Post scriptum (2022, week 23) — Set yourself free with ritual, the digital is political, and how the world became rich

Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s Post scriptum: How rituals help find rhythm in the everyday; digital technology demands a new political philosophy; two economic historians explain what modern life possible; how the Internet turned us into content machines; the office monsters are trying to claw their way back to 2019; can you ever morally own a masterpiece?; why Jane Morris was painted out of the Arts and Crafts movement; remaking the art of miniature painting; and, finally, the Black Sea is back at the centre of a new order of world geopolitics.

How to set yourself free with ritual

For a life of harmonious ease, find the rhythm in the everyday: make your world your temple and submit to its sacred ritual, Alan Jay Levinovitz advises in How to set yourself free with ritual.

When Levinovitz first read Confucius, he was disappointed. “He seemed like a stick-in-the-mud, obsessed with enforcing the status quo,” he writes. Maybe his approach worked 2,500 years ago, but Levinovitz preferred living freely like the iconoclastic Daoist sages who mocked Confucius.

“Central to Confucius’s teachings was submission to li (禮), typically translated as ‘ritual’. I wrote it off as more stale traditionalism. But then, while preparing a course on classical Chinese thought, I re-read the foundational collection of Confucius’s teachings known as the Analects (論語).

It was a revelation. Cherrypicked passages such as the one about music were deeply misleading. Li wasn’t about fastidiously obeying fusty old rules.

No, this was a different kind of ritual. My default understanding of the word had misled me. What Confucius taught was life-as-ritual, the transformation of everyday actions into sacred activity. ‘When we say the rites, the rites, are we speaking merely of jade and silk?’ he asks rhetorically. The answer is no. Confucian ritual goes beyond formalised activities that require the proper use of jade and silk. Ritual is — or can be — part of all human activity. It governs greetings and conservations. It’s how you harmonise your life with the rhythms of the world. And if you take ritual seriously, submit to it and practise it, then transforming your life for the better will go from difficult to effortless.

[…]

Confucius cared deeply about the practical application of his teachings. ‘To learn and then have occasion to practise what you have learned — is this not satisfying?’ he asks in the first line of the Analects. The real test of li is to see whether it works in your life. It has passed my test, and I think that’s because, more than 2 millennia ago, Confucius discovered universal principles that — unlike his taste in music! — still apply today.”

“Ritual as effortless action — the Chinese term is wu-wei (無為) — might make ritual seem like habit. Good habits (and bad ones) are effortless, reflexive actions cultivated through repetition. But there’s a serious problem with this analogy. Habits are difficult to change. They are inflexible. If you are in the habit of, say, greeting people by shaking their hand, then not shaking hands during the COVID-19 pandemic might initially take effort. You must change the habit.

In this sense, ritual is more like improvised music or athletic performance. Jazz soloists do not play according to rigid habits. They adjust to their bandmates, the mood of the evening. The same is true of good athletes, who adjust to different opponents and conditions. Playing exactly the same way according to habit would be the equivalent of greeting every person you meet, from strangers to your spouse, in exactly the same way.

Confucian ritual is similarly flexible. It depends on awareness of the relevant factors in any given situation. Someone who submits to ritual does not shake hands out of habit. She shakes hands because in that context shaking hands is the proper thing to do. When a pandemic hits, shaking hands may no longer be the right way to greet someone. If your actions are habituated, changing them will take effort. But if your actions are a function of ritual, you shift away from handshaking and adjust your greeting style to the relevant factors of the new context. And if you are a master of ritual, adjustment comes effortlessly, like an athlete or musician who’s ‘in the zone,’” Levinovitz writes.

In his essay, Levinovitz shares six key points for setting yourself free with ritual:

  1. Ritual is not about stale traditionalism. The teachings of Confucius’s Analects are about submission to life-as-ritual, not about enforcing the status quo or obeying fusty old rules.
  2. Ritual is about reverence. Treat the world around you seriously, with respect for its rhythms and patterns.
  3. Everything is ritual. We shouldn’t restrict the scope of ritual to activities such as weddings and funerals. The world is a sacred space with its own patterns, and we can ritually harmonise with it at all times.
  4. Ritual is even better than good habits. Habits are inflexible, and that’s a liability. Confucian ritual is flexible, and performing it properly entails willingness to adjust yourself to different contexts.
  5. Never stop studying. Except for a few geniuses, seeing the patterns of the world can be tough. Reading widely and asking questions when you’re confused is, itself, part of ritual.
  6. You can’t fake it until you make it. Without cultivating sincerity and kindness, your rituals will be hollow. A fake ritual is not a ritual at all, no matter how much it looks like one.

