Hide the Eraser

Tech, Retrotech, Fiction, Not Fiction & Whatnot

I come from generations of collectors. Not hoarders. Just collectors of certain things that have been carefully curated over the years. Books are the most common. Stationary and office supplies, that's another one. I share that love of pens and pencils and have let it spill further than my ancestors, into typewriters and other retrotech. My grandfather had National Geographics from the time he was 14, and they accumulated through all the years of his life until my grandmother, many years after his death, when she had to leave her house, the magazines descended again from the warm dry fossilization of the attic to the inglorious boxes my aunt stashed in the corner of the garage, saving them for me apparently, though those who don't collect books tend not to realize how they can easily be destroyed. Not a few were lost. I shipped them 1000 miles once I had a house to put them in, and they weighed down my shelves stacked double deep for an ungodliy amount of linear feet, years 1928 to whenever.

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I'm a person who likes processes. That's the way I get myself out of ruts and cul-de-sacs and the constant pressure to perform. Habit and trusting a process means that progress happens and I can calm down about the pressure to progress. But a focus on ends and goals and making every minute count — all the pablum of modern (particularly American) self-helpery, lays insidious traps. I'm not sure anymore whether I can do any activity without feeling guilt or regret that it isn't more useful, that the purpose is not clear cut. As much as I might want to revel in the process, I feel the inevitable tug to find meaning in the end alone. Why is that so hard to escape?

The commodification of everything we do is by now a familiar phenomenon. For example, I can't simply go for a walk. Rather, that walk has to have benefits, and those benefits in turn and retroactively, become goals for future walks. That walk might be recorded so that I can know how many calories I've burned, measuring whether or not I'm on track with weight to be lost, health benefits to be gained. Even if I say I just want to look at the trees and enjoy the scurryings of small creatures, well that too has cognitive benefits, and the green has been shown to lower blood pressure and soothe anxiety. That walk is time I could have spent working, being productive one might say, and so choosing not to engage in the labors that constitute “work” must yield some dividend that carries over into work. In this case, I am recharging my batteries (as the “smart” watch will so hopefully indicate with its “body battery”). Even aimless leisure is but a means to an industrious end.

Enough of it. Fuck it all. Fuck the trackers and industriousness and obsessions with work. if that is the sum of life then we are nothing but machines and avatars in video games. Which is the goal after all. The metaverse, the virtual worlds, the future of work, all of these are means of control and devaluation, transferring the wealth of your humanity to the currency of a few.

So a crazed dissenter might scream, noiseless against the din of media and content creators and influencers and self-help didacticism.

But I think many people crave a break from all that noise. I always suspect that everyone else is better at the break, better at assuring themselves that they can do things for leisure or for the pure joy of taking up time. Uselessness, I learned early on, was the greatest fault. To be without purpose or without striving was to be an empty stain taking up unnecessary space in the universe. I know that is not a sense held by many. Some see life as a game to be played, lack of purpose as something to be celebrated and sought. Some simply have a clearer knowledge that a little bit of leisure is necessary for any sort of human life. Perhaps many have purpose imposed from without, and everything falls more easily into line.

There is always something not getting done. Conventional self-helpification would tell me that I need to cut things, or organize them, or maybe close the loops, or, zen-style, let go of attachments to those tbds. All sound advice. And yet, all band-aids and balms. The fundamental problem is the collective agreement, the group behavior, that fixes attention on the most primate of human behaviors, the seeking of status. I tell myself I don't care, that I never really cared about such things, but that is obvious self-deception. I didn't care in the way that gentleman-scholars don't care about things like wealth or learning. They have both in abundance and so can claim to be without worry in those areas when it comes to competition. But that carefree pose is itself a status marker. So I told myself I didn't care about status. Now, when the magnitude of my anonymity is foremost in mind, I wonder whether I want some recognition, something to point to that screams “I was here.”

As a (former) scholar studying (among other things) the deepest past, I have no illusions about legacy. We are all nothing. The most famous among humanity now will, by and large, be a footnote in 100 years and completely forgotten in general awareness beyond that time (assuming there is a humanity to remember or forget still around). A small few will remain recognized, a smaller few will be rediscovered, for good or ill and well beyond anyone's control.

