(Roughly) Daily

“If you fall in love with a machine there is something wrong with your love-life. If you worship a machine there is something wrong with your religion.”*…

In trying times, a positive attitude is more important– and harder to muster– than ever. But as the always-provocative LibrarianShipwreck observes, certain forms of optimism can, if they become pervasive, all-too-easily turn into problems in their own rights. Consider, for example, the flavor of the moment, techno-optimism…

There are moments in which it is difficult to feel particularly positive about how things are going in the world. Social cohesion frays. Politicians fail to respond to the crises of the moment. Social movements for justice are met with violent repression. History is suppressed. Xenophobic authoritarianism crawls out from the swamp to claim new victims. Looming environmental hazards grow closer. Pandemics are catastrophically mismanaged. The rich keep getting richer. The list goes on. It can be difficult to find a place in which to place your hopes for the future when the present seems so dire. After all, many no longer believe that god(s), or charismatic politicians, or social movements will save us. Granted, this has not given rise to widespread despair or nihilism (even if such sentiments can be detected at society’s edges), for there still exist certain forces that capture and channel people’s hopes and longings. And prominent amongst these is technology.

What follows is an attempt to consider some of the aspects and implications of techno-optimism. It is an attitude that has become somewhat taken for granted, which is precisely why it is important to consider what it is and how it functions.

It is hard to escape techno-optimism. For it is the attitude that one encounters nearly everywhere. This is not the just attitude of the press release, the advertisement, and the carefully produced launch event—it is the ambient music that plays in the background of daily life. Techno-optimism is the basic stance of a society in which people enjoy the fruits of high-technology, and though they may have some quibbles about specifics, are basically happy with the gadgets that surround them and resistant to the idea that any of these devices should be (or could be) turned off. It is an attitude that comes to be when a significant portion of a population have interwoven their faith in future progress with the idea of future technological advancements. Techno-optimism is a vision of tomorrow that sees only a choice between a high-tech metropolis and a desolate wasteland, and so (naturally) opts for the high-tech metropolis. To be taken in by techno-optimism one need not hang on a Silicon Valley CEO’s every word, it is sufficient to be impressed by the latest smartphone iteration. To partake in techno-optimism one need not dream of the singularity, it is sufficient to believe that since there is no alternative to all of these gadgets and platforms that one might as well be comfortable with them.

Techno-optimism has less to do with the individuals who hold the belief, and more to do with a broader societal stance that most individuals accept. And this stance—that societal progress is incumbent upon technological progress and that one should therefore be optimistic about technological progress—is fairly common.

In certain academic fields, scholars caution their students against falling for technological determinism. That being the overly simplistic belief that “technology drives history.” Granted, many of those same scholars, are quick to emphasize that technology matters, and can still be an important factor, but that social/political/historic/economic changes are driven by a lot more than just machines. Thus such academics work hard to show the ways in which history does not look like [Cause: new technology X] = [Result: social change Y], by emphasizing all of the things that take place in that “=” sign. What social conditions made it possible for that new technology to be taken up? Which groups pushed for the new technology because they saw it as a way of increasing their own power, and which groups resisted? What older technological systems were necessary for this new one to come into being? What economic forces made this new technology feasible? What were the various forms that this new technology originally appeared in before one particular model of it began to dominate? In short, those who study technology (at least in some disciplines), work hard to make it clear that technology doesn’t drive history. Indeed, in some academic circles, the charge of technological determinism is still an insult.

Alas, techno-optimism is to a large extent a belief that “technology drives history.” What’s more it’s a belief that technology has driven history in a good direction and that therefore technology can be trusted to keep driving history in that good direction. It is a straight line narrative of a world of improvement in which the abacus eventually leads to the smartphone, without getting overly bogged down in a story of Cold War military funding. It provides a worldview which is all highways with only passing attention being paid to the crashes that smolder on the side of the road (and with those being treated merely as stumbling blocks). Academics may bristle at the idea that “technology drives history,” but they find themselves trying to counter a belief that is fairly commonly accepted by the broader society. In fairness, it may be out of style for a person to declare that they think technology is driving history, but it is not at all out of style for a person to state that they consider themselves to be technologically optimistic—which is another way of saying that they feel cheerful when they consider the direction in which they think technology is driving history. 

At moments when social progress seems stuck, technology can provide an appealing alternative. After all, real progress on serious social issues can be slow and filled with backsliding, but over the last ten years the Playstation really has gotten better. To a large extent we find ourselves treading water, but the flashy gadgets affixed to our life preserver keep getting more impressive…even if we still find ourselves in this cold water. Techno-optimism keeps us waiting: waiting for the next iteration of a device, waiting for the next “big” gadget, waiting for the next update, waiting for the download, waiting for the tech company that will finally get it right, waiting for the technology that will finally fix the problems that have (up to now) proven impervious to easy technological fixes. We wait, and we wait, and we wait. But as long as we get to partake in technologies moving through their iterations, we get to feel as if we are moving as well. If our smartphone has moved ahead, than surely this means that we have moved ahead with it, because it is our smartphone, right? And that new smartphone might be a bit faster, it might have a better camera, it might work as an appealing status symbol, but where you were (where we were) with this new smartphone model is not particularly different from where we were with the previous smartphone model. 

