Random finds (2018, week 24) — On Silicon Valley’s tech humanism, Anthony Bourdain’s genuine humanism, and our need for ‘ren’
“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.
Tech humanism and “realigning technology with humanity’s best interest”
“The old techno-utopianism is crumbling. What will replace it? Silicon Valley says it wants to make the world a better place. Fulfilling this promise may require a new kind of disruption,” Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel write in Why Silicon Valley can’t fix itself (or, alternatively, listen to the podcast version).
“Ever since the internet became widely used by the public in the 1990s, users have heard warnings that it is bad for us,” Tarnoff and Weigel write. “Still, inside the industry, techno-utopianism prevailed. Silicon Valley seemed to assume that the tools they were building were always forces for good — and that anyone who questioned them was a crank or a luddite. In the face of an anti-tech backlash that has surged since the 2016 election, however, this faith appears to be faltering. Prominent people in the industry are beginning to acknowledge that their products may have harmful effects. […] You could call them the ‘tech humanists.’ Amid rising public concern about the power of the industry, they argue that the primary problem with its products is that they threaten our health and our humanity.”
“The hub of the new tech humanism is the Center for Humane Technology in San Francisco. Founded earlier this year, the nonprofit has assembled an impressive roster of advisers, including investor Roger McNamee, Lyft president John Zimmer, and [Justin] Rosenstein [an engineer who helped build Facebook’s ‘like’ button and Gchat]. But its most prominent spokesman is executive director Tristan Harris, a former ‘design ethicist’ at Google who has been hailed by the Atlantic magazine as ‘the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.’ Harris has spent years trying to persuade the industry of the dangers of tech addiction. In February, Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of eBay, launched a related initiative: the Tech and Society Solutions Lab, which aims to ‘maximise the tech industry’s contributions to a healthy society.’
This new concern for ‘wellbeing’ may strike some observers as a welcome development. After years of ignoring their critics, industry leaders are finally acknowledging that problems exist. Tech humanists deserve credit for drawing attention to one of those problems — the manipulative design decisions made by Silicon Valley.
But these decisions are only symptoms of a larger issue: the fact that the digital infrastructures that increasingly shape our personal, social and civic lives are owned and controlled by a few billionaires. Because it ignores the question of power, the tech-humanist diagnosis is incomplete — and could even help the industry evade meaningful reform. Taken up by leaders such as Zuckerberg, tech humanism is likely to result in only superficial changes. These changes may soothe some of the popular anger directed towards the tech industry, but they will not address the origin of that anger. If anything, they will make Silicon Valley even more powerful.”
“There is a good reason why the language of tech humanism is penetrating the upper echelons of the tech industry so easily: this language is not foreign to Silicon Valley. On the contrary, ‘humanising’ technology has long been its central ambition and the source of its power. It was precisely by developing a ‘humanised’ form of computing that entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs brought computing into millions of users’ everyday lives. […]
Building those ‘tools for human use’ turned out to be great for business. The impulse to humanise computing enabled Silicon Valley to enter every crevice of our lives. […]
In short, the effort to humanise computing produced the very situation that the tech humanists now consider dehumanising: a wilderness of screens where digital devices chase every last instant of our attention. To guide us out of that wilderness, tech humanists say we need more humanising. They believe we can use better design to make technology serve human nature rather than exploit and corrupt it. But this idea is drawn from the same tradition that created the world that tech humanists believe is distracting and damaging us.”
“Tech humanists say they want to align humanity and technology. But this project is based on a deep misunderstanding of the relationship between humanity and technology: namely, the fantasy that these two entities could ever exist in separation.” But humanity and technology are not just entangled, they constantly change together. “Recent research suggests that the human hand evolved to manipulate the stone tools that our ancestors used. The evolutionary scientist Mary Marzke shows that we developed ‘a unique pattern of muscle architecture and joint surface form and functions’ for this purpose.”
This implies that the nature of human nature is that it changes and therefore, can’t serve as a stable basis for evaluating the impact of technology. “Yet the assumption that it doesn’t change serves a useful purpose. Treating human nature as something static, pure and essential elevates the speaker into a position of power. Claiming to tell us who we are, they tell us how we should be,” Tarnoff and Weigel write. “Intentionally or not, this is what tech humanists are doing when they talk about technology as threatening human nature — as if human nature had stayed the same from the paleolithic era until the rollout of the iPhone.
