Category Archives: Biography

Beetle green

I just had a vivid memory from my early childhood in Pennsylvania. We had a row of rose bushes in my back yard and the roses attracted a certain kind of large iridescent turquoise-green beetle. The only other place I ever saw this color was in my grandpa’s house. For some reason he owned a lot of items — stamped metal toys, fishing reels, outboard motors — painted in metallic beetle green. In the early 90s they started painting cars this color, and suddenly the color was ubiquitous. Then it went out of style and I rarely see it anymore.

My gut says this color will be back in the zeitgeist soon.

African Frog

I really thought I’d written up my story of the African Frog. I was just looking for it, and it’s not here. I will rewrite it now, because this is one of the key mythical tales of my life.

When I was a young boy living in Brockway, Pennsylvania I had a beautiful tank of tropical fish. My folks would occasionally take me to the pet store over in Dubois and let me pick out a new fish to add to my tank. On one of our trips I spotted an African Frog. I had to have that instead of just another fish. When we brought it home and let it out it seemed pretty happy swimming around in there with the guppies, swordtails and neon tetras. Except, a few days later we noticed one of the fish was missing. Every day or so after, there’d be one less fish. Eventually, the only thing left in the tank was the African Frog. Then one day the African Frog was gone, too. We found him a few weeks later, mummified in a ball of lint.

x = y zillionths

Zillion is a funnier word for myriad, which happens to be my favorite qualitative number.

For me, any exact quantity is only an approximate fraction of zillion.

If x is an exact value, x = y zillionths.

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Qualitative math. Operations performed on none, some, few, many, myriad…

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I suppose I’m still thinking about math today.

Little known anomalogue trivia: I have a shelf of math books, primarily about chaos theory (what Darwinism was to the 19th century and relativity was to the early 20th, chaos was to my itty-bitty generation) .

(Philosophical hermeneutics can be seen as qualitative chaos theory. Yes!)

I also have a bunch of statistics for nonstatistician books (statistics seems worth knowing but not enough for me to actually do the work of knowing it), a few classics on teaching math and some flaky ones addressing math aesthetics.

(If math aesthetics interests you, see my “handsome math” Pinterest board. I love Pinterest. Because it emphasizes our responses to the world around us instead of enabling us to project our alleged personas (now known as “personal brands”!) to the world, Pinterest is where you can see a person’s individual axiologic (to me, the very seat of the soul) in their tastes and hopes, rather than watching their boring attempts to compete for medals in the cramped ethnomethodic olympics of our times. I learned a lot about my own aesthetic seeing collected together and juxtaposed all the pretty stuff I spontaneously liked and collected together.)

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“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” — Saint-Exuperie

I had exactly this same thought 20 years ago, and was startled to discover that someone had said it almost the same way, word for word, which probably means I saw it and forgot about it. It is a beautiful, true, neglected insight.

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I’m in a weird, highly parenthetical mood.

Coping strategies

I’ve met people who cope with life’s stresses with distraction, with narrowness, with willpower and with inspiration.

Distraction and narrowness are both avoidance strategies. Distraction often takes the form of a “work hard, play hard” life, oscillating between extreme busyness and extreme entertainment that never leaves time for sustained intensive reflection and the discomfort that attends it. Narrowness does the same thing with different means. Narrowness focuses all attention on a defined region of activity or knowledge, a subject that occupies one’s mind without pushing it past its own limits and producing discomfort.

Willpower does confront discomfort directly but pushes straight through it in order to achieve goals, and to develop skills for overcoming discomfort and maintaining control, focus and equanimity.

Inspiration can go multiple ways. Inspiration can seek sources of meaning that make discomfort seem worthwhile in the context of a meaningful life. It can also look for meaning precisely in the places that produce discomfort, so that sources of discomfort and meaning are the same, but the meaning outweighs and redeems the suffering. Finally, one can seek meaning precisely in suffering (or at least certain forms of suffering), so now the suffering isn’t balanced against meaning but is viewed as a signal of potential meaning and a path into meaning.

