Idea Channel covers postmodernism

In their new video, "Is Community A Postmodern Masterpice?"  Mike (the host) opens up by explaining what postmodernism is.  I mean, not really.  That's not how postmodernism works.  But he does a pretty good job of covering the major reasons it's not easy to explain, and leads into the general idea enough that viewers might be able to distinguish postmodernism from other philosophical perspectives.  It starts at the 1:00 mark, with the perfect introduction, "What is postmodernism?  I'll give the philosophy and art history students a moment to finish their collective 'Ugh.'"

I'm posting this because I will be referring back to it regularly in otherwise usually frustrating conversations with my extended family.

Stuff I always used to carry

There's a lot of stuff I like to have on me, if I can: rope, batteries, flashlight, masking tape, sharpies, a bottle opener, bandages, a multi-tool, a flash drive, a needle and thread, a microSD adapter, lockpicks, an MRE...  Mostly stuff I don't carry anymore.[1. I still generally have the rope and the microSD adapter.]  It just all gets a little heavy. But there are three things that I would ideally always carry -- two of which I don't have right now -- because they're light, useful, and philosophically significant: a knife, lighter, and a pen.

I'm a big fan of the worldview that the most significant thing about being human is the use of tools, and to me, these three items represent the three major categories of human achievement that I can identify.

The knife is the most basic.  It represents the simple manipulation of raw materials into a useful form:  creating value by changing the shape of things.  Pocket knives are pretty complicated, but the basic idea -- a blade -- is about as simple as you can get when you're looking for valuable tools that aren't naturally occurring.

The lighter represents fire, obviously, but more broadly, it represents a more fundamental chemical control of things than the knife.  With fire, we were able to start cooking food, which sped up digestion and gave us time and energy to do the things that built organized social structures.  We're able to alter the atmosphere, making it hotter or drier.  It's also got the most potential for violent, large-scale destruction, which has been generally true of chemistry for the rest of human history following the use of fire.

The pen, the one I still carry all the time, because it's the most useful, represents language, and more broadly, the complex social structures that language enables.  Language is super-important to me -- that might be obvious, because I have a blog and my career plan is to try and get people to pay me for the stuff I write -- but it's one of those things that literally no-one[2. Okay, not literally.  I'm sure that if you searched for a little while you could find some obscure fringe cases of people who don't use any language at all.  But, like, can you name anyone you know, personally, who doesn't use language?  Anyone you've met?] can do without.  You'd have to be in absurdly particular conditions to get through an entire day without using any language -- not speaking, but also not hearing-and-understanding, reading or writing, interpreting symbolic images or gestures, and so on.  It would be far more difficult than getting through a day without using any physical tools -- I'm sure a lot of people can make it through a single day, naked in the woods -- or without instigating any chemical reactions -- for that one, you can spend the day fully dressed, in a dark shed.

I don't have a knife right now because I lost the one I liked, and none of my other knives are quite worth carrying around in situations where they could be used as leverage if someone wanted me punished for something.  Instead I just keep them in my bathroom at home, for hair cuts.

I don't have a lighter because I misplaced it, but it shouldn't be difficult to find if I decide to start carrying it again soon.  At least a few times a month, I end up missing one or the other of them, because they really are incredibly useful.

But I've never gotten through a day without a pen where I didn't feel like kicking myself for not bringing one. I often end up regretting leaving a room without taking a pen with me.  And, obviously, I'm usually carrying two or three notebooks, as well.  I'm not sure, exactly, where they should fit on the list.

Eating the Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa is the most famous picture in the world, right?  I mean, it's one of the handful of paintings that I can't remember ever not knowing its name.  The Wikipedia page on the Mona Lisa quotes someone describing it as "The best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world," in the first sentence of the article. So, no matter how famous you are, no matter how much you accomplish in your life, odds are extremely good that you will never be more famous for any of those achievements than the Mona Lisa is now.

And there's an easy way to tell, as the title might have tipped you off:  If you stole, and ate, the Mona Lisa, that fact about you would annihilate the rest of your legacy as a human being.  If the President of the United States stole and ate the Mona Lisa, centuries after the fact, people would say, "Hey, you know the guy who ate the Mona Lisa?  He was actually a president of the United States!"  Pretty much no-one would say, "Here's an interesting list of facts about President Whatsisface:  Despite its passage, he vehemently opposed the Thirty-Second Amendment, he slept on the White House lawn for fear of terrorists under his bed, he once accidentally said that England was a U.S. state and that we'd seceded from Montana, oh, and he ate a famous painting called the Mona Lisa."

It's hard to think of people to whom this wouldn't apply.  If Tim Berners-Lee ate the Mona Lisa, people would say, "Hey, that guy who ate the Mona Lisa was also the guy who invented the World Wide Web."  If Queen Elizabeth II ate the Mona Lisa, people would say, "That woman who ate the Mona Lisa was queen of Britain at the time."  If Martin Luther King Jr had eaten the Mona Lisa, people would say, "The guy who ate the Mona Lisa was actually a very important civil rights leader before that."

Maybe, maybe, the Pope could come away on equal footing -- the Pope who ate the Mona Lisa, not the guy who ate the Mona Lisa was a pope -- but it would still overshadow everything else about his career.

It's very strange to think about it, but there are things in this world so absurdly famous that if you interacted with them too significantly, your life would be plowed down into a footnote in the story of that thing.

I also think this can be a good diagnostic tool for the present obsession with fame, and with narrative relevance:  I brought this theory up at a party with some college students my age, and several of them immediately agreed that, if their other life plans didn't pan out, if they didn't end up being famous for any other reason, then they would, as a back-up plan, endeavor to steal and eat the Mona Lisa.  Because being significant, for whatever reason, seemed more important to them than any other option they could imagine.  They couldn't think of anything about their futures that could be worth preserving if their bid at fame didn't pan out, instead choosing (or claiming they'd choose) to pointlessly destroy art of incredible cultural significance, just so people would remember it was them that did it.

There was an arsonist in ancient Greece named Herostratus, who, in 356 BC, burned down a major temple that was one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.  He did it because he wanted to be famous, and as a punishment the local authorities executed him and tried to outlaw anyone ever repeating his name.

It turns out, there's a whole category of people who have been wiped from memory:  it was a punishment in Rome called damnatio memoriaefor people who'd brought dishonor to their city.  Obviously it would be impossible to do this today, but it seems like a lot of people feel like failing to get themselves adequately recorded is a sort of de facto damnation.

