Coders — Clive Thompson

Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World is promising, but many sections are too wrapped up in media business rituals for it to be great. That said, if you’ve not read about the mindsets that cognitively demanding enterprises demand, the book provides a good introduction to them. Despite that, it likely underemphasizes and underplays the extreme meritocracy of the tech world, where code works—or doesn’t, and products work—or don’t. The large amount of signaling cruft that has accumulated in many other worlds is (mostly) absent. Coders are arguably the end result of a centuries-long process away from being who you are because of you or your family’s place in the social order and towards being who you are because of what you can do. Maybe that will change over time, but it hasn’t yet, and tech is attractive to outsiders in general because you can’t fake your way in, and, if you do, you’ll likely be found out relatively quickly.

Thompson disagrees, it seems. He writes, “the software industry has long cherished its self-image of a pure meritocracy.” I don’t think many people think a “pure” meritocracy is possible, so this notion has a whiff of the strawman about it because of the word “pure.” A better question might be, is the software business meritocratic compared to many other industries? Sure seems like it, given the way the Internet opens the field to talented but uncredentialed outsiders. Thompson goes on to assert it’s not true, without providing real evidence (though he has some typical media stories). For example, the chapter “10x, rock stars, and the myth of meritocracy” has lots of stories but very little, if any, data, and none that supports the central point. Chapter 7 is worse.

Despite that, there are useful threads; for example, people complained vociferously about Facebook’s News Feed when it was introduced. But “the day after News Feed emerged, Sanghvi and the team found that people were spending twice as much time on Facebook as before.” Revealed preferences, in other words: we could call our era the “revealed preferences” era, because so much of our online lives shows things that we don’t want to say. The aggregate of our desires is often quite different from what we say we want. Still, it might be inhumane to live in a world where shading the truth is a lot harder, and we’re in a world where online denunciations are becoming more common yet our cultural immune system hasn’t adjusted to them yet.

After I read Coders, I read “Robert A. Caro on the Means and Ends of Power,” and it makes me think: Who is going to be the Caro of the coding generation? The writer who is so deep into the technical mind, the mind that has shaped the digital tools almost all of use, that he says it all? Thompson has the potential to get there, but Coders doesn’t arrange the material right. He gets that, to Ruchi Sanghvi, Facebook as a company “was different, it was vibrant, it was alive,” as she says. That’s a powerful force and, as someone who’s worked in and around government and universities for years, I see the appeal of being in a startup where urgency is everywhere. But Thompson also writes things like, “Facebook looked at our lives as a problem of inefficient transmission of information.” Did it? Or was it just an experiment? Maybe an experiment in self-presentation? arguably those two questions are variants on “transmission of information,” but, equally arguably, “transmission of information” is too abstract for what Facebook was, or is. That’s the sort of thing someone like Caro is likely to get right, while many others are likely to get it wrong.

But, despite that, I think this is correct, or, if not correct, interesting:

Back during the Revolutionary America of the late eighteenth century, the key profession was law. The American style of government is composed of nothing but laws, of course.

I wonder if “writer” has ever been the key profession, or if it’s always been the profession of the carpers instead of the doers. Nonetheless, the theme of coding’s rise reappears elsewhere: “Sure, politics, law, and business are powerful, but if you want to really remold the contours of society? Write code.” That, at least, his view of the ’90s and the Internet.

For one coder,

It was like constantly solving puzzles: trying to make an algorithm run faster, trying to debug a gnarly piece of code that wasn’t working right. The mental chess colonized her mind, and she found herself pondering coding problems all day long.

Sounds like many writers on writing, who also find that the top-of-mind project colonizes their minds—if they’re to do it at the highest levels. Both fields are also prone to generating the question, “Where do good ideas come from?”, which has no answer at this stage of technological and human knowledge.

Yet solving puzzles also means managing frustration, because another section declares it writing it well to need “a boundless, nigh masochistic ability to endure brutal, grinding frustration.” Why do some people find some things, like running or coding, as fun, while many if not most others hate them? We are again running into unanswerable psychological questions with large-scale social implications. Yet the work also engenders “a sense of clarity, of proof that his work actually was valid.”

You can no doubt sense my ambivalence about Coders. Thompson needs to give up his media rituals and relentless political correctness henpecking; they’re likely to mark Coders as being too much of its time, rather than for all time. There is a classic in this book, but the book is too of its media moment to be the classic. And that’s a pity, to see someone with a lot of material who misuses the material.