Holding humanity and technology separate clears the way for a small group of humans to determine the proper alignment between them. And while the tech humanists may believe they are acting in the common good, they themselves acknowledge they are doing so from above, as elites.” Take Tristan Harris who declared, ‘We have a moral responsibility to steer people’s thoughts ethically.’” And this is the central irony of tech humanism, Tarnoff and Weigel write. “The language they use to describe users is often dehumanising.”
“Tech humanism fails to address the root cause of the tech backlash: the fact that a small handful of corporations own our digital lives and strip-mine them for profit. This is a fundamentally political and collective issue. But by framing the problem in terms of health and humanity, and the solution in terms of design, the tech humanists personalise and depoliticise it,” the authors write.
“There is no reason to doubt the good intentions of tech humanists, who may genuinely want to address the problems fuelling the tech backlash. But they are handing the firms that caused those problems a valuable weapon. Far from challenging Silicon Valley, tech humanism offers Silicon Valley a useful way to pacify public concerns without surrendering any of its enormous wealth and power. By channelling popular anger at Big Tech into concerns about health and humanity, tech humanism gives corporate giants such as Facebook a way to avoid real democratic control. In a moment of danger, it may even help them protect their profits.”
Anthony Bourdain, the man who gave you a real sense of place
“Anthony Bourdain — the chef turned author, food anthropologist, and television star — died [last] week, at sixty-one. Bourdain made his début in The New Yorker in 1999, with an essay called Don’t Eat Before Reading This, about working in the restaurant industry. It was an account of what really goes on in restaurants — extremely vivid, funny, gross, and, in parts, genuinely disturbing. After the success of that article, Bourdain went on to publish his best-selling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, and it’s no exaggeration to say that a star was born. When he took to television, it wasn’t for a typical celebrity-chef ‘stand and stir’ show, but for a much more ambitious endeavor. On Parts Unknown, Bourdain travelled the world with a film crew, in search of authenticity. It was never just about the food: his focus was on the people who make it and the people who eat it — from the farmers to the cooks to the diners, including President Obama, who Bourdain shared a meal with in Vietnam,” The New Yorker writes.
If you follow this link you can listed to a lovely tribute and interview by David Remnick for The New Yorker Radio Hour in 2017. Please, do listen…
“He was a special person and gave you a real sense of place,” Remnick tells. “In an era of celebrity chefs, Anthony Bourdain was after something completely different. It was never just about the food, certainly not fancy food. It was about the people who make the food; the people who eat it. Being all over the world; giving us a picture of that … the farmers, the chefs and one time even in Vietnam the President of the United States.”
Much has been written about Bourdain but, to me, Patrick Radden Keefe’s profile in The New Yorker (January 2017), Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast, is still one of the best articles about “the swaggering chef [who] has become a travelling statesman.”
“It is somewhat ironic that Bourdain has emerged as an ambassador for the culinary profession, given that, by his own admission, he was never an inspired chef,” Radden Keefe wrote. “Alan Richman, the restaurant critic at GQ, who is a champion of white-tablecloth haute cuisine, told me that Les Halles ‘was not a particularly good restaurant when he was cooking there, and it got worse when he stopped.’ This seemed a little unfair: I frequented Les Halles before it closed, in 2016, and until the end it was rowdy and reliable, with a good frisée salad and a sturdy cassoulet. But it was never a standout restaurant. Bourdain used to genuflect like a fanboy before innovative chefs such as Éric Ripert, of Le Bernardin. On page 5 of Kitchen Confidential, he joked that Ripert, whom he had never met, won’t be calling me for ideas on today’s fish special.’ After the book came out, Bourdain was in the kitchen at Les Halles one day, when he got a phone call. It was Ripert, inviting him to lunch. Today, they are best friends, and Ripert often plays the straight man to Bourdain on Parts Unknown. A recent episode in Chengdu, China, consisted largely of shots of a flushed and sweaty Ripert being subjected to one lethally spicy dish after another while Bourdain discoursed on the ‘mouth-numbing’ properties of Sichuan pepper and took jocular satisfaction in his friend’s discomfort.”
It was Ripert who found Bourdain in his hotel room.
