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Privacy Beyond the Individual

This week’s coverage of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica debacle[1] (latest Guardian article) has brought privacy top of mind and raised multiple complex questions[2]:

Is informed consent nothing but a legal fiction in today’s age of data and machine learning, where “ongoing and extensive data collection can be neither fully informed nor truly consensual — especially since it is practically irrevocable?”

Is tacit consent–our silently agreeing to the fine print of privacy policies as we continue to use services–something we prefer to grant given the nuisance, time, and effort required to understand the nuances of data use? Is consent as a mechanism too reliant upon the supposition that privacy is an individual right and, therefore, available for an individual to exchange–in varying degrees–for the benefits and value from some service provider (i.e.,  Facebook likes satisfying our need to be both loved and lovely)? If consent is defunct, what legal structure should replace it?

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Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith wrote about our need to love and be lovely in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. I’m dying to dig back into Smith because I suspect his work can help show that even personalization and online consumerism independent of any political context dulls our capacities to be active, rational participants in democracy. Indeed, listening to Russ Roberts’s EconTalk podcast, I’ve learned that Smith argued that commerce, i.e., in-person transactions with strangers to exchange value, provides an opportunity to practice regulating our emotions, as we can’t devolve into temper tantrums and emotional outbursts like we do with our families and spouses (the inimical paradoxes of intimacy…) if we want to get business done. Roberts wrote a poem extolling the wonders if libertarian emergence called It’s a Wonderful Loaf.

How should we update outdated notions of what qualifies as personally identifiable information (PII), which already vary across different countries and cultures, to account for the fact contemporary data processing techniques can infer aspects of our personal identity from our online (and, increasingly, offline) behavior that feel more invasive and private than our name and address? Can more harm be done to an individual using her social security/insurance number than psychographic traits? In which contexts?

Would regulatory efforts to force large companies like Facebook to “lock down” data they have about users actually make things worse, solidifying their incumbent position in the market (as Ben Thompson and Mike Masnick argue)?

Is the best solution, as Cory Doctorow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues, to shift from having users (tacitly) consent to data use, based on trust and governed by the indirect forces of market demand (people will stop using your product if they stop trusting you) and moral norms, to building privacy settings in the fabric of the product, enabling users to engage more thoughtfully with tools?[3]

Many more qualified than I are working to inform clear opinions on what matters to help entrepreneurs, technologists, policymakers, and plain-old people[4] respond. As I grapple with this, I thought I’d share a brief and incomplete history of the thinking and concepts undergirding privacy. I’ll largely focus on the United States because it would be a book’s worth of material to write even brief histories of privacy in other cultures and contexts. I pick the United States not because I find it the most important or interesting, but because it happens to be what I know best. My inspiration to wax historical stems from a keynote I gave Friday about the history of artificial intelligence (AI)[5] for AI + Public Policy: Understanding the shift, hosted by the Brookfield Institute in Toronto.

As is the wont of this blog, the following ideas are far from exhaustive and polished. I offer them for your consideration and feedback.


The Fourth Amendment: Knock-and-Announce

As my friend Lisa Sotto eloquently described in a 2015 lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, the United States (U.S.) considers privacy as a consumer right, parsed across different business sectors, and the European Union (EU) considers privacy as a human right, with a broader and more holistic concept of what kinds of information qualify as sensitive. Indeed, one look at the different definitions of sensitive personal data in the U.S. and France in the DLA Piper Data Protection Laws of the World Handbook shows that the categories and taxonomies are operating at different levels. In the U.S., sensitive data is parsed by data type; in France, sensitive data is parsed by data feature:

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Screenshot from the DLA Piper Data Protection Handbook. They conveniently organize information so a reader can compare how two countries differ on aspects of privacy law.

It seems potentially, possibly plausible (italics indicating I’m really unsure about this) that the U.S. concept of privacy as being fundamentally a consumer right dates back to the original elision of privacy and property in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

We forget how tightly entwined protection of property was to early U.S. political theory. In his Leviathan, for example, seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes derives his theory of legitimate sovereign power (and the notion of the social contract that influenced founding fathers like Jefferson and Madison) from the need to provide individuals with some recourse against intrusions on their property; otherwise we risk devolving to the perpetually anxious and miserable state of the war of all against all, where anyone can come in and ransack our stuff at any time.

The Wikipedia page on the Fourth Amendment explains it as a countermeasure against general warrants and writs of assistance British colonial tax collectors were granted to “search the homes of colonists and seize ‘prohibited and uncustomed’ goods.” What matters for this brief history is the foundation that early privacy law protected people’s property–their physical homes–from searches, inspections, and other forms of intrusion or surveillance by the government.

Katz v. United States: Reasonable Expectations of Privacy

Over the past 50 years, new technologies have fracked the bedrock assumptions of the Fourth Amendment.[6] The case law is expansive and vastly exceeds the cursory overview I’ll provide in this post. Cindy Cohn from the Electronic Frontier Foundation has written extensively and lucidly on the subject.[7] As has Daniel Solove.

Perhaps the seminal case shaping contemporary U.S. privacy law is Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). A 2008 presentation from Artemus Ward at Northern Illinois University presents the facts and a summary of the Supreme Court Justices’ opinions in these three slides (there are also dissenting opinions):

Katz+v.+United+States+(1967)+The+Facts

Katz+v.+United+States+(1967)+Justice+Potter+Stewart+Delivered+the+Opinion+of+the+Court

harlan

There are two key questions here:

  • Does the right to privacy extend to telephone booths and other public places?
  • Is a physical intrusion necessary to constitute a search?

Justice Harlan’s comments regarding the “actual (subjective) expectation of privacy” that society is prepared to recognize as “reasonable” marked a conceptual shift to pave the way for the Fourth Amendment to make sense in the digital age. Katz shifted the locus of constitutional protections against unwarranted government surveillance from one’s private home–property that one owns–to public places that social norms recognize as private in practice if not name (a few cases preceding Katz paved the way for this judgment).

This is watershed: when any public space can be interpreted as private in the eyes of the beholder, the locus of privacy shifts from an easy-to-agree-upon-objective-space like someone’s home, doors locked and shades shut, to a hard-to-agree-upon-subjective-mindset like someone’s expectation of what should be private, even if it’s out in a completely public space, just as long as those expectations aren’t crazy (i.e., that annoying lady somehow expecting that no one is listening to her uber-personal conversation about the bad sex she had with the new guy from Tinder as she stands in a crowded checkout line waiting to purchase her chia seed concoction and her gluten-free crackers[8]) but accord with the social norms and practices of a given moment and generation.

Imagine how thorny it becomes to decide what qualifies as a reasonable expectation for privacy when we shift from a public phone booth occupied by one person who can shut the door (as in Katz) to:

  • internet service providers shuffling billions of text messages, phone calls, and emails between individuals, where (perhaps?) the standard expectation is that when we go through the trouble of protecting information with a password (or two-factor authentication), we’re branding these communications as private, not to be read by the government or the private company providing us with the service (and metadata?);
  • GPS devices placed on the bottom of vehicles, as in United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012), which in themselves may not seem like something everyone has to worry about often but which, given the category of data they generate, are similar to any and all information about how we transact and move in the world, revealing not just what our name is but which coffee shops and doctors (or lovers or political co-conspirators) we visit on a regular basis, prompting Justice Sandra Sotomayor to be very careful in her judgments;
  • social media platforms like Facebook, pseudo-public in nature, that now collect and analyze not only structured data on our likes and dislikes, but, thanks to advancing AI capabilities, image, video, text, and speech data;
  • etc.
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Slide from Kosta Derpanis‘s extremely witty and engaging talk on computer vision at Friday’s AI + Public Policy Conference. This shows how Facebook is now applying computer vision techniques to analyze images users post, not just structured data about what they like and dislike.

Just as Zeynep Tufecki argues that informed consent loses its power in an age where most users of internet services and products don’t rigorously understand what use of their data they’re consenting too, so too does Cohn believe that the “‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ test currently employed in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is a poor test for the digital age.”[9] As with any shift from criticism to pragmatic solutions, however, the devil is in the details. If we eliminate a reasonableness test because it’s too flimsy for the digital age, what do we replace it to achieve the desired outcomes of protecting individual rights to free speech and preventing governmental overreach? Do we find a way to measure actual harm suffered by an individual? Or should we, as Lex Gill suggested Friday, somehow think about privacy as a public good rather than an individual choice requiring individual consent? What are the different harms we need to guard against in different contexts, given that use of data for targeted marketing has different ramifications than government wiretapping?

These questions are tricky to parse because, in an age where so many aspects of our lives are digital, privacy bleeds into and across different contexts of social, political, commercial, and individual activity. As Helen Nissenbaum has masterfully shown, our subjective experience of what’s appropriate in different social contexts influences our reasonable expectations of privacy in digital contexts. We don’t share all the intimate details of our personal life with colleagues in the same way we do with close friends or doctors bound by duties of confidentiality. Add to that that certain social contexts demand frivolity (that ironic self you fashion on Facebook) and others, like politics, invite a more aspirational self.[10] Nissenbaum’s theory of contextual integrity, where privacy is preserved when information flows respect the implicit, socially-constructed boundaries that graft the many sub-identities we perform and inhabit as individuals, applies well to Cambridge Analytica debacle. People are less concerned by private companies using social media data for psychographic targeting than they are for political targeting; the algorithms driving stickiness on site and hyper-personalized advertising aren’t fit to promote the omnivorous, balanced information diet required to understand different sides of arguments in a functioning democracy. Being at once watering hole to chat with friends, media company to support advertising, and platform for political persuasion, Facebook collapses distinct social spheres into one digital platform (which also complicates anti-trust arguments, as evident in this  excellent Intelligence Squared debate).

A New New Deal on Data: Privacy in the Age of Machine Learning

In 2009, Alex “Sandy” Pentland of the MIT Media Lab began the final section of his article calling for a “new deal” on data as follows:

Perhaps the greatest challenge posed by this new ability to sense the pulse of humanity is creating a “new deal” around questions of privacy and data ownership. Many of the network data that are available today are freely offered because the entities that control the data have difficulty extracting value from them. As we develop new analytical methods, however, this will change.[11]

This ability to “sense the pulse of humanity,” writes Pentland earlier in the article, arises from the new data generation, collection, and processing tools that have effectively given the human race “the beginnings of a working nervous system.” Pentland contrasts what we are able to know about people’s behavior today–where we move in the world, how many times our hearts beat per minute, whom we love, whom we are attracted to, what movies we watch and when, what books we read and stop reading in between, etc–with the “single-shot, self-report data” data, e.g., yearly censuses, public polls, and focus groups, that characterized demographic statistics in the recent past. Note that back in 2009, the hey day of the big data (i.e., collecting and storing data) era, Pentland commented that while a ton of data was collected, companies had difficulty extracting value. It was just a lot of noise backed by the promise of analytic potential.

This has changed.

Machine learning has unlocked the potential and risks of the massive amounts of data collected about people.

The standard risk assessment tools (like privacy impact assessments) used by the privacy community today focus on protecting the use of particular types of data, PII like proper names and e-mail addresses. There is a whole industry and tool kit devoted to de-identification and anonymization, automatically removing PII while preserving other behavioral information for statistical insights. The problem is that this PII-centric approach to privacy misses the boat in the machine learning age. Indeed, what Cambridge Analytica brought to the fore was the ability to use machine learning to probabilistically infer not proper names but features and types from behavior: you don’t need to check a gender box for the system to make a reasonably confident guess that you are a woman based on the pictures you post and the words you use; private data from conversations with your psychiatrist need not be leaked for the system to peg you as neurotic. Deep learning is so powerful because it is able to tease out and represent hierarchical, complex aspects of data that aren’t readily and effectively simplified down variables we can keep track of and proportionately weight in our heads: these algorithms can, therefore, tease meaning out of a series of actions in time. This may not peg you as you, but it can peg you as one of a few whose behavior can be impacted using a given technique to achieve a desired outcome.

Three things have shifted:

  • using machine learning, we can probabilistically construct meaningful units that tell us something about people without standard PII identifiers;
  • because we can use machine learning, the value of data shifts from the individual to statistical insights across a distribution; and
  • breaches of privacy that occur at the statistical layer instead of the individual data layer require new kinds of privacy protections and guarantees.

The technical solution to this last bullet point is a technique called differential privacy. Still in the early stages of commercial adoption,[12] differential privacy thinks about privacy as the extent to which individual data impacts the shape of some statistical distribution. If what we care about is the insight, not the person, then let’s make it so we can’t reverse engineer how one individual contributed to that insight. In other words, the task is to modify a database such that:

if you have two otherwise identical databases, one with your information and one without it, the probability that a statistical query will produce a given result is (nearly) the same whether it’s conducted on the first or second database.

Here’s an example Matthew Green from Johns Hopkins gives to help develop an intuition for how this works:

Imagine that you choose to enable a reporting feature on your iPhone that tells Apple if you like to use the 💩  emoji routinely in your iMessage conversations. This report consists of a single bit of information: 1 indicates you like 💩 , and 0 doesn’t. Apple might receive these reports and fill them into a huge database. At the end of the day, it wants to be able to derive a count of the users who like this particular emoji.

It goes without saying that the simple process of “tallying up the results” and releasing them does not satisfy the DP definition, since computing a sum on the database that contains your information will potentially produce a different result from computing the sum on a database without it. Thus, even though these sums may not seem to leak much information, they reveal at least a little bit about you. A key observation of the differential privacy research is that in many cases, DP can be achieved if the tallying party is willing to add random noise to the result. For example, rather than simply reporting the sum, the tallying party can inject noise from a Laplace or gaussian distribution, producing a result that’s not quite exact — but that masks the contents of any given row.

This is pretty technical. It takes time to understand it, in particular if you’re not steeped in statistics day in and day out, viewing the world as a set of dynamic probability distributions. But it poses a big philosophical question in the context of this post.

In the final chapters of Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari proposes that we are moving from the age of Humanism (where meaning emanates from the perspective of the individual human subject) to the age of Dataism (where we question our subjective viewpoints given our proven predilections for mistakes and bias to instead relegate judgment, authority, and agency to algorithms that know us better than we know ourselves). Reasonable expectations for privacy, as Justice Harlan indicated, are subjective, even if they must be supported by some measurement of norms to qualify as reasonable. Consent is individual and subjective, and results in principles like that of minimum use for an acknowledged purpose because we have limited ability to see beyond ourselves, we create traffic jams because we’re so damned focus on the next step, the proxy, as opposed to viewing the system as a whole from a wider vantage point, and only rarely (I presume?) self-identify and view ourselves under the round curves of a distribution. So, if techniques like differential privacy are better apt to protect us in an age where distributions matter more than data points, how should we construct consent, and how should we shape expectations, to craft the right balance between the liberal values we’ve inherited and this mathematical world we’re building? Or, do we somehow need to reformulate our values to align with Dataism?

