Tag: alan jacobs

The New Internet is Forced Cannibalization

The saddest part of the internet right now, to me, is not necessarily its being smothered in algorithms that drive what we pay attention to all day everyday. That is a tragedy and something that we need to deal with or perish (mentally, anyway).

What I am most sad about when I look at the state of the internet is that its identity has fundamentally changed. When I was younger (probably even younger than a teenager) the internet was this wild frontier. Anything went, but you had to know where to find stuff. Links led to other links, and on and on down the rabbit hole.

Was it perfect back in the blogosphere days, or earlier? No. Take Alan Jacobs’s post today.

When Grandpa wrote against the blogosphere, that kind of site is what he had in mind: a constant stream of hot takes, some of which had to be walked back later because they were offered before, and instead of, reflective consideration. You’d therefore have a better sense of what I meant in that much-quoted line if you replaced “blogosphere” with “Twitter.”

blogging and the blogosphere”

Note — the blogosphere, at one point, was not great. It was the equivalent of today’s Twitter, a stream of non-reflective takes everyday. It probably brought on the constant news cycle that we all pretty much hate now.

But! There was also some beauty there, and this is what Alan gets at in the meat of this post. Blogging can be that rabbit-hole, linky version of the internet that many of us grew up with. More from the post:

I post a thought; later, I return to it with an update; someone responds and I incorporate their thoughts into a new post that links to them and to the original – basically, what I am doing right now. Note also that blogging, when done in this fashion and in this spirit, is also seriously dialogical, and I think there is a close connection between a dialogue-friendly medium and a forgiving medium. 

The incorporation, the back-and-forth, the dialogue is what makes blogging beautiful. And it’s what made the non-blog part of the internet before 2008 so fun too. We weren’t being force fed new content all the time from what essentially amounts to non-democratic, institutionalized, whitewashed, walled gardens.

Think about it. Where do you go when you get on the internet? You go to one of, I’m guessing 5-10 websites. Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Reddit, a news source……. can you even think of anymore?

It reminds me of that scene in Snowpiercer (SPOILER ALERT) where the people on the back of the train are given those gross gel bar things to eat, only to find out that those are made of their own dead. All the infighting and vitriol that happens on barely a handful of websites is essentially forced cannibalization while that handful of corporations makes billions of dollars off of our hatred.

That’s just sad to me. I miss the old internet.

Update: As a coda to this post, I’m gonna do what AJ suggests, and link to the Robin Sloan post he mentions. Here’s Robin:

One is that I want to say again: the High Blogging Era might be behind us, but there is still blogging to be done, and it is so easy and so rewarding to dip a toe in, start to follow a few of these feeds, and experience a different kind of network.

“Many Subtle Channels”

It strikes me, too, that in its purest form, blogging is just a sheer beautiful way to write and engage with the world. I accessed all of these words freely. It cost me nothing (besides a machine and an internet connection) to see these words, to think about them and what they have to say about technology and connection and culture. What a delight the internet was… perhaps what a delight it could still be.

We Don’t Care about Expertise

The Atlantic released an interview with Barack Obama this week. Here’s the full article, but I want to bring attention to this quote from the former president:

If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.

Truer words haven’t been spoken.

Let’s juxtapose this with some news commentary I read this morning from The Dispatch (headed by David French, the unrelenting never-Trumper):

  • The Trump campaign was dealt a series of legal defeats over the weekend in their effort to overturn the election results. A lawyer for the campaign on Friday dropped the “Sharpiegate” lawsuit in Arizona’s Maricopa County, acknowledging that not enough votes were at stake to change the results of the election. A few hours later, a Michigan judge denied an emergency motion filed by two GOP poll workers requesting to halt the certification of an entire county’s results. On Sunday, Trump’s attorneys dropped allegations that Pennsylvania election workers violated the president’s constitutional rights by preventing his campaign’s observers from watching the count. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said Friday the state would not be conducting an automatic recount for any statewide races, because no candidate finished within the 0.5 percentage point-threshold. Any recount would need to be paid for by one of the campaigns involved.
  • Sixteen assistant U.S. Attorneys charged with investigating irregularities in the 2020 election wrote a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr saying they had seen no evidence of substantial election fraud.

