Principled hypocrisy

One of the most distinctive virtues of Generation X developed out of what was initially identified as its distinctive vice: apathy.

It is a virtuous cynicism, a principled hypocrisy, a refusal to allow social norms to dictate individual sense of value.

To what was (at that time) the most narcissistically sanctimonious generation ever known, the Boomers, Gen Xers seemed to care about nothing at all. This, of course, was an artifact of Gen Xers caring nothing for those specific things that Boomers considered important and worthy of passionate unanimous commitment. Gen Xers actually did care about other things, namely exercising the freedom to care about what one actually feels to be valuable.

When Gen Xers found themselves in milieus that imposed values and beliefs that did not connect with their own values, their strategy was to protect their true inward experience by treating the performative requirements as an external game. As kids, there was more outward expression of cynicism, more eye-rolling and resistance. The game was moronic, and the contempt was allowed to show through. As adults, personal responsibilities increased and became bound up with the welfare of loved ones, public personas became more opaque, and the inner life was confined to and concealed within the private sphere. Gen X is the geode generation.

Of course, to the Boomers and their somehow even more sanctimonious, narcissistic and aggressive offspring, this privacy might seem cowardly, selfish — or, worst of all, inauthentic — but a glance at census data should show the prudence of this strategy. Gen X is a tiny generation, composed of genuine individuals. If Gen X wishes to preserve individuality against two massive ideologically aggressive and cohesive generations profoundly offended by dissent, flight might make more sense than fight. In conditions like these, where people are socially sanctioned for ideological nonconformity attempts at authenticity will come at the expense of one’s own inward sense of truth. In times like ours, individuality goes underground or ceases to exist. If, as a friend of mine has suggested, that disagreement is a form of respect, it follows that agreement can be a form of contempt, and I would argue it might be time to once again allow the contempt shine through. If there was one characteristic of Generation X that could rival apathy, it was irony.


Note from Feb. 15: Of course, it is unprincipled hypocrisy for a professed liberal to praise or condemn entire generations as a group. It is true that individuals coalesce around shared worldviews and function from them as collectivities, and that generational worldviews tend to shape the character of individuals — but it is easy to move from that position to seeing individuals as mere products of their generation and then further into the illiberal habit of seeing people primarily as examples or even agents of some collective “spiritual” being, as mere types.

I am leaving this post up as an example of what I look like when I have an illiberal relapse.

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Theological geometry

My native language is geometry. Until I see the shape of a thought, I don’t truly know it.

This morning, reading Inventing the Individual, I realized Borges might have given me the shape of my theology 25 years ago. When I went back to the source, “Pascal’s Sphere” it was even better than I recalled.

In one part of the Asclepius, which was also attributed to Trismegistus, the twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille — Alanus de Insulis — discovered this formula which future generations would not forget: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The miracle of humanity is that each of us is one unique center of God’s intelligible sphere, one instance of everything, which overlaps all others, sometimes harmoniously, sometime jarringly.

The recollection happened as Seidentop described the 14th Century debate between William of Ockham and the allegedly essentialist followers of Thomas Aquinas as “[turning] on the question of God’s rationality versus God’s freedom.” I realized that I side against Ockham’s opponents, but that I would prefer debate the question in terms of God’s  total monistic rationality versus God’s distributed pluralistic reason. Whatever of God we can understand objectively or subjectively participate in, it is at best from one center in relation to other centers. The circumscribing totality is not for us, and is not only none of our business, it forbidden.

I’m pretty sure I’m just restating Process Theology.

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Liberal symbol

I’ve been marking passages in Inventing the Individual that show the emergence of liberal traits. I’m making a list of these traits in the back of the book, with the goal of distilling a set of liberal family resemblances which, when viewed together as a gestalt, might give me new ways to understand liberalism or reveal new kinds of liberalism that better suit the needs of this moment in history.

But this post is not about that project. It is about the circle-L symbol I have been using in the margin to mark the proto-liberal passages. I like this symbol. It is the anarchy circle-A’s elegant cousin.

In these days of rampant illiberalism on both the right and left, where liberal ideas are more likely to inspire doubts, cynicism and scorn than consent, maybe it is time to equip liberalism with a re-revolutionary symbol. Because liberalism is revolutionary, and on the grand scale of history nothing could be more prosaic than a collectivist relapse, however intense the overturning feels.

