Archive for the 'meta' Category

Liberal Caricature


Yesterday, co-blogger JSC7 linked to a bunch of new posts out there on the nets about how to effectively manage your online time and get away from destructive overconsumption. JSC7 ended the piece with a keen observation about the importance of models of healthy living, and how we basically don’t have any for internet use:

“We don’t yet really have a firm sense of what is living well or badly in the modern world, the way we do with say, alcohol consumption or other addictive vices.”

As a matter of societal consensus, I think JSC7 is right.

However, it seems to me that there actually is a sizable group of people who are seriously grappling with “what it is to live well or badly in the modern world”. Those people are hippies, or leftists, or ‘limousine liberals’, or ‘latte-sipping, volvo-driving elitist snobs’, or granola west coasters — at least, that how they get caricatured.  These are the people who self-consciously think about their diets and their impact on the world, go out of their way to avoid dumping their externalities on the world, and limit the time they spend in front of the TV or ditch the TV entirely. And they’re also the people who are trying to spend more time outdoors jogging or playing Frisbee golf than inside on the internet.

And, as we all know, those people are all caricatured and ridiculed by the rest of us. It seems like ‘we’ actually do have a fairly good model of what healthy, ‘good’ living is supposed to look like in the modern world: eat more local, organic produce; don’t light a barrel of oil on fire to keep your living room warm; get more exercise; spend less time staring at a screen and more time interacting with real live people. Healthy internet use seems like part of an entire lifestyle package.

And even though ‘we’ all know what the right thing to do is, we can’t imagine adopting that lifestyle entirely. The magnitude of the change frightens us. So instead of accepting the superiority of healthy internet and exercise choices and making incremental improvements to our lives, we end up bragging about eating at McDonald’s and not driving a Prius. The real shame there is that the markers of a healthy lifestyle — which have no business being a partisan issue — get turned into partisan markers in a weird, tribal way. It’s terrible for our society when the healthy model of modern living turns into a liberal caricature that no one feels like emulating.


JSC’s brush with blogging fame

Our faithful readers will be happy to know that when there’s not a smorgasbord of vague topics engaging our talents of producing excessive word counts, we at JSC sometimes spend our time hobnobbing with the international blogging elite. On Monday night, along with a co-worker and Beijing’s uncontested cupcake queen, I met for drinks with Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias and Brad Plumer, who are on a journalist trip through China. Aside from some great anecdotes that stem from the words “journalist” and “China” popping up in the same sentence, it was fun to hear their views on the country and argue a few of our own (my co-worker and I represent two-thirds of the shadowy “ex-pats who run a small company trying to spread Western educational techniques” mentioned in Ezra’s post).

Now that you’re sufficiently disarmed and dazzled by my lifestyle, there’s a cool lesson from this. I arranged the meeting by sending a message to Ezra through the Washington Post website, telling him that there were some entrepreneurs in Beijing who would love to meet up and chat about China. Now, in a well-functioning world, there would be someone more important than me to get in touch with him. Whatever your opinion about blogging, these guys represent an important slice of public debate in the United States. If you’re a China scholar, or some kind of official willing to meet off record, or even an American Chamber of Commerce official, don’t you try to pull these guys off to the side for a few hours? Anyone? Bueller?

This is an example of an important school of philosophy, which goes by the name of “people in important positions are not on top of their own business”-ism (another fun example was a story a friend told me about how last week during Hillary’s visit to China, she was doing a speech and some totally unrelated guy got up on stage while she was standing for a photograph, ran up, shook her hand, said some words, and walked off, without anything happening. Secret Service? Bueller?). Anyway, if you live in a country that someone important is visiting, try to shoot them an e-mail. There’s a good chance they’re holed up in a fancy hotel looking for an excuse to get out.

Happy birthday…

… to JSC! Hard to believe, but it’s been a whole year since JSC5 and I started this little corner of intellectual self-aggrandizement . 87 posts later, it hasn’t quite let to the syndicated column writing offers and world fame that we both very reasonably expected, but it’s been very enjoyable nonetheless.

I’m still a little on the fence about the value of blogging, but here’s one very huge benefit that I can safely take away after all this time: when you have a vague idea in your head, the process of trying to write it into a reasonable argument forces you to acknowledge and deal with a lot of inconsistencies that don’t really show themselves while the idea is floating in the ether of your head.

It’s also been nice to have more than one person writing, because at moments when you think the blog is knocking on death’s door, there’s a few people with an incentive to keep it alive. Will it live for another year? Will it achieve fame? Like, years later, when JSC5 is going through Senate confirmation hearings and someone digs it up and uses it to sink his promising political career? Will the long form non-investigative essay go the way of the Dodo? So many questions.

Perhaps most importantly, thanks for following along! As a sign of our never ending gratitude to our pious readers, here are some funnies:

The internet is a Toyata-thon of Death — or is it? [philosophy edition]

Life sometimes seems like a Toyota with a stuck accelerator, thanks to ever-improving communications media. Saying that the internet speeds up life is pretty banal, but sometimes it just strikes home in a way that makes you stop and think that maybe there is hope for us after all – if we can figure out how to harness it.