Digital technology demands a new political philosophy

Since Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter, there has been a flurry of speculation. Does he know what he’s doing? Will he improve conditions of free speech? What, if anything, will he do about online harassment and extremism?

“Though valuable and interesting, it is possible that these kinds of questions obscure the deeper issue, or at least the longer-term one,” Jamie Susskind writes in Digital Technology Demands A New Political Philosophy.

“At root, the big question for the future of powerful technologies is this: whether they are ultimately economic entities which should be governed according to market principles, or whether they are in fact political in nature, and so should be governed by democratic norms and principles. In the long run, the answer we provide to this question will significantly affect the course of democracy around the world — more, in any event, than whether Musk himself understands the concept of free speech absolutism,” Susskind writes.

“The unaccountable power of digital technology is at its most obvious when a vast social media platform is purchased by one man for expressly political purposes. But the challenge is not limited to Musk or even to social media. Something bigger is going on.

Part of the issue is ubiquity. Gone are the days when we could shut our laptops and seek respite from technology in the safety of the analogue world. Digital devices now surround us, in meatspace as much as cyberspace. In our lifetimes, a growing number of everyday objects — buildings, infrastructure, furniture, appliances — will be connected to the internet, endowed with sensors and processing power, enabling them silently and constantly to interact with us and each other. As the technologist Bruce Schneier wrote, “It used to be that things had computers in them. Now they are computers with things attached to them.”

It’s not just that digital systems are growing more ubiquitous. They are becoming more capable. Allowing for skepticism of the hype around AI, it is unarguable that computers are increasingly able to do things that we would previously have seen as the sole province of human beings — and in some cases do them better than us. That trend is unlikely to reverse and appears to be speeding up.

The result is that increasingly capable technologies are going to be a fundamental part of 21st-century life. They mediate a growing number of our deeds, utterances and exchanges. Our access to basic social goods — credit, housing, welfare, educational opportunity, jobs — is increasingly determined by algorithms of hidden design and obscure provenance. Computer code has joined market forces, communal tradition and state coercion in the first rank of social forces. We’re in the early stages of the digital lifeworld: a delicate social system that links human beings, powerful machines and abundant data in a swirling web of great complexity.

The political implications are clear to anyone who wants to see them: those who own and control the most powerful digital technologies will increasingly write the rules of society itself. Software engineers are becoming social engineers. The digital is political.”

“In a digital republic, there would be appropriate checks and balances on the exercise of digital power. These might take familiar forms: systems of certification for powerful technologies; professional qualifications and duties for powerful individuals; avenues of appeal against important algorithmic determinations; systems of inspection and oversight for high-risk products and platforms. In other industries, these kinds of measures are commonplace. In tech, they are seen as heretical.

For the last few decades, digital technology has not only been developed, but also regulated, within the same intellectual paradigm: that of market individualism. Within this paradigm, the market is seen not only as a productive source of innovation, but as a reliable regulator of market participants too: a self-correcting ecosystem which can be trusted to contain the worst excesses of its participants.

This way of thinking about technology emphasizes consumer choice (even when that choice is illusory), hostility to government power (but ambivalence about corporate power), and individual responsibility (even at the expense of collective wellbeing). In short, it treats digital technology as a chiefly economic phenomenon to be governed by the rules and norms of the marketplace, and not as a political phenomenon to be governed by the rules and norms of the forum.

The first step in becoming a digital republican is recognizing that this tension — between economics and politics, between capitalism and democracy — is likely to be among the foremost political battlegrounds of the digital age. The second step is to argue that the balance has swung too far to one side, and it is overdue for a correction.

The questions raised by the Musk takeover are systemic, or structural, in nature. It would be folly to fixate too closely on the qualities of Musk or Zuckerberg or whoever else happens to be dominating the news on a particular day. We cannot know how they will act in the future, and we cannot know who will eventually replace them. We cannot know what as-yet-uninvented technologies they might eventually have under their command.

