Tag: society

Worlds on display

June 18th, 2015 — 10:23pm

In fashion shop interiors, I often see objects that suggest a certain environment, assemblages that seem to be taken from a different setting altogether. For example, very old sewing machines to suggest craftsmanship (even as the clothes are made in China with the latest equipment). Or piles of old books, sometimes surprisingly carefully selected (who picks them out?), or even musical instruments. There may be exceptions, but I think it’s fair to say that in the majority of cases, the manufacturing, design and retail process, as well as the customers themselves, have no relation to these objects other than the fact that they are physically present in the shops.

The practice of erecting an assemblage of objects to suggest a world that is in actuality not present might be called citing or quoting a world (a world being a referential totality of beings, in the Heidegger sense). The little world, or worldlet, is on a little stage, like a picture in a frame.

A parallel practice occurs in, for example, furniture shops. Certain shops, in Tokyo at least, carry genuinely old and worn furniture. Once I saw a big used work table from France that had no doubt supported a fair amount of actual work, perhaps some kind of craft. Now it is on sale for use in a large, fashionable home (judging by the price and additional items in the shop). In this fashionable home, the work table will quote a world just like the books and sewing machines do in fashion shops. Presumably, this will all be considered tasteful.

It would not be as tasteful if the owner of the home set up an actual work table in his living room and did heavy carpentry or welding on it, only to later sweep the work aside and serve dinner to his guests among the scratches and dust (not even if the table was properly cleaned). But it would be more honest. A quoted world at a comfortable distance — contained and framed — can sometimes be appreciated by polite society where a living, actual world could not.


Comment » | Life, Philosophy

The limitations and fundamental nature of systems are not understood

December 22nd, 2012 — 7:31pm

Recently, I’ve become more and more aware of the limitations of conscious thought and formal models of entities and systems. We don’t understand how political systems make decisions, how world events occur, or even how we choose what to wear on any particular day. Cause and effect doesn’t exist in the form it is commonly imagined. We do not know what our bodies are capable of. We certainly don’t understand the basis of biology or DNA. Aside from the fact that there are so many phenomena we cannot explain yet, the models of chemistry and physics are an artificial mesh that is superimposed upon a much messier world. They work within reason, up to and including the phenomena that they can predict, but to confuse them with reality is insanity. In this vein it is interesting to also contemplate, for instance, that we don’t understand all the capabilities that a computer might have. Its CPU and hardware, while highly predictable, are fashioned out of the sub-conceptual and non-understood stuff that the world is made of. One day we may stumble upon software that makes them do something highly unexpected.

What’s the purpose of all this negative arguing then? What I want to get at when I say that we don’t understand this and we don’t understand that is a new, deeper intellectual honesty and a willingness to face the phenomena anew, raw, fresh, as they really appear to us. There’s a world of overlooked stuff out there.

Comment » | Bioinformatics, Computer science, Philosophy, Software development

A time to build barriers

September 22nd, 2012 — 12:29pm

Countries like Japan thrive on barriers to information flow. It is hard to overstate how deep and wide the rift caused by linguistic differences between Japanese and Indo-European languages is. The number of people who speak both very good English/German/French etc and very good Japanese is small and unlikely to grow dramatically. Yet there is a willingness from both sides to learn about the other side and push/pull information through that narrow channel.

One important consequence of this situation is that heterogeneity can develop and be preserved. Customs, the general way of thinking, the public sphere in Japan are different to their counterparts in the West. Among Western countries, these things are becoming increasingly homogenous thanks to ease of communication and the Internet. Not only will there be things on both sides of the divide that will never flow through the connecting conduit: the smaller partition, Japan in this case, can also act as a kind of catalyst and refinery for whatever comes in through the conduit, developing its own, highly refined versions of absorbed impressions. This is not possible if one has instant access to all information on the other side.

The Internet may yet turn out to be the greatest homogenising force mankind has ever known. For this reason, it is now an urgent task to erect new barriers on the internet and to restrict information flow. The wide open space must be partitioned into rooms with walls, doors and windows. The new barriers do not need to correspond to the old ones — it might even be preferable if they did not. Because the new barriers can be different from the old ones, the internet as a whole becomes a constructive step that we can endorse, and not something we are forced to react against. It is a stepping stone into a new world. Through restriction, we will be liberated.

An afterthought: barriers would be a negative addition that paradoxically has the potential to generate something new. But the negative aspect is certainly distasteful at first sight. If there is another way of achieving heterogeneity, which does not require barriers, then let’s hear it.

2 comments » | Philosophy

Identity games

May 14th, 2012 — 10:53pm

I’ve recently seen the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on John le Carré’s novel with the same name. In the 1970’s a TV series based on the same novel, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, was very popular in Britain. This film, with Gary Oldman as the protagonist, is supposed to be something like an update for the new generation.

It is a very good film indeed. (I cannot remember the last time I was so gripped by a film shortly after its release.) I was also inspired to read several of le Carré’s novels, including but not limited to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. What they have in common is a subtle, rich portrayal of the spy trade from the viewpoint of Britain during the cold war; a world that seems to be, increasingly, a thing of the past. Voice recognition, social profiling and data mining seems to be taking the place of a good chunk of what le Carré calls tradecraft – the concrete skills that spies with 1970’s technology need in order to perform their work on the ground in enemy territory – and computer scientists like myself are to blame.

