To betray our nature.

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

–Alan Jacobs, Anthropocene theology

The faceless inflexibility of platforms

A model of education tied to platforms rather than institutions may seem liberating at first — “I can learn everything I need to know at Khan Academy!” — but that sense of liberation will continue only insofar as users train themselves to ask the questions the platforms already know how to answer, and think the thoughts that the platforms are prepared to transmit.

Very few people will see any of this as problematic, and only those very few will look to work outside the shaping power of the dominant platforms. This means that such institution-building as they manage will have to happen on a small scale and within limited geographical areas. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the worst thing that could happen.

But the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting.

–Alan Jacobs, platforms and institutions

Enigma and apocalypse

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

–Alan Jacobs, Tolkein’s riddles

The battle after the war

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out. Taking the short view has burned me far too many times; I’m going to try to prevent that from happening ever again (even if I will sometimes fail). And if once in a while I end up fighting a battle in a war that has already ended … I can live with that.

–Alan Jacobs, recency illusions

A formless, mute, infant and terrifying form of monstrosity called the future

In the accounts given by philosophers like Bernard Stiegler, the human stands on the point of vanishing entirely; we become something incidental to a total technological system. As he points out, a human being without any technological prostheses is nothing, an unsteady sac of flesh defined only by what it doesn’t have: no shelter, no protection, no society. We create tools, but technical apparatuses and their milieus advance according to their own logic, and these non-living objects have their own strange form of life. Our brains developed to control our hands; human consciousness itself was only the by-product of a technical evolution that moved from flint-knapping to the hammer to the virtual bartender; its real job isn’t to perform any particular task but to perpetuate itself.  “Robots,” he writes, are “seemingly designed no longer to free humanity from work but to consign it either to poverty or stress.” Whatever illusion of predominance we had is fading: For others, like Benjamin Bratton, the real political subject is no longer a human individual but a “user,” which can be any kind of biological or digital assemblage. With production automated according to algorithmically generated targets, with the vast majority of all written language taking the form of spam and junk code, this system has less and less use for us—even as a moving part—with every passing day.

Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.

–Sam Kriss, Watching the World Rot at the World’s Largest Tech Conference

I already wonder what Prof. Jacobs would have to say about Kriss’s provocative essay. This particular passage reeks of techno-determinism, albeit a pessimistic one. Kriss spends an entire paragraph laying out the case that “non-living objects” — our tools — “have their own strange form of life,” and that these tools have evolved (somehow) into an increasingly autonomous system with “less and less use for us–even as a moving part.” All of this suggests to me that Kriss views humanity as extraordinarily deprived of agency by its technological infrastructure.

Yet the following sentence–more of an aphorism, really–declares simply, “Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.” I emphasize those words because they suggest that we are actively moving–as opposed to being moved–toward self-annhilation.

To me, this rhetorical confusion is pretty significant. At the end of the essay, Kriss documents a meet-and-greet at a local watering hole. He laments that human sociality has been transmogrified into ever more affective labor.

A human enjoyment as basic as getting drunk together had been transformed into something else; everyone was still at work, being pulled along by the logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented. In a corner of one bar, a muted TV was showing the presidential election on CNN: state by state slowly turning red, a grinning goblin creeping closer to the brink of power. People around me were worried; they thought that a nuclear-armed Donald Trump might lead to the end of humanity. For all the tech industry’s claims to be the leading edge of tomorrow, these people were still thinking in terms of a very old world. The end of humanity had already arrived; it was everywhere around us.

But what or who, exactly, had done the transforming? The “logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented”? Kriss’s refusal to name names makes a sort of sense, given that a main theme of his essay is the way our society is increasingly a “system terrifyingly self-sustaining and utterly opaque.” This systemic opacity makes it impossible or difficult. Or perhaps, for his rhetorical purposes, it’s rhetorically undesirable to name openly and clearly. Look at that passage again. States, one by one, turn red, apparently of their own accord, as if the vote tallies themselves are “a grinning goblin.” Is Donald Trump the goblin? Or does Kriss simply fear to name the agent that is actually responsible for turning those states red: humanity? States don’t just turn red of their own accord, even on CNN election maps. Voters vote, and the color reflects their choice.

I honestly can’t tell if Kriss is being imprecise as a matter of rhetorical strategy or because he’s not carefully thinking through the implications of his premise. In a lot of ways, it seems politically easier to say, “The end of humanity had already arrived.” It lets us off the hook for having to take responsibility and a measure of control over our technosphere. It also gives people like Kriss persmission to dismiss and demean those people whose goals and purposes are opaque to him.

Kriss can’t understand why tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists would choose to congregate in such a chaotic way. He doesn’t get the appeal of running a 90% chance of failure as an app innovator. The idea of using a social occasion as a milieu for professional networking appears vaguely insidious. Lurking behind it all is some Illuminati-esque entity called Technology (or maybe the Tech Industry?), whose agency and motives are obscure and sinister, possibly apocalyptic. And: surely real people could not choose to vote for Trump of their own volition. There must be something compelling them. Kriss (willfully?) ignores the fact that people and their choices remain utterly central to the maintenance of any and all tools that comprise our systems.

