Briefly noted: The Festival of Insignificance — Milan Kundera

The Festival of Insignificance is out and I don’t know what to make of it. It’s nice enough I suppose but it feels . . . Insubstantial? Disconnected? Do I not get it? Hard to say. Characters or figures appear, are observed or make a speech, then leave. Consider this, from page 110, just 5 pages from the end:

In the broad walk that stretches into the park from l’avenue de l’Obsesrvatoire, a man of about fifty with a mustache, wearing an old worn parka with a long hunting rifle slung from his shoulder, runs toward the circle of the great marble ladies of France. He is shouting and waving his arms. All around, people stop and watch, startled and sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic, for that mustachioed face has an easy quality that freshens the atmosphere in the garden with an idyllic breath of times gone by. It calls up the image of a ladies’ man, a village rake, an adventurer who’s more likable for already being a little older and seasoned. Won over by his country charm, his virile goodness, his folkloric look, the crowd sends him smiles and he responds, pleasing and ingratiating.

Now what? The passage is on its own fine, and maybe it connects in obscure ways to other passages that I haven’t adequately noticed. The odd thing about this passage is that, like many of the scenes, it doesn’t really seem to connect with the rest of the novella. The adjective “Hegelian” appears, which is rarely a good sign. Some passages are witty and perhaps true:

When Ramon had described his theory about observation posts standing each on a different point in history, from which people talk together unable to understand one another, Alain had immediately thought of his girlfriend, because, thanks to her, he knew that even the dialogue between true lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood.

Kundera_FestivalThe observation posts are works of art or artists, with the people being the public or possibly other artists: no one understands anyone else because contextual changes make the art feel different to the observer. The lover faces a similar challenge, and it’s one that I know in a different context: teaching. In school I’d listen to out-of-it teachers casually reference TV shows or other phenomena from decades before my time and then watch them be bewildered that something so vital to them and their generation could be a void to ours. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and sense the same thing. Very little culture transcends the time it was produced, and what does transcend that time often does so only through great effort. Ramon senses this intellectually and Alain erotically. Maybe.

But, again, so what? And what of the first-person narrator who speaks as the or a writer? I don’t know, which may be the point of the novella, if there is one.

Art is of course insignificant and significant at the same time. Its role as insignificant is well known, and its significance can be inferred by the ceaseless efforts of religions, governments, and parents to censor it. If art weren’t significant, all that effort into controlling art wouldn’t occur. Political art may be legal in the U.S., but just try writing a political satire of the Chinese government in China. Perhaps the point is that in the West we’ve evolved to a stage where virtually all art is legal and none of it matters, leaving artists and art consumers / experiencers to ask, “What now?”

Maybe there is a stylistic quality to The Festival of Insignificance evident in French that didn’t make it to English. It is always dangerous to assume too much about a translated novel. Maybe too the only good criticism of art is other art, and little conventional criticism rises to the level of art.

Here is Jonathan Rosen writing about it, and ignore the stupid, cliché title, which probably wasn’t his. Too many reviewers are obsessed with the writer instead of the book.

Links: Being wrong, e-bikes, the culture of academia, sexual culture, art, doing things, and more

* “I got it wrong: seven writers on why they changed their minds.” I’ve written in the genre: “Being wrong and a partial list of ways I’ve been wrong” and “Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong” are two examples. Intellectually distrust anyone who is mature enough to know better and who can’t think of anything they’ve changed their mind about or been wrong about.

* Ford’s latest e-bike prototype features ‘eyes-free navigation’ and a ‘no sweat’ mode. The biggest problem with the story is the lack of price. If this were $1,000 it would be interesting. Any more than that and the bike has Segway’s problems and no probable solution to them.

* “Lawyers for Emma Sulkowicz’s [Victim, Paul Nungesser] Accuse Her of Misandry;” this is the sort of case that, had it appeared in an academic novel, would’ve seemed absurd, and as it plays out in real life its sense of absurdity continues.

* Google Project Fi review. It’s the plan that uses WiFi first and data networks second, which should bring cell phone bills to the $20 – $30 per month range. This is likely to be a big deal. It’ll be interesting to see if the next iPhone supports Project Fi.