While being hailed as the anti-Ian Fleming due to his relatively gritty realism, Le Carré is not without his own spy romanticism. But the bleakness inherent in the work comes through on every page.

In his commentary on the film, le Carré states that

[The world of spies is] not so far from corporate life, from the ordinary world. At the time of writing the novel, I thought that there was a universality that I could exploit. The book definitely resonated with the public; people wanted to reference their lives in terms of conspiracy, and that remains central to the relationship between man and the institutions he creates.

There is something profound in this. Spies are merely concentrated versions of something that we all are ourselves, something that we must be every day. Spies project false personalities in order to gain access and information, either about enemy assets or about other spies. They hide to survive, and they hide so that they may uncover a kind of truth. With a view to the spy as the most concentrated form of a certain kind of existence, let us take a look at some other forms that this existence may take.

The modern professional. To be professional means to effectively project a professional identity in the workplace. To be unprofessional almost always means that too much of another, possibly more genuine personality shines through – one has become too unrestrained. The professional needs to always be projecting, to a degree, in order to remain compatible with the workplace and retain his income and career prospects. Young people are socialised into this condition very early – at career workshops, students learn how to polish their CVs, how to embellish their record, and to hide their flaws. This is essentially a partial course in spycraft. But all this is only at the entry level. When any kind of sophisticated politics enters the organisation – as it does – the professional may be pushed ever closer to the spy. A recruiter: “Too bad that we couldn’t hire him, he seemed genuine.”

The academic. The academic can be thought of as a special version of the professional with some essential differences. First, professionals do not yet have universal records that follow them around for their entire lifetime – much of the “record” that they create, which is associated with the persona they are supposed to project, exists only in the memory of people and of one organisation. Academics build their records with units such as publications and conference attendance. Publications in particular form an atomic record that does not go away. On the other hand, the everyday life of the academic may – possibly – be less artificial than that of the professional, since focus is on the production of publishable units, not on pleasing people in one’s surroundings as much as possible.

The philosopher.  Philosophers seek to uncover some hidden truth about the world. In this sense, they are spies without enemies. The philosopher lives among people with a view to analysing them and understanding their behaviour, so that he can explain it to them. But most of the time the philosopher is likely to be a flaneur or a quiet observer, like the spy often is: someone who seeks to learn something hidden from situations that other participants may regard as being routine and their everyday existence. In this sense spies may have something in common with philosophers.

Here I have highlighted a phenomenon but not made any recommendations. Maybe it’s for the better that we are all a little bit like spies. Masks of some kind are worn in most social interactions, not just the ones above, and they are not a recent phenomenon. Exposing something like a true inner self requires that the inner self remains static long enough for it to be possible to expose. But the difference between most social relationships and the relationships we have with institutions today is that the former can change or dissolve naturally to fit spontaneous changes in people’s characters or needs. Relationships between people and modern institutions do not seem to be capable of this dynamic as of yet.

1 comment » | Life, Philosophy

Books: Deleuze’s Nietzsche and De Landa’s Nonlinear History

May 3rd, 2012 — 1:09pm

In 2012, so far, I’ve finished two very evocative books. One is Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy. The other is Manuel De Landa’s 1000 Years of Nonlinear History.

Deleuze’s Nietzsche is the author’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought. This is perhaps one of the most coherent interpretations of Nietzsche I’ve read. It succeeds in turning Nietzsche’s notoriously unsystematic philosophy into a system with something like well-defined concepts and their interrelationships at its core. The work feels simultaneously fresh and firmly grounded in Nietzsche’s own ideas. This is a book that I expect I will read again, because I’m quite certain I haven’t understood everything. For example, I don’t yet have a good feel for the difference between Deleuze’s active and reactive force  – I cannot even imagine what an active force is. Reading this work has made me suspect that I’ve thought of every force as being essentially reactive up until this point.

One caveat with this work is that it is a book with a mission; the mission is to destroy Hegelian philosophy and dialecticism. This is in line with the historical context of Nietzsche usage in France, where he was used mainly as an antidote to the dominant Hegelian thought, if I understand correctly.

I’ve previously read De Landa’s Philosophy and Simulation, a book about emergence and about corroborating philosophical theories with computer simulations. 1000 Years of Nonlinear History is an earlier, but no less interesting, work of his. It tells the simultaneous history of geology, genes and memes (in the form of languages). In order to fully appreciate this book I think I ought to gain some idea of the mathematics behind attractors and dynamic systems.  Still, there is a lot to be gained even without those insights. The parallels between the three different historical fields are interesting, and the essential point that is made is that there is nothing like progress or determinism about the forms that society, language, ideas, life or matter take today. Instead, the state of the world is a nonlinear system of interacting attractors. We are invited to view the world as rich but essentially accidental, and free of distinctions such as organic-inorganic and human-nonhuman.


1 comment » | Philosophy

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