Post scriptum (2022, week 32–33) — Summer edition #3
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.”
This is the last of three abbreviated Summer editions of Post scriptum with only a handful of recommended reads. If you have time to spare and want more to read, you can always follow me on Twitter.
According to Jon Alexander and Ariane Conrad in Citizen future: Why we need a new story of self and society, it is the old stories that are broken, not humanity.
Over the past few years, Alexander and Conrad have been researching a book called Citizens, in which they propose a more hopeful narrative for the 21st Century. In this future, people are citizens, rather than subjects or consumers. With this identity, it becomes easier to see that all of us are smarter than any of us. And that the strategy for navigating difficult times is to tap into the diverse ideas, energy and resources of everyone. Seizing this future will depend on seeing and embracing a bigger story of who we are as humans. So, how do we do that?
“In order to realise the citizen future, we must neither accept what we are given as the only possibility, as subjects do; nor throw our toys from the pram when we do not like what is on offer, as consumers do. As citizens, we must propose, not just reject. We must establish a foundation of belief in one another. We must start from where we are, accept responsibility, and create meaningful opportunities for each other to contribute as we do so. We must step up, and step in. As the pioneering architect and designer Buckminster Fuller ‡ wrote: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, create a new model that makes the existing models obsolete.’
The process of rewriting the story is demanding for all of us. When the cracks appear in a long-held belief, it causes anxiety and pain. As the certain world is replaced by great uncertainty, the risk is that we cling to what we know more than ever. The gravitational pull of the familiar exerts itself, no matter how dysfunctional we know the familiar to be. When we recognise this, we can hold the space for this collapse and this transition more gently, more respectfully, with greater care. Otherwise, anxiety flips into anger, and people lose trust and faith in one another and their institutions. The result risks becoming a vicious cycle: as the challenges of our time intensify, we trust our leaders less, the outlets we seek in our dissatisfaction — such as anti-scientific beliefs, or conspiracy theories — become more extreme, and our leaders in turn trust us less. They become yet more inclined to stick to what they know — the old stories — denying us agency as they engage in futile attempts to solve the challenges for us, without us.
This is why the most essential work in this time should be a reimagination of what leadership is. If those in positions of power act as if there is nothing wrong, nothing to see here, our mistrust in them deepens still further. Leaders who build the citizen future start by acknowledging uncertainty, sharing questions and challenges with us rather than providing (or failing to provide) answers for us. They create opportunities for us to participate and contribute. They cultivate so-called ‘safe uncertainty’: acknowledging unknowns, not denying them. They don’t pretend to know exactly what the future looks like. They do reassure us that we will best build it by working together. As the philosopher and activist adrienne maree brown puts it: “No one is special; everyone is needed.”
In order to survive and thrive, we must step into the citizen future. We must see ourselves as citizens — people who actively shape the world around us, who cultivate meaningful connections to their community and institutions, who can imagine a different and better life, who care and take responsibility, and who create opportunities for others to do the same. Crucially, the leaders of our institutions must also see people as citizens, and treat us as such.
If we can step into the citizen future, we will be able to face our myriad challenges: economic insecurity, ecological emergency, public health threats, political polarisation, and more. We will be able to build a future. We will be able to have a future — together.”
Citizen future: Why we need a new story of self and society
The doom-laden headlines of our times would seem to indicate there are two futures on offer. In one, an Orwellian…
‡ Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller (Dey Street Books, 2022) is a recently published biography of Richard Buckminster Fuller, written by Alec Nevala-Lee. In a review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, called The Making of a Prophet, Pradeep Niroula writes: “Buckminster Fuller’s life is a reminder of two truths: to succeed in America, it really helps to come from a well-connected family; and, with the right marketing, anyone can become an icon. His illustrious life is testament to the influence a single con artist can have over a zeitgeist. Call him trimtab indeed.”
In 2016, Jonathon Keats wrote the highly recommended You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future, published by Oxford University Press.
Dystopia for realists
In Dystopia for Realists, Lizzie O’Shea wonders how should we approach the automation revolution?
“Kate Crawford, in her careful and detailed book Atlas of AI, argues for a politics of refusal. Much in the same way that a realistic goal of the climate movement is to pursue a low-growth, more egalitarian society, there is much to be said for approaching the AI industry from the perspective of seeking to apply the brakes to the runaway train. Instead of asking how we can optimize artificial intelligence, Crawford argues we should be asking why we need to apply it at all. Campaigns to ban the use of facial recognition technology have gained momentum around the world, and this could be a foundation for similar moratoriums.