Trick Mirror — Jia Tolentino

I read one of the essays in a magazine, but the book as a whole is dubious. Take the introduction: she writes that she wrote the book “between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018” which was, she says, “a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride, when many of us regularly found ourselves thinking that everything had gotten as bad as we could possibly imagine, after which, of course, things got worse.” “As bad as we could possibly imagine?” That’s a real deficit of imagination, then. As bad as things were during the Cuban Missile Crisis? As during the Able Archer exercise, which the Soviet Union almost took as preparation for nuclear war? As bad as even the Great Recession in 2009? Has Tolentino and “many of us” read Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment now?

Tolentino writes that one of her essays is “about ‘optimization,’ and the rise of athleisure as late-capitalist fetishwaear.” First, athleisure is not, to my knowledge, associated at all with fetish sexual practices (I could be wrong on that but didn’t see any citations or experiences to the contrary in the essay). Second, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen “late capitalism” intelligently defined, or that I’ve ever read a sentence that was improved by including the phrase. How do we know we’re in late capitalism? Is it possible we’re experiencing early capitalism? She later writes that our world is “utterly consumed by capitalism.” What’s that mean? What’s the alternative? We’ve seen examples of the state directing all or almost all economic activity (the Soviet Union, Venezuela), and the result is not good.

It’s also neither clear nor evident that “capitalism” is the best way to analyze many of the Internet platforms. To the extent capitalism involves monetary exchange, I don’t pay Twitter and Twitter doesn’t pay me; same with Facebook or Google. If I’m a business, advertising, I might. And if you don’t like the social media advertising business models, you can also host your own blog. That almost no one does, tells us something, but it’s something Tolentino doesn’t want to get to.

There are assertions like “Mass media always determines the shape of politics and culture.” Really? “Mass media?” Why not technology? Or why don’t politics and culture shape mass media? What way does the causal arrow run?

A while ago, “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now” appeared:

As Arts & Letters Daily puts it, “When did campy misandry become contemporary shorthand for communicating one’s feminist bona fides?” A favorite line: “Having a relationship is a lot like writing: To be good at it, you have to be interested in other people and believe you have something interesting to offer them in return. Many people who pursue either do so poorly because they are actually interested only in themselves.”

You can apply a lot of “Nice for What’s?” analysis to Trick Mirror, but with “the Internet” (exalted and degraded, parent and child, god and satan) standing in for men. Trick Mirror is a very well done version of the Brooklyn hipster writer worldview. Whether that worldview is correct, I will leave to readers.

It’s always been hard to make it in the arts. In some ways, the Internet makes it harder (the supply of writing, video, and photo is way up); in some ways, it makes it easier (it’s possible to become visible in a way that wasn’t in 1980). Today, writing is an incredible secondary skill but a harder primary skill: I see that in Seliger + Associates, where the blog is now a primary marketing mechanism. I also see it in the way every third English major I knew tried to make it as a freelance writer after college. Excess supply relative to demand has predictable effects on prices.

As a reader, the Internet is great: cheap books in the world’s largest used bookstore (finding ones really worth reading is the hard part). Niche interest books are written and made available like they couldn’t be before.

Many people take to the Internet to complain about the Internet. We can choose to live predominantly offline. What should we infer from the fact that many of us, including, it seems, Tolentino, choose not to?

As is too common, the author needs to read more evolutionary biology. Who are women competing for? Why? How does women’s intrasex competition tend to work? Then do the same with men. Many of the answers are out there, but they’re rarely discussed in MFA and English programs. Trick Mirror is a book partially about unexamined assumptions that nonetheless seems to import an awful lot of unexamined assumptions of its own. It’s got a better book lurking inside it, and that’s why it’s frustrating. A bad book is easy to dismiss and a good book is easy to love.

Almost all the reviews I’ve read have been too dutiful and too fawning. Over time it’s become apparent that many book reviews are written for insiders and by insiders, so the exceptions stand out.

The State of Affairs — Esther Perel

The State of Affairs is another book that, like Mating in Captivity, touches topics of wide interest that almost no one wants to address directly. Perel says, “Few events so encompass the breadth of human drama” as the one she’s writing about, and, while that may be overstated, she’s not wrong in her trust. She also says, “my goal is to introduce a more productive conversation about the topic,” and the “productive” being an interesting choice here: What is being produced? What efficiency is being brought to the problem or product space? She says too, that she wants to “ultimately strengthen all relationships by making them more honest and resilient.” Do most people want honesty? I used to think so and am now less sure. Many more of us may want to want honesty than truly want honesty.

That said, Perel also says, “Because I meet with partners alone as well as together, I have been afforded an unusual window into the experience of the unfaithful partner.” The “unusual window” is the view she affords us, somewhat voyeuristically. We used to have to rely primarily on novels and gossip for the view into the unusual window, but now we have Perel, standing at the side with a laser pointer and a stick, telling us about the flora and fauna inside. She nicely sidesteps what she calls the “for or against?” question and moves into a large number of questions about framing, motivation, and stories. As she says, “Catastrophe has a way of propelling us into the essences of things.” She hits a lot of essences. She also acknowledges what a lot of non-novel-readers might easily forget: “We are walking contradictions.” Some theories of consciousness hold that consciousness arose to mediate contradictory impulses. If so, we’ve been struggling with the results ever since.