I’m largely sympathetic to Kriss’s critique, I think. Most of the systems that hold our social world together mystify me in many profound ways. People themselves constantly disappoint and mystify me, too. But I do think it’s a categorical error to ascribe agential vitality to “systems” or “technology” without doing at least minimal definitional work. Where does human agency end and systemic agency begin? What is the nature of this “strange form of life” posessed by non-living objects? Are all non-living objects possessed by the same, strange life-force, and do they all exert it the same way upon humanity? Is Kriss overwhelmed by The Tech Industry at the Web Summit, or is he primarily overwhelmed by the apparently chaotic society of its attendees–the people who’ve chosen to work there?

Most importantly, doesn’t Kriss fall into the ancient trap of self-fulfilling prophecy? Non-living systems built by people enervate human societies precisely to the extent that humanity cedes agential authority to its tools. When the crash happens, it’s often because people start thinking that their tools will take care of themselves. Worse, cataclysms often happen because people start confusing other people with tools. Kriss seems to lament that transformation; he also empowers and perpetuates it. Instead of trying to understand how and why people would be so gung-ho about valorizing their tools (rightly or wrongly), he speculates that the tools have simply gotten the better of their masters. And instead of trying to understand how and why people would choose to vote for a grinning goblin (rightly or wrongly), he intimates that they’ve simply already sacrificed their humanity. “Web Summit is a hyper-concentrated image of our entire world, and the panic and confusion that is to come,” Kriss says, because society’s “structure is one of increasing chaos.” Perhaps. Probably. Or there’s a pattern there that Kriss can’t see because he refuses recognize it as an extension of his own humanity.

Caliban’s triumph

The academic left interrogated the discourses of “truth” and “reason,” revealed the aporias thereof, exposed the inner workings of the power-knowledge regime, all in the name of social justice. I remember vividly Andrew Ross’s insistence, twenty-five years ago, that it was actually perfectly appropriate and consistent for a would-be revolutionary like him to have a tenured position at Princeton: “I teach in the Ivy League in order to have direct access to the minds of the children of the ruling classes.” It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement. […]

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. It seems that we’ve all now learned the lessons that the academic left taught, and how’s that working out for us? The alt-right/Trumpistas are Caliban to the academic left’s Prospero: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”

–Alan Jacobs, lessons learned

Atomized thinking and Biblical proof-texting

The founders of Twitter are to our discursive culture what Robert Estienne — the guy who divided the Bible up into verses — is to biblical interpretation. Is it possible, when faced with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians divided into verses, to keep clearly in mind the larger dialectical structure of his exposition? Sure. But it’s very hard, as generations of Christians who think that they can settle an argument by quoting a verse, a verse that might not even be a complete sentence, have demonstrated to us all. Becoming habituated to tweet-sized chunks of thought is damaging to one’s grasp of theology and social issues alike.

–Alan Jacobs, against tweetstorms

The Christian sentiment of revulsion

What concerns me far more deeply is the ordinary, everyday Christian — the person who claims to be an evangelical Christian — who is not revolted by Trump, who lacks the requisite “wisdom of repugnance.” I think, for instance, of the people who have compared Trump to King David, presumably because both are guilty of sexual sin. But those who make this comparison have failed to recognize the difference between one who says “For I know my transgressions, / And my sin is ever before me” and one who says that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong and follows up by saying “I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” And if you don’t understand that distinction — and equally if you understand it but for political reasons pretend not to — there is very little about the Christian message that you truly grasp.

–Alan Jacobs, “the wisdom of repugnance”: a test case

Too few notes played too many times

And when, equipped with these assumptions and this theory, S&M turn their attention to the Bible — again, conceived as a problem-solving device — it turns out that the Bible confirms their theory at every point. Previous interpreters of the Bible, S&M note, have never come to any agreement about what it means, but they have discovered what it’s “really about,” what its “actual subject really is”: “the adoption of a sedentary way of life.” They do not say whether they expect to put an end to interpretative disagreement. Perhaps modesty forbade.

Thus armed, S&M get to work. The patriarchal narratives illustrate and teach responses to “the problems created by patriarchal families,” and formulate an “expansion strategy” in relation to said problems. The portions of Scripture known in Judaism as the Writings — Ketuvim, including the Psalms, Proverbs, Job and so on — collectively embody an IAR (immunization against refutation) strategy. The prophets, including the New Testament’s accounts of the life of Jesus? All about CREDs (credibility-enhancing displays).

If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. To me, a little of it goes a very long way — and this Good Book offers 450 pages of it, which is like a two-finger piano exercise that lasts seven hours. My complaint is the opposite of that put forth by the Emperor in Amadeus: Too few notes, I say. Played too many times.

–Alan Jacobs, books on The Good Book