All we can know, or at least try to work out, is how to think clearly about the underlying challenge, which is the power of digital technology and the threat it could pose to freedom and democracy. That affects all of us. For the republican, the question is not whether Musk or Zuckerberg will make the ‘right’ decision with the power at their disposal — it’s why they are allowed that power at all. Send not to ask for whom Musk tweets; he tweets for thee.”

How the world became rich

“What today we’d characterize as extreme poverty was until a few centuries ago the condition of almost every human on Earth. In 1820, some 94 percent of humans lived on less than $2 a day,” Dylan Matthews writes in About 200 years ago, the world started getting rich. Why?

“The big question is what drove this transformation. Historians, economists, and anthropologists have proposed a long list of explanations for why human life suddenly changed starting in 18th-century England, from geographic effects to forms of government to intellectual property rules to fluctuations in average wages.

For a long time, there was no one book that could explain, compare, and evaluate these theories for non-experts. That’s changed: How the World Became Rich, by [Jared Rubin and Mark Koyama], provides a comprehensive look at what, exactly, changed when sustained economic growth began, what factors help explain its beginning, and which theories do the best job of making sense of the new stage of life that humans have been experiencing for a couple brief centuries.”

Here are several questions and answers from a recent interview Matthews had with Rubin and Koyama.

You try to explain two broad things about sustained economic growth: why it started when it did (in the mid-18th century) and why it started where it did (England). Let’s start with the when. What took so long? Humans invented agriculture maybe 10,000 years ago. Why did it take 9,800 years or so for that to lead to real economic growth?

[Jared Rubin] “This is one of the key questions in all of economics. Its answer is central to why some countries grew rich while others have not. The simplest answer is that economic growth occurred only after the rate of technological innovation became highly sustained. Without sustained technological innovation, any one-off economic improvement will not lead to sustained growth. Incomes will rise in the short run, but over time people will have more babies and those babies will eat up all the economic surplus. This is known as the ‘Malthusian trap,’ after Thomas Malthus, a British clergyman of the late 18th century. This Malthusian logic explains the pre-industrial world pretty well.

Although there were ebbs and flows in pre-industrial economic growth, no society ever broke through and achieved sustained economic growth. This happened only after the overall rate of technological progress became high enough to more than offset the downward pressure imposed by population growth.

The question is why it took so long for the rate of technological innovation to grow as it did. This is one of the central questions we attempt to answer in this book. And there is not one ‘silver bullet’ answer. For one, sustained innovation requires institutions that limit confiscation by the government (and protect other property rights more generally). But most societies in world history were weak on this dimension.

Sustained innovation also requires cultural values that support innovation and encourage understanding of how the world works. Societies in which work is looked down upon are unlikely to experience sustained innovation.

Ultimately (and this matters for the acceleration in growth we observe from the late 19th to the 20th centuries), it also helps if families limit the number of children they have. This does not necessarily contribute to innovation, but it does mean that innovation will more quickly translate into growth.

Most societies in world history had none of these features, let alone all of them. It took a while for all of these preconditions to coalesce in one nation. But once it did, economic growth took off.”

Several economists, like Robert Gordon and Thomas Philippon, have worried that the past couple hundred years might be an aberration, and growth might now slow down. Does your research give you hope with regard to those fears? Or does it make them seem more reasonable?

[Jared Rubin] “I do not agree with these fears, although I understand the logic behind them. I think this is a point on which reasonable people can disagree.

The world became rich because of a massive increase in the rate of technological innovation. I think one thing the history of technology has taught us is that as long as the incentives are there for innovators to innovate, we will continue to be surprised. The most important new innovations are often impossible to foresee. Today, AI offers the possibility of such surprises (with major moral caveats). Three decades ago, it was the internet. There have been many such transformations in the last two centuries due to inventions such as the telegraph, locomotive, automobile, telephone, electrification, steam engine, and much more.

Another way to think about it is like this: Prior to about two centuries ago, most children lived in a world that was technologically similar to the ones their parents inhabited as children. This has not been true for a little over two centuries, at least in the most technologically advanced nations. My children live in a world of very different technology than I did as a child, as did I relative to my parents. I see little reason why this will not be the case over ensuing generations.”

[Mark Koyama] “I find these arguments unconvincing. I am more persuaded by the argument of Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake that new technologies are often highly disruptive and need new organizational and institutional arrangements to make them function. They view recent decades as characterized by the rise of intangibles and they argue that growth has been slow because we lack the rules to best exploit the intangible economy. Growth might continue to stagnate, but this will be because of institutional failures and not some inherent features of the growth process.”

