Critical reverence

In Torah study my fellow students regard our heritage with a distinctive attitude that can be characterized as critical reverence. We are horrified by much of what the Israelites did in God’s name, but we know that this is where we, who now judge, learned our judgment. Without them, we would not be in a position to see how we would prefer them to have behaved. And we can only hope our children and all of posterity will regard us with the same attitude, gratefully accepting what we bequeath but — even better, refusing to repeat our mistakes.

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The Left and the Right seem to agree on at least one thing: they both think that criticism and reverence are incompatible. If you revere, you cannot criticize. If you can criticize, you can no longer revere. This is a side-effect of philosophical impoverishment. True reverence and criticism are mutually dependent. Criticism without reverence (or respect) is condemnation. Reverence without criticism is delusional fanaticism.

When the Left learns to revere as it criticizes, and the Right learns to criticize as it reveres we will be prepared to reconcile and recommence our national project.

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Intuitive forces

I think I might not believe in intuitions as pre-thoughts. I think intuitions are creative impulses — the impulse to make a song, an image, a story or poem, a gesture or dance, an object, an organization — or a thought. Why must a pre-thought be placed between an intuition and its expression? I’m inclined to believe the same psychic forces befind intuitions can shape multiple media and can also shape a person’s responses to many kinds of experience. 

Convergent forces, not ideal forms, are what shape life. Plato has never rung true to me. 

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Esoteric summary

The heart of morality is the call to transcendence: we are meant to exist as ourselves toward reality that is not us (alterity). These are the proper terms of transcendence: self transcending toward alterity within a shared ground of infinite reality. This is very different from that common conception of transcendence that opposes a mundane natural world and a divine supernatural one. The fact that I cannot deny the existence of this call to transcend is the primary basis for my belief in God. Such a call has no authority in an essentially meaningless universe.

Alterity (reality that is not us) is infinite, meaning that it is not only quantitatively limitless, but qualitatively limitless as well. This means it can only be thought-toward in an open-ended way, not comprehended. Thinking-toward qualitative infinity encourages existing-toward reality in a way that invites the kind of radical surprise intrinsic to qualitative infinity, a prerequisite of transcendence, and is therefore an ontological foundation of moral life. An aid for imagining the directions of this existing-toward is along the trajectories of time, physicality and mind. These can be seen as the basic “objects” of transcendence, but they are everted objects which enclose us, involve us, and exceed us. (Another word for an everted object is a subject, and this is another tributary to my belief in God.)

The heart of transcendence is metanoia: a tacit conceptual/moral/practical shift in being that changes why we exist, how we exist and what we perceive in the world. These three kinds of being can be imagined as the self who exists toward infinity, the subject of metanoia.

Metanoia is a process that can be encouraged and discouraged, which sometimes even ought to be resisted. To navigate the metanoetic cycle, it is important to be able to read the waters of experience and to recognize the significance of moods, feelings and other psychological states that indicate one’s situation and help orient action and moral interpretation.

(Above was a sketchy summary of the diagrams in Geometric Parables. The moral ideal is diagramed as a spiral, qualitative infinity is diagrammed as an asterisk, the subject of metanoia is diagrammed as a trefoil, and the metanoetic cycle is diagrammed as a wheel. I did another half of a sketch yesterday, where I tried to explain each of the parables from the perspective of the others. I am going to finish that and publish it on this blog ASAP.)

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Autumn 2011, when the canary died

A friend texted me a link to an article by “Authoritarian by Instinct“. What follows is a somewhat edited (and hyperlinked up) version of my SMS avalanche of a response.

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I was about to say that I’m surprised at the naivety of so many liberal critics, and that this reminded me of my frustrations with Mounk… Has he not read Arendt?

The whole thrust of authoritarianism is to replace all principles, all laws, all ideological systems with the arbitrary rule of one person, whose momentary intuitive impulse is all-powerful! We think of intuition as this lovely creative thing that just wants to generate beauty and novelty in the world, and in a sense this is true, but not nearly true enough…

I discovered the dark side of intuition when I went to work at an ad agency after toiling for a decade under the “rigid” methodologies of  User Centered Design (UCD) consultancies.

I was the crazy intuitive guy at my UCD jobs — the guy with the big bold ideas. I thought the free-wheeling intuition-friendly air of an ad agency would be refreshing…

Wrong. The ad world was crushing. Layers of creative directors with more organizational clout were intuitively deputized to creatively intuit and dictate to their subordinates what was best. The pace and ethos made appeals practically impossible.

I came to realize that UCD — or as many of us have decided to broaden it — Human Centered Design (HCD) — might slow us way down, and require us to articulate, justify, experiment and demonstrate the virtues of our ideas, but it gives everyone a chance to contribute and to shape what the team is doing.

These processes and requirements meet exactly the same resistance in the workplace as liberal institutions meet out in the public political sphere. Slow. Expensive. Formalistic. Uninspiring.

