Monday, July 27, 2020

Trade-Offs Versus Optimization: Is Everything An Optimization Problem?

In my work on ethics, I'm what I think of as a "trade-off" person rather than an "optimize" person. In the informal sense, this means that I see conflicting and competing considerations and values all around, and I think the ethical task is often to figure out how to prioritize among various considerations, instead of thinking that the ethical task is to figure out what is good and then bring about as much of that as possible.

If your first thought is "Wait, how are those really different?" then you are right in lock step with what a lot of other people are thinking.


To me, on the face of it they seem very different. For example: when the pandemic led to conditions where not everyone could be treated because there weren't enough resources, ventilators, and so on, one system of decision-making would be to "maximize overall health by directing care toward those most likely to benefit the most from it." For example, give the resources you have to the people most likely to survive, in ways that maximize the additional healthy years they will live. This is an optimizing strategy as it identifies a good -- healthy years of life to come -- and frames choices as maximizing that good.

A problem with this optimizing strategy is that it leads to discriminatory effects. "Health years" of life is usually understood as meaning years of life without a disability, so other things being equal, a person with a disability would be less likely to be treated than a non-disabled person. Because of social injustice and oppression, Black people in the US often have worse health than white people; if they were therefore less likely to have good outcomes, they would be less prioritized for treatment. Poor people are much more likely to have underlying health conditions and thus would be less likely to be treated. 

The "trade-off" perspective, on the other hand, frames the problem as one in which there are a variety of considerations that have to be weighed and balanced. Producing good effects in the sense of future years of life might be one consideration, but fairness and justice would also be a consideration. You might decide to use subjective measures of quality of life in which having a disability does not make a life less good; you might explicitly bring-anti-racism into the picture. You have to come up with a way of proceeding that weighs multiple considerations against one another. It might be complicated, and you might have to use your judgment.

When I have talked about these issues in classes or at conferences, defending a trade-off approach, occasionally someone will say to me: "If you frame it properly, everything is an optimization problem." I take it they mean something like this: while maximizing healthy years is one way of optimizing, it is not the only way; whatever value you think is good you can run a maximizing strategy on it. For instance, if you think future years of life, fairness, justice and equality are all important, you can create some concept like "overall goodness" that incorporates all of these. Then you can just maximize that. So there isn't really any difference; trading-off is not a separate and different kind of thing; it's more just what you're trying to maximize.

In harmony with this idea, there is a technical result that any set of ethical judgements can be "consequentialized" -- that is, expressed as the result of an optimizing procedure.

So if you were thinking, "Wait, how are those really different?" the answer is that in some deep conceptual sense, maybe they are not really different.

OK. But then I think: what about the other senses -- the ones that are not the deep conceptual senses? Even if you *can* frame your approach in optimizing terms-- should you?

I think the answer to this question is often "No." The details are tricky and probably boring for most people, but here is a short version:

1) Both methods require moral judgment, in the sense of figuring out what is important and how important it is, but "optimizing" has a veneer of objectivity to it, like we're just number-crunching. News flash: we're never just number-crunching. Talking about "trade-offs" reminds us constantly that we're using our human judgment and our values to figure out what to do.

2) "Trade-off" reminds you immediately that no matter what you do, you may have lost something, so that even if you get the right balance something bad happened. The language of "optimizing," however, has unsettling connotation of "everything is all for the best." If you have to prioritize one person over another, and you make a good decision, but the other person dies, do you really want to say "well, that was optimal"? In fact, noticing that it wasn't optimal may prompt you to think or plan differently in the future -- e. g., trying to prevent people from getting sick in the first place.  

3) "Optimization" lends itself to methodologies where the inputs are easily measurable. Yes, you can optimize for things like justice and fairness and anti-oppression, in the sense that you can come to a judgment about what to do that honors those values in the way you think best in the circumstances. But, especially given 1), once you're in the optimization frame of mind, it's natural to start thinking that you're going to be more objective, precise, and accurate if you have numbers to put in -- something like, I don't know, estimates of "healthy future years lived." When those don't reflect the values you wanted to use, you'll end up coming to the wrong answer.

The pandemic and our responses to it are full of massively complex challenging questions: How should we balance protecting our health with the losses that come from lockdowns? How should we express our valuing of children's schooling with protecting everyone from harm? How far should we go in trying to eliminate COVID as opposed to just flattening the curve?

These questions have no easy answers and that's one reason we're all in dismay and disagreement about them. Talk of optimizing, even if conceptually sound, makes it seem like some of us are right and some of us are stupid, and makes us want to invest in computer science. Talk of trade-offs reminds us: honoring multiple values in complex circumstances is difficult and fraught, and it's values all the way down. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Anti-Racist Values And Decision-Making On Campus

Like a lot of other universities around North America, my university has been talking over the last few weeks about anti-racism and what universities need to do to do better. Among other things, events included a workshop I attended last week. I've been thinking about an important point that the speaker made, which is if you say that you have anti-racist values (which universities do), then you have to put those values into practice, otherwise it's just talk. Success at putting those values into practice is manifested in practical outcomes, and can thus be seen and measured.

This point got me to thinking about the different ways that university systems work to create the outcomes that we do, in fact, experience and see. One thing that happens a lot in universities, to one degree or another, is that decisions are driven by undergraduate enrolment statistics. Departments and faculties get resources if they attract more students and majors. Departments and faculties die if they fail to attract students and majors. Individual classes run, or don't run, based on whether they attract students. As you can imagine, this can influence big decisions, like who gets hired to do what, and vast numbers of smaller decisions, like what gets on a syllabus.

This way of proceeding has always seemed to me a bit bizarre. Are we really going to let the decisions of a bunch of 18-22 year-olds -- and, the narrow slice of them who happen to go to university -- determine the direction of scholarly research and the ideas that a community invests in? This is nothing against young people -- it's just weird to have this tiny cross-section of society wield this enormous power over something that is quite important and complicated.

