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If You’re Cringing at Facebook, You Should Also be Cringing at the Market

I recently learned of people who think that Facebook is listening to them through the microphones in their phones.  This weekend someone told me a story about how she was reading a book out in nature and then when she got back to her car, her phone was recommending the book she was reading to her.  Another person had a story of telling her business partner of a thing they needed to get, not on email but in person, and soon after gettings ads for it.  Everyone seems to have a story like this. People think Facebook must be listening to them, because it just seems like magic. The algorithms at Facebook, it turns out, collect information to predict your interests and your wants and your concerns to target ads to you for just what you want at just the right time that it makes people feel as if the only explanation is that they are listening to you.  But Facebook isn’t listening to you. As an article about six months ago in Wired argued, they don’t have to. You are giving them the information. They target ads to you the way that those mindreaders get people to say something through suggestive questions. Because we can’t see the algorithms and can’t tell how they work, we think, it must be magic. And for most of us, it feels creepy.

In this regard, Facebook is a lot like the market. We put information into the market by buying things at a certain price, by buying cheaper versions of the same thing or more expensive versions, by deciding to spend our money on travel and food rather than shoes or clothes, by leaving one job for another, by turning down jobs that don’t pay enough or taking jobs that are below our credentials, by renting the too small apartment for too much money, or passing up the small apartment when the rent is too high. We think we as individuals have made an agreement with the landlord, or with the people at Macy’s or our boss, not unlike the way we think that Facebook is listening to us. We think it is about individuals making decisions, but so much less freedom and choice is involved. The market collects the information to sell us the goods at the price point it expects we will buy and we buy it and we think we have made decisions, when the market has collected masses of information to give us what we want at the point we are willing to pay for it.

The magic of Facebook creeps us out. But this creepiness should be extended to the market as well, if not more. The collective cringe at Facebook’s capacity to target to us the things we didn’t even know we wanted should be extended to the market’s work of giving us the things we want at the point we are willing to pay for them. Instead of supposing that this is the happy magic of the market, we should find the magic cringe-worthy. The cringe at Facebook betrays the truth of the impersonal determination of our desires. What’s surprising is only that we don’t also cringe at the market. The cringe at Facebook is the recognition that we are getting played. If we think that’s less the case with the market it is only because its workings are even more opaque to the everyday worker and consumer than Facebook’s are.

Many people in response to the recent publicity of Facebook’s data becoming available to other vendors are calling for regulation of Facebook. Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina offered guidelines this week on NPR for how Facebook could become a force for good community instead of for feeding consumption. Cathy O’Neill has similarly argued for how to make Facebook a place for community, beginning with making their algorithms more transparent. Facebook itself is rushing to show how they plan to better regulate themselves in the face of grossly underinformed U.S. Senators who were unable to grasp both the workings of Facebook and the implications of this current situation. But again this interest in regulation of Facebook, not unlike the move to regulate previous utilities like telephones, should point to a greater willingness to regulate the market. If we wish to regulate Facebook because we think that the algorithms cannot tell us what is good and might themselves need human input and human restraints, then it seems we should be able to see how the market similarly cannot tell us what is good and needs human inputs and human restraints.

Arguments against human interference in the market have worked by arguing that human beings can never have enough information to determine the best distribution. Only markets can. This situation seems to be exactly the case Facebook is in. They have the most information. And yet our response to that is to cringe. To the extent that you cringe at Facebook’s vast information about us and the decisions that follow from it, you should cringe at the notion that the market has more information that can better determine and organize our lives. This operation is not freedom from tyranny, it is the tyranny of market forces absent human engagement and deliberation.

Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality at IUPUI

I saw Kimberlé Crenshaw speak at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis tonight. Crenshaw’s work on the unique legal and political situations that Black American women faced led her to coin the term intersectionality. As she said tonight, she meant for this term to be a dynamic term of analysis rather than a noun of identity, but she graciously allowed that concepts are dynamic and take on a life on their own.  As an analysis, intersectionality shows how Black women’s concerns could be captured neither by race in the law, which considered Black experience in terms of men, nor by gender, which considered women’s experience in terms of white women.  A new analysis was needed to see that adding black to woman did not just mean adding those experiences up but in fact pointed to a unique set of concerns.  Intersectionality has so become a part of our discourse that it is now being used against the very movement that spurred its coinage.

Tonight she gave a talk that was a model example of how public intellectuals should be engaging public audiences.  The talk was purposefully marketed to the community: the Black woman sitting next to me told me she heard it advertised on Praise Indy, A Black Christian radio station in Indianapolis. Some of the leadership team of BlackLivesMatterIndy were there, as well as other activists. And of course, a bunch of academics. Crenshaw staged her talk as an interview that lawyer, civil rights activist and now radio show host Barbara Arnwine conducted with Martin Luther King, Jr. today, in these times. King wanted to know what the state of racial justice was since he’d been gone. Using that narrative device, Crenshaw was able to dramatize the real harm that has been done to the cause of racial justice by forgetting history, tracing back to Dr. King’s own work how the movement erased the previous work of women like Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks. She argued that Parks has become pacified and acceptable to white Americans through the story of how she was too tired, but Parks was actually an activist who had been defending Black women for years, purposeful in her planning for this moment.  She spent much of the talk drawing connections, as she explained them, between unlearned history and the present moment, having the talk show host explain to King how the things that he left unlearned from his history help produce this moment, like the forgetting of Harriet Tubman in favor of Frederick Douglass.

While effectively dragging Mark Lilla for his critique of identity analysis, she pointed to how people across the political spectrum from Black male civil rights leaders to white conservatives bought into  “Moynihanism”–the idea that the responsibility for racial injustice lies with the Black family–which allowed them to naturalize patriarchy as a point of departure for advocacy up to and including in Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper project.  Crenshaw argued that everyone from the right to left internalized this view and effectively ignored the structural workings of those invested in maintaining racial power.  As she put it, when we broader the frame, our sense of responsibility shifts.

She took this device further to draw attention to #SayHerName and the women who have been killed by police, and to say in drawing to the close, “When we take leadership from the margins, things change.”

As I sat and listened and learned from her, I thought about how effective she was at engaging a public audience in her work even as that work was complicated and deep. She didn’t make it less complicated. But she found ways to make her case that did not require jargon and made the work significant for her audience. She honored the contributions of activists to her own work. I have shown her Ted Talk (below) of this same title–The Urgency of Intersectionality–in classes. But she wrote a new talk for this moment and this place that made this case in a new way, urgently.

The Truth of the Body

I had to get some blood work done this morning at my doctor’s office. I was struck, as I always am when I submit my body for testing, of the sense in which the body is treated as a confession by the medical establishment.  I am always nervous about this process because I fear what truths my body will tell.  I fear that I cannot hide my bad habits as they might show up in my body.  I am reminded of a police procedural, maybe it is the CSI series, where it seemed like in almost every episode someone would say, “The truth is in the body.”

This week I was also having a conversation about the status of the body in Black Mirror, specifically in some of the episodes that produce cookies out of human DNA, which is to say, the DNA becomes digitalized in ways that produce a person in the virtual digital world.  What strikes me about the cookies is that they are independent even though the person controlling the system can change the bodies of the cookies (as in USS Callister) and cause them great pain (White Christmas, Black Museum, Playtest).  It seems to me that even in the digital world, the truth seems to be in the body.  That is, the fact that the body suffers is a report on the conditions.  The body is taken as material that exhibits a truth about the situation. Read more

Wabash Chapel Talk: Nasty Snake-Filled Heads and the Workings of Ideology

(A group of student leaders on campus at Wabash organize a weekly talk by a member of the Wabash community.  This is a transcript of the talk I gave this morning.)