This is not a coincidence. Human Centered Design is liberalism for the workplace. HCD designers have managed to institutionalize liberalism on teams, in departments, even in whole companies. It has everything to do using the scientific method, government by assent, respect for reason and adherence to processes that make reason possible.

So, here comes my “design as political canary in the coal mine” story that I compulsively retell to anyone who’ll listen, and to many who won’t:

The reason I have been so upset about the state of design is that in 2011 — autumn of 2011, to be exact — all the liberal progress I’d been seeing in my field suddenly reversed. Three things: 1) Steve Jobs died (October 5, 2011), 2) Lean Startup was published (September 13, 2011), 3) front-end frameworks, like Bootstrap (August 19, 2011 and Foundation (September 2011), hit the development world.

All three of these factors marginalized design in crucial ways that have brought the digital water we users swim in to a rolling boil.

There’s a reason why our digital lives are immersed in pleasureless turmoil. Remember back when we would count the hours to the next Apple product release, and get excited when we saw that an upgrade was available to the software tools of choice? Now it all makes us uneasy, because it means yet more disruption where we really need stability. New features are more likely to make things harder for us than improve our lives.

This is not an inevitable effect of the world getting more complex. It is a direct effect of design’s marginalization. Engineers now run the show, and they’re into the Thing they make, as opposed to the experiences real-life people have interacting with things in real-life situations. This is what designers do, and it is why we use the language of “experience” when speaking about our practices. They are all focused on getting at the experiences people have.

But now the language of design has been appropriated and emptied. Engineers call their Things “Experiences”. When they hack together a front-end using a front-end framework, they call this “designing the User Experience”.

People who lack understanding of the radical paradigm shift (meant literally, in the Kuhnian sense) at the root of HCD — a root that could not be more at odds with the objectivist Industrial Age paradigm — are blind to the relapse to which we’ve succumbed. They never made the shift anyway, and these new retro-practices make more sense to the engineering mindset.

And sadly, this relapse has spread into politics, hitting both left and right extremes of the political spectrum, each feeding on conflict with the other, and is rapidly closing in on the center. We have the brainless sophistication of children trained by disillusioned Marxists to perceive the world in the terms of racist, sexist and other identitarian sociologies (ironically called “hermeneutics” of this and that) facing off against aggressively anti-intellectual thugs. Liberalism is now widely disparaged and declared vapid, naive and obsolete by the very people who are blind to what Liberalism is, how it is done and why it is so important.

Hopefully, soon everyone will have known all these things I’m saying all along, and I will retroactively have not been the only one freaking out about the loss of liberal democracy, the loss of design and seeing very vividly the connection between the two. Until then, stuck in this present, I am isolated in my own obsessive interests and worries.

 

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Design augury

The assumptions about human life at the heart of our design practices which shape our products and our daily experience of the world are exactly the same assumptions that shape our political life. Design, however, moves faster, which means we can sense where our politics are headed by observing where design has arrived. 

When I become angry about giant corporations using their own cloud computing ecosystems to outmaneuver other rival cloud computing ecosystems and dominate the market and ignoring the impact their strategic jockying has on users who have to live and work in their platform battlefield, it is because I feel and smell the politics inside this phenomenon. 

The same is true when I become enraged at dealing with the consequences of startuppity hubris — with the consequences of individual microomniscient geniuses obsessing over their masterpieces, thinking about the contant improvement and perfection of a product they think of as their own personal property, and forgetting the users who have to deal with the constant tinkering, rethinking, pivoting, etc. not just with this one product but pretty much all products. 

…And the weird sameness of so many product innovations, all in lockstep inside a narrow product paradigm, treating minute tweaks as revolutionary breakthroughs. Witness the dozens of variations of Hi-Tec C pens spwarned by Pen Type A. 

…And also when I suspect that most product designs or updates are motivated less by how it will be to use them than how it will be to read about them (or watch videos about them) on tech blogs, unboxing videos, kickstarter profiles, etc. 

…And when I see mass embrace of Helvetica and Swiss Grid design systems. A longing for regularity, order, conformity to relentless logic inherent in that approach to design. 

…And then there’s the Industrial Age relapse known as Lean Startup. 

  Etc. 

These trends feel very much as though they belong to this political moment, and also to what I fear is gathering force behind the present wave of history. 

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Of course, another name for “assumptions about human life at the heart of our activities” is philosophy. Getting at those ethical, ontological, epistemological faiths that direct our attention and guide our actions — most of all when their effects are unconscious and indistinguishable from truth and of reality itself — and seeing what possibilities emerge when they are detected and questioned is philosophy’s central task. 

I am surrounded by folks who know that philosophy is a pointless intellectual exercise in opinionated speculation, an inferior and primitive approximation of science. The philosophy behind this attitude which produces this belief as well as the myriad other political and practical beliefs remains entirely unexamined because according to itself, this activity would be pointless. It is better to just develop one’s beliefs strictly through scientific method and practical hands-on doing — never mind that all this activity is guided by philosophy and what is noticed as significance is filtered by philosophy. 

