Science! and Other Off-the-Wall Études

by Venkat on May 8, 2014

Last year,  around this time, I posted a selection of attempted aphorisms from my Facebook wall (you can follow my public posts if you want the live firehose). I thought I’d do another selection, this time focusing on a new length I am practicing: sub-300-word études (inspired by the corresponding form in music) written as single dense (but not aphoristic-dense) paragraphs. If you are mainly a long-form writer, I highly recommend this composition form to improve your game, and Facebook public posts as the best medium for practicing it. If I ever put together that writing-for-thinking course as I keep meaning to, études and aphorisms will be a major part of it.

Here is a selection of what I consider my better études over the past year. Use the date hyperlinks if you want to share a specific étude with someone.

#1 On Science! (219 words, August 9, 2013)

When “science” as description of a natural cognitive process turns into “Science!” as an identity-anchoring pattern of codified conspicuous production by the insecure, you get a cargo-cult procedural prescription. Unlike science, Science! is practiced by those whose social awkwardness is caused by actual social incompetence rather than the indifference and neglect that comes from being absorbed on another front. People who need procedural scaffolding because they never actually cultivated the necessary natural instincts. So natural behaviors like attentiveness and trial-and-error turn into Observation! and Experimentation! Seeking clarity by corralling doubt turns into theatrical Hypothesis! and systematic thought turns into Rigor!, Systems! and Methods! The result is an elaborate theater of mostly useless production where citations and awards become measures rather than consequences of value and curiosity turns into an expensive optional extra element in the business of grant-writing. Over the last fifty years, social support for science has gradually been diverted towards Science! which is why today, we’re paying far too much for whatever science actually emerges. I am neither scientist nor Scientist! but one big payoff for me, from having been accidentally put through the Scientist! production machine, is that I can tell the two apart fairly well now. It is a skill that is very likely to get you thrown out of the Scientific! establishment.

#2 Maintaining Silence (69 words, July 16, 2013)

There are two types of people who stay silent in a debate. Those who fear they might appear foolish and those who think they’ve already evolved in sophistication beyond the debate. The self-classification into the two types is wrong more than half the time. Those who are afraid tend to elevate the conversation, those who think they’re already above it often fumble foolishly when they actually try expressing themselves.

#3 All Dichotomies Are False (230 words, July 5, 2013)

I am deeply bored by people for whom “all dichotomies are false” is the most sophisticated philosophical thought they’ve ever had. It’s a thought-stopper for them rather than a thought starter. They are so pleased with themselves when they get to trot out the line that they don’t realize a) nobody else needs it stated besides them and that most things being said already take it into account b) the show can go on, just as life can go on despite the inevitability of death. If you can’t offer concrete thoughts on just how far you can stress a dichotomy, and how much of an argument you can construct on top of it, you’ve got nothing and the statement is not worth making. It’s like all those wise stock market watchers who predict a stock will go up or down. Yes, it doesn’t take a genius to predict that (say) Apple will go down. If you can’t actually offer informed predictions about how much it will go down, and by when, or where the peak or bottom might be, you’ve got nothing. Philosophy is active trading in dichotomies. “All dichotomies are false” in the philosophy market is as banal a statement as “stock investing is risky” in the financial market. Bubbles burst. Arguments built on top of dichotomies can be over-extended and collapse. Level up and move on ye pontificators.

#4 Values and Incentives (39 words, July 1, 2013)

Professing values inconsistent with your visible incentives is a kind of naive arrogance. You’re asking people to believe in your superhuman powers. Signal your hidden incentives and hide visible ones selectively to really shape what people think you’ll do.

#5 Being Useful and Thoughtful (91 words, June 30, 2013)

Life is the study of being useful and thoughtful at the same time in a school where every test is a Kobayashi Maru test. You have to learn to cheat in at least one of the two tests to survive indefinitely as a student of life. If you can figure out how to cheat on both, you can graduate. Then you can start the real work: trying to be effective and insightful at the same time. If you can’t see why useful!=effective and thoughtful!=insightful, you’re probably a useful and thoughtful person.