Perel is with opinions, though. She’s not a total relativist, describing without opining. She finds that the “best friend” model of romance and modern relationships is often stifling, unworkable, and historically unlikely. Throughout most of history, spouses and lovers didn’t even need to be friends; they needed to produce children, inherit property, continue their culture—that kind of thing. Today, she says, many of us make one person play every single role in our lives, or try to—usually without total success. I think she’d agree with many of the ideas in Lost Connections. We’re collectively suffering from loneliness and degraded social connections, and when we try to get our spouse, partner, or lover to make up for those losses, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. She says, “Every day in my office I meet consumers of the modern ideology of marriage. They bought the product, got it home, and found that it was missing a few pieces.” “Consumers:” that’s pretty close to the questions about “productivity” she mentions in the introduction, and that I mention in the first paragraph. I read in Nassim Taleb an interesting idea (it may not be original to him) that went something like this: Communism for the immediate family, socialism for the extended family, market economies for the larger community, and outright capitalism for the polity at large. I think his point is that different kinds of structures apply at different scales. Perel’s point may be that a consumer-first, hedonism-first, and satisfy-me mindset may not apply very well to small-scale relationships. “Not apply very well” is probably an understatement: those mindsets may poison small-scale relationships. But we never think about them. Why not? Why does almost no one except Perel talk about this?

If there’s something I want more of from the book, it’s evolutionary psychology and biology. They make an appearance—”Evolutionary psychologists recognize the universality of jealousy in all societies. They post that it must be an innate feeling, genetically programmed, ‘an exquisitely tailored adaptive mechanism that served the interests of our ancestors well and likely continues to serve our interests today.'”

This is a good New Yorker discussion of the book. And here is another piece, in Tablet. If you want to go back further, consider Tony Tanner’s Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression, a book I admire—but it came out in 1979 and discusses works from considerably earlier, so it, like so much writing produced by humanists, is missing evolutionary biology.

We still have no idea what’s really going on, and maybe we never will, because technology is moving faster than human norms, human social structures, and human legal structures. That mismatch may be the driving force behind a lot of weird social stuff we don’t really understand. The State of Affairs pulls us out of the day-to-day and pushes us towards what lies beneath. Most of us don’t want to go there and don’t want to understand, but if you do want to understand read it. There are lots of stories and not a lot of data; if that’s going to bother you, there are lots of nice other choices in adjacent genres that will feed you what appears to be good data (though turning data into truth is always tricky at best).

Also, if you ever get a chance to hear Perel live, do it. I did she’s one of these magnetic public speakers who’s also quick-witted (much more so than the audience members asking her questions that just standard political talking points—if you do this, you may be unhappy with the result).

Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero — Tyler Cowen

The question underlying Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero is, “How can problems best be identified and solved?” (Although the book is much more interesting than my question may imply.) Sometimes individuals acting alone are the best agents; sometimes groups of individuals who agree to be lassoed together under a corporate aegis are the best agents (that is a long way of saying “business”); sometimes government(s) are the best agents, depending on the type, scale, and fixability of the problem(s). Many political arguments are essentially arguments that want to move problem domains or solutions from one of these classes to another.

Pages 22 – 23 deal with industries that exist despite selling products that, at the very least, likely don’t do what proponents say they will do—industries like dentistry, stockbrokers, sales reps, and food. The food industry is particularly notable, as a lot of food is what Michael Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances.” Another way of looking at those products, though, is that they’re selling hope or reassurance, and people like buying hope much more than they like buying evidence-backed products. Consumer Reports is not all that popular and their evaluations rarely if ever go viral. Perhaps most importantly, a lesson from industries Cowen cites, like dietary supplements, is that most people have bad epistemic hygiene—and, in most circumstances, don’t care about it. I spent much time attempting to teach undergraduates research strategies and how to evaluate claims and sources, and most of the time I wasn’t very successful. It took too long for me to realize that, rather than start with peer review, publication reliability, and that kind of thing, I need to start with a question: “How do you know what you know?” From there, it’s possible to build out towards epistemic hygiene, but the overwhelming majority of students seemed not to give a shit, and, indeed, if you go around asking normal people questions like, “How do you know what you know?” they will at best look at you strangely and at worst leave to talk to someone else about fun topics—at least, I speculate that that may happen.

Human rationality is often not that strong, and we like to give ourselves reasons for our failures while castigating others for theirs. People working in businesses are often engaging in similar activities and ways of arguing.

