growing up with computers

Ethan Zukerman’s review of Kevin Driscoll’s The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media made me think back to my own early years and how I experienced computers and digital culture. I was never an early adopter or a power user, but I grew up in a college town at a pivotal time (high school class of 1985). As I nerd, I was proximate to the emerging tech culture even though I inclined more to the humanities. I can certainly remember what Ethan calls the “mythos of the rebellious, antisocial, political computer hacker that dominated media depictions until it was displaced by the hacker entrepreneur backed by venture capital.”

  • ca. 1977 (age 10): My mom, who’d had a previous career as a statistician, took my friend and me to see and use the punchcard machines at Syracuse University. I recall their whirring and speed. Around the same time, a friend of my aunt owned an independent store in New York City that sold components for computer enthusiasts. I think he was also into CB radio.
  • ca. 1980: Our middle school had a work station that was connected to a mainframe downtown; it ran some kind of simple educational software. The university library was turning its catalogue into a digital database, but I recall that the physical cards still worked better.
  • 1982-85: I and several friends owned Atari or other brands of “home computers.” I remember printed books with the BASIC code for games that you could type in, modify, and play. We wrote some BASIC of our own–other people were better at that than I was. I think you could insert cartridges to play games. The TV was your monitor. I remember someone telling me about computer viruses. One friend wrote code that ran on the school system’s mainframe. A friend and I did a science fair project that involved forecasting elections based on the median-voter theorem.
  • 1983: At a summer program at Cornell, I used a word processor. I also recall a color monitor.
  • 1985: We spent a summer in Edinburgh in a rented house with a desktop that played video games, better than any I had seen. I have since read that there was an extraordinary Scottish video game culture in that era.
  • 1985-9: I went to college with a portable, manual typewriter, and for at least the first year I hand-wrote my papers before typing them. The university began offering banks of shared PCs and Macs where I would edit, type, and print drafts that I had first written by hand. (You couldn’t usually get enough time at a computer to write your draft there, and very few people owned their own machines.) We had laser printers and loved playing with fonts and layouts. During my freshman year, a friend whose dad was a Big Ten professor communicated with him using some kind of synchronous chat from our dorm’s basement; that may have been my first sight of an email. A different dorm neighbor spent lots of time on AOL. My senior year, a visiting professor from Ireland managed to get a large document sent to him electronically, but that required a lot of tech support. My resume was saved on a disk, and I continuously edited that file until it migrated to this website in the late 1990s.
  • 1989-91: I used money from a prize at graduation to purchase a Toshiba laptop, which ran DOS and WordPerfect, on which I wrote my dissertation. The laptop was not connected to anything, and its processing power must have been tiny, but it had the same fundamental design as my current Mac. Oxford had very few phones but a system called “pigeon post”: hand-written notes would be delivered to anyone in the university within hours. Apparently, some Oxford nerds had set up the world’s first webcam to allow them to see live video of the office coffee machine, but I only heard about this much later.
  • 1991-3: My work desktop ran Windows. During a summer job for USAID, we sent some kind of weekly electronic message to US embassies.
  • 1993-5: We had email in my office at the University of Maryland. I still have my first emails because I keep migrating all the saved files. I purchased this website and used it for static content. My home computer was connected to the Internet via a dial-up modem. You could still buy printed books that suggested cool websites to visit. I made my first visit to California and saw friends from college who were involved with the dot-com bubble.
  • 2007: I had a smart phone and a Facebook account.

It’s always hard to assess the pace of change retrospectively. One’s own life trajectory interferes with any objective sense of how fast the outside world was changing. But my impression is that the pace of change was far faster from 1977-1993 (from punchcard readers to the World Wide Web) than it has been since 2008.

a mistaken view of culture

Until the 1800s, culture was not a “count noun,” a noun that can take a plural form. It was a “mass noun,” which identified a quality that could come in degrees. In English, people did not speak of “cultures” but saw individuals as having more or less culture.