The history of technology certainly demonstrates that there have been moments throughout history when technological shifts have made large significant changes. Though careful historians have worked diligently to emphasize that, contrary to popular narratives, those shifts were rarely immediate and usually interwoven with a host of social/political/economic changes. Nevertheless, techno-optimism keeps people waiting for that next big technological leap forward. The hopeful confidence in that big technological jump, which is surely just around the corner, keeps us sitting patiently as things remain largely the same (or steadily get worse). Faced with serious challenges that our politics seem incapable of addressing, and which technological change have so far been able to miraculously solve, techno-optimism keeps the focus centered on the idea of an eventual technological solution. And most importantly this is a change that will mean that we do not need to do much, we do not need to act, we do not need to be willing to change, we just need to wait and eventually the technology will come along that will do it all for us.

And so we wait. And so we keep waiting, for technology to come along and save us from ourselves.

Theses on Techno-Optimism,” from @libshipwreck. Eminently worth reading in full, even if– especially if, like your correspondent– you are a techno-optimist.

[Image above: source]

* Lewis Mumford

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As we interrogate our enthusiasm, we might spare a thought for Don Featherstone; he died on this date in 2015.  An artist, he is surely best remembered for his creation of the plastic pink flamingo lawn ornament in 1957, while working for Union Products.  It went on sale the following year– and now adorns lawns nationwide.

In 1996, Featherstone was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel Art Prize for his creation; that same year, he began his tenure as president of Union Products, a position he held until he retired in 2000.

170px-Flamingo_1
 A Featherstone flock

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“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”*…

… so, how we measure it matters…

In 2015, Greece, Thailand, Israel, and the UK were equally unequal. That is, all four countries had the same Gini coefficient, a common measure of income inequality.

The number suggests that the spread of incomes in the four nations was the same. However, a close look at the poorest and wealthiest in those societies reveals a very different picture. The ratio between income held by the richest 10% and the poorest 10% ranged significantly, from 13.8 in Greece to 4.2 in the UK. 

The fact is, just because the Gini coefficient is so well known doesn’t mean it’s a particularly useful measurement. Its appeal comes from its simplicity—a number between 0 and 1 that can encapsulate a complex distribution in a single figure—as well as its popularity. It is also regularly published and updated by powerful international organizations like the OECD, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund

However, it has a number of serious limitations. So many, in fact, that the World Inequality Database, one of the world’s leading sources of income inequality data, steers clear. And it’s not alone. While some economists defend the Gini coefficient’s continued use, most agree that as a way to understand income inequality, it’s insufficient on its own…

A primer on the dominant measure of economic inequality, and on some alternatives/supplements to it: “Gini coefficient: An introduction.”

* Plutarch

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As we aim to understand, we might note that today is the Summer Solstice, the day on which the earth’s north pole is maximally tilted toward sun, and there are more hours of daylight than on any other day of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern, it is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day). The June solstice is the only day of the year when all locations inside the Arctic Circle experience a continuous period of daylight for 24 hours. And perhaps more immediately, it is the “official” start of Summer.

(The 21st is the traditional date; in the event, the solstice falls on the 20th, 21st, or 22nd– this year, on the 20th… still, the traditional date is the one folks tend to mark.)

Not coincidentally, today is also National Daylight Appreciation Day.

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“One doesn’t have to play well, it’s enough to play better than your opponent”*…

When less is, if not more, at least very amusing…

1D Chess is a fun, innovative chess variant played on a single row of 16 squares. Each player begins with one of each piece and must take their opponent’s king to win. The rules are intuitive for new and expert players alike, but offer a refreshing twist on the classic game of chess…

1D Chess— everything you need to get started. From Doctor Popular (@DocPop)

Siegbert Tarrasch

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As we simplify, simplify, simplify, we might spare a thought for Johannes Zukertort; he died on this date in 1888. A soldier, musician, linguist, journalist and political activist, he is best remembered as a chess master. Zukertort was was one of the leading world players for most of the 1870s and 1880s, but lost to Wilhelm Steinitz in the World Chess Championship 1886, which is generally regarded as the first World Chess Championship match.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 20, 2021 at 1:00 am

“I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves… are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons”*…

Today is Juneteenth.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862 (effective January 1, 1863), word was slow to spread.  Indeed, in Texas (which had been largely on the sidelines of hostilities in the Civil War, had continued its own state constitution-sanctioned practice of slavery, and so had become a refuge for slavers from more besieged Southern states) it took years… and federal enforcement.

