2021 recommendations

August 2021

August 2021

A bit late this month, because we were traveling (!), but here are a few recommendations:

First, you should watch Summer of Soul if you haven’t yet. I don’t think I have anything particularly new or interesting to say about it, but it is, indeed, extraordinary and absurd that the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 is not better known, and that the footage that Questlove assembled into the film sat forgotten in a basement for so many years. The music is fantastic, and the film itself is very well done.

And, that reminds me that I’ve somehow forgotten to say something before about the playlist “Chez Baldwin,” in which somebody put together all the music (or all that was available on Spotify) found in James Baldwin’s Paris residence at his death in 1987. There’s too much for me to claim that I like all of it, or like all of it equally, but it’s almost certain that you’ll find something here you hadn’t heard before:

Moving to some things to read:

“Care at Scale”, by Debbie Chachra, is a thoughtful reinterpretation of public infrastructure, like water systems, or the electrical grid. These things are effectively invisible to most of us (in places like the United States), most of the time. That’s actually a reflection of success: we don’t think about them because they work pretty consistently. In general, if you’re thinking about the sewer system, it usually means something has gone badly wrong.

But Chachra argues not only that we ought to pay more attention to these systems, but also that we should value them as both indicators and sustainers of communities, and the relationships that form them.

Water treatment plants are a physical instantiation of the idea that politics are the structures we create when we are in a sustained relationship with other people. They’re more than just the technological systems. They’re also a connection to the expertise, labour, and care of all the people that make sure that the water is safe to drink, and a recognition by the city’s residents that they are connected to each other through the landscape and the human-made watershed of pipes that are laid on top of it (or buried beneath). In the rainy northeastern United States, municipal water and sewage systems function as the smallest-scale proof of concept for the value of building out collective systems to provide for our bodily needs—not for nothing is “indoor plumbing” still a metonym for “civilization.” And it’s just one of many infrastructural systems that we rely on.

Moreover, infrastructural systems, by giving us access to shared resources, increase our individual ability to choose how to live, and how to act. She quotes Amartya Sen on the idea that wealth is mainly important because, and to the extent that, it provides substantive freedoms by reducing the amount of time and energy we have to spend simply maintaining our existence. Chachra then extends this idea to the way the wealth of a society may be directed into providing a baseline of such substantive freedoms for all of its members through the creation of through infrastructure. From this perspective, infrastructure is a kind of shared prosthesis, an adjunct to the biological that extends the capacities of the individual.

Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household.

On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these systems are built into the walls, which became abundantly clear during the coronavirus pandemic. Stable housing and a salary that covered my utility bills meant that, with the exception of food and taking out the trash, all of my basic needs were met without my ever even having to go outside. It’s worth noting that this is an important reason why guaranteed housing for everyone is important—not just because of privacy, security, and a legible address, but also because our homes are nodes on these infrastructural networks. They are our locus of access to clean water and sewage, electricity, and telecommunications.

But, of course, all people everywhere do not have reliable access to such systems, and in many places they are threatened by the effects (most prominently) of climate change. To allow them to fail is to derogate or deny the relationships between ourselves and others, and the mutual obligations that structure those relationships. In fact, we have already failed to meet those obligations, repeatedly, and in precisely this way.

Our shared infrastructural systems are the most profound and effective means that we’ve created to both relieve the day-to-day burdens of meeting our bodies’ needs and to allow us to go beyond their physiological limits. To face anthropogenic climate change is to become a civilization that can respond to this shifting, unpredictable new world while maintaining these systems: if you benefit from them today, then any future in which they are compromised is recognizably a dystopia. But that “dystopia” is where most of the world already lives. To face anthropogenic climate change ethically is to do so in a way that minimizes human suffering.

This reminds me of Teju Cole’s paraphrase of William Gibson: “the disaster is totally here, simply not evenly distributed.” We should think of infrastructure as one essential tool for doing better.

I have tried to articulate a version of this idea with the phrase “Government is how we take care of one another.” The idea behind this is that while in small communities, where everybody more or less knows everybody else, it is possible to rely on personal connections and obligations to respond to hardship or disaster, once humans find themselves in large cities— or, even more, in nation-states— surrounded mainly by relative strangers, achieving anything like the same kind of stability and protection requires systems that organize resources so that to certain things can be guaranteed to individuals. No entity other than government will ever do this reliably; to place something like infrastructure primarily in the hands of private entities is to say that it is acceptable that only some people have access to it.