Take philosophy. In an effort to prevent atrophy, I was reading through Isaiah Berlin’s classic essays on liberty the other day. My edition starts off with an Introduction by Berlin from the 1969 edition, which collected earlier works, including the 1950 work ‘Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century’, a controversial 1954 essay on determinism, ‘Historical Inevitability’, and the seminal 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. The first interesting thing about Berlin’s 1969 Introduction is how directly he responds to his critics, more like a blogger than a philosopher.  The second, and more important, point of interest in the Introduction is how long it takes for Berlin to respond in the first place. He devotes most of his time in the 1969 Introduction to responding to critics of his 1954 determinism essay, particularly arguments advanced by:

  • Amartya Sen, 1959, ‘Determinism and Historical Predictions’ [fun side note: Sen was still teaching at Harvard as recently as 2008 when one of my best friends took a grad seminar with him. The man is a machine.]
  • J. A. Passmore, 1959, ‘History, the Individual, and Inevitability’
  • Ernest Nagel, 1959-60, ‘The Structure of Science’
  • Edward Hallett Carr, 1961, ‘What is History?’

Just to highlight the chronology here, Berlin writes an influential essay criticizing determinists for being inconsistent in 1954. Several prominent determinists write cogent and not-so-cogent responses from 1959 to 1961 — i.e., more than 5 years after Berlin’s original essay. Berlin then waits another 8 years or so to publish his own responses defending his original essay and engaging with the arguments of his critics. That’s a 15 year response lag.

Maybe I’m being unfair in using publication dates here. Academics attend conferences and chat, so maybe the first critiques came much earlier than 1959 from these authors, and perhaps Berlin’s responses in the 1969 Introduction are just compiled bits of rejoinder from the past 15 years. But knowing the insularity and stately pace of life in academia, I’m inclined to believe that the time lag really was one the order of years.

There are two main points I want to draw out here:

  1. Response times have narrowed across the board in the last 20 years, in news, many sciences, politics, policy, and personal communication. These days, even my mother feels guilty when she misses a call on her cell phone. RSS feeds, email alerts, and social networking mean we get notified when something of relevance to us happens in the world, and similar technologies let us respond quickly.  This gives us all the ability to speed up debate (witness the flame wars on the Internet).
  2. More importantly, because debate can be faster, there’s a growing ethos that is should be. We all have a limited number of days, so productivity gains are individually important. We are still only a short way along the information superhighway, so productivity gains are socially important (in nearly the same way that economic growth is socially imperative given the need around the globe). Centuries ago it took a lifetime to copy books, borrow books, read books, respond, have responses copied and lent out, and have the process start all over again. The pace of knowledge discovery was very limited. Fifty years ago the world was much more connected, and responses came in 15 years — just half a generation! But these days, 15 years seems like an inexcusably long time to wait. True, high-level academics is often complicated and it takes expertise and time to formulate proper theories, critiques, and responses. But it’s not that complicated, and, excluding issues of data-gathering, there’s nothing involved that would take a competent grad student more than a couple months to cobble together.

So my prediction is that while a 15-year response time may have been perfectly reasonable for Berlin’s generation, the new generation of scholars is going to live and die by response time. My worry, though, is that academics is permanently hampered by medieval (or maybe just pre-modern) institutions like trade journals and academic presses. Compared to the infestation of non-academic blogs, academic blogs are few and far between — and often grow up in and are contaminated by the milieu of their non-academic cousins. Truly academic blogging is rare (and just in case you’re wondering, no, I certainly don’t count Joint Stock Company as a truly academic blog). If we really want to unleash the power of the Internet-as-Toyota-thon-of-Death model, we need to kill the journal/academic press system – or at least its worst excesses – and make revolutions in technology relevant to our thought-leaders.

Update: Does anyone know of any good studies that try to measure response times in academia or in the broader blogosphere? It’d be great if we could measure response rates over time and break down the information by discipline, to get a handle on what we’re talking about. I’ll add this is the Questions page.

Why tea parties? Why not coffee parties?

Just a quick note before I leave for our weekend trip to Lesotho: Why do Conservative Populists insist in having “tea parties”? They think they are referencing the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773, in which a band of colonists expressed their anger at British rule and the taxation of imports like tea, by boarding a ship transporting tea and dumping it in the harbor. The original Tea Partiers were really telling the British: “Screw your tea. If we can’t buy it at market prices, we don’t want it.” The point is that destroying tea became a symbol of American patriotism on that glorious night in 1773.

But in 2009, modern-day tea partiers actually wear tea bags, bring them to rallies, and mail them in to their members of congress. Waiving a tea bag, not destroying it, has become the Conservative Populists’ symbol of their own patriotism. That’s kind of weird, when you think about it. You can just hear the original ‘baggers of 1773 rolling over in their graves, saying “You’ve got it all backwards!”

If they’re just going to ignore the original symbolism anyway, they could have picked a better beverage. Coffee, perhaps. The drink of the common man, coffee is apparently consumed by 50% of Americans in an average of 4 cups per day. A good ol’ Cup o’ Joe – there’s nothing more American than that. I bet most of those tea partiers don’t even drink tea more often than a couple times a year. I mean, we’re not British for Christ’s sake!


Ok, with that I’m done. Have a good weekend, everyone!

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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