And, perhaps most importantly, what should peaceful resistance look like and what goals should it achieve?


[1] What one decides to call the event reveals a lot about how one interprets it. Is it a breach? A scandal? If so, which actor exhibits scandalous behavior: Nix for his willingness to profit from the manipulation of people’s psychology to support the election of an administration that is toppling democracy? Zuckerberg for waiting so long to acknowledge that his social media empire is more than just an advertising platform and has critical impacts on politics and society? The Facebook product managers and security team for lacking any real enforcement mechanisms to audit and verify compliance with data policies? We the people, who have lost our ability and even desire to read critically, as we prefer the sensationalism of click bait, goading technocrats to optimize for whatever headline keeps us hooked to our feed, ever curious for more? Our higher education system, which, falling to economic pressures that date back to (before but were aggravated by) the 2008-2009 financial crisis are cutting any and all curricula for which it’s hard to find a direct, casual line to steady and lucrative employment, as our education system evolves from educating a few thoughtful priests to educating many industrial workers to educating engineers who can build stuff and optimize everything and define proxies and identify efficiencies so we can go faster, faster until we step back and take the time to realize the things we are building may not actually align with our values, that, perhaps, we may need to retain and reclaim our capacities to reflect and judge and reason if we want to sustain the political order we’ve inherited? Or perhaps all of this is just the symptom of much larger, complex trend in World History that we’re unable to perceive, that the Greeks were right in thinking that forms of government pass through inevitable cycles with the regularity of the earth rotating around the sun (an historical perspective itself, as the Greeks thought the inverse) and we should throw our hands up like happy nihilists, bowing down to the unstoppable systemic forces of class warfare, the give and take between the haves and the have nots, little amino acids ever unable to perceive how we impact the function of proteins and how they impact us in return?

And yet, it feels like there may be nothing more important than to understand this and to do what little–what big–we can to make the world a better place. This is our dignity, quixotic though it may be.

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The Greek term for the cycle of political regimes is anacyclosis. Interestingly enough, there is an institute devoted to this idea, seemingly located in North Carolina. Their vision is to “halt the cycle of revolution while democracy prevails.”

[2] One aspect of the fiasco* I won’t write about but that merits at least passing mention is Elon Musk’s becoming the mascot for the #DeleteFacebook movement (too strong a word?). The New York Times coverage of Musk’s move references Musk and Zuckerberg’s contrasting opinions on the risks AI might pose to humanity. From what I understand, as executives, they both operate on extremely long time scales (i.e., 100 years in the future), projecting way out into speculative futures and working backwards to decide what small steps man should take today to enable Man to take giant future leaps (gender certainly intended, especially in Musk’s case, as I find his aesthetic and many of the very muscular men I’ve met from Tesla at conferences is not dissimilar from the nationalistic masculinity performed by Vladimir Putin). Musk rebuffed Zuckerberg’s criticism that Musk’s rhetoric about the existential threat AI poses to humanity is “irresponsible” by saying that Zuckerberg’s “understanding of the subject is limited.” I had some cognitive dissonance reading this, as I presumed the risk Musk was referring to was that of super-intelligence run amok (à la Nick Bostrom, whom I admittedly reference as a straw man) rather than that of our having created an infrastructure that exacerbates short-term, emotional responses to stimuli and thereby threatens the information exchange required for democracy to function (see Alexis de Tocqueville on the importance of newspapers in Democracy in America). My takeaway from all of this is that there are so many different sub-issues all wrapped up together, and that we in the technology community really do need to work as hard as we can to references specifics rather than allow for the semantic slippage that leaves interpretation in the mind of the beholder. It’s SO HARD to do this, especially for pubic figures like Musk, given that people’s attention spans are limited and we like punchy quotables at a very high level. The devil is always in the details.

[3] Doctorow references Laurence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, which I have yet to read but is hailed as a classic text on the relationship between law and code, where norms get baked into our technologies in the choices of how we write code.

[4] I always got a kick out of the song Human by the Killers, whose lyrics seem to imply a mutually exclusive distinction between human and dancer. Does the animal kingdom offer better paradigms for dancers than us poor humans? Must depend on whether you’re a white dude.

[5] My talk drew largely from Chris Dixon‘s extraordinary Atlantic article How Aristotle Created the Computer. Extraordinary because he deftly encapsulates 2000 years of the history of logic into a compelling, easy-to-read article that truly helps the reader develop intuitions about deterministic computer programs and the shift to a more inductive machine learning paradigm, while also not leaving the reader with the bitter taste of having read an overly general dilettante. Here’s one of my slides, which represents how important it was for the history of computation to visualize and interpret Aristotelian syllogisms as sets (sets lead to algebra lead to encoding in logical gates lead to algorithms).

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As Dixon writes, “You can replace “Socrates” with any other object, and “mortal” with any other predicate, and the argument remains valid. The validity of the argument is determined solely by the logical structure. The logical words — “all,” “is,” are,” and “therefore” — are doing all the work.”

Fortunately (well, we put effort in to coordinate), my talk was a nice primer for Graham Taylor‘s superbly clear introduction to various forms of machine learning. I most liked his section on representation learning, where he showed how the choice of representation of data has an enormous impact on the performance of algorithms:

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The image is from deeplearningbook.org. Note that in Cartesian coordinates, it’s hard to draw a straight line that could separate the blue and green items, whereas in polar coordinates, the division is readily visible. Coordinate choice has a big impact on what qualifies as simple in math. Newton and Descartes, for example, disagreed over the simplicity of the equation for a circle: it’s a pretty complex equation when represented in Cartesian coordinates, but quite simple in Polar coordinates. Our frame of reference is a thinking tool we can use to solve problems — I first learned this in high-school physics, when Clyfe Beckwith taught us that we could tilt our Cartesian coordinates to align with the slope of a hill in a physics problem. It’s a foundational memory I have of ridding myself of ossified assumptions to open the creative thinking space to solve problems, not unlike adding 0 to an algebraic equation to leverage the power of b + -b.

[6] If you’re interested in contemporary Constitutional Law, I highly recommend Roman Mars’s What Trump Can Teach us about Con Law podcast. Mars and Elizabeth Joh, a law school professor at UC Davis, use Trump’s entirely anomalous behavior as catalyst to explore various aspects of the Constitution. I particularly enjoyed the episode about the emoluments clause, which prohibits acceptance of diplomatic gifts to the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, and their spouses. The Protocol Gift Unit keeps public record of all gifts presidents did accept, including justification of why they made the exception. For example, in 2016, former President Obama accepted Courage, an olive green with black flecks soapstone sculpture, depicting the profile of an eagle with half of an indigenous man’s face in the center, valued at $650.00, from His Excellency Justin Trudeau, P.C., M.P., Prime Minister of Canada, because “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. Government.”

courage statute
Courage on the right. Leo Arcand, the Alberta Cree artist who sculpted it, on the left.

[7] Cindy will be in Toronto for RightsCon May 16-18. I cannot recommend her highly enough. Every time I hear her speak, every time I read her writing, I am floored by her eloquence, precision, and passionate commitment to justice.

[8] Another thing I cannot recommend highly enoug is David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech This is Water. It’s ruthlessly important. It’s tragic to think about the fact that this human, this wonderfully enlightened heart, felt the only appropriate act left was to commit suicide.

[9] A related issue I won’t go into in this post is the third-party doctrine, “under which an individual who voluntarily provides information to a third party loses any reasonable expectation of privacy in that information.” (Cohn)

[10] Eli Pariser does a great job showing the difference between our frivolous and aspiration selves, and the impact this has on filter bubbles, in his 2011 quite prescient monograph.

[11] See also this 2014 Harvard Business Review interview with Pentland. My friend Dazza Greenwood first introduced me to Pentland’s work by presenting the blockchain as an effective means to executive the new deal on data, empowering individuals to keep better track of where data flow and sit, and how they are being used.

[12] Cynthia Dwork’s pioneering work on differential privacy at Microsoft Research dates back to 2006. It’s currently in use at Apple, Facebook, and Google (the most exciting application being fused with federated learning across the network of Android users, to support localized, distributed personalization without requiring that everyone share their digital self with Google’s central servers). Even Uber has released an open-source differential privacy toolset. There are still many limitations to applying these techniques in practice given their impact on model performance and the lack of robust guarantees on certain machine learning models. I don’t know of many instances of startups using the technology yet outside a proud few in the Georgian Partners portfolio, including integrate.ai (where I work) and Bluecore in New York City.

The featured image is from an article in The Daily Dot (which I’ve never heard of) about the Mojave Phone Booth, which, as Roman Mars delightfully narrates in 99% Invisible became a sensation when Godfrey “Doc” Daniels (trust me that link is worth clicking on!!) used the internet to catalogue his quest to find the phone booth working merely from its number: 760-733-9969. The tattered decrepitude of the phone booth, pitched against the indigo of the sunset, is a compelling illustration of the inevitable retrograde character of common law precedent. The opinions in Katz v. United States regarded reasonably expectations for privacy were given at a time when digital communications occurred largely over the phone: is it even possible for us to draw analogies between what privacy meant then and what it could mean now in the age of centralized platform technologies whose foundations are built upon creating user bases and markets to then exchange this data for commercial and political advertising purposes? But, what can we use to anchor ethics and lawful behavior if not the precedent of the past, aligned against a set of larger, overarching principles in an urtext like the constitution, or, in the Islamic tradition, the Qur’an? 

Love 2 | An Indefinite Taxonomy

Love is multivalent.

I’ve been floored by how many readers have engaged with last week’s post about love. As I clumsily expressed in that post, as in so many others, I’m still quite uncomfortable exposing thoughts about affect and emotion. Starting that post as this, I relive a conversation I had with Jean-Marie Apostolidès, a professor in Stanford’s French department, at his home in the 13th arrondissement in Paris in 2008. It was the summer after my first year in graduate school, during which I had taken Jean-Marie’s seminar on Guy Debord, a mid-20th century French kinda-philosopher-but-more-critical-theorist-performer-narcissistic-bastard-but-super-self-aware-and-totally-French dude.* Boris Donné was with us.** Jean-Marie wanted us to meet because we were the nerdiest and mathiest of the scholars interested in Guy Debord. Before dinner, like Jupiter foretelling the events in the Aeneid at the outset of book one, Jean-Marie foretold the pain I would experience during graduate school. “You, Kathryn (hear this in your mind with a thick French accent, Kath-REEN), have something enormously sensual and emotional to offer to the world. You feel so deeply and, when you’re 50, you’ll come into your own as a writer, exposing this sensuality, this depth of emotion, and freeing yourself into the space of inspired expression. But you won’t get there in grad school. Everyone will say your work is brilliant but deep down they’ll hate every abstract word, every stilted interpretation of the history of math; hearts unmoved and minds twitching with impatience, they’ll begrudgingly provide accolades and praises as you continue your fight to show yourself that you think as well as any man in the philosophy or math departments. And that’s fine. It will take its time. But you will look back when you are older and wish you could recover lost time and present your true art.”

Those weren’t his exact words, but that was certainly the gist. They struck a deep chord. They nagged me like harpies as I wrestled to find a dissertation topic I could pridefully stand behind. Jean-Marie was largely right. And yet, there were a few instances at Stanford where I was time-pressed or tired enough to write from my heart. Each time I did, people responded. They paid attention. Each time they did, I was surprised. The wisdom in those words came from the Richmonds (my mother’s tribe), was grafted into my blood upon birth, was a purer exposure of what I felt day to day (I’m not so naïve as to say they expressed my true self, as that’s all bollocks, but they certainly flowed as opposed to being trapped inside the screaming clenches of my superego). Perhaps my blog is my beating Jean-Marie’s predictions of my cloistered destiny by 17 years. I’ll take it.

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Guy Debord made a few films, including In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. The title is a riddle; it’s my favorite palindrome. I learned Latin about a year after seeing this film, which opened my eyes to how the morphology is integral to the palindrome (e.g., the i at the end of igni is a dative, signaling agency by the word ignis, which means fire in Latin; igni, therefore, means “acted upon by the fire”).  I don’t remember much about the film itself except that Debord plays around with self-referentiality, how the work of art, as my friend Peli Grietzer has brilliantly shown, is something like an auto-encoded representation of lived experience. Autoencoders seem very strange to people outside the machine learning community: they make facsimiles of data sets, with the goal of minimizing lost information as they make a copy. How transient are our representations of past experience. Today, I offer what will come in this blog post. Were I to write tomorrow, were I to have written yesterday, my representation of my lived experience would be different.

Since last week, partially in response to emails and notes I’ve received from readers, partially inspired by listening to podcasts on runs and walks to and from work, partially by the basic fact that I spent one more week alive, I’ve thought of many more types of love. It felt right to follow up. I doubt there will be a third post. I’m often wrong.

To that end, here are further thoughts on the types of love that have shaped me or that I work to practice and cultivate.

Love between mother and daughter

I nearly titled this section love between mother and child, but believe there’s something unique and precious in the particular love a mother has for her daughter, as a daughter has for her mother. Or, the particular love my mother has for me and I have for my mother.

Our love is mighty. Any who meets us recognizes this immediately.

I gave a speech at my grandparents’ 60th anniversary party. I started off by saying that I’d spent 15 odd years of my life actively trying not to become my mother. I’d seen how hard she worked, how she flew around the world and drove herself to the ground (and worse, to regular illness) in her restless pursuit to excel and show herself that she was worth something. I wanted to become her opposite, to cleave and create an identity as a calm, thoughtful academic working to slowly unpack the history of mathematics in the scientific revolution and the enlightenment (it won’t take a careful reader to notice the discrepancies between this vapid self fashioning and what I presented in the introduction). I tried; it hurt like a bitch. I left academia to explore the possibility of greater happiness as a businessperson (and have written about the transition).

It was when I allowed myself to become more like my mother that I started to thrive.

The complexities of the love that can exist between mother and daughter stem from the deep entanglement between their respective identities. I’m not a child psychologist and am wary at best of Freud and Lacan (let along Jung…), but the mirror effect of psychology–where we develop self-reflexive consciousness via awareness of self in the eyes of the mother, the first other being we know in the world–must undoubtedly shape patterns in the limbic system and is a good device to ponder the give and take of identity. My mother has a strong personality and I admire her immensely. I often feel reduced to a shadow of myself in her presence, and have fashioned other avenues of strength over the years to claim my own territory for excellence and beauty. You are extroverted? Fine! I will sit in the corner and attract attention with my mysterious silence. You are an amazing cook? Fine! I will go downstairs and read and develop an erudition few will compete with. You are rail thin? Fine! I will be thinner. I will apply monk-like discipline to my eating schedule, not snacking if my life depended on it as family friends worry I’ll soon be too small for a size zero.