Collective infrastructural systems that are resilient, sustainable, and globally equitable provide the means for us to care for each other at scale. They are a commitment to our shared humanity.

On a closely related point, “The Other Invisible Hand”, by Jag Bhalla, points out that, among scientists, the idea that cooperation is at least as characteristic a feature of evolution as competition is more or less universally accepted. Biological systems or species that allow individuals to succeed at the expense of the group don’t last long; therefore, successful systems evolve features that restrict self-interested behavior to certain limits.

Every viable bio-social contract in multi-cellular organisms must enforce this rule: The health of the whole must trump the self-interest of any part. Otherwise, the parts become parasitic, gaining at the expense of the viability of the whole. Unregulated parts can kill their wholes.

Of course, in political terms, we can also take this logic too far; presenting individual sacrifice as necessary for “the greater good” is a common tactic of authoritarian governments, and the entire notion of universal human rights demands that we acknowledge that some kinds of sacrifice are, in effect, out of bounds. (Bhalla is also way too ready with the “capitalism is cancer” metaphor for my comfort). But we can think of infrastructure in these terms, as a mechanism of cooperation: a tool or technology for allowing large groups of people to support or provide basic needs for one another, consistently and (more or less) automatically. Moreover, the research that Bhalla is discussing would seem to suggest that a society which fails to do this, for whatever reason, will be less stable and prosperous in the long term.

Continuing to think about the meaning and value of the “public,” “Worn Out”, by Drew Austin, is a piece that made me confront some of my own assumptions— always a useful exercise. Briefly, Austin’s argument is that the tech sector’s apparent indifference to fashion— an indifference which is too loudly proclaimed to actually be indifference— is in fact, and inevitably, a kind of statement of values.

Even at its most utilitarian — when functioning as a pure “heat-control mechanism” — clothing is still a statement about the conditions we expect to encounter, natural and cultural. The way the tech industry dresses hints at the kinds of cultural conditions it expects to face or, more significantly, the conditions it hopes to create.

To see choices about what to wear as trivial distractions from more important matters, in other words, is to make a judgment about what is important and what isn’t; to deliberately make that judgment visible in one’s own fashion choices— as Steve Jobs did, for instance— is to proclaim that judgment to others. To do so from a position of power and influence— as Jobs, again, or Mark Zuckerberg are unavoidably doing— is, if only inadvertently, to enforce that judgment. Austin connects the tech attitude toward fashion with the rise of meal replacement products like Soylent (one of whose slogans is “Let us take a few things off your plate”), which similarly reduce one unavoidable aspect of life (the need to eat) to a purely utilitarian exercise that should be “optimized” as far as possible.

Austin goes on to describe fashion as, in a sense, a public good, which clashes with the tech sector’s emphasis on ruthless efficiency:

Fashion is a mode of display that enriches public space and a culture’s shared meanings, but as it enters the culture, it ceases to strictly belong to anyone. It can be observed and often copied without having to pay anyone for the privilege. That is, it creates positive externalities — benefits for which people don’t have to explicitly pay, but can enjoy just by being present in shared space. This acts as a beneficent spiral, with personal style and the public sphere enhancing each other’s significance…To the tech world, however, those positive externalities look suspiciously inefficient. These unpaid-for pleasures are externalities that could, with the right technological fixes, be reinternalized and made into someone’s property again.

Since, in other words, the social benefits of fashion can’t easily be privatized and captured as profit, tech leaders reject and denounce them. He goes on to compare their attitude toward fashion to the attitude that pharmaceutical companies have toward vaccines, which, by preventing many people from getting sick in the first place, generate benefits that don’t generate profit— which makes drug companies reluctant to spend money to make them.

I have several issues with this argument. The first is what seems to me like a serious misreading of Hannah Arendt, who is not using “appearance” in the way Austin interprets her to be— but that’s a bit in the weeds, so I won’t go beyond pointing it out. The second is that, while we all may indeed benefit, in some sense, from the experience of seeing other people’s fashion choices, and the creativity they undoubtedly represent, Austin’s description of fashion here simply ignores the fact that people do, indeed, make a lot of money from fashion— and, moreover, assure greater profit through the constant cycling of trends that prompt people to wastefully replace clothing before it wears out (not to mention the increasing emphasis on “fast fashions” that wear out faster— as well as exploitative and inhumane labor conditions that rival those of…the tech sector). He isn’t denying any of that, of course, but I do think it complicates the vision of fashion’s cultural role that he’s putting forward here.

