Friday, September 23, 2016

Free speech, but as a public good

The core of free speech is that words have meaning. This is a point so obvious that it goes without saying, and it is thus all the more confounding that it seemingly has to be said. Not least in these perilous times, when the only thing keeping pace with the frequency of meaningless statements is their volume.

I need not remind that one of the most frequent loudmouths has a fifty/fifty shot of becoming the next US president.

The classical arguments for free speech had very little to do with individual expression. They did not primarily expound the right and virtue of being an asshat in public. Rather, these classical arguments were primarily concerned with the positive effects of not having public debate limited by the public institutions that were the object of debate. Primary among such institutions were monarchies with varying degrees of absolute authority.

One of the positive effects of free speech is that the public, by partaking of the public debate, would have a reliable source of information to base their opinions on. After having read the arguments to and fro, for and against, the public would stand at the ready to mobilize their own rational faculties in their day-to-day democratic activities. Thus, the public is informed on the issues, understand who the actors are and what is at stake, and can get to work utilizing the best knowledge available to them. Whatever the king sovereign might opine on the matter.

The hidden premise here is of course that the public debate is conducted properly and in good faith. Those participating are expected to bring clear understanding to bear on the issues of the day, and inform the reading public about what is at stake. The function of public debate is to educate and mobilize the public with regards to the issues of the day. If this function is not fulfilled, things go awry. The public bases its decisions and deliberations on poorer information than it ought, and the democratic decision-making processes suffers because of this.

This is a radically different notion of free speech than the nihilistic freedom to unabashedly shout one stupidity after another in public. While some might feel good by roaring "RETARD!" at the top of their lungs on the town square, such roars do not contribute anything constructive to the public debate. Such antics do not create or convey an understanding of current issues, and it goes without saying that there are more interesting avenues of speech to explore.

The same goes for self-identified nazis. The issue as stake is not that the public has not heard what they have to say, and would be convinced if they but took the time to absorb more refined versions of nazi rhetoric. Quite the opposite: the arguments have already been presented, both in general and in their most specific implementation. Adding more speech will not further anyone's understanding of what is at stake. History has already rendered judgement on these matters, and there is little left to add.

With this in mind, it is hard to take self-proclaimed free speech provocateurs seriously. They are either disingenuous or know not of what they speak. In either case, nothing is gained by helping them spread their unrelenting ululations.

We know better know. It would be to insult generations of free speech advocacy to not have learnt these things by now.

Originally published August 10, 2016

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The question of useful knowledge

Every once in a while, the question of the usefulness of knowledge rears its ugly head. Usually in the context of education, where it is accompanying the question of what to teach the kids (and where to allocate limited monetary resources). At other times, as a connotation to the accusation that you are wasting your life by not learning something else - such as the art of accounting or lawyering.

The worst part about it - aside from the "can we get away with not spending money on this" and "why are you wasting your life" parts - is that the measure of what is useful always is a retroactive quality. You never know what will be useful to know until you are in the situation wherein it would be useful, and by then it is usually too late to learn fast enough to make a difference. The only way to be prepared is to have learnt these things ahead of time. You never know what will be useful until it is.

Moreover, the notion of useful knowledge is usually defined with a few specific situations in mind, ruling out most of the vastness of human experience as irrelevant. This is seen most clearly when it comes to educational regimes focused on preparing kids for work, to the exclusion of everything else. Everything is geared towards this one particular purpose, and those things not specifically geared towards this purpose are ignored.

What is the workplace utility of critical literacy, of knowing how to be a supporting family member, or of fluency in the arts?

What is the workplace utility of having read a poem that makes the experience of having a bad breakup more bearable?

When push comes to shove, the notion of useful knowledge always depends on just exactly who it is supposed to be useful for. More often than not, it tends to be someone who is not you. Their exact identity is shared on a need-to-know basis, and you do not need to know.

The question of whether knowledge is useful or not is never asked without hostile intent. Let there be no mistake about that.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Against content

Containerization is one of the forgotten obvious aspects of modern life. Containers are everywhere, and many modern cities have huge areas dedicated to their loading and unloading. Containers move hither and dither, but unless you are actively working with logistics, you are not likely to think about them other than as something that has always been there. Indeed, it would be very strange and disconcerting if they weren't there - the rhythm and ambiance of daily city life would be perturbed without them at the periphery of perception. Containers are as staple as the goods they contain, as it were.