Over the years, pockets of easier love, of my mother accepting that I am different than she, of my accepting that I need not be threatened by her habits, need not view her going to the gym at 5:30 as an indictment on myself, but as something to accept as what she needs to feel ok in the world, have gradually emerged. And they’ve grown deeper with each passing year. The resilient insecurities that pepper my personality are still land mines that ignite conflict between myself and my mom. But I’m getting wise enough to take a step back from them and point them out to both of us so we don’t get trapped. She’s growing too. I can see how her wisdom emerges and shines, see how she’s changes ever so slightly as she calms into acceptance of her identity.

I hope someday to experience this love for my own daughter. I hope never to harm her, but accept the tragedy that no matter how hard we strive to will the impact we want, our emotions communicate on a different plane, spurring horses to skittishness and shaping the delicate limbic systems of our children. Love between mother and daughter begs total acceptance: I am me because you are you. You have shaped how my emotions filter the world. You have shaped the horizons of what I might become.

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My mom and I at my grandparents’ 60th-anniversary party on July 21, 2013. My grandfather has since passed away. I wrote about him in this post.

Friendship

This merits its own indefinite taxonomy. Here’s a small sample.

There are friendships built on collaboration, where the underlying trait, I think, is deep respect and the electric energy that results when we sense another’s mind will help us grow, push us beyond what we might achieve on our own, just as the mechanisms of self-play in AlphaGo Zero. Tversky and Kahnemann, united by the different styles of thought and how funny they found our mind traps as they devised experiment after experiment to show why we suck at probabilistic thinking.*** Jefferson and Adams, whose opinions and goals differed during most of their lives, who sought different political ends and sometimes downright hated one another, but whose epistolary exchange at the end of their lives showed a deep respect and love (they died the same day, July 4, 1826; could it be more symbolic?). Hume and Smith, a generation apart (Hume was older), but whose relationship transitioned from being one of teacher-student to friends. The depiction of the Hume-Smith friendship in Dennis Rasmussen’s recent book (which I’m having trouble finishing it as it’s descriptive rather than philosophical) reminds me of my friendship with Alfred Lee (who also has a blog!). I told him:

I’m reading a book about Hume and Smith‘s friendship. Drawing on Aristotle, Smith divides friendship into three types: those motivated by utility, those motivated by please, and–the highest and rarest of the three–those motivated by virtue and excellence. The HumeSmith friendship was based upon a shared quest to understand and live well in the world. I believe our friendship shares the same characteristics: it is motivated by virtue and excellence. I admire how you take the time to explore yourself and solidify your values, how you strive to live well each day. And I feel you see the same in me.

I wanted to tell you that reading about Hume and Smith made me think of us. There is perhaps no greater compliment I could give.

Some people keep a small group of the same friends throughout most of their lives and others make new friends frequently. As your token 21st-century neoliberal cosmopolitan nomad, I’ve had a lot of practice honing the skills of making new friends over the years. I’ve uprooted myself so many times, found myself all alone in new countries, new jobs, new environments. I’ve learned how to overcome that awkward feeling of showing up at some networking event and walking over to a group of people in conversation and slyly inserting myself into the circle, glass of red wine in hand, timidly hoping that someone, please someone, will address me lest I am forced to stand there and awkwardly smile at comments out of context before I walk away and try another group. Loneliness in a new place is the best way to rid oneself of judging others. I’ve opened myself to friendships with people from every walk of life because I didn’t have the luxury to do otherwise. My first friend in Frankfurt, Germany was the Serbian cleaning lady at the Avaya offices; I spent days at her home with her daughter and granddaughter, they chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes and we went to these dance parties where the entire former Yugoslavian community of Bad Homburg linked arms in a circle while men with mustaches played accordions and bouzoukis. I worried I’d be lonely in Toronto when I moved last May, but it’s been delightfully easy to feel connected. It may well be because this is a city of nomads; we’re here joined by this desire to research and build an ecosystem and challenge the boundaries of what’s possible in tech. One of my favorite people in the city is Michael D’Souza, a career CBC reporter and producer who seems to devote his entire being to cultivating beauty and kindness. He cooks and entertains and shaves beets so they look like roses and serves his wife Colleen’s famous shortbread cookies and puts cashew liquor into his pork stew (Michael’s family is from Goa, home of sorpotel, an inherently political food because it contains pork and beef and therefore can only be eaten by Christians, not Hindus or Muslims) and showcases the gentle blues and purples on his matte Korean pottery and takes the time to drive a few hours to watch Tundra swans fly north over waters sparkling in spring sun and welcomes friends of friends to dinner and has been so open and kind with me I sit there flummoxed by generosity, taking careful notes of what it means to be truly hospitable.****

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Michael sent me this picture of tundra swans flying north. Tundra swans mate for life and fly in pairs. These two are followed by their child.

I turn to friends to help me get through moments of pitched emotion. When it’s too hard and too dangerous to stay home alone. When every experience is an out-of-body experience as 99% of my neural activity is fixated on the pain, but friends are ok taking the 1% and just being with me, biding the time as I get back to stability. Those friends know who they are.

And then there are lost friendships. Losing friends creates a different kind of pain than losing lovers, the loves of omission I described in my last post. Every time I do something I feel lacks integrity, I think about friends I have lost because I was selfish, dishonest, or did something to let them down. Sometimes time heals the pain, and they forgive and resurface. Others are gone forever. I feel the pain acutely and call forth the loss as my talisman to help me strive to be a better person.

Self-Love

Not my forte. Have preferred the haunts of self-hatred.

Notions of self-love have changed over time. These days, it seems most pronouncedly influenced by self-help and the trappings of pop psychology. Tangential territory would be yoga and secular Buddhism. This goes kitsch when its stripped of spirituality and devolves into mindfulness 2.0, self-hacking to promote productive automata fooled into thinking we’re living the good life. Lifestyle and shit. Don’t get me wrong: I meditate; I practice yoga; I can’t wrap my head around traditional Buddhist notions of karma because the casual structures drive me bonkers, so I’m not a die-hard Buddhist. Self-love in these traditions is at its best when described by someone like Jack Kornfield (whose dharma talk podcasts are masterful), where the end goal is not self-perfection, but compassion and trust. When there’s the recognition of commonality. Where self-love means to make space for nobility, to encounter familiar habits of mind for what they are and have the ability to act on them or not as we gradually grow.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau differentiated between amour de soi and amour propre. Amour de soi is a basic right of self-preservation, actions and attendant feelings that stem from an innate bias towards existence (to quote Thomas Metzinger). Today, we’d say it’s a good thing to take care of yourself, to keep yourself healthy, to honor your body and your being. Amour propre is insidious self regard built in contrast with another, where our success is relative to another’s failure, where we view ourselves as we assume others view us, where we feel empty unless we’re the center of attention. Rousseau was an inveterate wackjob who identified as a loner and favored radical self-reliance. Adam Smith had a more nuanced appreciation of our need not only to be loved, but also to be lovely, to be appreciated by a given social group and cultivate a sense of belonging.***** There’s an art to finding the balance between the growth that comes from being lovely and the pain the results from being dependent.

In my own quest to gradually tip the scales from self-hatred to (healthy) self-love, I’ve found that compassion is a much more efficient tool for conversion and growth than reason. A colleague tried to convince me that self-hatred was the perfection of egotism, where the act of holding myself to higher standards than others (and hating myself for never being able to achieve those impossibly high standards, “write like James Joyce!” “weigh less than 100 pounds!” “found and sell a company for $100 million by the age of 31!”) covertly shows that I think I’m better than everyone else. That makes logical sense but is emotionally damaging: all it does is exacerbate the anxiety of potentially being selfish. I find it’s much more salutatory to follow Kornfield’s advice and be grateful for the protection patterns of self-hatred have provided as a defense mechanism in the past, and to come to understand they may no longer be needed. The creates a feedback loop of love rather than criticism. Like many others, I’m grateful for how my drive galvanizes me to create and achieve, but work to keep it in check so it doesn’t tip the balances too far and lead to self-destruction. Finally, I find self-deprecation is like salt: just enough can bring out the flavor in food, can level any perceived power discrepancies between people and create a space for connection; too much overrides everything and devolves into awkwardness.

So many more…

3691 words is enough for one day. Can’t do any more. I meant to write about faith (as a non-religious person), love for all mankind, love for a subset of mankind (like womankind), love as striving, love for teachers and mentors, and love of beauty. I’ll likely withhold them unless readers request otherwise.


*Guy Debord is best known for The Society of the Spectacle, which critiques first-generation Marxist thought that religion, politics, and ideologies are nothing but superstructure mirages built upon underlying economic realities–where history unfolds towards the inevitable end of the proletariat coming into awareness that they deserve more, thereby toppling greedy capitalists and instituting equality once and for all–by showing that, in the age of mass media, the spectacle has primacy over economic, material reality, guiding and shaping our tastes and understanding of who we are and what is essential, as we lose touch with what we actually want and need and become worse than automata. It’s not that different from what we read about today with fake news; it is different from insipid impact of personalization in that it promotes collective delusions rather than filter bubbles. There is a small group of die-hard Debordists around the world, including Ken Knabb, who, if I’m not mistaken, lives in a lighthouse near Oakland and still embodies the renegade spirit of what San Francisco was like in the heyday of City Lights Bookstore (my friend Robin Sloan captures the palimpsestic nature of San Francisco’s hippy-now-technocrat culture masterfully in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore). The most sophisticated of Debord’s projects may be A Game of War, a board game he invented with then-wife Alice Becker-Ho to perform power structures. The folks at the Partially Examined Life (PEL, one of my favorite podcasts) did an episode on The Society of Spectacle late last year; worth a listen if you’re curious.

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Debord and his wife Alice Becker-Ho playing Le Jeu de la Guerre. I consider this not a real game, but an artist staging a theory of political resistance by pretending to have made a game that embodies principles of Clausewitz’s theories on war. It was, after all, the 60s and 70s.

**Donné is a man of many talents and deep erudition. After our dinner, he sent me multiple recordings of Bach masses to help make the case that the modulation from d-minor to D-Major about two thirds of the way into the Bach Chaconne is a musical representation of grace, a citation of a mass Bach had written to lament the passing of a woman he loved.

***Michael Lewis’s Undoing Project is well worth the read. Kahneman was also featured on last week’s 100th episode of the Hidden Brain podcast.

****Another great recent PEL podcast is the March 5 episode on ethics in Homer’s Odyssey. Hospitality was a big part of ancient Greek ethics and is still a big part of what it means to be a good human in many cultures. We don’t focus on it enough in North America.

*****We tend to remember Smith for the Wealth of Nations, but Smith diehards, like Russ Roberts of Econtalk, all think The Theory of Moral Sentiments is the real masterpiece. I’m planning to dig back into it as I’m taken by the idea that commerce is a forum for ethical growth given that we need to regulate our emotions to get along with strangers. The workplace is similar (depending on the culture).

That’s me and my mom in the featured image. We were in Jamaica. I believe I was a senior in college. A few months later I moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where I spent a year between undergrad and grad school at, perhaps, the apex of my striving. I was a dogged learner. It took me eight months to learn German well enough to pass the Grosses Deutsche Sprachdiplom, which is the most advanced of the language tests offered by the Goethe Institut. While there, I wrote my first literary non-fiction work, Inlets of Tonic. I wanted my writing to heal my mother. I wanted to absorb and erase all the pain she’d experienced, propose a way to reinterpret the past that would free her to love herself more fully. It was a Jesus move, I wanted to take on the sins of everyone else so they could be happy. My father read the story and said I didn’t understand the emotional dynamics at play; I’m not sure he understood that my purpose was to rewrite history, not understand it.

Love | An Incomplete Taxonomy

Love is multivalent.

As with qualia, a term some philosophers use to refer to individual instances of subjective, conscious experience, “the ways things seem to us” (Dennett), how a glass of wine tastes, what the particular richness of a crimson velvet dress in a Singer Sargent painting or Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander evokes in you or in me, there’s likely no way to know if love means the same thing to each of us. It may well be ethically preferable to have as many kinds of love as there are instances of its expression, be that to celebrate and respect a person or object we love in her individuality, to more fully cherish the details and differences, or to awaken our minds and hearts to the nuances of what it can feel like to be in the world, to refine our emotional palette through practice as we do with taste buds, each next sip of wine or pu’erh or Himalayan pink salt shifting ever so slightly the weights in our neural network, sharpening our perceptive capacities as we interact and engage.

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A velvet dress, or perhaps a velvet wall behind oiled lampshades (detail from La verre de porto)

But love is also the word known to all men.* An indelible universal. So recognizable that it feels like a crime to utter it prematurely, that it must preserve its status as sacred and rare to carry with it the power of discrimination, of choosing the partner who can promise transcendence, to betoken the uniqueness of a connection and conjure the mild guilt and embarrassment of not being able to say I love you in return. Or to mark the milestone of a phase shift, when it suddenly feels unnatural not to end a phone call by saying I love you, and from whence, ever forward, there is no phone call or parting that does not end with an expression of love.

I don’t think I’m overthinking things if I think through the various types of love that are actively shaping my own experience on this March 10, 2018. It’s hard to expose writing about love to the public: I fear criticism, fear exposure, would prefer to stay safe behind the abstractions of technology and math, prefer to be seen amidst the pantheon of men rather than degraded to tabloid femininity. But my writing habits have gone slack and pudgy, and, as productivity gurus or psychological hackers like Ryan Holiday or Tim Ferriss or Patrycja Slawuta or Nir Eyal would say, I need to make it easy to get started again so it becomes impossible to rationalize an excuse. This is what’s on my mind and in my heart. I’ll brave the exposure as a means of getting back on track.

What follows, then, is a sample of the kinds of love that currently shape how I live in the world. How beautiful that they may be like water around me: Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere. This list is far from exhaustive, but I’ll give until I’m too exhausted to give any more.

Metta (loving kindness)

People frequently ask what kind of meditation I practice (and teach, as I’ve started leading a (very small!) meditation group at work). The question makes me uncomfortable because I feel it exposes me as a dilettante for not aligning myself with a particular school. I guess my standard style falls under the general rubric of mindfulness, as I’ve learned most of the techniques in yoga classes and do things like alternate restrictions on breathing across nostrils (pranayama), slow my breath cycles to 30 seconds in and 30 seconds out (it’s pretty cool to do one breath per minute), focus my attention on sensations in one local part of my body (like my second toe on my right foot), or scan my body for tension from the top of my head down to the bottom of the soles of my feet. Sometimes I repeat mantras (which I believe is transcendental meditation, although I have to admit I don’t really know what that means). Very infrequently I visualize beings and try to imagine myself being like them. Often when I meditate before writing in the morning, all I end up doing is composing and playing around with ideas in my head. I like doing walking meditations and focusing on all the sensations around me. Or eating meditations, where I pay attention to each bite. I’ve had moments where I’ve completely failed to meditate because I am unravelled by the intensity of an emotional situation. I have yet to fully incorporate meditation into stressful situations, but am getting better at it with each passing day and year. I love how the characters in Dune turn to their breath for mastery in each moment, blue eyes emanating excellence.

