Consciousness Rising

The subtitle of this post should be "or, how the internet learned about intersectionality," but while I love a good pretentious academic title, I don't think that's particularly representative of my intent here.

Sometime in the last 5 or 10 years, the popular discourse on justice on the internet learned about intersectionality. Which is great. Intersectionality, generally is the notion that a single identity isn't sufficient to explain an individuals social experience particularly vis a vis privilege. Cool.

This is really crucial and really important for understanding how the world works, but for totally understandable and plain ways. People have a lot of different identities which lead to many different experiences, perspectives, and understandings. All of these identities, experiences, perspectives, and understandings interact with each other in a big complex system

Therefore our analysis of our experiences, thought, understandings, and identities, must explore identities (ET AL) not only on their own terms, but in conversation with each other and with other aspects of experience.

Intersectionality is incredibly important. It's also incredibly useful as a critical tool because it makes it possible for our thought to reflect actual lived experiences and the way that various aspects of experience interact to create culture and society. [1]

[1]A lot of arguments in favor of intersectional analysis and perspectives are political, and raise the very real critique that analysis that is not intersectional tends to recapitulate normative cultural assumptions. I'd argue, additionally, that intersectionality is really the only way to pull apart experiences and thoughts and understand fundamentally how culture works. It's not just good politics, but required methodology for learning about our world and our lives.

While intersectionality is an interesting and important concept that could certainly support an entire blog post, I'm more interested, the genealogy of this concept in the popular critical discourse.

I know that I read a lot about intersectionality in college (in 2004-2007), I know that the papers I read were at least 10 years old, and I know that intersectionality wasn't an available concept to political conversations on the internet at the time in the way that it is now. [2]

Concepts take a long time, centuries sometimes, to filter into general awareness, so the delay itself isn't particularly notable. Even the specific route isn't that interesting in and for itself. Rather, I'm interested in how a concept proliferates and what is required for a concept to become available to a more popular discourse.

If interesectionality was an available concept in the academic literature, what changes and evolutions in thought--both about intersectionality, but in the context--needed to happen for that concept to become available more broadly.

[2]I admit that this post is based on the conceit that there was a point when the popular discourse (on the internet) was unaware of intersectionality followed linearly by another point where the concept of intersectionality was available generally. This isn't how the dissemination of concepts into discourses work, and I'm aware that I've oversimplified the idea somewhat. This is more about the process of popularization.

I think it's particularly exciting to trace the recent intelectual history of a specific concept in discourse, because it might give us insight into the next concepts that will help inform our discourse and things we can do to facilitate this process in the future for new concepts and perspectives.

As we understand the history of this proliferation, we can also understand its failures and inefficiencies and attempt to deploy new strategies that resolve those shortcomings.

Isolation and Ideology Change

Following the 2016 election my father, who is a much more active participant in Facebook than I, said something to the effect of "don't mourn; organize. I had a long winded post on the topic of 'don't celebrate; organize', but the bottom line is the same: organize."

I'd append to this just to make clear that I'm of the opinion that self care, survival and the care for and survival of our communities is crucial. Which sometimes means celebration and sometimes means mourning and sometimes means a quiet night at home with the and friends.

At the 2016 New England Sacred Harp Convention a friend of mine gave a lesion for those members of the community who were unable to attend because of profound illness which was delivered in conjunction with a lession in memorial for members of the community who had died in the last year. These lessons are a common and enduring tradition of Sacred Harp conventions.

The lesson focused on isolation, and the ways that illness, care-giving (and indeed dying, death, and grief) are isolating. But it went on to discuss the ways that we combat isolation, through connections to people and communities, and by the project of meaning making.

Connection and meaning making are related, of course, and are central to why I sing. I mean I also enjoy the music, but it's the connection with other singers, and the ways that our practices in and around singing are about making meaning.

I heard this almost 6 weeks ago, but I keep coming back to this in a number of different contexts. There's a lot in the world that either directly isolates, or provokes feelings of isolation.

Bottom line, the way that we can fight isolation is by forming connections and by working to create meaning in our lives.

I was talking on Wednesday with a couple of friends, one of who was most distraught at the seeming impossibility of progress. "What can I do? There are all these people, and I'm not sure anything I can do will have any effect." I think this distress is incredibly common and reasonable, given the size of the task and the amount of time any person has in the world.

The task of effecting change is huge on its own, but the project is compounded by its scale: there are a lot of people in the world and a lot of different views. It's difficult to even know where to begin.