I’ve said this for years, and I’ll say it again: what ails this nation is bad philosophy. Neglect of philosophy has made us too stupid to be good Liberals. This is why most of us are illiberal right or left, or just checked out. 

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Renewal is rarer than revelation

When a new philosophical perspective alternative reveals itself, it takes philosophical clarity to recognize that what has been revealed is not the ultimate truth but just another philosophy.

And even with this clarity, it take significant philosophical discipline to resist the impulse to accept the new perspective as one’s own, simply because one has seen where one was formerly blind. 

And finally, it takes humility to realize that new philosophical perspectives are nearly never as new as they seem to one who has just conceived it. Almost always, the deepest impact a new philosophical perspective can have is exposing one’s own misunderstandings of misconceived old truths — truths incomprehensible apart from the perspective. But because each time a new philosophy is revealed, it is revealed in a new situation and expressed in a unique language, pride and laziness works against working to discover the redundancy of one’s own apparent genius.

By one of the most perverse ironies of the human condition, when philosophical clarity, discipline and humility fail, the failures are experienced by individuals and their adherents as success of the highest order — as divine revelation, as divine command, as the dawn a new age — and the feeling certainty that attends such errors as evidence of truth. 

Philosophy, properly practiced, is an exercise in perpetual humiliation. It is both an inoculation against prophetic hubris, and a recollection of Liberalism which will otherwise be forgotten.

Sadly, because so few American intellectuals take the practice of philosophizing seriously, treating study of philosophy as a systematic exposure to a history of opinions — (opinions mostly supplanted by more rigorous social scientific fact) — too many people have dismissed Liberalism, thinking themselves superior to something that is, in fact, too demanding for their minds and character.

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Pamphleteerism

Over the last year I’ve been equipping myself to make pamphlets. I’ve purchased several reams of beautiful French Paper in cover and heavy text weights, waxed linen bookbinder thread, needles, and awls and a bone folder. I’ve figured out how to use Adobe InDesign with my printer (which prints 2-sided) to create booklets in signature format ready for binding. I’ve practiced and refined my booklet sewing technique constructing and revising Shabbat prayer booklets.

I think I am going to force myself to work differently in the coming months. I think I’m going to steal from the product development industry (my greatest, most beloved, most intensely detested frenemy, who has nourished me with so many unavoidable crises, who has dragged me through so much dark despair into so many enlightenments). What I intend to steal comes directly from the single most painful trend of the last decade. I intend to force myself to work in “sprints”.

Working in pamphlet sprints, I will write with the intention of always creating a printed pamphlet by the end of the session. I am also going to get rid of this notion of getting everything I’ve learned into a single book. I’m going to get it all out in microcosmic bursts of various genre.

Here are the pamphlets I have planned so far:

  • Geometric Parables. This is a book of diagrams I’ve been drawing and redrawing, interpreting and reinterpreting over the last 15 years. These images guide my best thoughts. When I think, often I am just growing the consequences of particular problems onto these frameworks, as if they were trellises. This will be an obscure little book, consisting of diagrams and meditations in compact verse. Its purpose is not explanation, and it is unlikely to make sense by itself. Its purpose is prayer: recollecting what memory cannot grasp. I will be flirting with idolatry making this pamphlet the way I want it made.
  • The Ten-Thousand Everythings. This could end up being a book that explains Geometric Parables. I’ve accumulated a large number of aphoristic scraps that fit together into a cohesive philosophical perspective. I want to attempt to demonstrate my way of thinking by exploring some key domains, especially ethics, ontology and religion. This will be my idea dump. I’m going to try to force myself to be more relaxed and prosaic writing and rewriting it.
  • Syllabus Listicalis. This idea came to life yesterday, when I just started listing out the most consequential points where I disagree with conventional wisdom. Few people understand the extent to which my thinking has diverged from the norms of everyday thinking, especially at the most crucial life-shaping points. This has left me in a place where at best I agree with others on details, but not for the reasons people tend to assume, which cannot be explained within contemporary customs of polite conversation. I doubt I’ll try to explain anything in Syllabus Listicalis. It will be a bare list of instructive disagreements, maybe a negative image of The Ten-Thousand Everythings.
  • Interface: This will be a more or less explicit book about the myriad lessons I’ve learned oscillating between human-centered design and philosophical reflection, and how these insights have constellated around what I think is an important new way of thinking about reality. I believe many designers have intuited the importance of this new perspective as they have developed and applied its methods to an expanding sphere of problems. But so far, I have seen no attempt to articulate the perspective itself and  account for its importance.

In addition, I may start typesetting my better blog posts. Maybe I’ll make a series called Anomalogues. But first, I’m going to make some editions of the pamphlets I’ve listed above.

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