Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology — Kentaro Toyama

My review on Grant Writing Confidential is actually germane to readers of The Story’s Story, too, so I’ll start by directing you there. The book’s central and brilliant point is simple: for at least a century various people have imagined that better technology and the spread of technology will solve all sorts of social ills and improve all sorts of institutions, with education being perhaps the most obvious.

Geek_heresy2There are many other fascinating points—too many to describe all of them here. To take one, it’s often hard to balance short- and long-term wants. Many people want to write a novel but don’t want to write right now. Over time, that means the novel never gets written, because novels get written one sentence and one day at a time. Technology does not resolve this challenge. If anything, Internet access may make it worse. Many of us have faced an important long-term project only to diddle around on websites:

Short-term pleasure often leads to long-term dissatisfaction. That intuition underlies the psychologist’s distinction between hedonia and eudaimonia. Pleasure-seeking hedonism is questionable, but maybe long-term eudaimonic life satisfaction is good.

One sees these issues all over. Porn remains ridiculously popular (though some consumers of it are no doubt fine). Many people drink soda despite how incredibly detrimental soda is to health, and in my view how bad soda tastes compared to, say, ice cream. TV watching time is still insanely high, though it may be slightly down from its previous highs. There are various ways one can try to remove agency from the people watching porn while drinking soda and keeping one eye on a TV in the background, but the simpler solution is to look at people’s actions and see revealed preferences at work.

Most people don’t have the souls of artists and innovators trapped in average everyday lives. Most people want their sodas and breads and sugars and TV and SUVs and all the other things that elite media critics decry (often reasonable, in my view). Most people don’t connect what they’re doing right now to their long-term outcomes. Most people don’t want to be fat but the soda is right here. A lot of people want a better love life but in the meantime let’s check out Pornhub. Most people want amazing Silicon Valley tech jobs, but Netflix is here right now and Coursera seems far away.

And, to repeat myself, technology doesn’t fix any of that. As Toyama says of one project that gives computer access to children, “technology amplifies the children’s propensities. To be sure, children have a natural desire to learn and play and grow. But they also have a natural desire to distract themselves in less productive ways. Digital technology amplifies both of these appetites.” I had access to computers as a teenager. I wasted more time than I want to contemplate playing games on them, rather than building the precursors to Facebook. Large markets and social issues emerge from individual choices, and a lot of elite media types want to blame environment instead of individual. But each individual chooses computer games—or something real.

It turns out that “Low-cost technology is just not an effective way to fight inequality, because the digital divide is much more a symptom than a cause of other divides. Under the Law of Amplification, technology – even when it’s equally distributed – isn’t a bridge, but a jack. It widens existing disparities.” But those disparities emerge from individual behaviors. People who want to be writers need to write, now. People who want better partners or sex lives need to quit the sugar, now. One could pair any number of behaviors and outcomes in this style, and one could note that most people don’t do those things. The why seems obvious to me but maybe not to others. The people who become elite developers often say coding is fun for them in a way it apparently isn’t to others (including me). Writing is fun to me in a way it apparently isn’t to others. So I do a lot of it, less because it’s good for me than because it’s fun, for whatever temperamental reason. Root causes interest me, as they do many people with academic temperaments. Root causes don’t interest most people.

Let me speak to my own life. I’ve said variations on this before, but when I was an undergrad I remember how astounded some of my professors were when they’d recommend a book and I’d read it and then show up in office hours. I didn’t understand why they were astounded until I started teaching, and then I realized what most students are like and how different the elite thinkers and doers are from the average. And this is at pretty decent colleges and universities! I’m not even dealing with the people who never started.

Most of the techno-optimists, though—I used to be one—don’t realize the history of the promise of technology to solve problems:

As a computer scientist, my education included a lot of math and technology but little of the history or philosophy of my own field. This is a great flaw of most science and engineering curricula. We’re obsessed with what works today, and what might be tomorrow, but we learn little about what came before.

Yet technology doesn’t provide motivation. It’s easy to forget this. Still, I wonder if giving 100 computers to 100 kids might be useful because one of them will turn out to be very important. The idea that a small number of people drive almost all human progress is underrated. In The Enlightened Economy Joel Mokyr observes that the Industrial Revolution may actually have been driven primarily by ten to thirty thousand people. That’s a small number and a small enough number that the addition to or subtraction of a single individual from the network may have serious consequences.

This isn’t an idea that I necessarily buy but it is one I find intriguing and possibly applicable to a large number of domains. Toyama’s work may reinforce it.

