On Less Human Than Human: The Design Philosophy of Apple

@barnhouse I would be the first to admit that not all programmers are like that. There are probably many exceptions - I am one of them. But your experience doesn't contradict what I said. It doesn't surprise me at all that a programmer would be flattered and willing to teach a non-programmer who is interested in what they do. In fact, that's exactly what I think many programmers want.

You are right that when it comes to learning, the programming community is very generous with sharing knowledge. But when it comes to open source software projects, they are much more authoritarian and hierarchical than they appear. A common structure for open source projects is the "benevolent dictator" model. Far from being inclusive and welcoming, the openness of the code is a way of excluding people. If you would like a feature to be implemented, the code is open source, so you can program it yourself. This excludes the vast majority of people who use the software. Even if you do know how to program, if your feature is not accepted by the benevolent dictator, you are "free" to fork the code - which means the impossible task of maintaining a separate version by yourself without the dozens or hundreds of volunteers who continue to work on the original project.

The function of these so-called freedoms is to deny access by providing access that is so costly, it can't be used. This is to make it seem like someone who is denied access is really choosing it, because they are lazy or it's not that important to them. This is the same as some Republican talking points: health insurance is available on the market, the formal option exists, so if you don't have health insurance, it's because you chose to go without it.

The desire of open source advocates to "empower" the public has the opposite effect of disempowering them, because it is a refusal by software developers of the role of the expert. Doctors, academics, civil engineers, lawyers, etc., also have esoteric knowledge that is inaccessible to the lay public, and because of that, they have some responsibilities to the rest of us, to use that expert knowledge in a way that's beneficial to society. With the false open source freedoms, developers can claim that they have no responsibility to society because individuals are "empowered" to do it themselves, so there is no need for institutions or processes that ensure that the technology that is created is in the best interests of society.

Posted on November 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm 0

On Less Human Than Human: The Design Philosophy of Apple

What the focus on industrial design misses is that Apple only became great at aesthetics very recently. Subjectively, I'd say around 2006-2007. But Apple has always been great at interaction design, and I think this is what makes people fans more than the industrial design. The fact is that the high modernist aesthetic is not very popular - it is seen as sterile, impersonal, imperial, etc. The humanist aspect of Apple is in the interaction design.

Regarding openness, here's my view: some segment of the software developer demographic resents the fact that they work in an esoteric field. They feel that what they do is very important, but they are marginalized as geeks and nerds, and the public does not appreciate it. The efforts by interaction designers to make software easy to learn and to use is perceived as a way of concealing the underlying complexity, and by extension, a way of concealing the significant work of software programmers. Open platforms are necessarily designed in a way that foreground the programmer role, and that's why they are valued.

Officially, open platforms are better because they allow ordinary people the right to use their computers (or phones, etc) to their full capacity. In reality, if you don't have a 4-year computer science degree and several years of programming practice, these capacities are functionally useless to you. The formal, technical openness of platforms and software conceals the enormous gulf that separates the average person from those who have the education and experience to meaningfully contribute.

The unofficial purpose of openness is to expose the system's true complexity so that you are struck with awe at the prowess of software developers who can master it. You are encouraged to become a dabbler in programming yourself, but only as a way to learn the significance of what real programmers do.

This resentment was on full display when Steve Jobs' death was followed a week later by the death of Dennis Ritchie, who is essentially a "household name" among computer programmers. The lack of media coverage of his death compared to Jobs was a sore point for many in the developer community, who felt that he had more important contributions to the field.

Posted on November 24, 2011 at 4:09 am 0

On Jon Stewart, Stop Hurting America!

@barnhouse Eugene Volokh of the popular conservative blog Volokh Conspiracy and UCLA law professor once wrote in favor of extremely painful Iranian-style executions for certain classes of heinous crimes, essentially torturing the prisoner before killing him. He advocated amending the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause in the Constitution to allow it. Here's the link: http://bit.ly/oIzCba

He eventually "conceded error" on the basis that it would be impractical to implement this in America. In fairness, many conservative bloggers found this distasteful, but the "American Taliban" argument seems to hold here.

Posted on September 12, 2011 at 9:11 pm 0

On Jon Stewart, Stop Hurting America!

To justify the death penalty as necessary to protect society, society must have some moral goodness that makes it worth protecting. Is that moral goodness demonstrated when people are allowed to interrupt a presidential debate to whoop and holler to express their enthusiasm for executing prisoners?

Posted on September 12, 2011 at 5:02 pm 1

On Under the Bridge: The Side Benefits of Troll Culture

Ah yes, the distant bureaucrats at Facebook enforcing homogenizing standards without sensitivity to the unique ways that local communities surveil and police their members! That must be defended.

Posted on November 30, 2010 at 3:21 pm 0

On Harry Potter and the Incredibly Conservative Aristocratic Children's Club

Rowling isn't neutral on hierarchy, in her world, it's inevitable and desirable. The existence of a parallel wizard world above the conventional one in which one's gifts are recognized and encouraged is absolutely crucial to the series' appeal.

The Dursleys' treatment of Harry is explicitly derived from their shame over having magical blood in their family, in a parallel to the wizard prejudice against muggle blood in their family line. But this is a false equivalence, because wizards are the elite class. The lesson is that antagonism between groups is bad no matter who does it, which is false. Antagonism by the upper class toward the lower maintains the former's dominance. Lower class antagonism is emancipatory class struggle.

I think it's a bit weird to say that a work of not only fiction, but fantasy fiction cannot do anything but hold up a mirror to society, especially when even the author comments on it as a moral and political allegory.