According to Richard Florida, the co-founder and editor at large of CityLab, “The work of the acclaimed chef and writer, who has died at 61, provides a model for a truly inclusive urbanism based on the creativity of all human beings.”
Anthony Bourdain was one of the two people who have most inspired his work on cities and urbanism, Florida writes in Urbanists Could Learn a Lot From Anthony Bourdain. “Where Jane Jacobs helped define my intellectual agenda, it was Bourdain […] who motivated me to spread the message of cities and urbanism broadly.”
Adding, “Bourdain used food as his lens to explore and unveil the intersection of human creativity, authenticity, and community. In his travels around the world and in the forgotten corners of his own country, he captured the creativity of real people in real communities. His favorite setting, aside from family dining rooms, seemed to be busy outdoor markets. There he could be found sampling street foods, illuminating the essential humanity — the smells and tastes, the honks and shouts — of the marketplace and community.”
Bourdain’s “cosmopolitanism was the opposite of elitism,” says Florida.
In How Lebanon Transformed Anthony Bourdain, Kim Ghattas writes about Bourdain’s empathy:
“I don’t know why Bourdain decided to end his life. But I know he understood places and people intuitively. He grasped their pain, their intensity, and their humanity, in the way that only someone with great empathy could – the kind of empathy that comes with raw vulnerability and deep creativity, the kind that can bring with it inner demons.
In this age of dislocation and isolation, walls and travel bans, the world needs more Anthony Bourdains. Tragically, now it has none.”
Finally, Bourdain himself, from his 1999 essay in The New Yorker, Don’t Eat Before Reading This:
“People who order their meat well-done perform a valuable service for those of us in the business who are cost-conscious: they pay for the privilege of eating our garbage. In many kitchens, there’s a time-honored practice called ‘save for well-done.’ When one of the cooks finds a particularly unlovely piece of steak – tough, riddled with nerve and connective tissue, off the hip end of the loin, and maybe a little stinky from age – he’ll dangle it in the air and say, ‘Hey, Chef, whaddya want me to do with this?’ Now, the chef has three options. He can tell the cook to throw the offending item into the trash, but that means a total loss, and in the restaurant business every item of cut, fabricated, or prepared food should earn at least three times the amount it originally cost if the chef is to make his correct food-cost percentage. Or he can decide to serve that steak to ‘the family’ – that is, the floor staff – though that, economically, is the same as throwing it out. But no. What he’s going to do is repeat the mantra of cost-conscious chefs everywhere: ‘Save for well-done.’ The way he figures it, the philistine who orders his food well-done is not likely to notice the difference between food and flotsam.”
Confucius and the need for ‘ren’
British historian Bettany Hughes has made a beautiful three-part television series for the BBC in which she explores the lives and minds of three great philosophers from the ancient world: Socrates, Confucius, and the Buddha.
These three giants of ancient philosophy all lived between the 6th and 5th century BC, during a period of unprecedented intellectual development. Those 100 years changed the way we see ourselves forever. Both Confucius and Socrates eschewed their societies’ focus on ritual and devotion in favour of flexible, personal codes of ethics which stressed personal responsibility, compassion, and simple human kindness above all else. At roughly the same time, the Buddha’s innovation was to take existing religious ideas of karma and democratise them. This had the immediate benefit of lifting restrictions on interactions with those of different ‘castes,’ and replaced concern with pleasing the gods with a greater emphasis on reciprocal human kindness.
In the third and final episode, Bettany sits down with Tu Weiming, the Chair Professor of Humanities and Founding Director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University, and discusses ‘ren’ — a concept that occupies a central place in the Confucian philosophy.
[BH] “Ren is a very splendid word idea, but what does it actually mean. What quality does it imply?”
[TM] Well, many people tried to translate it differently. It has been translated as human heartedness, as good or goodness. But we prefer now to use the word humanity, because virtually all Confucian values are linked to this notion. Courage with ren, then it’s real courage rather than just simply bravery. Justice with ren, then it’s a humane justice rather than just harsh punishment. Wisdom with ren, then it’s being wise not just being smart.”
[BH] “And is this something that you achieve or is looking for ren a constant quest?”
