Posts tagged: history
I used to be a standing desk skeptic, partially because of this report from Cornell and partially because, as everyone who knows me knows, I hate standing. But I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the Cornell thing for relying on studies that don’t really apply to standing desks in an office, and I’ve gathered enough anecdata to believe that it’s a good idea for me to at least try it.
But I’m troubled by one thing: if standing desks are such a great thing, why are they only taking off?
It’s not like it’s a new idea. Stan Lee, as seen above, was a proponent of working standing, and Notsitting.com has a list of famous standers, including Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo DaVinci, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Earnest Hemingway and Winston Churchill. But the idea doesn’t seem to have gained mass appeal until recently. Why is that?
Sci-fi writer Tim Maughan on graffiti:
My own interest in graffiti dates back to my first teenage introduction to hip-hop culture in the mid-1980s, when the first images of New York subway art started to make their way over the pond in magazines and, much rarer, snippets of TV alongside those first rare glimpses of block parties, scratch DJs, rappers, and breakdancers. Apart from their raw visceral energy, both hip hop music and graffiti struck me as intensely science-fictional. Both are about the appropriation of technology to create something new?—?hip-hop taking samplers and turntables to generate new sounds they weren’t designed to make, and graf taking car repair paint and the very architecture of cities to create new visual spaces and canvases. They are, perhaps, the most literal expression of William Gibson’s famous cyberpunk-defining phrase ‘the street finds its own use for things’.
Gibson’s early works, and those of his many lesser imitators, would herald the hacker as the rebellious hero of the future; a trope that would immeasurably shape everything from political activism to venture capitalism in the decades to follow. Perhaps the stereotypical image of the hacker as lone digital warrior, skulking over keyboards in screen-glare lit rooms seems very far removed from the image of the spray can welding, shadow dwelling, trespassing graffiti writer, but the two subcultures share a startlingly similar set of goals, values, and approaches: both look to subvert existing infrastructures and systems, both value one-upmanship and bragging rights, and neither can resist the illegal thrill of breaking-and-entering?—?whether physical or virtual?—?even when the risk of being caught may well lead to ruthless, draconian punishment. Both also share, perhaps most importantly, an aesthetic obsession with the future?—?something apparent in the work of artist Leonard McGurr, better known as FUTURA 2000.
Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture and The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties interviewed on how Silicon Valley went from counter cultural cool to mustache twirling villain. Turner talks a lot about Silicon Valley’s connection to 60s communalism, and why that outlook is shaping its modern practices:
One of the great mistakes people made in reviewing my book was to say, “Wow, it’s great. Turner finally showed us how the hippies brought us computing.” Nothing could be further from the truth. What I think I did in the book was actually show how the research world that brought us computing also brought us the counterculture. In the ‘40s, we see military industrial research in and around MIT and around a variety of other centers being incredibly collaborative and open. It’s that style that actually migrates into and shapes countercultural practices. What the counterculture does for computing is it legitimates it. It makes it culturally cool. […]
A legacy from the communalist movement that I think is pernicious is a turning away from politics, a turning toward the self as the basis of political change, of social action. I think that’s something you see all through the Valley. The information technology industry feeds off it because information technologies can so easily be aimed at satisfying individual needs. You see that rhetoric leveraged when Google and other firms say, “Don’t regulate us. We need to be creative. We need to be free to pursue our satisfaction because that’s ultimately what will provide a satisfying society.”
That’s all a way of ignoring the systems that make the world possible. One example from the ‘60s that I think is pretty telling is all the road trips. The road trips are always about the heroic actions of people like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady and their amazing automobiles, right? Never, never did it get told that those road trips were only made possible by Eisenhower’s completion of the highway system. The highway system is never in the story. It’s boring. What’s in the story is the heroic actions of bootstrapped individuals pursuing conscious change. What we see out here now is, again, those heroic stories. And there are real heroes. But the real heroes are operating with automobiles and roads and whole systems of support without which they couldn’t be heroic.
The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman
Ostensibly a review of Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, this essay is a great overview of how Jorge Borges’ politics affected his work:
Throughout his life, Jorge Luis Borges was engaged in a dialogue with violence. Speaking to an interviewer about his childhood in what was then the outlying barrio of Palermo, in Buenos Aires, he said, “To call a man, or to think of him, as a coward—that was the last thing…the kind of thing he couldn’t stand.” According to his biographer, Edwin Williamson,1 Borges’s father handed him a dagger when he was a boy, with instructions to overcome his poor eyesight and “generally defeated” demeanor and let the boys who were bullying him know that he was a man.
Swords, daggers—weapons with a blade—retained a mysterious, talismanic significance for Borges, imbued with predetermined codes of conduct and honor. The short dagger had particular power, because it required the fighters to draw death close, in a final embrace. As a young man, in the 1920s, Borges prowled the obscure barrios of Buenos Aires, seeking the company of cuchilleros, knife fighters, who represented to him a form of authentic criollo nativism that he wished to know and absorb.