And even from an abstract point of view, you can see how this way of proceeding might tend away from, rather than toward, teaching and research focused on anti-racism and anti-oppression. Young white people may not want to confront their place in an unjust system. Almost all young people are pressured to study practical subjects. In universities without breadth requirements, students in STEM majors may feel they don't have time in their course schedule for other things. These pressures don't come just from anxious parents, they also come from the way our world is -- hyper competitive, capitalistic, etc. etc.

If I understand correctly, one way of framing decision-making based on enrolment goes something like this: undergraduate tuition pays the bills, so that is the income; a sensible organization of a system lines up the income and the expenses so that the one pays for the other in some linear kind of way.  I've even heard of universities where they say "you eat what you kill": the idea being that self-sufficiency market-based norms coordinating input and output should undergird university decision-making.

There is much to say about this, but what I want to focus on here is the veneer of objectivity and neutrality sometimes placed on this framing. Apportioning resources in a way that seems to line up supply with demand can seem like you are avoiding these problematic value-laden judgments. It may seem like you're taking a step back -- *we* aren't the ones making these decisions. It's just how things shake out when you look at the numbers.

But all ways of making decisions are value-laden and non-neutral. If you do a cost-benefit analysis, you're making judgments about how to weigh everyone's choices and what other values -- like justice -- you're ignoring. If you base everything on consent and individual liberty, you're making judgments that privilege the status quo, and that rule out rectification of historical injustice. The metaphor of the market rests on assumptions that what your customers want and need is what should be created, and that their sense of worth should inform yours.

As racialized people have been saying for a long time, the social structures in place that feel neutral or objective to those in the dominant social group are anything but, and often work to reinforce the injustices of the past.

Of course universities should factor into their decision-making what students are looking for. When they do so, they pay respect to certain values, including respect for student needs and student autonomy. The point here is just that other values matter too -- values that are distinct from these, and may conflict with them. If you say you care about these other values, you have to find a way to make room for them in practical decision-making at various levels, which can mean bringing judgment calls back into the picture.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Science, Judgment, And Authority In The Time Of Pandemic

The Coronavirus moment is reminding us all of the problems with the way we normally do things. Some of these problems have to do with the place of science in our practices, the way we talk to one another, and why we do what we do. These are just a few items that I have found extra personally irritating.

Masks of confusion
I know a lot of people are irritated by the way that we were told not to wear masks, because they were pointless and we'd all fuck it up and wear them wrong and cause mayhem, only to learn later that wearing masks actually works. And sure, I can spare a thought for that annoyance.

But for me, this been massively eclipsed by my feelings about the bizarre communication style about masks right now. Almost everything I read says something like "Here's what to do about masks" or "Here's where masks are mandatory" or "Here is the updated health policy on masks -- without explaining the reason people are being asked to wear masks.

Every public communication about masks should include a basic explanation that the use of basic non-fancy masks works because it prevents asymptomatic infected people from spreading the disease around. People do not know whether they are asymptomatic. So if they're going to be near people, they should wear a mask. Sure, it might help you avoid infection yourself, but that is not the main point.

There still seems to be massive basic confusion about this. I keep seeing people in comment sections saying how it's their choice how much they want to protect themselves, or that they're personally not worried about getting sick, or that only infected people should have to wear masks. Are health communicators being deliberately obscure about the collective responsibility angle, because they think people will assume it's self-interest and thus follow the rules? Are they leaving out the explanation because they think people will just follow the rule? Bad news for you, guys.

"Listen to the science"
This one is trickier, because of course, yes, I think we should base our decisions on the best scientific information that we have. But science alone tells you almost nothing about what to do in a pandemic, because everything you do is going to have complex ripple effects and you have to trade those off against one another. BCE (before Coronavirus era), I used to constantly bore people talking about how many people die every year from car crashes -- in 2016 alone, around 1.35 worldwide and over 37,000 in the US. But no one ever seriously suggests giving up driving.

Please note that I am not saying that the virus is comparable to driving! Clearly, it is much more dangerous. The point is just that structurally, we're always making collective and personal judgments about how much risk is OK for the things we want to do. One thing that's challenging in the Coronavirus case is that different people have different risk tolerance, and yet in the nature of a pandemic, we have to act together. That is a very difficult situation, but it's also one that isn't helped by saying "listen to the science."

Amateur epidemiologists around every corner

These fall into two categories: the data watchers and the microbiology obsessives. The data watchers are checking out the Johns Hopkins site to follow the numbers and see whether their preferred policy response is working and whether countries with leaders they hate are suffering. I'm guilty of this myself, relying on this cool visualization site to compare stats, form hypotheses, and rationalize my existing prejudices. As this Guardian article reminds us, though, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics: massive variation in how cases are counted, and when they are counted, and what counts as "dying from Coronavirus" means it will be years before we have any clear picture of what is happening.

Then there are the people who keep up to date on things like what size of particle travels by aerosol transmission. Whatever floats your boat, I guess -- but, as with most science, a few papers you download from a preprint server is probably not enough for a non-expert to make an informed opinion.

While these are my personal irritations, I will say one thing they have in common is that science, while crucial, is never the whole story: the world still needs judgment, communication, shared deliberation, and all those murky things you find over in the Arts and Humanities departments. So please, please don't destroy us and leave everything to the STEM people.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Policing Practices, Law and Economics, And The Values Of Justice And Efficiency


In the full story of how things in American policing became so completely fucked up, I would like to read an analysis that explores connections among 1) theoretical issues in the framework known as "law and economics," 2) local legal structures that appear to use policing to generate revenue, 3) policing practices, and 4) racism.

For those not up on these things, law and economics is a legal framework that understands laws through the lens of efficiency: good laws bring about good consequences. For example, laws related to civil wrongs could be crafted with an eye toward what would work most productively moving forward, rather than thinking about background rights and values like fairness. This framework emerged around the mid-twentieth century out of work by neo-classical economists (many at the University of Chicago) and legal theorists like the influential Richard Posner, and has a wide range of contemporary applications.