“How do you know what you know?” is a context question, and Cowen is a great expert in context. He asks us to “step back and consider what standard we are measuring business against. The propensity of business to commit fraud is essentially just an extension of the propensity of people to commit fraud.” The problem is mostly within us, rather than in the specific structures of business.

The chapter “Is Work Fun?” resonates:

I am not trying to whitewash the burdens of the workday and the workplace. Nonetheless, a lot of the other evidence points us toward the more positive side of work. Work provides us with a lot of what we value in life, including affirmation of our social worth, a structure for problem solving combined with rewards, and an important source of social interactions [. . .]

Yet we can rarely say as much in public or among our friends. Why not?

This paragraph is also characteristic of Cowen’s thought, where words like “but” and “nonetheless” play key roles. He’s really trying to get us to rejigger our levels. The “burdens” are real, but so are the benefits, even if those aren’t emphasized. Cowen is great at connecting ideas that are underemphasized and not often foregrounded. Chapter 9 asks us, “If Business Is So Good, Why Is It So Disliked?” Many possible answers are advanced. I will add one that I didn’t see or that I missed: it is easier to blame abstract “business” than ourselves.

I want to quote the book’s last sentence and paragraph but would prefer you to experience it after reading all of Big Business.

One chapter discusses tech companies; many of the criticisms against tech companies are misguided, as you’ve read here. More vitally, I see those criticisms as really being criticisms of individual people. If we, collectively, wanted to, we could all switch to DuckDuckGo for search—a boon for privacy—and many of us could be using Linux as a primary desktop operating system, especially today, when so much software is delivered via the browser. Dell offers high-quality Linux laptops, and using Linux is probably an improvement for privacy; homing beacons and tracking seem much less prevalent in open-source software. Yet most of us—including me when it comes to Linux—don’t choose the privacy-focused option. We don’t choose free software. We choose convenience. Is that the fault of tech companies or individual choices? To me, it looks a lot like we see the faults of tech companies when we look in the mirror in the morning. The number of people who really care about freedom, broadly defined, seems to be small, and far smaller than the number of people who say they care about freedom. Most people want convenience more than freedom or privacy, just as most people want junk food more than they want physical health. To return to my photography examples, most people want greater sharing convenience than the best image quality or artistic effect.

It’s possible to imagine an even more pro-business book than this one; a company like Amazon is amazing, for example, in that what I order, almost always shows up, and it’s convenient too. Contrast that with the many dealings I’ve had lately with New York’s tax office; I could go into detail, but the reader would likely want to stab their eyes out, as I have often wanted to do.

Cowen touches on alternatives to for-corporations:

Another possible way to test the honesty of business would be to compare nonprofit and for-profit organizations. If you think profits induce corruption, you might then conclude that nonprofits should be especially trustworthy. The evidence, however, will show that for-profits and nonprofits, at least if we are comparing enterprises in the same basic economic sector, usually operate in pretty similar ways.

This has been my experience; it’s also apparent to me, having worked for nonprofits for years, that nonprofits are much more like businesses than most people realize. I’ve also spent a lot of time working in and around universities, and they are the ultimate businesses: just try taking classes for grades if you can’t pay tuition. Try returning a low-value, high-cost degree. For a while I’ve been advancing the argument that many parts of the university system are self-interested (and sometimes just bad) actors that have great marketing skills. Most people react to that argument skeptically, but as evidence of student loan burdens grows, the skeptical reaction seems to be declining.

I’m not against nonprofits and the best ones are very important. The science research function at most universities still works fairly well, despite having some well-known incentive problems. The gap between university-in-theory and university-in-practice, though, remains wide, and most universities don’t want to publicize some obvious truths—like the idea that not everyone should go, or that not everyone has the conscientious and IQ necessary to thrive in an academic setting.

Among nonprofits, one possible purpose of the grant system is to keep nonprofits both honest and effective. It is possible to be honest without being particularly effective, and vice-versa. Ideally one wants both. Few of us do both perfectly, despite the way we often demand that others do both perfectly.

One chapter asks whether CEOs are paid too much: Cowen mostly says no, they’re not, and he cites a lot of empirical evidence on the subject. But he also says, “it’s hard to find someone who can both run the day-to-day operations of a company and do these other things [like social media and PR, communication, Congressional and other testimony].” I wonder if it’s really hard to find people who can do those things, or if there’s a kind of weird selection and vetting process going on through which only a small number of people are considered by the relevant people, and thus the number seems smaller than it is because those doing the selecting won’t broaden their search criteria. Think of it as the CEO equivalent of companies that only want to hire from certain schools that reject as many qualified applicants as they admit. I also wonder what level of compensation, if any, is necessary for satiation: many CEOs seem to reach, and to have reached, that level long before. Can we shift from money to some other yardstick? If so, how?