* 11 things ultra-productive people do differently, perhaps most importantly: “They fight the tyranny of the urgent.” Second most important: “They don’t multitask.” Have I failed at both? Yes.

* In 1900, Los Angeles had a bike highway — and the US was a world leader in bike lanes. Wow. Shocking to me too.

* “How Art Became Irrelevant,” which oddly does not quote Paglia.

* Solar power still needs to get much cheaper. Are perovskites the answer?

* ‘Affirmative Consent’ Will Make Rape Laws Worse.

* “ This Professor Was Fired for Saying ‘Fuck No’ in Class: The misuse of sexual-harassment policies by pusillanimous college administrators is creating a campus panic.” It’s odd to find this article at this publication.

* Europe’s soft underbelly: “For many decades, Italy has been doing the things that American progressives would recommend, pouring lots of fiscal stimulus into the south, to build up the economy. But nothing seems to work.” What gives?

Why you really can’t trust the media: Claire Cain Miller and Farhad Manjoo get things wrong in the New York Times

In “The Next Mark Zuckerberg Is Not Who You Might Think,” the New York Times‘s Claire Cain Miller repeats an unfortunate quote that is a joke but was taken out of context: “‘I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,’ Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.”* But Graham has already publicly observed that this is a joke. As the link shows he’s publicly stated as much. Thousands of people have already read the column, but yesterday morning I thought that it’s not too late to correct it for those yet to come. So I wrote to both Miller and to the corrections email address with a variant of this paragraph.

In response I got this:

Thanks for your email. I’m confident that most readers will understand that the line was tongue in cheek, however. The idea that a co-founder of Y Combinator could be persuaded to part with seed funding simply by dint of the solicitor’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt is, of course, preposterous. At any rate, there is nothing to “correct,” so to speak, as Mr. Graham did in fact say those words.

Best regards,

Louis Lucero II
Assistant to the Senior Editor for Standards
The New York Times

But that’s not real satisfying either: nothing in the original article to indicate that Miller meant the line tongue-in-cheek. Based on the surrounding material, it seems like she took it seriously. Here is the full paragraph:

Yet if someone like that came to a top venture capitalist’s office, he or she could very well be turned away. Start-up investors often accept pitches only from people they know, and rely heavily on gut feelings, intuition and what’s worked before. “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.

I wrote back:

Thanks for your response, but it’s pernicious because Graham, as he explains at the link, does not actually think he can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, and his statement is part of the reason why he can’t, and why he doesn’t necessarily expect the next tech titan to look like Zuckerberg. One of the epistemological roles of humor is to say something but mean the opposite: have your read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? In addition to being a fantastic book, many sections deal with precisely this aspect of humor, and the role it plays in human discourse.

There’s actually a Wikipedia article on quoting out of context that’s both relevant here and helps explain why some reasonably famous people are becoming more cagey about speaking in public, in uncontrolled circumstances, or to the press.

To say that anyone even slightly familiar with Graham’s thought or writing—which is available publicly, for free, to anyone with an Internet connection (as most New York Times reporters have) will understand that the quote is absurd. Graham has probably done more to promote women in technology than anyone else. He wrote an entire essay, “Female Founders,” on this subject, which arose in part because he was “accused recently of believing things I don’t believe about women as programmers and startup founders. So I thought I’d explain what I actually do believe.” Miller didn’t bother reading that. She got it wrong, and it goes uncorrected. So this bogus quote that says the opposite of what Graham means is still going around.

Meanwhile, Farhad Manjoo wrote “As More Tech Start-Ups Stay Private, So Does the Money,” in which he cites various reasons why startups may stay private (“rooted in part in Wall Street’s skepticism of new tech stocks”) but misses a big one: Sarbanes-Oxley.** It’s almost impossible to read anything about the IPO market for tech companies without seeing a discussion of the costs of compliance (millions of dollars a year) and the other burdens with it.

