As everyone now knows the UK voted to leave the European Union today. I happen to be in London this week and so have been paying close attention to the vote and having many conversations with family, friends, and colleagues about how it came to this and what it means for the future. I’m no economist or pundit, so I’ll leave those takes to the professionals, but I wanted to take a minute to share a few thoughts on the obvious parallels between what’s happening here in the UK and with Trump in the US.
The two most enlightening things I’ve read about Trump happen to come from FiveThirtyEight. The first, published at the end of April, spells out the difference between what we think of as “normal America” and what the reality actually is:
We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. Those notions might be based on our own nostalgia or our hopes for the future. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists. I used the same method to measure which places in America today are most similar demographically to America in 1950, when the country was much whiter, younger and less-educated than today. Of course, nearly every place in the U.S. today looks more like 2014 America than 1950 America. But the large metros that today come closest to looking like 1950 America are Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Ogden and Provo, in Utah; and several in the Midwest and South.
Normal America, the article explains, is actually best represented (by similarity to American population across “age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity”) in cities like New Haven, Connecticut or Tampa, Florida. That means when people say that politicians or elites are out of touch with normal America, it may be true, but that’s not because normal America is still small-town America. We are a more diverse, older, and more educated country than we were 50 years ago.
The second bit, also from FiveThirtyEight, is about why Hispanics and other minority groups are more optimistic about America than average Americans:
But for many non-whites, the pattern [not very concerned about the present, pessimistic about the future] is the opposite: They are concerned about the present but optimistic about the future. In the Pew poll, Hispanics were sober about their immediate financial circumstances — 40 percent said their finances were in good shape, compared with 43 percent for the public at large — but they see brighter days ahead. More than 70 percent expect their children to be better off than they are. Previous polls have found similar results for other minority groups: According to 2014 data from the General Social Survey, three-quarters of blacks and Hispanics expect their children to enjoy a higher standard of living than they do, compared to just half of whites. A poll commissioned by The Atlantic last fall found that blacks, Hispanics and Asians were far more likely than whites to report that “the American Dream is alive and well.”
Put those things together and what you get is clear: “Make America Great Again” actually means make America look more like it did in 1960. The problem, of course, is that America was a pretty bad place for a lot of Americans at that point (women, minorities, and LGBT to name a few). But most people don’t remember that, because nostalgia is broken and doesn’t work that way. From a 2013 New York Times article on nostalgia:
Happy memories also need to be put in context. I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements, which they saw as destroying the harmonious world they remembered.
But others could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others. Some white people recognized that their happy memories of childhood included a black housekeeper who was always available to them because she couldn’t be available to her children.
Put it all together and you have a confluence of circumstances that tells a pretty good story for how both the US and the UK have gotten to now and what it really means to make a country great again. Of course, like others, I don’t have answers of how to combat this, but understanding what we’re up against is the first step.
I really like this story of the unanticipated effects of the printing press from Steven Johnson:
Once people started to read, and once books were in circulation, very quickly the population of Europe realized that they were farsighted. This is interestingly a problem that hadn’t occurred to people before because they didn’t have any opportunity to look at tiny letter forms on a page, or anything else that required being able to use your vision at that micro scale. All of a sudden there is a surge in demand for spectacles. Europe is awash in people who were tinkering with lenses, and because of their experimentation, they start to say, “Hey, wait. If we took these two lenses and put them together, we could make a telescope. And if we take these two lenses and put them together, we could make a microscope.” Almost immediately there is this extraordinary scientific revolution in terms of understanding and identifying the cell, and identifying the moons of Jupiter and all these different things that Galileo does. So the Gutenberg press ended up having this very strange effect on science that wasn’t about the content of the books being published.
As I’ve established here, I’m a big McLuhan fan, and this is pretty good evidence that the effect of the medium is often much more important than the specific message.
I’m a sucker for all quotes about how one thing or another was going to ruin society. Most of these are about media, but I couldn’t help myself when I saw this one about curiosity from an article on The American Scholar:
Specific methods aside, critics argued that unregulated curiosity led to an insatiable desire for novelty—not to true knowledge, which required years of immersion in a subject. Today, in an ever-more-distracted world, that argument resonates. In fact, even though many early critics of natural philosophy come off as shrill and small-minded, it’s a testament to Ball that you occasionally find yourself nodding in agreement with people who ended up on the “wrong” side of history.
I actually think it would be pretty great to collect all these in a big book … A paper book, of course.
I really love this quote which came from an article Umberto Eco wrote about Wikileaks by way of this very excellent recap of a talk by the head of technology at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum:
I once had occasion to observe that technology now advances crabwise, i.e. backwards. A century after the wireless telegraph revolutionised communications, the Internet has re-established a telegraph that runs on (telephone) wires. (Analog) video cassettes enabled film buffs to peruse a movie frame by frame, by fast-forwarding and rewinding to lay bare all the secrets of the editing process, but (digital) CDs now only allow us quantum leaps from one chapter to another. High-speed trains take us from Rome to Milan in three hours, but flying there, if you include transfers to and from the airports, takes three and a half hours. So it wouldn’t be extraordinary if politics and communications technologies were to revert to the horse-drawn carriage.