So, here’s what seems to be happening — nearly all of the allegations of fraud, wrongdoing, and electoral conspiracy against the current administration have been either dropped or proven to be baseless or blatantly false in a court of law. This is not surprising to nearly anyone actively following experts in politics, by the way.

But the problem is not really the legal battles, is it? We all know that. What the current president is trying to do is not win in the eyes of the law, or with evidence that passes muster when examined closely. Instead, the president is doing what he has nearly always done: he has thrown as many claims as possible into the air just to see what will stick in the mind of his base, and what might convince those on the fringes of that group. This is a classic tactic of conspiracy theorists. He is in some way aware of the current epistemological crisis, even if it’s an emotional or calculating awareness rather than an academic or intellectual one. I heard Alan Jacobs say on the Give & Take podcast recently that the president is not necessarily an intelligent man, but he certainly is a shrewd man.

So, back to President Obama’s point: we are entering an epistemological crisis. We can see the evidence of this in what has happened this past two weeks in American politics. Many, many of us (including myself) do not have the capability of separating truth from falsehood. Many do not trust our core institutions, our medical experts, our lawyers, our journalists, or our politicians to present facts and evidence. And when we are presented with evidence, we question its legitimacy. We question the bias of the “left-wing media” or the “fascist politicians,” and so we pick and choose our legitimate sources for ourselves. And we do not trust the long, slow work of experts ought to be weighted much more heavily than the baseless claims of those seeking to hold power.

Who wins in such a system? The ones who have the power to exploit the will and passions of the people.

Or, in the evergreen words of Professor Quirrell: “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”

Is a Counter-Catechesis Even Possible?

…because I was and am convinced that the primary reason American Christians are so bent and broken is that we have neglected catechesis while living in a social order that catechizes us incessantly.

Alan Jacobs, “Learning from Rod Dreher”

This is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. And I think it’s an idea many others have had as well (see James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom – specifically the idea of the “mall” as the new cathedral, the new catechizer).

There are many, many, many spheres of influence over individual human lives. Culture(s), political ideologies, education, economic systems, books, music, movies, social media (heaven help us), families, communties, etc. etc. ad infinitum. And these all interweave and join up in ways we can barely begin to understand. Look at the problem too long, and one becomes overwhelmed. Unable to think clearly about which is more influential right now, which should be addressed right now, and how the church should respond right now.

This is the problem of catechesis (and for those of you who don’t know, catechesis traditional is the term used for religious instruction prior to baptism/full membership of the Christian body). Especially in America — I am unfamiliar with other societies — the Protestant church has largely done poorly with catechesis in the local church body over the last hundred (Two hundred? Five hundred?). And the problem with this is that we are always given a counter-catechism. Really, multiple counter-catechisms. I can give myself over to political life or revolution; I can become a patriot; I can revel in the modern capitalist-consumerist order. I can do all three of these things, and not realize that by doing so, I am giving my allegiance to things other than the creedal faith of Christianity.

That’s why strong Christian catechesis is needed. I just don’t know how to do that without going full Benedict Option (which I cannot bring myself to completely endorse, but which always has a pull for me that I don’t fully understand). And then, of course, you run the risk of abuse, cultishness, or just losing touch with the broader culture.

Thinking Charitably about COVID-19 and the Economy

Flatten the Curve, or Restart the Economy?

I’m sure you’ve heard that a main point of contention surrounding social distancing is whether we ought to continue to stay home or not. Many, many scientists, medical professionals, and public policy professionals have indicated that we need to social distance for a long time to prevent us from hitting the max death predictions in various models. Here are some good overviews of this point of view:

The crisis is complex, but the goal is simple: reduce how many people that get infected all at once to “flatten the curve.” I.e., reduce how many people need critical care all at the same time so that we don’t run out of hospital beds, medical staff, and medical equipment (primarily ventilators, since this disease overwhelmingly affects the lungs).

