L.M. Sacasas on accusations of romanticising the past.

At The Frailest Thing blog, L.M. Sacasas identifies something I’ve often noticed and wish there was a handy word for:

Steven Pinker and Jason Hickel have recently engaged in a back-and-forth about whether or not global poverty is decreasing. The first salvo was an essay by Hickel in the Guardian targeting claims made by Bill Gates. Pinker responded here, and Hickel posted his rejoinder at his site.

I’ll let you dive in to the debate if you’re so inclined. The exchange is of interest to me, in part, because evaluations of modern technology are often intertwined with this larger debate about the relative merits of what, for brevity’s sake, we may simply call modernity (although, of course, it’s complicated).

I’m especially interested in a rhetorical move that is often employed in these kinds of debates:  it amounts to the charge of romanticizing the past.

So, for example, Pinker claims, “Hickel’s picture of the past is a romantic fairy tale, devoid of citations or evidence.” I’ll note in passing Hickel’s response, summed up in this line: “All of this violence, and much more, gets elided in your narrative and repackaged as a happy story of progress. And you say I’m the one possessed of romantic fairy tales.” Hickel, in my view, gets the better of Pinker on this point.

In any case, the trope is recurring and, as I see it, tiresome. I wrote about it quite early in the life of this blog when I explained that I did not, in fact, wish to be a medieval peasant.

More recently, Matt Stoller tweeted, “When I criticize big tech monopolies the bad faith response is often a variant of ‘so you want to go back to horses and buggies?!?’” Stoller encountered some variant of this line so often that he was searching for a simple term by which to refer to it. It’s a Borg Complex symptom, as far as I’m concerned.

At a forum about technology and human flourishing I recently attended, the moderator, a fine scholar whose work I admire, explicitly cautioned us in his opening statements against romanticizing the past.

It would take no time at all to find similar examples, especially if you expand “romanticizing the past” to include the equally common charge of reactionary nostalgia. Both betray a palpable anxiousness about upholding the superiority of the present.

Reminds me of David Cooper’s “shouting about humankind being part of nature may mask a fear that it is nothing of the sort.”  One wishes for a handy German term.  Or some other neologism.


Jarod Gott on Tinder, writing and the presentation of the self

Recently I was at Dreams, Hallucinations and the Imagination, a conference organised by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for the Study of Perceptual ExperienceDreams and like experiences are an interest of mine generally, clinically and personally (if you follow) at some point I would like to blog about this fascinating meeting more, especially from my perspective as an interested party but not part of a specific sleep/consciousness/philosophy of mind group.

One of the most memorable presentations was the last, from Jarod Gott,   a neuroscientist from Melbourne with the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour . He gave a bracing and no-sacred-cows-untouched talk entitled “Neural correlates of “synthetic” perception: Towards a common statespace model for dreams, hallucination and imagination”

I may not have entirely expected, reading through the various papers by conference speakers I could find online on the way to the airport, that Gott has written a piece for Quilette on dating in the age of Tinder.  It made me quite glad to be too old and too married to have any familiarity with Tinder itself. One of Gott’s asides (which I have highlighted in bold below) made me wonder something about writing in the world today:

Now you are cooking with gas! Expect several days of intimate, evocative and tantalising back-and-forth, conversations running into the early hours of the morning, a reliable hit of dopamine at the peering at of one’s lock screen. You organise a face to face, a real live date—and the anxiety hits infinity, as this person who you have finally clicked with, will suddenly become real. So you meet up, and you can’t even recognise them. To make matters worse, you never actually do. Their digital persona is more familiar than anything physical existence can do justice to, and you fade out of each other’s lives, wondering who that imposter actually was, and how they got that other person—the one who you really felt something for—to type all those sweet and lovely messages. The hollow feeling grows profound, as you slowly realise, that you never will get to find out and that maybe, just maybe, you have actually lost your mind.It took some serious contemplation, to untangle why I was repeating this cycle. In part, I can attribute my recently improved skills as a writer, in building an entertaining and beguiling narrative, and pulling somebody haplessly into it. Maybe I am just too good at this? No. It’s something else entirely. I revisited my best encounters, ones that became lasting and rewarding friendships, relationships or anything in between. What pattern did these follow? I can say for certain—these addictive, high-frequency textual exchanges, giving one’s phone a poker-machine like quality—came at the tail end of months of physical intimacy, if they came at all. We existed, perhaps, in a much more tribal state. Every waking moment together, where it was at all practicable; no zero-sum playing of games, no existential desire to weed out deal-breaking traits and experiences, like landmines in a Cambodian rice field, lest they blow up under your tread, leaving you gamed by some malevolent sentient other. When you fall in love the way that you do when you travel, the world has a way of contracting and such details fade into irrelevancy. When you scour the Internet for mates using Tinder, the world has a way of expanding—and nobody is ever good enough, and nobody, ever, can be trusted: to be all they appear to be; to be who they say.

In the context of his piece, Gott dismisses the impact of his “recently improved skills as a writer”, but these two sentences got me thinking about how writing has become more and more about presentation of a kind of self. It is sometimes claimed we  live in a golden age of writing, that the net result of email/social media/SMS is an explosion in the written word, albeit writ on the water that is the Internet.