This is three years old, but I just ran across it and it’s just as relevant today as it was then. Apparently in response to Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, Steven Pinker wrote a great op-ed about how technology isn’t really ruining all that stuff that technology is constantly claimed to be ruining. A snippet:
The effects of consuming electronic media are also likely to be far more limited than the panic implies. Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.
Coming back from the Brooklyn Home Depot today I went to look up the word collision. My mom, who I was in the car with, mentioned it looked funny spelled (correctly) on a sign and we were checking that it was actually “LL” and not “SS”. I Googled it and found out it was correct, but it was the second result that caught my eye for the 1960 New York mid-air collision. I had never heard of it and neither had my dad, who grew up in the city (I’m assuming it only turned up because I was driving through Park Slope at the time).
Anyway, turns out in 1960 two planes collided over Staten Island and one, the larger of the two, was able to continue flying until finally crashing down in Park Slop about 6 blocks from where I live. Scouting New York has an excellent account and follow up with comments by folks who remember the accident that had one survivor: An 11-year-old boy who died the following day.
The Times has an excellent little video with stills and voiceover from the reports of the day. All around a crazy scene.
Although I must admit I’ve never actually made it all the way through a David McCullough book, I really enjoyed this interview with him and particularly this explanation of his writing process (with a typewriter):
I love putting paper in. I love the way the keys come up and actually print the letters. I love it when I swing that carriage and the bell rings like an old trolley car. I love the feeling of making something with my hands. People say, But with a computer you could go so much faster. Well, I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I should go slower. I don’t think all that fast. They say, But you could change things so readily. I can change things very readily as it is. I take a pen and draw a circle around what I want to move up or down or wherever and then I retype it. Then they say, But you wouldn’t have to retype it. But when I’m retyping I’m also rewriting. And I’m listening, hearing what I’ve written. Writing should be done for the ear. Rosalee reads aloud wonderfully and it’s a tremendous help to me to hear her speak what I’ve written. Or sometimes I read it to her. It’s so important. You hear things that are wrong, that call for editing.
Makes me want to buy a typewriter.
Like many, I’ve been reading everything I can find since I heard that Aaron Swartz had committed suicide. He’s not someone I knew, but certainly someone I paid attention to and read pretty frequently. He also had one of the best definitions of blogging I read:
So that’s what this blog is. I write here about thoughts I have, things I’m working on, stuff I’ve read, experiences I’ve had, and so on. Whenever a thought crystalizes in my head, I type it up and post it here. I don’t read over it, I don’t show it to anyone, and I don’t edit it — I just post it. … I don’t consider this writing, I consider this thinking.
Anyway, of all this stuff I’ve been reading about the case, his impact on the world and everything else, I found this description of where he, and more broadly cultural activist hackers, fit into the historical context very interesting:
I knew Swartz, although not well. And while he was special on account of his programming abilities, in another way he was not special at all: he was just another young man compelled to act rashly when he felt strongly, regardless of the rules. In another time, a man with Swartz’s dark drive would have headed to the frontier. Perhaps he would have ventured out into the wilderness, like T. E. Lawrence or John Muir, or to the top of something death-defying, like Reinhold Messner or Philippe Petit. Swartz possessed a self-destructive drive toward actions that felt right to him, but that were also defiant and, potentially, law-breaking. Like Henry David Thoreau, he chased his own dreams, and he was willing to disobey laws he considered unjust.
I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately, and one of them is New Yorker’s Out Loud. The last episode featured a great interview with Daniel Mendelsohn, a literary critic. In the podcast he mostly talks about the books that inspired him to become a writer, but then, towards the end, he talks a bit about the job of a cultural critic and I thought what he had to say was interesting enough to transcribe and share:
We now have these technologies that simulate reality or create different realities in very sophisticated and interesting ways. Having these technologies available to us allows us to walk, say, through midtown Manhattan but actually to be inhabiting our private reality as we do so: We’re on the phone or we’re looking at our smartphone, gazing lovingly into our iPhones. And this is the way the world is going, there’s no point complaining about it. But where my classics come in is I am amused by the fact our word idiot comes from the Greek word idiotes, which means a private person. It’s from the word idios, which means private as opposed to public. So the Athenians, or the Greeks in general who had such a highly developed sense of the readical distinction between what went on in public and what went on in private, thought that a person that brought his private life into public spaces, who confused public and private was an idiote, was an idiot. Of course, now everybody does this. We are in a culture of idiots in the Greek sense. To go back to your original question, what does this look like in the long run? Is it terrible or is it bad? It’s just the way things are. And one of the advantages about being a person who looks at long stretches of the past is you try not to get hysterical, to just see these evolving new ways of being from an imaginary vantage point in the future. Is it the end of the world? No, it’s just the end of a world. It’s the end of the world I grew up in when I was thinking of how you behaved in public. I think your job as a cultural critic is to take a long view.
I obviously thought the idiot stuff was fascinating, but also was interested in his last line about the job of a cultural critic, which, to me, really reflected something that struck me about McLuhan in the most recent biography of his by Douglas Coupland:
Marshall was also encountering a response that would tail him the rest of his life: the incorrect belief that he liked the new world he was describing. In fact, he didn’t ascribe any moral or value dimensions to it at all–he simply kept on pointing out the effects of new media on the individual. And what makes him fresh and relevant now is the fact that (unlike so much other new thinking of the time) he always did focus on the individual in society, rather than on the mass of society as an entity unto itself.