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Technology and Justice

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I have come to appreciate more and more that technology itself is one way to propagate the many injustices in our society because it tends to reflect the society. I work to help students understand this so that as they go out to the communities they are more able to construct technology applications that begin to bring about justice," Wolske argues. "Technology by itself will never bring about justice, but it can set up a framework in which people can work toward issues of justice. The key is to carefully construct it so it doesn't reinforce injustice, but actually becomes a platform for building justice.

My favorite prof. here won an ALA teaching award. Man, it's great when people who actually deserve it get recognition. Here he pretty much encapsulates why I'm doing what I'm doing, and how I want to do it.

It is Saving Me

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In 2008, when he was in the middle of his worst battles and wouldn't be able to make the trip to Champaign-Urbana for Ebertfest... he began writing an online journal. Reading it from its beginning is like watching an Aztec pyramid being built. At first, it's just a vessel for him to apologize to his fans for not being downstate. The original entries are short updates about his life and health and a few of his heart's wishes. Postcards and pebbles. They're followed by a smattering of Welcomes to Cyberspace. But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert's strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes. He is emboldened.

He begins to write about more than movies; in fact, it sometimes seems as though he'd rather write about anything other than movies. The existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost -- more than five hundred thousand words of inner monologue have poured out of him, five hundred thousand words that probably wouldn't exist had he kept his other voice. Now some of his entries have thousands of comments, each of which he vets personally and to which he will often respond. It has become his life's work, building and maintaining this massive monument to written debate -- argument is encouraged, so long as it's civil -- and he spends several hours each night reclined in his chair, tending to his online oasis by lamplight. Out there, his voice is still his voice -- not a reasonable facsimile of it, but his.

"It is saving me," he says through his speakers.

He calls up a journal entry to elaborate, because it's more efficient and time is precious:

When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.

To me the best thing about the (deservedly) ubiquitous Ebert article is this passage, which captures some of what was and still can be magical about this medium, and what made all of us early adopters take to it so strongly and completely. I remember when Nightline came to our blogger meeting at Berkman right when the Web 2.0 hysteria was ramping up, and we all spent the whole time fruitlessly trying to explain to the host that this wasn't about Web 2.0 and technology and buzzwords and business, it was about something that had changed our lives and minds in a throughgoing way, and in some ways, saved us, or at least made us so immeasurably better and happier and larger-hearted that it would be difficult to imagine the people we would be in its absence.

Ebert is one of the few old-media transplants to deeply understand this, and it probably has a lot to do with how naturally and enthusiastically he has taken to blogging. And he is doing amazing and wonderful work in this medium, the kind of work that has become rarer and rarer as all those other buzzwordy distractions have horned in. The kind of work that makes me pine for the old days, and want to try to do it again myself.

Philosophy and Social Hope

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To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian. - Joseph Schumpeter

I had meant to write something about Richard Rorty when he died last month, but I wanted to re-read some things and really think about it first, and then other stuff came up, and suddenly weeks had gone by and it was no longer current. Yet another example of why I'm just not quite cut out for the pace of this medium. But, timely or no, it's still worth writing about, so I'll put this out there and see what happens.

It's fitting that when Richard Rorty died, I happened to be reading a book about William James. After all, it was Rorty who turned me on to James, and a host of other thinkers and ideas which ultimately helped to reconcile a lot of contradictions for me. Like him, I was an eager studen of philosophy, who, as time went on, became more and more suspicious of the validity and importance of many of the problems that philosophy concerns itself with. It all comes down to questions of aims: is the purpose of philosophy to attempt to solve a lot of interesting, but abstract and likely insoluble problems, or to figure out what the Good Life is and how to live it? Is philosophy (or knowledge in general) an end in itself, or a tool to help human beings to attain their own ends? He and I both fell firmly in the latter camps on those questions, and, well, that's just not what academic philosophy does for the most part these days.