Equally, the international forces that go into the production of automation technology lend themselves to integration into broader movements for justice at earlier stages in the production of automation technology. Movements for climate justice, struggles for indigenous self-determination, and labor organizing all pose a challenge to the capacity for the technology industry to continue building and centralizing the material resources to develop their automation products that are imposed upon the poor and marginalized.
But at the pointy end of deployment, I would argue that there will always, stubbornly, be a role to play for a more capacious idea of rights — including the right to appeal, the right to privacy, and concepts of individual human dignity. Such claims often come across as embarrassingly unambitious, as though they accept as a given the foundational problems of the automation revolution instead of embracing a more visionary idea of liberation. But while it might be unfashionable or conservative, talking about the regulation of automation from a rights-based perspective is both urgent to deal with the problems of the present and a foundational requirement for technological systems based on justice.”
“If we think there is a role to play for automated technologies — if we have answered ‘yes’ to Crawford’s why-question — and aspire for a world where productive work is minimized as a precondition of human liberation, then we have to accept that these technological systems must be built and maintained. To that end, it is worth remembering that the point of an algorithm is to discriminate. The point can never be to correct for this, but rather to ensure the discrimination is intentional. If the purpose of a system is what it does, we need to impart intention into our use of automated technologies by building in systems of rights for those who experience these systems in unintended ways. Automated technology will always encounter unprecedented situations and generate unintended consequences. The point is not to prevent the unpreventable, it is to ensure that these moments are opportunities for learning and feedback, rather than an offloading of liability. One of the most powerful tools we have to prevent the system working in unintended ways is to ensure that individuals will always have meaningful recourse when these problems arise.
Calls for accountability and transparency might sound technocratic and unambitious. But the right to an explanation of how an automated decision-making tool arrived at a particular outcome mitigates against the idea that such technology can be dismissed as magical rather than material. The right kind of regulation would require documentation, controlled experimentation, caution, and consideration. That is, to emphasize the ‘consciousness’ of the conscious linkages between machines that Marx imagined. Auditing and impact assessments are not just bureaucratic, legal demands at the fringes of the issue, they pose a challenge to the business model of proprietary automation in the present, and a foundation of more democratic technologies of the future. In a world in which governments and industry are taking all opportunities to process us as raw material and treat us as deidentified subjects defined by our metadata, there is a political potency in demanding people be treated with individual dignity and respect.
One way to imagine a more democratic vision of the automation revolution is therefore not as a world in which technological failures do not happen, but rather in which failure is collectively accounted for and learned from. A lot less fail fast, and a little more fail slow. A rejection of the ‘black box’ and an insistence on a box pried open.”
“The cost of alarmist talk is that it demands an emergency response, and this blinds us to the often slow and subtle changes to our infrastructure that could severely reduce risk over the long term,” Taylor Dotson, an associate professor of social science at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy, argues in Unsustainable Alarmism.
“Even if the extension of catastrophic rhetoric to longer-term and more complex problems is well-intentioned, it unavoidably implies that something is morally or mentally wrong with the people who fail to take heed. It makes those who are not already horrified, who do not treat the crisis as an undeniable, act-now-or-never calamity, harder to comprehend: What idiot wouldn’t do everything possible to avert catastrophe? This kind of thinking is why global challenges are no longer multifaceted dilemmas to negotiate together; they have become conflicts between those who recognize the self-evident truth and those who have taken flight from reality,” Dotson writes.
“The aim of strengthening the alarmist storyline has led many to exaggerate the likelihood of the most cataclysmic scenarios and defend outlandish solutions, like dismantling capitalism to cut emissions. Anti-capitalist narratives may help for expressing how to take climate change more seriously, but they also turn potential allies elsewhere on the political spectrum into implacable enemies. No wonder climate change is no longer a bipartisan concern. We hear a great deal about how corporations have sowed doubt about climate science and helped turn it into a wedge issue, but catastrophism, wedded to extreme solutionism, has also played a part in undermining the prospects for building coalitions.