I don't really know what else to say about this.  I can't in good faith condemn the trend, because I'm trying pretty hard to be significant.  Granted, my motivations for continuing to try aren't just "I'm supposed to be famous, that's how it works." But feeling that way, and feeling like my life only mattered if I was hugely important to loads of people, was a big part of why I started, so it would be disingenuous of me to pretend it's not relevant.

But also, it's really horrible and irresponsible, and I hope that it starts to deconstruct itself -- I especially hope that the idea that being remembered is worth it whether or not you're remembered for something good goes away.

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

I'm about to click on the first half of Atlas Shrugged in Netflix.  I don't know how long I'm going to make it into this movie, from what I've seen in commercials it looks like it's going to be unforgivably preachy.  But I'm also curious. It starts following a train in 2016, so, there's an optimistic view of the future of government oppression -- more public transportation.  We're out of gas and oil, so the trains are apparently a last resort.  But I'm betting the message of this movie isn't going to be "Trains are awesome."  In fact, one ends up derailing, apparently, right at the beginning because the tracks aren't maintained.

I was under the impression that the plot of this movie was supposed to be about government incompetence, but what it looks like is everyone-incompetence.  It's corporations responsible for the poorly maintained railroads.

It looks like the hero of this movie is a woman who proudly doesn't care about people, and the bad guy -- at least, the first bad guy we see -- is an executive who tries to avoid servicing monopolies and puts effort into areas outside his own backyard.  Pointedly, Miss Taggart, the heroic sociopath, is saving the day by going to a metallurgist who faces widespread criticism for his awful metal, who himself throws away appointment requests with people in a position to evaluate his work, on the basis that she studied engineering in college and is therefore qualified to decide that the metal is secretly perfect.

Reardon, the metal salesman, heroically squeezes as much money from her crisis as possible, and she explains that she doesn't have any emotions again.  He also heroically forgets his wedding anniversary.  He had already bought her a gift, though.  To celebrate the fact that he has a contract for his country.

I've gotten pretty sick of this, so I've decided to skip ahead.  I'm watching a YouTube video of a reading of the section of Atlas Shrugged everyone talks about -- the John Galt rant.

So... The point of this rant sounds like "Some of the rich people are the lynch-pins of the whole civilization, and without them everything falls apart."  And they're "On strike."

This ten-minute video cuts off in a way that suggests to me that it's not the whole rant.  But, if I may attempt to summarize:

(a.)  Popular morality is inherently destructive to civilization.  (b.)  The main premise of popular morality is 'people should be nice to each other, to the exclusion of themselves.'  (c.)  The alternative to popular morality is being rational, and (d.)  Rationality is inherently anti-kindness-to-others.

This argument sounds good, because all of its premises are really close to reasonable premises.  For example, take these alternate terms:  (a.) There are systems of morality that are destructive to civilization, (b.) One of the flaws these systems feature is an impulse of self-destruction in pursuit of others' welfare, (c.) We must therefore evaluate our moral systems through rational methods, and (d.) Reason doesn't come pre-loaded with any moral answers.

The conclusion of the first set of premises is "Everyone should be super-selfish, but think more than two hours into the future while doing so."  The doctrine of rational self-interest that is the main pillar of Ayn Rand's Objectivism.  The problem with that conclusion is that it argues there is a predetermined moral premise, that one should maximize one's material self-interest as determined by a zero-sum accounting of all the stuff that happens to exist at the time you're thinking this through.

The sort of similar, but much less overreaching, conclusion of the second set of premises is "A moral system that (a.) is interested in maximizing well-being for people, and (b.) is applicable to any given person who wants to pursue morality, should not have an actively negative effect on the well-being of its practitioners."  This doesn't fall into the same hole as the rational self-interest argument does, because it leaves the moral assumptions as they are -- assumptions that are outside the realm of reason -- but it doesn't therefore conclude "Thinking about morality is nonsense and no-one should do it."

Rand conflates acting against one's self-interest and acting in a way that serves the interests of anyone else.  It's obviously not inherently true, and fortunately it's also not true in real life, that there's nothing people can do that can improve both their own lives and the lives of other people.

I'd like to make it clear here, before I post this, that my point is that Ayn Rand is wrong; not that the inverse of Ayn Rand's philosophy is right, or that the philosophies she was arguing against are right.

So, this got away a little bit from watching part 1 of Atlas Shrugged.  But that movie kind of made me feel nauseous.  So, there's that.

On widespread disagreement

In his 1978 book "What Is the Name of This Book?," Raymond M. Smullyan repeats a riddle from his childhood:

4. Whose Picture Am I Looking At?

This puzzle was extremely popular during my childhood, but today it seems less widely known.  The remarkable thing about this problem is that most people get the wrong answer but insist (despite all argument) that they are right.  I recall one occasion about 50 years ago when we had some company and had an argument about this problem which seemed to last hours, and in which those who had the right answer just could not convince the others that they were right.  The problem is this.

A man was looking at a portrait.  Someone asked him, "Whose picture are you looking at?"  He replied:  "Brothers and sisters have I none, but this man's father is my father's son." ("This man's father" means, of course, the father of the man in the picture.)

Whose picture was the man looking at?

Often, when I get in long arguments about politics or science or the internet or any number of other things that people strongly differ on, someone (usually someone butting in, who wasn't listening, but occasionally the person I'm arguing with) says, "There is no right answer, people have different opinions and that's that."

Now, these people are clearly wrong.  A system can be complicated, and it can be easy to come to incorrect conclusions when trying to understand that system.  People can over-or-under-emphasize the importance of certain details, or fail to imagine certain actors in the system complexly, or for any number of other reasons become firmly convinced that their conclusion is right, even if it's not.

Lately, it's been reminding me of this riddle.  I have a lot of trouble with this one.  I've known it for years, and I still have trouble holding the whole thing in my head firmly enough to produce the correct answer.  I might have even defended that wrong answer, when I first heard the riddle.

But the wrong answer is definitely wrong.  There can be no difference of opinion about it, only people getting it right or wrong.

In real life, problems are more complicated than that.  Some people may be more right or wrong than others, or disagree about how to act on the knowledge of the correct answer.  People may be bitterly divided over small or large issues.  But in real life, like in this riddle, even if the wrong answer is really persuasive, and has a lot of very vocal supporters, it's still wrong.

Here's the solution to the riddle:

[spoiler]

From the book:

A remarkably large number of people arrive at the wrong answer that the man is looking at his own picture.  They put themselves in the place of the man looking at the picture, and reason as follows: "Since I have no brothers or sisters, then my father's son must be me.  Therefore I am looking at a picture of myself."