"Positive law and economics" is about explaining and predicting laws, with the hypothesis that, other things being equal, laws that produce efficiency will be adopted. "Normative law and economics" says that such laws not only would be adopted but should be adopted -- so that existing laws can be improved by being made more efficient.

What "efficiency" means here can be complex; it can be the maximizing efficiency of utilitarianism, in which the thing to do is the thing that brings about the best consequences overall, but more typically it is "Pareto efficiency" that is used -- a set up is Pareto efficient when there is no way to one person better off without making another person worse off.  (I wrote about various forms of efficiency here and here.)    

You might be thinking that it's odd to have a legal framework based on efficient future consequences rather than justice and fairness. I do too, though we won't have time to get into that here. If you're interested I recommend this excellent book review.

One can apply the theoretical approach of law and economics in a wide range of ways: even when it comes to something like "efficiency" and the "good" in "good consequences," for instance, you might be trying to promote preference-satisfaction or well-being or you might be trying to create, you know, actual money.

This last bit brings us to 2): legal structures that appear to use policing to generate revenue. This book review by the always brilliant Moe Tkacik explains the idea in vivid detail: the sanctions for crimes are set up so the accused have to pay; the state then raises money while leaders claim not to raise taxes. Judges become like tax-collectors whose subjects are in no position to complain.  

The theoretical connections can be a bit complex, but as I understand it, the reasoning goes  something like: if the fine for driving without a license is X dollars and you drive without a license, you must have in some sense preferred to drive over losing X dollars; the state can set the fine in such a way that it reaps more from the fine than it lost from the crime being committed. In this way the crime is disincentivized but the interaction is kind of a win-win, and is efficient all around.

And thus to 3: I remember after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I kept seeing references to the ways that the over-policing of the citizens there could be traced partly to policing as a way to raise revenue. This post gives a great overview and explains: "In its 2015 report on policing in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown, the Civil Rights Division of the United States Justice Department concluded: “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community.”

And 4) now you add both individual and structural racism into the mix. Because of structural racism, Black people are much more likely to be poor and powerless than white people. The poorer and less powerful people are then over-policed and abused into becoming ATMs for the government's revenue needs. Among other things, modern algorithms for crime prediction and sentencing actually factor in past arrests so that the original injustice is perpetuated further. And, of course, individual racist police then have a framework for their abusive actions.

I don't know how all of these interrelate -- theoretical law and economics is complicated and I don't know how its theoretical development has impacted practices of policing-as-revenue. But I hope to have shown here why I see them as conceptually interconnected and mutually supporting.

Anyway, if you want to read something else on racialized impacts of framing laws in terms of future consequences instead of past actions, I cannot recommend enough this searing personal essay by classicist and political scientist Danielle Allen about her cousin Michael, who enters the criminal justice system as a result of minor crimes at age 15, gets derailed in life, and ends up dead -- murdered at a young age.  

From a theoretical point of view, proponents of efficiency-based reasoning sometimes cast "justice" as a kind of artificial virtue, something to be explained away, something that reflects prejudices of an evolutionary past, where punishments were needed to keep people in line and bring about good consequences. The implication is that once we see this, we can go right to the consequences and skip the justice part altogether. I don't know all the ways that 1)-4) interrelate, but I'm sure the part about skipping justice altogether must be wrong.

Monday, June 1, 2020

In Which I Venture Into The Thickets Of Data Science And Hume's Problem Of Induction

One of the things I started doing in the middle of lockdown was courses at Data Camp. I started with Machine Learning for Everyone, then moved on to Python for Beginners. In case this isn't your universe, Python is a programming language that is often used for data science.

I want to emphasize that I did not do this because I suddenly had "extra time" on my hands or because I was casting around for something to do. There are different lockdown experiences out there, and the "extra time" experience has not been my experience. For one thing, everything to do with my work seems to take four times as long as it did before.

Rather, the way my emotional life works, I often have a background sadness that I keep at bay through doing things. In normal life, the bustle of activity and the feeling of accomplishment are central to that process. With lockdown, there is no "bustle of activity." So accomplishing things -- or feeling like I am accomplishing things -- has become a huge thing. So why not learn something about data science?

The classes are excellent, with lots of examples and exercises. On encountering these, I immediately started thinking about data science and Hume's problem of induction.

One of the first examples that my course used to illustrate machine learning concepts had to do with predicting how much money a movie would make based on input factors like star power, budget, advertising, and so on. And I was like, "Wait, what"? Is the idea supposed to be using the data of the past to predict earnings in the future? But isn't the popularity of works of art always shifting and changing? Isn't art frequently based on novel ideas? Also, I thought the popularity of films was regarded as wildly unpredictable.

If you've studied philosophy, you won't be surprised to hear that my next thought was, "What about Hume's problem of induction"?

If you haven't: briefly, Hume's problem of induction is that inductive reasoning -- in which we go from past cases to generalities and the future -- always rests implicitly on an assumption that the future is going to be like the past. And yet we have no logical reason to believe that the future is going to be like the past. So inductive reasoning, which is at the core of basically all empirical science, has no justification. You might try saying "Hey, but the future has always been like the past." But to use that to solve the problem would mean applying the past to the future, and so would be induction, and so would be circular.  

You can see right off the bat that these are deep waters we are getting into, and I have to warn you that this is going to be the Phil 101 level version of things because I'm not a specialist in this area, I'm just a person thinking about data science. But I do remember from teaching Phil 101 that the point with Hume isn't just about a lack of certainty. It's no help to say that while we're not sure the future will be exactly like the past, we have reason to believe it will probably be like the past. Because whatever version of "probably" you come to, that judgment relies on thinking that in the future, things will occur with the likelihood that they did in the past. In other words, we're back with the circularity problem.