In the margins

“In his new book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, Justin E. H. Smith, argues that ‘the present situation is intolerable, but there is also no going back.’ Too much of human experience has been flattened into a single ‘technological portal,’ [he] writes. ‘The more you use the Internet, the more your individuality warps into a brand, and your subjectivity transforms into an algorithmically plottable vector of activity.’

According to Smith, the Internet actually limits attention, in the sense of a deep aesthetic experience that changes the person who is engaging. The business model of digital advertising incentivizes only brief, shallow interactions — the gaze of a consumer primed to absorb a logo or brand name and not much else. Our feeds are designed to ‘prod the would-be attender ever onward from one monetizable object to the next,’ he writes. This has had a deadening effect on all kinds of culture, from Marvel blockbusters that optimize for attention minute to minute, to automated Spotify recommendations that push one similar song after another. Cultural products and consumer habits alike increasingly conform to the structures of digital spaces.

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is begins as a negative critique of online life, particularly as seen from the perspective of academia, an industry that is one of its disrupted victims. But the book’s second half progresses into deeper philosophical inquiries. Rather than a tool, the Internet might best be seen as a ‘living system,’ Smith writes. It is the fulfillment of a centuries-old human aspiration toward interconnectivity — albeit a disappointing one. Smith recounts the story of the Frenchman Jules Allix, who, in the mid-nineteenth century, popularized a kind of organic Internet made out of snails. Perhaps drawing upon the physician Franz Mesmer’s theory of ‘animal magnetism,’ which postulated the existence of a universal magnetic force connecting living things, it was predicated upon the idea that any two snails that had copulated remained linked across great distances. The technology — a telegraph-like device that used snails to purportedly send messages — was a failure, but the dream of instantaneous, wireless communication remained until humanity achieved it, perhaps to our own detriment.

Smith hunts for the most effective metaphor for the Internet, a concept that encompasses more than the vacuity of ‘content’ and the addictiveness of the ‘attention economy.’ Is it like a postcoital-snail telegraph? Or like a Renaissance-era wheel device that allowed readers to browse multiple books at once? Or perhaps like a loom that weaves together souls? He doesn’t quite land on an answer, though he ends by recognizing that the interface of the Internet, and the keyboard that gives him access to it, is less an external device than an extension of his questing mind. To understand the networked self, we must first understand the self, which is a ceaseless endeavor. The ultimate problem of the Internet might stem not from the discrete technology but from the Frankensteinian way in which humanity’s invention has exceeded our own capacities.”

From: How the Internet Turned Us Into Content Machines, by Kyle Chayka (The New Yorker)

“Beyond the bottom line, the back-to-office debate is about what kind of culture will prevail as the business world emerges from the pandemic. And for all of the power wielded by [Elon Musk, Jamie Dimon, the chairman and C.E.O. of JPMorgan Chase, and Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City], they may be fighting a shift that is larger than any single company or city.

If the pandemic’s two-plus years of remote work experimentation have taught us anything, it’s that many people can be productive outside the office, and quite a few are happier doing so. That’s especially true for people with young children or long commutes, minority workers who have a tougher time fitting in with the standard office culture, or those with other personal circumstances that made working in offices less attractive.

‘We still are struggling to let go of the ideal worker stereotype — even though that person, for a lot of people and occupations and demographic groups in the U.S., never really existed,’ said Colleen Ammerman, the director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School. ‘I think with remote work, and hybrid, we have the potential to truly move away from that and really rethink about what it means to be on a leadership track, what it means to be a high performer, and get away from that being associated with being in the office at all hours.’

[…]

It’s probably not shocking that people who are lower on the org chart tend to be less enthusiastic about returning to the office than the senior leaders and executives who thrived in the in-person Before Times.

‘For many C.E.O.s and managers, that’s how they worked. That’s how they succeeded and that’s the only way they know,’ [Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab program at the think tank New America,] said. ‘All of this was completely false; it was totally a fake story we’ve been telling ourselves.’”

From: The Office Monsters Are Trying to Claw Their Way Back to 2019, by Vivian Giang (The New York Times)

“On a libertarian view, any legitimate buying and selling of exceptional works of art like this is fine. That’s just how markets work. Many countries have laws preventing cultural objects being exported, anyway.