The first statement of this reasoning is absolutely correct; if I have neither brothers nor sisters, then my father's son is indeed myself.  But it doesn't follow that "myself" is the answer to the problem.  If the second clause of the problem had been, "this man is my father's son," then the answer to the problem would have been "myself."  But the problem didn't say that; it said "this man's father is my father's son."  From which it follows that this man's father is myself (since my father's son is myself).  Since this man's father is myself, then I am this man's father, hence this man must be my son.  Thus the correct answer to the problem is that the man is looking at a picture of his son.

If the skeptical reader is still not convinced (and I'm sure many of you are not!) it might help if you look at the matter a bit more graphically as follows:

(1) This man's father is my father's son.

Substituting the word "myself" for the more cumbersome phrase "my father's son" we get

(2) This man's father is myself.

Now are you convinced?

[/spoiler]

"The second amendment is there for a reason."

"The second amendment is there for a reason." A professor at my school said this with a straight face today.

I'm not annoyed because I think the second amendment is pointless (even though I do) -- I'm annoyed because this is a terrible way to discuss politics, and it dominates the dialogue.  The thing that pisses me off most about the gun debate, apart from all the people dying, is that pretty much everyone agrees that if we can just find the right interpretation of the Holy Second Amendment, which was so important that the Blessed Founding Fathers put it right under freedom of speech, then everything will be okay.

The fact that Americans so frequently act like the Founding Fathers' vision is more important than trying to govern effectively in the present, based on contemporary values, is easily one of the biggest drags on progress here.

But fine.  It's here for a reason.  Whatever.  Here are the reasons I know:

1. We need guns to fight off the government if it goes too far.

Okay, we're not going to beat the government.  If (a.) the American citizenry revolts, (b.) the military stays loyal to the government, and (c.) that fact doesn't dissuade the revolution, the military and the government wins.  No question. The only way the citizenry wins that fight is if the government decides they should -- and we don't need guns for that.  In fact, it would probably be more effective without them.

2. People have a right to protect their homes.

No, people have a right to a government that protects their homes.  People living in a society, especially a society with a police and judicial system, implicitly give up their right to self defense.  We are defended by our government, because our government can be fair and impartial.  That's the goddamn point of police and judicial systems -- it lets us sidestep the hundreds of horrible, anti-civilization side-effects of the standard of self-defense.

3. But a well-armed militia!

Are you going to take up arms when Canada attacks?  Or are we going to leave the fighting to the organized military?

4. Guns are fun!

Fine, whatever.  Here's an idea:  Guns are legal, but you have to keep them at your local, registered shooting range or hunting lodge.  You can use them at the range, or in the woods during designated hunting seasons or if there's another good reason, like self-defense against bears.  Your shooting range can give you a sticker to put on a box that vouchsafes a specific date on which you're transporting your guns in your trunk to and from a hunting trip, and in absolutely every other context people with guns who are not in the process of turning them in get arrested for it and put in jail.  Because you don't need a gun in your house.  Because the police.

5. If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns!

See above: arrest everyone seen with a gun.  Let the courts sort out the fringe cases (I left the sticker in my coat pocket!, en route from shooting range to lodge = shouldn't have been an idiot, now you have to deal with the judicial system before you get your gun back.)  People who break the law do not unduly expose themselves to arrest.  Heroin addicts living in countries that will arrest you for having needles choose instead to share needles to minimize risk.  Prostitutes living in countries that will arrest you for having condoms on you choose instead to have unprotected sex.  We can leverage those same depressing realities to a good cause:  criminals who know they're going to jail if they're caught with a gun aren't going to carry around their gun.  And some segment of the ones who do will get arrested, and their guns will be taken off the streets.  Every arrest = one less gun out there.  Every dealer bust = dozens fewer guns out there.

Anybody got any other reasons? I'd love to hear them.  Otherwise, can we stop canonizing the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as the Christ and Bible of American politics?  I would very much appreciate it if we could start having a cultural discussion about the present day instead of the 1700's.

On the word "Complicated"

As I've gushed about already, I was at John and Hank Green's "An Evening of Awesome" last week.  One of the performers, Kimya Dawson, sang a song called "Same Shit/Complicated," (she didn't say the name of the song on stage,) which features the lines,

We are all so complicated, we are all so complicated, I am also complicated, I am also complicated.

Obviously, it's true.  People are complicated.  But listening to her repeat it like that made me think about what the word means.  Like, as in 'complication.'  A complication is what you call something that exists in an otherwise simple system, that requires special consideration to navigate.

I know a lot of people who have a lot of different sets of rules about people, their ideas of basic systems into which everybody fits.  Most of them, thinking about it, are probably right.  There probably are a lot of ways in which everybody can be grouped and categorized and understood.

If you keep in mind that people are complicated.  That each single person in that big system is going to have their own complications, that require a new and specific and non-universal deviation from the system to understand.  Maybe everybody is driven by some sense of want, or some kind of internal struggle, or some kind of honor-sense, or whatever.  Maybe all of those things.  And everyone is still totally inscrutable if, within whatever system, you don't also take the time to learn their complications.

This has been bouncing around in my head for a few days, and I just wanted to get it out.  I don't think I'm done thinking it yet.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

I've been meaning to get around to reading something by Ursula K. Le Guin for a while now, and I honestly picked up the Left Hand of Darkness half out of a sense of obligation.  It's one of those books I knew I should read, which doesn't always translate into books I want to read.  [1. I feel the same way about Ender's Game, by the way, which I'm reading now because my little brother insisted.] I'm really glad I read this, though.  And I'm eager to read more of Le Guin's work.[2. Which won't be for a while, because the next twenty or so books I'm reading are all by teachers at this year's Clarion, in case I get in.]

The general idea of the story is:  Genly Ai, a human male envoy (the "first mobile") has come to a planet, Gethen, populated by a species of human that doesn't have two sexes, and doesn't have a gender binary.  A big part of the appeal of this book is the astounding quality of the thought experiment, what would civilization be like without a sex divide?  But that's not all worth reading in it.

Not totally spoilery content below, but with more information about what the book contains past the first couple chapters.

For clarity, I should explain:  any given Gethenian is usually -- not asexual, but sexually dormant, and during their sexually active period may shift into either a male or female role.  They neither have control over which way they shift on any given period of sexual activity, nor only ever shift into one sex or the other for their entire lives.  If a Gethenian takes on the female role in one particular period of sexual activity, they may become pregnant, and for nine months plus nursing time their body remains more in a state like femaleness.  This isn't a species with secret genders only expressed sometimes, it's a species where everyone has the same relationship to their sexual and procreative organs as everyone else.