[TM] “Every person, by definition of ‘being a person,’ embodies ren. In other words, every human being is capable of sympathetic response to the external world. But at the same time, to realise ren fully, which means human flourishing in the most comprehensive sense of the term, that requires learning. And learning of course, is not simply the acquisition of knowledge or internalisation of skills, but basically learning to build one’s character. And in that sense, it’s like the highest ideal. At the same time, it’s a minimum requirement to be human.”
[BH] “Do you think that Confucius felt that he had achieved ren?”
[TM] “No. And the interesting things is that many students or followers of Confucius also said no. Ren requires continuous process of struggling. Even to the end of your life, this is still a task incomplete. So, no matter what, the struggle to be fully human continues.”
At the end of the episode, Hughes asks Tu Weiming whether he believes these 25 century old ideas still have as much relevance to our world as they did in ancient China. “If I want to exaggerate, probably even more so,” Tu Weiming answers. “[Socrates, Buddha and Confucius] were confronted with a world in disintegration. Little rationality. Little compassion.” Today, the situation is even much more serious. We have in our power the destruction of all civilisations, including the planet itself. “A change has to be made,” he argues. “Not just some change of a political system or economic system — these are absolutely necessary — but a change of mind-set. And the retrieval of the wisdom of Socrates, of Buddha and Confucius is not a question of relevance. In the end, it’s a question of human survival.”
Maybe we should ‘forget’ about Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and pick up a copy of The Analects of Confucius. After all, the 21st century needs more humanity — more ‘ren’ — and far less of Sun Tzu’s philosophy of war.
And also this …
“Great places have soul,” writes John Atkinson. “They aren’t simply about great architecture, great infrastructure or great locations. There is a life to great places, a vibrancy built on the relationship between the people who live, work and grow there and the place itself. Great leadership recognises this.
It understands the importance of ‘purpose’, a sense of what we are about and what binds us in common. Leadership finds the articulation of this purpose, not through the abstract thought of a great individual but by connecting with the stories people tell about the place and their lives in it.
The expression of these stories makes places come alive. A shared belief in who we are, what we stand for and why we are here connects into people’s energy and opens the way for us to do great things together. Great places are not ‘made’ by good administration, they are served by it.
Some places have a feel for how to do this, they make wise decisions together, feeling when to be bold and how to be true custodians of their predecessors aspirations. Many places have lost connection with this vibe. Rapid growth, steady decline and social change can leave places needing to attend to themselves to find afresh their connection and soul and thus the activities that nourish them.
This means reconnecting with each other, experimenting with what might work and uncovering some of the invisible dynamics that hold us in unproductive patterns and relationships. When we do this we unleash the creative potential in places that allows people to live meaningful lives. We reconnect places with their soul.”
“We tend to think of ‘humility’ as if it means putting yourself down,” Melissa Dahl writes in You’re simply not that big a deal: now isn’t that a relief? For example, a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology defines humility in a manager as “being open to admitting one’s limitations, shortcomings and mistakes’. To be humble, in these researchers’ view, is to focus on your flaws.
“But modern scholars who study humility see it differently. Humble people don’t focus on their flaws — not exactly, anyway. It’s more that humble people don’t focus on themselves very much at all. ‘This is not to say that a humble person fails to care about her own welfare or pursue her own interests — it is simply that she sees these as being deeply intertwined with the welfare and interests of others,’ write the authors of a 2017 paper in The Journal of Positive Psychology. You are important, and you are worthy of love, just like we millennials were taught in school — but that’s true only because everyone is important, and everyone is worthy of love. You matter because everyone else matters. It reminds me again of the way in which Neff defines what she would call self-compassion, and I would call self-indifference: ‘recognising that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience’. Maybe the most compassionate attitude you can take toward yourself is to stop obsessing over yourself,” Dahl writes.
“This is the great relief of self-indifference, especially for those of us raised in the self-esteem movement. The truth is that you aren’t that big of a deal. And isn’t that great?”
“There are many strange things about music and time. When I’m on a tour with the dance company we work in a different-sized theater every night. The first thing the dance company does when we arrive is to measure the stage. They have to reset the dance to fit that stage. So you also have to reset the time of the music: In a larger theater, you must play slower. In a smaller theater, you have to play faster. The relation of time and space in music is dynamic. I have a range of speed in mind. If the players don’t pay attention to that, it will look really funny. You can see the stage fill up with dancers because they are playing at the wrong speed,” the composer and musician Philip Glass explains in a conversation with painter Fredericka Foster for Nautilus, The Smaller the Theater, the Faster the Music.
