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June 30, 2015

Greek crisis: Five explainers

Here are five posts explaining the Greek economic crisis clearly enough even for me, which is an accomplishment. They were gathered by Peter Kaminski [twitter:peterkaminski] whose Net-fu is unmatched.

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June 27, 2015

Does the moral universe arc?

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”

Does it?

That saying was of course made famous by Martin Luther King who put it between quotation marks to indicate that it was not original with him. Had King’s own arc not been stopped short by a white racist with a gun, it might have been MLK, at the age of 86, who addressed us on Friday in Charlestown. As it is, our President did him proud.

The always awesome Quote Investigator tells us that the quotation in fact came from Theodore Parker in 1857; Parker was a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and abolitionist. The entire sermon (“Of Justice and the Conscience,” pp. 66-102) is worth reading, but here’s the relevant snippet:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

The sermon points out that the wicked often suffer in ways that the outside world can’t perceive. But Parker is realistic enough to recognize that “we do not see that justice is always done on earth,” (p. 89) and he proceeds to remind his congregation of some of the overwhelming evils present in the world, including: “Three million slaves earn the enjoyment of Americans, who curse them in the name of Christ.” (p. 90) Neither does Parker let us rest in the comfortable thought that justice reigns in the next world. We need a “conscious development of the moral element in man, and a corresponding expansion of justice in human affairs…” (p. 90).

But, is Parker right? Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, or towards injustice, or toward neither, or toward entropy? Why shouldn’t we think we construct that arc out of our wishes and happy thoughts?


Parker’s support for his claim is not what sight shows him but what is visible to his conscience. But what did conscience mean to him?

In 1850 Parker delivered a sermon called “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws.” He begins by explaining the term: “It is the function of conscience to discover to men the moral law of God.” He puts it on a level with our other faculties, part of the reaction against the reduction of consciousness to what comes through our sense organs. Transcendentalists were influenced by Kant who argued that sense perception wouldn’t add up to experience if we didn’t come into the world with a pre-existing ability to organize perceptions in time, space, causality, etc. In addition, affirms Parker, we have a faculty — conscience — that lets us understand things in terms of their moral qualities. That faculty is as fallible as the others, but it is “adequate to the purpose God meant for it”; otherwise God would have failed to outfit us adequately for the task He has set us, which would be on Him.

For Parker, conscience (knowledge of what is right) is at least as important as intellect (knowledge of the world). In “Of Justice and Conscience,” he bemoans that “We have statistical societies for interest” but “no moral societies for justice.” (p. 92) “There is no college for conscience.” (p. 93). (Statistics as a concept and a field had entered British culture at the beginning of the 19th century. By the 1850s it had become a dominant way of evaluating legislative remedies there. See Too Big to Know for a discussion of this. Yeah, I just product placed my own book.)

The faculty of justice (conscience) is at least as important as the faculty of intellect, for conscience drives action. In “The Function and Place of Conscience,” he writes:

Nothing can absolve me from this duty, neither the fact that it is uncomfortable or unpopular, nor that is conflicts with my desires, my passions, my immediate interests, and my plans in life. Such is the place of conscience amongst other faculties of my nature

Indeed, the heart of this sermon is the injunction to rise to the demands inherent in our being children of God, and to reject any conflicting demands by government, business, or society.

Much of this sermon could be quoted by those who refuse as businesspeople or government employees to serve same-sex couples, although Parker is talking about returning fugitive slaves to their owners, not decorating cakes:

This statute [the Fugutive Slave Act] is not to be laid to the charge of the slaveholders of the South alone; its most effective supporters are northern men; Boston is more to be blamed for it than Charleston or Savannah, for nearly a thousand persons of this city and neighborhood, most of them men of influence through money if by no other means, addressed a letter of thanks to the distinguished man who had volunteered to support that infamous bill telling him that he had “convinced the understanding and touched the conscience of the nation.”

That “distinguished man” was, shockingly, Daniel Webster. Webster had been an eloquent and fierce abolitionist. But in 1850, he argued just as fiercely in support of the Fugitive Slave Act in order to preserve the union. Parker wrote an impassioned account of this in his 1853 Life of Daniel Webster.

Parker’s sermon exhorts his congregants, in a passage well worth reading, to resist the law. “[I]t is the natural duty of citizens to rescue every fugitive slave from the hands of the marshal who essays to return him to bondage; to do it peaceably if they can, forcibly if they must, but by all means to do it.”