I tweeted as much to him and he replied, “@seligerj a whole article about a complex issue and no mention of my pet interest that is just of many factors in the discussion!!!!??” Except it’s not a pet interest. It’s a major issue. Manjoo could have spent 30 seconds searching Google Scholar and an hour reading, and he’d conclude that SBO is really bad for the IPO market (and it encourages companies to go private). But why bother when a snarky Tweet will do? A snarky Tweet takes 10 seconds and real knowledge takes many hours. General problems with it are well-known. Not surprisingly, Paul Graham has written about those too. So has Peter Thiel in Zero to One. Ignoring it is not a minor issue: it’s like ignoring the role of hydrogen in water.

Manjoo’s article is at least a little better because his is a misleading oversight instead of an overt misquotation. But it’s still amazing not just for missing a vital issue in the first place but the response to having that issue pointed out.

If the articles were posted to random blogs or splogs I’d of course just ignore them, because the standards to which random blogs are held are quite low. But they were posted to the New York Times, which is actually much better than the rest of the media. That two writers could get so much so wrong in so short a space is distressing because of what that says not only about the Times but the rest of the media. I’m not even a domain expert here: I don’t work in the area and primarily find it a matter of intellectual curiosity.

This post is important because the Times is a huge megaphone. Policymakers who don’t know a lot about specific issues related to tech read and (mostly) trust it. While sophisticated readers or people who have been reading Graham for years might know the truth, most people don’t. A huge megaphone should be wielded carefully. Too often it isn’t.

Oddly, one of my earliest posts was about another howler in the New York Times. I’ve seen some since but yesterday’s batch was particularly notable. There are many good accounts of why you can’t trust the media—James Fallows gives one in Breaking the News and Ryan Holiday another in Trust Me, I’m Lying—but I’ve rarely seen two back-to-back examples as good as these. So good, in fact, that I want to post about them publicly both to inform others and for archive purposes: next time someone says, “What do you mean, you can’t trust even the New York Times?”, I’ll have examples of why ready to go.

* I’m not linking to the article because it’s terrible for many reasons, and I’d like to focus solely on the one cited, which is provably wrong.

** I’m not linking directly to this article either; The Hacker News thread about it is more informative than the article itself.

A world without work might be totally awesome, and we have models for it, but getting there might be hard

Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work: For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?” is fascinating and you should read it. But I’d like to discuss one small part, when Thompson writes: “When I asked Hunnicutt what sort of modern community most resembles his ideal of a post-work society, he admitted, ‘I’m not sure that such a place exists.'”

I can imagine such a place: A university. At one time, most professors made enough money to meet their basic material needs without making extravagant amounts of money (there were and are some superstar exceptions). Today, a fair number of professors still make enough money to meet their basic material needs, though proportionally fewer than, say, 30 years ago. Still, universities have always depended on peer effects for reputation; they’ve tended to convince smart people to do a lot of meaningful activities that are disconnected from immediate and often long-term remuneration. Many professors appear to have self-directed lives that they themselves structure. The average person with free time doesn’t explore build-it-yourself DNA or write about the beauty of Proust or do many of the other things professors  do—the average person watches TV—but perhaps norms will change over time.

I don’t want to overstate the similarity between a potential low-work future and contemporary tenured professors—many professors find grading to be mind numbing, and not everyone handles self-direction and motivation well—but they are similar enough to be notable. In a world of basic incomes and (relative) economic plenty, we may get more people writing blogs, making art, and playing sports or other games. People may spend more time in gyms and less time in chairs.

The open-source software software community as it currently exists tends to intersect with large companies, but there are fringes of it with a strongly non-commercial or academic ethos. Richard Stallman has worked for MIT for decades and has written enormous amounts of important open-source code; the primary PGP maintainer made almost no money until recently, though he could almost certainly make tons of cash working for big tech company. Many people who make money in tech are closer to artists than is commonly supposed. Reading Hacker News and the better precincts in Reddit will introduce you to other open-source zealots, some of whom mostly blow hot air but others of whom act and think like artists rather than businessmen.