Europeans’ awareness of cultural diversity was generally superficial. For instance, they could not perceive their distance from ancient Greeks, Romans, and Israelites, whom they viewed basically as their contemporaries. They disdained non-Europeans because they wanted to exploit them, but their ethnocentrism also fit with their notion that culture referred to a single scale–and they had more culture than other people. A similar linguistic shift also affected the word “religion,” although it became a count noun somewhat before “culture” did.

Since ca. 1800, a new theory has been available and influential. Here are statements of this theory by quite diverse authors:

“Each nation has the center of happiness within itself, as every sphere has its center of gravity.” – Johann Gottfried Herder, “This, Too, a Philosophy of History,” from Herder On World History: An Anthology, edited by Hans Adler and Ernest A. Menze. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe 1774, p. 40

“The constitution of a people, with its religion, with its art and philosophy, or at least with its ideas and thoughts, its education [Bildung] in general (not to mention other external powers, as well as the climate, the neighbors, the state of the world) forms one substance, one spirit [Geist].” – GWF Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte. Reclam publishing company 1924 (original 1837), p. 25; my trans. I owe the reference to Michael Rosen, The Shadow of God (Harvard 2022).

“Never did one neighbor understand another: his soul always wondered at his neighbor’s madness and evil. A table of values hangs over every people. Behold, it is a table of their overcomings; behold, it is a voice of their will to power.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, “Of the Thousand and One Goals,” from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1885. (my trans.)

“A language, with its expression and its evolution, is not the work of scattered units, but of an historical community: only he who has unconsciously grown up within the bond of this community, takes also any share in its creations. But the Jew has stood outside the pale of any such community, stood solitarily with his Jehovah in a splintered, soilless stock, to which all self-sprung evolution must stay denied, just as even the peculiar (Hebraic) language of that stock has been preserved for him merely as a thing defunct.” – Richard Wagner, Judaism in Music, (1850) trans. William Ashton Ellis

“By ‘tradition’ is not meant the dead weight of outlines, of superficial laws and customs–but an inward spirit, the genius of a people, a harmony with the most constant expressions of our country.” – Eugenio Montale, Stile e Tradizione (1925) p. 153 (my trans.)

“[Class struggle is] always specified by the historically concrete forms and circumstances in which it is exercised. It is specified by the forms of the superstructure (the State, the dominant ideology, religion, politically organised movements, and so on); specified by the internal and external historical situation which determines it on the one hand as a function of the national past (completed or ‘relapsed’ bourgeois revolution, feudal exploitation eliminated wholly, partially or not at all, local ‘customs’ specific national traditions, even the ‘etiquette’ of political struggles and behaviour, etc.), and on the other as functions of the existing world context …” Louis Althusser, “Notes for an Investigation,” Part III of “For Marx” (1962) trans. by Ben Brewster

“Human beings differ, their values differ, their understanding of the world differs; and some kind of historical or anthropological explanation of why such differences arise is possible, though their explanation may to some degree reflect the particular concepts and categories of the particular culture to which these students of the subject belong.” – Isaiah Berlin, letter to Beata Polanowska-Sygulska (Feb. 24, 1986), in The New York Review of Books, Sept. 23, 2004, p. 24

“A modern democratic society is characterized … by a plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines.” “A reasonable doctrine is an exercise of theoretical reason: it covers the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a more or less consistent and coherent manner. It organizes and characterizes recognized values to that they are compatible with each other and express an intelligible view of the world.” – Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia, 1993), pp. xvi, 59

I have chosen quotations by thinkers–from the radical left to the radical right, plus two or three liberals–who share the assumption that there are many cultures in the world, and each culture is reasonably coherent and distinct. An individual belongs to a culture in a similar way as a citizen with a passport belongs to a nation-state.