I’m sure there are more coping methods, but these are the ones that came to mind first. I’m watching many of my friends moving from avoidance strategies to willpower strategies through the practices of stoicism, and it’s sensitized me to differences among approaches.

Existential FOMO

A lot of longing for freedom might be best explained as existential FOMO. It is a fear of committing to one concrete future self and missing out on all the other future selves who could have been.

I’m reminded of an insight from Nietzsche, where he says something to the effect of: don’t tell me what you want freedom from; tell me what you want freedom for.

The problem with the freedom that existential FOMO craves is that it excludes the positive freedom of being someone, not only because being someone requires sustained effort and discipline, but also because substantial relationships with other people depends on us being someone who can be counted on to be there when we are needed.

A person who seems to be one person one day and another person the next… a person who values very different things depending on context and mood… a person who daydreams of one life one day, and another life the next… a person who’s constantly revising their autobiography and recasting characters (making heroes into villains and villains into heroes to suit the trajectory of the plot, or reassigning stars to bit-parts and bit-parts to star roles to fit the theme of the story du jour)… such people can be friends only with people who care little enough about relationships to skim over the whimsical inconstancy. Such lite friends can be very chill and easy to hang with, and they’ll give you all the freedom you want to be whoever you want to be in the moment, but they are as likely to relieve existential FOMO as a double shot of bourbon is to relieve craving for alcohol. That hollowness and that irritability that says you need more, more, better, better will intensify.

It is difficult to find that one future self you want to be. It doesn’t irrupt into your life as a grand fully-formed epiphany and blueprint. Nor does it appear as a person standing across the room — whether it’s that person you’ve waited for your entire life, or just someone who looks like the next fascinating nut to crack. Nor is it being discovered — first someone, then everyone! — finally realizing who I really am. If you are discovered this way, chances are you’re a by-product of someone else’s delusional self-discovery.

Too much chasing of this kind of self-actualization makes you lose your taste for everything that can make you into someone. Eventually you run out of time, energy and hope.

Being someone worth being takes alertness, sustained attention and a good eye, ear and nose for quiet and subtle hints of love — seeds of meaning that can be nurtured, grown, disciplined and made the core of life worth full commitment.

Design Instrumentalism

The best name for my approach to philosophy might be Design Instrumentalism, a variant of John Dewey’s Instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,

Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.

Design Instrumentalism differs from Dewey’s Instrumentalism in that it focuses on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and to be evaluated by design standards, such as Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable:

  • How well does the philosophy help its subscribers act effectively in response to concrete situations and produce good outcomes?
  • How well does the philosophy define, relate and elucidate ideas to allow subscribers of the philosophy to articulate clearly an account of reality as they experience it?
  • How well does the philosophy inspire its subscribers to value existence in whole and sum?

Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should not be viewed as collections beliefs, but rather the fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention,  guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive worldview and praxis.

Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it all solid, persuasive and boring to rehash. I prefer to just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.

This is a good start of a list of Pragmatic presuppositions. I’m guessing some are missing, and many more could arguably be included. Phenomenology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Materiality Turn philosophies and, at least for me, Nietzschean ethics also figure heavily, but I’ll err toward underspecification to leave maximum room for variety.

One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like all ambitious philosophies, a meta-philosophy. It might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers, but it encourages the design of philosophies for those who do not find Design Instrumentalism itself valuable, and focused “single-use” philosophies for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of design problems.

Doing just this kind of reframing in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is exactly what drove me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.

You didn’t have to convert to do that!

I interviewed an Israeli woman earlier this week as part of the work I’m doing. Of course I had to tell her I’m a recent convert. She immediately brightened up and demanded to know why I did it. I tried to answer her, but everything I said she shot down with “you didn’t have to convert to do that.”

“You could observe Shabbat without converting.” “You could have your Jewish friends…” You could read Jewish thinkers…” “You could celebrate the holidays…”

Somehow I didn’t feel like she was doubting my decision. It seemed like maybe she was honoring it. Because things were immediately different between us when I told her. Kicking my ass with such familiarity, cheer and warmth, she was showing me my best answer.