Anyway, I'd been wondering vaguely for a long time about social science and the problem of induction, and then I started thinking about data science and the problem of induction. In the context of social reality, Hume's problem starts to take on a practical urgency. Because when it comes to people, when is the future ever like the past? Our current moment seems designed to hammer this point home. Ha ha, you thought the future was going to be like the past? Guess again, suckers.

So like anyone else, I then googled "data science," and "Hume" and "problem of induction." (This is where I have to admit that my usual searching via Duck Duck Go got me nowhere and so I was forced to recall to mind the superiority of Google as a search engine).

I found this discussion, which gives a good overview, but which ends by saying that "instead of strictly rejecting or accepting, we can use inductive reasoning in a probable manner." But I didn't understand this, as I thought the problem applied to probabilistic reasoning as described above.

I also found this piece, which covers a lot of interesting territory but which concludes that AI works because "the problem of induction can be managed," which again, I didn't understand. 

So then I was like, Do I not know what is going on? So I went to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the Problem of Induction. Yes, there are attempts to get around the problem of induction via "Arguing for a Probable Conclusion." Not surprisingly, the matter turns out to be very complicated, though I note that each subsection seems to end with the author of the article basically saying "this is why that doesn't really work."

Noticing that the entry points the reader also to "Philosophy of Statistics," I went there, and was fascinated to see in the first section:  "Arguably, much of the philosophy of statistics is about coping with this challenge [of the problem of induction], by providing a foundation of the procedures that statistics offers, or else by reinterpreting what statistics delivers so as to evade the challenge... It is debatable that philosophers of statistics are ultimately concerned with the delicate, even ethereal issue of the justification of induction. In fact, many philosophers and scientists accept the fallibility of statistics, and find it more important that statistical methods are understood and applied correctly." 

So at this point, I guess figuring out what I think about data science and the problem of induction will require some intense intellectual effort. I think it will be worth it though. The most interesting item I found in my searching argues that the real challenge that the problem of induction poses for data science is that people "change and grow morally and socially in non-transitive, non-linear ways."   

I agree, and I would add that social institutions and practices also change in complicated ways. We now get into the debate over whether there are simple and uniform laws that lie beneath what looks like social chaos, or whether people and their doings create novelty in ways that are inherently impossible to pin down. You may not be surprised to hear I tend toward the latter view, not because I think free will lies outside the laws of the universe, but more because the creativity and complexity of humans isn't susceptible to that kind of generalizing thinking.

The topic is complex. But on my side can I present the wild success of Parasite, surely a film whose budget and star power would never have led to predictions for its success? 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Guest Post: The Ulysses S. Grant Of Lockdown

This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Felix Kent.

The first time I ever made waffles was in the beginning of what California calls shelter-in-place. It was the very beginning and my work hadn't yet figured out how we could telework, so I was officially off the hook, although I couldn’t stop checking email and trying to return voicemails, normally tasks that I avoid. But also I was staying up as late as I wanted and one mid-morning still in my pajamas and with that weird milky morning smell still around me I for the first time used the waffle attachment for the Cuisinart griddle I bought my husband for his birthday a few years ago. I made the batter at Martha Stewart's direction in a big white porcelain bowl. At first the waffles didn’t cook at all, but then I figured out the knobs were improperly calibrated, and I deduced the right temperature, and the waffles rose into fluffy piles, and they were good with blackberry jam, at least as good as an Eggo.

The whole thing had that feeling I only normally get when I go to my mother's house for Christmas, which I haven't done in years and years, a kind of relinquishment of moving forward. It was great, I loved it. I took more baths than I took showers. Once a week I had to go into the office and the lack of cars on the road would make me cry, would remind me that people were dying, but then I would come home and I would read in a way that it felt like I hadn’t read since I was a kid on summer vacation, a total abandon, a loss of self. It was so messed up. Last summer something went wrong in my back and for months and months the nerve that goes down my right leg had been shrieking in pain anytime I stood up and I had been kind of desperate to be at home and then all of a sudden the world closed down and I was home all the time and I loved it.

I had this English teacher in junior high who was one of those well-known great teachers except that I hated her and I don’t think she liked me very much, but at one point in the class she asked us how to treat other people well and I, believing myself both smart and good, raised my hand and said that we should think about what we would want in their situation and she whirled around and looked at me and said, no, people are different from each other. And no other teacher that I’ve had has ever told me anything as useful as that. I joked a lot during the beginning of the pandemic about how this was my Winston-Churchill-in-World-War-II moment, my Ulysses-S.-Grant-plucked-from-his-hardware-store. I was made for this historical moment. I like staying at home; I like not seeing people. A decade ago I flew all the way across country to a friend’s wedding and the night before the wedding this group of friends I hadn’t seen in years -- some of my closest friends -- tried to lure me out of my hotel room until finally the one of them that was closest to me said, are you kidding? The hotel room is her favorite thing. And he was right and I went to sleep and I felt a little bad about it but not really.

It was a cozy apocalypse; my bedsheets were clean and I wore my comfortable stretchy clothes around the house and the CalTrans signs on the freeway told me not to go anywhere and mostly I didn't. And I didn’t know an apocalypse could be cozy in that way, but the other thing I didn’t know, even though I should have known, even though that terrible John Cusack movie tried to tell me, is that the apocalypse would be nicer to people with more money.

The apocalypse was cozy for me. Because I had a job where I didn’t have to go in and because I had a house that is comfortable and because I had a car and because I was still getting paid. This was not the human condition; this was my condition. It was messed up. The internet in my home was super-fast; I bought expensive maple syrup to put on the waffles. Probably I was doing the most useful thing I could do at that particular moment. I could have been just as characterologically well-equipped to stay home and if I were poorer my historical moment for greatness would have passed me by. It wouldn’t have been less unfair if I had hated sheltering in place, but maybe it would have been better in another way. I don't know.

Monday, May 18, 2020

In Which My Colleague And I Read Classic Pandemic Literature

When the lockdown started, my colleague Doreen Fraser and I were both seized by the same impulse: to read classic historical pandemic literature.