Naturally, the social distancing we’re implementing has led to heavy negative economic impacts – by necessity. As people stop going to work, stop venturing out unnecessarily, and stop gathering with others, this reduces many people’s ability to make money as businesses are losing customers. And because of this we’re already starting to get some calls for backpedaling on extreme social distancing. My good friend Chad Graham (pastor by trade, economist at heart) shares these concerns. Here are some good articles reflecting these concerns:

In the long run, these authors argue, extreme social distancing will have a worse effect on the death toll (and on life in general) than if we were to loosen social distancing measures now (or much sooner than many medical experts are calling for). In other words, the cure is worse than the disease.

Now, this may very well be true. I happen to disagree, because I think the movement of people back into public life is much more complex than simply letting those who are not vulnerable go to work while isolating those who are vulnerable. I myself am likely not vulnerable (I’m 30, I have no underlying health conditions, I am not obese, etc., etc.). But my daughter, an otherwise healthy child, suffers from asthma-like symptoms — primarily in the fall and spring when allergic reactions to pollen and particulate matter are at their highest. So what do we do with someone like me? What happens if I am exposed, show little to no symptoms, but later expose my daughter to a disease that could kill her? And that’s just a simple case. There are other people I could come into contact with that think they are not at risk, but in fact are.

How to Think Charitably

This isn’t even the point of why I’m writing. My main point is that I’m very concerned with the way I’m seeing these conversations play out online. Some are mischaracterizing those who support extreme social distancing as irrational, or as if they are pursuing this in bad faith as a way of removing Trump from office. On the other hand, I’ve seen people characterize those who want the economy to restart as heartless capitalists, or as “throwing a tantrum” so we can go back to normal (really, I saw someone say this on Facebook).

In his book, How to Think, Alan Jacobs argues that we have lost the ability to think charitably, and gives some guidelines for how we might start to regain this critical skill in the Internet Age. At the end of the book, he gives a “Thinking Person’s Checklist.” One of his guidelines is, “Try to describe others’ positions in the language they use…” In other words, when you reiterate someone else’s argument, represent it both fairly and with their strongest and best arguments.

That’s absolutely not what’s happening when we say someone is throwing a temper tantrum if they bring up questions about whether halting the economy is the best move forward when dealing with a global pandemic. Emotions are high, and the stakes are high. But if we cannot represent another person’s point of view fairly, we’re attempting to win policy arguments via social pressure and strong-arming rather than rational, clear debate. This reveals an unwillingness to deal honestly with facts and willingly reevaluate our assumptions and biases.

That is not to say I agree with my friend Chad. I’m personally willing to take the chance on extreme social distancing, because it seems to me that we have relatively more reliable data about the likelihood of a high death rate from COVID-19 deaths over the data on deaths from economic instability. But I also think that, at the bottom of things, Chad and I share the same concerns: we want as few deaths, for as little economic shock as possible. We simply disagree on how to get there. And I trust that his motivation for restarting the economy are noble in nature — not simply because he idolizes capitalism.

No Conversation Is Too Scary

As many of you know, I’m currently a high school teacher (in the fall, I taught philosophy, and this spring I’m teaching a class called “senior practicum,” which is mostly personal finance, although I’ve taken a few liberties to discuss digital habits as well). The pairing of the two classes together is interesting for two reasons.

First, the philosophy class was inherently academic, and required reading, study, and heavy critical thinking. Some of the concepts we explored were abstract, ranging from free will and determinism to how we can say that we know anything at all. Second, the senior practicum class is clearly meant to be distinct from the philosophy class. It is not abstract; in fact, it’s fairly pragmatic. In some ways, it can be seen as an outworking of the philosophy course — at least in the sense that philosophy is meant to help the students frame and understand the world, and the senior practicum class is meant to help the students navigate “daily” life.

What I didn’t expect in the course of teaching these two classes is that I would get the chance to have other, deeper conversations with the students. Because the two classes are touching on issues that are deeply personal, we sometimes end up navigating tough waters. It’s not uncommon for the students to bring up political issues (even in the form of a joke), moral issues (abortion has come up more than a handful of times), or unsolvable philosophical or theological problems. My real goal in these conversations is not really to convince the students that they ought to think the way I do on these topics. That would be far too easy, to be honest. That’s not to mention the fact that they are all Christian students, raised in Christian households, so their viewpoints are highly similar, if not outright identical, on many of these issues.