We have only the now and our immediate sphere. When people get more than that as their due, when they have influence over hundreds and thousands and millions, that's where it all goes wrong. We were not meant to have so much power over others and, in such circumstances, we wield such things badly. We remain small tribes of primates, whose purpose was and is a certain kind of small-scale collective survival, amidst hardships and allowing room for leisure and pleasures and idleness.

I suppose that's why what makes most sense is the world of immediacy. In the now, and with family and friends, I matter in particular ways. That's all that one really wants. Everything else is just means to that end. Or idleness.

I long resisted any sort of fitness trackers. I realized a long time ago that whenever I found out about the measure of a thing that just brought more anxiety. Particularly with health, it brings out all kinds of perfectionism. If the numbers aren't good then that just leads to a spiral of despair. White coat syndrome in the doctor's office now lives on my wrist, every minute of every day. A constant noticer of how I've failed.

I have similar reactions to surveillance technologies in general, as it is not just an intrusion, but one more form of expectation and monitoring to live up to. There is likely a more moderate path, where every notice, every ache or body pain, is not cause to think the sky is falling or is a mere fifteen minutes from falling.

I grow frustrated with the idea that we are our measures. This orthodoxy seems to have taken hold in the tech world in particular, where behavioral profiles are the capitalist endpoint of pretty much every tech product out there. Even those with noble aims take it for granted that we should be using more data (more data!) to predict outcomes, measure success or failure, and he like. So fucking exhausting.

As with so many things, I find myself wondering whether I am simply ten years out of time. As an early adopter of social media, I grew weary early on, for all the reasons that became commonplace and widely accepted in recent years. It felt like everyone finally caught up over the past few years enough to question whether all this newfangled social media shit had a lot of bad aspects. So too on this, I suspect in five years, if not sooner, we'll hear from all the “influencers” about how we should all really stop the tracking. Hell, they may be saying it now, but like I said, I stay off the social media. Then again, “influencing” is just one more way of worshiping metrics, so I doubt they'll quit measuring influence as easily as measuring seconds or something else.

Gadget measurements are marvels of marketing acumen. They take a single data source and origami it, slice, dice, and mutilate it into something else. Most knowledgeable users realize soon enough that the watch doesn't actually measure Vo2Max or “Stress”. It just computes some number, usually with a simple kind of arithmetic. So you get a “score” based on a crappy reading of heart-rate (dark complexion? hairy arms? check and check for making that heart rate sensor have a bit of trouble.) Is my “Fitness Age” really 20 one day and 70 another? Of course it is, because garbage data being fed through garbage algorithms results in little more than noise.

Perhaps someone, somewhere, will figure out a way to package and sell the unmeasured self. I suppose that means simply getting up each day, walking and exercising, eating well, and engaging with people and living the good life so to speak. There will, at any rate, surely be the studies that show that for some people, knowing the “data” is a contra-indication to a successful health outcome. That would explain why every time I see a doctor I feel an onslaught of sensations and problems that were not there just one week before. Unless of course doctors have learned the tricks of crooked mechanics and are subtly knocking the tailpipe out of alignment when you take your body in for a tuneup. Surely someone can get us data on this.

Oh. Wait. My wrist dictator tells me it's time to move and stop sitting.

A friend of mine and I, many years ago, were playing squash. Rather, he was teaching me how to play squash. He was a former tennis player and I was not, so I was more than a little overmatched. A squash court of course is very different from may other athletic spaces in that one runs at rapid speed towards walls and then must stop or crash into them gracefully before bouncing off. At one point I ran at rapid speed into one of those very unforgiving walls, making a spectacular wreck of my glasses (note: you should definitely wear proper sports googles) and leaving myself momentarily dazed.

“that's how you know you're alive”

That was his response — besides the laughing — and it stuck with me. Metaphor for life and all.

We've made a big family decision to move across the country. It is both terrifying and exciting, with new opportunities and regret that those opportunities aren't here where we are. I thought for most of the past week about the idea that we're leaving something stable and secure and constant. And that is true. Where we live now is comfortable. Traffic is light. Things are generally not crowded. It does not feel like the rat race is ever present in our lives. And of course that's the downside too, which we've known all along. Maybe it's just a bit too easy, not challenging enough. There aren't enough opportunities. It's a bit of a backwater, “a nice place to live” nonetheless.