As a philosopher, one thing I like to think about is how our ideas about the world affect the way we live in the world.  Today I want to talk about how our ways of thinking about how things are variously affect the ability of different people from different groups to thrive. I want to talk specifically about how we use the concept of “natural” to describe the ways we experience the world.  We tend to describe things as natural, as “just being that way,” as the way things just happen to be with no input or interference from human beings, when we are unaware of the history of how they came to be that way.  That move whereby what was formed for political and social reasons appears as natural is what we call ideology.

As a philosopher, I want to own some responsibility for this, since, as Nietzsche says, “Lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers.”

To correct this error, I want to first back up a little bit and think historically about how the turn to nature has been used as a justification for ways of organizing the world.  Leo Strauss explains the historical turn to a concept of nature as a turn to philosophizing.  As he puts it, as long as everyone seems to do what you do, you do not prompt the question, is that right?  It’s right because it seems like the only way.  It is right because it has always been done that way.  It is right because it is what everyone you know does.  But when you leave your people and you encounter other people who do things differently, you begin to ask whether what your people do is right.  Like when you are a kid like I was in a big family where we always sat down together for dinner every night and you think every family sits down for dinner every night until you go to your friends’ house and they have dinner in front of the television and you go home and ask why you have to eat dinner together and your mother tells you it’s because you don’t have a television.  Not having a television also seemed right because it was what my family did.  Like taking vacations in the mountains instead of at the beach. Read more

The Robot in the Market Machine

News reports from yesterday’s sharp drop of the Dow point to the role of computer algorithms that sell stocks when they reach a certain point as one of the main sources of the drop.  This explanation would appear to be the logically absurd conclusion of a so-called free market economy.  Defenders of a free market economy maintain that the market can best distribute goods at the right prices when human beings each act for their own self-interest.  Will Roberts makes the case that this surrender of human decision-making to the market is why Marx argues that capitalism does not cultivate freedom.  In a market economy, human beings no longer deliberate collectively about what is best.  They each act for themselves and the market decides.  They lose the collective work of speaking together about how to direct the community. Read more

We Have Dreamers, Too: Trump and the Deceptive Appeal of the American Dream

In Trump’s State of the Union he tried to take back the “dreamers” language from recent immigrants, saying, “We have dreamers in this country, too.  You can’t forget our dreamers.”  He  went on to say:

I am extending an open hand to work with the members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion and creed. My duty and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber is to defend Americans, to protect their safety, their families, their communities and their right to the American dream.

Trump restricts the American dream for citizens and restricts the duty of those in office to citizens, forgetting the immigrant history of those citizens.  The American dream language works almost identically to the America First language as I map out here.  It makes those who have been left out of the promise of prosperity feel none the less that the dream is for them if only the work hard enough.  And it makes them understand their poverty as a result of lack of hard work, not as a result of structural barriers to economic mobility.  It makes them think the Dream is possible, if only they can get there.

Immigrants who came to the United State as children and are appealing for a road to citizenship seized on the language of the dream and contend that the dream should be accessible to everyone.  By taking up this language, these immigrants have also reminded us that the American dream functions to exclude.  When Trump said, “We have dreamers in this country, too,” he ignores that those immigrants are in this country and divides the country between those who are supposedly “rightfully” a part and those who are not.  Such a move reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of the United States as “a country lost in the Dream,” in Between the World and Me (12).  Lost in the Dream, America cannot see itself.  Coates describes America’s investment in the Dream as undergirded by fear (34), and that seems precisely what is played on in the #AllLivesMatter kind of turn to “We have dreamers too.”  The way Trump’s appeal works is to trump those forgotten and excluded by being denied citizenship by foregrounding those forgotten and excluded who are already citizens but find the country no less invested in them.  Attesting to the investment in the forgotten poor produces the sense that they are the concern of the country’s elected officials even as a new tax law is passed that will put more of the tax burden on them than on those who are living the Dream.  Recognizing their fear of exclusion and acknowledging their rightful place in relation to the aspiration to the Dream while denying them any path toward the dream pits them against those made to appear unworthy of the Dream.  But neither are given access to the Dream.

