I got it in my mind to shop for “Doppelzout Licorice” again this weekend. I know of one store that sells it, in Alexandria. It being finals, and the weekend, I decided to make a day of it and take the train there with my bike and get some essay writing done on the same errand. After I was done writing at school, I came out to a hard drizzle. Great biking weather. Oh well, I had licorice to get.
I met the first bumblebee of spring a couple of weeks ago.
We visited our parents last weekend. This is the first visit with either of them since the inauguration, which put a certain apocalyptic pall on the festivities. But today I’m writing about thought and action.
This Saturday, I proudly woke up to my weekend alarm at 7:17. After dressing and washing, I greeted mom in the kitchen. She mentioned that they could use some help moving some heavy bags in the backyard. Oh Boy, I’m helping. 30 years ago, this would have been a chore. Now, it was no big thing.
The internet is a network of nodes, from this laptop, to that cash register, to their phones. Even the refrigerator, for some reason, is an unsecured node.
Many, if not most of those nodes have a human guiding them, either in real time or in script. I am currently typing this in an application installed on my laptop, but I could be typing it in a web browser or an email. On Google Drive, updates to this revision could be shown to my collaborators in real time. Behind my application on my screen, there is a web browser with the familiar blue bar of Facebook, and a happy red number. For every increment of that number, that’s another connection, another conversation. Another reminder that I have meaning to somebody else. I was not a happy kid.
What the people at each node want is attention; traffic. They want to feel valued. People don’t go on the internet to be left alone, they go there to swim in an ocean of personalities. Some of those personalities can be overtly synthetic, as in games, but mostly the personalities are actually other people. The game, the textbox, the version controller insulates us from all the visual cues of those personalities. It insulates us from the physical reality of other people. If they are imposing, or shouting, or aggressively shaking your hand, all that is irrelevant on the internet. Their achievements are their texts, their logic and their motions in game. Spending all day making a castle in Minecraft or Second Life is a different cat than spending all day making a wall in that castle in real life. Anyone can do the former, with time and dedication, but the latter takes physical skill, strength, and stamina.
In many interfaces on the internet, timeliness is meaningless. Or at least, has less meaning. I was once buttonholed at a party by a politician and raconteur loaded with stories. At first fascinating, he became tedious after the 45th paragraph. My questions shifted from open to closed, from probing to leaving. I tend to speak too briefly with this in mind, sure my words are an imposition on the guests. The spoken word is all about attention. Who has the attention has the power. On the internet, in text or on projects, power is more verbal. But a conversation can happen over minutes or days. There is no dishonor in being silent for a day. The time afforded in these asynchronous conversations is ripe for research. There’s no reason to reply in a thread in anger or ignorance. We have the google, we shall not want.
Attention Seeking and the Spectacular Internet
Conversations on the internet are also largely in pubic view and legible. Every day we hold billions of online debates on public channels. The topics of these conversations are often raised at cocktail parties after a few gimlets. In person, at a party, we have to quit caring that we don’t know anyone there to starting running off our mouths about our most cherished and nursed beliefs. On the internet we get right to it, because as much as we don’t know them, they don’t know us either.
The other feature of internet interactions is that the relationships are entirely voluntary and publicly private. We can indulge our darkest fantasies or share our most shameful secrets, surrounded physically by those we keep the secrets from. The thrill of discovering fellow travelers when we were raised to be publicly ashamed of our wants or our beliefs is intoxicating. Internet chat excels at making these connections.
The combination of attention-seeking, thinking-before-we-respond, and privacy makes the Internet particularly appealing to introverts and outcasts. I grew up with a rich interior world, much because the exterior world of school and home found me so lacking. It would be oversimplified to say that that the internet saved me, as I had already made my way through a Master’s degree and several jobs before I got my LiveJournal account at age 32.5. For younger introverts and outcasts, for whom the internet was always there, with LiveJournal as meaningful to them as Nixon was to me, this openness and freedom would be taken for granted. Even though the internet model of communication is now ubiquitous, the three traits I outlined at the top still make it most thrilling for introverts, outcasts, and loners. On the internet, all these people can taste popularity for the first time in their lives.
This is why the internet grows violent nationalism and theocratic extremism.