I think fundamentally this kind of distress is about the isolation created by the experience of difference, by the size of the task.

There are tools that we can use for managing and fighting our own isolation: building connections to each other, creating meaning in our lives and in our social spheres.

This is also, interestingly, these are the same methods that we use to organize, to build consciousness, and to change ideologies.

On Wednesday, I said, that (for the most part) people are just people: the way that thought changes is through meaningfulrelationships, conversation, and through additional opportunities to make meaning and to form connections in a larger context.

Seek out people and experiences that are different. Stay safe. Listen. Learn. Talk. Teach. Share your experiences with people who are like you. Work hard. Take breaks. Remember that people are, for the most part, just people, and we're all alone in this together. All of us.

Whiteness and Diversity

This post is a follow up to my earlier post on diversity and representation In short, while I think it's great that we're beginning to talk and write about race and representation in our fiction and field, I think we [1] need to expand our analysis of whiteness.

Whiteness in Science Fiction

I'm still working on figuring out what this means, and I'm sorry that I haven't developed my thinking sufficiently to be more clear on this. In light of that here are a collection of my thoughts on representation:

  • Whiteness is multiple and I think it's possible (and important) to depict whiteness and white characters critically and without recapitulating normalization. At the same time, it's important to avoid falling victim to a lot of the normalization to which uncritical representations of racial diversity often fall pray.
  • The theory around race and representation must deal with issues around assimilation. More diversity is useful, but to move forward on issues of representation, the field needs to better understand the process of assimilation. I want to see stories that help us unpack assimilation.
  • Whiteness is complex and a major problem with stories that "don't do race well," is not just that the characters aren't explicitly of color, but that whiteness isn't portrayed very well. This is part of the struggle of privilege, but not only does science fiction need to be better about diversity and representation of non-white characters, but we the thinking on whiteness needs to continue to evolve apace.

Diversity and Quotas

Discussions about diversity and representation in fiction often lead the under-informed to ask "So what, do you want to impose some sort of quota system? Does that mean diversity is more important than quality?"

The answer is almost always no.

I'd also like to point out that this is one of those cases where whiteness and systematic bias conspire to define "quality," in unuseful ways. But this is another argument for another time.

The canonical answer is: there's a great deal of amazing work written by people of color and a lot of great fiction that incorporates and addresses the experiences of people of color. This is great, and if we've learned anything in the last couple of years, it's that if you look for this work it's there. The real challenge revolves around cultivating that work so that there's more of it, and promoting [2] that work so that there's a large audience.

[1]The science fiction writing/reading/editing community.
[2]Promoting and marketing literature is by no means a solved problem under any conditions.

Representation and Race Futurism

I had an item on my list of blog posts to write for a couple of years to write something reflecting on "RaceFail," and finally a gave up, because I didn't want to write a book, I didn't know what to say, and I was more interested in the actual discourse itself than finding the "side of right," in a conversation that was both way too simple and way too complex all at once.

So rather than reboot the conversation, which has ended in some senses and continues on in others, I want to start writing a bit here about race and representation in fiction, but also discussing the way that conversations transpire online. Here's part one. I'll figure out some way to index them all together once they're posted and assembled.

I wrote this scene a while back where a character who grew up on a small [1] outpost visits a space ship. Given relativistic space travel, from the character's perspective, the crew of the space ship are 750 years old or so, despite being in their subjective early forties. That means the character's 31st-great-grandparents (roughly) were cousins of the people he's looking at.

He notices a few things: the people on the ship are all taller than he is and also taller than everyone from the outpost. He also notices that there's more more skin tone variation amongst the people on the ship than there is among the people in the outpost.

There are a bunches of problems with this story. Including the fact that its not finished and that there are parts of the execution that I think need a lot work. But this part, I quite like. For this story (and I think in general,) I've drawn the following conclusion:

  • Race is temporally constrained. We understand racial difference and our own racial experiences in terms of our current reality. This changes.
  • The aspects of race which are the result of lineage (skin color, bone structure,) are likely to change over time as lineages continue. We can assume that these kinds of changes will be pronounced in smaller populations over longer periods of time.

To a large extent the tension between the "outpost people" and the "ship people" is the core of the conflict in this story. I've been thinking in this story about the impact of colonialism (and race as a result) on societies and political outlook. It's almost certainly not perfect, but I enjoy the possibilities, the story has its moments, and I'm finding the theory building productive.