Like malls, if you've seen one, you've seen them all. One container is identical to any other container, except for eventual external markings of corporate ownership. They are all the same size, weigh the same and handle the same. Which is the point. No matter where you are, you can pack things in containers and transport them anywhere else in the world. Wherever you go, there will be infrastructure ready to accept and process your container - since they are all identical.

The point of this standardization is to make it easier to move things around. Since the containers are all the same, it doesn't matter what happens to be inside them. Writ large, this means that the various trucks, trains and airplanes used to move things can be designed to move a certain number of containers, and set in motion once they have loaded the desired number. Moving any one container is the same as moving any other, and large amounts of content can be moved efficiently as it can all be processed through the same system, rather than in parallel systems that all move differently. One size fits all.

It might be surprising to find out that the process of containerization began rather recently, and that harbors, airports and train stations used to have trained crews on hand to load and unload different cargoes in the manners that suited them. Furniture had to be handled in a different manner than, say, foodstuffs, and each category of things had to have specialized infrastructure and institutionalized knowledge sets in place in order to be processed properly and efficiently. Which, as you might imagine, is more resource and labor intensive than having an all-encompassing system being able to process all the things.

This before-time is still in living memory, and there are plenty of stories of logistical mishaps to be told from those days. You have but to know whom to ask.

The reason for this text coming to being is not, however, the fascinating global process of logistical standardization in and of itself. Rather, it's how this same process has begun to happen in a more metaphorical way in the present. It can all be summed up in one singular word, and you will understand the significance of the above paragraphs once you see it:


The notion of content is problematic, to say the least. It assumes that all mediated things are, in some fashion, identical, and that the particulars of any given media artifact does not matter. Writing, movies, computer games, music - it's all content. In the standardized world of content delivery, it's all the same. All of human culture has been reduced to one singular ubiquitous gray goo, and the point of it all is not to distinguish one artifact from another, but to keep consumers busy with enough content to maintain a satisfactory profit margin.

This is a rather nihilistic view of culture, and if you spend too much time with it you end up thinking of your creative processes as content creation. You're not writing to express ideas or influence people; you're writing to give readers enough content to keep reading. You're not making music that will move souls and provide katharsis for a new age; you're filling out the minutes until you have enough content. You're not creating anything in particular, but rather a sustained generalized discursive noise that will keep your audience content - if you'll pardon the pun.

This is not to say that there isn't uses for such lines of thinking. Some things become easier to do once you realize that most of it is content - for example functional writing such as journalism or graduate theses.  These things become less cumbersome to do once you realize that it's not about you, and that the main thing is getting words on a page. But it shouldn't be your only line of thinking about your creative processes, or even the main one. You're not doing what you do because you have to, but because you want to.

Content can be created by pressing record and screaming into a microphone for three hours. If we follow the logic of containerization of culture and ideas, we end up in a place where there really is no point to go those extra miles in order to say something in particular. When the aim is to fill out empty containers with content, anything goes. And it goes with expedient efficiency.

You're not a content creator. You're a writer, artist, game maker, musician - you're doing things in order to express something that wouldn't be expressed if it weren't for you. You're contributing to this world. You're a context creator.

What you do matters.

Keep at it.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Indirect rationality

Humans are strange. They have the darnedest ways of absorbing new information, and the way it is presented to them more often than not matters more than the information in and of itself.

For instance: simply stating something in the most literal straightforward way possible is usually the least efficient method of getting the information across. One would think that it'd be a straightforward proposition, but it isn't. Even if the thing stated is both true and self-evident.

To be sure, if it was sufficient to say something once, a lot of problems would have been solved moments after the Sermon on the Mount.

On the other hand, indirect and circuitous methods of presenting information have a tendency to be far more effective than intuition would suggest. If the information is embedded in, say, a narrative framework with complex storytelling conventions and mechanisms acting out over a large number of pages, this very same information is absorbed with alacrity. Despite the massive overhead.

It might be tempting to attribute this to a failure of rational thinking, but that would be a failure of rational thinking. Rational thinking takes the situation as it is and uses it as a basis for further action, and the situation is that human beings think in terms of contexts and relations rather than singular statements presented in isolation. A rational approach to human beings would take this into account, and present information in need of presenting with an appropriate measure of indirectness, so as to give the contextual and associative thinking time to occur.

Thus, I present to you this following information, in the most straightforward manner possible:

Homeopathy doesn't work.