”

But those unremarkable tools, combined with an authoritarian state and a prostrate civil society, can lead to disaster.

The final element Scott warns of, the one that seems most relevant as I begin my studies, is a high modernist ideology. As Scott explains, high modernism is:

…a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy if science and technology. It was accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production.

High modernism is a faith that goes far beyond supporting the scientific process. It is the unwavering belief that humans have the capacity to design utopia.

 

Of course, not just any humans have this capacity, high modernists would have us believe. It is only those who are properly educated, trained, and credentialed. In this technocratic utopia, experts need no local knowledge. Everything can be standardized to translate from one community to the next.

“‘Fiasco’ is too lighthearted a word for the disasters” caused by high modernism, Scott argues. “The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivization in Russia, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia are among the great human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted.”

The high modernism which rocked the last century may be behind us. The world is to complex, too interwoven to believe in simple, standard, solutions.

Yet even as we accept the complexity of the world, we find ways to unravel it. I’m thrilled to be studying networks, an approach which allows for examining and understanding the complex systems which surround us.

So it is with the warning of Scott ringing in my head that I recently read these words about how a network understanding of biology could influence and improve medical practice:

If you suffered from manic depression in recent years, your first visit to the doctor probably started with an hour-long discussion to carefully examine your thoughts and feelings…Twenty years from now things could look quite different. Facing the same doctor, you will have a five minute discussion, just as you do in cases of simple influenza. An assistant will take a few drops of blood and you will walk home empty-handed. In the evening you will pick up the medicine from the nearest pharmacy. The next day you will wake up fresh and happy, as you did before the symptoms appeared. Both the manic and the depressive you will have been washed away.

That doesn’t sound like utopia to me. In fact, it sounds vaguely horrifying.

While there are no doubt many people with serious mental illnesses who would benefit from such an effective treatment, I’d hope it would take more than a five minute conversation before any major personality traits are simply “washed away.”

Furthermore, with such technology at our disposal, we’d be faced with serious dilemmas about what traits to live with and which to wash away. How much depression should a person accept before they undergo such drastic treatment? How soon before authoritarian states started to remove traits of outspokenness and disobedience?

None of this is to say that we should not pursue the science. It is important, fascinating work that is helping to make a little more sense of this mysterious world.

But embracing the science doesn’t mean embracing high modernism – indeed, as Scott argues, that is something we should be very wary of.

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Gender in an Ideal World

I’ve had some great discussions following my post on Feminism and the Transgender Community.

The topic has stuck with me as I’ve reflected more on this simmering rift between progressive communities.

The good news, as some have pointed out, is that younger cis women tend to be more welcoming of their transgender peers than those who came of age in earlier waves of feminism. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are still plenty of feminists who actively disparage and discriminate against transgender men and women.

That doesn’t sit well with me. That doesn’t sit well with me at all. It strikes me as deeply unjust that women who would proclaim themselves as advocates for equity would discriminate so intentionally.

Not that this is a new or unique issue. There have long been tensions between the white feminist community and the feminist communities of people of color, for example. But those topics deserve their own post.

Today, I’d like to think about what gender or gender identity might look like in an ideal world. There are many tensions between feminists and transgender communities, to be sure, but I think this might be one of them.

Both groups may share a view that gender expression as its normalized now is stifling, but I wonder if there’s a subtle but important difference deeper in these views.

Imagine first a feminist utopia: people do whatever they’re interested in and are respected for whoever they are. There may be some functional differences to restrooms, but overall gender is not a “thing” that defines us.

You may even be inclined to envision this a little more radically: seeing a society where gender is not a binary, but a spectrum encompassing a rich diversity of thoughts, feelings, looks, and expressions.

Now ask yourself: would there be transgender people in such a society?

This is where we start to get into trouble. I think – and I may be entirely wrong about this – that there is a certain flavor of feminist who would be inclined to imagine that “transgender” would be obsolete in such society.

If you are truly free to express yourself regardless of your gender, how can your assigned gender be “wrong”?

There’s a reasonable logic to that argument and a certain comforting simplicity.

But it also has some disconcerting undertones. It implies that transgender people are only a temporary element of society – that “transgender” is not a real thing, but rather a response to a paternalistic paradigm.

Under this model, you may be willing to accept a transgender person as choosing to express their gender a certain way as a means of survival.

It’s not unlike accepting the person who wishes public schools were better, but still elects to send their children to private school: they have to play into the system to make the right choice for themselves, but ultimately the act is a symbol of a broken system.

But what if we were to imagine that yes, there would be transgender people in a more gender fluid society?

Suddenly, the valuation of transgender people seems to change. They aren’t just playing a broken system instead of trying to change the rules. They are genuinely trying to express themselves, express who they are in a meaningful, ineffable way.