The criollos were the early Spanish settlers of the pampa, and their gaucho descendants. For at least a century now, the word has signified an ideal cultural purity that, according to its champions, was corrupted by the privatization of the pampa and, later, by the flood of immigrants from Italy and elsewhere in Europe that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Borges spent much of his twenties attempting to write a full-length epic poem that would mythologize this “innumerable Buenos Aires of mine,” as he called it—a work that would, in Borges’s words again, “converse with the world and with the self, with God and with death.” He saw it as a way to reflect the city’s essence, as Joyce had done with Dublin, a way to establish a lasting cultural identity that Argentina did not yet possess in the world. His aim, in part, was to enshrine the urban descendent of the criollo, with his ubiquitous dagger and supposedly honorable outlaw ways. Eventually he would abandon the project—Borges was never able to conquer the long form; and though his cultural vision, as it later developed, would be much broader, the romance of the criollo would continue to animate his imagination. Some of his finest fiction—including the stories “The South,” “The Dead Man,” and “The Intruder,” to name just a few—was kindled by the dagger.
It’s a place where few living New Yorkers have ever set foot, but nearly a million dead ones reside: Hart Island, the United States’ largest mass grave, which has been closed to the public for 35 years. It is difficult to visit and off-limits to photographers. But that may be about to change, as a debate roils over the city’s treatment of the unclaimed dead. Never heard of Hart? You’re not alone—and that’s part of the problem.
Hart Island is a thin, half-mile long blip of land at the yawning mouth of Long Island Sound, just across the water from City Island in the Bronx. Depending on who you ask, it was named either for its organ-like shape or for the deer (or hart) that thrived here after trekking across the frozen sound in the 18th century. Hart is dense with history; it’s been used as a prison for Confederate soldiers, a workhouse for the poor, a women’s asylum, and a Nike missile base during the Cold War.
Its most important role has been to serve as what’s known as a potter’s field, a common gravesite for the city’s unknown dead. Some 900,000 New Yorkers (or adopted New Yorkers) are buried here; hauntingly, the majority are interred by prisoners from Riker’s Island who earn 50 cents an hour digging gravesites and stacking simple wooden boxes in groups of 150 adults and 1,000 infants. These inmates—most of them very young, serving out short sentences—are responsible for building the only memorials on Hart Island: Handmade crosses made of twigs and small offerings of fruit and candy left behind when a grave is finished.
My latest column for TechCrunch looks at one of the weirdest political subcultures on the web:
Many of us yearn for a return to one golden age or another. But there’s a community of bloggers taking the idea to an extreme: they want to turn the dial way back to the days before the French Revolution.
Neoreactionaries believe that while technology and capitalism have advanced humanity over the past couple centuries, democracy has actually done more harm than good. They propose a return to old-fashioned gender roles, social order and monarchy.
You may have seen them crop-up on tech hangouts like Hacker News and Less Wrong, having cryptic conversations about “Moldbug” and “the Cathedral.” And though neoreactionaries aren’t exactly rampant in the tech industry, PayPal founder Peter Thiel has voiced similar ideas, and Pax Dickinson, the former CTO of Business Insider, says he’s been influenced by neoreactionary thought. It may be a small, minority world view, but it’s one that I think shines some light on the psyche of contemporary tech culture.
Previously: Nick Land – An Experiment in Inhumanism
Great article from a couple weeks back by Adrian Chen about Perry Fellwock, the original NSA whistleblower:
He was tasked with analyzing Soviet air force activities. Though the American public at home was terrified by the Soviet threat, Fellwock said his access to raw intelligence made him feel safer—even if he had once anxiously tracked a flight of nuclear-armed Russian bombers heading straight toward Istanbul, pulling a U-turn just short of the line that would have set off a nuclear war.
“I thought we were keeping World War III from happening, I really thought that was what our job was,” Fellwock said. “Because we knew everything that was going on, and as long as we knew everything that was going on, there was a possibility of preventing everything.”
Fellwock’s faith in his mission was shaken within a year. In 1967, the Six-Day War between Israel and a number of neighboring Arab countries erupted. Israeli forces attacked an NSA spy ship, the U.S.S. Liberty, while it was on an eavesdropping mission off the coast of Egypt. Thirty-five crew members were killed, and 171 wounded.
Israel claimed that in the fog of war it had misidentified the ship as Egyptian. But James Bamford, in his book Body of Secrets, has made a strong case that the IDF knowingly attacked the spy ship in order to cover up their massacring of hundreds of Egyptian POWs in a nearby town. Whatever the case, the incident sparked outrage within the NSA, especially after Lyndon Johnson’s administration covered it up so as not to embarrass the U.S.’s strongest ally in the Middle East.
For Fellwock, the intrigue surrounding the Liberty incident opened up new, dark possibilities. “It made begin to wonder what the heck is going on in the world,” he said. “This is not the way things are supposed to be.“
Having glimpsed the chaos of a war the U.S. wasn’t even a party to, Fellwock began to wonder about the ongoing American war in Vietnam. In 1968, his curiosity overcame his aversion to combat and he volunteered for Vietnam. “I had to find out why things were going this way,” he said.
Peter Turchin (the Cliodynamics guy) has a piece in Bloomberg today:
Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state.
Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions. Consider the Antebellum U.S.
While I can understand how intra-elite conflict destabalize society and lead to ever more disaparity between the elites and everyone else, I still don’t quite understand how elite overproduction causes this. If most of these wannabes are locked out of the elite positions, how is it that they’re causing trouble?