Doreen, seeking a sense of historical perspective that is absent from panicked news stories, picked up Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe's book was written in 1721 when the plague was spreading across Europe, but describes the earlier 1665 outbreak. Defoe was only five years old when that happened; he wrote the Journal as fiction intended to be historically accurate -- and written as a warning and practical guide to preparations for Londoners.

For myself, I'd happened to read a think-piece that mentioned Alessandro Manzoni's novel The Betrothed, a 19th-century classic of Italian literature that takes place in the early 1600s as the Great Plague of Milan plague swept through the Lombardy region. I had read The Betrothed years ago, and while I had remembered that the plot involved a man and a woman who want to marry and encounter endless obstacles, I had forgotten about the plague. Like Defoe, Manzoni drew on primary sources for accuracy; he also isn't shy about inserting his opinions about the massive failures of information and planning that made things so much worse than they had to be -- and resulted in the death of 25% of the population.

Doreen and I were struck by commonalities of practical advice, fascinated by other parallels, and amused by peculiar philosophical takes. So we wrote this piece together.

Commonalities of practical advice:


While these events took place well before the development of the germ theory of disease, everyone knew that people in proximity spread the plague. Doreen says that we learn from Defoe that the best thing to do to preserve your family from the distemper was to lay in as many provisions as you could and lock yourself up in your abode. Defoe warns his readers that the "necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city, for the people catched the distemper on these occasions one of another, and even the provisions themselves were often tainted."

In London, self-isolation was initially practiced by merchants from the Netherlands, who had experienced the plague there the previous year. Defoe reports that more than ten thousand people shut themselves up in their ships on the Thames. He describes (presumably based on his uncle's journals) how he himself bought two sacks of meal for baking bread and "laid in a quantity of salt butter and Cheshire cheese." And crucially: "I bought malt and brewed as much beer as all the casks I had would hold, and which seemed enough to serve my house for five or six weeks." No flesh-meat, "for the plague raged so violently among the butchers and slaughterhouses on the other side of our street … that it was not advisable so much as to go over the street among them." (Which has an echo in the current pandemic.)

The Great Plague of 1665-1666 in London from the National Archives

Manzoni also talks about the importance of shutting yourself up. Also, he talks about how rich people went out to their country houses, travelers were required to quarantine themselves on arrival in a new place, and plague survivors went around acting like they had immunity passports. As in our own society, poorer people were much more adversely affected: they could not afford to escape plague-ridden areas, they often had to work and could not self-isolate, and they were seen as dirty and dangerous by wealthier people. The inequality of horrible pandemic effects isn't a new or unforeseen happening.

On a lighter, more practical note, while we moderns tend to think we're so clever, both books describe 17th-century food practices that would be very familiar to us. Defoe talks about how when you bought your joint of meat from the butcher, you would take it directly from the hooks and you would put your money directly in the butcher's jar of vinegar. When Renzo, the hero of The Betrothed, went to a bakery, "The baker signed to him not to come in, and held out a small dish filled with water and vinegar on the blade of shovel, telling him to drop the money in there. Then he passed the two loaves over to Renzo one after the other, with a pair of tongs." I thought: this is just like when I go for take-out and they have a table set out with the food and a sign saying "no cash please."

I was also touched by many small details. Manzoni talks about how all the men ended up with weird long hair and beards, and how friends would greet one another from across the road to chat. When two old friends met up after a long absence, one said to the other, "Now let's go find an open space, out of doors, where we can talk comfortably, without any danger." This made me feel the Lombardians of 1630 were like my old friends. Plague people: they're just like us!

Other interesting parallels:


Doreen noticed that the people of London were watching the numbers as closely as we are and that statistics were the same source of obsession and uncertainty for citizens of 1665 as they are for us. In particular, everyone carefully attended to the weekly bills of mortality. These bills listed the number of burials in each parish broken down by cause of death. This allowed Londoners to gauge which parts of the city and suburbs were currently worst affected. Increases in the numbers occasioned fear and sometimes "inexpressible confusion"; when the numbers decreased people were greatly relieved.

As we are seeing right now, effective counting became challenging and maybe impossible. Defoe says that initially, deaths due to plague were underreported by individuals due to the stigma attached, as we also see now. However, numbers of dead significantly higher than average indicated the presence of the plague anyway, as we suspect today. At the height of the plague in the city, a prodigious number of deaths were recorded in the bills, but the true extent of the devastation was still underreported. The accounting system broke down under the strain -- drivers of the dead-carts either died or fled before their dead were buried, the drivers did not trouble themselves to keep account of the numbers because they were too busy clearing the streets, the parish statisticians died, or entire households perished and the bodies were not found until later.

Bills of mortality, from History Today


The modern day JHU tracker


Meanwhile, we learn from Manzoni that the citizens of Milan had the same problems that we do with plague-deniers, a desire to confer blame, and bizarre conspiracy theories. I couldn't help but think about modern scapegoating and 5G conspiracy theories when I read about the Lombardians' belief in the "anointers." The belief had taken hold in Milan that the plague was being intentionally spread by evil-doers who would spread onto surfaces some substance that would cause the illness.

While the theory was completely false and absolutely without evidence, the desire to blame was so strong that gangs of people would attack and kill anyone suspected of being an anointer. Manzoni describes a case of an old man who wiped off a church bench before kneeling on it. And then "all the people in church (in church, I repeat!) dashed at the old man, seized him by the hair, white as it was, and loaded him with blows and kicks. Some pushing, some pulling, they hustled him to the door. If they spared his life for the moment, it was only so that they could drag him in that battered state to prison, to judgement, to the torture." Manzoni describes his amazement that even the most educated and most skeptical people believed in the anointers: the most they could bring themselves to say was that their role was minimal compared to the effect of the actual plague.