As a cis person myself, I don’t really know what that means. But the more I talk to transgender people, the more I hear their stories of discovery and transition, the more I’m convinced that being transgender is more complex and more deeply rooted than our society’s broken gender norms.

That our existing gender system is broken certainly complicates matters – creating false ideas of what is “feminine” and what is “masculine.” But even if we were to do away with those tired tropes, I don’t think that the identity of transgender would just wash away.

Being transgender is something deeper than that, something more fundamental to a person’s being, something which we as a collective society are only beginning to understand.

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The Revolution Comes in Pieces

I’ve written before about my skepticism of “scaling up” as the solution to all our social challenges.

That’s not to say there aren’t some solutions which can provide more value by being brought “to scale,” but when it comes to issues of democracy and engagement, I prefer to think of “scaling sideways.” Lots of little, individual programs running parallel within parallel communities.

So I was quite taken with this little snipped from Joshua Miller and Daniel Levine’s recent paper on Reprobation as Shared Inquiry: Teaching the Liberal Arts in Prison:

“We do not know how to spark a revolution that will overthrow mass incarceration all at once and transfigure our society, but we believe that it can be made to fade away through a proliferation of non-carceral practices.”

The paper builds on Miller and Levine’s work with the Jessup Correctional Institution Prison Scholars Program – which you can support here.

Essentially, Miller and Levine argue that in order to build a truly just and effective prison system, we have to radically shift our society, doing away with our current systems of dominance and subordinance.

It’s not just a moral problem that “for the past 30 years, between 40 and 60 percent of prison inmates were below the federal poverty line,” or that “at midyear 1998, approximately 16 percent of inmates in US state prisons and 7 percent of inmates in federal prisons had a mental illness.” And it is not just a moral problem that the US “incarcerates Blacks and Latinos at disproportionate rates.”

Those are serious, moral problems within our society, but…those deep inequities also render our criminal justice system ineffective.

That is, “it is morally unreasonable to expect an offender to be moved by condemnations coming from agents of a system that routinely subjects him to injustice it is unwilling to recognize as such.”

Miller and Levine offer the Liberal Arts as a tool to break this dominant/subordinate cycle, a resource for engaging incarcerated people – not as subordinates in the ultimate system of domination – but as agents in reflecting on the “the nature of value, and the proper way to relate to other human beings in society.”

“Prison classrooms,” they write, “become political spaces at the heart of an institution where politics is disallowed.”

They acknowledge that their own work is small compared to the vastness of the challenge, but argue that “the utopian vision of a society in which the whole encounter between currently-dominant and currently-subordinated social groups is transformed is likely to be made up of a multitude of small, piecemeal encounters like this.”

Scaling sideways.

And that’s the thing: democracy requires individual engagement. It requires engagement from the individuals within a society, but more deeply, it requires that those individuals are engaged…individually. As autonomous beings, as agents of their own destiny and desires.

The challenges of democracy are challenges of collective action, to be sure – how to work together across differences and interests, how to divide and distribute limited resources.

But at its heart, democratic values are about the individual. The belief that every person’s voice has value, that all people are created equal and that all people demand your respect.

It’s not a simple case of rugged individualism, but rather a subtle interplay of individual and collectivist thought: all voices have value, and therefore we each have a responsibility to ensure that all voices are heard.

But a focus on individual agents requires programs that are small and flexible, developed for a local context and shaped by local knowledge.

You can’t scale up something like that without losing what gives it value.

But we can tackle the problem piece by piece, through networks of small efforts and regional connections.

We can scale these solutions sideways and little by little we can radically transform our society, making our deep inequities and injustices fade away through a proliferation of better practice.

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Support Your Local Business

Tonight marks my last meeting on the board of Somerville Local First.

After three and half years, I’m stepping back in order to focus on my studies as I begin a Ph.D. program this fall.

But the work goes on.

Somerville Local First builds a sustainable local economy and vibrant community. We work with business owners and entrepreneurs, providing technical assistance and networking opportunities. We educate community members on the value of shopping locally, and we bring the community together in celebration of our local charm.

(Pro Tip: Somerville Local First is hosting a Back to the Future, 50’s-themed prom on June 26._

There are lots of reasons while local is important.

Local businesses create more and better jobs. Locally sourced products tend to be more environmentally friendly. Locally owned businesses are better for the local economy – bolstering the tax base and benefiting from owners invested in the community.

But more even than that, local businesses are important because –

Local businesses are who we are.

Local businesses determine the character of a community.

Whether quirky or traditional, upscale or casual, it’s the local businesses that stand out when thinking about what makes a community unique.

Anyone can have an iHop, but only Somerville has the Neighborhood Restaurant.

A community with local businesses is one where people know each other. Where neighbors say hello and the guy behind the bar is an old friend. Indeed, they are communities where everybody knows your name.