One technique I cherish in particular is metta meditation. Metta is normally translated as loving kindness. Don’t let the awkwardness of the term turn you away from its salutatory power. The foundation of metta is to wish well being in the world, where well being means being free from suffering. The tradition characterizes the state of being free from suffering as being safe, happy, healthy, and full of ease. As opposed to wishing for safety, happiness, healthfulness, and peace in general, the practice bids us to direct attention towards various people who cause different kinds of emotions in us. The progression I’ve learned is:

  • Direct metta towards yourself, saying “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be full of ease.”
  • Direct metta towards someone you love, saying “May (s)he be safe. May (s)he be happy. May (s)he be healthy. May (s)he be full of ease.”
  • Direct metta towards a mentor or teacher who is helping you.
  • Direct metta towards someone completely neutral.
  • Direct metta towards someone you don’t like or you are having a hard time with.
  • Direct metta towards all beings.

My emotions tend to evolve in predictable ways when I practice metta. The first act of love and kindness towards myself feels like a mere formalism, with the exception of “may I be full of ease.” Ease is meaningful because it signals relief from the familiar dialogue of anxiety and self-hatred. In the latest Tim Ferriss podcast, Buddhist practioner and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield comments on the fact that self-flagellation is a Western endemic: the Dalai Lama found the concept completely illogical when he first heard of it! Kornfield powerfully and astutely shows how we can even come to love our self-hatred as a thinking tool that served as protector and shield in the past, but that ossifies into a useless habit when we gain the strength and wisdom to move beyond it. A bit like celibacy in the Catholic church, which played an economic function in distribution of wealth in feudal societies but has since come to be an ideological restriction repressing natural sexuality and leading to abuse and sex scandals.

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Always loved this image from the inimitable Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings

The joy of metta starts in the movement from self to lover and teacher. I love taking the time to focus on the man I love, to reflect on areas where he may not be happy or thriving and to think about what I might do to bring about greater well being. I love visualizing him and reliving particular moments. I love basking in the warmth and glow of gratitude towards my mentors, finding I often return to the same few people who have patiently accompanied me through so the repetitions of the same mistakes and same dialogues again and again and again. I love deepening my awareness of the humanity that is always around us by focusing my neutral metta at a homeless person I crossed on the street or a stranger who smiled slightly when we passed by one another or someone who sat next to me at a basketball game or a colleague I don’t spend enough time with. Most importantly, I love how my shoulders relax and ease enters naturally when I direct wishes of well being towards someone I am struggling with. I find this simple act of wishing someone who has hurt me–or perhaps who has done nothing wrong except be a catalyst for feelings of self-hatred as I grapple with my own mistakes (anger is a very rare emotion for me, as I transform it into guilt and self-recrimination)–almost instantaneously rewrites my interpretation of what the other’s motives and intentions may have been, and enables me to see him or her from a place of charity and compassion. The possibility of negativity washes away into equanimity. It feels like the way I want to live. I have always felt immense calm embodying a sense of self as unified with everyone and everything else, self not only as species consciousness but as world consciousness, incidentally caught in the limitations of subjectivity. Morality feels different when we move from the utilitarian principles of negative liberty, where our actions may be unfettered unless and until they harm another, to recognizing that others are also us. The golden rule becomes tautological, reciprocal. Wishing well being for another is the same as wishing it for ourselves. This feeling of love is always available. It is a way of being with and in oneself that connects oneself to everyone and everything. It is always there, if we choose to look.

What I’ve learned while writing this is that my deepest and purest act of metta towards myself occurs when I love those I am struggling with.

Loving, not liking

My violin teacher at Stanford, Anthony Doheny, had an immensely positive impact on my life. It was with him that I learned that music is a conversation without words, a back and forth where you listen to the dynamics and speed and cadences of your partner and imitate, with variation and difference, to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That the fusion of two people truly playing together, truly communicating, can compensate for any lack in technical virtuosity and rigor; sure, it would have been even better if I took the time to master the difficult sixteenth note passages, but I played with Tony with a different mindset than available before. I played with him.

And our conversation was about more than just music. Tony would pay attention to my emotions and my state of being, and play the piano part of the Brahms violin sonata in d minor just a tad bit louder when he recognized I had demons to exorcise. He knew his playing louder would inspire me to express more, would increase my catharsis, because we were indeed conversing and not just playing separately. He knew why I played; that, at my age, I wasn’t looking for technical mastery, but for expression and joy, for a place to focus my attention while creating music, for a focused reprieve from the pain of my day to day.

One day I walked in and was complaining about a woman in my graduate program I didn’t like much. As standard, my attention focused nearly exclusively on the things I didn’t have, on my failures and shortcomings, on the people who didn’t like me, rather than on all the people who love me and respond well to me, the positive things in my life. His advice was wonderful: “you don’t have to like everyone,” he said, “but you do have to love everyone.”

Monogamous relationships

I can’t write about this in the particular. It’s too private. I’ve dated men of many ages, shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and degrees of emotional availability. People have judged my relationships; I have suffered because I followed my somewhat unorthodox heart but wanted to nonetheless be approved and rewarded as if I followed standard social conventions. That didn’t work. I’m still friends with many former partners, which makes me enormously happy. I’ve messed up bad a few times and have had moments of incredible compassion when I’ve come to experience for myself, in a subsequent relationship, some emotional state I had put a former partner through in the past. When possible, I’ve reached out to apologize and express my compassion. I’ve grown. I laugh at all the shit I did in the past to these poor men who stuck with me for god knows what reason. When I was young, it look me a long time to say I love you. I wanted to mean it. I wanted it to look like it does in fairy tales. The older I get, the more freely I love. The word is not cheapened, but its scope is expanded. I no longer believe in “the one”; I’ve loved too many times and different partners have introduced me to different aspects of myself and stimulated growth in different ways. I believe what I seek–or at least have sought–from relationships lies in the sparse air atop Maslow’s hierarchy (oh those naïve visions of martyrdom as some form of transcendence!). I am gradually learning to temper my yearnings. The purpose of tragedies, after all, is to provide a fictional, protected space to exercise and exorcise surging emotions; they’re not good handbooks for living. Hours and hours and hours of draining emotional energy have been spent coming to learn that lesson.

Erotic love

Another one I don’t want to write about. I’ll share a few things I find philosophically interesting.

I love how Kamala, the sexual mentor in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, teaches the protagonist that what’s unique about sex is that it’s an act where the best way for a woman to give is to take. Too much focus on the other will never lead to an orgasm. There needs to be some willingness to take and to take care of oneself, and yet this is often best achieved by the ability to satisfy and stimulate the other. That’s why there’s such a difference between great sex and making love and just passive receipt of physical pleasure.

I love how Jean-Luc Marion defines what he calls the erotic phenomenon, where one’s sense of self becomes totally relative to the imagined physical and psychological situation of the other. Where phenomenology cracks at the seams and the center of gravity shifts to be entangled with what we imagine and experience as the presence of a lover. How magical.

I’m not the first person to say that my most powerful and purely joyful sexual experiences have resulted in an experience of focused synesthetic attention and flow. My psychology has been all over the map depending on the man, but the moments I cherish most are those that offer a rescinding of the ego and an aware becoming of movement and sensation. That’s not animalistic. It’s quite spiritual.

Love for colleagues and students

In Plato’s Symposium, the character Phaedrus commented on the power of male sexuality to improve bravery in the military. The argument is that a soldier in love with a fellow soldier would be spurred to incredible feats of bravery and self-sacrifice to protect the loved one. We see the same in Homer’s Iliad, where Patroclus sacrifices himself to protect Achilles; it’s never made explicit that the two are lovers but there are enough clues to lead us to believe that’s the case.

Our culture is quite different from that of the ancient Greeks. Most militaries have a vastly different stance towards homosexuality. I’m not even sure where to start in commenting on potential erotic relationships between colleagues in the age of Harvey Weinstein, Travis Kalanick, and Donald Trump. And it’s not what I want to comment on either. I want to comment on an act of love that is about supporting the growth and expansion of younger colleagues and students.

As I prioritize my activities at the beginning of each work week, I ask myself what I can do to provide a platform for achievement for others in my company and what activities are best carried out on my own. My colleague Jason Silver has inspired me here by his strong and selfless example. It feels good to achieve, to set ever higher goals and do what it takes to accomplish them; there’s a sense of satisfaction that arises from setting an example for others. But it feels 65809090432 times better to enable others to achieve and grow. For me, then, loving my colleagues is synonymous with a style of leadership, and with careful craftsmanship. A leader needs to shape opportunities or goals for junior colleagues that can at once push them beyond the familiar, but are scoped tightly enough to enable achievement in a reasonably short period of time. The sense of satisfaction that results is marvelous. When I look back on professional accomplishments, what sticks out are others’ wins, not my own.

I’ll close this section with a note I sent to my female colleagues in honor of international women’s day:

Recently, my dear friend John Alber wrote me a note to tell me I have been given an immensely wonderful gift, the gift of responsibility, the gift of being able to marry strength with vulnerability, power with pain, competitive spirit and striving for excellence with deep, deep compassion for all other beings, as all other beings are myself. At 33, without children of my own, the example I can set is to be a beacon of possibility for so many women in the world; for our teammates here at integrate.ai as for the thousands of young girls I’ve met and worked to set an example for since joining integrate.ai last year. I am often overwhelmed by this responsibility, and amazed that, somehow, the universe has granted me this gift. I’m coming to accept it, and the willingness to do so is galvanized by the awareness that it is by revealing and sharing our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, our love, that we can give real strength to others.

Love for those who have died

I have yet to lose someone whose death would tear me asunder. I have been fortunate. My father had a heart attack last January. He is just fine, but it was the first time I had to sit on the plane for six hours, from New York to San Francisco, not knowing if he’d be alive on the other side. I still remember the afternoon with acute clarity, remember running the bath water in my tub in my Brooklyn apartment, remember how the faucet had these little acid pockmarks on it, which, in my memory’s eye, become associated with rusty water even though the water was never rusty, remember my mother calling as I drew the bath, calling from Paris hysterical to tell me I had to go to the airport immediately because he was all alone, remember the determination, how easy it is to act when we need to, how easy to drop everything and execute even though only a small fraction of our mind is there, remember calling my friend Yaro and asking him to stay and take care of my father, remember the sensation of relief and humor when he was ok. I have relived what it felt like to be on the plane, not knowing if he’d be alive on the other side, many times; it orients me, prioritizes what matters, shows me how deeply I love my father. It would shake me deeply to lose him, as it would shake me to lose my mother or my brother.

The loss I’ve experienced at losing a few lovers has also felt like they have died. It elicits a wailing mourning like Italian widows with shoulders bent over graves, a mourning that incapacitates and dampens the rest of the world behind a curtain of emotion. I can do nothing but restlessly wander around the city. Aimless days etched with loss. But they are still alive, and I hold back the desires to reach out and express how frequently I think about them. These are loves of omission. I take solace in directing metta their way and recognizing that to reach out would be more about myself than about them.

My love for my late grandfather, who died 2 years ago, and aunt Leslie, who recently died from pancreatic cancer, expresses itself in vivid images and memories. The images are always joyful. I see them dancing, I see them smiling, the energy they have emitted into the world is full of lessons of the preciousness of daily acts of kindness. I don’t think of them every day, but when I do they pop up with the vividness of Proust’s childhood after biting into the Madeleine and they are so terribly present it’s as if I were just with them yesterday. The difference is that they won’t be there tomorrow, that the dinner table conversation won’t ever be quite the same. I don’t understand why the Christian church required an imagined future life as a place to recover and find lost ones again. There is much more palpable and tangible hope in seeing traits of the dead alive in their children, alive in how the world is different because they acted in it.

Love as practice

There are many more kinds of love, each mapping to the different kinds of relationships we can enter into and the way these relationships engage and challenge the ever-evolving way of being we call the self. At the root of all of it, I believe, is our essence as social beings. Each kind of love is a mode of being created in conjunction with and connection to another, a style of action that seeks fusion rather than difference, even though sometimes–most times–the act of love is to step back and enable the difference rather than imposing interpretation or control.

The act of love I extend towards myself in writing like this is one of abandonment, of hoping that things that feel meaningful to me won’t be ridiculed by others. My experience has shown that expressions of vulnerability empower. Should this attempt to get back into writing empower one other person, it will have been time well spent.


*”Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. . . . What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.” People think of James Joyce as esoteric and impenetrable. Are you fucking kidding me? This language pulses. He offers a simplicity underneath all the complexity.

I struggled to find a good image to represent this post! Tons of bad ones, including many photos of tattoos with the Greek word agape–love for God and all beings–all over people’s bodies. I decided to go with this fresco of a banquet at a tomb in the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter in the Via Labicana in Rome. I don’t have a great reason why. 

Of Thread and Mermen

I bought a dress Tuesday evening. It’s silk and it billows, the cut loose, elegant, harkening flappers and 1930s France. The print seems sampled directly from a Wes Anderson film. Featured in the image above, it has a Jerry Garcia merman with sunglasses and a ping pong paddle rippling regularly across the silk. The design house, La Prestic Ouiston*, hails from a family that maintains a traditional oyster farm in Brittany. The brand’s manifesto celebrates “craft, tradition, virtuosity, always [seeking] to work and to hightlight** the craftsmanship of artisans by producing unique pieces such as garments with embroideries hand-made in Rwanda or clogs made in Brittany and painted in Paris by an artist.” It’s a small brand that proclaims the local, that “dedicates itself to the return of slow fashion.” The silk is infused with mists from the nearby salt marshes in Guérande, it billows brine gusts and ocean raked into flat white squares. Eyes closed, I imagine walking in merman silk barefoot, bare legged, over the desiccated marshes, shaved salt embedded flake by flake into foot arches, falling flake by flake back to a new place of rest, ever migrant with the opalescent tides. Oysters turgid under rugged shells, their taste reminiscent of our common ancestry as ocean. Sweat and blood betokening a past too old to be remembered but by cortisol and heartbreak.***

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The salt marshes in Guérande, just south of Brittany, where you can find the La Maison Mer oyster farm affiliated with La Prestic Ouiston. I visited the marshes in the summer of 2009, learning that the fleur de sel is the crystal crust that forms atop the rectangular marshes. They still use rakes to shave off the salt, collecting it into piles like those in the photo.

