I just sent the following to City Council and our new Mayor. If you live in Seattle and agree that we should be embracing density rather than fearing it, I encourage you to send feedback in this week, because there is a loud and effective group of anti-density activists making worrying headway.
A year ago today, Chris Hadfield went to the International Space Station and started tweeting from there. It seems silly, given that there’s important research done there and all, but the tweeting was what drew me in. It was sort of a revival of my seven-year-old self’s fascination with space, but with an important twist. Back then I was obsessed with looking out, while these days my attention is much more focussed on our own planet, so what really kept me going were Hadfield’s photos of the Earth from orbit.
Sociologists have a word for what seeing Earth from space does to us: the Overview Effect. In short, nationalist and self-centred perspectives on the world start to seem awfully narrow when you’re hurtling by in a tin can that took unprecedented international cooperation to build, and watching your usual home from a perspective at which national borders are only visible if one side has screwed up. Astronauts report coming back from space with a freshly planetary perspective.
Warning: reading this post will change your brain. So will choosing not to read it, though, so you might as well continue and learn something. There’s been yet another neuroscience study claiming to have found important, systematic differences between male and female brains. I can’t critique the original paper, because it’s behind a paywall, so I’m going to have to trust Tom Stafford’s analysis of it and Cordelia Fine’s discussion of the paper’s problems. Even so I can see that the secondary reporting is utterly dire, and the interest in this study hinges on multiple misconceptions about gender, statistics, causality and brains.
The Guardian has the least bad of the popular press reports I’ve seen about this, so it’s the only one I want to encourage anyone to read. In fact, to the Guardian’s credit, it looks like all the badness in their article came from the original paper or the corresponding author’s statement. The claims are that in a huge set of brain scan data, researchers found “stark differences” between the “wiring of male and female brains”, and those differences correspond very neatly to gender stereotypes. Towards the end of the Guardian’s article, they casually mention that the gender differences don’t appear until age 13 or 14, but outside that one sentence the implication seems to be that these are innate differences (the BBC article doesn’t even mention the age effect, which is one of the reasons I’m not linking to it).
“Nature” is over. There’s not a liter of seawater anywhere without its share of PCB and DDT, and an altered climate will reshuffle the ecological deck for every creature that breathes. A 21st century avant-garde must deal with those consequences and thrive in that world. We have already painted flowers. We want to know what a flower means when a flower has onboard processing, amped- up genetics, and its own agenda. Thus a central Viridian aesthetic dictum: “A Rose is No Longer a Rose.”
My contribution to the retrospective is now online: A Rose is No Longer a Rose, on why we bother ‘restoring’ habitat when Sterling is right to say that we can never have back what used to be.
Tim Maly is curating a retrospective on the Viridian Design movement. I was always sort of conflicted about this movement. It had some clearly worthwhile, needful ideas, but I find Bruce Sterling’s tone & writing style off-putting, and I have some substantive disagreements with his approach.
There’s enough that was worthwhile about it, or at least genuinely thought-provoking, for Tim’s call for submissions to intrigue me, so I’ve promised at least one piece. Before writing that I figured I’d better re-read some of the key documents:
- The introductory speech
- The Viridian Principles
- The Manifesto of January 3, 2000
- The Last Viridian Note
I started writing notes of my responses to bits of the Manifesto, so I can find the right parts to quote when I write the more substantive stuff. On the off-chance that this is interesting to anyone else, here they are after the cut:
My first degree was in Psychology. More importantly, it was in an unusually interdisciplinary department of a university that still had some traces left of a politically radical past, in the late 90s. As a result, one of the component courses was “Soviet Psychology” which introduced us to some key concepts in psychology that were either unique to the Soviet literature or had been developed much earlier there than on our side of the Iron Curtain. Some of the positive examples are:
- Learning as a culturally mediated process
- Child development as a process of learning to build more sophisticated relationships with a larger number of people
- Framing simple tools like a mathematician’s pad of paper as an extension of the mind
- A sophisticated critique of the artificiality of lab psychology experiments
I’ve been trying to write something like this post for some time. I think I’ve finally figured out how to do it – by leaning on better writers than myself:
Tim Maly: “Certainly, the pundits are talking about [Bentham's Panopticon]. Foucault’s in now. He’s arrived. He’s the hot new way of understanding the world and the pundits loooooove to natter on about how there are security cameras everywhere.”
I glanced around; the room was empty.
“The thing about pundits,” she said, “is they’re always getting it wrong. It’s easy to talk about all the cameras. It’s exciting to talk about the all-seeing tower in the middle. That’s where the power seems to be concentrated, and power sells.
“The truth is that the people manning the tower are a pack of squabbling incompetents. The halls of power are full of bad craziness, with reams of data miscollected, misfiled, and misunderstood. Still, the weight of authority, arbitrarily applied, is real and crushing, and far too heavy for any one person to bear.”
The room was cold; some fool had cranked the air conditioning too far.
“There’s a second half to the prison’s design and no one seems to remember this. The second half is that the prisoners are isolated from one another. If they could coordinate, those few lonely bastards in the tower wouldn’t stand a chance. But their clients are kept separated and when the hammer comes down on one of them, all the rest can’t help but think ‘at least it wasn’t me’.”
Quinn Norton: You’ve been letting it happen and grow for 50 years. Congratulations on noticing. Now do something about it, because you’re next.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: The culture of our world, right now, is crafted by little boys who only recall being stood up on their first date, and nothing they got after. They don’t remember the sand they kicked in other people’s eyes, only their own injuries. Our art is cynical and bad-ass and made by people who will not be happy until you join them in the church of “everything is fucked up, so throw up your hands.” This is art as anesthesia.
Last week I walked the Freedom Trail with my cousin. It’s one of the best tourist walking routes I’ve seen, because it combines a high density of sites relevant to an interesting period of history with lots of beautiful buildings, and much of it is through parts of Boston that have a lot of modern life to them too. It’s also an excellent place to think about the mythos and reality of this country.
For a long time, especially my first few years living in the U.S., I despised all of the “rah rah freedom” rhetoric that I kept hearing. It reminded me of the unhelpful nonsense of American exceptionalism, and more than that of how far short we fall from actually fulfilling the haughty promises of the Revolution, more than 2 centuries since. I’ve never stopped being disappointed in the gap between national self-image and reality, but for various reasons I’ve come to see the rhetoric as a good thing in itself. As my own relationship with this country has matured, I’ve started seeing that rhetoric as an opportunity to push ourselves to do—to be—better. Part of this for me has been wholeheartedly embracing the stated ideals of the Revolution, and recognising its huge historical importance as a demonstration to the world that an alternative to monarchy was even possible, while regarding it as painfully unfinished business. Walking the Freedom Trail was a perfect illustration, particularly in two ways.