I'm circling around a point: in-story diversity, particularly, diversity that reflects late 20th/early 21st century notions of difference alone cannot further thought race and racism. In other words, diversity is not criticism. There are many ways to productively further the discussion of difference in (genre) fiction, lets not stop with representation.

I'll be writing more about this in the future. Comments are very welcome!

[1]Under a billion people.

Ideology and Systems Administration

I do some work as a systems administrator, both personally and for friends. And I work with a lot of admins, but I don't really think of myself as a sys admin. Though you may feel free to argue the point. Nevertheless, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the way systems administrators think and work. This makes sense: as my professional work is written for entry level systems administrators and I work with a bunch of admins. But I think it's probably bigger than that. This post is part of an ongoing thread on dialectical futurism about systems administration and its implications.

The best systems administrators are unnoticed and unremarkable. When a system is working smoothly, it works and no one has reason to think about who is maintaining the system. Thus, to be a better systems administrator you have to become confident in your abilities (leading to a somewhat grounded stereotype in arrogance) and you have to be resistant to change.

For example, take this slide deck of a systems administration problem. It presents a thorny sysadmin problem where the chmod utility (which is used to render files executable) has been marked unexecutable. The presentation goes through a number of different methods of fixing this, however (spoiler alert) the final solution is "the easy fix is to reboot the machine and fix it then (or something), and the machine's running so there isn't a problem." While this is a funny example, I think it's also largely a true example of the way systems administrators approach and resolve problems.

I've seen this kind of "well it' may not be perfect, but it works," logic as well as the "is it worth building something new and different that might be better?" reasoning at work, and I think it's probably apparent in all sorts of free software and other discussion forums where sys admins discuss things.

Thus, I wonder: Does this ideology extend beyond the administration of systems and into other spheres of life and thinking? About technology? About politics and economics? I'm not sure, though I'm of course inclined to say yes, and I think it's something that requires some deliberation, and further thinking.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and figuring out the best way to answer this question.

Onward and Upward!

The Overhead of Management

Every resource, every person, every project, every machine you have to manage comes with an ongoing cost. This is just as true of servers as is it is of people who work on projects that you're in charge of or have some responsibility for, and while servers and teammates present very different kinds of management challenges, working effectively and managing management costs across contexts is (I would propose) similar. Or at least similar enough to merit some synthetic discussion.

There's basically only one approach to managing "systems administration costs," and that's to avoid it as much as possible. This isn't to say that sys admins avoid admining, but rather we work very hard to ensure that systems don't need administration. We write operating systems that administer themselves, we script procedures to automate most tasks as much as possible (the Perl programing language was developed and popularized for use of easing the administration of UNIX systems,) and we use tools manage larger systems more effectively.

People, time, and other resources cannot be so easily automated, and I think in response there are two major approaches (if we can create a somewhat false dichotomy for a moment:)

On the one hand there's the school of thought that says "admit and assess management costs early, and pay them up front." This is the corporate model in many ways. Have (layers upon layers of) resources dedicated to managing management costs, and then let this "middle management" make sure that things get done in spite of the management burden. On servers this is spending a lot of time choosing tools, configuring the base system, organizing the file system proactively, and constructing a healthy collection of "best practices."

By contrast, the other perspective suggests that management costs should only be paid when absolutely necessary. make things, get something working and extant and then if something needs to be managed later, do it then and only as you need. On some level this is inspiring philsophy behind the frequent value of favoring "working code" over "great ideas" in the open source world. [1] Though I think they phrase it differently, this is the basic approach that many hacker-oriented start ups have taken, and it seems to work for them. On the server, this approach is the "get it working," approach, and these administrators aren't bothered by having to go in every so often to "redo" how things are configured, and I think on some level this kind of approach to "management overhead" grows out of the agile world and the avoidance of "premature optimizations."

But like all "somewhat false dichotomies," there are flaws in the above formulation. Mostly the "late management" camp is able to delay management most effectively by anticipating their future needs (either by smarts or by dumb luck) early and planning around that. And the "early management" camp has to delay some management needs or else you'd be drowned in overhead before you started: and besides, the MBA union isn't that strong.

We might even cast the "early management" approach as being "top down," and the "late management" camp as being "bottom up." If you know, we were into that kind of thing. It's always, particularly in the contemporary moment to look at the bottom-up approach and say "that's really innovative and awesome, that's better," and view "top-down" organizations as "stodgy and old world," when neither does a very good job of explaining what's going on and there isn't inherent radicalism or stodginess in either organization. But it is interesting. At least mildly.