“I understand that variability,” Fredericka Foster says. “I usually paint water. Watching water move is a time-honored way of moving into the present moment. My goal is to feel the water move in the painting, but water has rules, and I have to pay attention to motion in establishing the composition. Water is defined by time: the length of time it takes for a wave to pass a set point. At around a second, you have a ripple; over 10 seconds, a swell, and in between a wave. Once I get the composition down, I can begin to pay attention to the rhythm of the painting. I put on music (for example, your Satyagraha) and enter into a dance with the painting, changing the composition to exaggerate the rhythm. Time disappears. I become a verb, seeing, painting. That time cannot be measured. With this kind of focused attention, time has no boundaries. That’s the kind of time you find in love, in creativity, in the life of the spirit, the kind of time I live for.”
“Some of the ways we think of time make no sense, measuring our lives as we age by ‘the amount of time we have left.’ We have never known that. You have to stay grounded in the moment. And yet as artists, we can see culture giving us connection with people over thousands of years. When I see a handprint from the Southwest that an artist placed there when the rock was still clay, it is as though I am getting a hello from the past,” Fredericka Foster tells.
“So when we talk about timelessness, what are we talking about? “Are we saying we have no way of measuring time? Are we measuring the shadow of time?,” Philip Glass wonders. “ The shadow of a person is certainly not the person. It’s challenging to come up with a coherent picture of time when you start looking at it in all these different ways. We have different ways to stop time: We can stop time through a meditative process; through a leaving-the-body process; or considering light as it travels through a trillion uncountable years. But to us, time is absolutely real. It can be confusing. Like when you’re a musician playing with a dance company.”
Swiss technology brand Punkt’s Urban Mobility project has collaborated with students from three top design schools, London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), Lausanne’s École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ÉCAL) and Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE), to create electric bikes in response to the specific needs of their cities. The students were challenged to create vehicles that would make cycling both more appealing and more accessible, depending on the different challenges of each place.
“The RCA team aimed their electric bike at London’s growing number of co-working spaces, creating a product that offices could lend out to workers. To help discourage would-be thieves, the saddle hides a battery that needs to be detached and brought in for recharging. A built-in navigation system helps point riders in the right direction, and a front-mounted tray offers plenty of room for bags,” Emma Tucker writes for Dezeen.
“Students from ÉCAL took a slightly different approach, adapting their bike for the city’s steep hills. Its motor collects energy from downhill journeys, and stores it for the more challenging upward climbs.
DAE’s bike is aimed at the Dutch tendency to ride two to a bike, with a longer bench-style seat that lets a pair sit comfortably together. Footrests offer some extra support, and a side-stand is on hand to turn the cycle into what the students call ‘instant street furniture.’”
Luckily not all Brutalist buildings are being demolished even though Preston’s bus station, which was designed in the 1960s by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of architecture firm Building Design Partnership (BDP), was destined for demolition in 2013. But a successful campaign to save the iconic building earned it a reprieve.
“John Puttick Associates has completed the renovation of the Grade II-listed Brutalist bus station in Preston, in the north of England,” India Block writes for Dezeen. “Original elements, including rubber floors by Italian tire brand Pirelli and Iroko hardwood benches, have been lovingly restored, and the layout reworked by the architects into a space that has been modernised to prioritise pedestrian access.”
“It was an amazing thing for us really, to win such an important public project so early on in the life of the practice,” architect and founder John Puttick told Dezeen. “It’s been a privilege to work on.”
“The advent of guilt-ridden environmental consciousness rightly limits architects’ options now, and must do for the foreseeable future. Brutalism will never happen again. Our stock of Brutalism is limited, and sadly under constant attack. The demolition and ‘refurbishment’ of great buildings by Rudolph, I M Pei, Denys Lasdun and other giants of the movement should be taken as seriously as would the loss of buildings by Donato Bramante, Christopher Wren or Frank Lloyd Wright. Brutalism deserves far better than the wrecker’s ball: it was the pinnacle of world architecture through all of history.” — Barnabas Calder, a senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Liverpool and the author of Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (2016), in The concrete buildings of Brutalism are beautiful