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When there is no light and we see only blackness, we think we see nothing.

We look out into the emptiness of space and we see blackness, we think we see nothing.

We see nothing when we look out at the world and cannot see what is outside the periphery of our vision. We see nothing when the scotoma in each of our eyes fills in the hole in our seeing with nothing-missing. That is what nothing looks like, and it resembles blackness only in that it deprives the eye of objects.

I think this is why I have gradually rejected the phenomenological metaphor of horizon. Nothingness is not distant. No vantage point, however high, can reveal it. Only movement, memory and thought makes nothingness known.

Peripatetic philosophy is a redundant phrase.

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Isolation and delusion

Isolation makes existent things seem nonexistent.

Mass delusions make nonexistent things seem to exist.

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Demographelia is the preference for thinking in terms of social categories over encountering the uniqueness of individuals. And of course, since categories are features of our own minds, this signifies an impulse to reduce individuals to oneself — a solipsism strategy.

The world seems to be losing its taste for individuality. If you believe, as I do, that encountering personal individuality penetrating the screen of our own ideas is our most reliable transcendence, this is an alarming development.

I will say it again. The proper terms of transcendence are not a mundane world below and a spirit world beyond. That is how a mind trying to resist the reality of God sees it. No, the true terms are the world as I know it below and the world as I can come to know it beyond. And beyond that is the world as it is which we can never know and which is the source of being and knowing. Our challenge is to be a unique I toward infinite Thou (known to us as “everything”) composed in part of beings who are each themselves a unique I, each of which inhabits another unique everything.

Magical thinking, abuse and exploitation, intuition worship, illiberalism, preference for viewing people as instances of demographic categories (culminating in demographic essentialism) — it all goes together.

There is good reason the Enlightenment was both social and scientific: these are indivisible components of individuality, the two highest commandments which are one. They are complements of the same discipline of knowing-toward. They are antidotes to the containing comprehensions of solipsism.

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Explanation vs. understanding

“Explanation, when regarded as the only goal of inquiry, becomes a substitute for understanding. Imperceptibly it becomes the beginning rather than the end of perception.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Reflections on Inventing the Individual

Here is a list of random thoughts that have occurred to me while reading Inventing the Individual:

  • When you realize how deep the connection was between family and land, and what it meant in the ancient world to lose these fundamental connections, the history of the Jewish people becomes both more familiar and more miraculous.
  • The history of humankind could be told as a story of evolving relationships between immediate and transcendent realities expressed in terms of interpretations given to these relationships.
  • I’ve been drawing my asterisk symbol for close to a decade now. I think I have been wrong about the nature of the subject present at the nexus. The subject rarely singular.
  • Slavery in pre-individual times might have a meaning inaccessible the imagination of an individual.
  • “Now is a small town.” Yes, it is. These days historical cosmopolitanism is damn near nonexistent.
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Repost: anti-science = anti-social

This old post warrants an edited re-post:

A person’s attitude toward science tells us much more about his attitudes toward his fellow human beings than it does with his attitudes toward nature.

Science is a multi-generational collaborative unfinished accomplishment of the most intelligent, inventive, scrupulous and industrious people humankind has ever produced.

To place one’s own gut feelings on truth at the same level as the knowledge produced by science, or to refuse to understand and contend with science’s accounts when they conflict with one’s own sense of reality — this violates two of the highest laws of reason, which might as well be one and the same: 1) respect reality with all your mind, heart and effort, and 2) respect your neighbor’s truth as you respect your own.

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Science is a style of quarreling

From Adam Gopnik’s “The Porcupine: A pilgrimage to Popper”:

In the real world, as Popper knew perfectly well, the response of the scientist who has proposed that all swans are white when a black swan appears is not to say, cheerfully, “Wrong again!” It is to say, “You call that a swan?” The principle of falsification would begin an argument rather than prove a point. But the argument was the point. The argument that the black swan would produce—an argument about what evidence was crucial, and why—was different from all other kinds of argument. Science wasn’t a form of proof. It was a style of quarreling. The reason science gave you sure knowledge you could count on was that it wasn’t sure and you couldn’t count on it. Science wasn’t the name for knowledge that had been proved true; it was the name for guesses that could be proved false.