This model of culture (which is, more broadly, a new account of thinking itself) first arose in response to a growing empirical awareness of ancient and foreign ways of life, plus a desire to protect local traditions against universalistic ideologies. These two reasons explain why the most important source of the new model was Germany in the Age of Revolution. Germans were particularly advanced in historical scholarship (ranging from classical philology to Germanic folklore to an early interest in Sanskrit), and they faced the tangible trauma of a French army with universalistic values.

The new (I would say, “modern”) model has advantages. It makes some sense of the actual diversity among humans and sometimes offers insights about specific ideas or works of art. It can inspire new works when creative people believe that they comprehend the inner spirit of their own people and try to communicate it. And it rationalizes struggles for independence and self-determination, which can be appealing, especially when the protagonists are oppressed.

The modern model also has major disadvantages. It implies that boundaries can be drawn between and among peoples, but any actual boundaries must leave minorities at the mercy of local majorities. It overlooks the heterogeneity of individual opinions, which has illiberal implications. It leads liberals like Berlin and Rawls to advocate a government that is neutral among the incompatible cultures within its boundaries, which is probably impossible and blocks worthy policies. It favors national self-determination not only for oppressed and marginalized groups but also for big and powerful populations. It leads to vexed and often unproductive discussions about who has a right to which cultural forms.

The modern model can generate a profound form of skepticism. If all our beliefs about what is true and good are phenomena of our culture, yet other people have other cultures, how can we be correct about anything? As Berlin suggests in the quotation above, how can we even know which other cultures exist, since our disciplines of history and anthropology must themselves reflect our own culture?

Fortunately, the modern model is false as a description of our human world. Culture is not something to which a person belongs. It is not a thing that has causal power. Culture is a large and usually quite heterogeneous set of ideas, beliefs, memories, skills, and values that a person has and can use.

There is a certain tendency to make the beliefs, values, and skills of a given population increasingly coherent. For instance, Catholic theology, baroque architecture, and monarchical government seem to cohere; as do Buddhist philosophy and Japanese aesthetics. People want their various beliefs to be consistent, and they want other people to agree with them. However, successful efforts to make beliefs and values cohere often require violent political force, because they counteract other tendencies that are also pervasive–tendencies to innovate, to borrow from afar, to distinguish oneself from others, and to complicate received ideas. All populations demonstrate some degree of heterogeneity and incoherence.

To be sure, we are all limited by culture. We have finite time and mental capacity to learn things. Besides, some people won’t allow other people to have access to what they know and can do. (For instance, they may deny access to schooling, restrict the curriculum in various ways, or censor certain ideas.) As a result, each of us only knows some things, and what we know helps to explain what we do. In that sense, culture is causal. Even the aspects of culture that we do use often fail to give us what we want, because nature or other people get in our way.

But we all have somewhat different culture. Indeed, the list of any individual’s ideas, beliefs, etc. is constantly changing. In that sense, culture should not actually be a count noun. There is no number of cultures on our planet. There are more than 7 billion people with constantly changing and circulating bodies of culture. People differ–sometimes profoundly–yet they resist classification. And that means that certain implications of the modern model, from relativist skepticism to hyper-nationalism–are wrong and not only bad.

See also: individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; everyone unique, all connected; what is cultural appropriation?; and Putin’s cultural nationalism. (This post repeats many points I’ve made before; any added value lies in the list of quotations, which is new.)

A Festival of Cases, June 24

There is still time to register for the Frontiers of Democracy conference, which will be held on June 24, 2022, from 9:00-4:30 pm.

The in-person version will take place at Tufts Medical School in Boston’s Chinatown. There is also a parallel Zoom version, which will start at 9:30 and end at 4:00.

This is the registration link: Note that there are several prices and options. If you wish to attend, please register soon so that we can plan the details and you can receive updates.

This year’s conference has a special format. The main activity will be to deliberate in small groups about the issues raised in selected “civic cases.” People will participate either in face-to-face or Zoom deliberations, not in hybrid discussions, but there will be a few concise plenary presentations.