Nothing gets attention like the most forbidden thoughts out there. These are even more thrilling when you aren’t immediately shunned the way you would be IRL. The internet allows us to control our associations. If we want, we can fall into a cocoon of people who agree with us completely, or compete to be more and more versions of ourselves. While this sounds like self improvement, “more and more” could be racial grievance, national hatreds, or theocratic bigotry.
Why are so many terrorists Engineers?
The largest single predictor for Jihadist terrorism is engineering. Both want the world to work in a certain way, and have little patience for deviation from norms. The largest single predictor for “alt-right” white nationalism is alienation from the liberal zeitgeist of tolerance and equal protection under the law. Both are unified by their fascination with the unthinkable. The attention-seeking model of the internet makes their views either intimately thrilling or deliciously shocking, depending on if they are among fellow travelers or not.
For millions of years our standing in society has been determined by what we did for our peers. Up until modern times, our peers were a limited and fixed set of people. Every day was a new game, and yesterday’s winners got all the best pieces today. This was excruciating for the losers, but what could they do? Everywhere else was even worse than this. Best to survive, and keep losing until you started winning, or died.
Agriculture, modernization and urbanization loosened these tribal bonds. There were more people needed to do everything, so no one could know everyone. If you were a loser in one family or trade, you could try your hand at another. Unspeakable vices, proclivities or thoughts could find refuge among some. The difficulty of finding these groups, and their censure in everyday life, made their refuge all the sweeter. The internet has made this search for fellow travelers almost instantaneous. The internet’s reward of the most uncommon and spectacular events and thoughts means that the most unspeakable thoughts will become more common. Other illegal thoughts, such as drug use or murder, will find harbor in groups that are harder to find, but may come looking for converts. Converts are good for business, after all, and the internet makes the search costless.
This is not to say that the internet is a bad thing, but that it has its costs. The automobile, among other things, allowed zoning and segregation. The railway abetted the extermination of Native American nations. Ocean-going vessels spread disease around the world in every direction, killing millions. And so on back through history. On the balance, I am better off eating Korean seaweed and typing this on a oceangoing laptop than any of us would be as mastodon-chewing Neanderthals, Denisovans, or Humans.
This last weekend, I decided to catch up on some sleep after my cats woke me up at 4:30 for their routine feeding. So at 8:30, I awake refreshed and decide to tackle the day. I briskly take the burlap off the plants out front and refill the bird feeders in back, all before coffee and cereal. But the bathroom calls. I have to put up some floating shelves and the toilet still wobbles. Don’t wanna, but hafta. So I drag the drill and the level and the bits up from the basement and then again for the extension cord to plug the drill in. I cleverly mark some holes to the level bracket on the wall, cleverly drill small pilot holes to discover 3 voids and 1 pipe, but no studs, and idiotically drill holes that are too big to grip the screw fasteners in the wall. Ruined my day. Did not want to talk about it or think about it, so I did other things until we had a chance to go to the hardware store and get better parts to make good the next day. It’s still not level due to a whole different set.
I haven’t posted here in a few months. I started this blog at the beginning of 2013, just after the re-election of Barack Obama. I become a bit of a political junkie in the sunup to the election, but never like this time, in 2016. Between a new need to research the literature for my doctorate, continuous needs to stay familiar with work, and the compelling need to stop trump, I had no surplus creation to bring to this blog. Continue reading
I was commuting to work for the 412th time when it his me: I’m bringing a house with me.
I heard about the refrigerator problem in a great book by Peter Huber, “Hard Green”*.
15 years ago, 15 boys from Saudi Arabia, 2 children from Egypt, 1 boy from Lebanon, and another from the UAE hijacked four large commercial airliners with transcontinental routes and flew them into three buildings.
They accomplished their mission of terror, which was to terrify America into acting against its own self interests. we show no real sign of making this war of terror any shorter than the 132 year long war between the English and the French. I fully expect it to last longer, actually. Neither side has a set territory they are willing to cal, their own. Neither side has a corner they can retreat to when all the blood is shed and decide at long last that this war is not worth it.
In those last 15 years, we pretty immediately gave up a lot of our freedoms as Americans, because any of us could suddenly be terrorists. Also, the best explanation given for why they attacked us was that that they hated us for our freedoms. It follows that reducing freedoms of free association, speech, habeas corpus, and due process should have made them hate us less. Alas, they haven’t.