It's genuinely striking, when you read this book, to keep noticing that it feels like half of a species is missing.  Everyone is treated equally as full members of society, and you feel that sense that there's a second class missing.  Genly consistently fails to acclimate to the fundamental differences between Gethenian civilizations and ours, and so did I.  In that sense, it's very illustrative of humans' internalized sexism.[3. At first I wrote "Actual humans," but I don't want to suggest that the Gethenians aren't human.  I was going for "non-fictional" but fell short.]

But I don't want to go on forever about the gender identity part of the book.  I hope you read it, and everything I say about it will detract from its impact when you do.

The thing I liked best about the book, I think, was the backstory about how Genly got there.   He represented the Ekumen, an interplanetary organization that primarily focused on organizing trade.  Every planet they represented, though, was populated by humans, and every one discovered the way that Gethen was discovered, populated by humans of some kind or another.

The universe, we discover, was subject to some great trauma, and at some point before that, there were people who went to planets and abandoned groups of humans.  Genly thinks it's likely that the Gethenians were an experiment performed by some unethical group, to remove sexual differentiation from humanity, populate a planet with them, and see what happens.

The narrative of the book comes entirely through two perspectives, Genly's field notes and the journal of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, as well as a handful of stories from the Genethian oral tradition.  I didn't really expect it to be, but the story that these narratives end up telling is enthralling in its own right.  I was about two thirds of the way through the book before I realized that I cared more about what was going to happen to and between Genly and Estraven than I did about learning more about Gethen.

Altogether this is an incredibly good book, and I recommend it highly, and look forward to when I'm going to have the time to give it a second read.

 

Is magic art?

Cory Doctorow posted a video, embedded below, that asks that question: [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNGDoroJtYw]

A lot of the magicians interviewed draw a distinction between hobbyists, or birthday party performers, and the people who "raise magic ... to an artistic level."  This distinction bugs me -- particularly, it bothers me because in more mainstream artistic professions, we acknowledge that practitioners are artists even if they aren't creating their own art, even if they aren't very good at it.

Acting is a good example.  A performer who is in a school production of Romeo and Juliet is participating in the creation of art.  If they do a bad job, then they do a bad job.  But you can't fail to create art of some quality if you're trying to do something artistic.  Reproducing other peoples' art is art.  Reproducing banal, overwrought art is art.  Doing magic tricks that you learned in a book, badly, is still art.

art v. pornography

One of the magicians said, "If a person doesn't feel, there is no art."  He dismisses pornography as not artistic, because it's too visceral, and drew the analogy between that and magic.  He called most magicians 'magic pornographers.'

This highlights the biggest problem I have with arguments about what is or isn't art -- people dismiss the kinds of emotions that seem to relate most to our bodies, or our visceral experience of life, as not-art.  People say that cooking isn't art, that porn isn't art, that, apparently, magic isn't art, because the emotions and experiences they evoke are present, rather than evoking something less present, some sort of sense about the future or the past.

I guess what they're defending is a sense of art as immortality -- for example, they dismiss any artist that does other people's tricks, and argue that what makes a trick artistic is trying to put your own emotions, your own story, into it -- but I think we're seriously missing out if that's all that we consider art.

Art doesn't have to be a unique expression of the person creating it.  Art can be a more general expression of an idea, by someone who just wants to help that idea along.  Amateur magicians who want to help create a sense of wonder in the world are artists because they're working to encourage and promote the importance of an emotion.

Not everyone has something new to say, and there's power and significance in creating art that's just there to say "I agree," or "Hey, remember, this is important."  That's why cooking is art.  That's why porn is (granted, sometimes extremely problematic) art.  That's why magic is art.[1. I should note that there are certainly examples of self-immortalization in cooking, porn, and magic.  Unfortunately, the case that usually gets made in this argument is "That's not really porn," or "That's not really just a magic trick," and I imagine there must be cases where someone or other has argued, "That's not really food."]

I think that we have an intuitive understanding that art is important, and I think that dismissing things as being not-art is an attempt to avoid accepting responsibility for one's relationship with culture.

That is all.

Woo complexity! Planned Parenthood moves away from "Pro-choice" label

The Guardian reports that Planned Parenthood, in an effort to draw attention to the fact that the issue of abortion is more complicated than in-favor or opposed, has "announced that it has reoriented its branding from being a 'pro-choice' group to not labeling itself[.]"

"The labels can mask people's support for access to safe and legal abortion, and they can politicize a conversation that is deeply personal and often complex," Planned Parenthood executive vice-president and chief experience officer Dawn Laguens said in a statement. "We're eager to help people have an authentic conversation – while we continue working to ensure that abortion remains safe and legal."

I'm pretty comfortable identifying myself as pro-choice, but that said I'm thrilled whenever I see an important organization resisting the polarization of public dialogue.

Planned Parenthood coalition partner National Women's Law Center is using [research suggesting that most people don't identify either as pro-life or pro-choice] for its forthcoming "It's Personal Campaign," that emphasizes that reproductive health decisions are personal and complex. "Only you know what it's like to walk in your shoes," reads one ad. "The decision whether to have an abortion belongs to you," says another.

[...]

"A majority of Americans still believe abortion should remain a safe and legal medical procedure for a woman to consider if and when she needs it, and these fundamental views have held steady for more than a decade. Instead of putting people in one category or another, we should respect the real-life decisions women and their families face every day."

Woo complexity!

A creationist textbook's description of "atheistic evolutionism"

(via Boing Boing) Can we just talk for a minute about the ridiculous notion that "You can't get something from nothing"?  Few things annoy me more about the 'origin of the universe' argument.

How many people, religious or not, have direct experience of what it's like when there isn't anything?  None, right?  Because there has never been a time when there hasn't been stuff, but there were people around to observe it.  We've got no idea what nothing is like.

I hate the argument that stuff just can't pop into being.  For all we know, the only reason stuff doesn't just pop into being now is because there's already other stuff in the way.  As far as I can tell, in fact, that's what's going on with Hawking radiation, where the absolute nothingness created around the black hole makes space for particle-antiparticle pairs to form, one end being sucked into the black hole and the other shooting out into space as new stuff.

