Random finds (2018, week 47) — On Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s trade-offs, the complicated legacy of Stewart Brand, and curiosity and the liability it has become
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 finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my fluid and boundless curiosity.
This week: The decline and fall of the Zuckerberg empire; the legacy of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog; being curious about curiosity; why the uninterrupted rain of news feels like chaos to Elena Ferrante; why the Enlightenment was not the age of reason; Martha Nussbaum; why time it doesn’t exist; a plea for teaching architectural history; the best building, according to RIBA; and Van Gogh’s promise of the south.
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s trade-offs
“Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the first person in human history to draw inspiration from Augustus Caesar, the founder of the Roman Empire, but he’s one of a very few for whom the lessons of Augustus’s reign have a concrete urgency. Both men, after all, built international empires before the age of 33,” Max Read writes in The Decline and Fall of the Zuckerberg Empire.
Recently, Zuckerberg told Evan Osnos, “You have all these good and bad and complex figures. I think Augustus is one of the most fascinating. Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace.” Whether there were any trade-offs in that, Zuckerberg said it “didn’t come for free, and he had to do certain things” to ensure the stability of his empire. So too, apparently, does Facebook, Max Read notes.
Osnos writes in The New Yorker, “The caricature of Zuckerberg is that of an automaton with little regard for the human dimensions of his work. The truth is something else: he decided long ago that no historical change is painless. Like Augustus, he is at peace with his trade-offs. Between speech and truth, he chose speech. Between speed and perfection, he chose speed. Between scale and safety, he chose scale. His life thus far has convinced him that he can solve ‘problem after problem after problem,’ no matter the howling from the public it may cause.”
Adding, “At a certain point, the habits of mind that served Zuckerberg well on his ascent will start to work against him. To avoid further crises, he will have to embrace the fact that he’s now a protector of the peace, not a disrupter of it. Facebook’s colossal power of persuasion has delivered fortune but also peril. Like it or not, Zuckerberg is a gatekeeper. The era when Facebook could learn by doing and fix the mistakes later is over. The costs are too high, and idealism is not a defense against negligence.”
“A 6,000-word report published in the New York Times last week disclosed in humiliating detail the lengths to which Facebook has gone to protect its dominance and attack its critics. As various interlocking crises concerning hate speech, misinformation, and data privacy widened, top executives ignored, and then kept secret, evidence that the platform had become a vector for misinformation campaigns by government-backed Russian trolls. The company mounted a shockingly aggressive lobbying and public-relations campaign, which included creating and circulating pro-Facebook blog posts that were functionally indistinguishable from the ‘coordinated inauthentic content’ (that is, fake news) Facebook had pledged to eliminate from its platform. In one particularly galling example, the company hired a political consultancy that spread a conspiracy theory accusing George Soros of funding anti-Facebook protests. Zuckerberg, it seems, had taken the ‘really harsh approach’ to establishing digital hegemony,” Read argues.
“It’s the public outrage that should be most worrying to Facebook. Other tech giants have managed to escape the opprobrium directed at Facebook because they have obviously useful services. Amazon delivers things to your house. Google helps you find things online. Apple sells actual objects. Facebook … helps you get into fights? Delivers your old classmates’ political opinions to your brain?”
Read ends his article for New York Magazine, saying, “Over the past year, I’ve spent time trying to wean myself off tech mega-platforms, generally with little success. Google’s search, for all my complaints, is still the best way for me to navigate the internet; Amazon is still so unbelievably convenient that the thought of quitting it exhausts me. But I logged out of Facebook more than a year ago and have logged back in fewer than a dozen times since. Checking Facebook had been a daily habit, but it also hadn’t improved my life or made itself necessary. Not many Roman plebes would have said that about the Pax Romana. Some empires fall because they’re invaded from the outside or rot from within. Zuckerberg’s could be the first in history to collapse simply because its citizens logged out.”