Renaissances suck

When we realize our popular philosophies — each, in fact, an antithetical half of one shared popular philosophy — have come to the end of the road, and that they can go further toward explaining the very conditions they have helped produce, some alarming consequences come to light.

First, few are unlikely to allow themselves to suspect the role their obsolete philosophies are playing in their current state of mind, but instead “double down” and use their philosophies more and more obstinately, anxiously and passionately to diagnose what has gone so hellishly wrong with the world around them.

Second, if a critical mass of people do finally discover that the source of trouble in their own philosophies, they will for a time (who knows how long?) suffer collective spasms of dread and reckless renunciation and social chaos will ensue.

Third, a profusion of intense but unstable replacement philosophies will contend to replace the ground of agreement lost in the earlier renunciation. Most philosophies will flame out under their own non-viability, but the ones that don’t will not have the resources to recognize the others and negotiate a coexistence.

Finally, if one philosophy capable of uniting and making mutual sense of the rest emerges and begins to predominate by providing some common ground for agreement and civil disagreement, it will have an entire reality before it to rethink. This comprehensive rethinking is its process of maturity. On its way to adulthood the society itself will be marked by both good and bad characteristics of the young, including the most essential youthful trait — the conceit that one already comprehensively understands what most needs understanding, a phenomenon I like to call “microomniscience“.

My best hope is that this whole revolutionary process actually began decades ago, and that somewhere, or here and there, pockets of practical thinkers and thinking practitioners have already begun maturing a philosophy that the masses can adopt.

Approval or love?

When I was in my early 20s I made a sharp distinction between what I loved and what met my approval, and I noticed my music taste split along those lines, and the best of both tastes conflicted with the other taste. I did not love what I found most acceptable and what I loved was unacceptable. At the time I decided to emphasize what met my approval, and shortly after that I fell in love.

An autobibliobiography

Well, I tried to write about my books and how I want to prune my library, and ended up writing a history of my interests. I know there are loose ends, but I am tired of writing, so blat, here it is:

I used to have strict criteria for book purchases. To earn a place on my shelf (singular) a book had to be either a reference or a landmark. In other words, I had to see it as persistently valuable in my future, or it had to be valuable in my past as something that influenced me. My library was personal.

Somewhere along the way my library became more general. References grew to include whatever I imagined to be the basic texts of whatever subject I cared about. Landmarks expanded to include any book that housed some striking quote that I wanted to bottle up and keep. How did this happen?

When Susan met me, I owned one book, Chaos, by James Gleick. This book is the landmark of landmarks. Reading it was a major life event for me. It introduced me to two of the most crucial concepts in my repertoire. 1) nonlinear processes, and 2) Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. I loved the philosophical fairytale of Benoit Mandelbrot discovering a radical new way of thinking, and then skipping from discipline to disciple, tossing out elegantly simple solutions to their their thorniest, nastiest, most intractable problems, simply by glancing at them through his magic intellectual lens. He’d give them the spoiler (“look at it like this, and you’ll probably discover this…”) and then leave the experts to do the tedious work of figuring out that he was exactly right. And I loved it that the simplest algorithmic processes can, if ouroborosed into a feedback loop, can produce utterly unpredictable outcomes. We can know the dynamic perfectly, and we can know the inputs feeding into the dynamic perfectly — but we are locked out of the outputs until the process is complete. And then factor in the truth that numbers, however precise, are only approximate templates overlaid upon phenomena! Nothing outside of a mathematician’s imagination is a rational quantity. And in nonlinear systems, every approximation, however minute, rapidly amplifies into total difference. I’d go into ecstasies intuiting a world of irrational quantities interacting in the most rational, orderly ways, producing infinite overlapping interfering butterfly effects, intimating a simultaneously knowable-in-principle, pristinely inaccessible-in-fact reality separated by a sheer membrane of truth-reality noncorrespondance. I used to sit with girls and spin out this vision of truth for them, serene in the belief I was seducing them. Because if this can’t make a girl fall in love, what can? I still hold it against womenkind that so few girls ever lost their minds over one of my rhapsodies. They were into other stuff, like being mistaken for a person capable of losing her mind over the beauty of a thought, or being someone who enchants nerds and compels them to rhapsodize seductively. There’s a reason for all of this, and it might be the most important reason in the world, though I must admit, it remains pristinely inaccessible to me and an inexhaustible source of dread-saturated fascination. (If you think this is misogyny, you don’t understand my religion. “Supposing truth is a woman — what then…?”)