Briefly noted: Mozart in the Jungle — Blair Tindall

Mozart in the Jungle is surprisingly good and an ode to all the sex musicians have, the drugs musicians do (“I watched Janet bent over the desk to snort cocaine through a straw” occurs on page 2), and most notably a cautionary tale about the economics that underlie their industry. In Mozart in the Jungle Tindall succeeds as few do yet still barely succeeds enough to feed herself. The later sections, as she contemplates her own approaching infertility, she turns melancholy, because she knows that while others in her age group have families she has an oboe. Many adventures at age 22 are slogs at 40, and this is something many 22-year-olds know in passing but don’t feel till they’re much older.

Mozart_in_the_jungleTindall’s relative success still feels like failure to her, financially and, often, artistically. Megan McArdle’s recent post on journalism strikes many notes similar to Tindall’s; the two are both writing about glamour industries battered by changing economics and excess supply (facilitated by digital transmission) relative to demand. In Tindall’s case, the number of financially secure oboe players is probably in the single and low double digits. She makes that threshold, but only in an artistically tedious way. For her, the smart thing to do is get out. When she makes decisions as a 20-year-old, she fails to realize that as a 35- or 40-year-old she will want and feel different things.

In school she finds that “my classmates toiled harder over their textbooks than I did over my oboe, yet they didn’t receive the same special attention.” Attention, though, is a dangerous stimulant, and so too are other stimulants, here recalled and made comic by an older mind reviewing a younger event:

Jose took off the same black turtleneck and dashiki he wore every day, the odor of his unwashed body mixing with cheap musk. We kissed, embracing as the climate of Brahams’s G-minor quintet washed over us. Jose peeled away my top gently, caressing my shoulders, nuzzling my neck and pulling back the covers. I could see another woman’s menstrual blood smeared on the bottom sheet, but I let him push me back on the bedding.

It goes… okay. The gap between fantasy and reality recurs through the memoir, to the very end:

A young person who dreamily “wants to go to Juilliard” or “be a concert pianist” should research the reality of those statements. [. . .] I’m one of those part-time musicians now. When I do play music, it is a joy. The reality of performing full-time wasn’t the fantasy I’d imagined as a little girl. What offers me a meaningful life today are the infinite possibilities in our modern world, of which music is only one. Thousands of people have been influenced by the Sierra magazine articles I’ve written about environmental conservation.

Incidentally, that quote also sums my feeling about grad school in the humanities.

Tindall also wistfully sees her Upper West Side neighbors go from libidinously ravenous, providing her a voyeuristic thrill as they have continual passionate sex, to parents, while Tindall plays the oboe and can’t or won’t maintain long-term relationships as her child-bearing years slip away like leaves off a tree in Boston in autumn. The memoir also came out before Tindall stalked her ex-boyfriend, Bill Nye, so there may be more to her story and character than Mozart in the Jungle.

The new Houellebecq is out:

Submission by Houellebecq


And some of its themes will be familiar to fans: On the first page, François is finishing school, and he “realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.” As it is for everyone Houellebecq character. And, later:

You have to take an interest in life, I told myself. I wondered what could interest me, now that I was finished with love. I could take a course in wine tasting, maybe, or start collecting model airplanes.

My afternoon seminar was exhausting. Doctoral students tended to be exhausting. For them it was all just starting to mean something, and for me nothing mattered except which Indian dinner I’d microwave (Chicken Biryani? Chicken Tikka Masala? Chicken Rogan Josh?) while I watched the political talk shows on France 2.

Most of us take an interest in something instinctively, almost automatically; meaning is a question but not the only one, and if the Indian dinner matters we at least want a good one. The condition of a Houellebecq narrator is boredom punctuated by sex with an improbably attractive woman or an unexpected act of violence. Despite that most of his novels, except for The Possibility of an Island, rivet: He asks questions others may ask but answers in ways few others will. Different but not in a bad way is a small territory that feels expansive in his books, which are an unpassionate redescription of life in the age of pleasure, which so few columnists get. Tom Wolfe gets status; Houellebecq gets apathy.

Houellebecq's novels

Briefly noted: The Word Exchange — Alena Graedon

The best criticism of this novel is “Human, All Too Inhuman,” in which James Wood, among other things, defines hysterical realism. “Human, All Too Inhuman” was written before The Word Exchange but still applies to it. The novel is good on a sentence-by-sentence level but is poorly and tediously plotted; malformations on the macro level are hard to describe but easily noticeable. I’ll happily start the next Graedon novel because this one shows much promise. The Word Exchange concerns a near-future world in which Anana works with her father, Doug, on the world’s last paper dictionary. Her father disappears, the Dictionary as a product and institution are attacked, and Anana needs to find out why. Yet on page 75 she writes:

But this was no ordinary book burning. Our digital corpus was also being dismantled, by pale, nimble hands. Who, I wondered, would want to destroy the Dictionary? Did Doug know? Was that why he’d vanished?

Word_Exchange_cover this point something more should have happened than random thoughts, discussions about Hegel, Anana’s time in college, her relationship with pseudo-friend Max, and many other threads so random that one has to wonder if or when they’ll cohere.