“In ancient Egypt there lived a wise king named Thamus. One day he was visited by a clever god called Theuth. Theuth was an inventor of many useful things: arithmetic and geometry; astronomy and dice. But his greatest discovery, so he believed, ‘was the use of letters.’ And it was this invention that Theuth was most eager to share with King Thamus. The art of writing, Theuth said, ‘will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.’ But Thamus rebuffed him. ‘O most ingenious Theuth,’ he said, ‘the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them.’ The king continued: ‘For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves.’ Written words, Thamus concluded, ‘give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things but will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.’”
Welcome to Facebook, Stephens writes.
According to him, “the deeper reason that technology so often disappoints and betrays us is that it promises to make easy things that, by their intrinsic nature, have to be hard. Tweeting and trolling are easy. Mastering the arts of conversation and measured debate is hard. Texting is easy. Writing a proper letter is hard. Looking stuff up on Google is easy. Knowing what to search for in the first place is hard. Having a thousand friends on Facebook is easy. Maintaining six or seven close adult friendships over the space of many years is hard. Swiping right on Tinder is easy. Finding love — and staying in it — is hard.
That’s what Socrates (or Thamus) means when he deprecates the written word: It gives us an out. It creates the illusion that we can remain informed, and connected, even as we are spared the burdens of attentiveness, presence of mind and memory. That may seem quaint today. But how many of our personal, professional or national problems might be solved if we desisted from depending on shortcuts?
To read The Times’s account of how Facebook dealt with its problems is to be struck by how desperately Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg sought to massage and finesse — with consultants, lobbyists and technological patches — what amounted to a daunting if simple crisis of trust. As with love and grammar, acquiring and maintaining trust is hard. There are no workarounds.
Start over, Facebook. Do the basics. Stop pretending that you’re about transforming the state of the world. Work harder to operate ethically, openly and responsibly. Accept that the work will take time. Log off Facebook for a weekend. Read an ancient book instead.”
The complicated legacy of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog
In last week’s Random finds, I wrote about Bonfire of the humanities, an essay by David Armitage and Jo Guldi about short-term thinking and how history has abdicate its role of inspiring the longer view.
One prominent opponent of short-termism is Stewart Brand, founder in the 1960s of the Whole Earth Catalog, Armitage and Guldi write. “Brand’s most imaginative solution to short-termism is to look further into the future.” But what he has missed, they say, is the need to look deeper into the past as well as further into the future.
Last week, The New Yorker published an article by Anna Wiener, entitled The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog”. According to Wiener, “the Whole Earth Catalog, which published quarterly through 1971 and sporadically thereafter, garnered a cult following that included founders of Airbnb and Stripe and also early employees of Facebook.”
“Certain elements of the Whole Earth Catalog haven’t aged particularly well: the pioneer rhetoric, the celebration of individualism, the disdain for government and social institutions, the elision of power structures, the hubris of youth. Recent criticism of Silicon Valley’s techno-libertarianism has pointed out that the Whole Earth Catalog helped develop that ideology.”
In a conversation over the phone with Wiener, Brand emphasized that he had little nostalgia for Whole Earth. He told her, “‘There’s pieces being written on the East Coast about how I’m to blame for everything,’ from sexism in the back-to-the-land communes to the monopolies of Google, Amazon, and Apple. ‘The people who are using my name as a source of good or ill things going on in cyberspace, most of them don’t know me at all,’ he said. ‘They’re just using a shorthand. You know, magical realism: Borges. You mention a few names so you don’t have to go down the whole list. It’s a cognitive shortcut.’”
“Brand is […] impressed by the new tech billionaires, and he described two startup founders as ‘unicorns’ who ‘deserve every penny.’ ‘One of the things I hear from the young innovators in the Bay Area these days is How do you stay creative?’ Brand said. ‘The new crowd has this, in some ways, much more interesting problem of how you be creative, and feel good about the world, and collaborate, and all that stuff, when you have wads of money.’ He is excited by their philanthropic efforts. ‘That never used to happen,’ he said. ‘Philanthropy was something you did when you were retired, and you were working on your legacy, so the money went to the college or opera.’”