#6 Analysts (177 words, July 25, 2013)

The problem with the analyst sector and its process model of being driven strongly by interviews with eventual customers of the “research” is that you deliver “intelligence” that’s mainly a reflection of their own views, editorialized to either increase or lower their anxieties. At best, you’re accelerating groupthink diffusion under the guise of “best practice sharing” in a lemming cohort, and arming one cabal of CxOs against their peers. At worst, you’re offering sand for ostrich head-burial processes. In each case you’re helping sustain a theater of change overlaid on status-quo-maintenance decision making. This is why so many business ideas operate in faddish ways even when they contain originality and novelty. The communication processes of the literary-industrial complex are designed to preserve prevailing equilibria while pretending to disrupt them. This is why new ideas are presented within old frames rather than the opposite (which would be the logical way to do it). This increases certainty and sparks theatrical decisiveness instead of increasing doubt and sparking experimentation. The emerging new literary-industrial complex is sadly repeating these mistakes.

#7 On Job Descriptions (238 words,  August 14, 2013)

I am amused by corporations complaining about skill shortages. When corporations complain they can’t find talent with the right skills, it often means laughably unrealistic job definitions are being created by people (or worse, committees), who are trying to keep secure, cushy and fun work for themselves and dumping psychologically incompatible, thankless schlep work into far too few new roles. Like the DoD trying to buy the JSF that is all planes to all services (and therefore useless all around). The result is overloaded superhero roles that also require perverse stupidity and no desire for autonomy to take on. To look at some marketing role descriptions, you’d think they want a combo Steve Jobs plus envelope-licking flunkey, with an implanted brain chip that makes them do it all and not ask for anything in return, particularly autonomy or discretionary resources. Or the ever-popular “graphic designer plus interaction designer plus usability researcher plus focus group and survey researcher plus customer service person, willing to work for exposure and minimum wage.” If you manage to fill such ill-conceived roles at all, I suspect the new hires will be set up for failure: they’ll either fail in-role, or creatively break out of it and compound the problem by trying to drive unrealistic hiring in turn themselves. I am increasingly convinced hiring/talent problems are often a case of the hiring parties being in need of therapy and counseling, rather than labor market inefficiencies.

#8 On Being Human (164 words, August 18, 2013)

There’s a fine line between self-aware introspection and self-important narcissism. I agree that English majors major in “being human.” I just don’t think that’s a compliment. In 2013, humanism is a kind of narcissism. If you’re not, or don’t aspire to be, at least partly a new sub-species spawned by modernity, it means you might be too in love with yourself. The transformation this piece speaks of is sort of the reverse of the real thing. A sort of retreat from/reversal of default transformations wrought by modernity, driven by an unconscious desire to recover an original self and return to Eden. It’s not the condescending trivialization of fields like economics that bothers me. It’s the unexamined assumption that to strive to be more fully human in a literary sense is unarguably a good thing, and better than other ways of being and becoming. And that the economic poverty facing English majors is a sort of ennobling proof of the higher virtue of their choices.

#9 Tribalized Anarcho-Capitalism (277 words, July 9, 2013)

Significant realization for me today after a day of tedious paperwork: despite my severe paperwork phobia, history of satirizing bureaucracies and distaste for arbitrary proceduralism, I far prefer it to the sort of localized who-you-know nightclub-bouncer social arbitrariness of pure tribal communitarianism. Gesellschaft over Gemeinschaft. I may fundamentally be a pro-big-formal-impersonal institutions guy at heart. A save-the-middle-class establishmentarian. In both good times and bad. When institutions are failing, I might temporarily hang out at the fringes of the Edge crowd (ironic, huh?) because there’s nowhere else to go, but I am really just waiting out the chaos and watching for new institutions to ally with. Not celebrating tribal anarcho-capitalism. Even with things like the NSA stuff going on, I’d rather work with reformers to refactor/rebuild in improved forms, preserving/reusing what is salvageable or still functional, than join anarcho-nihilist clean-sheeters in tearing down. Perhaps I am rationalizing the fact that people like me are basically creatures of larger, multi-scale institutional landscapes, not capable of surviving in small-and-local Switzerland. Perhaps people like me ought to go extinct. Perhaps it is Stockholm Syndrome/cognitive capture. But anarchist-flavored politics, it seems to me, is a case of letting immediate pain narrow the imagination to the point where it becomes blind to anything that is not viscerally present and pregnant with human emotion. Blind to the role played by large, accumulating historical background forces, for all their faults. The alternative just doesn’t seem to ever rise above wishful thinking. There, for all those who complain I never pick sides, I’ve finally picked one. And its not the one Taleb and Graeber are on, though I agree with a lot of things they say.