The novel channels many others: Stephenson, Gibson, even Carlos Ruiz Zafón, all of whose complete works you should try first, especially Snow Crash and Pattern Recognition.

There are echoes, maybe unintentionally, of The Name of the Rose (think of the moment when Ubertino and William are speaking together and William says, “I like also to listen to words, and then I think about them,” which one could say also of Anana and the other characters in The Word Exchange, though they lack Williams’s rigor.) Yet that novel, for all its abstruse Catholic metaphysics, is bound by a murder; people like murder stories because the stakes are plain: Death is bad, preventing it is good, and murderers need to be subjected to justice. In The Word Exchange no stakes are clear. By page 130 the narrative is still wandering and navel gazing; it’s only in the 130 – 140 range that things start to cohere, slightly.

Writers are fond of murder for a reason; if not murder, then comedy, and though there is a disappearance in The Word Exchange there is no murder. John Updike’s novelistic alter ego Bech knows the draw of murder:

Murdering critics is something most writers, I suspect, have wanted to do. The device of poisoning an envelope flap was used, I discovered later, in an episode of Seinfeld, but by then it was too late, my die was cast.

Art imitates other art even unintentionally. Murder and mystery are good too to emulate, and The Word Exchange is conscious, maybe too conscious, of its emulations. It is not consciousness enough of the pleasures of narrative, of structure, of figuring out the “why” and not just the “how.”

In The Word Exchange I want less… Brooklyn? It’s hard to choose an adjective. The novel feels written or narrated by a bright and precocious but ultimately annoying student who has not yet learned how to be in the world. Even the acknowledgements page is annoying, beginning as it does with “I have a real community of minds to thank.” As opposed to a false community of minds? Why not just say, “Group of people?” The sheer number of people thanked may be indicative of the problems with the story: Too many people said too many things and no central person adequately controlled the outcome.

The praise for The Word Exchange indicates why one can’t trust critics.

Briefly noted: “Mate” is out and it’s good — Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller

As previously noted, Mate: Become the Man Women Want is out and it’s good.* As the book says in the introduction, “Your culture has failed you and the women you’re trying to meet.” The book is part of the remedy. When I read the draft a couple months ago I told Tucker, “I wish I could teleport a copy of Mate back in time and give it to my 13-year-old self, and then instruct him to read it once a year for the next decade.” That’s still true. If you know any teenage or early 20s guys who are likely straight, give them a copy of this book. It is not going to be useful for everyone and indeed I expect some of you to strongly dislike it. People like how-to in many fields but often not this one.

Mate_CoverThe book emphasizes empathy: “If you always try to understand the woman’s perspective—what they want, why they want it, and how to ethically give it to them—then you will find it much easier to become attractive to them, and you’ll be much more successful with your mating efforts.” There are no shortcuts. For a while I’ve been describing the empathy gap, because I increasingly think that the average man doesn’t much understand or try to understand the average woman—and vice-versa. That’s why books like Mate, or Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, are valuable: they work to close the empathy gap.

Parts of the book will be obvious to older guys who have their lives together—that showering and grooming are important will not be news, but most of us can also probably remember the shambling smelly kids in school. Other parts counteract some of the more dubious parts of our culture, like the claim that women are attracted most by money and that all women are “gold diggers.” For most women most of the time other things matter most, like how “individual women just your fuckability by your social network. So you had better have proof—social proof—that it exists.” Most people, men and women, who want a relationship reasonably want to know the person they’re having a relationship with, and that means knowing friends and family—and knowing they exist. Many of us have had the experience of sleeping with someone who keeps us totally separate from the rest of their lives. Sometimes that can be good—we don’t “count”—but for actual relationships it’s not.

There are still hilarious metaphors and comparisons, like “[A lot of guys think they need to have a ton of money,] then the women will just magically appear, like monarch butterflies to milkweed, flies to honey, rappers to Scarface posters.” But there are fewer of them: The book is entertaining but it leans informational. I at least felt rueful for my teenage and college self when I read some sections. Perhaps my favorite moment occurs two-thirds through the book, when Max and Miller are noting some of the artistic skills that women like, like music, storytelling, and, saliently for this quote, drawing:

The key thing here is to cultivate actual skill rather than indulge in modernist expressionism or abstract art. The poet John Ciardi pointed out, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at women and persuade themselves they have a better idea.”

I’ve never read as concise and accurate description of why so much modern art is so bogus.

The bibliography is useful.

* As also previously noted, I now know Tucker well enough to not be an unbiased critic.