We do this a lot in human thinking:  we assume that, because we have intimate experience of one state, we can draw conclusions about a state that we describe as being opposite to it.  Absence is not the mirror-reflection of presence.  We don't know how nothingness behaves just because we know how stuff behaves.

That is all.

Opinion vs. fact

There's an article on Theconversation.edu.au called No, you're not entitled to your opinion. It's a great piece, and I recommend all of it. But this part in particular stuck out to me, and I want to talk about it.

Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

First of all, it's a well-established fact that I strongly dislike Plato.  But moving on from that,

I don't think that the fact/opinion dichotomy is as worthy of dichotomy status as we treat it.  I think, rather, that opinions are a type of fact.  Specifically, opinions are facts about an individual's preferences.  Opinions have truth-value, just like every other kind of fact.  The problem is, most of the time we phrase statements that should be opinion statements as metaphysical claims.

If I say "Strawberry ice cream is good," I'm wrong.  I'm not saying I'm wrong because there's no one who likes strawberry ice cream.  I like strawberry ice cream.  I'm wrong because strawberry ice cream does not posses intrinsic metaphysical value.  It is not good, people just like it.

If I say "I dislike strawberry ice cream," I'm still wrong.  Or, I'm lying.  This time it's phrased as an opinion statement, but the statement I'm making is a lie about the fact of my experience.

To use a more common manifestation of this argument, let's try this with God.

  • "God is real" is not an opinion.  It's a fact-claim.  Its truth or falsehood is external to individual beliefs.  (Unless you believe in a fairly complicated metaphysics, but it's still not an opinion.)
  • "I believe in God" is not an opinion.  It's a statement about your internal set of presumed fact-claims.
  • "I love God" is an opinion.  Now, we're talking about your emotional relationship to something external. Just like I can say "I love Batman" as easily as I can say "I love Terry Pratchett," whether God is real or not doesn't affect your ability to have feelings relating to that concept.

So, yeah.  That's how I feel about all that.

Review and Commentary: Wreck-It Ralph

Quick review:  nearly everything about this movie is awesome.  It's fun, light, emotional rollercoster, life-affirming, optimistic and morally complex.  There are some elements that are problematic, and I'll get to that.  But I want to start by talking about the stuff I love.  Spoilers starting out below the fold.

From a writer's perspective, Wreck-It Ralph is incredible.  Every beat of the movie, every sudden dramatic moment, is perfectly set up by the characters and their setting.  The best things about Ralph -- his optimism, aspiration, and  good nature -- cause his biggest problems -- nearly getting his game shut off, destroying Vannelope's car.  And the reveal at the end, that King Candy was Turbo, came out of nowhere, and made absolute sense.  (I had thought it was just going to turn out that King Candy wanted to race, but had been programmed as an NPC.)

From an emotional perspective, this movie had me in tears more than once, for more than one reason.  If I had been watching it at home, I probably would have paused to finish weeping before getting back to the movie -- for that reason, I recommend seeing it in the theater, where you'll be forced to get the whole experience all at once.  It's worth it.

Moving on to the problematic stuff:

Wreck-It Ralph passes the Bechdel Test:  the other Sugar Racers, predominantly female, talk to Vannelope about whether she can race, and Vannelope and Calhoun are both strong women.  But for the most part, women are not represented well.  All the characters with aspirations beyond their programming are male -- Ralph wants to be accepted by the community of his game, Felix wants to impress Calhoun.  She, by the way, has the darkest backstory, like, ever, which (a.) illuminates her motivation as being down to a man's intervention, and (b.) manages to contextualize her strength as a type of weakness.

I'm not saying this movie is the worst representation of women in media right now, but it's not exactly breaking ground in that area.

This movie also comes off a bit like propaganda for the status quo.  Let's take a look, for example, at the Bad Guy Mantra:

I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.

There's a page on TVTropes called Villains Act, Heroes React.  (It turns out, the one called Status Quo Is God is not as relevant to this argument.)  It describes the tendency, in heroic plots, for the villain to do all the trying to change things, and the hero to do all the trying to keep things the same.  The villain's plan is usually awful, and it's good that they're being stopped.  But eventually it starts to feel like the point is "Change is bad."

In Wreck-It Ralph, the worst kind of people are people who compromise the playability of their game, and you compromise the playability of your game by changing things.  Even when Ralph does make a big change (in Sugar Rush) it's only okay when it's made clear that he's restoring an older, truer status quo.

Now, I don't mind the lesson that the way for things to be better is for everyone to accept and celebrate each other's value, as the NPCs in Fix-It Felix accept and celebrate Ralph at the end.  And, I recognize that this lesson is implicit in the premise -- an arcade game can't change how it works spontaneously, so the premise can't allow for that.

But that's just one way to phrase the lesson at the end -- another easy way to phrase it is "Know your place."  There's something a little bit dark about a world where the life of a villain is so consistently miserable that they need a support group to get through it, but have to keep that lifestyle, even though it's unrewarding, or their home will be destroyed for them, and everyone else who lives in that game.