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Tool users vs service users

I am not one of those people who sees service design as the grand catch-all for multi-touchpoint multi-/omni-channel experiences.

I feel the same way about “service” as I did in the early aughts about the term “user”. These words imply relationships between what is designed and the person whom it is designed. Designing for the wrong relationship means misframing the design problem. “User” implies a tool relationship. Users use things as a means to accomplish something. Of course we can apply the word ‘use’ broadly and see a movie as something an audience uses for entertainment or a concierge as something a visitor uses to get local information, but this breadth is purchased at the cost of consequential subtleties. What we need and expect from a word processor is different from what we expect from a concert or a bank. Discovering exactly what those needs and expectations are and developing satisfactory resolutions of those needs calls for different methods. The mistakes UX have historically made were often tied up with insufficient sensitivity to these distinctions. The same is true of “services”. We can reduce a drill to one component in hole-making service that spans a journey from discovering a need all the way to resolving it, and, yes, much is gained from seeing it this way, but if we are not careful, important distinctions can be lost.

And in fact I do believe certain things are currently being lost by this framing. Software as a service (aka cloud computing) has changed norms around how software is supposed to behave. We are now accustomed to think of web-based software as something that belongs to someone else that we are licensed to make use of. A decade ago, users were more likely to perceive software as tools to own, learn and eventually master. Upgrading was a purchase decision resembling the decision to replace a pen or a hammer with an improved model — not as a periodic change that just happens and requires us to adapt.

This seems mostly OK in many cases, especially where tools serve as front ends to services, for instance banking and accounting, or databases. But for software tools used for making things — word processing, image editing, ideating, music creation, even blogging — changes, especially subtle ones, distract from the tools purpose which is to be an invisible extension of a user’s abilities. It is important that such tools be utterly predictable, controllable and unobtrusive so the user can exercise mastery over the tool to keep complete focus on what is being produced. I am concerned that software designers have lost all awareness of this goal. They are focused on different problems.

Years ago I was struck by the elegance of James Spradley’s research method typology, defining them not by technique, but rather by the role played by the research informant. Surveys are performed with respondents, tests with subjects and ethnography with informants. I think a similar approach could be helpful for classifying design methods. Perhaps we could gain clarity by paying less attention to medium or channel of delivery and more attention to the kind of relationship we are trying to develop through our design between the designed thing and the people for whom it is intended.

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Obtrusive conveniences

A design trend that disturbs me intensely: obtrusive conveniences.

What makes these conveniences obtrusive is that they make it incredibly inconvenient to refuse what they offer and you end up fighting for control over what you are attempting to do.

An example that is driving me away from iOS is text selection. Instead of giving the user direct character-level control over  selection, iOS tries to divine the user’s intention. Are they selecting just a character? or a word? or a text block? It never gets it right, and the effect is one of fighting for control.

Autocorrect also blows it constantly. If you use unusual words it constantly changes them to common ones for you. It is like one of those idiots who insists on finishing your sentences for you constantly despite having no idea that you are saying something they don’t already know. I can’t believe Jony I’ve hasn’t done something about how much effort it takes to type his name against the digital will of the devices he’s made.

And these behaviors are not even bad in a consistent way across apps. Now a new breed of “creative” coder has entered the scene who feels he can improve “the experience” by adding his own innovative flourishes to text editing. Nowevery editor you use has different behaviors around selection, spell checking, formatting, etc. Sadly, the more powerful HTML becomes, and the more empowered designers and developers are, the more inconsistent the overall OS platform user experience becomes. “Learn once, use often” has been replaced with utter chaos of second-rate ingenuity. The very editor I am using now (WordPress) is one of the worst offenders.

And don’t even get me started on autocomplete. When everything is optimal — the device is running smoothly, the internet connection is fast, and the user is typing accurately — autocomplete is great. But things are rarely optimal, so what actually happens is painful delays between keystroke and result, leading to mistyping, leading to attempts to delete and correct, with missed keystrokes and that same desire to escape being helped so ineptly.