Briefly noted: Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game — Jon Birger

Date-onomics is charming and worth reading for anyone who is single, who is at risk of becoming single, or curious about how markets are created and how people interact with markets in this domain. Apparently there are relatively few members of that last group: “I realize that most people do not want to think about supply and demand when contemplating matters of the heart.” Perhaps is right, but rejecting knowledge seems to me like madness. Birger also notes that there “is an assumption that the perceived shortage of college-educated men [. . .] is actually a mirage.” Except that Birger says it’s not a mirage: there are more single college-educated women than men, especially in particular cities (like New York).

For men the simple takeaway might be: move to New York or an equivalent city with many more women than men in it. For women the simple takeaway might be: Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Denver are waiting for you, since in those areas straight women will have more market power than straight men.

The book, read properly, tells you where you should think about living and/or going to school. Guys working at big tech companies in particular should think carefully about the differences they’re likely to encounter between working the Bay Area versus working in those same companies’s New York City offices. Date-onomics attempts to solve an information asymmetry problem, since very few people actively consider how gender ratios affect their romantic, sexual, and reproductive lives. Search costs are high and underappreciated in dating.

Still, Birger’s framing of the statistical narrative is dubious. For example, he writes, “Why is it that women like Donovan struggle to find marriage-material men even as male counterparts with less going for them seem to have little trouble with the opposite sex?” Has Birger missed the vast literature on pickup artistry that’s emerged in the last two decades? Is he aware of the Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller book Mate? For most men much of mating life seems to be a tremendous struggle, and it’s one Birger (mostly) dismisses. The dating sections of Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man are among the most compelling, because she tries being a man—noting that she expects to get all the advantages and pleasures of the “patriarchy” that she’d been told about for years in women’s studies classes and feminist books.

Instead Vincent finds struggle, rejection, and hardship—and she’s very happy to go back to being a woman. Being a man doesn’t turn out to be the patriarchal cornucopia she imagines, and that Birger implicitly imagines for men.

In Date-onomics, Birger refers repeatedly to “good men” (2), “ambitious men” (7), “eligible men” (13), “good single guys” (14), and meeting “a decent man” (29). There are others. Rarely does he consider what men might be looking for in a woman, or what the kinds of adjectives used in the preceding sentence might conceal. That framing is unfortunate.

It’s especially unfortunate because in the real world people who can assess themselves accurately, improve themselves reasonably, and compromise pragmatically tend to get decent results. Those who can’t, don’t. (From Date-onomics: “Problem is, wealthy women are far less likely than wealthy men to marry down”).

Despite that general fact, Birger argues that many of us don’t have the facts:

The North Carolina high school guidance counselor quoted in the last chapter told me that she has never once had a parent or student ask about the 60:40 ratio at UNC Chapel Hill—despite the fact that this gender ratio is now a dominant feature of UNC social life. “It’s not even on their radar,” the guidance counselor told me.
It should be.

He’s right: It should be. His book, and this blog post, is an attempt to put that issue on the radar. Women may, at the margin, want to go to engineering schools. Men on the margin of going to college or not may want to be aware that college is increasingly where the women are. Knowledge affects behavior, but it isn’t diffused through society uniformly or easily. Despite the many virtues of this book, many of the people who may most need to know what it says are unlikely to pick it up.

Date-onomics is at its best when it’s focusing on facts and anecdotes and at its worst when it’s barely aware of its own framing. That dark matter, though, is obvious to me. I wonder how many will miss it.

EDIT: Hello readers from The Browser! If you like this piece, you’ll probably also like my latest novel, THE HOOK. You should check it out at the link.

Where does personality come from?

In “Sentences to ponder, The Strong Situation Hypothesis,” Tyler Cowen quotes from a study:

This hypothesis, based on the work of Mischel (1977), proposes that personality differences are especially like to be outwardly expressed in “weak” situations offering no clear situational clues and a wide range of possibilities as to how to behave. Conversely, individual differences are expected to have less room for expression in “strong” situations where the choice of behavioral outcomes is severely limited and where everyone is bound to behave in a similar way.

That’s especially interesting to me because I’ve long said that many literary novels are concerned with family, love, politics, and the like because those are open-ended domains that tend to be places where personalities can be expressed. In many “flat” thrillers, by contrast, there is one obvious right thing to do (stop the bad guys, don’t let the nuclear device go off, etc.) and the only important question is whether the thing can be accomplished and how it can be accomplished. In that respect personality becomes backgrounded to the task at hand. The interior mental state of the characters become binary: They succeed or they fail. Their sense of interiority isn’t that important.

In a genre like science fiction one can see the thriller model at work in a novel like The Martian, in which survival is the only important question, and the broader model at work in a novel like Stranger in a Strange Land, or in many others. In real life, the kind of music a person who is starving to death likes is not very important, but the kind of music a person who is on a date likes may be very important.

Alternately, one could say that personality is a relatively high point on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (whatever the other deficiencies of the hierarchy model).

(In another world, this point could be part of the “Character” chapter in How Fiction Works.)

I wrote a little more about this here, previously, in 2011.


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