Posted on November 24, 2010 at 6:07 pm 0

On Harry Potter and the Incredibly Conservative Aristocratic Children's Club

I think that's a perfectly good reading of Star Wars, and bears a passing resemblance to what Zizek says about the series in Parallax View. But all you have done is imagined the story told from the perspective of the bad guys, and the crucial question is what ethical or political assumptions are necessary for us to identify with either side. Rowling makes it extremely obvious that the Dark Arts are a metaphor for fascism, to the point of having a blonde-haired, blue-eyed wizard educated at the germanic Durmstrang Institute go on a killing rampage through Europe until he is defeated by Dumbledore in 1945. For Rowling, the possibility of "dark arts" is inherent to the practice of magic, in a parallel to the possibility of fascist domination inherent in a hierarchical class system. She starts from the premise that hierarchy is inevitable and desirable – everyone wants their specialness to be recognized, after all – and asks the question, how can we prevent this from devolving into outright domination and enslavement? Her solution is neoliberal capitalist: in society, privilege should be meritocratic, not inherited and the existence of a hierarchy should be suppressed while remaining an open secret. Beyond that, we should rely on the personal ethic of "love, the most powerful form of magic" to ensure that the resulting invisible, unaccountable elite rule is benevolent. But notice how this supposed benevolence is absent when Harry faces muggles like the Dursleys who do not respect his superiority. Here, Rowling solicits our contempt, and the difference between Harry and Voldemort is minimal: Voldemort hates muggles in general, Harry only hates them when they forget their proper place in the hierarchy.

The possibility of radical egalitarian politics where hierarchy is not desirable is non-existent in her world – it's as if we can imagine all sorts of amazing magical powers and fantasy creatures, but a more egalitarian society? No, sorry, that's just too unrealistic.

Posted on November 24, 2010 at 4:51 pm 0

On Harry Potter and the Incredibly Conservative Aristocratic Children's Club

I have slightly different interpretation, that Rowling's world represents a conflict between traditional aristocratic privilege assigned via birth (born to the right family) vs. capitalist meritocratic privilege assigned via... birth (winning the genetic lottery). What we can read in Harry Potter is that meritocracy is an affirmation of a hierarchical class system, it only means that you want it to be organized scientifically according to who has talent, perseverance, etc. The central political conflict of the series is the split in the wizarding community over whether the small percentage of muggles who demonstrate magical talent should be allowed to enter the ranks of the elites. That the anti-muggle side is represented as cruel, callous and immoral while the pro-muggle side is benevolent and wise only serves to legitimize their rule. Another disturbing aspect is how the benevolent rulers systematically conceal their existence, almost as if they are trying to avoid popular resentment from forming and threatening their rule. This is confirmed by the fact that, in the books, the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy that hide the wizarding world from the muggles was enacted in circumstances essentially similar to the French Revolution. Therefore it's possible to read the narrative as a kind of conservative alternate history where the aristocracy reacted to the rise of democracy by making themselves invisible and continuing to rule in secret, and this is called capitalism. The cynicism here is quite breathtaking: the elites publicly pretend to live in an egalitarian, democratic society, but they control everything behind the scenes. It's tempting to write the other side of the story: the muggles know of the existence of the magical elite, but they pretend not to know because they believe they will be chosen to join them.

We can look at this through the lens of Hegel's master-slave dialectic: the master is dependent on the slave for recognition, and lords it over him, building impressive castles and so on, because he needs an Other to confirm that he really is a master. Rowling's insight is that this is ultimately what undoes the elite class, because it generates popular resentment who then revolt. So the idea is that the good wizards are somehow free of this dialectic, they have high self-esteem, don't need recognition and don't need to dominate and rule the muggles.

For kids and adults who read the books, the political implications are that they are solicited to endorse the hierarchical status quo. As a reader, it neutralizes your alienation from the system to reinforce the system, by flattering you and reframing your alienation so it's not an effect of domination, instead its your specialness gone unrecognized. The flaw in the system is that it doesn't see that your rightful place is among the elites, so rather than finding solidarity with other alienated individuals and overthrowing the system, you end up in favor of the existence of the hierarchy in general, only taking issue with the fact that you and your unique gifts are unfairly excluded from it. But this part is what makes Rowling's solution to the master-slave dialectic false. The reader who identifies with Harry Potter desperately craves recognition of his or her specialness from the Other, symbolized by the owl arriving with a message from Hogwart's that he/she has been chosen. The other side of this coin, of recognition of one's superiority, is the essence of the fascist Voldemortian wizard supremacist ideology.

Rowling's solution is that the elites can demonstrate their superiority through high-minded benevolence towards the lower classes instead of dominating them, a kind of noblesse oblige, as in Dumbledore's belief that love is the most powerful form of magic, which Voldemort was unable to see. But historically this sort of thing has turned out to be false ideological screen that only legitimizes domination, so someone should rewrite the story to show that Voldemort and Dumbledore are secretly working together to dominate the muggle world.

Posted on November 23, 2010 at 9:51 pm 4

On Jon Stewart's March Toward False Consensus

I was getting all ready to disagree with this, but now I think she makes a decent point, that the Jon Stewart idea of politics is that it's just pragmatic, rational problem solving and administration - we all agree issue X is a problem, so let's sit down and find out the best way of solving it, ideological debate is just yelling past each other. The problem with this is that, yeah, it's sort of anti-democratic, because it treats politics as what goes on between politicians. Maybe Stewart thinks ideological debate ought to happen only during campaign season, but that gets a little slippery. What happens when Bush wants warrantless wiretapping and legal torture, should he be able to shut down ideological debate by saying "let's save it for the campaign trail"?

But, the last paragraph of the post doesn't seem to follow at all from the rest. If all of that is true, then the Daily Show has *never* been disruptive, Stewart has always argued for moderation, reaching across the aisle, putting aside ideology, etc. What's disruptive about that?

Posted on September 21, 2010 at 4:12 pm 0