But “As I sat on the couch in my apartment, overheating in the late-afternoon sun,” Wiener writes, “I felt a growing unease that [his] vision for the future, however soothing, was largely fantasy. For weeks, all I had been able to feel for the future was grief. I pictured woolly mammoths  roaming the charred landscape of Northern California and future archeologists discovering the remains of the ten-thousand-year clock in a swamp of nuclear waste. While antagonism between millennials and boomers is a Freudian trope, Brand’s generation will leave behind a frightening, if unintentional, inheritance. My generation, and those after us, are staring down a ravaged environment, eviscerated institutions, and the increasing erosion of democracy. In this context, the long-term view is as seductive as the apolitical, inward turn of the communards from the nineteen-sixties. What a luxury it is to be released from politics — to picture it all panning out.”
 The Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit focussed on “Fostering Long-Term Thinking,” runs the Revive & Restore project, which aims to make species like the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon “de-extinct.”
Curiosity and the liability it has become
Curiosity is a fundamental human trait. Everyone is curious, but the object and degree of that curiosity is different depending on the person and the situation. The author and astrophysicist Mario Livio was so curious about curiosity that he wrote a book about it, titled Why? What Makes Us Curious. In a conversation with Knowledge@Wharton, Livio explains what he learned in the course of writing.
“Curiosity has several kinds or flavors, and they are not driven by the same things. There is something that has been dubbed perceptual curiosity. That’s the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or when something doesn’t quite agree with what we know or think we know. That is felt as an unpleasant state, as an adversity state. It’s a bit like an itch that we need to scratch. That’s why we try to find out the information in order to relieve that type of curiosity,” Livio says.
“The other thing is that what the internet allows us to do is to satisfy what has been dubbed specific curiosity, namely you want to know a very particular detail. Who wrote this or that book? What was the name of the actor in that film? The digital age allows you to find the answer very quickly. That’s actually good because you don’t want to spend all your time trying to answer a question like that. I don’t know how you feel, but I sometimes can be really obsessed by not knowing the answer to something very, very simple like that.
In that sense, the digital age helps us because we can find that information, and that may drive us to look for something else about this. And that would drive perhaps epistemic curiosity, the love of knowledge and wanting to learn new things.”
Don Norman, the director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, is less positive about the possible influence of digital technology. In Why bad technology dominates our lives, he argues that our technology-centered view labels curiosity as a liability. It is renamed as distraction.
“Worse, many businesses have learned to exploit our curiosity. The continual bombardment of tantalizing tidbits of information deliberately designed to grab our attention away from other, potentially more valuable activities are distractions that can lead to accidents, injury, and interpersonal problems. What kind of business exploits curiosity for its own ends? Almost any business that discovers there are profits to be made by continually engaging people’s curiosity, hopes, and interests. For example gambling, computer games, social networks, and even television series that can go on and on, week after week, year after year, trapping their viewers into addiction.”
Norman believes we need to switch from this technology-centric view of the world to a people-centric one. “We should start with people’s abilities and create technology that enhances people’s capabilities: Why are we doing it backwards? We have turned the positive trait of curiosity into two negative ones. One is that of distraction, leading to accidents; the other is that of following the trails on enticement leading to addiction. We have our priorities completely wrong,” he writes.
In order to change, we first need to recognize the subtle biases that have led to this technologically dominated state. We subsequently need to reverse our priorities.
“We must change our mind-set from being technology-centric to become people-centric. Instead of starting with the technology and attempting to make it easy to understand and use, let us take human capabilities, and use the technology to expand our abilities. We need to return to one of the core properties of human-centered design: solve the fundamental issues in people’s lives.”
And also this …
“I don’t feel desperate to be informed about everything that happens in the world. As a girl, I merely glanced at the newspaper headlines and occasionally watched the TV news,” Elena Ferrante writes in ‘I used to devour news. Now, the uninterrupted rain of it feels like chaos’.