Many programmers say publicly that they consider programming to be so much fun that they’re amazed at the tremendous sums they can earn doing it. A small but literate part of the sex worker community says something similar: like most people they enjoy sex, and like most people they enjoy money, and combining the two is great for them. They may not enjoy every act with every client but the more attractive and attentive clients are pretty good. One could imagine an activity that is currently (sometimes) paid and sometimes free being used to occupy more time. I’ve met many people who dance and make their money putting on and teaching dances. If they had a guaranteed annual income they’d probably dance all the time and be very pleased doing that.

Already many professions have turned into hobbies, as I wrote in 2013; most actors and musicians are essentially hobbyists as well, at least in the revenue sense. Photographers are in a similar situation, as are many fiction writers. Poets haven’t been commercial for decades, to the extent they ever were (they weren’t when the Metaphysicals were writing, but that didn’t stop Herbert or Donne). Today many of my favorite activities aren’t remunerative, and while I won’t list them here many are probably similar to yours, and chances are good that some of yours aren’t remunerative either. Maybe our favorite activities are only as pleasurable as they are by contrast with less desirable activities. Maybe they aren’t. Consider for a moment your own peak, most pleasurable and intense experiences. Did they happen at work? If you worked less, would you have more?

In short, though, models for non-commercial but meaningful lives do (somewhat) exist. Again, they may not suit everyone, but one can see a potential future already here but unevenly distributed.

A lot of white-collar office work has a large make-work component, and there’s certainly plenty of literature on how boring it can be. If people really, really worked in the office they could probably do much of their “work” in a tiny amount of the allotted time. Much of that time is signaling conformity, diligence, and so forth, and, as Tim Ferris points out in The Four-Hour Work Week, people who work smarter can probably work less. To use myself as an example, I think of myself as productive but even I read Hacker News and Reddit more often than I should.

Some people already do what appears to me to be work-like jobs. People who don’t like writing would consider this blog to be “work,” while I consider it (mostly) play, albeit of an intensely intellectual sort. It already looks to me like many moderators on Reddit and similar sites have left the world of “hobby” and entered the world of “work.” The border is porous and always has been, but I see many people moving from the one to the other. (As Thompson observes, prior the late 19th or early 20th Century the idea of unemployment was itself nonsensical because pretty much anyone could find something productive to do.) Wikipedia is another site that has adverse effects in that respect, and I can’t figure out why many disinterested people would edit the site (my edits have always been self-motivated, though I prefer not to state more here).

One can imagine a low-work future being very good, but getting from the present to that future is going to be rocky at best, and I can’t foresee it happening for decades. There are too many old people and children to care for, too many goods that need to be delivered, too much physical infrastructure that needs fixing, and in general too much boring work that no one will do without being paid. Our whole society will have to be re-structured and that is not likely to be easy; in reality, too, there has never been a sustained period of quiet “normalcy” in American history. Upheaval is normal, and the U.S. has an advantage in that rewriting cultural DNA is part of our DNA. That being said, it’s useful to wonder what might be, and one can see the shape of things to come if we see radically falling prices for many material goods.

There’s one other fascinating quote that doesn’t fit into my essay but I want to emphasize anyway:

Decades from now, perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration, with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, its attenuations of family in service to job opportunity, its conflation of income with self-worth. The post-work society I’ve described holds a warped mirror up to today’s economy, but in many ways it reflects the forgotten norms of the mid-19th century—the artisan middle class, the primacy of local communities, and the unfamiliarity with widespread joblessness.

Links: TPP, solar, tenure, Dan Wang on Peter Thiel, cycling, building, and more

* Failure of the Trans-Pacific Trade Deal Could Hurt U.S. Influence in Asia. And hurt both Americans and Asians. (But wait: TPP may pass!)

* What comes after tenure? See also my discussions here and here.

* “Why the Saudis Are Going Solar:” A headline I never imagined reading. See also Solar Power to the People.

* “CA Labor Commission Has Just Killed Uber, Though It May Take Years to Bleed Out;” note particularly: “the government is making it nearly impossible to employ low-skilled labor.” That is essentially what’s happened in much of Europe.

* “Peter Thiel and thinking for yourself.”

* How Copenhagen Became A Cycling Paradise By Considering The Full Cost Of Cars.