Accusing the Anointers in the Great Plague of Milan

Manzoni vividly describes his dismay at the mistreatment of the officials who were acting to prevent the spread of the plague. They had the best information and actual plans to prevent the spread of disease, but because of misinformation and misplaced blame, were seen as the source of the problem itself. As Monzoni puts it, these people who "saw a terrible catastrophe coming nearer and nearer, and did everything they could to avert it; and at the same time encountered obstacles where they looked for help, became the butt of popular indignation and were regarded as enemies of their country -- 'pro patriae hostibus' in the words of Ripamonti."

Peculiar philosophical takes:


Alongside the belief in the anointers, Manzoni describes a deep and widespread reluctance to believe that the plague was the plague. People wanted to think that the illness was some other kind of illness, or that people were exaggerating, or that it was all a big scam. Educated people saw the cause of the sickness in a comet that appeared in 1628, together with a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter.

Philosophically-minded scholars, always eager to play their part, contributed to these efforts by proving by syllogism that the plague could not exist. The man of letters Don Ferrante goes about it this way: "'In the nature of things,' he would say, 'there are only two kinds of entity -- substances and accidents. If I prove that contagion cannot be either the one or the other, I shall have proved that it does not exist, that it is a mirage. And here I am to do that very thing.'" To his critics, Don Ferrante says "I'd like to hear them deny that fatal conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter!" Insert your own jokes about philosophy making progress or not.

The end of the story:

Overall, the ending of the Journal was satisfying. (The plague ends!) But there is also a disappointing deus ex machina. Throughout the book, Defoe is scathing in his criticism of miraculous cures, quackery, and charlatans. He offers a sustained defense of the plague having natural causes. (With the tremendous effectiveness of transmission by contact and through the air, why would God need to resort to supernatural means?) But Defoe attributes the lifting of the plague to God’s intervention: "when the condition of the city of London was truly calamitous, just then it pleased God, as it were, by His immediate hand." However, it is worth noting that this view was not universally shared. (No prize for guessing who the contrarians were!) According to Defoe, physicians acknowledged that a natural account of the end of the outbreak could not be given, but the philosophers were hung up on searching for natural causes.

As for Manzoni, you won't be surprised to hear that the story has a happy ending. Well -- obviously not for the massive number of people who died of the plague, but definitely for betrothed themselves, who do finally get to get married and live happily ever after. Interestingly, the chief obstacle that sets the plot in motion is that a rich and corrupt nobleman, Don Rodrigo, is doing everything he can to prevent the marriage because he wants Renzo's bride Lucia for himself. So in addition to being a plague book, The Betrothed is also a #metoo book, showing again how the problems of modern life are often the same problems of everyone.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Lockdown, The Singularity, And The Idea of Post-Humanism

Back in 2010, when we were younger and more naive, a bunch of people were excited about something they called The Singularity, a time in the not-so-distant future when humanity would be replaced with ... something else. Post-humanity. A "superior intelligence that will dominate," so that life will take on a radically altered form that we cannot see and predict now.

Here at TKIN, I expressed my skepticism. Sure -- if you want to make an artificial liver or bionic limbs or whatever, awesome, I love it! But that's not post-humanity. It's the human experience, just somewhat improved. Longer, more fun, less painful, whatever. Beyond the human-upgrades interpretation, the suggestions get more radical but also more vague. We're going to meld minds and machines. We're going to upload your consciousness into a computer. You'll live forever, in some unforeseen Venn diagram overlap zone between virtual and real.

When I pondered this in 2010, I was like WTF, and now that we're in lockdown I feel even more like WTF. Aren't most the best pleasures of life embodied? In 2010 I listed sex, food, wine, sports, music, and dancing as things we like to do that are embodied, seemingly inaccessible to the computer-based post-human. And what's on the other side, on the post-human, singularity playlist? Math? Most people don't even like thinking about math.

I don't think I'm alone when I say that lockdown has made the importance of the embodied life even more vivid to me. We're sick of interacting through screens. We long for the touch of our family and friends. People are flocking to bake bread, grow plants, and acquire pets; the concept of "going for a walk to get some fresh air," at one time a symbol of a life lived quietly and meditatively, is now essential to the happiness of millions of people. I myself have taken care to notice the minute daily progress of leaves coming out on trees in my neighborhood.

I was mentally reviewing all the internet think-pieces I've read about what people are experiencing in lockdown, and the one disembodied activity now flourishing that I could spot was online chess. Touchingly, the New York Times places this news in the Sports section, where they are clearly dying for content.

Anyway, after writing that post in 2010, I expressed my doubts to some guys who were roughly in the robot-biz, and they smiled that guy-smile that comes up when a woman says something they think is stupid. It's not computer-based in that sense, they explained slowly to me. You'll still be able to do all the fun things. It's just that the whole system will be artificial, and therefore more permanent, less flawed, and better.

Fine, but as I've already said, I don't think that's post-humanity -- that's more like keeping your human self while being less susceptible to the world's problems: less vulnerable to injury, less in need of food and medical care, less dependent on others for your well-being. Our desires for life to be less difficult, less painful, less scary and less mortal are very human, and like the embodied pleasures, they have been intensified by the lockdown and the pandemic itself -- as we have all been reminded how vulnerable we are to illness and death, how challenging it is to care for others, and how fragile our little systems are.

Of course, in our radically unequal world, these things bear more heavily on some people than others, and awareness of our shared situation and our interdependence has been a bit of a wake-up call to some people who maybe used to imagine themselves as self-sufficient tech-oriented rich people.

I don't know what those people are dreaming of now, and whether it's still something like The Singularity or whether it's more like a walled city in New Zealand with a stockpile of ventilators. But whatever it is, I hope they'll remember it's not really post-humanism that they're hankering after. It's more like human life made less difficult and scary. And that dream is not only shared by everyone, it's also about the most human thing you could possibly have.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Dance Like No One Is Watching? The Existential Question Of Zoom Video

Before the lockdown I used to go to dance classes. Dance was something I had done as a young person and then didn't do for like ... thirty years or something. Then when I started up again it literally took me years to work up the nerve and motivation to go -- which could, itself, be the topic of another blog post whose conclusion would be something like "just because years have passed doesn't mean you won't do it eventually." I mostly do Contemporary -- but I also supplement that with classes in other styles like ballet and hip-hop.