After I got married, my book collection expanded, reflecting some new interests and enthusiasms: Buddhism, Borges, and stuff related to personality theory, which became my central obsession. Somewhere around 2001 or 2002 I also became a fan of Christopher Alexander’s psychology of architecture, and I had my first inklings of the importance of design. Incidentally, one of the books I acquired in this period was a bio of Alexander, characterizing his approach to architecture as a paradigm shift. This was my second brush with Kuhn.) Until 2003 my book collection still fit on a single shelf.

In the winter of 2003 in Toronto, Nietzsche happened to me. Reading him, fighting with him, and being destroyed by him, I experienced intellectual events that had properties of thought, but which could not be spoken about directly. It wasn’t like an ineffable emotion or something that couldn’t quite be captured in words. These were huge, simple but entirely unsayable truths. I needed concrete anchors — concepts, language, parables, myths, images, exemplars — anything that could collect, formalize, stabilize, contain or convey what I “knew”. This is when books became life-and-death emergencies for me, and sources of extreme pleasure. I couldn’t believe you could buy a copy of Chuang Tzu’s sayings for less than the cost of a new car. From 2003 to 2006 my shelf grew into a library. I accumulated any book that helped reinforced my intense but disturbingly incommunicable sense of truth — what I eventually realized was a faith.

But then the question of this inexplicable state of mind and its contents became a problem to me. What exactly is known? How is it known? Why think of it in terms of knowledge? If it cannot even be said, then how can it be called knowledge? And the isolation was unbearable. I was in a state I called “solitary confinement in plain sight” with in an overwhelming feeling of having something of infinite importance to get across, but I couldn’t get anyone to understand what was going on or to consider it important enough to look into. I got lots of excuses, arguments, rebuffs, cuttings-down-to-size, ridicule and promises to listen in some infinitely receding later, but I could not find any real company at all, anywhere. This was a problem I desperately needed to solve.

Richard J. Bernstein’s hermeneutic Pragmatism is what hoisted me out of this void and gave me back a habitable inhabited world, with his lauded but still-underrated classic Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Equipped with the language of pragmatism, hermeneutics, phenomenology and post-empiricism (Kuhn, again) I could account for my own experiences and link them to other people’s analogous experiences. Not only that — he began my reconnection with design, which had become a meaningless but necessary source of rent, food and book money. I was able to reengage practical life. But Bernstein’s method was intensely interpersonal, an almost talmudic commentary on commentaries ringing a missing central common text.

Richard J. Bernstein’s bibliography, however, was the flashpoint for my out-of-control library. Each author became a new collection. Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and then eventually Latour, and then Harman and now Morton… etc. Geertz seeded an anthropology and sociology shelf, which is now a near-bursting book case. Hanna Arendt is a whole shelf, and spawned my collection of political books and my “CDC vault” of toxic ideologies. Gadamer and Heidegger were another space-consuming branch. Dewey, James and Peirce fill about three shelves. And Bernstein’s line of thinking led me directly to Buber, who also breathed fire into my interest in the research side of Human Centered Design (another half a case of books) and sparked a long process of conversion to Judaism (yet another half-case, and growing).

A bunch of these threads, or maybe all of them together drove me into Bruno Latour’s philosophy. Latour inflicted upon me a painful (and expensive) insight: Everything Is Important. Statistics, accounting, technologies, laws, bacteria, materials, roads. Therefore I must get books on everything, apparently. With this we finally ran out of room in my bookcases, them my library room, then our house. We had to get a storage space to cycle my out-of-season books into and out of again when I realize I must read that book right now. Susan just got a second space. I have books stacked up everywhere. I am a hoarder.