I purchased the dress at GASPARD, my favourite clothing boutique in Toronto. The owners are attentive and visionary; they comb the world to find designers with beautiful clothing backed by stories and introduce their unique clothing to Toronto. The first time I visited, I immediately felt the ease and grace of a new relationship. I told Ayalah, who was working at the boutique when I bought the dress, that I speak in public frequently and was excited to wear such a rad dress on a panel the next day. She invited me to send photos in the dress to Richard, one of GASPARD’s owners, as it was currently his favourite. And then she asked if work ever paid for my wardrobe, given my public-facing role. I laughed the idea off as absurd, as I work for a small startup and can only imagine what our controller would think if I included a line item for a merman dress on my January expense report.

But her suggestion sparked an idea. How awesome would it be to collaborate with a design house like La Prestic Ouiston on a wardrobe for talks and public appearances, to design an identity either tailored to or able to challenge an audience, in the same way that, as speaker, I shift my approach, content, and tone depending on whether I’m addressing a super technical artificial intelligence research audience, a super practical business audience who need just enough technical detail to feel empowered but not so much as to feel alienated, a passionate and righteous sociology and critical theory audience who want to unpack the social implications of new technologies and do something to fix them, or a muted, constrained policy audience fascinated by the potential of a new conceptual framework to think about what it might mean to regulate AI but trapped within the confines of legal precedent and the broad strokes of the electorate?

What I imagine isn’t sponsorship à la Tiger Woods or pick your favourite athlete. It isn’t trendsetting or luxury branding à la pick your favourite actress wearing Alexander McQueen or Dior or Armani or Gucci or Carolina Herrera on the red carpet at the Oscars. It’s more like Bowie or Lady Gaga or Madonna, Protean shapeshifters whose songs and performances embody a temporary persona that vanishes into something new in the next project. I imagine a collaboration with an artist or designer. Couture not as fitting a dress to individual proportions but as context, each performance exposing its roots, not just measuring bust and waistlines but identity and persona, my providing constraints and parameters and abandoning myself to the materials, shapes, patterns, folds, twists, buttons, sleeves, lengths, tones, textures the designer felt appropriate for a given performance. Not unlike the dance between authorship and abandonment Kyle McDonald experiences in algorithmic art, where the coder sets the initial parameters of the algorithm and experiences what results. Design a mode of creation girding both fashion and product marketing, both ethnographies of what exists today, techniques to tweeze out mental models that guide behaviour and experience and emotion, but that always go beyond observation, that infuse empiricism with the intuition of what could be possible, of how today’s behaviours could be improved, changed, optimized to create something new.

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Kyle McDonald has been working a lot of algorithmically generated music of late, and featured this image on a recent post about using neural nets for music.

I knew from the outset the idea would be polarizing. Fashion and brand sponsorship is at home in sports because athletes are more than athletes; they are cultural icons. It’s at home in entertainment, where physical appearance and beauty are part and parcel of stardom, whether we like it or not. But it’s not at home in math, quantitative fields in academia, or technology. Which is why the topic is thorny, uncomfortable, interesting.

I was concerned about the potential negative reaction to the very post I’m writing (you’re reading) so shopped the idea with a few people to tally reactions.****

Those in fashion were non-plussed: “Fashion x public figures is as old as bread, it’s just a question of finding someone up for a collaboration.”

The way I engage with my younger, technical, male colleagues inspired a presentation of the idea as an act of badass empowerment. They saw and heard what they normally see and hear from me. I could have been talking about research. I could have been talking about speaking on cybersecurity to a bunch of generals. They didn’t hear me speak about fashion. They heard the persona I embody when I work with them, one where I am at once trusted mentor and role model for the leadership positions they want to occupy someday. My being a woman in amazing clothes on stage was a means of embodying something empowering for them, perhaps even masculine.

My ambitious, female colleague, passionate about diversity and inclusion and also interested in clothing and style, said, “gosh, can I do that too?” She and I inhabit our positions as strong women in technology differently. A jack of all trades, she owned branding efforts early on and got excited about the prospect of our having bright pink business cards. I was appalled, as I couldn’t imagine myself giving a bright pink business card to the scientists and executives I typically engage with at conferences. At the time, I felt it was important to deliberately embody androgyny, but elegant androgyny, to wear a-lines and black and neutral professional clothing, but nonetheless extremely feminine clothing, this subtle dance that both erases and underlines gender, but that is so much different from the direct statement of hot pink. Grappling with the difference teases out the subtleties here.

Friends who openly eschew gender essentialism commented on the thorniness of the issue, likely engaging with my own hesitation, which muted the brazen excitement I embody with my younger colleagues. Here conversations waxed consequentialist, focusing on the fact that, whether intended or not, deliberately collaborating with a designer would reinforce stereotypes aligning women with clothing, while brogrammers perform nonchalance in, well, standard brogrammer garb or icons like Steve Jobs perform aestheticism that indexes the life of the mind by donning plain black sweater uniforms. I worried.

Some admonished me for pursuing the project, commenting on my responsibility to the brand identity of the various organizations with which I am associated professionally. This harkened the split ethical imperatives I explored in Censorship and the Liberal Arts. For indeed, as professionals we sign a social contract where we trade unadulterated free speech and expression for the benefits of collaborating with others to build something and do something we’d be unable to accomplish ourselves. But the line between personal and professional brand is anything but clear, and varies greatly between companies and contexts. As evidenced by his world-class out-of-office emails*****, my partner John Frankel at ffVC falls a few standard deviations from the norm, while also insisting on rigour and consistency on the firm’s positions on investment theses. Friends in government rarely express their personal opinions, ever beholden to their duties as representatives of a public body. This forces the question of how much the integrate.ai brand, for example, stands for personal expression. The nuances here are as delicate as those related to feminine identity: it’s our responsibility to embody the brand that supports our business goals, but I’ve always found that success emerges from the breath of fresh air promoted by authenticity.

What do I think?

I doubt the collaboration will come to be, at least not anytime soon. I spent a few days inhabiting an imaginary potential, thinking about how fun it would be to co-create outfits for different performances, one day a boxy Yamamoto, the next a flowery Dior, the next a Katharine Hepburn-inspired pants suit to index a potential future in politics. I remembered all the articles about Marissa Mayer’s style back in 2013, the fact that her having style was news for the tech industry. I reread Susan Fowler’s post about her disgusting experience at Uber and found another very touching post she wrote about what it feels like to be someone who “wants to know it all,” who lacks a singular destiny. I imagined peppering this post with myriad quotations from Ellen Ullman, my new hero, whose Life in Code I devoured with the attention and curiosity spurred by feeling prose so much in line with my own, by reading a vision of what I’d like to write and become.******  I thought about the responsibilities I have right now as a pseudo-visible woman in technology, as a pseudo-visible woman in venture, as a woman who doesn’t write code (yet!!) but serves as translator between so many different domains, who struggles with her identity but wouldn’t have it any other way, who wants to do what’s right for the thousands and thousands of young women out there watching, dreaming, yearning, ready to do amazing things in the world. I just want them to be themselves and not to fear and to create and to be free to become. To have a voice to shape the world. And to fucking wear beautiful clothing if that makes them happy, and alive.

I wore my merman dress on Wednesday on a panel with my friend Steve Woods and the CEO of Wysdom.AI. The audience comprised mostly men; I felt they paid attention to what I said, not what I wore. On Friday, another strong female leader in the Toronto AI community told me she admires my style, and asked where I buy my clothes. I referred her to GASPARD, delighted to support local entrepreneurs making the world more beautiful.


* It took some digging to find the primary designer behind La Prestic Ouiston. Her name is Laurence Mahéo. She looks unabashedly at the camera in the photos various media outlets have posted about her and her spectacular, singular existence. Her head often tilts slightly to the side. She doesn’t smile widely.

**Typo in the original (English translation from the original French).

***Isak Dinesen understood our oceanic roots, as in one of my favourite quotations: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” I remember hikes up Windy Hill in 2009 and 2010, mourning the loss of my first real love, tears, and sweat, and sea all needed to get back on my feet, love that broke me, that altered my course in life, that changed my emotions ever forward, instilling both negative patterns I still struggle with eight years later and positive patterns, widening my heart and permitting expressiveness I hadn’t known possible there prior. Memories fixed solid in my synapses, of such heightened emotional importance I will carry them with me intact until the day I die. He always knew that the self he saw and enlivened wasn’t the current me but the me he saw I might one day become, knew I was helplessly addicted to this promised self, as I knew he was helplessly addicted to the child I recovered in him, personhood long silenced, but for which he desperately yearned and was grateful to remember existed as a kernel of possibility.

****I had a hell of a time writing One Feminine Identity exactly one year ago today (curious how those things work; my father had a heart attack exactly one year after his father died, as I commemorate in this post). I was dating an ardent feminist at the time, who criticized me for the lack of rigour and systematicity in my approach to female empowerment. His critique lodged itself in my superego and bastardized my writing. I hedged so as not to offend anyone with what I assumed were offensive positions. Then, two other friends read the piece and criticized the hedging! I learned something.

*****This week, John’s out-of-office email featured this poem, which I sent to two colleagues as I felt they’d appreciate it:

Life is like a grain of sand;
it can slip through your fingers
at any time and be lost forever.
We must enjoy every minute
while we have it
in case that too
slips through our fingers.
Love is a fleeting thing
that passes all too quickly through our lives
unless we grasp it tightly
never letting it go.
Our lives are like a grain of sand
and will slip through our fingers
before we get to enjoy it thoroughly.
A Grain of Sand by David Harris

******Here is Ullman giving a talk at Google. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCcVyuq9aRE

I took a photo of the featured image last Tuesday evening with my iPhone. The shadows arise from the ill-fit black plastic cover that partially covers the lens, tailored for a previous iPhone release. The tag on the dress indicates that the merman’s name is Seb le Poisson. Seb is in the closet, awaiting his next appearance. I write in my pyjamas. 

before the beginning

and we wake up into form

beloved effortlessness before the voices return

just beneath the silence, the tohu wa-bohu hums its river song, ferments past mistakes in hurricane wreckage, drowns cows whose bells got stuck under children’s car seats, brands now blurry with moss

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William de Brailes’ 13th-century depiction of god creating heaven and earth from the tohu wa-bohu, the confusion and emptiness that predates creation. Matter before spirit, even in the book of Genesis.

blank-slated hope wobbles its stilts into Rorschach formations and Voronoi tessellations, generating form for its own sake, as so many ptyxs replicating themselves silly, aural inanity mitosis amok, while Herod steeps his niece’s left rib as she dances under seven veils

he sullies her under his touch, the dice roll slant

for our past accompanies us, stinging lapses of integrity, unable to be undone, fixed like firmament stars; even if we forgive, it’s probable she won’t, at least not anytime soon

we have no choice but to wash our guilt in responsibility, to transubstantiate our past in performances blessed by heavy habits’ habit

the new year brings saints Gildas (the historian) and Bieuzy (the rabies curer), who learned healing by osmosis in their mountain chapel; saints teaching us that three walls suffice, that more is clutter

be it with quiet circumspection that we inhabit our poppy and recollection

this moment where we wake up into form

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In 538, Gildas and Bieuzy shared a grotto in the space now occupied by a small chapel built right into the mountains in Brittany. The chapel has been there since the fifteenth century. To visit, you have to park your car about a quarter mile away and walk through a forest. When I visited in 2009, I felt like I was transported into the Virgin Spring.

The featured image is from Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring (link to a full feature on YouTube, although it’s in Swedish without subtitles; one benefit of not understanding the dialogue is that you can see the jealousy and pain on the female character’s face. Bergman always mastered the underbelly of female psychology.). Here, Max von Sydow, who also played the existentially fraught knight in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, prepares an act of elemental violence; he wrestles down the tree and hits himself with cut branches in the sauna. His jealous lover watches him beat his chest, her pregnant belly protruding damply into her listless legs, posture sloping under bored indifference. 

Exploration-Exploitation and Life

There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one. – Kazuo Ishiguro

On April 18, 2016*, I attended an NYAI Meetup** featuring a talk by Columbia Computer Science Professor Dan Hsu on interactive learning. Incredibly clear and informative, the talk slides are worth reviewing in their entirety. But one in particular caught my attention (fortunately it summarizes many of the subsequent examples):

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From Dan Hsu’s excellent talk on interactive machine learning

It’s worth stepping back to understand why this is interesting.

Much of the recent headline-grabbing progress in artificial intelligence (AI) comes from the field of supervised learning. As I explained in a recent HBR article, I find it helpful to think of supervised learning like the inverse of high school algebra:

Think back to high school math — I promise this will be brief — when you first learned the equation for a straight line: y = mx + b. Algebraic equations like this represent the relationship between two variables, x and y. In high school algebra, you’d be told what m and b are, be given an input value for x, and then be asked to plug them into the equation to solve for y. In this case, you start with the equation and then calculate particular values.

Supervised learning reverses this process, solving for m and b, given a set of x’s and y’s. In supervised learning, you start with many particulars — the data — and infer the general equation. And the learning part means you can update the equation as you see more x’s and y’s, changing the slope of the line to better fit the data. The equation almost never identifies the relationship between each x and y with 100% accuracy, but the generalization is powerful because later on you can use it to do algebra on new data. Once you’ve found a slope that captures a relationship between x and y reliably, if you are given a new x value, you can make an educated guess about the corresponding value of y.

Supervised learning works well for classification problems (spam or not spam? relevant or not for my lawsuit? cat or dog?) because of how the functions generalize. Effectively, the “training labels” humans provide in supervised learning assign categories, tokens we affiliate to abstractions from the glorious particularities of the world that enable us to perceive two things to be similar. Because our language is relatively stable (stable does not mean normative, as Canadian Inuit perceive snow differently from New Yorkers because they have more categories to work with), generalities and abstractions are useful, enabling the learned system to act correctly in situations not present in the training set (e.g., it takes a hell of a long time for golden retrievers to evolve to be indistinguishable from their great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers, so knowing what one looks like on April 18, 2016 will be a good predictor of what one looks like on December 2, 2017). But, as Rich Sutton*** and Andrew Barto eloquently point out in their textbook on reinforcement learning,

This is an important kind of learning, but alone it is not adequate for learning from interaction. In interactive problems it is often impractical to obtain examples of desired behavior that are both correct and representative of all the situations in which the agent has to act. In uncharted territory—where one would expect learning to be most beneficial—an agent must be able to learn from its own experience.

In his NYAI talk, Dan Hsu also mentioned a common practical limitation of supervised learning, namely that many companies often lack good labeled training data and it can be expensive, even in the age of Mechanical Turk, to take the time to provide labels.**** The core thing to recognize is that learning from generalization requires that future situations look like past situations; learning from interaction with the environment helps develop a policy for action that can be applied even when future situations do not look exactly like past situations. The maxim “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” holds both in a situation where you want to gossip about a colleague and in a situation where you want to criticize a crappy waiter at a restaurant.