At the same time, as Austin in fact points out a bit later in the piece, tech companies have in fact managed, quite effectively, to commodify “the everyday value of looking and being looked at,” through visually-oriented platforms like Instagram. Austin’s idea seems to be that people in tech won’t care about fashion unless and until they can find a way to commodify the interactions that it generates and shapes, but it seems to me that has already happened. And if that’s true, then the apparent indifference to fashion of people in tech must have some other explanation.

And, of course, Austin is also making a value judgment here about fashion, and there is no reason that we need to share it. To put it mildly, his experience of fashion is not my own, and I instinctively sympathize with the idea of not having to think about what I wear. (I have personally advocated, without apparent effect, for everybody in academia to wear scrubs all the time).

Asked in 2014 why his outfits never changed, Zuckerberg answered, ‘I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.’

Setting aside the blatantly disingenuous claim here to be acting selflessly in service of a “community,” what, really, is wrong with that? Isn’t there something appealing about reducing our cognitive burden by making certain choices automatic, if those choices involve things that don’t much matter to us personally? All the more so if we find making those choices particularly difficult or frustrating— as I am confident many people in the tech sector genuinely do? The fact that at least some of these people also very much want to be seen not to care about fashion is, of course, annoying, but hardly new or unique, and doesn’t mean that there aren’t still advantages to not having to think about it.

And yet…I still think he has a point here. Tech companies do in fact question the value of public goods and shared public spaces, and do continually threaten those spaces through their efforts to monetize and commodify them. There is, in fact, an underlying assumption that activity that doesn’t generate value (read: revenue) for somebody is wasted— as evidenced, for instance, in the concept of “digital exhaust”. The emphasis on “optimizing” by reducing biological needs like eating does derogate any and all activity that isn’t “productive” in financial terms. And, more specifically, digital platforms do in fact replace, at least partly, genuine public spaces with gated proprietary ones, allowing companies to extract value from individual choices like what to wear (even if they also allow at least a few people a small share of that value).

More generally, I’m reflexively resistant to the description of fashion, itself, as some kind of public good, or of fashion choices as meaningful in the way that Austin sees them as being. But reflexivity is a poor substitute for considered judgment. Austin ends by suggesting that tech’s aim with regard to fashion is to enforce the most cynical understanding of it; that this is, more or less, my understanding of it gives me something to think about.

And, not really related to any of these: “Eastern Hemlocks Face Extinction. A Tiny Fly Could Save Them”, by Zoya Teirstein

Eastern hemlock trees, an evergreen species, are a major component of forests in the northeastern United States; they “are a foundation species, meaning they play a pivotal role in structuring ecological communities.” Most importantly, this is because of the way that their dense foliage (is that the right term, for a fir tree?) creates a year-round sheltered zone around the tree, providing cool shade in summer and protection from deep snow in winter, as well as trapping moisture.

Northeastern hemlock trees are treated by the wooly adelgid, an invasive insect species that came to the United States on plants from imported from Japan in the early 20th century. The adelgid eats the sap from the hemlock trees, draining them dry and killing them. Observed first in Virginia in the 1950s, the insects used to be restrained by cold weather, but increasing temperatures have allowed them to live further and further north, threatening a growing swath of eastern forests.

The hemlock trees also hold vast amounts of carbon, which their deaths release into the atmosphere. So there’s one of those vicious cycles here that seem so characteristic of climate change: rising temperatures expand the range of an invasive species, leading to the release of previously sequestered carbon, which in turn accelerates climate change, and so on.

Scientists are currently releasing silver flies, which eat the wooly adelgid. The hope is that this will arrest their spread. This is in fact the second effort at introducing a “biocontrol” to deal with the adelgid; the first, a black beetle, was successful to a point— the beetles would eat as much as 90% of the adelgid eggs— but couldn’t keep up with the adelgids because they breed twice a year, and the beetles only consumed one of those generations. The silver flies, it is hope, will take care of the other.

These kinds of efforts always make me think of The old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly— which is to say I always wonder if we might not be creating an even greater problem later. But, as Teirstein makes clear, there really is no other way to deal with invasive species like the adelgid, and the cost of doing nothing is far too high.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.