Coates argues that Dream is oppressive to those for whom it is never even held out as a promise.  That oppression is of a whole different order than the oppression of those for whom it is held out as a promise (106).  The oppression for those for whom it is denied functions in the active forgetting of those to whom the Dream is denied, which it is why it is striking to see Trump so boldly assert that “our dreamers” can’t be forgotten, when everyone knows who the “our” is and who it is not.  As Coates writes in reference to the discussion he has with the mother of Prince Jones, a young Black man who was killed by police:

When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best–it forgot him.  The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream.  They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.  They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.  I am convinced that Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free (143).

When Trump asks that we not forget our Dreamers, he invites us to continue to forget the conditions upon which that dream thrives, and he invites people to be more invested in their whiteness than their freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

The SOTU, or as I like to call it, STFU

I didn’t want to watch.  The tickets had typos (I know, this is the least of our worries).  But then I listened to David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism on Audible on the way into work today and remembered that things are not newly bad.  Things have been careening toward deficit-driven upward redistribution of wealth since at least the George W. Bush Administration.  We need to watch in order to bear witness.  In truth, I’m torn between giving Trump too much attention and doing my civic duty.  I decided to do my civic duty.

Before the address, I looked up “pre-game” reports and found that ABC called it Trump’s First “Must See TV” State of the Union and almost decided against watching again.  But here I am.  Girding my loins.  I switched to CBS.  Ok, I can’t talk about how creepy the thing is, how viscerally difficult it is to watch: Trump’s squint, his hand gestures, Paul Ryan’s self-satisfied smirk.  This cannot be my focus.  As I’ve been saying since more than year ago, these things are not what we need to concern ourselves with. Read more

Non-Imitative Yoga and Becoming Virtuous in Aristotle and Plato

In Aristotle’s account of how a person becomes virtuous, he argues that a virtuous action is done in the way a virtuous person would do it.  This account often appears circular to those who first encounter it, but I would suggest it is less circular than spiral.  The person who aspires to virtue looks to the person further around the spiral who is already virtuous in order to consider how to be virtuous.  By looking at the virtuous person as the model, they become a virtuous model themselves for the next person.  Some readers of Plato argue that Plato presents a view of goodness as imitation.  One becomes virtuous by participating in, which is to say, imitating the Forms of virtue, of Justice, of Courage, of Wisdom.

On Aristotle’s account, the virtuous person serves as a model for how the apprentice virtuous person should be, but that model is fundamentally about learning to make the judgment in a virtuous way out of their own character.  The judgment in the process shifts from, what would that person do to what would I do.  A person has become the phronimos, or the one of good judgment, when they are able to make their own judgments without a model, that is, when they become a model, not by having replicated the previous model, but by uniquely being able to determine what the bulls’ eye of virtuous living would be. Read more

On Christianity and the Loss of Mourning

My grandmother-in-law died a couple weeks ago.  She was 105-years-old.  She seemed ready to go.  She held on for a long time, but I am glad that she felt like she didn’t need to keep holding on.  Still, I am sad she’s gone.  She would tell us a story about something that happened a long time ago and then she’d say, “It’s funny what you remember.”  We like to say that at our house now.  It’s been a kind of rite to visit her whenever we are in Spokane, a rite that connects us to other parts of the family.  I’ll miss that.  I’ll miss her matter-of-factness about the world.  “I’m not old,” she’d tell us.  Thinking about her now makes me smile.  I am sad that she will no longer be out there in the world.