In a supervised learning paradigm, there are certainly traps to make faulty generalizations from the available training data. One classic problem is called “overfitting”, where a model seems to do a great job on a training data set but fails to generalize well to new data. But the super critical salient difference Hsu points out in his talk is that, while with supervised learning the data available to the learner is exogenous to the system, with interactive machine learning approaches, the learner’s performance is based on the learner’s decisions and the data available to the world depends on the learner’s decisions. 

Think about that. Think about what that means for gauging the consequences of decisions. Effectively, these learners cannot evaluate counterfactuals: they cannot use data or evidence to judge what would have happened if they took a different action. An ideal optimization scenario, by contrast, would be one where we could observe the possible outcomes of any and all potential decisions, and select the action with the best outcome across all these potential scenarios (this is closer, but not identical, to the spirit of variational inference, but that is a complex topic for another post).

To share one of Hsu’s***** concrete examples, let’s say a website operator has a goal to personalize website content to entice a consumer to buy a pair of shoes. Before the user shows up at the site, our operator has some information about her profile and browsing history, so can use past actions to guess what might be interesting bait to get a click (and eventually a purchase). So, at the moment of truth, the operator says “Let’s show the beige Cole Hann high heels!”, displays the content, and observes the reaction. We’ll give the operator the benefit of the doubt and assume the user clicks, or even goes on to purchase. Score! Positive signal! Do that again in the future! But was it really the best choice? What would have happened if the operator had shown the manipulatable consumer the red Jimmy Choo high heels, which cost $750 per pair rather than a more modest $200 per pair? Would the manipulatable consumer have clicked? Was this really the best action?

The learner will never know. It can only observe the outcome of the action it took, not the action it didn’t take.

The literature refers to this dilemma as the trade-off between exploration and exploitation. To again cite Sutton and Barto:

One of the challenges that arise in reinforcement learning, and not in other kinds of learning, is the trade-off between exploration and exploitation. To obtain a lot of reward, a reinforcement learning agent must prefer actions that it has tried in the past and found to be effective in producing reward. But to discover such actions, it has to try actions that it has not selected before. The agent has to exploit what it already knows in order to obtain reward, but it also has to explore in order to make better action selections in the future. The dilemma is that neither exploration nor exploitation can be pursued exclusively without failing at the task. The agent must try a variety of actions and progressively favor those that appear to be best. On a stochastic task, each action must be tried many times to gain a reliable estimate of its expected reward.

There’s a lot to say about the exploration-exploitation tradeoff in machine learning (I recommend starting with the Sutton/Barto textbook). Now that I’ve introduced the concept, I’d like to pivot to consider where and why this is relevant in honest-to-goodness-real-life.

The nice thing about being an interactive machine learning algorithm as opposed to a human is that algorithms are executors, not designers or managers. They’re given a task (“optimize revenues for our shoe store!”) and get to try stuff and make mistakes and learn from feedback, but never have to go through the soul-searching agony of deciding what goal is worth achieving. Human designer overlords take care of that for them. And even the domain and range of possible data to learn from is constrained by technical conditions: designers make sure that it’s not all the data out there in the world that’s used to optimize performance on some task, but a tiny little baby subset (even if that tiny little baby entails 500 million examples) confined within a sphere of relevance.

Being a human is unfathomably more complicated.

Many choices we make benefit from the luxury of triviality and frequency. “Where should we go for dinner and what should we eat when we get there?” Exploitation can be a safe choice, in particular for creatures of habit. “Well, sweetgreen is around the corner, it’s fast and reliable. We could take the time to review other restaurants (which could lead to the most amazing culinary experience of our entire lives!) or we could not bother to make the effort, stick with what we know, and guarantee a good meal with our standard kale caesar salad, that parmesan crisp thing they put on the salad is really quite tasty…” It’s not a big deal if we make the wrong choice because, low and behold, tomorrow is another day with another dinner! And if we explore something new, it’s possible the food will be just terrible and sometimes we’re really not up for the risk, or worse, the discomfort or shame of having to send something we don’t like back. And sometimes it’s fine to take the risk and we come to learn we really do love sweetbreads, not sweetgreens, and perhaps our whole diet shifts to some decadent 19th-century French paleo practice in the style of des Esseintes.

Des_Esseintes_at_study_Zaidenberg_illustration
Arthur Zaidenberg’s depiction of des Esseintes, decadent hero extraordinaire, who embeds gems into a tortoise shell and has a perfume organ.

Other choices have higher stakes (or at least feel like they do) and easily lead to paralysis in the face of uncertainty. Working at a startup strengthens this muscle every day. Early on, founders are plagued by an unknown amount of unknown unknowns. We’d love to have a magic crystal ball that enables us to consider the future outcomes of a range of possible decisions, and always act in the way that guarantees future success. But the crystal balls don’t exist, and even if they did, we sometimes have so few prior assumptions to prime the pump that the crystal ball could only output an #ERROR message to indicate there’s just not enough there to forecast. As such, the only option available is to act and to learn from the data provided as a result of that action. To jumpstart empiricism, staking some claim and getting as comfortable as possible with the knowledge that the counterfactual will never be explored, and that each action taken shifts the playing field of possibility and probability and certainty slightly, calming minds and hearts. The core challenge startup leaders face is to enable the team to execute as if these conditions of uncertainty weren’t present, to provide a safe space for execution under the umbrella of risk and experiment. What’s fortunate, however, is that the goals of the enterprise are, if not entirely well-defined, at least circumscribed. Businesses exist to turn profits and that serves as a useful, if not always moral, constraint.

Big personal life decisions exhibit further variability because we but rarely know what to optimize for, and it can be incredibly counter-productive and harmful to either constrain ourselves too early or suffer from the psychological malaise of assuming there’s something wrong with us if we don’t have some master five-year plan.

This human condition is strange because we do need to set goals–it’s beneficial for us to consider second- and third-tier consequences, i.e., if our goal is to be healthy and fit, we should overcome the first-tier consequence of receiving pleasure when we drown our sorrows in a gallon of salted caramel ice cream–and yet it’s simply impossible for us to imagine the future accurately because, well, we overfit to our present and our past.

I’ll give a concrete example from my own experience. As I touched upon in a recent post about transitioning from academia to business, one reason why it’s so difficult to make a career change is that, while we never actually predict the future accurately, it’s easier to fear loss from a known predicament than to imagine gain from a foreign predicament.****** Concretely, when I was deciding whether to pursue a career in academia or the private sector in the fifth year in graduate school, I erroneously assumed that I was making a strict binary choice, that going into business meant forsaking a career teaching or publishing. As I was evaluating my decision, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that, a mere two years later, I would be invited to be an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary Faculty of Law, teaching about how new technologies were impacting traditional professional ethics. And I also never imagined that, as I gave more and more talks, I would subsequently be invited to deliver guest lectures at numerous business schools in North America. This path is not necessarily the right path for everyone, but it was and is the right path for me. In retrospect, I wish I’d constructed my decision differently, shifting my energy from fearing an unknown and unknowable future to paying attention to what energized me and made me happy and working to maximize the likelihood of such energizing moments occurring in my life. I still struggle to live this way, still fetishize what I think I should be wanting to do and living with an undercurrent of anxiety that a choice, a foreclosure of possibility, may send me down an irreconcilably wrong path. It’s a shitty way to be, and something I’m actively working to overcome.

So what should our policy be? How can we reconcile this terrific trade-off between exploration and exploitation, between exposing ourselves to something radically new and honing a given skill, between learning from a stranger and spending more time with a loved one, between opening our mind to some new field and developing niche knowledge in a given domain, between jumping to a new company with new people and problems, and exercising our resilience and loyalty to a given team?

There is no right answer. We’re all wired differently. We all respond to challenges differently. We’re all motivated by different things.

Perhaps death is the best constraint we have to provide some guidance, some policy to choose between choice A and choice B. For we can project ourselves forward to our imagined death bed, where we lie, alone, staring into the silent mirror of our hearts, and ask ourselves “Was my life was meaningful?” But this imagined scene is not actually a future state: it is a present policy. It is a principle we can use to evaluate decisions, a principle that is useful because it abstracts us from the mire of emotions overly indexed towards near-term goals and provides us with perspective.

And what’s perhaps most miraculous is that, at every present, we can sit there are stare into the silent mirror of our hearts and look back on the choices we’ve made and say, “That is me.” It’s so hard going forward, and so easy going backward. The proportion of what may come wanes ever smaller than the portion of what has been, never quite converging until it’s too late, and we are complete.


*Thank you, internet, for enabling me to recall the date with such exacting precision! Using my memory, I would have deduced the approximate date by 1) remembering that Robert Colpitts, my boyfriend at the time (Godspeed to him today, as he participates in a sit-a-thon fundraiser for the Interdependence Project in New York City, a worthy cause), attended with me, recalling how fresh our relationship was (it had to have been really fresh because the frequency with which we attended professional events together subsequently declined), and working backwards from the start to find the date; 2) remembering what I wore! (crazy!!), namely a sheer pink sleeveless shirt, a pair of wide-legged white pants that landed just slightly above the ankle and therefore looked great with the pair of beige, heeled sandals with leather so stiff it gave me horrific blisters that made running less than pleasant for the rest of the week. So I’d recently purchased those when my brother and his girlfriend visited, which was in late February (or early March?) 2016; 3) remembering that afterwards we went to some fast food Indian joint nearby in the Flatiron district, food was decent but not good enough to inspire me to return. So that would put is in the March-April, 2016 range, which is close but not the exact April 18. That’s one week after my birthday (April 11); I remember Robert and I had a wonderful celebration on my birthday. I felt more deeply cared for than I had in any past birthdays. But I don’t remember this talk relative to the birthday celebration (I do remember sending the marketing email to announce the Fast Forward Labs report on text summarization on my birthday, when I worked for half day and then met Robert at the nearby sweetgreen, where he ordered, as always, (Robert is a creature of exploitation) the kale caesar salad, after which we walked together across the Brooklyn Bridge to my house, we loved walking together, we took many, many walks together, often at night after work at the Promenade, often in the morning, before work, at the Promenade, when there were so few people around, so few people awake). I must say, I find the process of reconstructing when an event took place using temporal landmarks much more rewarding than searching for “Dan Hsu Interactive Learning NYAI” on Google to find the exact date. But the search terms themselves reveal something equally interesting about our heuristic mnemonics, as every time we reconstruct some theme or topic to retrieve a former conversation on Slack.

**Crazy that WeWork recently bought Meetup, although interesting to think about how the two business models enable what I am slowly coming to see as the most important creative force in the universe, the combinatory potential of minds meeting productively, where productively means that each mind is not coming as a blank slate but as engaged in a project, an endeavor, where these endeavors can productively overlap and, guided by a Smithian invisible hand, create something new. The most interesting model we hope to work on soon at integrate.ai is one that optimizes groups in a multiplayer game experience (which we lovingly call the polyamorous online dating algorithm), so mapping personality and playing style affinities to dynamically allocate the best next player to an alliance. Social compatibility is a fascinating thing to optimize for, in particular when it goes beyond just assembling a pleasant cocktail party to pairing minds, skills, and temperaments to optimize the likelihood of creating something beautiful and new.

***Sutton has one of the most beautiful minds in the field and he is kind. He is a person to celebrate. I am grateful our paths have crossed and thoroughly enjoyed our conversation on the In Context podcast.

***Maura Grossman and Gordon Cormack have written countless articles about the benefits of using active learning for technology assisted review (TAR), or classifying documents for their relevance for a lawsuit. The tradeoffs they weigh relate to system performance (gauged by precision and recall on a document set) versus time, cost, and effort to achieve that performance.

*****Hsu did not mention Haan or Choo. I added some more color.

******Note this same dynamic occurs in our current fears about the future economy. We worry a hell of a lot more about the losses we will incur if artificial intelligence systems automate existing jobs than we celebrate the possibilities of new jobs and work that might become possible once these systems are in place. This is also due to the fact that the future we imagine tends to be an adaptation of what we know today, as delightfully illustrated in Jean-Marc Côté’s anachronistic cartoons of the year 2000. The cartoons show what happens when our imagination only changes one variable as opposed to a set of holistically interconnected variables.

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19th-century cartoons show how we imagine technological innovations in isolation. That said, a hipster barber shop in Portland or Brooklyn could feature such a palimpsestic combination.

 

The featured image is a photograph I took of the sidewalk on State Street between Court and Clinton Streets in Brooklyn Heights. I presume a bird walked on wet concrete. Is that how those kinds of footprints are created? I may see those footprints again in the future, but not nearly as soon as I’d be able to were I not to have decided to move to Toronto in May. Now that I’ve thought about them, I may intentionally make the trip to Brooklyn next time I’m in New York (certainly before January 11, unless I die between now and then). I’ll have to seek out similar footprints in Toronto, or perhaps the snows of Alberta. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hearing Aids (Or, Metaphors are Personal)

Thursday morning, I gave the opening keynote at an event about the future of commerce at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. I shared four insights:

  • The AI instinct is to view a reasoning problem as a data problem
    • Marketing hype leads many to imagine that artificial intelligence (AI) works like human brain intelligence. Words like “cognitive” lead us to assume that computers think like we think. In fact, succeeding with supervised learning, as I explain in this article and this previous post, involves a shift in perspective to reframe a reasoning task as a data collection task.
  • Advances in deep learning are enabling radical new recommender systems
    • My former colleague Hilary Mason always cited recommender systems as a classic example of a misunderstood capability. Data scientists often consider recommenders to be a solved problem, given the widespread use of collaborative filtering, where systems infer person B’s interests based on similarity with person A’s interests. This approach, however, is often limited by the “cold start” problem: you need person A and person B to do stuff before you can infer how they are similar. Deep learning is enabling us to shift from comparing past transactional history (structured data) to comparing affinities between people and products (person A loves leopard prints, like this ridiculous Kimpton-style robe!). This doesn’t erase the cold start problem wholesale, but it opens a wide range of possibilities because taste is so hard to quantify and describe: it’s much easier to point to something you like than to articulate why you like it.
  • AI capabilities are often features, not whole products
  • AI will dampen the moral benefits of commerce if we are not careful
    • Adam Smith is largely remembered for his theories on the value of the distribution of labor and the invisible hand that guides capitalistic markets. But he also wrote a wonderful treatise on moral sentiments where he argued that commerce is a boon to civilization because it forces us to interact with strangers; when we interact with strangers, we can’t have temper tantrums like we do at home with our loved ones; and this gives us practice in regulating our emotions, which is a necessary condition of rational discourse and the compromise at the heart of teamwork and democracy. As with many of the other narcissistic inclinations of our age, the logical extreme of personalization and eCommerce is a world where we no longer need to interact with strangers, no longer need to practice the art of tempered self-interest to negotiate a bargain. Being elegantly bored at a dinner party can be a salutatory boon to happiness. David Hume knew this, and died happy; Jean-Jacques Rousseau did not, and died miserable.
bill cunningham
This post on Robo Bill Cunningham does a good job explaining how image recognition capabilities are opening new roads in commerce and fashion.