More thoughts on 1984

Power is [was] still out today, so I am learning new things about the way my phone works.  Specifically, I'm trying to figure out if I can write documents on my Chromebook and get them onto my phone in a way that can be uploaded to the interwebs.  If you're reading this, I have succeeded[1. If you're reading it on my blog, I mean.  Obviously if you've stolen my laptop and are reading my scratchpad files, that doesn't count.].
Meanwhile:  I finished reading 1984 last night, and want to talk about some of the new thoughts I've had.  Specifically, I want to talk about the uncomfortable familiarity of doublethink.
Doublethink is, in 1984, close to being the Party's central doctrine:  the virtuous responsibility of its adherents to learn how to hold contradictory thoughts in one's mind simultaneously.  But, more than that, it's a way of holding the scaffolding of bias in your mind such taht it reinforces the Party's views wherever possible.
"It needed also a sort of athleticism of mind, an ability at one moment to make the most delicate use of logic and at the next to be unconscious of the crudest logical errors.  Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain."
That was the part of the book where doublethink became a lot more chilling.  That was the point where it stopped seeming like doublethink was some extraordinary effort by a near-alien political body, a pursuit doomed to at least partial imperfection forever.  It started seeming like regular old run-of-the-mill cognitive bias.  It started seeming like the way human brains work all the time.
I thought about how much easier, for example, it is to ignore or make excuses for the undeniably problematic nature of the Office than it is for Tosh.0, or how easy it is for me to see subtle distinctions in cases that support my political arguments, and how easy it is to dismiss an opponent's argument when they pull out the same kind of subtle distinctions as "Distinction without difference."  That doesn't necessarily means that my arguments are wrong, but it does mean I lean towards continuing to believe things rather than changing my mind, for reasons that aren't very good.
One of the most unrealistic things about Dystopian fiction, the same unrealistic thing that shows up in conspiracy theories, is the idea that there's a high-powered organizing force creating the flaws in human nature and society that the writers or conspiracy theorists see around them.  Doublethink is, I think, a possible and real phenomenon; it's even the natural state of most thought.  The ability to coordinate it, though, the way IngSoc seeks to do, might be a little beyond human ability.  Instead, we naturally drift towards rationalizing systems in groups and clusters.
O'Brian is right about a lot of things in his interrogations with Winston.  He's right about the implications of collective solipsism (though I strongly believe that Winston was right about solipsism being inherently flawed,) and I think he's right about the reasons for the inevitable downfall of other authoritarian governments, that they grow soft or weak.  The cult-like methods used in the Ministry of Love would also probably work, if they could be executed on a large enough scale.
I'm glad that history didn't go the way Orwell wrote about, but I also don't think he was trying to make a prediction.  Rather, I think he was trying to illustrate the concepts that were active in his time, which allowed for individuals like Hitler and Stalin to reach a peak of power, and establish the idea of a gradient.  It's better for humanity to be fractured into thousands or millions of subgroups with their own variously broken modes of thought than it is for there to be three dominant groups piloting world affairs.  It's better for the revolting middle class to at least sort of half-believe in the values of equality and liberty, because when they fail to live up to the moral demands of power, they will at least not fail completely, undermining the class structure more and more by degrees.  And even if there's no way to crawl out of the oppression of the thought-landscape you have access to, even if there's no way you can think totally clearly, (which no one can,) it's better to be closer to reasonable rather than further away.

The narrative of debt and poverty in America as I see it

I've been thinking a lot about debt recently, for reasons which I expect should be obvious.  One of the things that usually floats to mind when I start thinking about this is the Net Worth comic that often floats around the internet, embedded below.

Unfortunately, the original source of this comic appears to have gone offline.  (Or maybe they just crashed today.)  Apart from that, it's fairly unlikely that someone begging on the street has no debt -- that homeless man probably has quite a lot of debt, or at least terrible credit.

I've also been thinking about debt after watching John Green's latest Vlogbrothers video, in which he explains the national debt:

We tend to think about the nature of debt as being a very simple story, but in reality debt is an incredibly complicated social structure.  And that led me to think about the simplified narrative of debt that I grew up with in America.

My narrative leans towards the conservative political version of the narrative, because while one side of the political range wants to keep things the way they are, and the other wants things to change, our culture largely agrees on what the narrative is at the moment.

This is a post I'd really like to get responses on, if any of my readers have been considering commenting.  My experience of American life is far from universal, and I'm interested to see whether any of these aspects are less universal than I understood them to be.

Part 1: Birth and childhood

Americans are ostensibly born with a balanced ledger -- all [humans] being created equal, and all.  But if your parents keep you, you immediately start accruing debt.  (I'm okay with the idea that parents keeping their children from dying is awesome, but we tend to treat it like a service rendered for an ambiguous reward.)  Americans have a number of entitlements, such as a twelve-year education, food and shelter, some vaguely defined amount of medical care.

Straight up into our mid-teens, we aren't generally expected to go into any sort of debt apart from the nebulously defined debt to parents.  But at some point between 14 and 19, we're expected to get a job.

Part 2: Adulthood and debt

Whether we're supposed to go to college is sort of ambiguous right now -- as of twenty years ago, we were supposed to be heading towards an America in which everyone goes to college.  Mostly, we're supposed to do that by getting student loans, and going into debt.

During or after college, we're supposed to get a car that's more expensive than we can afford, and start making payments on that.  At some point later than that, we're supposed to get a house, with a mortgage.

At this point, we're supposed to have a job, and savings, which should be offsetting our debt.  At some point in the middle of our lives, we're supposed to be taking in more than we're spending, slowly reducing our debt-total.

At some point, our parents die, reducing the incalculable debt that we've had since shortly after our birth to one final payment, the funeral costs.

Part 3: Retirement and settlement

By the time we retire, we're supposed to have paid off our house, our car, have settled all our outstanding debt. Mostly, if we die with debt, that debt gets taken out of our estate, but can't be passed on to someone else, but that's not supposed to happen.  We're supposed to have an estate to leave to our children, helping them along their way in all this complicated stuff.

The end.

Afterword

I'm writing this all out because, obviously, life, money, and debt are all more complicated than this.  But no one in my life has ever really gone through the complex considerations of debt, so what I have to go on is the vague impression I've gathered from a lifetime of innuendos, implications and fictionalized examples.

This is one version of the possible story, but for a lot of people it's not really how ti works out.  I don't know in great detail how this all ultimately shakes out for my life, but I know that I need a better idea of which parts of the implicit cultural promise I have an actual chance of looking forward to, and which things would be irresponsible and disappointing pursuits.

Again, I'm hoping to get comments on this one.  What kind of story do you feel like you've been taught to expect?  Do you think anything I've written is very wrong?

1984: new work in ENG102! Yay!

We've just finished Grimm's Tales in my English 102 class, and we're just moving on to one of my favorite books, 1984.  Part of the format of this class is writing essays in response to each reading assignment -- 1984's assignments are divided up one for each of the three sections -- and I have a lot of ideas.  And I'm only 12 pages in.  So here's a bit of an idea dump so I can move on with reading. Oppression, Capitalism, and Architecture

The Ministry of Truth -- Minitrue, in Newspeak -- was startlingly different from any other object in sight.  It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters in the air.

This is the Shard.  It is 306.9 meters tall, according to Wikipedia, and is the tallest building in London by far.  I'll grant that it's not made of glittering white concrete, but it's pretty damn closeto looking like the Ministry of Truth.

That said, it's not the home of the British Government's propaganda wing.  It's a private building, full of offices, restaurants, and hotels.  We're in a weird place, as a civilization, where the biggest construction projects we can manage are not the source of nationally organized collective action for the benefit of all, but private enterprises for the benefit of the very wealthy.  The Shard is for corporate offices, and it is, essentially, a gigantic ad sticking out of the center of London, declaring, "We are friendly to Corporate Offices.  Come put your Corporate Offices Here."