#10 On Antiproducts (103 words, August 24, 2013)

Let’s define anticustomers as “people for whom a product is relevant and potentially of interest, but designed to annoy in every possible way.” So like Mac people with PCs, gas-guzzler SUVs for tiny-hybrid drivers, etc. BUT with no antiproduct to choose instead. So what products are you anticustomers of? Where an antiproduct could instantly win your loyalty? One of mine is Upworthy. Pandering headlines, video content, annoying value-based petition-type pop-up, entirely pathos and ethos based messaging without any semblance of logos, etc. I can imagine a news site I could totally get addicted to: one that inverts every upworthy design pattern/UX element/editorial principle, but with same core content.

#11 Saturn’s Rings (170 words, August 31, 2013)

A fun astronomy fact is the existence of unstable regions around planets where tidal forces are too strong for satellites to exist, but gravity is not strong enough to pull stuff into the central body and assimilate it. That’s how you get Saturn’s rings (I think the asteroid belt is more complicated and involves Jupiter and the Sun). Anyway, I think there’s a similar effect in social graphs. Falling into a planet is like getting sucked into an in-group. Being a satellite is like individualism. Few people can occupy the ring zone because it effectively tears your brain apart. This means you either accept a fragmented psyche or possess enormously stubborn internal mental glue. An example of this sort of zone is between the political left and right. It’s a sort of uncanny valley in the space of coherent psyches. I think weak-link hubs on social graphs are essentially “Saturn’s rings” type people. I think I might be one of them. Possibly the fragmented psyche manifests as a fox personality over hedgehog.

#12 Skepticism via Gullibility (63 words, October 30, 2013)

There are two ways to practice skepticism: doubting everything and protecting vetted certainties, and believing everything and letting the contradictions work themselves out in your head. I can’t do the former, but I am good at skepticism via gullibility. The latter is more accurately described as the state of being doubtful (doubt-full) than the former. Defensive doubt is really certainty seeking in disguise.

#13 Performed Lifestyles (84 words, November 27, 2013)

The US is increasingly full of people “performing” obsolete lifestyles in meatspace where “neighbors” and “community” barely acknowledge their existence, let alone devote enough energy to envying them. The audience has left the building. If you’re going to get off on status displays and keeping up with the Joneses, at least do it where people are watching. The only thing sadder than somebody under 40 who puts their life on display on Facebook/blogs/Twitter today is somebody who does it offline with nobody looking.

#14 Who You Are vs. What You Are (101 words, April 30, 2014)

It is more crucial to figure out what you are than to figure out who you are. Thinking of yourself as a what — objectifying yourself — is a remarkably liberating experience. ‘Who’ focuses on continuity of appreciative identity and what doesn’t change about you. ‘What’ focuses on situational and instrumental identity and is as disconnected as the story you are in. It allows you to see how others might use you and how you might enable or interfere with their intentions. ‘Who’ traps where ‘what’ frees. ‘Who’ is about being, ‘what’ is about becoming. Specifically, becoming whatever the situation requires.

In Other News

In other news from the less-brightly-lit part of my online presence, I’ve recently come back to life on Twitter for conversations and aphorism practice (personal handle @vgr, the @ribbonfarm account is still mainly for link broadcast). So that’s (once again) a good place to find me. The resurrection was partly inspired by Marc Andreessen’s  entertaining reinvention of the medium via the solo tweetstorm (a form I decided was more a spectator sport for me than one to play).

On the Quora front, I have to sadly report that despite my early enthusiasm for the site when I first signed on a few years back, I’ve basically written it off now.  The site and community treated me exceptionally well while I was active. I was rewarded with a lot of high-quality new readers, a ton of “credits” (a currency that’s actually useful for active users), a couple of consulting gigs, and some nice schwag (for making their “Top Writer” list the last couple of years). But the site seems headed in a direction I have no interest in going, though I wish them well. While I haven’t closed my account, and still check occasionally (mainly out of an OCD impulse to clear my notifications there) it’s no longer a good place to find me.

Google+ remains on my radar as a place primarily for scheduled Hangouts. For conversation, I am afraid Facebook and Twitter are really the only places to find me, besides this blog.

Patrick Atwater May 8, 2014 at 12:45 pm

So does this mean you’ve gone whole hog and finally accepted your life as a philosopher? ;)

Venkat May 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Do something over be somebody dude!

Hal Morris May 15, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Philosopher-poet I’d say or poet with philosophical tendencies. If you’ve read any academic philosophy you know it’s nothing like Venkat. But if all philosophy was as good as the title “How to do things with words” (J.L.Austen) I’d have no complaints.