* “On the problem of normative sociology,” which is vastly more interesting than the title suggests.

* “All the Language in the World Won’t Make a Bookshelf Exist;” see also the memoir Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future — Ashlee Vance

Vance’s Elon Musk biography is informationally good but aesthetically average, or even slightly below average (aesthetics are graded non-linearly). You should read it, though, if for no other reason than because Musk is like a High Elf in Middle Earth at the time of The Lord of the Rings: he seems like he belongs to an other age, and I mean that as an extreme compliment. Even compared to other High Nerds he is extreme, and extreme to an extent I thought I understood but didn’t until this book and maybe not even after this book. The scale of his ambition and achievement is epic—so epic that he attracts haters as rock stars attract groupies. The same sexual energy groupies channel into music haters channel into Musk. Elon Musk reminds us, probably inadvertently, that criticism is easy and achievement is hard. Internet culture makes criticism easy, cheap, and pervasive, but achievement remains undebased.

elon_musk_vanceThroughout the book Musk comes across as different from baseline humans; I’m often told that I seem different (and this is rarely meant as a compliment, though even its slightly negative connotation rarely shades to insult), but Musk is way different in terms of values, and in behavior. He tells his then-wife Justine that if she were his employee that he would fire her; as a kid he “seemed to drift off into a trance at times. People spoke to him, but nothing got through when he had a certain, distant look in his eyes. This happened so often that Elon’s parents and doctors thought he might be deaf.” He had a “compulsion to read” and “From a very young age, he seemed to have a book in his hands at all times.” I identify: I have the same problem today, but without the need to constantly innovate and to to beat everyone, everywhere, all the time, at all things. I’m okay with being; Musk, it seems, has never been okay with being.

In life there is much superficial talk about values, like what a person wears or eats, but very little about real value, like how a person makes life vastly better through the provision of goods, services, and arts that can’t exist without an individual driving those things into existence. We think of artists as special because they do those things, and technology and business are Musk’s arts. But he cannot act alone: someone like Lucian Freud, as described in Geordie Greig’s biography, can lose friends and alienate people in a way that someone building businesses can’t (and Musk appears not to have Freud’s lasciviousness, which I note as a fact but do not condemn). Musk has that arguably harder task, though it is a task he assumed early and has never wavered from. His Sauron is things wrong with the present, and he is the Aragorn who can set them right, but his battle is more ambiguous and harder to achieve than Aragorn’s. Corporeal foes are rare but attractive to the human mind, while abstract foes are common and ignored. The link between belief and behavior is stronger in Musk than almost anyone else’s.

It is common to say that some person overcame “incredible odds,” but Musk really did, and is continuing to do so: the full story is outrageous and its flavor can’t really be gained here, but Vance writes that “As 2007 rolled in 2008, Musk’s life became much more tumultuous. Tesla basically had to start over on much of the Roadster, and SpaceX still had dozens of people living on Kwajalein awaiting the next launch of the Falcon 1.” Things get worse. One or both companies were days away from bankruptcy. During that period his ex-wife, Justine, took him for a shocking amount of money in divorce court; at that time Philip Greenspun and friends’s book Real World Divorce: Custody, Child Support, and Alimony in the 50 States didn’t exist, but too many stories like Musk’s drove its creation. If we had any on-the-ball literary agents, they’d be selling Real World Divorce to conventional publishers.

The most interesting question raised by Elon Musk may not be about Musk’s psychology, but about the psychology of his haters (sometimes Vance comes across as one: the book’s introduction is terrible, and there is some idiotic commentary on pages 347 – 350 that I’m not going to further address). Something drives people to root for the failure of others. Legions of assholes, at Valleywag and elsewhere, have wanted, gleefully, to see SpaceX and Tesla fail. The reasons for this are strange: both companies may reshape human life for the ambiguously better. Why root for someone who is doing unalloyed good to fail? I don’t have a good answer. I’m not sure anyone does.