Whatever the truth of that, the impulse of much more of the writing we do is to present a certain sense of the selfl and . The internet is a powerful agent of Girardian mimeticism, and one wonders if “improved writing skills” are a powerful agent of imposing conformity.

And one wonders if writing-as-presentation-of-a-self makes Literature (deliberate big L) more inclined to solipsism, more virtue-signally, less interested in the world and others and more focused on Thinly Disguised Autobiography (or Thinly Disguised What I Wish Was Autobiography)


Here is a post on my other blog “A Medical Education” inspired by a passage in Helen Pearson’s “The Life Project”, which I reviewed in the TLS.

An understandable tendency to include as much potentially useful information as possible seemed to have created massive, and ultimately unworkable cohorts. The Life Study would have generated vast data sets: “80,000 babies, warehouses of stool samples of placentas, gigabytes of video clips, several hundred thousand questionnaires and much more” (the history of the 1982 study repeated itself, perhaps.) Then there is the recruitment issue. Pregnant women volunteering for the Life Study would “travel to special recruitment centres set up for the study and then spend two hours there, answering questions and giving their samples of urine and blood.” Perhaps the surprise is that 249 pregnant women actually did volunteer for this.

This passage has come back to me. Aside from the methodological issue of study design, there is a wider issue of trying to do too much of a (seemingly) good thing.

I am brought back to another brief snatch of a book I have stolen for a post, from “The Monks of Tibhirine” by John W Kiser:

I also began to better understand why my exposure to the Trappist culture had a certain resonance for me. Simplicity is one reason. Doing less, not more, and doing those fewer things more intensely, are values in perpetual struggle in a world that is always offering more – more activities, more choices, more means of communication, things that distract and require decisions. Trappists have stripped their lives down to a simple triad of prayer, study and manual labour. They have made only one decision: to love and praise God in the  Trappist way.

And, a more recent post here featuring the holiday thoughts of David Mamet:

I thought: we are an Urban people, and the Urban solution to most any problem is to do more: to find something new to eat in order to lose weight; to add a sound in order to relax, to upgrade your living arrangements in order to be comfortable, to buy more, to eat more, to do more business


You are not a product: Phil Lawton on Dublin as a hyper-competitive city

Back in 2015 I attended the inaugural symposium of the Health Research Board’s Trial Methodology Research Network (TMRN), which I blogged about here. The meeting (which was excellent) was in the Gibson Hotel in Dublin’s docklands. I found walking this part of Dublin somewhat eerie – within a short distance of some of the most deprived areas of the North Inner City we had this rather sterile, pedestrian-free, street-life-free zone.

As it happened, that day I came across a post by my friend Philip Lawton  which helped me understand some of my unease in what is, after all, my native city. I suppose Sue King-Smith’s post on writing in the age of person-as-product brought this back to my consciousness. Anyway, here are Phil’s opening paragraphs:


Dublin is so caught up in a maelstrom of ‘hyper-competitiveness’ that it barely has time to even think about what it is or what it means. At the centre of this is the tech industry, which influences everything fromlivable city agendas to housing discussions. It is a form of competitiveness that is presented in manner that makes it seem almost matter of fact or inevitable. When faced with this, the responses to recent announcement that the up-coming Web Summit will leave Dublin come as no surprise. The common mantra from various media sources (here and here) is one of ‘loss’, ’embarrassment’, and a sign that we must improve our infrastructure to cater for and attract events such as this. In a manner that would seem almost absurd to many, The Irish Times even went so far as to publish an opinion poll asking ‘Is the loss of the Web Summit a blow to Ireland’s reputation abroad’. In as much as such approaches are so dominant, it becomes completely accepted that the response must be for Dublin to reaffirm itself and ‘stay in the game’ or lose out. There is little reflection on what the level of mobility and ‘choice’ afforded to contemporary companies or organizations means for the city and for thinking about long-term sustainable approaches to economic development.

There are a number of factors worth remembering here. For one, the Web Summit is part of a culture of expectation, where every want and need is answered. If not, there is every chance that the relevant companies will move on. This reality is made explicit in this case, with the Web Summit blog stating: “We know now what it takes to put on a global technology gathering and we know that if Web Summit is to grow further, we need to find it a new home. Our attendees expect the best.” Thus, with one foul swoop, the birth-place of the Summit is rejected, with pastures new willing to cater to the wants and needs of the tech world. This is a world that is held aloft as proclaiming the arrival of a new world order of progress and betterment. Although most of us never experience it, it offers a luring image of inventiveness, youth, and progress all framed in a chic background of converted shipping containers and bright colours. Yet, in as much as this industry needs constantly innovate to remain competitive, it makes for a highly unpredictable outcome for host cities.