When we look at long-lasting challenges as though they are impending cataclysms, we suffer a circumscribed political imagination that cannot see beyond the logic of individual sacrifice. We have seen this especially with climate change. Media portrayals have consistently reminded us that we have only so many years left to avoid a climate apocalypse, and that doing so will mean giving up on our standard of living. Climate change, thus understood, is a problem either solved through heroic personal sacrifices, or not at all.
Seeing personal virtue as a necessary condition for victory turns our shortcomings into moral failings. We shame others and ourselves about our individual carbon footprints. We make promises to have the courage of our climate convictions, resolving to forgo flying, meat consumption, or fossil-fuel vehicles, even though we invariably fall short. These promises appear to be little more than politically charged New Year’s resolutions. Why do we expect personal sacrifices we know we can’t make and then resort to shaming when we fail?
The lesson in all this is that while catastrophes often demand large personal sacrifices to overcome, the public’s capacity to sustain these sacrifices has hard limits, and we should not simply treat this as a moral failure. The temptation to do so may itself be an effect of prolonged catastrophic thinking — it has a way of downplaying the sacrifice it demands, while shaming those who, for understandable reasons, have reached their limit.”
Why we don’t act
In Why We Don’t Act, Jana Bacevic wonders why we fail to predict — and even more importantly, prevent — social and political crises?
What is key to understanding the failure of prediction to prevent events such as pandemics or climate change, is the notion that precautionary action rests not only on epistemic accuracy in our weighing of models and risks, but also on our affective, political, and ethical orientation to the future.
“In these cases, failure has less to do with imperfection or uncertainty of our knowledge and more with the failure to acknowledge how our present actions are directly contributing to bringing about, or at least making more likely, certain kinds of futures — and how our actions can, and must, be changed now, today,” Bacevic writes.
“The notion of strategic ignorance comes closer to capturing the relationship between not-knowing and not-doing: for instance, the tobacco industry’s denial of the link between smoking and cancer was meant to protect their profits. In other cases, not knowing serves to avoid being held accountable later. […]
Another reason we may prefer not to know — why we may prefer not to see obvious futures — is associated with the avoidance of choice. Existentialist philosophers linked it to the fear of freedom, the inevitable dizziness or lightness of being that follows when we become aware of the contingency of our lives — and our responsibility in shaping them. This anxiety-inducing awareness can be avoided in many ways, including the claim that we have no other option, that things cannot be changed. Of course, this existentialist emphasis on personal choice can easily seem misplaced — a neoliberal tool for shifting burdens onto individuals, rather than pursuing structural change — but existentialists were not in the slightest bit naïve.”
“Seen in this light, the failure to act with precaution, or the refusal to even engage in prediction, can be a way of avoiding responsibility for our actions. Like Buridan’s ass, suspended between different options we claim we are too uncertain to select from, we postpone a decision until one course of action seems inevitable. While this flight from responsibility can be observed in our personal lives, it is also especially convenient for governments, which can wield strategic ignorance to maintain the status quo, all while preserving a semblance of democratic legitimacy. [In a recent paper, Linsey McGoey and and Jana Bacevic call this sociopolitical formation fatalistic liberalism.]
Complex events, like wars or climate change, make this slippage of responsibility even easier, as it is always possible to shift between different actors as well as scales. Of course I, as an individual, cannot do anything to alter the course of climate change — it needs to be the fossil fuel companies. But of course we, the fossil fuel companies, cannot make a difference — it’s the automobile industry that needs to develop cars running on sustainable sources of energy. But it’s not us, pleads the automobile industry; it’s governments that need to provide subsidies for renewable R&D and infrastructure. But it’s not us, say the governments; it’s people who must support these interventions democratically. The burden of responsibility is reliably passed around until it simply dissipates into resignation to the status quo.
In a certain sense, none of these objections is entirely wrong: the more we know about mutual determination of human and non-human elements, the more difficult it can be to shift blame onto only one group of actors. But by the same token, it can also become more difficult to deny that we all need to act now. From this vantage, the most fundamental ethical question posed by prediction is not how we can better assess whether certain events will take place; it’s what we should do once it is clear they cannot be avoided.
I am not sure that humility is the best response to this question. On the contrary, what may well be required of us — whether in the face of deadly pathogens or world-destroying warming — is that we boldly and confidently fight for the futures we want to see.”
When to break a rule
“Philosophers have long insisted on the complexity of our moral lives,” Steven Nadler writes in When to break a rule.