In our increasingly anonymous, standardized world, you can’t undervalue the importance of that.

Nobody wants to be a cog in the machine or a brick in the wall, and local businesses help fight that tendency.

There’s something profoundly radical, something subversively democratizing, in the local movement.

In response to the trend of big box stores putting mom & pop shops out of business, the local movement seeks not only to counteract the negative environmental and economic impact, but more fundamentally, the local movement seeks to reclaim our communities as our communities.

There may be red states and blue state, liberal brands and conservative brands, but local businesses remind us – we are all just people.

People with different interests, experiences, and affiliations, of course, but people who share a community, and who can find – literally – common ground, even if they can’t seem to agree.

If we are ever to solve the great problems of our country, if we are ever to unite and find ways of working together and improving together, we will need local businesses to get us there.

So, yes, even as I step back from leadership with Somerville Local First, the work goes on.

The work always goes on.

Please consider supporting this work by making a donation or attending Prom.

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Anger

I was recently struck by a comment from a 60s activist. Reflecting on the 60s experience in Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer, he said something about how society saw activists at the time as angry – but they never stopped to ask why they were angry.

Anger is, I suppose, something of an uncouth emotion.

It can lead to violent verbal, emotional, or physical outbursts. It can lead to damage and harm – perhaps importantly, misdirected damage and harm.

It can leave a wake a devastation akin to a natural disaster.

“Anger is a corrosive emotion that can run off with your mental and physical health,” says Psychology Today.

The American Psychological Association is somewhat more generous, admitting that “anger can be a good thing,” but warning that “excessive anger can cause problems.”

Yet there is something undeniably valuable – something importantly good – about anger.

David Adams, psychologist and coordinator of the Culture of Peace News Network, argues that anger can play an important role in social action, that “anger is the stimulus that initiates action.”

One study out of Rutgers takes this argument a step further, looking at The link between moral anger and social activism.

“Some individuals who have experienced anger as a result of growing up under a system(s) of injustice to transform their anger into moral anger and subsequently into activism,” the study says. “Individuals who experience moral anger often perceive their anger as righteous and justified, linked to something greater than individual self-interest.”

If the opposite of anger is complacency – I’d rather have anger.

But it’s not enough to have the anger – to recognize that others are angry. We need to ask where that anger comes from, understand what drives that anger.

Chuck Palahniuk, in an oft-quote scene from Fight Club, writes, “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

There’s something about that line which resonated deeply with many in my age range, but there’s something critical I always felt Palahniuk left out.

We were lied to, yes.

But it wasn’t just the lie that one day we’d all be millionaires. It was the lie that all our problems had been solved.

That the social movements of the 60s had wrapped everything up nice for us. That we lived in a post-racial society where any kid could grow up to be president and where everyone would be accepted for who they are.

Things were supposed to be perfect now.

But we’ve watched our friends die. We’ve watched unarmed black men die. We’ve watched social injustices stay deeply entrenched while the powers that be utter soft explanations.

We’ve been raise to believe that we we’re nearing utopia, that we would all enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact.

And we’re very, very pissed off.

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Tisch College Names Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg New Director of CIRCLE

I am thrilled to share that my colleague Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg was recently named director of CIRCLE – Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Kei is honestly one of the smartest people I know. With a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with Specialization in Children and Families, she brings a critical development perspective to the work.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with her for nearly seven years and in that time I have learned so much from her insights. She is a true leader and I’m so excited to see the next phase of CIRCLE’s life.

You can read the formal announcement of her appointment here.

 

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In Favor of Fatalism

You know, fatalism gets kind of a bum rap. As if a crushing sense of the deep futility of life is the worst thing that could happen in the world.

Yesterday, my colleague Peter Levine rightly expressed concern at the fatalism inspired by Paul Krugman, Cass Sunstein, and others when it comes to transforming our civil society. In a letter to the New York Review of Books, Levine joined Harry Boyte and Albert Dzur in writing:

Sunstein, like Habermas and many others, sees major institutions as largely fixed and unchangeable, not subject to democratizing change. This assumption generates fatalism, which has shrunk our imaginations about decision-making, politics, and democracy itself.

While I’d be inclined to agree that we shouldn’t consider institutions as fixed and unchangeable, I’m not convinced that an unmovable task should signal the end of the work. As I’ve written before, even if the cause is hopeless, sometimes it is still worth fighting for.

But perhaps more importantly, believing in the people’s ability to generate change doesn’t dissolve the possibility of fatalism.

Imagining institutions as malleable and subject to the will of the people, for example, doesn’t imply that change will always be good.

For his part, James C. Scott argues that “so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry.”

Scott warned of an authoritarian state that is “willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.”