Behind it all are philosophical principles which I can feel palpably in these interactions. For one thing, there is no awareness that this product is one element of a much larger experiences. For one thing, there is the experience of using the device, something few developers consider anymore. Then there is the experience of trying to get something done. And of course, there is the experience with organizations over time. Human-centered designers think about these overlapping contexts and design with them in mind, but in recent years companies have come to the opinion that iterative trial and error with ludicrously short development cycles that leave little or no time for testing will get them to a great product faster than being thoughtful or thorough. In all of this I detect a relapse, away from empathic discipline (thinking subjectively in terms of experiences) back into obsessive making of objects (which are still called “experiences” by people who like the idealistic tone of the term and the mouthfeel of X). But what bothers me worse is a sense that these coralling conveniences are ok for most people, who don’t really need control, and who are happy to say and do what is easily expected. In these near-irresistable conveniences I feel a sludgy flow toward a brave new world of lethargic uniformity where everything is dittoing, me-tooing, LOLing, emoticoning from a shrinking repertoire of publically recognized standardized experiences.

If any individuals are still out there, consider this a liberal beacon. Hello? Hello?



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Gadget-porn addiction

Apple used to innovate by asking “Wouldn’t it be great if people could ____?” This was what made them uniquely great.

Now Apple does what every other banal tech company does and asks “Wouldn’t it be great if we could make a thing that could ____?” Or even worse “Wouldn’t it be great if we made a thing that has ____ characteristics/features/specs?”

This is why Apple keeps coming up with the same ideas as everyone else in the industry and why none of what they do matters one bit, however much their gadgets get hyped by gadget enthusiasts.

This hyping is part of our problem: great designs are better to use than to obsess over and to talk about. Most of what is best in great design is hard to talk about and is boring to read about. Great design tends to disappear. But cool features, record-setting specs and thrilling visuals generates buzz and drives short-term sales.


I think our culture’s gadget porn problem might be destructive in ways that parallel our culture’s sexual porn problem.

Just as pornography confuses and misleads youth about healthy relationships between partners, gadget porn confuses consumers about healthy relationships between people and things. In both cases, what is most healthy is quiet and not much to talk about but makes life much better. Addiction to lust drives people into cycles of craving, temporary satiety and empty boredom.

When design isn’t rewarded in the market, companies stop taking it seriously. They don’t invest in making products that are great to use, the make sexy-looking gimmicks that open wallets. Our tools start out as pleasant diversions and end up as perpetually irritating distractions.




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Why I get emotional about design

When I use a product, I feel the milieu that produced it. Products are crystallized philosophies. In a designed object I feel people — the people who produced it and sometimes a precise person for whom an object is intended. This “personal from” and “personal to” is what makes design what it is.

When I get inspired or offended by bad design, precisely the personal from and to is what I am reacting to. In objects I sense all kinds of things about the producer: care, contempt, insight, vanity, poetry, banality, tyranny, playfulness, thoroughness, orderliness, arbitrariness, etc. And I also sometimes detect a consumer’s personality and worldview (for better or worse) — a person the producer had in mind for whom this thing is intended. And all too often I feel an anonymous vacuum where a producer or consumer should be. It is a thing from nobody and it is for anybody.


When I’ve felt betrayed by design it is when an organization did a “personality switch” on me, like an unfaithful friend. I can feel that the organization has come to see the world in a new way where there is no longer space for me to exist. The organization used to make things designed for me, but now they’re designing for someone else, or worse for everyone, which really means nobody.


Since we are once again in gift season, I will repost my “Design as gift” idea yet again, with the usual minor variations.

When one person gives another person a perfect gift, the gift is valuable in three ways:

  1. The gift itself is intrinsically valuable to the recipient. The gift is good because it makes life easier, more pleasant or more meaningful.
  2. The gift contributes to the recipient’s own self-understanding and sense of identity. The gift is a concrete example what the receiver experiences as good. It is a crystallization of the recipient’s ideals that reveals something important about the recipient that sometimes cannot be said.
  3. The perfection of the gift is evidence that the giver cares about and understands who the recipient is as an individual. The successful giving of a perfect gift demonstrates that the giver was moved to reflect on the recipient and has real insight into who they are as an individual, what they value and how they fit into the world.

Great design experiences are similar to gifts. When a design  is successful the user gets something valuable, sees tangible proof they are valued and understood, and experiences an intensification or expansion of their sense of self.