So, conscience trumps the other faculties by bringing us to act on behalf of justice. But the moral law that conscience lets us perceive is different from the laws of nature. Parker writes in “Of Justice” that there is no gap between the natural laws and their fulfillment. This is so much the case that we learn those laws by observing nature’s regularities. But the moral law “unlike attraction [i.e., gravity] … does not work free from all hindrance.” (p. 69). The moral law requires fulfillment by humans. We are imperfect, so there is a gap between the moral law and the realm over which it rules.

Parker continues: Even if we could learn the law of right through observation and experience — just as we learn the laws of nature — those laws would feel arbitrary. In any case, because history is still unfolding, we can’t learn our moral lessons from it, for our justice has not yet been actualized in history. (p. 73) Man has “an ideal of nature which shames his actual of history.” (p. 73) So, “God has given us a moral faculty, the conscience…” (p. 72) to see what we have yet not made real.

Intellect is not enough. Only conscience can see the universe’s incomplete moral arc.


So, does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?

Our intellect sets off warning flares. History is too complex to have a shape. The shape we perceive of course looks like progress because we always think that what we think is the right thing to think, so we think we’re thinking better than did those who came before us. And, my intellect says quite correctly, yeah, sure you’d think that, Mr. Privileged White Guy.

At the moment of despair — when even in Boston citizens are signing letters in favor of returning people back to their enslavement — “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice” brings hope. No, it says, you’re not going to get what you deserve, but your children might, or their children after them. It is a hard, hard hope.

But is it true?

I will postulate what Theodore Parker did not: Neither our intellect nor conscience can know what the universe’s arc will actually be. Even thinking it has any shape requires an act of imagination that bears an unfathomable cost of forgetting.

But, I believe that Parker was right that conscience — our sense of right and wrong — informs our intellect. Hope is to moral perception as light is to vision: You cannot perceive the world within its moral space without believing there is a point to action. And we can’t perceive outside of that moral space, for it is within the moral space that the universe and what we do in it matters. Even science — crucial science — is pursued as a moral activity, as something that matters beyond itself. If nothing you do can have any effect on what matters beyond your own interests, then moral behavior is pointless and self-indulgent. Hope is moral action’s light.

So, of course I don’t know if the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But if there is a moral universe, modest hopes bend its history.

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June 26, 2015

Too happy to blog

That is all.

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June 23, 2015

Old man yells at cloud, at SxSW

SxSW’s video talk show interviewed me about my talk, which was basically about why the Net isn’t as dreadful as it seems. Something like that.

Anyway, here’s the segment, with Douglas Caballero. It’s 11.5 minutes long.

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June 22, 2015

Has the Internet been paved?

Atlantic.com has just posted an article of mine that re-examines the “Argument from Architecture” that has been at the bottom of much of what I’ve written over the past twenty years. That argument says, roughly, that the Internet’s architecture embodies particular values that are inevitably transmitted to its users. (Yes, the article discusses what “inevitably” means in this context.) But has the Net been so paved by Facebook, apps, commercialism, etc., that we don’t experience that architecture any more?

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June 19, 2015

Spoilers and Time

I remember a 1971 National Lampoon article that gave away the endings of a hundred books and movies. Wikipedia and others think that article might have been the first use of the term “spoiler.” But “SPOILER ALERT” has only become a common signpost because of what the Internet has done to time, and in particular, to simultaneity.

In the old days of one-to-many, broadcast media, the events that shaped culture happened once and usually happened on schedule. So, it would make sense to bring up what was on the news broadcast last night, or to chuckle over that hilarious scene in this week’s Beverly Hillbillies. Now we watch on our own schedules, having common moments mainly around sports events and breaking news — games or tragedies. Perhaps this has contributed to our culture’s addiction to extremes.

We need SPOILER ALERT signposts because we watch when we want but the Net is so huge and unconstrained and cheap that it operates like a push medium — the opposite of why traditional broadcast was a push medium. Trying to avoid finding out what happened on Game of Thrones this week is like trying to avoid getting run over when crossing a highway, except that even seeing the approaching cars counts as getting run over.

Tom and Jerry
Game of Thrones spoiler

This change in temporality shows up in the phrase “real time.” We only distinguish one type of time as “real” because it is no longer the default. The default is asynchronous because that’s how most of our communications occur online. Real time increasingly feels like a deprivation. It requires you to drop what you’re doing to participate or you’re going to lose out. And that feels sub-optimal, or even unfair.

Without the requirement of simultaneity, we are more free to follow our interests. And that turns out to fragment our culture. Or liberate it. Or enrich it. Or all of the above.