But this warning could be easily extended to the general will of the people. Perhaps the technocratic approach of a few experts imposing their vision is a project doomed to fail – but that doesn’t mean that the will of the people is destined to succeed.

For after all, what is the “will of the people”?

As Walter Lippmann has noted, there is no such thing. There is merely the illusion of society as a body, with a mind, a soul and a purpose, not as a collection of men, women and children whose minds, souls and purposes are variously related.”

And surely, people can be wrong.

Even if we were to overcome the challenges of factions, overcome the disparate opinions and experiences that shape us, even if we united diverse peoples in collaboration and dialogue, worked collectively to solve our problems – even then we would be prone to imperfection.

This, then, is the real fatalistic danger – What if people can change institutions, but the institutions they build will always be fundamentally flawed?

It’s like when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” seemed like a good idea. At the time it seemed progressive, welcoming even. It was a positive change, yet still deeply flawed.

But again, this fatalism doesn’t have to lead to paralysis.

In many ways, the intrinsically imperfect institution is the backbone of Roberto Unger’s thesis. Far from running short on ideas for change, Unger takes ideas to extremes.

He has no patience for what he calls “reformist tinkering,” preferring instead radical change, “smashing contexts.”

In Unger’s view it is exactly that reformist tinkering which leads to fatalism. “Only proposals that are hardly worth fighting for – reformist tinkering – seem practicable,” he writes.

Unmoved by these modest, mediocre plans, people feel resigned to accept the status quo, rather than thinking more radically about what might change.

But Unger confronts this fatalism in a surprising way: seemingly accepting the inevitability of failed human ventures, Unger recommends creating a whole branch of the government tasked with reforming and radicalizing any institution which has become too static.

He envisions a world where institutions are constantly being torn down and rebuilt to repair the mistakes of the past and meet the needs of the day.

What could go wrong? You can almost hear Scott say in response.

In defending his originalist view of the Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argues that interpreting the Constitution based off today’s morals “only works if you assume societies only get better. That they never rot.”

Justice Scalia may not be my model of justice, but he does have a point.

It would be almost foolish to assume we’ll never be imperfect. Unger goes too far.

But where does that leave us? In a world of broken institutions where change is a herculean task and where that change may not be the ideal solution we might hope for, it’s easy to how fatalism might be inspired.

But I still find myself thinking – fatalism isn’t so bad.

Regardless of the changes, regardless of the outcomes, as individual citizens we’re still left with three fundamental choices: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

Why choose to exercise voice?

Because really…what the hell else is there?

Perhaps it’s better that we go into it knowing that change is hard; accepting that human capacity to create perfect systems is limited.

We must constantly challenge ourselves and our works. Are we pushing for change hard enough? Are we expecting too much of our solutions?

After all It’s not a static world we’re fighting for, but one we can continually co-create together.

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The Fall

I recently finished reading Albert Camus’ The Fall – a book I may have scared someone off of because when I was more than halfway through I still wasn’t sure what it was about.

…And I’m still not sure what it was about.

Unlike his earlier works of the Stranger and the Plague, the Fall doesn’t have much of a plot. Not really.

It’s about a man.

It’s about a man’s fall from grace – or rather, man’s fall from grace.

Or, perhaps, his rise to power.

It’s entirely unclear.

Its a book that seems, at least in English translations, to be full of backhanded jabs at Nietzsche.

We meet our hero after his fall. As he recounts the highlights of his life.

He was perfect, he says. He was happy. He pursued the highest attainable position in life, and was fulfilled by natural attributes which allowed him to achieve those ambitions.

I enjoyed my own nature to the fullest, and we all know that there lies happiness, although, to soothe one another mutually, we occasionally pretend to condemn such joys as selfishness….To tell the truth, just from being so fully and simply a man, I looked upon myself as something of a superman,” Camus writes.

He was at the height of his life, he says. But in that height it is clear he is empty.

That exemplary perfection may as well be destruction. He is self-absorbed out of self-loathing. Cavalier out of over-caring. His presumed height is actually his deepest depth.

“Thus I progressed on the surface of life, in the realm of words as it were, never in reality. All those books barely read, those cities barely visited, those women barely possessed! I went through the gestures out of boredom or absent-mindedness. Then came human beings; they wanted to cling, but there was nothing to cling to, and that was unfortunate – for them.”

And then he falls.

Through nondescript tales of an ignored slight, of a spurned lover, our hero tells of his descent into further and further rungs of despair. Mapping his story as the journey through Dante’s Inferno.

At last, he is in the final circle of hell.But there, at the center of hell, at the depth of despair, there he is saved. There he finds perfection.

And in this wretched state, Camus ends the story: But let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!

And perhaps that is why I find Camus so compelling: he is a man who insists on salvation in damnation; who finds glory in despair.

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