To find the roots of global Jihad, the crusades are not a very good starting place that was strictly military, not personal. The real root of Jihad is in the colonial period, when European powers began throwing their weight around the world stage in the 1700s. This was happening at eh same time as the enlightenment and the rise of liberal democracy in the west. The irony of increasing freedoms for Europeans and decreasing freedoms for the new serfs in Asia, Africa and the Americas was not lost on the rest.
Fortunately , Islam offered a strictly egalitarian vision of salvation. The notion of equality in the eyes of Allah was a refreshing break form the hierarchy of colonial masters, their tinpot puppet dictators, and the local street thugs and police of the typical middle eastern cities like Damascus or Baghdad. Terrorism, insurgency, and guerrilla warfare is voice by another means. I guarantee the 19 boys thought they were in the right. It is a strategic error to think of them as objectively evil.
Two things have not been lost on the average mid-easterner: The place of the west in propping up these dictators, and the dual morality of the west’s enlightenment preaching of equality at home, and oppression and inequality abroad. This oppression occurs both through familiar and compliant dictators, and for the sake of favorable trade deals. This does not leave a lot of the middle east with a favorable impression of the the Shining City on the Hill. It does leave them with a favorable impression of those who could dare to poke the west in the eye, however. Think of the way we felt between September 12 and October 12: our petty squabbles irrelevant in the face of a common foe. This is the way the people of Iraq and Afghanistan saw us in the next decade. This is the way the citizens of countless villages from Mali to Malaysia see us whenever we kill a dozen or a hundred people to get at one terror suspect.
I was recently challenged to do what the US military has never done: define terms of victory. I would call victory a time when global Islam is every bit as truculent and controversial as global Judaism. Actually, given that there are about 17 million Jews in the world and over 1 billion Muslims in the world, I would already declare “Mission Accomplished” on that merit. We will know that we have won the war on terror when the people of the middle east are happy doing something other than nursing grievances against their governments, the west, or the faceless drones that kill in the name of America.
The solution to that doesn’t look like Jeffersonian Democracy for one very important reason: it wasn’t their idea or their force that liberated the people of Iraq or Afghanistan. If France invaded the British colonies in 1776 with an eye to overthrowing the British power structure, you can bet the colonists would put aside their squabbles with the crown to fight against the greater, common threat.
That is exactly what we did by treating the war of terror as a military war. We made terrorism appealing. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Daesh, and Salafists have killed way more Muslims than they have westerners in their attacks. They should be outlaws and villains among their own people, outcast and powerless. Except we keep making their cause seem just by our devoted campaign to killing terror suspects mixed in with civilian populations, supporting dictators like Al-Sisi who crush Egyptian freedom to speech, association, and assembly in the name of combating terrorism*, and invading/occupying nations like Iraq and Afghanistan.
I am an American, who values American values and taking my responsibility as a citizen of America and the west. I would rephrase my terms of victory thus: Islam should be as suspicious to Americans as Judaism is today. Americans are not terrified of Jews. There is no reason that we should be terrified of Muslims. That we are is a sure sign that the terrorists are winning.
It was the terrorist’s idea to attack us, however. If they want to quit waging war on us, they need to quit thinking it is worth their while. Every one of our military attacks, every civilian casualty, and every law against the equal rights of Muslims convinces them of the justice of their cause.
The reflexive efforts of Europeans to ban Burkinis and Hijabs only reinforces this seances of alienation; of opposition. The people walking in the street, making their living, are not the people the govern should be harassing. The government only reinforces Daesh’s case that their people are worth opposing, rising up against, and terrifying. The Koran is like any totalizing text that claims to know God, from the Vedas to Dianetics. It can bed used to justify atrocities. What we need is less interest in atrocities, not less interest in Islam.
If we are to convince the mideast that we are not their enemy, we must convince them that they have a stake in the American prospect. The American prospect must in its turn fulfill its rosy** goals as a force for freedom and prosperity, not cynical support of existing wealth and dictatorship. Terrorists hate us because they are not free to hate their own governments. If we want to in this thing we should let them fight for better governance over there, not fight us over here.
* Al-Sisi has long been the darling of Neo-Conservatives, who love the un-self-conscious power of people like him and Putin.
** Not bloody.