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June 17, 2015

Stylin’ Gmail

I use MailPlane to read my email (via gmail). Having some leisure time I decided to poke around its styling options.

MailPlane’s preferences let you override the default gmail styling with your own CSS. Here are three classes important to the listing of mail in your inbox:

.xY

The entire row

.y2

The message snippet

.zF

Who unread mail is from (other than yourself)

For example:

.xY{
color:white;
background-color: #045D9E;
}
.y2{
color:#8FD5FF;
}
.zF{
color: yellow;
}

That will produce this:

Example of styled inbox

Unfortunately, you never know when Google might decide to change these class names or restructure the entire damn thing. On the other hand, you can always just delete the CSS.

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June 12, 2015

Uber’s one remaining awkward moment

Dear Uber,

You’ve managed to get over almost all of the social awkwardness of taking a cab, including wondering if the driver is taking you the long way and fretting the entire way about how much you should tip. Thanks!

The one remaining moment is when the car is approaching and you think maybe it’s that red car but you can’t tell a Honda from a Hundai and the license plate is too far away to read, and you don’t want to wave at a stranger in some car going by.

So, when your phone shows something like this (assuming that Mitch McConnell is your driver):

Normal Uber screenshot

And then the car gets closer, suppose your phone were to show something like this:

Flashing Uber alert screen

That is, it’d have a photo of your driver enlarged on some type of animated screen, with a color assigned to your driver. You’d hold the phone out toward where the car’s approaching from so the driver can see you and know that you are indeed the fare.

You’re welcome, Uber. Now how about a million dollars?

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June 10, 2015

Anti-circumvention, 18th century style

The 1998 Digital Millennial Copyright Act (DMCA), among other restrictions, makes it a criminal act to try to figure out how a software program works if it uses copyright protections (typically some form of Digital Rights Management). (The Berkman Center’s Digital Media Law Center has an excellent explanation of this.)

There are exceptions and exemptions, but it overall it is symptomatic of government’s prioritizing private business interests over public learning.

David S. Landes’ fascinating book, Revolution in Time, mentions an early case of DRM and an attempt at an anti-circumvention policy (pp. 172-5). It is literally a case: a watch case.

As Landes tells it, at the end of the 18th century, the most noted pioneering clockmaker was John Arnold. Arnold, the son of a watchmaker, rose rapidly, even presenting King George III in 1764 with a clock so small that it fit into a ring. But from around 1781, he began to run into a young upstart named Thomas Earnshaw. Earnshaw had invented a spring detent escapement (illustration) that proved to work better than Arnold’s, and would eventually replace it.


Arnold’s detent.

Arnold introduced a spring detent remarkably like Earnshaw’s remarkably soon after the latter introduced his, leading Earnshaw to think that Arnold had copied one of his early models. There were means, motive, and opportunity, for Earnshaw had been forced to disclose his innovation in order to try to raise the hundred pounds required to patent it. One of the people he showed it to was Thomas Wright, watchmaker to the King. Arnold had asked Wright for access to one of these prototype models on the grounds that Arnold had already applied for his own patent. Wright provided it.

Writes Landes:

When Earnshaw heard of this, he was furious. Wright defended himself by saying that he had not given Arnold permission to open the watch and had protested when he did: “Mr. Arnold, I will not have the watch opened.” To which Arnold had haughtily replied by asking if anyone in Wright’s shop knew how to make a watch anyway and then answered his own question by saying that “so far from being able to make a watch, none of them knew what o’clock it was.” This insolence was enough to provoke even a theeing-thying Quaker. “Mr. Arnold,” said Mr. Wright, “it does not signify whether I can make a watch or not, I don’t fear getting plenty of employee at mending thine, and if the watchmakers do not know what o’clock it is they can know by going to Greenwich for it as thee does.”

Nothing like #QuakersTalkingSmack.

In any case, it’s a new millennium and time for a copyright act suited for that new millennium.

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June 9, 2015

VR and Education

The MindCET blog has posted a post of mine about why VR seems so attractive to educational technology folks. Here’s the beginning:

By now we’re accustomed to the idea that the Internet enables us to spread education out across large physical distances. But just as spreading Nutella means thinning it, so does spreading education seem to require making the connections less substantial and real.

That’s one important reason that virtual reality and augmented reality appliances were so prevalent at Shaping the Future III. (The other reasons are that they’re very cool.) They promise to “thicken” the online experience. As Avi Warshavski pointed out in his presentation, this also helps to explain the recent increase in interest in the maker movement and the Internet of things: learners are not just brains in space, as he put it.

Miriam Reiner presented some evidence from her research that suggests…

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