My goal, instead, has been to open their minds up a little bit to other viewpoints, and I think I’ve come up with a solution to how to do try and do this. Part of my solution is driven, I think, by my concern with social media and its effects on public discourse. We currently find ourselves in a societal moment wherein social groups are dividing and divisive — primarily along political and theological lines. This leads to two things: digital echo chambers and the inability to engage in rational, calm conversation about difficult issues. In response to this, I’m trying to teach my students two things:

  1. No conversation is too scary to have.
  2. When discussing a tough issue, our first goal should be to ask “What does this person see that I don’t?”

These are actually relatively difficult to implement in real life. It can be easy to prefer avoiding tough topics of conversation, thinking that our interlocutors might be offended or appalled at our ignorance or disagreement. It’s also easy for us to be the person that is easily enraged, morally or intellectually. (Moral outrage, in fact, is an easy emotion to latch onto — just look at how social media companies have benefited from taking advantage of that emotion). But if we come at difficult conversations with an attitude of humility rather than pride, of curiosity rather than fear, our local community and the broader society stand to benefit.

Of the second point (asking, “What does this person see?”): this is a key skill when engaging in philosophical or theological inquiry. If we don’t actively try to envision why a person sees the world a certain way, or thinks that their moral position is superior to others, we don’t have any chance of gaining conversational favor. This means we lose the chance of having a dialogue, and of having the opportunity to persuade someone of our own position. I think many of us fear taking this step, however, because it requires risk. Alan Jacobs writes about this in How to Think:

To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction. (36)

I take Jacobs to mean here that too often the conversations we have are means to the end of happiness: either by way of conversing only with those who agree with us, or by seeking the satisfaction of arguing with others for the purpose of proving the superiority of our position. But to actively think, to engage in dialogue, to be willing to see from another person’s viewpoint means that we must accept discomfort and even the pain of changing our position on an issue.

We’d do well, in the long run, to abandon our desire for comfort, for happiness, for satisfaction. The health of both our individual selves and society at large may rely upon this very truth.

A “Now” Page (or, On Post-Social Media Digital Life)

Given that I am not really using social media anymore, I haven’t really had a place to update what I’m up to right now. After coming across the idea of a “now” page on several other blogs, I’ve made one for myself. You can see it here. Of course, as I’ve made this space my home on the web, the “now” page is less for you than it is for me. It’s a good way of reminding myself what I’m trying to focus on right now, in case anything else decides to try to creep into my daily work that doesn’t really belong. It’s also a good way to push back against the “stream” version of the internet.

Ever since 2009 (or sometime around there), the stream — that never-ending, infinite-scrolling, time-sucking version of digital consumption — has dominated how we interact with the internet. It makes us passive consumers, rather than active participants. It neuters the internet from being what it was meant to be: a space for ideas, for gaining knowledge, for finding new things. The stream allows advertisers to control our attention in ways that seem benign, but which are really meant to subtly control our consumption habits.

So, the blog and my “now” page are my own little ways of pushing back against that. I don’t know that it could ever happen again, but it would be fun to move back to an internet where the hyperlink rules how we connect with one another. Where there are blogrolls instead of “friends.” Where my attention is mine and not taken from me.

Some additional reading/listening on the subject, in case you are interested:

“The Web We Have to Save”

“Cal Newport Has an Answer for Digital Burnout” (Podcast)

“Tending the Digital Commons”



On “Being a Writer”

I tend to harbor some romantic notions about writing that, objectively, I know are silly. I like the idea of being a writer, but the problem there is summed up nicely here by Alan Jacobs:

Wanting to “be a writer” is, generally speaking, not a good sign. That suggests not a commitment to a vocation but wanting to see yourself, or to be seen, in a particular way by others.