Rorty's ideas came into my life at a pivotal time for me, in my last year of college. A friend in the political science department (naturally) loaned me her copy of Philosophy and Social Hope. At that time, I was trying to reconcile problems of disillusionment with the realities of both academic science (I had similar problems with it... an inability on the part of practicioners to put the work in a larger context and think ethically and practically about it, an at-times blindly dogmatic belief in something that is a human practice and thus subject to human failings, etc) and philosophy with a growing practical political urgency. Rorty, and the thinkers he led me to (James, Dewey, Kuhn, Davidson, West, etc, all of whom we certainly weren't reading in my undergrad philosophy dept) allowed me to realign all of those competing impulses in a new, flexible framework, and in many ways to get past the disillusionment and move on. Of course, like with him, moving on meant a self-imposed exile of sorts, because it turned out that philosophy and science weren't actually doing what I had thought they were going in. But, I'm very glad I figured that out when I did, instead of halfway into a Ph. D. somewhere.

My journey through academic philosophy and science taught me that what I was really interested in was politics, in one guise or another. Rorty, Dewey, and James' Pragmatism became the vital link between the two. What it does is is basically blow up a lot of those problems of philosophy that I thought were pointless:

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact  - Wm. James

What does it matter if we are brains in vats or if reality is truly "real?" Would either answer to the question change the way we live in practice? Either way we still have to interact with the reality we encounter, and if it's perceptually the same for a human or a brain in a vat, what possible difference can it make? It may be an interesting exercise, but it's meaningless.

Now, there has always been this current throughout the history of philosophy, away from abstraction and towards the human and the living of life. But it has always been sort of a black sheep faction, and lots of people who fall within this tradition, and who I consider to be important philosophers... the ethicists, eclecticists, humanists, romantics, doubters... thinkers like Aurelius, Montaigne, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Camus, Berlin, and Niebuhr, are pretty much dismissed by modern academic philosophy as lacking rigor and systematicness. Some of the Pre-Socratics and Hellenistic philosophers seem to get a pass on this, likely because they are Greek and old, and anything Greek and old has to be taken seriously, but they are still largely sidelined in favor the Platonic and Aristotelian dualities that have dominated Western philosophy since the beginning.

Though Hume was in many ways a prescient precursor, Utilitarianism and then Pragmatism were the first really concerted and enduring movements that attempted to get beyond the questions of Plato and Aristotle, to find a way to live without appealing to abstract absolutes or replacing God with some other idea as a surrogate-God. To me Pragmatism is postmodernism without all of the gobbledegook and despair. It is a humble admission of the complexity of our reality, the human origin of values and morals and ideas, and the contingency of truth.

In place of capital-T truth and eternal, nonhuman certainties, it offers hope, social hope embodied in human empathy and solidarity, the democratic process, and the possibility for change and a better future (in this emphasis, it differs from and improves upon Utilitarianism for me.)

In place of the fruitless quest for unity, it offers a celebration of the many, and an attempt to find tools to cope with and thrive among many-ness and complexity. In place of end states, it offers process. It admits that we are on our own in the universe, and that whatever becomes of the human experiment is wholly up to us and what we invent and how we choose. This is both terrifying and liberating. James again:

I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play! ... I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is. I can believe in the ideal as an ultimate, not as an origin, and as an extract, not the whole. When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind for ever, but the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.

It is a very American philosophy, in many of the ways that I think America is or was unique and revolutionary and dynamic.

As for Rorty himself, aside from his major role as a gateway to all of those other ideas, I admired him for the unique space he carved out as an American public intellectual in the latter half of the 20th century. He was one of few current intellectual role models I could find who managed to combine the sort of sophisticated and skeptical understanding of truth, ideas, contingency, context, sociocultural phenomena, and so on, that makes the most sense to me philosophically with an old-fashioned and stubborn commitment to progressivism, solidarity, meliorism, democracy, and a solid, moderate, possibly achievable social democratic political vision. He admitted the relative validity of his convictions, and yet stood for them unflinchingly. He was able to be in uncertainty and complexity and yet refuse to be paralyzed or unmanned by it, or to take an easy out to avoid confronting it.