Is the business world changing faster than it used to? If so, is agility more important than it used to be? Many businesses may not be “set it and forget it” anymore (if they ever were). My personal favorite example is camera companies: standalone camera shipments have been dropping for the last six years, and the response of photo company CEOs has mostly been to shrug. No companies have made substantial efforts towards making their camera bodies into smartphones combined with superior image sensors. As a result, Apple and Google have come to dominate the imaging and video worlds, while camera makers seem to lack the agility necessary to compete. In many consumer industries, competition seems to be increasing; to cite another example I’m familiar with, large bike companies like Trek are facing a host of Internet startups like State, Priority, and numerous others that source direct from China and Taiwan. Innovators in electric bikes have not been the biggest companies. Low agility may result in eroding market share and profits. The future is happening and it doesn’t seem to be happening evenly, to everyone.

The modesty of many Big Business claims stand out: “[CEO pay in the aggregate] could be better, but it works much more effectively than many people think.” “Much more effectively than many people think” could still be not all that effective; in this and in many other sections, Cowen is trying to move the needle a bit. He’s describing situations with a large number of potential analogue, intermediary places, and in this he’s moving against the modern Twitter tendency to see things as binary: good or bad, zero or one, shit or brilliant. Most of things in the most of the world are in this intermediary space, including all humans, however virtuous all Twitters may portray themselves to be (in contrast to their vile enemies).

Big Business is much more story-based than one might expect from Cowen, who argues that we should be more suspicious of simple stories. Fortunately, Big Business is not a simple book.

As with all the Cowen books I’ve read, there’s much to think about and much more I could write here; he is very good at finding the space where “rarely argued/articulated” and “possibly correct” intersect. Common arguments and ideas are common, and incorrect or ridiculous ideas are common, but finding the Cowen quadrant is too rare. I sometimes worry that my own ideas are too common to be worth repeating. Finding ones that hit the Cowen quadrant is satisfying, like a deadlift PR.

The world is filled with problems and our goal as humans is to solve them until we die. We very rarely see life formulated in that way, but maybe we should say this explicitly more often. “What problems have you solved recently?” may be a more valuable question than, “What do you believe?”

Steve Levine’s “The Powerhouse” and the Chevy Volt

The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War describes how we got to today’s electric cars, and it does so by following the vicissitudes of Argonne National Labs, which played a key role in battery development, as well as many of the scientists and players who help develop batteries. Much of the narrative structure comes from GM’s quest to build the Chevy Volt, a car that is amazing and widely underappreciated, because the conditions and assumptions that led to its development have changed.

In the late ’00s and early ’10s, almost no one foresaw the rise of fracking, which has put a lid on oil prices. If fracking hadn’t come along when it did, oil would probably be between $100 and $200 a barrel today, and GM wouldn’t be able to build enough Volts. GM’s management would look like geniuses. Instead, as has been widely reported, GM is closing a bunch of plants, likely including the one that makes Volts. People are short-sighted and, when gas prices fall, we buy bigger cars.

The Volt is neither as cheap as a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) car nor as interesting as an electric. It appears that most people want a pure electric or a conventional ICE car, and hybrids like the Volt are stuck in between. Most people don’t give a damn about climate change or Saudi and Russian repression, at least as measured by their behaviors when it comes to buying cars (You might argue that this is bad—I would—but, at least in terms of mass behavior, it’s true). Today, articles like, “Why Oil Prices Took Such a Tumble, and What Comes Next” are common:

It was only at the start of October that analysts were wondering if oil would soon cost $100 a barrel. Then a trap door opened and oil prices have been in a rapid descent since, losing nearly a third of their value in about eight weeks.

The spread of electric vehicles is also going to cap oil price rises. As prices rise, more people will shift towards electrics. But people who rag on the Volt don’t understand why it was green-lit in the first place, and they should read The Powerhouse. Aside from being an account of the Volt, The Powerhouse is about the way science and engineering actually get done. Those fields are rarely about single individuals and often about groups, companies, universities, and the interactions among the individuals that compose the larger structures. To be sure, individuals are important (John Goodenough is a battery hero, and there are many others named in the book), but we rarely succeed alone.

The Powerhouse has flaws, as a book. Its timeline jumps around, from chapter to chapter, at times. Most of its chapters are 800 – 2,000 words, a sign that many originated as blog posts or news stories, and their integration isn’t ideal. Levine is a working journalist and so may have had less time than he would have liked to complete the book. The acknowledgements page starts, “When I began to consider a book on batteries, the reception from friends and advisers was all but unanimous: don’t do it.” I’m glad he wrote the book and will recommend it, despite its firm place in a particular time and its structural challenges. Levine created a coherent story out of many disparate pieces, and that alone is admirable.

