Throwing sketches into the wind
Notes from the top of a hill
A year ago, I started this Substack as an experiment for sharing my writing. A major motivation for doing so was a recognition of the role that academics play in marginalising their own voices. Part of this is through getting lost in narrow niches and specialisations; part of this is through being caught in a dysfunctional neoliberal university system; part of this is through only publishing behind paywalls that render our work inaccessible to most readers. There are certainly a lot of pressures that push scholars in these directions, but there is also an odd kind of learned helplessness, where we passively accept and replicate these flawed systems. And so, this has been an attempt to try something different with no expectations of what might follow.
The image I have is of drawing sketches on top of a hill; after completing each one, letting it go into the wind, giving it a quick look, and then turning back to the blank page. Most won’t travel very far, presumably many get caught in trees and bushes, quickly disappearing from view. But perhaps with a bit of luck, some might catch a breeze and fly a bit further, potentially reaching somewhere or someone.
How successful I have been with endeavour, I don’t know. Perhaps it is just a small, inconsequential form of resistance, but I am persisting with throwing these notes into the wind. If you are reading this, thank you, I appreciate your support and attention.
I am now taking the next step, which will be releasing a series of recorded conversations, something like a podcast. This is being supported by a grant I received from Toshiba International Foundation (TIFO), which was meant to be for hosting a workshop that the pandemic effectively rendered impossible. Reflecting on my original plans, however, and I can see how they fall into some of the aforementioned problems about academics talking to themselves in walled off gardens. Fortunately, TIFO has been supportive of my redirecting the focus of the grant, and giving me the opportunity to try recording and sharing a series of conversations that I will be posting over the coming months. I am not sure exactly how this will develop, but I am thinking of it a bit like season one of a TV series, with the hope that it will go well enough to be renewed for a following season. The end results are meant to be somewhere in between what one finds in an academic meeting – which can be insightful but closed off – and the standard podcast format – which can be informative but unimaginative. The aim is for dialogue, which means moving around and between big issues and themes, rather than staying with a fixed question and answer dynamic.
My recent series of notes gives a flavour of what these discussions will cover: trying to draw some connections between the big themes animating my thought, especially in terms of issues of moral agency in the context of constraints, with the part played by digital technologies in our society. Admittedly, this is something that people like L.M. Sacasas, Alan Jacobs and many others have been doing for some time, recognising and responding to an insight that Paul Goodman voiced in 1969: ‘whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science.’ I am consciously building on and engaging with this work, with the hope that some of my sketches might draw things in a slightly different light.
I first started thinking more about science and technology when I was forced to, on the 11 March 2011 to be precise, following the earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The work I later undertook on the nuclear accident would provide a framework for thinking about how our collective experience with nuclear power could be applied to thinking about the challenges attending the further development of AI and related technologies. This was the starting point for my TIFO grant. Yet the more I reflected on these issues, the more I became aware of how they rested on many prior assumptions about the relationship between technology and society, religion and science, the natural world and the human-made one. And so, many of the people I will be talking to, and the topics we will be considering, will be engaging with these bigger issues. In doing so, these conversations should hopefully have wider resonance. To give one pertinent example, I would suggest that many of the problems related to pandemic-related policies are connected to how science is used by politicians, as well as understood by the general public. Another interesting example is with supply chain problems and related shortages forcing us to think about where all our goods and consumables come from; the hard, material realities to which any digital worlds will remain tethered. The world is littered with hints and clues; if we bother to look or listen. Yet that remains the great challenge.
In a recent note I sketched out some ideas related to sleepwalking, the origin of which was a growing sense that this is a fitting metaphor to describe our collective relationship with the digital technologies shaping our world. In one of Tolstoy’s final pieces – on the theme of insanity – he compared the condition of people with that of being asleep, needing to awaken from their dreams to regain consciousness. Instructively, he was writing during that fin de siècle period, a time of excess and extremes, progress and destruction, insight and destruction, everyone and everything careering forward:
It is difficult for people of the present age not only to understand the cause of their miserable condition, but even to grasp the fact that their condition is miserable. This is chiefly due to the principal calamity of the age which is called progress and which manifests itself in a feverish anxiety, hurry, strenuous labour directed towards the production of useless, nay, manifestly harmful, things, in maintaining a state of constant intoxication by following up ever new senseless occupations which absorb their whole time, and, above all, in a boundless conceit.
The technologies he spoke of were specific to the historical moment, but his assessment of the mood is one that feels equally fitting to our contemporary condition. The great need for Tolstoy was for people to awake, to regain their consciousness, to recognise the insanity of common sense. Part of doing so means recognising there are other ways of living and engaging with each other and our invariably imperfect world.
The notes I have been writing, along with the conversations I will be sharing, are part of my attempt to awaken my thought. I hope and trust some of the ideas presented will be of interest. Perhaps a few sketches might drift a bit further in the wind, regardless, I will keep drawing and conversing from a hill.
The first ‘Imperfect World’ conversation will be posted in the next week. This is from a series connecting the themes of ‘imperfect notes’ to thinking about the role of technology in society, supported by a grant from the Toshiba International Foundation. Previous notes in this series: one, two, three.