Legitimate ownership, on this account, gives the owners a right to do more or less anything they want to with their possessions, including smearing them with cream cake if they so desire.

In opposition to this way of thinking, the philosopher Michael Sandel has argued that there should be moral limits to markets, and that there are some things that should never be sold — your own kidney for instance. Is it similarly morally wrong to sell (or buy) a Leonardo? Perhaps.

If there is almost universal agreement that an artist is truly great, like Leonardo, there’s a prima facie case for protecting their works from the arbitrary whims of their owners, or indeed preventing them from being privately owned.

The best way to protect culturally important objects is to put them in public ownership in museums. Property rights shouldn’t trump the interests of humanity.”

From: Can you ever morally own a masterpiece?, by Nigel Warburton (The New European)

“Revered for his textiles, his art and his socialism, William Morris is the celebrated leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, a renowned intellectual who revolutionised decorative art and design in Britain. His wife, [Jane Morris], meanwhile, has been relegated to the status of a silent muse. Now, the first joint biography of the couple will shine a light on their personal and creative partnership, and reassert the rightful place of Jane Morris — a skilled embroiderer and talented designer — in the history books.

‘Jane’s work has been undervalued and generally ignored,’ said Suzanne Fagence Cooper, author of the forthcoming biography, How We Might Live: At Home with Jane and William Morris. ‘She is seen as just a face and not as a maker with her own ideas.’

Immortalised for ever in the pre-Raphaelite paintings of her obsessive lover Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jane Morris was essential to the creation and success of her husband’s decorative arts firm, Morris & Co, in 1861, the book will explain.

‘They needed her soft skills and her embroidery skills, and her willingness to be the pre-Raphaelite face of the Morris company brand,’ Fagence Cooper said.”

“Jane’s artistic contributions have been ignored, Cooper thinks, in part because she was such a famous beauty, who was notoriously unfaithful to her husband with his friend Rossetti and others. ‘I think there’s been some prurience around that. It has made her a more complicated figure,’ [Fagence Cooper] said.

As the working-class daughter of an ostler and a laundress, Jane had no formal education and has been viewed as undeserving — and unequal to — her wealthy, middle-class genius of a husband: ‘People want to put William Morris on a pedestal,’ said Dr Johanna Amos, of Queen’s University in Ontario. ‘There’s this view of Jane as someone who betrayed this lion of the British art scene in the 19th century. And I think that damaged her reputation.’

But without Jane’s housekeeping and networking skills, Morris & Co might not have been formed, said Fagence Cooper: ‘It was set up, basically, around her dining table at Red House in Kent.’”

From: Unfaithful, too striking: why William Morris’s wife was painted out of the Arts and Crafts movement (The Observer)

“The process of creating the paintings, which historically were commissioned to illustrate religious stories, scientific texts, poetry, tales, and imperial histories, was meticulous. Before illustration even began, the paper had to be made and prepared, the folios burnished and cut. Tea was applied to give the paper subtle layers of color. Artists would then sketch and outline their work, and pigment specialists would apply watercolor, building varying tones with tiny brushstrokes. Backgrounds and architectural spaces were decorated with arabesques, rhythmic designs meant to capture the beauty of nature and God’s creation. Using fine brushes made of only a few hairs, artists would then outline the final composition.

While immersed in her training, [Shahzia Sikander] also began interrogating power — the way it shaped the world, and at whose expense. Growing up in the eighties, during Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship, she experienced a shift toward restrictions on freedom, the politicization of religion, and the policing of public life. At the same time, America’s military presence in the region was seeping into Pakistani culture, introducing anti-Communist propaganda and the valorization of war. As Sikander observed this complex political landscape, the art of miniature painting presented her with a frontier. Using a subjugated form that had been consigned to the past, she could try to depict the tensions of the present.”

From: How Shahzia Sikander Remade the Art of Miniature Painting, by Naib Mian (The New Yorker)

“In the ancient world, the Black Sea had a simple name: it was Pontus, ‘the sea.’ Today the linguistic root survives in the French ‘pont’, which means ‘bridge.’ For centuries this was exactly the role the basin played, whether as a means of facilitating trade, imperial ambition, or a route to conflict. Its time may yet come again.” — Edward Thicknesse in The other Middle Sea

Post scriptum will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course.

If you want to know more about my work as an executive coach and leadership facilitator, please visit markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings, follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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