I've had in my head this notion that our time here has been stable and comfortable. But that's really not true. I've gone through a career change and a half, major health crises— the stuff of life. What has been easy and comfortable about it has been that it's relatively affordable. Things are relatively close. It feels understandable. There can be emptiness and solitude when needed, or people to engage with when called for. And I fear going back to crowded, because I remember a time when that caused me pain. I have largely lived through and worked through those issues. Or, maybe the voice says, have you really? Or did you just live somewhere for a while where it wasn't an issue?

We never thought we'd stay here more than five years. Ten would have been absurd. Fifteen or more? Completely unthinkable. This was never our forever home. And we still feel like outsiders, or rather, that we're never going to be truly at home here. There's some bit of distance, where we're interlopers on other people's land. I don't know why that is. It could jut be the regionalism of the country, and the way that neither of us grew up in this region. neither of us has roots or connections within a thousand miles. It's the place we've lived the longest and it is familiar and comfortable and easy now, but it's not really home as a place. And we wonder, why does it feel that way?

And then the thought of leaving brings terror. Will we look back and think that we didn't appreciate how good we had it. I'd like to think that we would take the best of the place and let it continue in our lives.

Life goes on. I worry that the body's aches and pains are, as in every hypochondriac's nightmares, not merely minor conditions of age but precursors of a turn for the worse. Now is no time to be running across the country. The unknown teases with its possibilities and terrors.

I feel like I've spent too much time thinking through the future. Wasted too much of my waking hours considering what others will think, what tomorrow will bring.

What is it about overcast days? Some mornings lie more heavily than others.

#academia

Everything in this Chronicle piece by William Pannapacker rings true, so true in fact that were it not for the fact that I know that he and I are not the same person I might wonder whether there has been an unparalleled rupture in the quantum reality of the universe.

Professors are, indeed, trapped, by cuffs both gilded and cutting. That's why I left and why I would advise any young Ph.D. or professor in a humanities field to retrain, get the hell out, and put their considerable energy, skill, and humanistic sensibility to work, without regret, in the world at large.

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A new university takes shape in Austin

#academia

I have been exceptionally busy, but in raising my head above water I could not miss the announcement of the founding of a new college, the University of Austin, an attempt by a coterie of public figures self-described as being all over the political spectrum to fix the ills of modern higher education by decamping to new digs. I certainly share the overall sentiment that in many respects higher ed is broken and I fully support, in principle, the notion of trying something new, whether that's online alternatives, reinvesting and rethinking existing programs and institutions, or building from the ground up. I am mildly amused by the tone of aggrievement in the founders' expressed endorsement of anti-aggrievement; conversely, in Ferguson's piece I find the notion that higher ed is “liberal” somewhat lazy and misleading (more below).

In the end I suspect none of this business will work, but not for the reasons the founders might anticipate.

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Day 20 of #100DaysToOffload

At the intersection of typewriters, technology, and humanism: Richard Polt, typecasting about Leon Botstein's comments here, highlights Botstein's great point about the importance of real time in-person interaction, as made so clear in the pandemic. But RP cuts out the best bit of Botstein's quote:

I’ll put this in a provocative way. Learning and teaching are probably, if you’ll excuse the comparison, similar to sex in their relationship to technology. Technology can improve things at the margins, but the basic transaction remains the same.

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Day 19 of #100DaysToOffload

I've lived across the U.S., in big cities and tech centers; but recent years I've been off the beaten path, smaller towns, where the pace is a bit less rushed. When my wife and I get together with one branch of our family from the Northeast, a not particularly low-strung (if that's a word) set of folks, we seem downright chill, though anyone who knows us knows we are most certainly by no means chill, relaxed, or unanxious on the general human scale of such things. By comparison though, we've mellowed since we left that part of the world. There's something about living without so much of the hustle and bustle. I think I may be permanently altered from the anxious young man I once was, growing up in that more frenetic elsewhere.

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#100DaysToOffload

I spent the better part of yesterday and today staring at greenery. Foliage, trees, just the stuff in the back yard. It's been a long time since I've just sat there with nothing much to do. It was delightful and refreshing, in large part because taking two days off from thinking about work of any sort was a luxury relative to the past 4 months.

Write.as is probably as good a place — maybe a best place — to mull over the question of how hard it is to find a relaxing place online. Too quickly relaxing turns to addicting, waiting for new messages and endless doom scrolling.

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