The Web Summit also forms part and parcel of a form of competitiveness that perceives and believes that any small dent in the shiny and glossy image of the city will end in a catastrophic result. It is yet another element in the firm belief of a ‘trickle down’ approach to economic betterment, even if we don’t know where it’s trickling. It is so normalized that it now presents itself as common sense – ‘we’ must fight for this agenda at all costs because these the outcome is ‘good’. As is nearly always the case, there is little to no questioning of why pursue this approach in the first place and of possible demerits.


You Are Not A Product: Johnny Ryan, Brave, GDPR and Ted Nelson’s dream

Readers may have recently seen news that the Brave browser has jointly filed complaints against Google relating to their sharing of personal data. Recently I posted a link to NIthin Coca’s guide to fully quitting Google. A friend of mine, Johnny Ryan, has been key to this in his role as Chief Policy & Industry Relations Officer at Brave.

A little before this complaint, Johnny participated in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) some highlights of which are featured here.

There is much to chew on on the wide range of policy issues and privacy issues that our internet usage enmeshes us in. I liked especially this exchange:

u/Niels001: What are your dreams for Brave and BAT? Why did you join Brave?

JR: Hypertext was invented by Ted Nelson in the 1960s. Part of his dream was that everybody who contributed to the interconnected latticework of hypertext documents would be rewarded by those who perused them. People would drop tiny “bread crumb” like payments behind them as they flitted from item to item. It is a beautiful vision.

But this aspect of Nelson’s great dream was never realized at scale because these tiny micro payments were not practical. This is why BAT excites me. It may finally allow us to realize part of Nelson’s vision.

I do not see a better place to work today.

BAT is the Basic Attention Token, an open source, decentralised ad exchange platform developed by Brendan Eich, founder of Brave and before that Mozilla.

The headline that Brave users may get up to $70 annually for looking at ads may sound a bit clickbaity, but it has a wider implication:

Brave’s BAT integration offers one of the easiest on-ramps to cryptocurrency markets that the industry has seen. Everyday web users who might be nervous about investing portions of their paychecks into crypto, now have the option of earning BAT for free, just for browsing the web as they normally do. Then they will have the choice of holding onto the BAT, cashing it out, or dumping it into an exchange to start trading other coins and tokens.

As Johnny’s quote above indicates, all this has – or should have – a deeper philosophical meaning than simple consumption and passive attention. There is an awful passivity to online culture now, relative to the early days. As the tagline of Brave’s site says, “You are not a product.” But if you don’t want to be a product, don’t act like one. I urge readers to install and use Brave for themselves.

Nithin Coca – “How I Fully Quit Google”

Could you stop using Google products? Completely? Not just Google Search, but Gmail, Calendar, and all the rest of their stable of products and services.

Nithin Coca has done just that, and tells the story on Medium.  What is particularly interesting – and concerning – is how difficult this turns out to be. This is a contrast to even Apple and Facebook :

With Apple, you’re either in the iWorld, or out. Same with Amazon, and even Facebook owns only a few platforms and quitting is more of a psychological challenge than actually difficult.

Google, however, is embedded everywhere. No matter what laptop, smartphone, or tablet you have, chances are you have at least one Google app on there. Google is synonymous for search, maps, email, our browser, the operating system on most of our smartphones. It even provides the “services” and analytics that other apps and websites rely on, such as Uber’s use of Google Maps to operate its ride-hailing service.

Google is now a word in many languages, and its global dominance means there are not many well-known, or well-used alternatives to its behemoth suite of tools — especially if you are privacy minded. We all started using Google because it, in many ways, provided better alternatives to existing products. But now, we can’t quit because either Google has become a default, or because its dominance means that alternatives can’t get enough traction.

Coca’s motives for quitting Google relate to Edward Snowden’s revelations re PRISM. No matter what one’s specific motivations might be, it is concerning that one company has embedded itself in our devices, and by extension our lives, to such a degree. Coca’s piece is refreshingly free of hyperbole, even giving Google their due, and outlining just how it got to be so dominant via his own experience:

Here’s the thing. I don’t hate Google. In fact, not too long ago, I was a huge fan of Google. I remember the moment when I first discovered one amazing search engine back in the late 1990’s, when I was still in high school. Google was light years ahead of alternatives such as Yahoo, Altavista, or Ask Jeeves. It really did help users find what they were seeking on a web that was, at that time, a mess of broken websites and terrible indexes.

Google soon moved from just search to providing other services, many of which I embraced. I was an early adopter of Gmail back in 2005, when you could only join via invites. It introduced threaded conversations, archiving, labels, and was without question the best email service I had ever used. When Google introduced its Calendar tool in 2006, it was revolutionary in how easy it was to color code different calendars, search for events, and send shareable invites. And Google Docs, launched in 2007, was similarly amazing. During my first full time job, I pushed my team to do everything as a Google spreadsheet, document, or presentation that could be edited by many of us simultaneously.

Like many, I was a victim of Google creep. Search led to email, to documents, to analytics, photos, and dozens of other services all built on top of and connected to each other. Google turned from a company releasing useful products to one that has ensnared us, and the internet as a whole, into its money-making, data gathering apparatus

The full article outlines Coca’s alternatives to Google Products. Some things – like, paradoxically, quitting Google for search, are quite easy. Others are much more challenging….