Civic cases describe difficult choices faced by real groups of activists, social-movement participants, or colleagues in nonprofit organizations. By discussing what we would do in similar situations, we can develop civic skills, explore general issues, and form or strengthen relationships with other activists and thinkers.

Most of the cases for Frontiers 2022 have been developed by the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Justice in Schools, or the Pluralism Project at Harvard, all co-sponsors of Frontiers this summer. Unlike most cases about business, public policy, or ethics, these stories involve groups of voluntary participants who must make decisions together.

You will be able to indicate your preference for which cases to discuss. This is the working list, still subject to additions and changes:

Before the pandemic, Frontiers of Democracy drew 140 people annually, and some people attended primarily to connect to a professional network. So far, about 45-50 people are registered for the 2022 conference, and about half of those will be remote. People should be aware that the conference will be smaller than usual, although I still anticipate some additional registrants. The “civic cases” format will work well for an intimate conference, but the network will be smaller than usual.

a Hegelian meditation

This is a breath: in and out.

That sentence is true; if the mind knows anything, it’s the reality of a breath.

By the time that thought has formed, it is false. This is not a breath—that thing is gone; it does not exist. Perhaps there is a new breath, and the sentence is true again, but it has a new object. It is true and false that “This is a breath.”

The mind turns to an abstraction: breath in general. Surely there are many breaths, all exemplifying one concept. In contemplating that concept, the mind can only think of a breath, and by the time it has that thought, that breath is gone. It is false that this is breath and that there is breath.

Nevertheless, a new breath comes. This one has a certain sound, familiar since the cradle. This breath has a certain feel, swelling the chest. The sound is not the feeling, yet the breath is one thing. Its aspects are distinct because of the nature of the one who perceives them.

The mind perceives the one that hears and feels the breath. It finds a subject that perceives and forms the sentence: “I perceive my breath.” That sentence is false. The ‘I’ is what perceives the breath, but that breath no longer exists. The ‘I’ that perceived the breath is no longer. The ‘I’ that perceived the ‘I’ is no longer. What no longer is, is nothing.

Surely there is a very general concept, thisness, of which this breath and this I are examples. In considering this concept, the mind can only think of this breath and this mind, and the concept that this mind forms of this breath is false by the time it forms it. That mind, too, is gone by then.

The mind conceives a mind in motion, a restless mind, a mind detached from the things it perceives and from itself, yet always compelled back to them. The mind had sought to calm itself by reflecting on its breath, but close inspection of its own experience has opened a whole box of things, none of which stays still when examined separately. Experience has revealed itself as something complicated, which the mind somehow already knew and which it cannot ever quite grasp. It strives to embrace and accept this manifold complexity, of which it is part.

These words are about a mind; a mind has been the subject of many of these sentences. Yet that mind is not the subject that reads these words. That subject is you, the reader. When you read the words “I perceive my breath,” they are not about your breath but somehow about a writer’s thoughts.

What you directly perceive is a string of words. I, the writer, had thoughts that I wanted to convey and had motives for writing them. You are entitled to question my motives. (Self-promotion? Self-indulgence?) But my motives are gone now, and so are your thoughts about my motives, like the words above the ones before your eyes right now.

You may have new thoughts, and they may happen to look identical to your previous thoughts; but they are not the same thoughts, because each thought occurs in time. You can form the idea of thought in general, but the only way you can think of that idea is to form a particular thought, which occurs in time and is then gone. You both have a thought about me and you do not have that thought about me.

I presume that I know who I am and what I think. Since this text is published on a public website, I don’t know who you are and may never have even heard your name. For your part, you know who you are, but not much about what I am thinking, except for whatever these words may mean to you. Yet in reality, I do not know what I think until I express it, trying to make meaningful sentences for a “you” that I envision in vague ways. And you do not know what I have written except insofar as you make your own sense of these sentences.