Thoughts? Onward and Upward!

[1]Alan Cox's Cathedrals, Bazaars and the Town Council

Corporate Government

I was talking to someone, probably a coworker, and I was saying something about a "government," except I slipped and said "corporation." An easy mistake, if not a common one, perhaps, and certainly somewhat telling. In this post I want to discuss a number of ideas that have been lingering about in my thoughts regarding the role of corporations on culture and technology, and the role of corporate structures on the conveyance of cultural values.

In a lot of ways this post is the successor to my posts on: Martian Economics and Transformational Economics

Maybe that's a bit much for one blog post. In brief:

  1. Corporations and Governments

We can think of both corporations and governments fall into the larger category of "formal social institutions," or "formal collective institutions." They are both, at least in theory, productive beyond the ability of a single individual, and both dominate the shape and course of our lives to significant degrees.

  1. Corporate Structure and Cultural Transmission

How corporations, and governments more obviously, are structured and behave is--I would argue--a means of creating and transmitting cultural values.

  1. Praxis and IBM: Autonomy and Bottom Up Organization

I use these two examples--one fictional, one actual--as possible illustrations of a different sorts of ways of thinking about corporate organization. Both of these examples represent large institutions engaged in diverse operations, that are organized (I think) with a great number of quasi-autonomous operations and divisions, which contribute to common project but have the freedom to operate independently and encapsulated ways. This strikes me as a unique modality.

This leads to a lot of questions, and not very many good answers. I suppose that's not intrinsically a bad thing.

  • One of the biggest problems with corporations as far as I'm concerned is that by virtue of their fiduciary responsibility they have no obligation to operate in a sustainable manner or in the common interests of either their employees or the public.

    Can the potentially harmful potentials inherent in corporate person-hood be offset by certain types of organization?

  • Is there a better way to manage and organize our political society that balances the power of governments, corporations, that is sustainable and efficient?

  • We talk, and think, a lot about how the Internet affects how people use technology, and how the Internet creates new possibilities for business. How does the Internet change the way we organize our work lives? Has technology made smaller corporate operations more sustainable and able to compete?

  • Are the alternatives loose and autonomous-cells in corporate organizations that might be able to address the concerns regarding efficiency and sustainability?

And so forth...

On Frugality

I've been thinking, a little, recently about frugality. Cast On finished a series earlier in the summer about frugality and consumption, and I've been talking with people in a couple of different contexts who think about their own consumption habits (of meat and other comestibles, of material things, of cars and transportation, and so forth) as political acts, in one capacity or another, and I think this all deserves some more extended reflection on my part.

Just to be clear, I think it would be safe to classify myself as a "frugal person." I'm pretty simple in my attitudes and my consumption habits. I have stuff, more stuff, probably, than I actually need. I also buy things that I think are almost certainly luxuries. But I'm sort of minimal about the things I have and I'm pretty good about making sure that when I'm done with something, its either unusable by all of humanity or goes on to someone who can make better use of it.

Largely I think of this as a personal quirk. Having a bunch of stuff is sometimes anxiety producing. While many knitters enjoy buying yarn, frankly it makes me jittery, unless my "stash" of yarn is pretty small and I'm actively knitting a lot. Also, as a writer, and a technologist-type, the things I do "for fun," mostly involve sitting behind a computer and typing furiously, so while computer stuff is probably my largest "luxury expense," I'm not particularly guilty about it, and lord knows I use a lot of computer stuff.

And beyond this, I tend to think of frugality as being an extened form of common sense. Finding the shortest way to work, finding the best way to get the most nutrition and pleasure from the food you buy, finding the best way to use old computers, using yarn efficiently, and so forth.

Now, I'm well aware that common sense is a culturally constrained and all, but that aside, I'm unsure if frugality constitutes a political statement, or a political act. Refusing to participate in consumer society on the grounds of a frual-ethic is admirable, and I think a sane way to approach the world, but I've often found myself thinking that acting against superstructural cultural phenomena is the kind of thing that isn't exactly something that starts at home. I mean, changing your own habits is a good thing, because it's likely to make you more happy, healthy, and economically resilient; nevertheless, I think to constitute a political act, "working against consumption" would require contributing to efforts that create viable opportunities for other people.

So then, politics are what happens when you get together with a lot of people and do something, not what happens when you're at the store. I think, at least.

I'm not sure if this logic holds up either, but it's a start...

The world is a weird place sometimes.