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, who’d arrived  in Galveston, Texas, with 2,000 federal troops  to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves, read “General Order No. 3” from a local balcony:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Former slaves in Galveston celebrated in the streets; Juneteenth observances began across Texas the following year, and are now recognized as state holidays by 41 states– and as of this past Thursday, as a federal holiday.

Ashton Villa in Galveston, from whose front balcony the Emancipation Proclamation was read on June 19, 1865 (source)
Juneteenth celebration in Austin, c.1900 (source)

While the commemoration has deep historical and political resonance, Juneteenth has also become a time for family reunions and gatherings, but usually with a eye to the past. As with most social events, food takes center stage. Juneteenth is often commemorated by barbecues and the traditional drink – Strawberry Soda – and dessert – Strawberry Pie. Other red foods such as red rice (rice with tomatoes), watermelon and red velvet cake are also popular.  The red foods commemorate the blood that was spilled during the days of slavery.

[Image at top: source]

Abraham Lincoln, in the Emancipation Proclamation

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As we set to the work still to be done, we might recall that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was approved, after surviving an 83-day filibuster in the United States Senate on this date in 1964. The House agreed to and passed the Senate version on July 2, and President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law that same day.

Pres. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among the guests behind him is Martin Luther King Jr. (source)

This day– or any day– would be a good day to watch this profile of James Baldwin, produced in 1979 for ABC’s 20/20, but never aired.

“I’m sure the universe is full of intelligent life. It’s just been too intelligent to come here.”*…

Email migration should now be complete; email subscribers should now be getting (Roughly) Daily via Mailchimp, and should not be getting a duplicate from Feedburner. If you are getting a dupe, please let me know (roughlydaily@gmail.com). Note that this new service may be landing in your Gmail “Promotions” folder; you can move it to your main folder. With apologies for the turbulence over the last few days, and thanks for your continued reading, on to today’s post…

A new computer simulation shows that a technologically advanced civilization, even when using slow ships, can still colonize an entire galaxy in a modest amount of time. The finding presents a possible model for interstellar migration and a sharpened sense of where we might find alien intelligence.

Space, we are told time and time again, is huge, and that’s why we have yet to see signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. For sure, the distances between stars are vast, but it’s important to remember that the universe is also very, very old. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, in terms of extremes, the Milky Way galaxy is more ancient than it is huge, if that makes sense. It’s for this reason that I tend to dismiss distances as a significant variable when discussing the Fermi Paradox—the observation that we have yet to see any evidence for the existence of alien intelligence, even though we probably should have.

New research published in The American Astronomical Society is bolstering my conviction. The new paper, co-authored by Jason Wright, an astronomer and astrophysicist at Penn State, and Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University, shows that even the most conservative estimates of civilizational expansion can still result in a galactic empire.

A simulation produced by the team shows the process at work, as a lone technological civilization, living in a hypothetical Milky Way-like galaxy, begins the process of galactic expansion… Things start off slow in the simulation, but the civilization’s rate of spread really picks up once the power of exponential growth kicks in. But that’s only part of the story; the expansion rate is heavily influenced by the increased density of stars near the galactic center and a patient policy, in which the settlers wait for the stars to come to them, a result of the galaxy spinning on its axis.

The whole process, in which the entire inner galaxy is settled, takes one billion years. That sounds like a long time, but it’s only somewhere between 7% and 9% the total age of the Milky Way galaxy.

As noted, the new model is constrained by some very conservative rules. Migration ships are launched once every 10,000 years, and no civilization can last longer than 100 million years. Ships can travel no farther than 10 light-years and at speeds no faster than 6.2 miles per second (10 kilometers per second), which is comparable to human probes like the Voyager and New Horizons spacecraft. 

“This means we’re not talking about a rapidly or aggressively expanding species, and there’s no warp drive or anything,” said Wright. “There’s just ships that do things we could actually manage to do with something like technology we can design today… Even under these conditions, the entire inner part of the simulated galaxy became settled in a billion years. But as Wright reminded me, our “galaxy is over 10 billion years old, so it could have happened many times over, even with those parameters.”…

A new simulation published by the American Astronomical Society suggests that aliens wouldn’t need warp drives to take over an entire galaxy in (relatively) short order, as George Dvorsky (@dvorsky) explains.

[Image above: Andromeda Galaxy, source]

* Arthur C. Clarke

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As we spread out, we might spare a thought for Jacobus Cornelius Kapteyn; he died on this date in 1922. An astronomer, he used photography and statistical methods to determine the motions and spatial distribution of stars (especially with the Milky Way), the first major step after the works of William and John Herschel. He introduced absolute magnitude and color indexing as standard concepts in cataloguing stars.

Kapteyn was also among the first to suggest the existence of dark matter (which he deduced from examining stellar velocities).

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