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George Soros

I’ve been hearing such dark and incredible tales about George Soros’s depravity and deviousness I felt I’d better look into who he is. And what better better place to start than to go directly to the source and read one of their books?

It turns out Soros is a philosopher — a Popperian. Not only does he have a well-developed liberal ethic, he has developed a profound and liberal metaphysic, which is not something I normally expect from an investor.

The profundity of his metaphysic is what makes him truly exceptional, and I suspect it is also what triggers such violent paranoia in far-right circles. This is what happens when souls who know everything because they need to know everything encounter a soul who knows a much bigger everything.

If only the far-right conspiracists weren’t deluded about Soros’s goals and the extent of his power! If Soros were in a position to actualize his political vision we all would be better off.

I intend to continue reading Soros, and to study Karl Popper’s political writings. This might be the re-fortified liberal philosophy I’ve been looking for.

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Four sides to every conflict

In conflicts, there are four sides to every story: there is my side, there is your side, there is what I think your side is, and there is what you think my side is.

If you want to know a person’s soul, don’t be distracted by how that person represents himself in a conflict. You’ll learn far more about who he is listening to what he has to say about his enemy.

If you hear dark and incredible tales of depravity and deviousness, take extreme care. Being on the side of good, facing such enemies, the righteous man might be forced to do evil things to defend himself and his people. If he has foresight and strong resolve he might even take preemptive action in order to avert an inevitable catastrophe.



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Formalizing relationships with the formless

Formless realities cannot be grasped with formal thinking, but our relationship with formless realities can be.

Formally grasping our relationship with formless realities makes these relationships with formless realities more bearable.


This is mainly a note to myself at this point. It feels important, so I’m posting it.

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The victory of the marketing worldview

The training of students to conceptualize themselves in terms of “intersectionality” of identity represents the victory of the marketing worldview over all other philosophical competitors. Those who are truly of our times have internalized their demographics and have no desire to be anything but demographics.

And consider this: kids today understand their own personalities in terms of “personal brand”. This is the reverse of how all older generations made sense of brand. For them, personality was the immediate reality, and brands made sense only as the personalities of organizations. Now kids find more reality in Apple and Starbucks than in each other, which is hardly surprising because the best marketers in the business are branding these companies, where the self-branding efforts of young people are amateurish. They’re still trying to get a grip on their category (that is, their intersectionality) and haven’t figured out their differentiation, yet, much less their unique brand attributes and their look, feel, voice or tone.*

And for kids, most of what is called “social interactions” take place on social media, which is really more of an interpersonal marketing platform than a medium for individuals to know other individual. What takes place outside of social media serves primarily as social media PR material. Again: this is how marketing pros think.

So, given all this, is it surprising at all that the entrepreneur is the new rock star? The kids don’t want to be in bands. They want to be in startups. And this is more true for kids of the left than anyone else.

Marketing won. Socialism lost.


*Note: For the kids tying to find themselves, I recommend Marty Neumeier’s Zag or maybe Blue Ocean Strategy. By now most companies have figured out they can’t differentiate on the standard corporate cliches like “quality”, “reliability”, “our people” or “innovation”, but the kids haven’t learned the same principle, which is partly why their branding is so inferior to that of the Fortune 500s. They haven’t yet gotten it through their heads that they can’t differentiate on the analogous personal branding cliches. Exotic sexualities and gender definitions are the “we are innovative” of youth self-branding. When everyone’s differentiating the same way, nobody is differentiated. Cutting and other destructive habits don’t differentiate, anymore, either. In fact, weakness positioning is played out. I expect the current victim bubble to collapse soon. My recommendation is to do the opposite from the herd. Look into strength positioning strategies. Not many people are doing that right now. It’s harder, and harder is perennially unpopular.


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Conceptual zombies

Zombies are ghosts in reverse. A ghost is a soul without a body. A zombie is a body without a soul.

Both are products of the question: “Where did this person’s personhood go?”


Conceptual zombies are real. I’ve seen them and talked with them. To themselves, even, they are instances of a category. When they open their mouths they speak on behalf of the category they are. “As a…” When they address you, they address the category you are. They demand that you respond as addressed.

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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.

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