“But a growing interest in politics, which erupted when I was around 20, inspired me to amass information. It seemed to me that until then I’d lived in a state of distraction, and I was afraid I’d go through life without even being aware of the disasters, the horrors around me. I feared I would become a superficial person, unconsciously complicit. So I forced myself to read the newspapers, and then since that didn’t seem sufficient, moved on to books of contemporary history, sociology, philosophy. There was a period when, against my nature, I even stopped reading novels: it seemed like time stolen from the need to live in my own era with eyes wide open.
But I didn’t make great progress: I always felt as if I’d entered a theatre where the movie had already started and I was struggling to get oriented. Where was the good, where was the evil? Who was the just, who the unjust? Who was interpreting facts, and who twisting them to create propaganda?”
“This struggle isn’t over. In fact, it seems to me more difficult today than in the past to try to understand how the world is going, in order not to have to discover, in the end, that in our distraction we have been complicit with the dregs of the human race. The uninterrupted rain of news doesn’t help, books don’t help, the constantly new sociological terms that brilliantly simplify reality don’t help. Rather, I have the impression that today’s network of information, in both its print and digital manifestations, forces citizens into a sort of chaos, a condition in which the more informed you are, the more confused you are. For me, the problem is not, therefore, to stay well informed but to track within the mass of pointlessly amplified news that which will help me to distinguish, over time, the true and the false, the best and the worst: this is an extremely difficult task.
I’ve always had great admiration for those who, in the chaos that generally characterises the present, sensed from the start the enormous dangers of Nazi-fascism and courageously denounced it. But do we still have the capacity to be as far-seeing? Do the conditions exist today for the long view?
Sometimes I think I understand why we women increasingly read novels. Novels, when they work, use lies to tell the truth. The information marketplace, battling for an audience, tends, more and more, to transform intolerable truths into novelistic, riveting, enjoyable lies.”
“On either side of the Atlantic, groups of public intellectuals have issued a call to arms. The besieged citadel in need of defending, they say, is the one that safeguards science, facts and evidence-based policy. These white knights of progress — such as the psychologist Steven Pinker and the neuroscientist Sam Harris — condemn the apparent resurgence of passion, emotion and superstition in politics. The bedrock of modernity, they tell us, is the human capacity to curb disruptive forces with cool-headed reason. What we need is a reboot of the Enlightenment, now,” Henry Martyn Lloyd writes in Why the Enlightenment was not the age of reason.
“The passions — embodied affects, desires, appetites — were forerunners to the modern understanding of emotion. Since the ancient Stoics, philosophy has generally looked on the passions as threats to liberty: the weak are slaves to them; the strong assert their reason and will, and so remain free. The Enlightenment’s contribution was to add science to this picture of reason, and religious superstition to the notion of passionate enslavement.
However, to say that the Enlightenment was a movement of rationalism against passion, of science against superstition, of progressive politics against conservative tribalism is to be deeply mistaken. These claims don’t reflect the rich texture of the Enlightenment itself, which placed a remarkably high value on the role of sensibility, feeling and desire.”
Rather than holding that reason was the only means of battling error and ignorance, many French Enlightenment thinkers advocated “a polyvocal and playful version of rationality, one that was continuous with the particularities of sensation, imagination and embodiment.
Against the inwardness of speculative philosophy — René Descartes and his followers were often the target of choice — the philosophes turned outward, and brought to the fore the body as the point of passionate engagement with the world. You might even go so far as to say that the French Enlightenment tried to produce a philosophy without reason,” Lloyd writes.
“Generalising about intellectual movements is always a dangerous business. The Enlightenment did have distinct national characteristics, and even within a single nation it was not monolithic. […] Particularly in France, rationality was not opposed to sensibility but was predicated on and continuous with it. Romanticism was largely a continuation of Enlightenment themes, not a break or rupture from them.
If we are to heal the divides of the contemporary historical moment, we should give away the fiction that reason alone has ever held the day. The present warrants criticism, but it will do no good if it’s based on a myth about some glorious, dispassionate past that never was.”
When the American Philosophical Society asked Nicolas Berggruen whether there should be a Nobel Prize for philosophy?, the founder and chairman of the Berggruen Institute answered, “Yes, because philosophers and thinkers in general help to shine a light on what makes us human, who we are, who we can be, what our potential is, and how we progress.”
