Brutal Systems

I wrote this a year ago. Rereading it today made me realize that I still think this is a useful way of reasoning about people, one that doesn’t characterize them as evil. That helps me. I hope it helps you.

When humans come together to work together in collaborative systems, there comes a time when values have to be encoded into those systems. This usually comes down to a retreat to commitment if the process has no battle over power, or system for choosing who decides. One of the ways human societies have overcome this of late is to eschew directly encoding morality into the system in favor of foregrounding the system itself, whose knock-on consequences down the road, in the future, are left unknown, but whose consequences remain hypothetical or unexplored. Rather than say something like, “We want to make sure wealth does not tend toward concentrating in the hands of the few rather than the many,” we encoded a system by which wealth would concentrate in the hands of the few.

But it is entirely possible that the outcome of that process was not what was championed by its most ardent believers. It is entirely possible that most participants of 20th century neoliberalism were not seeking to recapitulate past class structure or enshrine the concentration of wealth in the few, but rather that the system they were designing and building was the means by which they could reach some consensus about what to do about regulating economies and monies without retreating to specific moral commitments (which would lead to an impasse). Instead, they focused on building a system whose rules were mutually intelligible. This way the argument was not over intent, or will, or morality, or duty, or virtue, or grace, or any of the things that are unique to human beings, but to the systematic properties they sought to enshrine.

In the realm of multiple perspectives it is easier to focus on and work on building things that all the parties involved can see their facets of, and their neighbors’ facets. If there is some retreat to commitment that does not get resolved through force or the brute application of power, then the losers of those arguments and battles won’t support the system. So if we want a unified system by which all countries can trade, then we look to the system, not the things the system encodes.

In other words, it is much easier for disparate human morality to decide on a complex system with rules that are hard to derive the consequences of than it is to start, from first principles, with enshrining the morality we want in the system. So we focused on the system, did not heed (or when rarely noticed, acquiesced to) the brutish and elitist consequences of that system, and plodded along. This is an account of how we got to now that doesn’t rely on people being monsters, or actively seeking to maintain class hierarchy, or any other narrative involving a specific and evil person or group of people on which we can rest the mantle of the brutality of the past.

It’s just less awkward and easier to narrow focus onto systems rather than start with the moral questions of what we want to do, then derive systems to enshrine those. It was easier, that’s all.

Books in Brief: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

I wish I had read this as an undergraduate. It breaks apart why the method of note-taking seen in schools is terrible and only reinforces the departmentalized structure that philosophy of education seeks to recapitulate into its students. Basically: take literature notes while reading, translating what you read into your own words. Then take permanent notes on those notes, abstracting out those ideas from their context in the work while trying to connect one atomic idea with another. This network of notes becomes the building blocks of a career as a scholar, researcher, or writer, or whatever. He sells this process over and over and over. It feels repetitive, but that is the point. It references some hokey pop-sci books where I wish it would reference more articles, though there’s plenty of that. (Though

I haven’t heard of many of the folks he references; there’s a thread of German social science that didn’t make it to my learning sciences education, though there’s a lot of overlap of ideas.) Reading up more about the author, he uses Roam Research now, which I also use, and which makes sense. But the tools you use matter so much less than that cycle of taking literature notes in your own words, idea by idea, then writing notes about those notes, isolating atomic ideas (usually in the form of claims or statements), then connecting those atomic ideas to others. It’s that easy, that simple. But it takes practice. You’ll start to do what the book says with the book itself, and it seems specifically built for this. Even if you don’t have a totalizing system, if this book gets you to stop highlighting and underlining (though that’s fine, but not enough) and write down full sentences translating what you’re reading into your own words, you’ll be in a much better place than when you started, at the beginnings of a virtuous and productive cycle. He leans on the network effects of this method, the dynamics of it. I can imagine this book will infuriate some people, but that’s fine.

Categorized as Books

Books in Brief: A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I love this book. The trilogy chronicles the adventures of the author walking from England to Istanbul starting in 1934. This represents his travels up to Hungary. It’s a time capsule of a Europe trying to understand the consequences of the Great War and weary of the rumblings in Germany. There’s not really a narrative, which is kind of the point. It’s more of a suite of adolescent impressions of humanity as filtered through the author looking back at them, someone who has been through the worst humanity has to offer, but only after the events described. The memories are limned with a kind of gauzy joy, an innocence he’s trying to recover, and the writing feels like a byproduct of that process. Which is to say the writing is some of the best travel writing in English, if not the best. I read this book at night, right before falling to sleep. Every night it sent me into a beautiful reverie of snowy paths, hearth-warmed inns, and an invigorated faith in strangers.

Categorized as Books

Winamp Skin Museum

I had a madeleine moment last night. The Winamp Skin Museum is a window into a time when you thought of your computer’s interface as an extension of yourself. The affordances many people sought from computers were few: play music, surf the net, manage email, contacts, a calendar, word processing, and spreadsheets. Especially during the reign of Microsoft, the tools with which you could accomplish these things were well-realized and ubiquitous. Because of this sameness, people wanted to differentiate themselves from their friends’ or colleagues’ screens. So developers introduced skins and themes, which had in a sense come as a built-in affordance of Windows but never found full flush until Winamp and Stardock made it possible to completely customize the way your computer looked and by extension what it felt like to use.

