Hide the Eraser

Tech, Retrotech, Fiction, Not Fiction & Whatnot

I've been an early adopter of many online technologies over the past 20+ years. So I was on twitter early (and facebook and all the others). I usually had been the first faculty member at my institution to try a particular tool, whether consumer or for teaching, which then, a few years later, people would start to pay attention to. I don't claim any great prescience; I just find new tools interesting for thinking with. Due to that pattern of early adopting, I also tend to be an early abandoner. So I left twitter (and facebook and so many others) a long time ago. As a disciple nowadays of the school of thought that sees social media as a fairly pernicious influence on human sanity, I mostly stay off the social media. But I've enjoyed quiet corners of mastodon at various times, and quiet corners of the internet in general. I like the serendipity of it. You might get great content at one time of day or maybe not. It's a bit like window shopping or browsing the library stacks.

So now the pace on mastodon seems to have picked up and this past week has seen a marked uptick in academic twitterati and influencer types jumping ship to mastodon. With that has come the inevitable snap judgements of the platform, some of it good and generous, and then other bits of newcomers walking in and immediately wanting to rearrange the furniture.

I don't particularly care about any of that, though it does amuse me to see so many (loudly online) academics acting like these twitter alternatives are some great discovery. Now, if they all moved back to gopher or gemini, maybe that would be a bit more of an obscure-ish discovery relative to the academic familiar. I suspect many are thinking and wondering why in the world academics weren't mostly on mastodon the whole time. After all, you can create a server for your own interest, federate with who you chose to hear from (and keep out people from servers you don't want to hear from), and generally create a bunch of mini disciplinary worlds. Seems like a good way to do the basic thing that twitter did for many academics: give you a tool where you can keep up with what was going on in the field.

Interesting to see how this will go and whether it will stick. I suspect for academics that mastodon will prove quite a good fit, now that many have been prompted to move over en masse, which was, after all, what was holding any individual back. Academics are, after all, herd creatures. Anyone who has sat in a faculty meeting or in tenure review or on an academic committee of any sort can tell you that. The only thing that matters is what other people think.

Which is, I suppose, why I started writing this. All that academic flocking reminded me why I left.

I spend a lot of my time in software development cycles nowadays. So every day is an exercise in clearing blockers. This thing won't work until that thing is done and so forth. I've been thinking a lot about how most technical blockers or even people blockers, however annoying, are completely manageable. They can be defined and triaged through consistent application of a variety of unblocking routines. The blockers that are harder are always those that are tied less to the product and more to the person. For myself, and for better or worse, that blocker prances around in popular imagining as “perfectionism”; I'm not quite sure what it is to me anymore. I've spend a lot of effort chipping away at it. It is an echo of its former volume and a mere whisper in many spheres. But when it comes to most of my solo developer efforts, it still roars.

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(made with Dall-e: “a professor silverback gorilla sitting at a cafe table drinking coffee, in the style of Vincent van Gogh's Le café de nuit”)

As I sit here cafe-ing the day away (i.e. working), surrounded by technoristas putting their startup specs into Notion documents, Slack-ing with comrades in between messaging warm leads on LinkedIn, I can't help but wonder at the unnaturalness of it all. My back is going to hate me later for sitting in front of the screen and my eyes will grow ever weaker. There was a time when I used to go to a cafe to enjoy a book and some writing.

Back to work....

Some days you just need to focus on some simple things, like some beautifully engineered writing iron.

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Ever have those days where you're oddly out of sync and there's no good reason why? I think maybe it's a caffeine thing (too much? too little?) or maybe it's just a need more sleep thing. Or maybe it's a weather turning cold thing. Or staring at a screen too much.

The world just seems a bit less settled than it should be. Anxiety creeps in at the edges for no good reason. I've got stuff to do (so much stuff...) but I'd really rather watch tv. And I rarely would rather watch TV.

Maybe I'm hungry. But it's late in the day and they're out of all the food. Why does a cafe run out of food like that when they are open plenty more hours? Maybe it's a headache. (Is it a headache?) Maybe it's too much sugar. (i can certainly do with less of that.) Maybe I do need to eat something.

It's one of those days where I feel like I'm in a cocoon of tasks, all cutting and strangling but also completely irrelevant.

Just out of sorts.

Or election day. Maybe it's that.

I've always found that cycling through activities, often a wide variety of different kinds of things, to be me at my most productive. As a professor it was the rotation of writing, research, teaching, meetings— each has a time of day when it works best and the act of switching between them, when it goes right, provides a catalyst for new thought and energy. Now it's a different set of things — project management, writing, coding, data work — but the principle is the same. Taking breaks for a small bit of music or exercise is peak efficiency. It is me at my most me and an hour spent on an activity that way outproduces a day spent grinding away on the same task in other circumstances.

And yet...

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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.

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