Subsequently asked who he might have awarded if such a a prize would have existed throughout history, Berggruen told APS, “There are so many. But, let’s take Socrates as an example. Socrates was not popular or very well known in his time, yet his ideas were important enough to wield great influence on humanity for millennia. It is my hope that the jury will someday award the prize to someone like him — someone with important, but little known ideas, so that the prize can help bring the deserved recognition.
The challenge is that philosophical ideas are more complicated to judge compared to other areas of study, such as science, where it’s easier–in some ways–to make a connection by looking at specific contributions to society’s advancement. In the world of ideas, I don’t think there’s one truth. We are not moving from one truth to a new truth. It’s much more dynamic and flexible because it’s really a vision of the world, humanity, humans, and how we relate to each other.”
The 2018 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture was recently awarded to Martha Nussbaum. In a statement, Nicolas Berggruen said he was delighted the jury has chosen to award a philosopher who opens windows to other disciplines for this enables us to better understand ourselves and our world. Adding, “Martha C. Nussbaum is rather heroic in the way that she transcends academia. She has taken her transformative and relatable work into public debates about the key questions of national and global political significance. By challenging us to look closely at the capability of humans, as well as our emotions, she has given us strategies for hope and connectivity.”
Martha Nussbaum, “Bold and unapologetic, the marathon-running, opera-loving public intellectual has weighed in on everything from aging to the nature of evil. Her goal? To make philosophy useful in our day-to-day lives,” Marilyn Cooper writes in Martha Nussbaum: The Philosopher Queen.
When asked how philosophers can influence the world today, Nussbaum says, “I don’t like telling other people what to do. But I think it’s good if at least some philosophers try to engage the general public. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer places where a philosopher can write for the general public. Newspapers don’t often publish opinion pieces by philosophers. So those of us who are lucky enough to get published in this adverse climate had better do so!”
Nussbaum also explains why we need a society of citizens who admit they are needy and vulnerable. Fear is intensely narcissistic, she tells Cooper. “When you feel your life threatened, your attention shrinks to your own body. You are once again a baby crying for what you can’t get. Babies are not good democratic citizens: In their fear, they operate by making other people their slaves. They are also utterly dependent on others, incapable of agency or reciprocity,” Nussbaum says. “As that baby develops, it becomes able to do more for itself and does not get its way by making slaves of others. At that point, it can recognize that the other people in its world also have needs and feelings, and begin to form relationships based on interdependence and mutual aid rather than just commanding and obeying. That’s what democracy needs: people who admit that they are all equally human, needy and vulnerable, and who then form a coalition of reciprocity and mutual aid.”
Time feels real to people. But it doesn’t even exist, according to quantum physics. “There is no time variable in the fundamental equations that describe the world,” says theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, whose new book, The Order of Time, is about our experience of time’s passage as humans, and the fact of its absence at minuscule and vast scales. “He makes a compelling argument that chronology and continuity are just a story we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence,” Ephrat Livni writes in This physicist’s ideas of time will blow your mind.
“Time, Rovelli contends, is merely a perspective, rather than a universal truth. It’s a point of view that humans share as a result of our biology and evolution, our place on Earth, and the planet’s place in the universe,” Livni writes.
“‘From our perspective, the perspective of creatures who make up a small part of the world — we see that world flowing in time,’ the physicist writes. At the quantum level, however, durations are so short that they can’t be divided and there is no such thing as time. In fact, Rovelli explains, there are actually no things at all. Instead, the universe is made up of countless events. Even what might seem like a thing — a stone, say — is really an event taking place at a rate we can’t register. The stone is in a continual state of transformation, and on a long enough timeline, even it is fleeting, destined to take on some other form.”
“Though physics gives us insights into the mystery of time, ultimately, the scientist argues, that too is unsatisfactory to us as humans. The simple feeling we have that time passes by, or flows — borne of a fluke, naiveté, and limitations — is precisely what time is for us.