An elderly couple approached me after the talk. I felt a curious sense of comfort and familiarity. When I give talks, I scan the audience for signs of comprehension and approval, my attention gravitating towards eyes that emit kindness and engagement. On Thursday, one of those loci of approval was an elderly gentleman seated in the center about ten rows deep. He and his Russian companion had to have been in their late seventies or early eighties. I did not fear their questions. I embraced them with the openness that only exists when there is no expectation of judgment.

She got right to the point, her accent lilted and slavic. “I am old,” she said, “but I would like to understand this technology. What recommendations would you give to elderly people like myself, who grew up in a different age with different tools and different mores (she looked beautifully put together in her tweed suit), to learn about this new world?”

I told her I didn’t have a good answer. The irony is that, by asking about something I don’t normally think about, she utterly stumped me. But it didn’t hurt to admit my ignorance and need to reflect. By contrast, I’m often able to conjure some plausible response to those whose opinion I worry about most, who elicit my insecurities because my sense of self is wrapped up in their approval. The left-field questions are ultimately much more interesting.

The first thing that comes to mind if we think about how AI might impact the elderly is how new voice recognition capabilities are lowering the barrier to entry to engage with complex systems. Gerontechnology is a thing, and there are many examples of businesses working to build robots to keep the elderly company or administer remote care. My grandmother, never an early adopter, loves talking to Amazon Alexa.

But the elegant Russian woman was not interested in how the technology could help her; She wanted to understand how it works. Democratizing knowledge is harder than democratizing utility, but ultimately much more meaningful and impactful (as a U Chicago alum, I endorse a lifelong life of the mind).

Then something remarkable happened. Her gentleman friend interceded with an anecdote.

“This,” he started, referring to the hearing aid he’d removed from his ear, “is an example of artificial intelligence. You can hear from my accent that I hail from the other side of the Atlantic (his accent was upper-class British; he’d studied at Harvard). Last year, we took a trip back with the family and stayed in quintessential British town with quintessential British pubs. I was elated by the prospect of returning to the locals of my youth, of unearthing the myriad memories lodged within childhood smells and sounds and tastes. But my first visit to a pub was intolerable! My hearing aid had become thoroughly Canadian, adapted to the acoustics of airy buildings where sound is free to move amidst tall ceilings. British pubs are confined and small! They trap the noise and completely bombarded my hearing aid. But after a few days, it adjusted, as these devices are wont to do these days. And this adaptation, you see, shows how devices can be intelligent.”

Of course! A hearing aid is a wonderful example of an adaptive piece of technology, of something whose functionality changes automatically with context. His anecdote brilliantly showed how technologies are always more than the functionalities they provide, are rather opportunities to expose culture and anthropology: Toronto’s adolescence as a city indexed by its architecture, in contrast to the wizened wood of an old-world pub; the frustrating compromises of age and fragility, the nostalgic ideal clipped by the time the device required to recalibrate; the incredible detail of the personal as a theatrical device to illustrate the universal.

What’s more, the history of hearing aids does a nice job illustrating the more general history of technology in this our digital age.

Partial deafness is not a modern phenomenon. As everywhere, the tools to overcome it have changed shape over time.

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This 1967 British Pathé primer on the history of hearing aids is a total trip, featuring radical facial hair and accompanying elevator music. They pay special attention to using the environment to camouflage cumbersome hearing aid machinery.

One thing that stands out when you go down the rabbit hole of hearing aid history is the importance of design. Indeed, historical hearing aids are analogue, not digital. People used to use naturally occurring objects, like shells or horns, to make ear trumpets like the one pictured in the featured image above. Some, including 18th-century portrait painter Joshua Reynolds, did not mind exposing their physical limitations publicly. Reynolds was renowned for carrying an ear trumpet and even represented his partial deafness in self-portraits painted later in life.

reynolds_self_portrait_1775_0
Reynolds’ self-portrait as deaf (1775)

Others preferred to deflect attention from their disabilities, camouflaging their tools in the environment or even transforming them into signals of power. At the height of the Napoleonic Age, King John VI of Portugal commissioned an acoustic throne with two open lion mouths at the end of the arms. These lion mouthes became his makeshift ears, design transforming weakness into a token of strength; Visitors were required to kneel before the chair and speak directly into the animal heads.

acoustic throne
King John VI’s acoustic throne, its lion head ears requiring submission

The advent of the telephone changed hearing aid technology significantly. Since the early 20th century, they’ve gone from being electronic to transistor to digital. Following the exponential dynamics of Moore’s Law, their size has shrunk drastically: contemporary tyrants need not camouflage their weakness behind visual symbols of power. Only recently have they been able to dynamically adapt to their surroundings, as in the anecdote told by the British gentleman at my talk. Time will tell how they evolve in the near future. Awesome machine listening research in labs like those run by Juan Pablo Bello at NYU may unlock new capabilities where aids can register urban mood, communicating the semantics of a surrounding as opposed to merely modulating acoustics. Making sense of sound requires slightly different machine learning techniques than making sense of images, as Bello explores in this recent paper. In 50 years time, modern digital hearing aids may seem as eccentric as a throne with lion-mouth ears.

The world abounds in strangeness. The saddest state of affairs is one of utter familiarity, is one where the world we knew yesterday remains the world we will know tomorrow. Is the trap of the filter bubble, the closing of the mind, the resilient force of inertia and sameness. I would have never included a hearing aid in my toolbox of metaphors to help others gain an intuition of how AI works or will be impactful. For I have never lived in the world the exact same way the British gentleman has lived in the world. Let us drink from the cup of the experiences we ourselves never have. Let us embrace the questions from left field. Let each week, let each day, open our perspectives one sliver larger than the day before. Let us keep alive the temperance of commerce and the sacred conditions of curiosity.


The featured image is of Madame de Meuron, a 20th-century Swiss aristocrat and eccentric. Meuron is like the fusion of Jean des Esseintes–the protagonist of Huysman’s paradigmatic decadent novel, À Rebours, the poisonous book featured in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray–and Gertrude Stein or Peggy Guggenheim. She gives life to characters in Thomas Mann novels. She is a modern day Quijote, her mores and habits out of sync with the tailwinds of modernity. Eccentricity, perhaps, the symptom of history. She viewed her deafness as an asset, not a liability, for she could control the input from her surroundings: “So ghör i nume was i wott! – So I only hear what I want to hear!”

Transitioning from Academia to Business

The wittiest (and longest) tweet thread I saw this week was (((Curtis Perry)))‘s masterful narrative of the life of a graduate student as kin to the life of Job:

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 9.32.17 AM
The first tweet chapter in Perry’s grad student life of Job. For the curious, Perry’s Twitter profile reads: Quinquegenarian lit prof and chronic feeder of Titivillus. Professional perseverator. Fellowship of the half-circle.

The timing of the tweet epic was propitious in my little subjective corner of the universe: Just two days before, I’d given a talk for Stanford’s Humanities Education Focal Group about my transition from being a disgruntled PhD in comparative literature to being an almost-functioning-normal-human-being executive at an artificial intelligence startup and a venture partner at a seed-stage VC firm.

Many of the students who attended the talk, ranging from undergrad seniors to sixth- or seventh-year PhDs, reached out afterwards to thank me and ask for additional advice. It was meaningful to give back to the community I came from and provide advice of a kind I sought but couldn’t find (or, more accurately, wasn’t prepared to listen to) when I struggled during the last two years of my PhD.

This post, therefore, is for the thousands of students studying humanities, fearing the gauntlet of the academic job market, and wondering what they might do to explore a different career path or increase their probability of success once they do. I offer only the anecdotes of one person’s successes and failures. Some things will be helpful for others; some will not. If nothing else, it serves as testimony that people need not be trapped in the annals of homogeneity. The world is a big and mighty place.


Important steps in my transition

Failure

As I narrated in a previous post, I hit rock bottom in my last year of graduate school. I remember sitting in Stanford’s Green Library in a pinnacle of anxiety, festering in a local minimum where I couldn’t write, couldn’t stick with the plan for my dissertation, couldn’t do much of anything besides play game after game of Sudoku to desperately pass the time. I left Stanford for a bit. I stopped trying. Encouraged by my worrying mother, I worked at a soup kitchen in Boston every day, pretending it was my job. I’d go in every day at 7:00 am and leave every afternoon at 3:00 pm. Working with my hands, working for others, gradually nurtured me back to stability.

It was during this mental breakdown that applications for a sixth-year dissertation fellowship were due. I forced myself to write a god awful application in the guest bedroom at my parents’ Boston townhouse. It was indescribably hard. Paralyzed, I submitted an alienated abstract and dossier. A few months later, I received a letter informing me that the Humanities Center committee had rejected my application.

I remember the moment well. I was at Pluto’s salad joint on University Avenue in Palo Alto. By then, I had returned back to Stanford and was working one day per week at Saint Martin’s Soup Kitchen in San Francisco, 15 hours per week at a location-based targeted advertising startup called Vantage Local (now Frequence), 5 hours per week tutoring Latin and Greek around the Valley, playing violin regularly, running, and reserving my morning hours to write. I had found balance, balance fit for my personality and needs. I had started working with a career counselor to consider alternative career paths, but had yet to commit to a move out of academia.

The letter gave me clarity. It was the tipping point I needed to say, that’s it; I’m done; I’m moving on. It did not feel like failure; it felt like relief. My mind started to plot next steps before I finished reading the rejection letter.

Luck

The timing couldn’t have been better. My friend Anaïs Saint-Jude had started Bibliotech,  a forward-thinking initiative devoted to exploring the value graduate-level training in the humanities could provide to technology companies. I was fortunate enough to be one of the students who pitched their dissertation to conference attendees, including Silicon Valley heavyweights like Geoffrey Moore, Edgar Masri, Jeff Thermond, Bob Tinker, and Michael Korcuska, all of whom have since become mentors and friends. My intention to move into the private sector came off loud and clear at the event. Thanks to my internship at the advertising company, I had some exposure to the diction and mores of startups. The connections I made there were invaluable to my career. People opened doors that would have otherwise remained shut. All I needed was the first opportunity, and a few years to recalibrate my sense of self as I adapted to the reward system of the private sector.

Authenticity

I’ve mentored a few students who made similar transitions from academia into tech companies, and all have asked me how to defend their choice of pursuing a PhD instead of going directly into marketing, product, sales, whatever the role may be. Our culture embraces a bizarre essentialism, where we’re supposed to know what we want to be when we grow up from the ripe of old of 14, as opposed to finding ourselves in the self we come to inhabit through the serendipitous meanderings of trial and tribulation. (Ben Horowitz has a great commencement speech on the fallacy of following your passion.) The symptom of this essentialism in the transition from humanities to, say, marketing, is this strange assumption that we need to justify the PhD as playing part of a logical narrative, as some step in a master plan we intended from the beginning.

That just can’t be true. I can’t think of anyone who pursues a PhD in French literature because she feels it’s the most expedient move for a successful career in marketing. We pursue literature degrees because we love literature, we love the life of the mind, we are gluttons for the riches of history and culture. And then we realize that the professional realities aren’t quite what we expected. And, for some of us, acting for our own happiness means changing professions.

One thing I did well in my transition was to remain authentic. When I interviewed and people asked me about my dissertation, I got really great at giving them a 2-minute, crisp explanation of what I wrote about and why it was interesting. What they saw was an ability to communicate a complex topic in simple, compelling words. They saw the marks of a good communicator, which is crucial for enterprise marketing and sales. I never pretended I wanted to be a salesperson. I showed how I had excelled in every domain I’d played in, and could do the same in the next challenge and environment.

Selecting the right opportunity

Every company is different. Truly. Culture, stage, product, ethics, goals, size, role, so many factors contribute to shaping what an experience is like, what one learns in a role, and what future opportunities a present experience will afford.

When I left graduate school, I intentionally sought a mid-sized private company that had a culture that felt like a good fit for a fresh academic. It took some time, but I ended up working at a legaltech startup called Intapp. I wanted an environment where I’d benefit from a mentor (after all, I didn’t really have any business skills besides writing and teaching) and where I would have insight into strategic decisions made by executive management (as opposed to being far removed from executives at a large company like Google or Facebook). Intapp had the right level of nerdiness. I remember talking to the CTO about Confucius during my interviews. I plagued my mentor Dan Bressler with endless existential dribble as I went through the growing pains of becoming a business person. I felt embarrassed and pushy asking for a seat at the table for executive meetings, but made my way in on multiple occasions. Intapp sold business software to law firms. The what of the product was really not that interesting. But I learned that I loved the how, loved supporting the sales teams as a subject matter expert on HIPAA and professional responsibility, loved the complex dance of transforming myriad input from clients into a general product, loved writing on tight timelines and with feedback across the organization. I learned so incredibly much in my first role. It was a foundation for future success.

I am fortunate to be a statistical anomaly as a woman. Instead of applying for jobs where I satisfy skill requirements, I tend to seek opportunities with exponential growth potential. I come in knowing a little about the role I have to accomplish, and leave with a whole new set of skills. This creates a lot of cognitive dissonance and discomfort, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. My grey hairs may lead me to think otherwise soon, but I doubt it.

Humility

Last but certainly not least, I have always remained humble and never felt like a task was beneath me. I grew up working crappy jobs as a teenager: I was a janitor; a hostess; a busgirl; a sales representative at the Bombay company in the mall in Salem, New Hampshire; a clerk at the Court Theater at University of Chicago; a babysitter; a lawnmower; an intern at a Blackberry provisioning tech company, where I basically drove a big truck around and lugged stuff from place to place and babysat the CEO’s daughter. I see no work as beneath me, and view grunt work as the sacrifice due to have the amazing, amazing opportunities I have in my work (like giving talks to large audiences and meeting smart and inspiring people almost every day).

Having this humility helps enormously when you’re an entrepreneur. I didn’t mind starting as a marketing specialist, as I knew I could work hard and move up. I’ll yell at the computer in frustration when I have to upload email addresses to a go-to-webinar console or get the HTML to format correctly in a Mailchimp newsletter, but I’m working on showing greater composure as I grow into a leader. I always feel like I am going to be revealed as a fraud, as not good enough. This incessant self-criticism is a hallmark of my personality. It keeps me going.


Advice to current students

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A rad Roman mosaic with the Greek dictum, Know Thyself

Finish your PhD

You’ll buy options for the future. No one cares what you studied or what your grades were. They do care that you have a doctorate and it can open up all sorts of opportunities you don’t think about when you’re envisioning the transition. I’ve lectured at multiple universities and even taught a course at the University of Calgary Faculty of Law. This ability to work as an adjunct professor would have been much, much harder to procure if I were only ABD.