The truth of the matter is, there are days when I’m a writer, and days when I’m not. When I seriously commit to writing (like when I decide to post something every day on the blog for a period of time, or whatever), it beings to feel a bit more natural. But if I stop, even for a day, I generally stop hard. Tyler Cowen, in a recent interview about his writing habits, says,

Write even when you have nothing to say, because that is every day.

That’s a sobering thought. The reality is, most days (even on the days when I feel “inspired”), I don’t have much to say at all. The exercise of writing is simply that peculiar way that I try to disentangle the connections that my brain continues to make all day.

All of that to say, the act of writing is both encouraging and discouraging, often at the same time. It helps me make sense of some things, but I end up muddling other things. I worry what people think of me when I am honest, I worry that I’m not being honest enough, I worry that I’m boring and that my thoughts are interesting to no one. The truth is, that may be the reality. And yet, perhaps writing is still the exact thing I should be doing anyway.

Calling and Resistance

It’s almost the definition of a calling that there is strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical—how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc.—but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself within it? Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it. “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” (Wendell Berry)

-Christian Wiman, quoted from Alan Jacobs

I have never read a reflection on the notion of “calling” that speaks so deeply to how I think about my own path. It’s not that I fear for (lack of) money anymore in those vocations to which I feel called — it’s that I’m resistant to the idea that I belong in those professions, and that I won’t somehow “lose myself” in them.

The Zettelkasten

Here, Alan Jacobs gives a rundown of his use of Niklas Luhmann’s zettelkasten method for note-taking:

One of the best things about making Zettel is the ability to go back to an old card and add related cards. So if I make a note about Barbara Tuchman’s idea of history as a distant mirror, I can make a note on that, and label it BBD26. (BBD because this project is called Breaking Bread with the Dead.) And then when I come upon a fascinating essay by Daniel Mendelsohn that treats the Aeneid as a kind of “distant mirror” of our own time, I can add a card to that effect and label it BBD26a. And if later still I have a further thought about Mendelsohn’s essay I can add another card and label it BBD26a1; or, if I want to return to the “distant mirror” theme but with reference to a different text, I can label that card BBD26b. And then if I realize that some other card already in my stack treats a similar theme, I can add cross-references at the bottom or on the back of the relevant cards. (This is not quite how Luhmann numbered his cards but it’s what I like to do.)

Throughout my thesis, I struggled to find a note-taking system that worked for me, and the fact that I never settled on one thing meant that my notes were scattered through Google Docs, Evernote, and paper notes. This wasn’t ideal, and in fact, was pretty frustrating. I also think this lent itself towards my inability to make genuine (or, really, serendipitous) connections between ideas.

Another thing I’ve realized is that I don’t particularly like having my notes digitally. It certainly helps to have them stored digitally for immediate, quick access. However, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the sort of ephemeral nature of digital note-taking. What happens when Evernote goes down, or I’m unable to access a copy of my digital note archive? Also, I’m not really convinced that I remember what I have typed as well as what I have written by hand. I also tend to get stuck on creating systems, and when my thoughts or notes do not quite cohere with the system I’m using, I’m loath to to write down my thoughts. Luhmann’s zettelkasten system, however, seems promising. It’s essentially decentralized, it doesn’t matter where you start, and it’s basically infinitely flexible.

I think I’ll give it a go.

Alan Jacobs on Technocracy

Their great fear is that, if the war is won by technological prowess, then why shouldn’t the technocrats who won the war be given the task of rebuilding society after the war? And this is what all the figures in the book were afraid of — that the winning of the war would actually inaugurate a technocracy that would be extremely difficult to displace from its throne. And they were exactly right. That’s what we got. If they wanted to prevent that from happening, they started too late. The technocracy was already largely in place, and as soon as the major American universities — and Harvard is the signal case here, under James Bryant Conant — explicitly put themselves in service to what Eisenhower would later call the “military-industrial complex,” then technocracy had a death-grip on our social order.

“Christianity and Resistance – An Interview with Alan Jacobs”

The question for us, post-technocracy, is: how ought we resist technocracy as all-consuming, and is that even possible?