The Reactionary Anti-1984

I will grant, unequivocally, that it's a good thing that 1984 didn't come true.  We would not be better off as a world if a lot of countries had ended up going down that road, and I do believe that Orwell gave us the tools to discuss it, and thereby prevent it.

What he didn't do, which is fair enough because we can't expect one writer to fix the whole of the future, was explain how things could go wrong in the other direction.  The use of propaganda in 1984 is oppressive and insane.  But it bred a rabid anti-propaganda culture, where what would have been better in its place is a system of transparent propaganda: more "This is what the government asks of you and why," less "The government has no right to ask anything of you."  Civilization means we're all in this together, and at best the government is our efforts to cooperate, manifest.  In fear of letting it control us, we've completely untoothed it.  Now, we're suffering other kinds of oppression.  (See above: The Shard, corporate overlords.)

Facebook: The self-manifest Telescreen

We're not strictly living in the kind of technological Panopticon that Orwell envisioned.  More like the reverse -- we're living in an increasingly comprehensive environment where, at any time, we could be broadcasting.  See, for example, this blog.

Some of us are hopefully using this for good.  I, personally, see my online presence as a way of holding myself accountable by putting my best self forward and demanding of myself that I live up to my online presence.  But I don't feel like most people have as carefully thought through what version of themselves they're putting forward.

As I've written before, some of our online resources, like Facebook, are engineered to encourage us to put a particular version of ourselves forward.  Facebook encourages us to be nasty, shallow and narrow-minded.  You can use these tools without succumbing to their leanings, but Facebook isn't helping anyone be a better person.

And all your friends could always be watching or listening. The more you use Facebook, the more your silence is conspicuous.

The phenomena Orwell described in 1984 are largely deliberately orchestrated by the Party.  But it's also possible for many of them to occur organically, through the mere existence of the appropriate tools.  Facebook's relevance algorithms encourage everyone to pay closer attention to your relationship status than any other aspect of your life.  Twitter, Tumblre and tagging in general arguably promote a kind of #newspeak.  In this case, the failure of social media companies to make their products actively anti-Orwellian constitutes a failure to prevent the world that Orwell sort-of predicted.

###

I don't have any ultimate point here.  Any one of these might get expanded into my first paper on 1984, or I might come up with some totally new topic.  I've got like three days to write it, who knows what will happen. (Apart from Google, whose algorithms have presumably already predicted the content of my blog for the next six weeks.)

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.  More information is available at www.txwatson.com/school-license.

Labels and identity

Hank Green is going to post a video on Vlogbrothers tomorrow about gender identity, sexuality, attraction, and all that other stuff.  I've been thinking about those labels lately, because I just recently re-read the afterword in 1984 -- the one that explains that the point of NewSpeak was to suppress heretical thought. The theory goes like this:  If there isn't a word for oppression, then a person can't think, "I'm oppressed."  If there isn't a word for justice, a person can't think, "This is unjust."  In fact, in writing 1984, George Orwell gave us a lot of the language we need to defend ourselves against the oppression the book describes.  We have concepts like thoughtcrime, doublethink and "Orwellian".

In the afterword, it's pointed out that in NewSpeak, there was no word for "Science," everything that science could possibly mean being covered by "IngSoc" -- the means by which we determine information aren't a set of independent tools that can be employed by anyone, that practice is explicitly an aspect of the society.  Other countries, therefore, couldn't be rational.  A person who spoke only NewSpeak couldn't possibly articulate, maybe even couldn't think, the idea that other countries also possessed the ability to pursue reasonable conclusions by methodological experiment.

So when I hear people complain about how many different words, distinctions, and categories there seem to be now for gender, sexuality, gender presentation, romantic orientation, and so on, I find it annoying.  The reason I find it annoying is that they're implicitly (though they generally don't realize this) attempting to enforce use of a labeling system that cuts down any individual's ability  to express the distinctions they're trying to make.

This isn't exactly new ground.  As I've pointed out, Orwell covered it extremely well, and he was very far from the first.  Unfortunately, it seems to be one of those kinds of topic that a lot of people just never get around to grasping:  Thinking happens in language, and we can only think roughly as well as our language allows.  At best, we can create new language to speak new ideas, but that only allows us to push just outside the borders of the language we have now.

So it's not okay to suppress the creation of new language because it's difficult to keep track of it.

Am I thinking for myself? An English 102 pre-ramble

My English 102 class's final project is to write a free-form paper, answering the question, "Am I thinking for myself?"  (One of the points about this I find most amusing is that an entry on the rubric states that a paper which contains no original ideas will earn below a C, which sort of presupposes the correct answer of the question.) I don't think I think for myself, and I think that's going to be a hard case to make.  So I'm going to start working on the paper here, now.  Starting with a definiton:

Thinking: the inter-relationship of ideas, present in a mind, when simultaneously cognitively observed.

As far as I can tell, the act of thinking is the act of holding two or more pieces of information in your conscious attention, and seeing what happens when they interact.  It's like chemistry, with memes.  And, like chemistry, it often produces predictable outcomes.

There are different mechanisms of comparison:

Metaphor:  Mapping the shape and key points of one idea or concept using another, more familiar concept as a template.  This is the easiest, most used, and most error-prone method of thought.

Logic: If A then B.  Prone to formal fallacy.

Moral evaluation: The use of previous mechanisms of comparison, holding a particular broad conceptual outcome in mind to compare the result of the initial comparison.

Free-form: Emotional or cognitive; usually both.  Most thought contains an element of this.

Emotional: Holding concepts in mind and gathering information based on what automatic feeling responses they trigger.

Cognitive: Holding concepts in mind and allowing for other cognitive concepts to seep in, adding those to the comparison base.

For these mechanisms to fail to constitute thinking for myself, though, there has to be a 'self' within the database and comparison equipment doing this work, and that's not very well-supported.  But if no such independent, free-willed self exists, then all that is present is this collection of mechanisms, one leading into another in a constant, free-flowing stream of consciousness that I mistake for selfhood.

That collection of thoughts is therefore subject to (and entirely driven by) the presence of outside influence.  The things my teachers taught me, the books I was exposed to, the vocabulary I have available, all shape the possible thoughts I'm equipped to generate.

So, no, I don't think I'm thinking for myself.  That's not to say I'm incapable of generating original ideas -- concepts might combine, collapse and interrelate in totally new ways in my head, which I can then spill out into the broader idea landscape that I share with the minds of everyone with the power to communicate with me.  (In this case, the internet means I share a collective, though heavily compartmentalized, meta-consciousness with the entire connected world.)