Now computers are used for many things, and we differentiate by how we use the computer, what we do with it, rather than how it looks or feels. Microsoft’s surface of customization shrank with Aero, and the ability to theme Apple’s operating system was removed as a security precaution. Perhaps this is for the best. The tool matures and the focus shifts from how the tool looks to what the tool does, but I still feel we lost something, that we’ve forfeited a rich avenue of expression. Like all expression, it was messy and ugly and recapitulated its moment, and like a journal it catalogued facets of yourself, a mood ring with a memory. Now it’s a museum on the internet.1

  1. I know Linux’s various window managers and UI toolkits have more robust theming options but each of those requires a commitment to applications made within that toolkit or that play well with that window manager. It is neither the same envelope of access for a normal user nor does it offer the same guarantee of compatibility that theming Windows or, later, macOS did.

Unnecessary Architecture

Had a little epiphany when I went down some stairs in Morrowind. There were two doors next to one another in a room. Both led to the floor below. But they were completely separate, and mirrors of one another. I couldn’t believe it. I had to check three times to make sure I was understanding the topology. I think it’s because that kind of true redundancy almost does not exist, or would never exist so close to one another that a user of a building would have to make an immediate and seemingly arbitrary decision such as which path to take. We don’t live in a world with those kinds of things, those edges, so exposed. But I imagined a family living in that castle, of people going up and down stairs, of children racing each other down mirrored and unseen steps. And we’ve lost something in our obsession with efficiency and cost-cutting, and what it is lies with that affordance and its complete novelty to me.

Categorized as Games

Within Our Planetary Means

There’s a bit in Phil Christman’s latest newsletter where he talks about how rising global temperatures mean we will have to in some way come to terms with the fact that in order to live as a species, we will have to live “within our planetary means.”

Perhaps the next bit of human history—who knows how long, a hundred years, a thousand years, many thousands—will be figuring out how to live under those constraints. We spent the last few thousand figuring out how to live without constraint, and we overdid it.

Books in Brief: Ducks, Newburyport

I finished Ducks, Newburyport. I started in September 2019 and finished today, four months later. It’s a singular, unique, and amazing work that shows a whole human being in the right now.

I’ve never read a novel that so accurately depicted the sensation of living in an environment where every day brings fresh horrors that don’t directly impinge on our lives, even as they gnaw at our well-being. More powerfully still, I’ve read nothing that so thoroughly acknowledges the toxic mix of guilt and dread that is the bassline of life in Western society amid a climate change disaster that our every action exacerbates.

Thinking Through the Clutter, a book review by Levi Stahl

I’ve never read anything like it. A lot of the time when I began reading it on a given day, I would get overwhelmed in the way the narrator felt overwhelmed, which is why I think it took me four months to read. I read other things during that time, too, because too much of it, especially in one sitting, felt like too much. But there are some passages where twenty pages will go by and you will feel sucked completely out of time and into the narrator’s head.

I have said elsewhere reading Ducks, Newburyport was a restorative, even a reparative experience. I felt healthier for reading it. Each night, incrementally, it was making me better. And it might be because of this I am not really fit to make any grand claims for it: masterpiece, miracle, genius etc., although I am certain it is all these things. What I will say, however, is that like other great works of art, I believe when we reflect back on Ducks, Newburyport we will think it strange that the world once existed without it. This is one definition of timelessness. Not so much that a work of art is perennially relevant, but that we feel it has always been with us, somehow in its newness we recognise it. This is why I picked it up on that Saturday morning, weary and depressed as I was: it was already part of me. 

What we have is a person, a book review by Neil Griffiths

The book deals with a lot of contemporary anxieties, which means it can induce those anxieties by bringing them up. Of particular significance is the amount of attention paid to gun violence. The narrator is in the midwest, and her anxieties over open carry, 2nd amendment people, and the entire narrative of individualized libertarian responsibility for defense is an anxiety I share and think about a lot. Another way of saying this is that if you also feel these anxieties, this will make you feel both saner as you see them reflected in such a fleshed-out person and more anxious as it becomes the subject of the narrator’s thoughts as we follow them.

If you are at all interested in reading this book, I’d recommend you to read it sooner rather than later, as it will feel different reading it in ten years than it will now. But it will be an important and relevant book forevermore.

Arvo Pärt – And Then Came the Evening and the Morning

A new light must come.

And you won’t know it,

it must be your own fruit,

the fruit of your flesh.

For otherwise you can’t make contact with it.

Arvo Pärt

This is my favorite film I’ve seen all year. It’s a documentary about Arvo Pärt, the most performed living composer, made in 1990. He has created all kinds of different types of music, but for me he’s most closely associated with the holy minimalist movement, which, if I’m being honest, is my favorite kind of sound, the kind that relaxes my soul, then sends it soaring.

The film starts off as though it’s an abstract and artsy music documentary, but it goes to a different and magical place. If you watch nothing else, please take eight or so minutes to watch from 45:00. You won’t have all the context, the emotional tone, that builds to that moment, but that moment is special, and worth your time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the limits of language, and about how art—the means by which we communicate our inner universes to others—can share things, even using language itself, that direct description through language cannot grasp. In this moment, Pärt gestures toward something beyond even that, something that can’t escape our own inner universe, but is nonetheless real—that is part of the exigencies of experience, and magical, and divine. And it seems like this the wind that guides him, the firmament that moves him to make what he does, all in the service of gesturing toward something that is not subject to language, or is even possible to share. But we can try.

The Scope of the Night

Night time is for narrowing my scope. It’s for closing the horizon, for donning blinders, for setting the limits of my suite of concerns to fit between the walls of my bedroom. That is the only danger the phone poses; it can punch holes through space-time. It’s no different from a wandering thought that nags and scrapes at a sleeping mind. But focus on breath. Focus on the body. It’s here, so you’re here. Now: read the novel. Its vast infinity will lull you away. And everything that matters will still be there in the morning, like you.