You may chafe at my control. I chose and arranged the words that might influence your mind. Yet I would not write at all if not in hopes of being read. The writer needs the reader as much as the reverse–as much as the mind needs its objects and the objects need the mind. You know that I need you. I know that you know that I need …

The topic of this text is meditation on the breadth, anapanasati. That practice is widely prescribed to address a restless, unsettled, unhappy mind. If we ask why it is recommended today, one kind of answer cites its effectiveness. Perhaps people teach and practice anapanasati because it works. In that case, the test is to try it, as we do here. The results will depend on what specific thoughts the specific mind generates.

Another kind of answer is a long story that could involve Californian beat poets who turned into Dharma bums after encountering GIs home from Japan, and General Tojo meditating in Zen monasteries while conquering China and attacking Pearl Harbor, and Dosho bringing Chan to Japan as Zen, and Bodhidharma bringing Buddhism to China, and the Buddha teaching breath-mindfulness in the Anapanasati Sutta, and people teaching Siddhartha Gautama the words and ideas that he used as he became the Buddha, and people teaching those people. We know just tiny fragments of this story, to which unsung thousands have contributed, both for good and for evil, yet it is inherent in the fashions of our moment.

Each mind recapitulates the work of countless minds, from which it derives all its words and ideas. A mind without history would be empty. For example, “This is a breath” is a sentence in English with thousands of years of thought embedded in it.

We can say that the Buddha already knew everything under the Bodhi tree, but to say what he knew requires explicating the various schools that have analyzed experience into its components, and then declared the components also to be illusions of the consciousness, and then declared the consciousness to be an illusion, and then analyzed negation, and so on, in a logical progression like the one accomplished by stoicism, skepticism, and their successors. To explicate the truth requires excavating this “conceptually grasped history” (begriffne Geschichte), these successive turnings of the Wheel that constitute the present.

Although my topic here is anapanasati, my method and structure come from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Why? Because I studied that text in a seminar at age 20. Rereading it 35 years later, I find that I had forgotten most of it, although certain familiar phrases signify that it has been there all along, even when I was reading Shantideva or focusing on my breath. Perhaps you know Hegel better than I. Perhaps you have never heard of him, but his mind has already influenced yours by way of Marx and Dewey and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the tangible structures that those three, and many others, have inspired.

Each mind, all minds, and nature are one.

That is a vacuous cliché and false, in just the same way that “This is a breath” is false. It is also true, in the same way. To know it requires unfolding what the mind already knew and can never fully know, one stage at a time, recapitulating the work of many minds with many objects, which are also one mind with one object.

Sources: GWF Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. & ed. by Terry Pinkard (Cambridge University Press, Kindle Edition, 2018), especially the Preface (sec. 72) and sections A.I, B.IV.A-B, and DD; and Shantideva, The Bodhicaryavatara, translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, especially chapters 8 (on meditation) and 9 (dialectics among the Buddhist schools). See also: Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Foucault’s spiritual exercises; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; on philosophy as a way of life; my self, your self, ourselves; Buddhism as philosophy; freedom of the will or freedom from the will? (comparing Harry Frankfurt and Buddhism); how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; compassion, not sympathy; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; and the sublime and other people

what to keep and what to let go

Here is a podcast episode by Tufts’ Julie Flaherty & Anna Miller. Their summary says:

Sometimes we don’t even know why, but we hold onto things. We’re not talking about bad relationships or lousy jobs, but the actual stuff that takes up space. How do you decide what’s worth keeping and what you would be happier getting out of your life?

In this episode, we get advice from a home organizer on how to pare down and from an archivist who knows something about what’s worth keeping for the next generation.

Even if you decide you want to donate your stuff, we learn that it’s not always easy to find the right home for it, especially if it’s a 30-ton book collection you inherited from your father. 

That 30-ton book collection belonged to our family, and in the podcast, I share a few thoughts about giving and receiving.