Instead, I'm part of a broader community, a civilization of interrelated thinking.  I couldn't think for myself unless I was the only person, and had always been alone.  Instead, I inherit thoughts from others, and think them in old or new ways for my own benefit and the benefit of those around me. I choose, insofar as I'm capable of choosing, the guiding values that direct my ability to think, and via that selective mechanism and the idea landscape I have access to, I choose sources of new input that are (a.) productive towards the avenues of thought I feel most comfortable in, and (b.) within my range of comprehension, so I can productively interact with them, and possibly even contribute.

Broadly speaking, I, along with the rest of my species, am not an independent thinker, but a host for thinking, a territory in a landscape of thoughts larger than I can fathom.  Fortunately, it seems those thoughts are interested in and capable of maximizing the quality and size of their environments, so I and my species can look forward to increasingly comfortable civilizations that are increasingly friendly towards open and varied thinking, and well equipped to fight back hostile or violent thoughts.

...This kind of got weird. It's very possible that I will have changed my mind by the time the paper is due for class.  Still, I like the conclusion a lot:  I'm not thinking for myself.  I'm thinking for the sake of thought.

The point of participating in civilization is to add value

It's an election season, so I've been having a lot of arguments about my basic philosophical positions.  (I also recently got a job, so I've had to deal with a certain amount of frustrating snark from people who live extremely close to me.)  So, I want to take a minute to spell out what kind of obligations people have to their civilization. Here are some things that aren't your obligation to civilization:

  • To make money
  • To have a job
  • To have a family
  • To practice social normative behavior

Not saying you shouldn't do any of those things.  If you want to, they are often good ideas.  But here, this next thing, is the only thing you should feel obligated to do in civilization.

  • To use the resources and opportunities your civilization provides you in a way that creates new value for the people you're sharing the world with.

Here are some ways you can do that:

  • Make money ethically, participating in useful social constructs and maintaining an economy
  • Have a morally legitimate job, that involves doing something of genuine value at a fair charge
  • Love and care about the people in your life, have a family if you want one, and generally express love and try to add value on a personal level to the world you live in
  • Support productive social norms, like kindness, honesty and good faith, and resist destructive social norms, like sexism, racism and rape culture.

There are loads more.  In fact, a lot of the things that seem like obligations to society boil down to that core, "Add value."  But the focus, if it ever was there, seems to have drifted away from that point, because the argument I often find myself having is one in which I'm defending my desire to add value to the lives of the people around me, against the position that my priority should be to extract as much value from others as possible, and give as little as I can in return.

That kind of participation in civilization -- the kind that focuses on rights but ignores responsibilities, demands that taxes never be raised and wages never be cut, insists that anything a person can squeeze out of the financial system as it exists is not only fair play but morally admirable -- it's corrosive, and it's culturally irresponsible.

Of course, I don't have the ability to reach into other people's minds and mess with the switches.  I can't stop other people believing that the highest morality is self-interest.  But I'm also not going to pretend that I agree with anyone who makes that case.

I'm sure these arguments aren't over this season.  They probably won't start to ebb until a month or two after the election.  But having this written out here will help, I think.  And that's the note I'm leaving the blog on for the weekend, I guess.

Speculations about the future

On my way to school this morning, I told my friend about what I thought some of the implications of 3D printing were.  It was fun talking about, and I think it's a more likely, bigger deal than is easy to imagine, so here are some of my (mostly borrowed or inspired by Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, and other non-futurists) hypotheses. I pointed out yesterday that the new MakerBot Replicator costs about one seventh of the cost of early black-and-white printers, adjusted for inflation.  It prints at a really remarkably fine resolution.  Not enough to do really precision work, but fine enough that most of the things we make out of plastic would look the same coming out of the new Replicator as they do coming out of a factory.

So, for one thing, we can look forward to the death of mass-production of everything that can be made out of plastic without intense precision or large size.  For large size things, we can probably expect that they'll still go out of mass-production, shifting instead to local-business 3D print shops.

Larger businesses that currently shop out the production of their little plastic bits will be more likely to move them in-house, so even industrial suppliers won't be likely to survive the proliferation of desktop manufacturing.

In his latest talk, Cory Doctorow made fun of a record company executive warning his friends in manufacturing that the rest of industry will soon have to deal with the same IP problems that the entertainment industry does.  He points out that copyright is not the biggest implication of 3D printing.  But still, the technology is going to get better.

Low quality lenses are already being printed with 3D printers.  See this paper by Christohper Olah, for example:

While the lenses that have been produced with the outlined technique are incomparable to commercial optics, and fall short of the quality needed for most visual applications, they are of sucient quality to be used for some low-precision light distribution applications like collimating light in a flashlight. Furthermore, the wide variety in modes of failure is reason to believe that much higher quality can be achieved, since each one, evidently, can be defeated individually. It is simply a matter of perfecting the technique.

The author intends to pursue this until he can 3D print a telescope...

(Emphasis mine.)

It's far from unreasonable to imagine that, within 10 or 20 years, 3D printers cheap enough for a teenager to buy (based on today's standards for teenagers' ability to earn money) will be able to print out an iPhone, complete with working digital camera.  Companies won't, in general, be able to protect their intellectual property from being replicated by pirates once the means of production is a device everyone has at home.

But printers that extrude stable solids aren't the only kind that are coming out.  Bioprinters are another topic that Doctorow brings up fairly often -- devices that can literally print out viruses, if you program them that way.  When I think about that possibility, I sometimes get a grim sense of awareness about the frequency of school shootings and murder-suicides in America.  This is not a country well-inoculated against murderous self-destruction.

Other people have also raised concern about foreign terrorists or biological warfare, but I think nihilistic teenagers might be the biggest existential threat to humanity if the current model for socializing them holds into the future of desktop manufacturing.

In California, a store is opening up selling 3D printers whose cheapest model is going to be $600.  The open-source 3D printer RepRap is designed to be able to print large portions of its own components, so if you get one, you can print another one out for each of your friends.

These are the small considerations -- I can't fathom what the real, big changes are that 3D printers are going to bring.  But I can say with a fair amount of confidence that they'll get cheaper, that they'll get more useful, and that they will break massive chunks of the industrial economy.  Here are some of the things that will break:

  • There will be even fewer jobs
  • Companies won't be able to sustain R&D
  • Either:
    • something massive will change about the way kids are brought up, or
    • everyone will die

Maybe I'm wrong, and everything will stay the same from here on out.  But there isn't a great historical track record for 'everything staying the same,' especially in the US and the industrialized world.