“Determining, in quiet moments of armchair reflection, what is in principle right or wrong is difficult enough; knowing what one ought to do in the press of immediate circumstances is even harder. There are often many factors to consider, and doing one thing that seems to be (and maybe is) right can require that one neglect some other duty. Providing urgent help to a stranger you encounter might force you to break a promise to meet a dear friend who requires counsel. Antigone, in Sophocles’ tragedy, must choose between her personal and religious duty to bury her dead brother and her civic obligation to obey the leader Creon’s command that the traitor’s body should be left to the vultures. Her moral conflict is real. Circumstances might be such that we can’t possibly satisfy all of our duties, much less all of our desires. Sometimes, the best we can do is opt for the lesser of two evils.”
“Some philosophical traditions, troubled by such apparent complexity, aspired to reduce ethics to a single, ultimate principle, to the quasi-mechanical application of a rule that is supposed to provide a unique, unambiguous and morally correct answer in every situation. For utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–73), it is the principle of utility, or maximising happiness: you should always do the action whose anticipated outcome is a net increase in the wellbeing of all who are affected by the action. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) for whom consequences are morally irrelevant when determining the rightness of an action, insisted that the operative principle is the ‘categorical imperative’: you should always act in such a way that you, as a purely rational moral agent, regardless of your personal inclinations or preferences, could will the maxim of the action to become a universal law that commands all moral agents to act that way. In other words, can you reasonably envision that all people should be directed (or even allowed) to act in that way?
As many philosophers have noted, such simplicity and uniqueness of principle is neither desirable nor practical. Reductionism of this kind can easily lead to questionable, even objectionable consequences. The Kantian principle, for example, generates the absolute moral duty never to make a false promise or tell a lie, since no rational agent could possibly envision a universal law that allows people to make false promises or tell lies when it is convenient for them to do so. Such a law would render false promises and lies themselves impossible, since the trust required for these sorts of deceptions would be undermined. Kant, however, means his principle to apply even to situations where the outcome of telling the truth is morally abhorrent — for example, when Nazis in 1943 come to your door in Amsterdam demanding to know whether you’re hiding a Jewish family in your home.
No single rule can accommodate the variety and complexity of situations in which humans are required to act and the expectations they are called upon to meet. Sometimes, there are clear limits to utilitarian reasoning, strong moral reasons not to do the action, no matter how much happiness that action would generate. The enslavement of a minority population is, in principle, morally impermissible, regardless of how happy it would make the majority. On the other hand, sometimes there are good utilitarian reasons to violate what had seemed an absolute moral proscription. A lie that saves a life or even simply eases a friend’s suffering might be permissible. Sometimes, there is no available rule, and we have to rely on deep-seated moral intuitions, or even just feelings of love or kindness, for guidance. Moral agency cannot consist simply in the mechanical application of a universal principle.
Judgment, however, goes beyond knowing which rule, if any, might pertain to the situation. Deciding the right thing to do, which can include a willingness to bend the relevant rule or even a refusal to invoke it altogether, is a matter of using one’s own sense of justice and fairness.”
“Unlike [Jeff] Koons — with whom [Anish Kapoor] shares, if nothing else, a predilection for flawless, shiny surfaces that are devilishly complex to fabricate — Kapoor’s themes are unapologetically sober, even old-school: God, man, woman, birth, death. ‘I do believe we are deeply religious beings,’ Kapoor, who has practiced Zen Buddhist meditation for decades, told me. ‘The profound mystery of life — it’s banal to say it — is: ‘What happens when I die? Where was I before I was born?’ I think those are daft but actually bloody important questions.’ He ranges freely among religious, mythological, and intellectual traditions; his work invokes Christian, Jewish, and Hindu symbolism. Sigmund Freud is never very far away. Kapoor is impatient with what he sees as the restrictive ethic of identity politics — a framework that might deem problematic a male artist’s attempt to inhabit or represent the feminine, or that might question the expression of an artist whose subject matter appears to be at odds with his own heritage or lived experience. ‘I have a huge problem with it,’ he told me. ‘Black art can only be made by Black artists? Phooey. Phooey! The whole point of being an artist is this ability, or will, to project psychically into other ways of being, seeing, thinking. The banal political correctness of, if you like, the origin of the author? Oh, how tedious!’” — From Anish Kapoor’s Material Values, by Rebecca Mead (The New Yorker, August 15, 2022)