It's an interesting question why dance class creates anxiety. The most obvious answer is that dancing well can be difficult, and class creates an atmosphere where people are together and naturally you worry that others are judging you. Or maybe you are judging yourself. I feel like one of the weird lingering effects of Anglo-Saxon culture is that there is something about dancing itself that feels especially vulnerable. But I wouldn't know how to connect those dots.

With the lockdown, dance classes are happening online, some through Zoom. It works OK, but I have had a hard time articulating to my friends why dance class via Zoom is such an impoverished experience for me compared to dance class in person. Zoom works OK for me for fitness: the instructors says to do a lunge or a burpee and I do a lunge or a burpee. It's not the same as being in person, but I get a workout and have some echo of the experience of working out with other people.

But with dance? It's just not the same. Part of it is communicative: in class, there is a back-and-forth between the instructor and the students with respect to what students are getting or not getting and how they're feeling about what is happening and what the instructor has in mind for the choreography. In addition to obvious things like "oh you're supposed to turn to the left, do it this way," there is also a complex interplay about the mood and the feeling of the dance. I guess it's not impossible for some of that mood to pass through the internet. But it's not easy.

A more significant factor more me seems to be just the essential pleasure between dancing-with-people -- even for something like Contemporary which is not, on the face of it, what we'd call a "social dance."

And that pleasure brings me to the great question of dance-via-Zoom: video on, or video off? For students, video-on is optional. And I feel like we're still working that out. I've been to classes where almost no one has video on, and I've been to classes where almost everyone has video on. Even though I'm seeing everything through a MacBook Air-sized screen, which means that from the recommended 6-8 feet away I can barely see anything, it is still way better for me when people have their videos on. It's a far cry from being together in a room, but at least there's the feeling of interaction and dancing-with-people.

It's an individual thing of course, and people have all kinds of reasons for choosing video off. I chose it myself recently for a ballet class that I feared was above my level (and it turned out I was right). But I feel like there is definitely a social norm aspect to it. Like, if you log on and everyone has their video off, you think "oh I guess I should too" -- it's embarrassing to be the only one putting yourself out there. But if you log on and everyone has it on you're like "oh ok, we're doing this? I guess I will too."


So I feel like livestream has changed a situation that was necessarily collective -- you're all in a room together, you all have to suck up the vulnerabilities -- to one of those weird individual versus group things where you have to ask yourself whether everyone is doing it and if not whether you're willing to put yourself out there as the only person doing it or what. It's a little sad.

Anyway, unless I have reasons, I try to always turn the video on for dance class, and I always hope that everyone else will too. Even though it's "optional," I was happy to hear a recent instructor admonishing the class to "clean up your room next time" so you can have the video on. Meetings are something else altogether -- but when we're dancing? I miss seeing y'all when your names appear in those black boxes.

I had never really thought much about that thing people say of "dance like no one is watching." I get it -- you're supposed to go all in or something. But one thing I have learned from lockdown is that, like a lot of inspirational quotes you find on coffee mugs and placards, it's not really solid advice when you take it too literally.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Coronavirus, Capitalism, and the Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Content warning: this post gets a little dark by moments, so if you're not in the right frame of mind, maybe read it later, or don't read it at all.

The pandemic crisis is prompting a lot of reflection about the dysfunctions of a capitalist system, which I guess is a good thing, though I'm pessimistic about much in the way of positive change. The richer classes are finally like -- "wait -- my food and well-being depends on these people! Are they OK? What if something happens to them?!"

Often when I think about the dysfunction of capitalism, I think about the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," by Ursula Le Guin. The story describes a beautiful well-functioning town in which almost everyone is well and happy, but in which all the good things depend on the utter misery of one small child -- a child who is forever locked in small basement room in squalid conditions and constant suffering.

People talk about the various justifications and injustices of capitalism in many ways, but one common one has to do with overall prosperity: more wealth is created by capitalism than in alternative systems, it is argued, and this wealth improves people's lives. Here the details get a little fuzzy, about whether that wealth has to improve everyone's lives or what exactly.

From a practical point of view, I think it's fair to say that if actual contemporary western capitalism creates wealth, it is doing so in a system that relies on horrible and exploitative conditions for many. It's never been a secret that agricultural workers, people who work elsewhere in the food supply chain, cleaners, gig economy workers, and others work long, long hours in sometimes brutal conditions for little pay -- often working multiple jobs. One of the wake-up calls of the pandemic has been that carers in nursing homes are working multiple jobs at various homes, just to make ends meet, thus increasing the likely spread of disease. And we've written on this blog of the way that modern electronics production relies on getting minerals in exploitative and violent conditions.

How the denizens of modern capitalism frame their faith in overall prosperity with the existence of this suffering and violation of rights has always interested me. The situation is obviously complex, but I think one possibility has to do with the ways that various values create small shifting zones of coherence and acceptability. Inside these little zones things seem to work OK, which makes us forget that things are really not OK at a deeper level.

For example, with respect to the social contract in modern capitalism, I expect that many people who believe in the importance of prosperity/overall GDP/economic growth also endorse some informal version of the following: those who work hard at a full-time job should be able to support themselves or maybe even a family; those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder should be able to improve their situation with care and hard work; wages should reflect a fair wage for the work involved. Put more abstractly: people care not only about prosperity but also about fairness, equality, and expressions of mutual respect.

One thing that happens in everyday capitalism, I think, is that in certain small zones and in the experience of certain people, the system seems to make these values come together. If your parent came to the US from a life of poverty in Europe in the early 20th century and worked hard to send you to good schools, and you prospered from the contingencies of the 1950s to rise up to the middle-class, then from one perspective it looks like it all comes together: the society's prosperity goes along with the opportunities that the individual takes advantage of; rewards follow.