PAtwater May 15, 2014 at 9:50 pm

Well yes academics don’t do philosophy anymore so much merely study it. The proceduralist science! ideology Venkat chronicles aboves is if anything more problematic in the humanities like philosophy. There the obcession with wierd norms of “production” has turned the study of “how things in general, broadly defined, hang together, broadly defined” into a narrow insular culture that often does little more than turn out self-referential legalistic memos. I mean compare the cultural impact of someone like Dewey a century ago who drew thousand plus person crowds to anyone today.

Btw for what it’s worth Venkat I meant that as a compliment for someone who dabbling in their spare time creates more interesting philosophy than many titular academic philosophers. And note a statement of being does not preclude doing something.

Cheers dudes

Kay May 16, 2014 at 11:46 pm

There the obcession with wierd norms of “production” has turned the study of “how things in general, broadly defined, hang together, broadly defined” into a narrow insular culture that often does little more than turn out self-referential legalistic memos.

Do you know a single physics book which starts with “observations” someone actually made?

If a corporate organization works despite itself why not also a university department? All of this could be entirely made up and deteriorated and by no means is it linked through “reason”, “method” and “experience” but through references, witnesses who actually made experiments – some still do, guided by the elders – colleagues in other departments who ensure that the particle accelerators do work etc. It is a business, a tradition and a society.

Who knows what it would look like if we’d start anew with some Robinson Crusoe who has 21st century math skills but no exposition to empirical science and who attempts to bootstrap it. I’d expect both convergences as well as divergences in the long run. Of course it is easier to do this with philosophy because one doesn’t need an instrumental set up. Second to it is computing, where theoretical computing science, based on an early 20th century obsession with logic and foundations can basically be neglected either.

nikete May 8, 2014 at 3:40 pm

I was by chance reading http://aeon.co/magazine/world-views/logic-of-buddhist-philosophy/ they seem to fill the anti-upworthy space. See for example this sharing of the content: https://plus.google.com/+SureshVenkatasubramanian/posts/RhZ5Kv7P8xZ

Jordan Peacock May 12, 2014 at 6:41 am

Yes, Aeon has been far more hit than miss. Some great stuff, there.

Moaaz May 9, 2014 at 8:55 am

You’re still quite a find on Quora.

Kay May 9, 2014 at 12:22 pm

I wonder why #1 and #9 are so opposed in temper? #9 expresses sympathy for civilization despite all its flaws whereas #1 denounces it on a different ground. Science! i.e. science being domesticated, institutionalized and self-referential becomes a decadent cargo cult, determined by personal insecurity, procedural blindness and so on. Doesn’t mirror this exactly tea party style contempt for an abstract and corrupt political civilization, for those guys in Washington?

Venkat May 9, 2014 at 12:49 pm

What can I say, I am an inconsistent fox :). “I am large, I contain multitudes” etc.

To reconcile, I think I’d say my sympathies lie with players and stewards of infinite games and against players and stewards of finite games. Institutions vs. anarchies is an orthogonal axis. There are finite game/infinite game institutions and finite game/infinte game anarchies. I’ll save fleshing out and quadrant-naming the 2×2 for another day. I prefer infinite-game institutionalism and grudgingly tolerate infinite-game anarchy. In the other half-plane, I think I could grudgingly tolerate finite-game anarchy but not finite-game institutionalism. Green, yellow, yellow, red.

Kay May 9, 2014 at 11:11 pm

#8. The idea that reading human life is a way of enhancing it is not as old as it might seem. On the contrary there has been always a painful awareness that reading life is not fully living it that it is a somewhat ghostly activity. The specters are longing for life they are lacking. They have no life but a view. However this view might be richer than any particular life and this is what attracts living humans to mimic ghosts. They are collectors and their library is their collection. The life of the readers might fit into a small book of their own library but this still gives the collection a Goedelian twist: it does not suffice to be “self aware” or merely human. A threshold must be surpassed to allow the primary life and the meta-life to intersect. I’m not sure I want to be a humanist on humanisms ground either but looking at it from a modern angle makes it attractive again.

Venkat May 12, 2014 at 7:43 pm

Yup. I played around with that idea in my immortality piece, with the ghosts/vampires distinction. Proust comes to mind, as well as my favorite obscure reference, Mr. Satterthwaite in the Agatha Christie Mysterious Mr. Quin stories.

Besides it’s intrinsic attraction, the other force drawing people to a ghostly life is inability to participate in the main drama due to the lack of any useful talents in that direction.

RG May 12, 2014 at 5:11 am

I think I want to be useful and thoughtful and effective and insightful. When are you starting your writing for thinking course?

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