I was going to tell my parents, and then I didn’t.  I didn’t because I knew that they would ask me, “Was she a Christian?”  And I knew that they would ask because they wanted to know whether she was going to heaven.  And that they would want to know that because they would want to know whether it was really an occasion for mourning or not.  Or at least, that’s how that question always felt to me.  Christianity, as I came to know it as a very young child, was about avoiding death and the need to mourn death.  The Christians I grew up around would evangelize to people who didn’t believe by asking them whether they knew where they were going when they died.  And they would tell them that they would go to hell if they didn’t believe in Jesus.  When someone died, if they were a Christian, it didn’t seem like anyone around me would be really sad about it.  Countless times, reports would come to me of someone dying with the information that they were believers.

I’ve been working through some of the affects of Christianity and one that I think has stayed with me is the difficulty in truly mourning–whether it be loss or injustice.  I briefly discuss the way that Christianity seems to mourn mortality, and structure itself around avoiding death in my post on Christianity Without Metaphysics.  What I have lately come to realize is that Christianity, at least a Christianity that thinks the goal is heaven, has robbed me of the capacity to experience loss or mourning.  And it is only with the end of heaven that true mourning becomes possible.  What I have newly come to see and understand is that I want to be able to mourn.  I want to be able to acknowledge loss, to see the gaps left by the absence of people I love.  Like this last summer when I went to the small town in Montana where my grandmother lived her whole life and where my dad grew up and the whole town felt haunted by my grandparents.  I missed them because they were gone.  I missed them without consolation of a possible reunion.  They were there, waving from the porch until they couldn’t see us anymore, and then they were not.  And they will never be again.

I wonder about what we lose when we lose the capacity to mourn.  I wonder if we lose the capacity to take this life and this world, its pain, the real death of others, seriously.  I wonder whether this inability to mourn is what keeps us from doing something about genocide of the Rohinga in Myanmar and of the harm done by ICE deporting DREAMers and ending TPS for immigrants from Haiti and Syria.  If death doesn’t matter, then killing doesn’t matter.

I’m of the mind that ways of thinking should be considered for how they work in the world, for their use, as much as for whether they can be justified and supported through argument.  This notion that we need not be really sad because someone has gone to heaven seems to work by limiting our capacity to feel loss in the face of death, which then makes us fail to take death seriously, which then leads us to accept the notion that some people are just going to have to die for other people to live the way they want to live.  But it also keeps us from thinking about the decisions we make in life as really real, as really mattering.  The only decision is to do what is required so that you avoid death.  And then heaven is just life stretched out where nothing will lead to the end, the eternal return of the same.

The Greeks had the Eleusian Mysteries believed to be protected by Demeter.  The Mysteries were commonly understood to be about death and to be about preparing for death.  Rumor has it the mystery of death is that there is no mystery.  The Mysteries were closely guarded, and I wonder if it was because if they were made public, then people might take living a heck of a whole lot more seriously.

I’m not someone who longs for heaven.  I think I would rather mourn than have the consolation of heaven.  But I do wonder whether really bringing about a world that might resemble heaven requires letting go of our hold on the consolations of death.

 

City as Canvas: Graffiti Exhibit at IMA

The City as Canvas exhibition first went up at the Museum of the City of New York in 2014.  A large portion of the exhibit is of work that Martin Wong collected in the late 1980s and 1990s while living in New York, including graffiti artists’ black books of sketches and a series of photographs from subway trains around the city (more on the backstory including how Wong built his collection by paying graffiti artists for their work can be is here).

I am glad that this exhibition was in Indianapolis.  Today is its last day at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.  I have to say that first before I pronounce on how it produces the sense of New York and graffitied New York as a strange and foreign culture where the natives did things like (gasp) spray paint on public property.  They even had a display of graffiti vocabulary to drive home the “look at the strange natives” vibe.  Growing up in Philadelphia in the 80s and the 90s, I find graffitied cities to be the backdrop of city life. I remember starting to recognize tags and seeing how much certain artists got around town, and thinking, it was like a secret code, because it was. Read more