Where I’m Reading From — Tim Parks

Engagement with art, whether it is such a painting, or the interrelatedness of characters and environment in a novel, or the interplay of motifs in music, had the effect of countering what Bateson saw as our dangerous yearning to arrive at a crude understanding of the world and then intervene.

If that’s true, we ought to be thinking more about complex art and less about our “crude understanding” of how the world works; alas, Twitter and Facebook seem to push us towards crude and unusually incorrect understanding and away from real complexity. The quote is from Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books, a charming book full of similarly quotable and stimulating lines. It even stirs a very vague desire in me to read Thomas Hardy, despite many previous attempts, all ending in failure.

Little in the book is completely new but much of it is well-stated. Consider another claim, which I can’t decide to be true or false:

Identity is largely a question of the pattern of our responses when presented with a new situation, a new book. Certainly the idea of impartiality is a chimera. To be impartial about narrative would be to come from nowhere, to be no one.

If that is true, and it may be, perhaps we should learn from literature and Paul Graham to keep our identity small, so as to minimize the “pattern of our responses” and maximize our ability to see the true and/or new.

The Great Good Place — Roy Oldenburg

The Great Good Place is often dated but still interesting, and it’s highly congruent with Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression; Hari argues that one reason so many of us are anxious and depressed is that we’re spatially disconnected from other humans, and Oldenburg explains how that came to be—and how the physical space we inhabit affects us. Online life is a very poor substitute for in-person life, it seems, and articles like “Teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed” appear routinely. Friends who teach school say kids seem less able to handle their own lives and make independent decisions than the used to. While some of this may be “kids these days” grousing of the typical kind, at least some data indicates otherwise, and it may be that smartphones are bad for many reasons, like deleterious effects on relationships (an essay I wrote in 2012)—yet few of us will give them up or even significantly restrict usage. I have a smartphone too and annoy friends by being disconnected from it. Expected response times for texts seems overly low to me, but that seems to be the way the culture is moving. We’ve let phones replace places, and that’s not a good trade-off.

Our biggest barriers to good human space were and are legal and regulatory:

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy.

We take wealth and burn it through hellacious commutes: “The purchase of the even larger home on the even larger lot in the even more lifeless neighborhood is not so much a matter of joining community as retreating from it.” There are solutions, but they’re grasped tentatively and only with tremendous, pointless resistance. We can do better and choose not to.

Some challenges have gotten worse. Oldenburg anticipates the noise plague in today’s bars and restaurants:

Whatever interrupts conversation’s lively flow is ruinous to a third place, be it a bore, a horde of barbaric college students, or mechanical or electronic gadgetry. Most common among these is the noise that passes for music, though it must be understood that when conversation is to be savored, even Mozart is noise if played too loudly.

Vox says restaurant noise levels are climbing; excess noise seems to kill conviviality. Shouldn’t restaurants have figured this out? Or is Oldenburg, like me, just too far outside the mainstream for his view to matter? What should we infer from it is, rather than from what I want to be? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I pick restaurants and bars based on noise, or the lack thereof.

To me, the most interesting chapter concerned German beer garden versus Irish taverns. In the late nineteenth century, there were two major models for what might now be called bars: German beer gardens that served low-alcohol beer (usually around 3%) and Irish taverns that served potent whiskey. The former catered to families and whole communities while the latter catered to men alone:

Yet it was the Irish model that eventually prevailed. America adapted itself only to the German national beverage; it kept the beer and dropped most of the amenities with which the Germans had surrounded it. The nation never seemed able to allow the concept of a good tavern, and people who cannot envisage good taverns are doomed to have lesser ones.

German beer gardens are probably the better, pro-social model, but they didn’t prevail, and I’m not entirely sure we know why, although Prohibition seems a major culprit.

Another section on the French cafe describes a largely solved problem: Starbucks, along with innumerable specialty coffee shops, solved it. What was a problem when The Great Good Place was published has become a business. Parking and zoning are still serious problems, but a dearth of coffee shops is not.

Third places are overly-idealized in this book (one could write a counter-book about why they’re bad), but it remains an interesting book with a useful set of concepts.

The Rub of Time — Martin Amis

Language is imprecise. Push words too far and they fall apart. This is annoying, for obvious reasons, but also interesting, for artistic ones, and Amis does “a great deal of polishing” in these pieces, “trying to make myself clearer, less ambiguous, and more precise.” And sometimes, I think, imprecise or allusive in interesting ways. As a writer he also confronts the way words also contain a lot of historical residue. Amis mentions Northrop Frye, “a literary philosopher-king to whom I owe fealty.” Fealty: a curious word associated with the Middle Ages and a set of social-economic circumstances that don’t exist in Western Europe or the United States anymore. I’m sure Amis knows it’s a curious word and one that does strange work, here. A lot of Amis words do strange work and that’s part of the reason we like him.