People read the negative crap and because of readers, writers produce it. In “Subtle Mid-Stage Startup Pitfalls” Jessica Livingston writes:

An unfortunate by-product of success is a greater amount of public criticism. Once you make it to the mid-stage, you may start to become well known, especially if you have a consumer product. Two things can happen at this point with the public that always catch founders by surprise: first, complete strangers will start to assign bad intentions to everything you do. Second, the media will only be interested in one thing about you: controversy. Because controversy equals page views. No actual controversy? No problem; they’ll manufacture some.

You can’t prevent yourself from being a target. It’s an automatic consequence of being successful. So the best you can do is react in the right way when people attack you. To some extent you have to resign yourself to letting people lie about you. You can’t engage with every crazy hater or troll. But sometimes you do need to react, especially if something happens that makes more people angry at you than usual. So someone should be watching Twitter, but perhaps not the CEO.

And be very careful about what you say, both as a company and as individuals, even in what might seem like private conversations. Anything you say can turn into a news story nowadays. And you don’t even have to have said something bad–just something someone could willfully misinterpret.

Musk has been willfully misinterpreted by too many people with big megaphones. He has been misinterpreted at least somewhat by Vance, whose journalistic inclination to want to see both sides, even when one side is wrong, occludes his vision. The first pages of the biography wrongly give doubt too prominent a place. I will note that I wouldn’t want to work for Musk’s companies: I don’t have the temperament for 80-hour weeks in pursuit of any cause, however amazing, and his level of abrasiveness would make me quit. Whatever the flaws in his methods, they are effective. Towards the end of the essay Livingston says that companies must above all else “Ship great things.” Musk does that, and, more amazingly, he ships great things that are made of atoms, rather than things made of bits. Awe should have a prominent place in stories about him. Awe has been evacuated from much of modern life, but it still exists in human-dwarfing technical projects.

Too bad we so rarely stop to feel it.

Like many successful (and presumably unsuccessful) alpha nerds, “Elon’s constant yearning to correct people and his abrasive manner put off other kids and added to his feelings of isolation.” Nerds care more about being right than liked (though this can be comical when they’re determined they’re right and they’re, or when they’re dealing with indeterminate problem spaces like social life).

We find that Elon’s parents divorced but little about what might be the real reasons why they did. His school experience was horrible, though at least it appears he wasn’t raped, as was apparently somewhat common at British boarding schools for a long time. He worked as few others do (something he has in common with Kelly Johnson). Extreme achievement often or maybe always requires extreme effort, which is an underappreciated point, especially in contemporary political discourse. One person said, “Elon was the most straight-laced dude you have ever met. He never drank. He never did anything. Zero. Literally nothing.” Except, apparently, “video game binges.” At Zip2, his first startup, “Musk never seemed to leave the office. He slept, not unlike a dog, on a beanbag next to his desk.” The metaphor is again her interesting and maybe misplaced.

That said Musk isn’t today and wasn’t then a messiah: “Musk feel into the classic self-taught coder trap of writing what developers call hairballs—big, monolithic hunks of code that could o berserk for mysterious reasons. The engineers also brought a more refined working structure and realistic deadlines to the engineering group.” In searching for a business, he thought that, based on working at the Bank of Nova Scotia, “bankers are rich and dumb [. . . which] had the feel of a massive opportunity.” A few pages later: “He had an inkling that the bankers were doing finance all wrong and that he could run the business better than anyone else.” Yet the big banks are still with us, and while Paypal has been reasonably successful it hasn’t displaced big banks and if anything the big banks are bigger and richer. Musk also favored Microsoft servers for a startup, which is totally bizarre, then or now, and (Paypal’s predecessor) almost failed due to technology problems.

The relationship between Musk and his ex-wife, Justine, became sordid, and to be fair however much I admire Musk I wouldn’t want marry him. Oddly, too, years ago I read Justine’s novel Bloodangel, but it wasn’t any good.

Here is one okay review from Slate. So far almost all the commentary I’ve seen on Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future has been by people who miss the plot. There are better essays to be written. As so often happens journalists are letting us down, but then again they’re letting us down because we let them let us down.

*Do* we need Shakespeare?

