“A Robin Redbreast in a Cage”

Margaret Atwood in the Guardian:

“A Robin Redbreast in a cage, Puts all Heaven in a Rage,” wrote William Blake. “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” wrote John Milton, channelling God’s musings about mankind and free will in the third book of Paradise Lost. “Freedom, high-day, high-day, freedom … !” chants Caliban in The Tempest. Mind you, he is drunk at the time, and overly optimistic: the choice he is making is not freedom, but subjection to a tyrant.

We’re always talking about it, this “freedom”. But what do we mean by it? “There is more than one kind of freedom,” Aunt Lydia lectures the captive Handmaids in my 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” […]

Governments know our desire for safety all too well, and like to play on our fears. How often have we been told that this or that new rule or law or snooping activity on the part of officialdom is to keep us “safe”? We aren’t safe, anyway: many of us die in weather events – tornados, floods, blizzards – but governments, in those cases, limit their roles to finger-pointing, blame-dodging, expressions of sympathy or a dribble of emergency aid. Many more of us die in car accidents or from slipping in the bathtub than are likely to be done in by enemy agents, but those kinds of deaths are not easy to leverage into panic…

Minus our freedom, we may find ourselves no safer; indeed we may be double-plus unfree, having handed the keys to those who promised to be our defenders but who have become, perforce, our jailers. A prison might be defined as any place you’ve been put into against your will and can’t get out of, and where you are entirely at the mercy of the authorities, whoever they may be. Are we turning our entire society into a prison? If so, who are the inmates and who are the guards? And who decides?

…but all of that may seem a little old-fashioned. It harks back to the mid-20th century, with its brutalism, its strutting dictators, its mass military spectacles, its crude in-your-face uniforms. The citizen-control methods of modern western governments are much more low-profile: less jackboot than gumboot. Our leaders are applying the methods of agribusiness cattle-raising to us: ear-tag, barcode, number, sort, record. And cull, of course.

All done by thoughtful, reasonable, well-educated people. By people like ourselves – which makes it seem morally permissible. By people who are not Stalinists or fascists, but who are good, right-thinking progressives, who have only the humanest of faces. And besides, we are comfortable. So, so comfortable.

It can’t be that bad, can it? They’re as far from Robin Redbreast as one could imagine, but are naked mole-rats not satisfied with their lot in life? Are they not less anxious than we twitching primates? Guided appropriately by information technology – and by our unfortunate tendency to panic – might the naked mole-rat not be our future?

What would we lose if it were?

Two Deepities from Martin Heidegger

Daniel Dennett defines a deepity as “a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading it is true but trivial.”[1] I might add that deepities are most likely to arise when we already expect the profound, and when we might be embarrassed if we did not actually find it.

Dennett cites the sentence “Love is just a word” as a short, sweet, and totally preposterous example: “Love” may be just a word, and a four-letter word at that, but what the word denotes is clearly no such thing. Or if it is, the claim is entirely unsupported.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Martin Heidegger:

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.[2]

On the literal reading, the statement is manifestly false. On the figurative reading – reading it to say, rather, that we all make use of technology somehow, and that we would be greatly inconvenienced without it – one is inclined to shrug. Or perhaps cheer. It is in no sense a calamity or even a profundity.

And for an encore, not one paragraph later:

We ask the question concerning technology when we ask what it is.

That’s one question we might ask. Which is trivial. But is it the question? And if so, what would that mean? That all other questions aren’t questions? That would be false.

I begin to wonder, after the first page of “The Question Concerning Technology,” whether I need to go on or not.


[1] Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013, p 56.

[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology.”

Obscured by Lego

MIT is using Lego in urban planning:

MIT researchers unveiled something earlier this month that will please toddlers and serious urban planners alike. It’s a model of Dudley Square—a neighborhood in the greater Boston area—about the size of a kitchen table. The roads, sidewalks, bus stations, and buildings are all made out of Lego blocks. Wee Lego figures represent pedestrians. Laid over it all is a computer-generated projection of the actual neighborhood, filling in the details of current green space and traffic in Dudley Square.

The project is a collaboration between the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Changing Places group at the MIT Media Lab, and the Barr Foundation, all of whom are are using the new tool to test how bus-rapid transit systems could affect the city. The test includes three components, each representing the city of Boston on a different scale. There’s the Lego model of Dudley Square, another 3-D model (also made of Legos) of a Boston street, and a touchscreen interface to illustrate the potential effects of different plans on a regional scale—such as how changes to public transit might affect people’s access to jobs.

It’s important, though, not to characterize the Lego here as a planning tool. It’s nothing of the kind. The real work is happening elsewhere, by algorithm:

On the touchscreen, for example, viewers can point to a specific part of the city and have the computer tell them how many jobs they can get to from that spot via proposed public transportation. They can then fiddle with the model to see how different transit systems and route networks affect their commute.

“And then they can say, ‘Well, what if I added these new transit routes, and what if I change the frequency of the buses, and how much would it cost?’” explains Chris Zegras, professor of transportation and urban planning at MIT, who leads the project team. The information, he adds, come from publicly available data…

And what’s more accessible and familiar than Legos? “The platform lowers the the threshold of participation because every kid knows how to move a Lego piece,” says Phil Tinn, a masters student at MIT, who is also part of the team.

The CityScope project stands or falls on its data, not on those little plastic bricks.

So where is the data? It’s “publicly available,” says the publicity. I emailed the project’s contact person, who eventually pointed me to this site for app developerssome relevant documentation here – which… let’s just say it’s not as accessible as one might like. You’ll need to register for an API key and brush up on your programming.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, the Lego bricks here function as a persuasive game, one that encodes programmers’ assumptions about urban life and gives their predictions the appearance of results. The purpose of the Lego here is to make things look cute, and tidy, and… convincing. The information that powers the simulation is considerably less scrutable, which seems like it should be a bigger problem than it currently is.

The assumptions that turn data into results might be accurate. But I’m not sure that I or anyone else can tell.