“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.

A Parallel.

“[T]he most acute forms of the modern existential crisis are appearing today at the margin of a civilization of prosperity… One sees there rebellion, disgust, and anger manifesting not in a wretched and oppressed subproletariat but often in young people who lack nothing, even in millionaires’ children. .. Blank despair can occur right up to the finishing-post of socio-economic messianism [accompanied by] the sense that something is still missing.” – Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger (1961)

“Some ten years ago, in the midst of the rebellion on our campuses, an article appeared in the New York Times Magazine. It was written by a Yale psychologist, and it title was a quotation from one of the student leaders. That title was ‘You Don’t Know What Hell Is Like Unless You Were Raised in Scarsdale.’ Now, Scarsdale is one of our most affluent and sophisticated suburbs. It is also, so far as young people are concerned, one of the most tolerant and ‘permissive’ places in America. Nothing is too good or too expensive for the children of Scarsdale.” – Irving Kristol, The Neoconservative Persuasion (1975)

On Sleep

A lot of political theory takes the family as fundamental: people having sex and producing more people is how society re-creates itself, which surely has to be important, right?

Of course the assertion is true, but how important is it? Specifically, how relevant is it to our political institutions, particularly when compared to other aspects of human biology?

Consider sleep. For several hours every day, even the strongest and cleverest people will become unconscious, whether they want to or not. During that time, even many of the weakest and least clever will be able to kill them. Easily. Not only that, but aggressors could perpetrate this act far more often than any biologically reproductive couple might be able to produce babies.

If we’re going to try to boil down political institutions to some kind of biological degree zero, why settle on sex? Why isn’t sleep the (rhetorical?) reason that we have society?

Low-Information Voters Always Want More.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent, Hillary-induced fad for increasing the number of low-information voters. It’s been assisted powerfully by Ezra Klein, who wants you to know, no matter how smart you may be, that he personally knows even better than you do. (One of Klein’s peculiar talents seems to be the capacity to say how very much smarter he is than everyone else, and to make a certain class of information consumer feel really good about it.)

But I want to know how this policy might play out in the real world. What are the things that experts of all ideological kinds generally dislike, and that low-information voters generally love? If we increase the number of low-information voters, we can expect to get more of exactly these sorts of policies, and less of the policies on which there is an expert consensus at odds with the typical low-information view. (The impact in other policy areas will likely be a wash; on many of them, there are high- and low-information voters on both sides. Adding more low-information voters won’t matter much, because they’ll tend to cancel each other out.)

Bryan Caplan has already shown in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter that voters of all sorts routinely make serious economic errors, errors that prevent them, even, from acting in ways that would economically benefit themselves: They oppose free trade, even though it’s good for the economy and doesn’t destroy American jobs. They oppose immigration, even though the very same considerations apply. They are biased toward make-work policies that ultimately end up impoverishing workers. And on and on.

Now, it may be that we would not be comfortable with a franchise so narrow that it only included those with a basic competence in economics. Still, it should be said that only a basic competence is needed to address stylized positions outlined above and reject them. This the vast majority of professional economists has already done. We need not throw out democracy. We could say, instead, let the people vote, and perhaps they’ll learn something.

But what price will we pay as they do? It’s not simply an economic one. I’m looking for example at this month’s Cato Unbound, which is a particularly gross example of expert consensus confronting the desires of the low-information voter. From the lead essay by Galen Baughman:

Civil commitment is the legal practice of detaining individuals who are suffering from acute symptoms of severe mental illness so that they can be treated, often in a secured environment. In this model, the state is providing care for individuals who are unable to care for themselves, while protecting the public from individuals who are dangerous due to their psychiatric condition. Sounds reasonable, right? Over the past 25 years, however, new laws have been created, designed to use the traditional model of civil commitment as a way to create secondary prison sentences for people who have already paid their debt to society, dramatically expanding the power of the state and blurring the lines between civil and criminal law…

These new civil commitment laws differ from the traditional model of involuntary commitment in several key ways. First, traditionally the person subjected to civil commitment is not targeted after the completion of their prison sentence as a means to tack on additional incarceration to that which the court had already meted out – instead, the person who has committed an offense is either considered culpable for a crime and therefore punished in our criminal justice system or found to be in need of treatment and diverted to the civil system. The new civil-criminal hybridized version of civil commitment is designed to imprison the person again under a civil “sentence” after completing their criminal sentence.

