Hello, readers! This week in Across the Sundering Seas, something a bit different—some relatively quick hits (“relatively” because, well, it’s me), none directly related to each other.
I. Follow-up: on progress and decline
First: a bit of follow-up from last week’s note. As one reader pointed out, my take on progress and decline lacked some important qualifications. I attempted to gesture toward the reality of both progress and decline: “real motion at certain times in certain places.” However, I was not sufficiently careful or thorough in teasing that out—and my reader noted that it felt more like a handwave: “a necessary concession to ‘but feudalism! Black Plague! Mongol Hordes! Etc.’” Quite so.
It is not so much that I don’t think progress or decline happen. It is instead two other notes. First: that I think they’re far more local (both geographically and temporally), and far more nuanced, than most of the discussion I see. Second: that the people living through a given moment are not very good at actually understanding whether they are experiencing progress, decline, or neither!
That latter point bears working out a bit further in the future. For now, suffice it to say that I think that there are plenty of transformations that we may perceive to be progress or decline as we bring them about (or perhaps as they happen to us!)… but which we ourselves may later reevaluate. The obvious example is the one quite literally staring you in the face as you read this email. In the early days of the internet, it felt to many users like real, unambiguous progress over what came before. In the past few years, it has felt to many of its users as a decline over what came before. In real ways, both are right. This is not—I reiterate: not!—simply to say that everything has its plusses and minuses (true though that may be in some basically meaningless way). It is rather to say that we are poor at judging the actual import of our moments in history.
II. Meeting a reader: embodiment is good!
A shout-out to a reader (you know who you are!), who emailed me back about one of the issues early this year, and with whom I got to have coffee while out in Silicon Valley for my quarterly time on-site at LinkedIn. As wonderful as the internet is at connecting people in many ways, it has become increasingly obvious to me that those connections become far more meaningful after even just one meeting in person. Along the same lines, one of my best friends in the world is someone I originally got to know solely online—but we made the transition from friends to very good friends by way of spending lots of time in each other’s homes. We are our embodied selves. We are not merely our bodies, but we are not less than our bodies.
(Shout out as well to a non-reader whom I also met through the internet, and whom I happily got to meet up with in person as well in one of those delightful “Wait, we’re both in the same city on the same day?” moments.)
III. On cameras and books and smartphones and hypertext
One of the joys of visiting places with a camera in hand is that the device can help us to see the place we are visiting. For all that people often miss the joy of being truly present where they are, especially in a selfie-happie world, there is also something to be said for the way that some devices can serve to have the opposite effect: to draw our eye to sights we would otherwise have walked past entirely.
I wrote about this at a bit more length on my blog this week, but it’s a thought I keep returning to. I have been a fairly loud critic of certain parts of the internet this year, and I stand by those criticisms. But.
As my Winning Slowly cohost Stephen Carradini and I have poked and prodded at what a better imaginary for the future of technological ethics might look like, as I use a dedicated camera again after half a decade away from it, as I continue to get good use out of a dedicated e-reader device and much more so out of traditional paper books, I keep coming back to the complex relations between focus, friction, and attention. Specifically, I keep coming back to the ways that certain technologies enhance our focus and attention—often by way of friction or of edges—and others detract from it—often by the absence of friction or of edges.
The camera is a device for focusing—in both a physical sense, as it focuses light, and a mental sense, as it focuses attention. Books likewise. By way of their boundaries, their edges, they give a shape to our experience of them and of what we learn or experience through them that is (or at least may be) powerfully focusing. The smartphone or even hypertext… not so much. These are technologies for frictionless traversal of an infinite space. The lack of edges matters. What makes a good book but its willingness to stake out a clear thesis and then limit its pages to the argument of that claim? What makes a good photo but where you cut it off—what you choose to exclude as well as to include in the composing?
IV. “The Web Falls Apart”
The Web Falls Apart, by Baldur Bjarnason (HT: Alan Jacobs):
I have a theory that we’re all kind of right—that chaos like this is what happens when a system starts to break down. The web has grown and evolved into a shape that cannot be held and is not sustainable. Everything starts to fall apart.
We cannot turn around the web’s decline by fixing any one of these issues. We need to fix them all, which is impossible, because they are symptoms, not causes, and the underlying cause is simply that the web has become too complex for it to be held together with the effort, work, and energy that’s available.
We are, in all likelihood, looking at the very beginning of the collapse of the web in its current form.
I’ve been mulling Bjarnason’s take all afternoon, and I think it may end up featuring in the still-to-be-recorded final episode of this season of Winning Slowly. It’s a very nuanced take—rather more so than that quote alone might suggest. His claim is not that everything is going to collapse, but that this particular equilibrium in which we have found ourselves for the last decade or more is an unstable equilibrium, and that it is in the process of falling out of that equilibrium.
V. An experiment in writing a lot
Shortly after sending last week’s issue, I decided to write at least 500 words each day for the rest of the month. It’s going well so far. My output for the month now includes two issues of this newsletter, five posts on my blog, some long-overdue technical documentation for an open source software project I maintain, and some as-yet-entirely-unpublished notes on the dynamics of software development—and totals about 7,200 words! If I keep up my current rate through the end of the month, I’ll hit almost 17,000 words. If I were to write at that rate for a year, that’d be over 200,000 words. Doable? Unlikely, for many reasons. Inspiring? A bit, yes!