To me, if you’ve not read nonfiction Amis, you’re best off starting with The War Against Cliché, which changed the direction and tenor of my own work. My affection for War may be a historical accident: right work, right time, right mind for a major collision. But it may be that good, and it offers some context for The Rub of Time. The essay that most stands out to me may be the one on Larkin: suddenly, I want to read him, and that’s a great effect of a great essay. “No: Larkin is not a poet’s poet. He is of course a people’s poet, which is what he would have wanted. But he is also, definingly, a novelist’s poet. It is the novelists who revere him.” I’d never thought so. Yet now I do.

Amis gets humor: this will make his own work age well, I think, particularly in an age when momentary political rage too often replaces humor. The humorous Amis is not readily quotable, though, because he’s too contextual. On Twitter, rage seems more common than comedy, when in life the opposite seems true. The smartest people I know seem much fonder of comedy than outrage. And the replacement by outrage of comedy in contemporary universities seems one of their problems, and yet one that no one is doing anything to address. Comedy pierces conventional pieties, of the sort that seem very popular on campus.

Some essays are, in my view, wildly skippable—like the one on a Republican National Convention, or the Trump one. Both the RNC and Trump are fact-free zones; to the extent either generates what might be termed “ideas,” those ideas are too unmoored from something like reality to be worth considering. The best one can hope for regarding the current incarnation of the Republican party is resounding defeat in 2018 and 2020, which leads to a reformation. Then again, I would’ve hoped for the same in 2014 and 2016, by which point the madness in the party had manifested itself, and it didn’t happen. A million intellectually sophisticated essays have done near zero to affect voting outcomes. Which is disheartening to someone who likes writing and reading such essays: if an essay falls in a forest, and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

And some Amis essays are just dated. The porn industry moves fast, and “In Pornoland” is useful historically and to someone interested in the history of the industry, but given that it was published in 2000, it feels its age. The first four paragraphs are hilarious, though, and I won’t quote them so as to not spoil the effect.

Amis is a noticer in his fiction and a noticer in his nonfiction: it’s fun to see the expert doing his thing. He’s done the reading, like most people haven’t. He’s got the context for the reading. He writes that, “Accusing novelists of egotism is like deploring the tendency of champion boxers to turn violent.” He also acknowledges when things have changed. He wrote a long piece on the actor John Travolta, but the postscript notes that “As it turned out, Travolta’s resurgence lacked staying power.” Lacking staying power, however, “is not to be compared with the death of Jett Travolta, in 2009 (a seizure, related to his autism). Jett was 16.” That’s how the piece ends, now: with perspetive, which can sometimes be absent in writing about celebrities.

Amis makes me want to be a better writer. I hope he does the same for you.

Slutever — Karley Sciortino

This passage is representative of Slutever: Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World:

My first attempt at nonmonogamy was while I was living in London, soon after my relationship with Sam ended. I was twenty-three, and fell really hard for this beardy Scottish musician. He lived in Glasgow but came to London a couple times a month with his band. I met him while high on ecstasy at a squat rave, obviously.

“Obviously;” where else does one meet a beardy Scottish musician? I say it’s representative because of the odd, jangly alliteration, “was while I was,” which sounds not quite right, especially due to the repeat of the word “was;” the unneeded comma in the second sentence; and obviously that “obviously” at the end. But I still laughed, and laughter is probably the best test for a book like this. It’s easy to condemn the frequent use of “honestly,” “whatever,” and “obviously,” but try not to do that. Yes, you will read “shout out to Hester Prynne, OG high priestess of slut-shaming.” The jokes redeem the book and the language is part of the joke. People in coffee shops looked at me not just because of the book’s eye-catching cover but because I was laughing.

You will find paragraphs with incongruous markers stacked up against each other:

When I arrived at Colette and Dan’s beautiful hilltop home on a Saturday morning in the spring of 2016, Dan answered the door wearing silk pajama pants. “Colette’s in the orgy room, meditating,” he said with a smile. They’d hired a rent-a-shaman to come up from Mexico that afternoon, to dose a handful of their friends with a psychoactive toad venom containing the powerful hallucinogen 5-MeO-DMT, known to induce divine revelation or, in Colette’s words, “ego death.” (Think Ayahuasca but without the puking.)

Who hasn’t rented a shaman from Mexico for the afternoon? But this kind of repeated incongruity is what makes the memoir-manifesto novel—more novel than many superficially high-status novels. And despite the admiration for hallucinogens and their uses, Sciortino also makes fun of Burning Man, which is, I hear, ground zero for doing such things, or doing such things in large groups of collaborators.