Megan McArdle asks: “Do We Need Shakespeare?“, and she offers some theories about why we might that don’t rely on “Because we’ve always done it that way,” including “What remains is a sort of stubborn belief that people ought to study literature because it is somehow good for them” and “Maybe the best argument you can make for English class is that it offers a way for people like myself, and many thousands of future English teachers, to find out that they like English class.”



Still, I’m not so sure. I began imagining reasons almost immediately, but most reduced to, “Because we’ve been doing it that way for a long time.” Which can be reduced to “path dependence.” Teaching a writer who seems incomprehensible at first glance and requires experts to decipher also raises the status of (some) teachers and professors, who have knowledge that can’t be readily accessed by every day people. That Hansonian reason, however, isn’t real good reason why we should choose Shakespeare plays over some other means of teaching English.

Let me try to develop an alternate possibility that will likely make many people unhappy. I’ve begun to think that education is really about cultivating a relatively small elite who really push forward particular domains (which is a variant of McArdle’s comment about the thousands of future English teachers). In other words, mass education doesn’t matter nearly as much as intensely educating a small number of very high skill people, but those people probably aren’t identifiable in advance. This idea isn’t purely mine, and I’ve been thinking about it explicitly since reading Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, in which he writes:

It is important to stress that the Industrial Revolution was the creation of an elite, a relatively small number of ingenious, ambitious, and diligent persons who could think out of the box, and had the wherewithal to carry out their ideas and to find others who could assist them. This is not to return to the heroic interpretations of the Victorian hagiographers such as Samuel Smiles and credit a few famous individuals with the entire phenomenon […] Even these pivotal people were a minority, perhaps a few tens of thousands of elite workers, well trained through apprenticeships supplemented sometimes by informal studies.

Wow: Something as big a deal as the Industrial Revolution may have been driven by a small number of people. I’ve also read a lot about the early computer industry and the early development of integrated chips, and that too seems to have been driven by a small number of physicists and mathematicians, with particularly important companies like Fairchild Semiconductor and later Intel starting off with tiny workforces. Most of the world didn’t matter much to the development of those industries, even though those industries are now so large that a large part of the workforce spends our time in front of glowing screens that show executed code most of us don’t understand and can’t write. Computers and the Internet are the biggest stories of our age, possibly excepting global warming and mass extinction, yet many of us aren’t substantially participating and don’t care to.

What gives?

The unpleasant answer may be that most of us don’t matter that much to the process. By the same token, most people who learn to despite reading from being made to read Shakespeare may never be good readers, writers, or thinkers—but they’re not the ones who push the world forward, intellectually speaking. Instead, those of us who go on to realize that, say, “
Shakespeare’s Genius Is Nonsense: What the Bard can teach science about language and the limits of the human mind
” are the ones who matter, at least in this domain.

Most Westerners are uncomfortable with outright elitism, but I’d ask: How many of us really work as hard as we can at a given domain? In “How A Slight Change In Mindset: Accelerated My Learning Forever,” Tristan de Montebello observes that few of us really throw ourselves into learning. Most of us learn as much as we need to to survive and do okay and reproduce, but not much more than that. You can tell as much via behavior.

That may be true in language as a domain as well. I read more than the vast majority of people I know, and yet there are people who read and write much more than even I do.

To return to Shakespeare, I’d also argue that sometimes complex, weird, or seemingly outdated works force us to read closer and more carefully than we might otherwise. Shakespeare makes contemporary readers work harder to understand what the writer means—which is ultimately a useful and under-used skill. Just look at most Internet forums: since the 1980s and Usenet, going forward all the way to today with Reddit, we have numerous places where people gather online and utterly fail at basic reading comprehension (this is one reason I spend little time posting there and much more posting here).

Under this theory, reading someone like Shakespeare is akin to lifting weights: a 500-pound deadlift may not translate directly into 500 pounds of force in a game, but it sure translates more force than a guy who can’t deadlift 500 pounds.

Still, I’m treating the argument that Shakespeare-is-good like a lawyer and trying to come up with the best possible argument, rather than arguing from first principles. I’m not fully convinced we need Shakespeare, as opposed to some other writer or group of writers, as a necessary component of teaching English.


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