He feels like a rather sad example of a road-not-taken, both in American politics and academics. There aren't many classic old liberal/humanist public intellectuals like him left, and at least from within the academy, I don't see many more on the way. I wish he had won the argument instead of the rejectionist and puritanical Chomsky types politically, and the inwardly focused and disciplinarily narrow types academically, but it was a losing fight from the start, for reasons structural and institutional as much as ideological. I'm very glad and grateful he was still willing to fight it though, and I have great hopes that we on the American left may just be coming back around to his sort of practical, hopeful, incrementalist, and progressive vision of ourselves and our country after all.

More on Why Vonnegut Mattered

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Amanda of Pandagon's Vonnegut tribute post reminded me of another reason why he, and the literature of WWII in general, was very important.

what I find interesting about Slaughterhouse Five is that it's an angry protest against the historical revisionism that casts WWII as the "good" war.

This is vital, especially in light of what happened in the 90's with the ridiculously over the top mythologization of the Greatest Generation. It confused me a lot at the time, because all of the literature and history of WWII I had read up to then was nothing like that. And most of it wasn't written by professional intellectuals or mythmakers, but by people like Vonnegut and Heller who were working or middle class, and actually fought and saw what it was really like.

None of them seemed to have any illusions that WWII was anything but a senseless bloodbath and a tragedy for humanity in general. Nobody "won" that war. The very fact that it happened to begin with, and that humanity got to a point where things like London, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Rape of Nanking, and the Holocaust could occur was such an immeasurable tragedy and loss that no amount of heroism and courage could begin to overcome it. Pynchon, who was too young to actually fight in WWII, but who definitely understood it in the same way as Heller and Vonnegut, put it this way:

Yet the continuity, flesh to kindred metals, home to hedgeless sea, has persisted. It is not death that separates these incarnations, but paper: paper specialties, paper routines. The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Fuhrer - it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity... Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it... so absentee. Perhaps the War isn't even an awareness- not a life at all, really. There may only be some cruel, accidental resemblance to life.

He saw the war as some sort of inhuman, irresistable force; machines and systems that we had unconsciously or inadvertently created had broken out of our control. From the literature that came out of it, to the countless grandparents who were not at all eager to even talk about what they had seen and done, let alone cast themselves as heroes, it's clear that many of the people who participated in it and saw the real price on all sides seem to have seen it similarly, and taken the same sorts of lessons from it that Vonnegut and the others who wrote the literature of the war did.

Failing to grasp those lessons is a lot of what got us into the mess that we're currently in. I think the 90's revisionism about WWII was really pernicious, in that it put forth this ideal of a great crusading struggle against evil, with America at its head. That was attractive to lots of people looking for meaning in post-post-everything life. They wanted to be part of a Great Unambiguous Struggle like their parents and grandparents were, to be swaggering heroes like their mythical forebears.

That's a significant piece of how we got from a limited fight against a bunch of dudes in caves in Afghanistan to a full blown Holy War. The only reason people can think it's plausible that Islamic Fundamentalism is an existential threat to our way of life is that they're looking at it through the lens of WWII. They wanted a Nazi Germany of their own to overcome, and, since no such thing existed, it had to be invented. Vonnegut and most of the voices of his generation knew that you should never wish for something like that. After all, they saw what that really meant, and what the true cost was.

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. - KV

So it Goes

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And I say to Sam now: 'Sam-here's the book.'

It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.

And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like Poo-tee-weet?

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.

Kurt Vonnegut died today at 84. I've found his work very uneven, but at his best he was the closest we had to a modern heir to Mark Twain. I fear he might have been one of America's last great humanists. America has badly needed, and largely lacked voices like his in the past 10-15 years. It's too bad we didn't have him at the height of his powers to (cheerfully, and without much hope) struggle against the rampant bad faith and profound lack of imagination we've suffered from as a culture and a polity. He will be missed.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Heroes category.

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