Sciortino writes, “Like, my goal isn’t to be good or normal or accepted. My goal is to be free. (And maybe also to troll society a bit in the process, for good measure).” Yet I wonder what freedom is; I used to think I knew and now I’m not so sure.

Slutever is not for all of you who may be reading this, but it is for some of you, and probably for more of you than you’d admit in a public setting.

Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy — Mark Regnerus

Cheap Sex is more useful, interesting, and informative than many books on the same or adjacent topics, and it pairs nicely with Date-onomics. The books can be read as differing reactions to similar social phenomenon on the ground, with the latter having a more left-wing tilt that nonetheless describes how people should pragmatically react to current conditions, while the former has a more right-wing tilt that nonetheless describes how these conditions came to be. We live in an age in which everyone is outraged or offended by something; when you find something that outrages or offends you, leave a note in the comments. You may find that cathartic.

Although neither book makes this point, I think they’re part of the continuing social reaction to the Industrial Revolution. “What,” you might be thinking, “does the Industrial Revolution have to do with contemporary books on love, marriage, and dating?” Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most societies were (relatively) stable most of the time, at least for the duration of a human life; the technological and social conditions one’s parents faced were likely the same an individual would face and the same that individual’s children would face. Cultural and technological change was of course real for much of human history, but it was also relatively slow, allowing people to acclimate to it over generations instead of years or decades.

Since the Industrial Revolution, though, we’ve seen technologies that radically and repeatedly reshape the technological and social worlds. This leads to periodic moral panics, especially but not exclusively around sexuality and religion, in part because we never get a chance to get used to new technologies.

(It’s hard to think of a single book that summarizes the Industrial Revolution; Joel Mokyr has some, Deidre McCloskey has others).

Today, we’re still grappling with the reshaping of society due to pretty reliable contraception. In some ways we’ve had pretty reliable contraception for a very long time (since the ’60s), but in the view of human history, or even human history since the 1750s, we’ve had it a very short time. We’ve spent pretty much the entirety of human evolution without pretty reliable contraception, and that’s shaped our minds, our bodies, our societies, and our practices. And it’s still reshaping all of those things, without most of us stopping to think about what it all means to look at these things in the course of a very wide and long history.

That’s part of what Regnerus is doing. The present moment is the product of a whole lot of past, most of which most of us don’t think about most of the time. But a lot of our current conflicts come from past conflicts that we don’t fully understand. And he’s pointing to that history, when he writes in subheaders about “The transformation of intimacy.” Or when he writes about the “obsession of romance among many, and yet stability seems increasingly elusive.” At the same time, “the ramifications of cheaper sex are just beginning to unfold on a panoramic scale.”

No wonder people are confused. For most of human history, cultural notions around sexuality have been pretty stable. Now they’re incredibly unstable and we’re all making things up as we go along and responding to technologies that have unpredictable consequences.

Regnerus may not be right about many of his conclusions, but he is thinking differently and also not stupidly, which is valuable in and of itself.

I’m also not sure how much you can trust the book’s conclusions, as many are drawn from “nationally representative survey data” as well as “in-person interviews,” the problem being that people notoriously lie in surveys, especially about sensitive subjects, and the same biases occur in in-person interviews. Those weaknesses are part of the reason why books like A Billion Wicked Thoughts, Dataclysm, and Everybody Lies are so interesting: rather than relying on the surveys in which everybody lies, they look at revealed preferences in the form of data from the Internet (and online dating itself).

Cheap Sex itself is written competently but not beautifully. You will not stop to admire individual sentences, and that’s why I’ve not quoted much from it so far. Read it for the knowledge, not the prose. Like many academic books (this one is published by Oxford) it has its share of “You don’t say?” statements, like, “When it comes to relational happiness, then, sexual frequency is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it is certainly a net positive for most.” “A net positive:” really? I’m shocked! I would never have guessed.

But it also has its moments of humor, as when an interviewee discusses at length his own romantic dilemmas and then Regnerus writes, “After we turned off the microphone at the end of the interview, Brent asked if we though the and Betsy should break up. (We declined to respond).”

There are also moments I’m still mulling and don’t yet understand:

Meant to be a “haven in a heartless world,” as the late social critic Christopher Lasch described it, marriage is fast becoming a contest, another tenuous social arena in competition with the economic marketplace (for our limited time and energy) and the remarriage market (for second chances and variety).

A “haven in a heartless world:” Regnerus implies here and elsewhere in the book that maybe there isn’t such a place. I’m not arguing that he’s right. But I don’t see a compelling reason he isn’t.

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