I am considering putting all these books back under review, and keeping only the books that fit those two original criteria. Is it a landmark for me? Is it a reference that I know I will use?

I cannot be everything, and I need to stop trying. I need things that help me stay me, and I need to shed the rest. Good design demands economy, tradeoffs, clarity of intent. I have a bad case of intellectual scope-creep. It is time to decide what is essential, and to prune away nonessentials so the rest can grow in a fuller way.

I have another half-written post I think I’ll finish now.

Evaporated

Around 1994 I had a horrifying dream about a melancholy girl who lived in a tiny apartment above a Ducati showroom. In my dream, she decided to annihilate herself by feeding herself into a transparent tube (like the pneumatic tubes used in bank drive-throughs) which ran from the corner of her room, down the building and into the city’s underside. She just evaporated into vagueness and seeped away.

I never could drive past the real-life Ducati showroom without experiencing loss. Whenever the dream comes true, the sadness is ready.

It’s the experience, stupid

People think software is becoming more frustrating because the world has become more complex.

This is false. Software is worse because development has been drastically accelerated. The shortened cycles leave little or no time for best design practices that ensure that real people experience the updates as useful and usable. The QA testing often suffers, too and software is released with major bugs. And this is all by design. But don’t take my word for it. The following passage comes from page 4 of the Bible of this development approach, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries:

I’m a cofounder and chief technology officer of this company, which is called IMVU. At this point in our careers, my cofounders and I are determined to make new mistakes. We do everything wrong: instead of spending years perfecting our technology, we build a minimum viable product, an early product that is terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer-yes-really stability problems. Then we ship it to customers way before it’s ready. And we charge money for it. After securing initial customers, we change the product constantly — much too fast by traditional standards — shipping new versions of our product dozens of times every single day. We really did have customers in those early days — true visionary early adopters — and we often talked to them and asked for their feedback. But we emphatically did not do what they said. We viewed their input as only one source of information about our product and overall vision. In fact, we were much more likely to run experiments on our customers than we were to cater to their whims.

Traditional business thinking says that this approach shouldn’t work but it does and you don’t have to take my word for it. As you’ll see throughout this book, the approach we pioneered at IMVU has become the basis for a new movement of entrepreneurs around the world. It builds on many previous management and product development ideas, including lean manufacturing, design thinking, customer development, and agile development. It represents a new approach to creating continuous innovation. It’s called the Lean Startup.

If you read the book, it becomes abundantly clear that Ries thinks very much in terms of engineered things: software, organizations, innovations. And what he wants to do with those things is to improve them as rapidly as possible, through trial and error. This makes sense, given his background.

What Ries fails to consider, though, is the experience real people are having while advancing his project of continuous innovation. He is not thinking about what it is like for a real person to try to do something important with his latest “terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer” release. And he is certainly not thinking about what it is like to live in a world where most software is developed this this way, and consequently is in a stage of disrepair and renovation all the time. The “fail fast” trials of innovators translate directly into our own failures to get stuff done with reasonable effort because our tools never work like we expect.

And imagine: this is thought of as progress in the industry. In the 90s and early 2000s the software industry was progressing in a different direction. More and more people were talking about designing experiences. What was meant by experience is that when we design, our ultimate product is not the object we are engineering but the subjective experiences people when they use it. But somewhere along the way, experience became a cool euphemism for “thing” with no reference whatsoever to real people or the experiences they have. People now work on their “experiences” and it doesn’t cross their mind to wonder how you will experience what they’re doing.

So, the next time you go to open some software and cannot figure out how to use it anymore, or when software updates and it crashes on you, or feel a pit in your stomach when you see a dozen app updates — just know that the owner and investors in charge of this software probably read this book and thought it sounded like a pretty great idea.