Rovelli argues that what we experience as time’s passage is a mental process happening in the space between memory and anticipation. ‘Time is the form in which we beings whose brains are made up essentially of memory and foresight interact with our world: it is the source of our identity,’ he writes.
Basically, he believes, time is a story we’re always telling ourselves in the present tense, individually and together. It’s a collective act of introspection and narrative, record-keeping and expectation, that’s based on our relationship to prior events and the sense that happenings are impending. It is this tale that gives us our sense of self as well, a feeling that many neuroscientists, mystics, and the physicist argue is a mass delusion.
Without a record — or memory — and expectations of continuation, we would not experience time’s passage or even know who we are, Rovelli contends. Time, then, is an emotional and psychological experience. ‘It’s loosely connected with external reality,’ he says, ‘but it is mostly something that happens now in our head.’”
Further reading: The Mystery of Time, New Philosopher (issue #22: time).
In We Can’t Go on Teaching the Same History of Architecture as Before, the writer and historian Mario Carpo, a professor of Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett, UCL, London, makes a plea for architectural history, albeit one more sensitive.
“[O]nce the Western architectural canon has been thrown overboard, together with its now unpalatable ideological ballast,” Carpo writes, “nobody seems to know what else should replace it. Some have tried to expand the canon, which is an excellent and promising but challenging plan. More worryingly, many are simply doing away with all architectural history altogether […].
Let us be aware […] that in many schools of architecture in Europe and in the Americas, including some of the best, we are now — for the first time ever — training a generation of architects who may graduate without having ever even heard the names of Michelangelo or Le Corbusier, or without having ever seen a Gothic cathedral or a building by Mies van der Rohe. Are we sure that this is what we want? Is this good for design, and for the design professions?”
“I have a feeling it isn’t. One reason for that seems banally evident: the history of architecture is an inventory of solutions already found and problems already solved. So it grieves me very much to see so many students today waste so much time reinventing the wheel at every turn, due to their sheer ignorance of precedent. Besides, the classical tradition developed so many strategies and methods and tricks and tools over time precisely to assess those precedents, when relevant; then filter them, reinterpret them, and adapt them to the problem at hand. That used to be called imitation. For centuries, imitation and creation were seen as inseparable: neither could exist without the other. Today, nobody knows what imitation means; so even when we happen to stumble upon some precedent worthy of our attention, most of the time we do not know what do with it, other than a photocopy (or a Photoshopped collage). Quatremère de Quincy knew nothing of photography, nor of Photoshop; yet his theory of imitation would still help us to make sense of both.
For at the end of the day that is the whole point. It doesn’t matter that some history is good, and some ain’t. What matters is that the global history of architecture is an almost unlimited repository of precedents, which we can plunder at will if we have some notion of what’s out there. But that is only the start. History never repeats itself identically, so identical copies as a rule won’t serve any practical purpose. Ignorance of precedent is bad enough; photocopying, the zero degree of historicism, is possibly even worse. Cut and paste is a very dumb way of learning from precedent.”
The Children Village, designed by young architects Aleph Zero with designer Marcelo Rosenbaum, was named this year’s winner of the RIBA international prize for the best building in the world. “It is an unlikely accolade to find bestowed on a remote school in a far-flung part of Brazil, designed by a duo in their early 30s who had built little more than a couple of private houses and a few installations before landing this commission,” Oliver Wainwright writes in The Guardian.
The project began with an intensive 10-day residency on site during which the architects met with some of the 540 teenagers they would be designing for. To understand how they wanted to live together, the architects developed games and workshops. “The main aim of the design was to make a place that feels like a home from home for the kids,” says Gustavo Utrabo, who co-founded Aleph Zero.
According to RIBA President Ben Derbyshire, “Children Village provides an exceptional environment designed to improve the lives and wellbeing of the school’s children. It illustrates the immeasurable value of good educational design.”
“Patches of flowers take on an amazing brilliance, and in the limpid air there’s something happier and more suggestive of love than in the north.” — Vincent van Gogh in Letter 657 to his brother, Theo