As is often discussed, this little zone of coherence is just that -- a little zone. For many people, it doesn't work this way at all. They work harder and harder and wages drop; ill health brings catastrophe despite best efforts; racism and discrimination radically diminish options and possibilities.

In this sense, the middle class and those who are even more well-off are somewhat like the denizens of Omelas: we're in a good situation made possible by someone else's horrible situation. Some defenders of capitalism are even kind of explicit about it, arguing against universal basic income on grounds that poor people will then be less motivated to do the crappy jobs that society needs someone to do.

When I talk about capitalism being morally dysfunctional in this way, sometimes my interlocutors are shocked, and they point out to me the horrors of alternative systems. But I think the one doesn't exclude the other. Even if capitalism is the best system out there, it can still be radically unethical. Sometimes in life you have no good options. And even if it is the case that other systems are worse -- then it's even more important for us to talk about the wrongnesses of our system so we can at least try to mitigate them or something.

In the Le Guin story, the residents all learn about the existence of the child in misery during their adolescence, and some go to see the child in person. Most weep and rage but realize they can't do anything about it and go back to normal life. Others, though, do not go back to normal life. What they do is walk away. Le Guin says, "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

Like Le Guin, I can't imagine what it would mean to walk away from modern capitalism. In most basic literal terms, an alternative physical space would either be engaging in more capitalism, by buying up land, or infringing on the rights of other people whose land it is. In my darker moments, I fear that to walk away from Omelas would require ending my existence altogether.

But I try to remind myself: we're not in a fictional story land where the fates have decreed that our well-being and our failings are locked together forever, with our happiness inherently resting on others' suffering. We're in the real world, where things are complicated and confusing and can often be changed.

As the pandemic forces people to confront the situation of essential and vulnerable workers, let's remember that there are a lot of people for whom capitalism leads not to opportunity but to misery. Let's keep in mind that caring about overall economic growth and prosperity means facing up to this fact rather than getting to ignore it.

I fear that keeping these things in mind is going to get harder and not easier in the near future, as economies contract, business close, and times get tough. But we have to do it -- because unlike the people in the story, we don't have the option of walking away.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

What You Want To Do And What You Should Do: Lockdown Edition

I was sitting around at home on a weekend day feeling dispirited and trying to figure out what to do next. Someone suggested that I might think about what I wanted to do as opposed to what I should do, and do that. Don't worry: this suggestion was socially distanced.

It sounded so plausible as advice. But I had trouble putting it into action. I had no problem coming up with things that seemed immediately appealing, but most of them were things like sleeping and snacking that I knew would make me feel more dispirited in about twenty minutes. I certainly had tasks of various kinds waiting to be performed, but those all seemed like things I should do, not things I wanted to do.

As I should have known, I could have looked to this very blog to understand the source of my confusion. I have often written here about the weirdness of the typical desire-decision matrix of western popular culture. I see it is in 2010 -- ten years ago! -- that I wrote about the lost art of desire-management -- the way we treat our desires as if they are immutable and random forces of nature instead of responsive responses to habit, social context, and our own previous choices -- and thus, things that can be directed and managed.

One of the most destructive elements of that cultural desire-decision matrix is the bifurcation that splits everything into distinct categories of pleasure-yum-love and those of obligation-task-force-yourself-to-get-on-it. Or -- as I described it in 2014 -- that there are things you want, and there are costs to getting them, and the whole question is how much you're willing to "pay" to get your preference satisfied.  

I don't know how this bifurcated perspective got so entrenched in our way of thinking, whether it's a trickle-down from formal thinking and rational choice theory, or whether it's just the metaphors of capitalism creeping in everywhere, or whether it has something to do with the neoliberal entrepreneurial self, or what. But it is not good.

Among its more disturbing aspects is that it leaves out a huge category of things crucially important: the things that are difficult, voluntary, and worthwhile. Like making art, or writing something, or learning new things, or reading what for lack of a better term I'll call literary novels. You don't have to wake up with a burning desire to practice scales to make learning to play the piano a cool and worthwhile thing to do. No one finishes breakfast and discovers they're just dying to get on with re-editing the draft of the writing thing they've been working on and not getting anywhere with.

We don't even really have a good adjective to describe the positive subjective feeling that comes with engaging with these types of activities. "Satisfying" is about as close as I can think of, but that is such an oatmeal kind of word and doesn't really capture it.

The resulting perplexity is, I think, one reason that "goal" culture has so totally come into its own in modern life. If you set a goal, then somehow you're able to communicate -- to yourself and others -- why you're doing a thing and why it feels good to do it, even when it is difficult and motivationally challenging. But for me, anyway, the idea of a "goal" distorts the whole thing. I don't write because I need a badge celebrating ten years of continuous blog writing. I write because it's -- worth doing, or satisfying, or whatever the word is that we don't have.

I feel like lockdown has raised new challenges for these complicated pleasures of life that we don't have a name for. To me, one of the small sadnesses of the culture of lockdown is that this amorphous category has somehow formed a weird locus of interpersonal antagonism. First there were the people who said "Hey, you could use this time to learn something!" Which is true. Then there were the people who said "Speak for yourself! Some of us have kids and and chores and jobs!" Which is also true. Then it was pointed out that even if you don't have other demanding obligations, lockdown is hard, so if you want to eat a cookie, just eat a cookie ffs. Which is also, of course, true. 

I'm the kind of person whose general life sadness comes from the Pointlessness of Life demon rather than the Fear and Anxiety demon. So the answer to my weekend conundrum ultimately consistent in remembering that just because I didn't want to do a thing didn't mean it wasn't worth doing, and that even in lockdown, I had to keep making myself do stuff. Just because there's a global pandemic on doesn't mean I'm off the hook for doing stuff I don't feel like doing. So -- it wasn't really what I wanted to do or what I should do but something else altogether.

As always, your mileage may vary.