One day when we will look back at this time in our history, maybe our minds will boggle that the folly of this approach wasn’t obvious to everyone. But for now, we’re just bobbing in this boiling broth, singing “ribbit”, and blaming technological progress and ourselves for what is in fact an industry-wide brain fart.

Luckily, I got out of UX (user experience) just before it was taken over by Lean Startup, and designers were demoted to front-end prettifiers and design researchers were pushed to the margins of the process, if not out of it altogether. I have no professional skin in this game. But as a user, I do still have quite a bit at stake. I would love to spread my enlightened frustration as far as possible.

Tacit commonality

It can be deeply enjoyable to argue with people who share a common philosophical perspective, because these differences of opinion emphasize a commonality of understanding. This is as true of an argument about sports as it is an argument about what an argument is.

I believe the pleasure in this activity is similar to enjoyment of art and of religion at its best: something shared that is undeniably real but which defies speech becomes palpably present. This presence connects us.

No matter how rarefied our stratum of thought, discussing matters of truth within this stratum happens within yet another stratum of commonality, and it allows us to feel its reality and our connection within it.

Even if we try to transcend our understanding, to suffer and grope for a passage beyond our knowing, we do so within something, and we do so with others who feel the presence of tacit commonality — a commonality of restless souls who keep feeling their way further and further, in thinner and thinner air, with fewer friends.

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What we love for no reason we can explain, we love for lack of words.

Je ne sais quoi.

 

Slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions of interpersonal being

Wow, this post really sprawled out. It hits a lot of my enduring interests. I’m not sure it is suitable for reading. It might just be a personal journal entry written to myself. Feel free to eavesdrop if you wish, but I cannot promise it will make sense or yield any value.

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I listened to a fascinating Radio Open Source podcast on Hannah Arendt’s conception of evil, which ended with a wonderful discussion on empathy.

Jerome Kohn: Empathy is a fancy word or fancy theory that she argued passionately against. First of all she thought it was an impossible notion in the sense that it really means feeling what someone else feels. Sympathy, fellow feeling, is another thing. But empathy is the claim that you can actually feel what someone else is feeling. And for that Arendt found no evidence whatsoever. One could say it’s even the opposite of her notion of thinking from another person’s point of view. What you have to be able to do is to see a given issue from different points of view, to make it real. And then through those different points of view, with your own eyes, you don’t feel what the other person is feeling, you see what he is seeing through your own eyes, and then you can make a judgement. The more people you can take into consideration in this enlarged mentality, that actually is the foundation of reality for Arendt, the more valid your judgement will be.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Jerry’s exactly right. Hannah Arendt was always opposed to these slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions about what binds people to each other. And she felt very keenly that what really binds one person to another is a commitment to try to see the world from that person’s point of view with your own eyes. Not to subscribe to their point of view or to merge with their point of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. But looking at it with your own eyes, so that you can then, as it were, discuss it with them. Not merge with them in some way, but discuss it with them. She was all about discussion. Not empathy in that sentimental way.

Christopher Lydon (host): And yet, well, there are distinctions without huge differences in some way. To put oneself in another’s mind is the beginning of something important.

EYB: To think that you can put yourself in another’s mind in the beginning of a terrible arrogance which has tremendous consequences. It’s a difference with great consequences. People who think they that they can know what another person thinks or feel what another person feels are narcissistic.

CL: Well, ok, I don’t want to make a philosophical or an endless argument about it. Isn’t it the incapacity and the lack of interest in that perspective precisely what she found at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil, really?

JK: Well, no, it was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

EYB: Exactly. And these are very important distinctions.

This exchange is especially interesting to me for three reasons.

First: as a Human Centered Design researcher/strategist/designer, I am constantly telling people that I am in the “empathy business.” However, I have long been uncomfortable with the characterization of what I do as “empathy”. To characterize understanding another person subjectively as primarily a matter of experiencing how they feel misses the mark in a very Modernist way. (em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’). While feelings are important to what I do, they are not the primary focus. I would prefer to characterize my work as concrete hermeneutics, but words like that do not fly in the flatlands of business where thinking lags a minimum of three philosophical generations behind. So, I’ve adopted “empathy” and accepted the inevitable misconceptions that attend it, because that’s what it takes to be understood at all by most people.