In short, pre-crime is not some dystopian future. It’s present-day America. My charge is as follows: We got here because low-information voters demanded it, and despite the vigorous dissent of the experts.

I should say that this was a highly unusual issue of Cato Unbound. Typically I strive to stir up an argument among experts. A high-level intellectual exchange, with reasonable and well-informed points all around. The end product is ideally a document that, if read attentively, will leave everyone a little more uncertain. Uncertainty is where I think we all very often belong, even if it’s uncomfortable, and even if we don’t usually spend much time there. Perhaps we should.

I totally failed this month. I just couldn’t start an argument. On civil commitment of sex offenders, the experts are solidly united: It’s a terrible idea. It’s cruel. It’s not scientifically grounded. It doesn’t help them. It doesn’t protect victims. (It may even generate victims, given the conditions in our prisons.) And it doesn’t promise to reintegrate offenders into society, because the typical length of “treatment” is forever. In short, it’s prison in Groucho glasses. David Prescott, Eric Janus, and Amanda Pustilnik have been particularly incisive in supporting these claims, and I suggest that you read them.

That’s what we can get, I think, when we follow the low-information consensus: a moral catastrophe, vigorously opposed by the experts, and it barely even registers on the public’s radar. The public is getting what it wants, so why should it care? (Traffic this month at Cato Unbound has been crap, incidentally.)

The costs take the form of shattered lives. Baughman writes:

Alex [not his real name] is 25 now. He sits in the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, receiving treatment in a secured setting – a prison masquerading as a treatment facility – because when he was 14 he had sex with his girlfriend, who was 12. The state prosecuted Alex in adult court after he shared with his therapist that he had had his first sexual experience with another kid in his school, a crime under Virginia law because of the age of the younger party. Alex was in foster care at the time. He went to a prison for youth and was released 4 years later, shortly after his 18th birthday. Since he was now on the public sex offender registry and ineligible for any services because he had aged out of the foster care system, Alex found himself homeless and unable to keep a job. In Virginia, those required to register as a sex offender must also list their employers, and the address of their place of work is also displayed on the public sex offender registry, which effectively means no one would hire him. Alex’s probation officer violated him for not having suitable housing, his probation was revoked by a court, and he was sent back to prison – this time an adult prison – for 2.5 years. At the end of his sentence, the Attorney General’s office in Virginia filed a petition to civilly commit Alex as a sexually violent predator.

It sounds good, particularly to low-information voters, when a candidate is tough on crime. How tough do we need to be? Tougher. In the realm of insufficient data, the answer is always tougher, until one day we’re punishing crimes that haven’t even happened yet.

It never enters such a voter’s mind that one can be so tough on crime as to completely gut the civil liberties protections to which all people should be entitled. (And let us be frank for a moment: It may never enter the low-information voter’s mind that specific, time-honored civil liberties protections even exist in the first place.)

Voters enact policies like these not because they have good information, but because they have strongly felt values — with precious little else to go on. What will we get when we pander to values, without a thought to the necessary trade-offs? More. Always more. Of something.

How tough do we need to be on crime? Tougher. Always tougher. And the template carries over into so many other policy areas:

How strong should our national defense be? Stronger. Always stronger.
How clean should our water be? Cleaner. Always cleaner.
How much should the rich pay in taxes? More. Always more. (Or, on the other side: Always less.)

The same might be said, of course, of voting. How much voting do we want? More. Always more!

There’s nary a trade-off in sight, at least in the happy, self-contained world of the low-information voter. Even so, the real world is full of trade-offs, and the mark of an expert is to consider, at some point, whether we could do with a little less of this or that, and what we would get in return for giving it up. Bearing in mind: “a little less” need not denigrate any of the values expressed above. Let criminals be punished and suffer; let us keep invaders out, at great pains to them; let us have clean water and even a progressive income tax if we must. Let us consider, though, that there will be trade-offs, and we need to know what they are before we can make an informed decision.

The implications for democracy are huge, of course, and they run toward the unflattering. In thinking about these matters it becomes understandable why some are so strongly drawn toward neoreactionary politics, which would concede that democracy has been a giant failure from the outset. We need not agree with this conclusion to find that even beyond partisanship, democracy regularly fails in ways that we can all easily describe. What then to do?