It is hardly surprising that I see things similarly to to Young-Bruehl and Kohn, because I belong to their tradition. Heidegger taught Arendt and Gadamer who both taught my favorite thinker Richard J. Bernstein. A Clifford Geertz quote from Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism has stayed with me as an anchor for my understanding of what a good human centered designer does.

Second, I think that when we see things this way, we tend to treat emotionally-oriented people who are very sensitive and sentimentally responsive to people around them as having some kind of monopoly on human understanding. In my experience, there are multiple stages of coming to understanding of another person, and a talent for sensing and responding does not always correspond with a talent for grokking the “logic” of other people’s worldviews, nor an ability to think, speak and create from another worldview. It takes a fairly vast range of talents to function pluralistically.

I think a lot of the political problems we are experiencing today result from shoddy and retrogressive philosophical conceptions of alterity (“otherness”), which still see understanding of other people as very literally empathic. To know what is going on with another person, we must ourselves have had the experiences and emotions that other person has had. In an effort to understand and to demonstrate our understanding we must induce emotions similar to theirs. Two consequences follow: 1) The one who understands must try to produce the right emotions, and this production of emotion is the demonstration of understanding, which leads to some fairly repulsive public displays of political sentimentality. 2) The one who is understood is put in a position of judging the authenticity of those emotional displays, which is more or less being given the role of arbitrary judge. And if the feelings of the understood is viewed as the central datum or a special kind of insight (being “woke”) into a political situation (typically gauging the degree of prejudicial unfairness, its impact on those victimized by that prejudice and what is required to rectify that unfairness) this amounts to extreme epistemological privilege. Only the victim of prejudice has access to the reality of the situation, and those who are not the victims are incapable of perceiving how they participate in the perpetration, so to use the charming the formulation of today’s hyper-just youngsters, it is their job to STFU and to accept the truth dictated to them. It never occurs to anyone within the power hierarchy of wokeness that there’s anything superior to all this illiberal mess to awaken to. There are philosophical worldviews that are more thorough, more comprehensive and more expansive than the dwarfish ideology of the popular left, but for all the reasons they are eager to point out to anyone who defies them, they are entirely incapable of seeing beyond the motivated reasoning of their own class interests. (This does not mean I think the popular right is any better. It is not. We are in a Weimaresque situation of resentful evil left idiocy vs paranoid evil right idiocy, with the reasonable voices shoved to the margins.)

Third, I’ve found myself misunderstood by many close friends on how I view relationships, and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did a great job of capturing how people think I see them: a “slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notion about what binds people to each other.” I think the misunderstanding is rooted in this same conception of human understanding being primarily an emotional phenomenon. When my own ideal of marriage or of friendship is strained through the filter of today’s left worldview, it looks like a mystical merging of souls that arouses (and should arouse!) suspicions of domination and anxieties around loss of self. But any attempt I make to try to explain the difference between what I have in mind looks like, well, an attempt at philosophical domination and a threat to the selfhood of whoever is foolish enough to take it seriously. Who am I to tell someone something they don’t already know? And anyway, it smells very cultish to listen to someone claiming to know better than the public what is true and right. So, by the circular logic of the popular worldview of the left, it is superior to form one’s own individual opinion (never mind that this opinion on opinions is a product of an unexamined and manifestly broken worldview.)

Obviously, this means extreme alienation for anyone who adopts a sharply differing worldview that affirms the importance of collaboratively developing shared understandings with those around them. In an environment of extreme ideological conformity (with brutal social consequences for infractions) that exalts above all the importance of intellectual independence — but strictly within its own confined philosophical horizon — a philosophy of interdependence, of collaborative development of the very concepts one uses to form one’s opinions, and exalting a togetherness in shared worldview is marked for expulsion.

Anyway, what I really have in mind when I imagine ideal personal connections is, once again, that ideal sketched out by Bernstein, captured so well by Geertz, which I will now go ahead and re-re-quote.

…Accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal capacities for ego effacement and fellow feeling. Normal capacities in these respects are, of course, essential, as is their cultivation, if we expect people to tolerate our intrusions into their lives at all and accept us as persons worth talking to. I am certainly not arguing for insensitivity here, and hope I have not demonstrated it. But whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are, as the phrase goes, really like does not come from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs. It comes from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem — than it is like achieving communion.

And now I will quote myself:

“Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem…” or knowing how to design for them.

A design that makes sense, which is easy to interact with and which is a valuable and welcome addition to a person’s life is proof that this person is understood, that the designer cared enough to develop an understanding and to apply that understanding to that person’s benefit.

A good design shares the essential qualities of a good gift.

The kind of merging I have in mind is just sharing a worldview and using it together to live together, what Husserl (Heidegger’s teacher) called a “lifeworld“. I’ve called the process “enworldment”.

The merging aspect of this ideal enters the stage through my belief (shared, I believe by Process Theology) that souls are universe-sized. The pragmatic consequence of what one means when one says “everything” is the scope and density of one’s soul. To enworld* with another is to bring two “everythings” into harmonious relationship, and to begin to function more like a culture than two isolated individuals within this isolating milieu so many of us, without ever choosing, without even knowing we had a choice, inhabit as prisoners of our own destitute freedom.

(Note: that “enworld” link above is a pretty old post, and I’m not sure right now how much of it I still agree with. It makes me want to engage my old self in dialogue and try to discover how much common ground we have. How enworlded am I with my 9-years-ago self?)

Witness Bike

Some pictures of a prototype of the bike my brother and I are producing together. I got to ride it over the weekend, and it is perfect. It is stable but very lively. There was no need to get used to it; I was at home on it instantly. And I can’t stop looking at it. It is a beautiful object (which was one of our requirements).

 

The frame is lugged. Look how pretty the lugs are. The color came out exactly as I hoped, a very reddish purple.

Taking away my tools

Over the last decade and a half I’ve relied on four tools for making my thoughts.

Of these four, two have broken in the last couple of years: Adobe Illustrator and WordPress. These two tools have undergone frequent deep UI changes, which have obsoleted my skills. When I try to use them now, I’m too busy thinking about how to use the UIs to concentrate on the ideas I’m attempting to develop.

Yesterday, I found out my hosting service is upgrading their server and it is going to bring down my Wiki, my core tool for organizing what I learn in my reading. I chose to host my own Wiki so I could control this key tool and not be subject to the whims of developers, but now they’ve caught up with me and ruined this tool, too. Now I only have one thinking tool left intact, and that is my own philosophy.

It’s funny; this feeling of vulnerability is exactly what led me to philosophy in the first place. When I was a kid living at home, my father was fond of informing me that I owned nothing — that he could take any of my possessions away any time he wanted to. My parents were always threatening my sister with taking away her horse if she didn’t toe the line. I saw clearly that I could not tolerate that kind of exposure. I figured the only thing I had that could not be taken away were my ideas, so that was what I made my treasure.

Stupidly, I have relied on tools under other people’s control to help me shape and craft my ideas, and when those people decide to exercise their whims to disrupt my ability to use these tools, my most precious capabilities — the things that help me be who I am — are jeopardized.

I’m halfway considering throwing out all my software tools and re-training myself to use just pen and paper to work through my ideas. While I’m at it maybe I’ll get rid of all my books and kick my awful caffeine habit. I can’t trust other people to even understand what I need, much less to actually respect the legitimacy of those needs, much less to act in a way that doesn’t harm me. And supporting those needs is entirely out of the question. What I need seems unreasonable to other people. Nevertheless, I need what I need, and that means I must reduce by dependency as well as my exposure. I think this is the root reason so many thinkers are ascetic.

My next post is going to be a theoretical tantrum on the ethics around that miserable love triangle between developer, tool and user. I am convinced that the “ownership” of software is an unrecognized moral crisis of our times.