This logic may not hold for students in their first year, where 4 years is a lot of sunk opportunity cost. But it’s not that hard to finish if you lower your standards and just get shit done.

Pity the small-minded

Many professors and peers will frown upon a move to business for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s progressive ideology. Sometimes it’s insecurity. Most of the time it’s just lack of imagination. Most humanists profess to be relativists. You’d think they could do so when it comes to selecting a profession. Just know that the emotional pressure of feeling like a failure if you don’t pursue a research career dwindles almost immediately when your value compass clocks a different true north.

Accept it’s impossible to imagine the unknown

The hardest part of deciding to do something radically different is that you have no mental model of your future. If you follow the beaten path, you can look around to role model professors and know what your life will look like (with some variation depending on which school you end up in). But it’s impossible to know what a different decision will lead to. This riddles the decision with anxiety, requiring something like a blind leap of faith. A few years down the line, you come to appreciate the creative possibility of a blank future.

Explore

There are so many free meetups and events taking place everywhere. Go to them. Learn something new. See what other people are doing. Ask questions. Do informational interviews. Talk to people who aren’t like yourself. Talk to me! Keep track of what you like and don’t like.

Collaborate

One of the biggest changes in moving from academia to business is the how of work. Cultures vary, but businesses are generally radically collaborative places and humanities work is generally isolated and entirely individual. It’s worthwhile to co-author a paper with a fellow grad student or build skills running a workshop or meetup. These logistics, communication, and project management skills are handy later on (and are good for your resume).

Experiment with different writing styles

Graduate school prepares you to write 20-page papers, which are great preparation for peer-reviewed journals and, well, nothing else. They don’t prepare you to write a good book. They don’t prepare you to write a good blog post or newspaper article. Business communication needs to be terse and on point so people can act on it. Engineers need guidance and clarity, need a sense of continuity of purpose. Customers need you to understand their point of view. Audiences need stories or examples to anchor abstract ideas. Having the agility to fit form to purpose is an invaluable skill for business communications. It’s really hard. Few do it well. Those who do are prized.

Learn how to give a good talk

Reading a paper aloud to an audience is the worst. Just don’t do it. People like funny pictures.

Know thyself

There is no right path. We’re all different. Business was a great path for me, and I’ve molded my career to match my interests, skill, personality, and emotional sensitivities. You may thrive in a totally different setting. So keep track of what you like and dislike. Share this thinking with others you love and see if what they think of you is similar to what you think of you. Figuring this out is the trickiest and potentially most valuable exercise in life. And sometimes it’s a way to transform what feels like a harrowing experience into an opportunity to gain yet another inch of soul.


The featured image is from William Blake’s illustrated Book of Job, depicting the just man rebuked by his friends. Blake has masterful illustrations of the Bible, including this radical image from Genesis, where Eve’s wandering eye displays a proleptic fall from grace, her vision, her fantasy too large for the limits of what Adam could safely provide – a heroine of future feminists, despite her fall. 

blake adam eve

 

 

 

Censorship and the Liberal Arts

A few months ago, I interviewed a researcher highly respected in his field to support marketing efforts at my company. Before conducting the interview, I was asked to send my questions for pre-approval by the PR team of the corporation with which the researcher is affiliated. Backed by the inimitable power of their brand, the PR scions struck crimson lines through nearly half my questions. They were just doing their job, carrying out policy to draw no public attention to questions of ethics, safety, privacy, security, fear. Power spoke. The sword showed that it is always mightier than the pen, fool ourselves though we may.

Pangs of injustice rose fast in my chest. And yet, I obeyed.

Was this censorship? Was I a coward?

Intellectual freedom is nuanced in the private sector because when we accept a job we sign a social contract. In exchange for a salary and a platform for personal development and growth, we give up full freedom of expression and absorb the values, goals, norms, and virtual personhood of the organization we join. The German philosopher Emmanuel Kant explains the tradeoffs we make when constructing our professional identity in What is Enlightenment? (apologies for the long quotation, but it needed to be cited in full):

“This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom–and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: “Do not argue!” The officer says: “Do not argue–drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue–pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue–believe!” Only one ruler in the world says: “Argue as much as you please, but obey!” We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.

On the other hand, the private use of reason may frequently be narrowly restricted without especially hindering the progress of enlightenment. By ‘public use of one’s reason’ I mean that use which a man, as scholar, makes of it before the reading public. I call ‘private use’ that use which a man makes of his reason in a civic post that has been entrusted to him. In some affairs affecting the interest of the community a certain [governmental] mechanism is necessary in which some members of the community remain passive. This creates an artificial unanimity which will serve the fulfillment of public objectives, or at least keep these objectives from being destroyed. Here arguing is not permitted: one must obey. Insofar as a part of this machine considers himself at the same time a member of a universal community–a world society of citizens–(let us say that he thinks of himself as a scholar rationally addressing his public through his writings) he may indeed argue, and the affairs with which he is associated in part as a passive member will not suffer. Thus it would be very unfortunate if an officer on duty and under orders from his superiors should want to criticize the appropriateness or utility of his orders. He must obey. But as a scholar he could not rightfully be prevented from taking notice of the mistakes in the military service and from submitting his views to his public for its judgment. The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes levied upon him; indeed, impertinent censure of such taxes could be punished as a scandal that might cause general disobedience. Nevertheless, this man does not violate the duties of a citizen if, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his objections to the impropriety or possible injustice of such levies. A pastor, too, is bound to preach to his congregation in accord with the doctrines of the church which he serves, for he was ordained on that condition. But as a scholar he has full freedom, indeed the obligation, to communicate to his public all his carefully examined and constructive thoughts concerning errors in that doctrine and his proposals concerning improvement of religious dogma and church institutions. This is nothing that could burden his conscience. For what he teaches in pursuance of his office as representative of the church, he represents as something which he is not free to teach as he sees it. He speaks as one who is employed to speak in the name and under the orders of another. He will say: “Our church teaches this or that; these are the proofs which it employs.” Thus he will benefit his congregation as much as possible by presenting doctrines to which he may not subscribe with full conviction. He can commit himself to teach them because it is not completely impossible that they may contain hidden truth. In any event, he has found nothing in the doctrines that contradicts the heart of religion. For if he believed that such contradictions existed he would not be able to administer his office with a clear conscience. He would have to resign it. Therefore the use which a scholar makes of his reason before the congregation that employs him is only a private use, for no matter how sizable, this is only a domestic audience. In view of this he, as preacher, is not free and ought not to be free, since he is carrying out the orders of others. On the other hand, as the scholar who speaks to his own public (the world) through his writings, the minister in the public use of his reason enjoys unlimited freedom to use his own reason and to speak for himself. That the spiritual guardians of the people should themselves be treated as minors is an absurdity which would result in perpetuating absurdities.”

Kant makes a tricky distinction between our public and private use of reason. What he calls “public use of reason” is what we normally consider to be private: The sacred space of personal opinion, not as unfettered stream of consciousness, but as the reflections and opinions that result from our sense of self as part of the species homo sapiens (some criticize this humanistic focus and think we should expand the space of commonality to include animals, plants, robots, rocks, wind, oceans, and other types of beings). Beliefs that are fair because they apply to me just as they apply to you and everyone else. Kant deems this “public” because he espouses a particular take on reason that is tied up with our ability to project ourselves as part of a larger universal we call humanity: for Kant, our freedom lies not in doing whatever we want, not in behaving like a toddler who gets to cry on a whim or roam around without purpose or drift in opiate stupor, but rather in our willingly adhering to self-imposed rules that enable membership in a collectivity beyond the self. This is hard to grasp, and I’m sure Kant scholars would poke a million holes in my sloppy interpretation. But, at least for me, the point here is public reason relates to the actions of our mind when we consider ourselves as citizens of the world, which, precisely because it is so broad, permits fierce individuality.

By contrast, “private use of reason” relates to a sense of self within a smaller group, not all of humanity. So, when I join a company, by making that decision, I willingly embrace the norms, culture, and personhood of this company. Does this mean I create a fictional sub-self every time I start a new job or join some new club or association? And that this fictional self is governed by different rules than the real me that exercises public reason in the comfort of my own mind and conscience? I don’t think so. It would require a fictional sub-self if the real self were a static thing that persists over time. But there’s no such thing as the real self. It’s a user illusion (hat tip to Dan Dennett for the language). We come as diads and triads, the connections between the neurons in our brains ever morphing to the circumstances we find ourselves in. Because we are mortal, because we don’t have infinite time to explore the permutations of possible selves that would emerge as we shapeshift from one collectivity to the next, it’s important that we select our affiliations carefully, especially if we accept the tradeoffs of “private use of reason.” We don’t have time to waste our willful obedience on groups whose purpose and values skew too far from what our public reason holds dear. And yet, the restriction of self-interest that results from being part of a team is quite meaningful. It is perhaps the most important reason why we must beware the lore of a world without work.

This long exploration of Kant’s distinction between public and private reason leads to the following conclusion: No, I argue, it was not an act of cowardice to obey the PR scions when they censored me. I was exercising my “private use of reason,” as it would not have been good for my company to pick a fight. In this post, by contrast, I exercise my “public use of reason” and make manifest the fact that, as a human being, I feel pangs of rage against any form of censorship, against any limitation of inquiry, curiosity, discourse, and expression.

But do I really mean any? Can I really mean any in this age of Trumpism, where the First Amendment serves as a rhetorical justfication to traffic fake news, racism, or pseudo-scientific justifications to explain why women don’t occupy leadership roles at tech companies?* And, where and how do we draw the line between actions that aren’t right according to public reason but are right according to private reason and those that are simply not right, period? By making a distinction between general and professional ethics, do we not risk a slippery slope where following orders can permit atrocities, as Hannah Arendt explores in Eichmann in Jerusalem?

These are dicey questions.

There are others that are even more dicey and delicate. What happens if the “private use of reason” is exercised not within the a corporation or office, affiliations we choose to make (should we be fortunate enough to choose…), but in a collectivity defined by trait like age, race, gender, sexuality, religion, or class (where elective choice is almost always absent except when it absolutely is present (e.g., a decision to be transgender))? These categories are charged with social meaning that breaks Kant’s logic. Naive capitalists say we can earn our class through hard work. Gender and race are not discrete categories but continuous variables on a spectrum defined by local contexts and norms: In some circles, gender is pure expression of mind over body, a malleable sense of self in a dance with the impressions and reactions of others; in others, the rules of engagement are fixed to the point of submission and violence. Identity politics don’t follow the logic of the social contract. A willed trade off doesn’t make sense here. What act of freedom could result from subsuming individual preference for the greater good of a universal or local whole? (Open to being told why I’m totally off the mark, as these issues are far from my forte.)

What’s dangerous is when the experience of being part of a minority expresses itself as willed censorship, as a cloak to avoid the often difficult challenge of grappling with the paradoxical twists of private and public reason. When the difficult nuances of ethics reduce to the cocoon of exclusion, thwarting the potential of identifying common ground.

The censorship I accepted to enact the constraints of my freedom as a professional differ from the censorship contemporary progressives demand from professors and peers. I agree with the defenders of liberalism that the distinction between private and public reason should collapse at the university. That the university should be a place where young minds are challenged, where we flex the muscles of transforming a gut reaction into an articulated response. Where being exposed to ideas different from one’s own is an opportunity for growth. Where, as dean of students Jay Ellison wrote to the incoming class of 2020 at the University of Chicago, “we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial,** and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” As an alumna of the University of Chicago, I felt immense pride at reading Bret Stephens’ recent New York Times op-ed about why Robert Zimmer is America’s best university president. Gaining practice in the art of argument and debate, in reading or hearing an idea and subjecting it to critical analysis, in appreciating why we’ve come to espouse some opinion given the set of circumstances afforded to us in our minute slice of experience in the world, in renting our positions until evidence convinces us to change our point of view, in deeply listening to others to understand why they think what they think so we can approach a counterargument from a place of common ground, all of these things are the foundations of being a successful professional. Being a good communicator is not a birthright. It is a skill we have to learn and exercise just like learning how to ride a bike or code or design a website. Except that it is much harder, as it requires a Stoic’s acceptance that we cannot control the minds or emotions of others; We can only seek to influence them from a place of mutual respect.

Given the ungodly cost of a university education in the United States, and our society’s myopic focus on creating productive workers rather than skeptical citizens, it feels horribly elitist to advocate for the liberal arts in this century of STEM, robots, and drones. But my emotions won’t have it otherwise: They beat with the proud tears of truth and meaning upon reading articles like Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here?, where she celebrates the humanities as our reverence to the beautiful, to the possible, to the depth we feel in seeing words like grandeur and the sadness that results when imagine a world without the vastness of the Russian imagination or the elegance of the Chinese eye and hand.

But as the desire to live a meaningful life is not enough to fund the liberal arts, perhaps we should settle for a more pragmatic argument. Businesses are made of people, technologies are made by people, technologies are used by people. Every day, every person in every corporation faces ethical conundrums like the censorship example I outlined above. How can we approach these conundrums without tools or skills to break down the problem? How can we work to create the common ground required for effective communication if we’ve siphoned ourselves off into the cocoon of our subjective experience? Our universities should evolve, as the economic-social-political matrix is not what it once was. But they should not evolve at the expense of the liberal arts, which teach us how to be free.

*One of the stranger interviews James Damore conducted after his brief was leaked from Google was with the conservative radio host Stefan Molyneux, who suggested that conservatives and libertarians make better programmers because they are accustomed to dissecting the world in clear, black and white terms, as opposed to espousing the murky relativism of the liberals. It would be a sad world indeed if our minds were so inflexible that they lacked the ability to cleave a space to practice a technical skill.

**Sam Harris has discussed academic censorship and the tyranny of the progressives widely on the Waking Up podcast (and has met no lack of criticism for doing so), interviewing figures like Charles Murray, Nicolas Christakis, Mark Lilla, and others.

The featured image is from some edition of Areopagitica, a speech John Milton (yep, the author of Paradise Lost) gave to the British Parliament to protest censorship. In this speech, Milton argues that virtue is not innate but learned, that just as we have to exercise our self-restraint to achieve the virtue of temperance, so too should we be exposed to all sorts of ideas from all walks of life to train our minds in virtue, to give ourselves the opportunity to be free. I love that bronze hand.

Clinamen

The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites.


The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and never will be. Tis utter blasphemy.


The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, Look! Notice, as Daniel Dennett bids, how in an untrodden field in Australia there emerged and fell, in near silence, near but for the methodical gnawing, not unlike that of a mouse nibbling rapaciously on parched pasta left uneaten all these years but preserved under the thick dust on the thin cardboard with the thin plastic window enabling her to view what remained after she’d cooked just one serving, with butter, for her son, there emerged and fell, with the sublime transience of Andy Goldsworthy, a neo-Gothic church of organic complexity on par with that imagined by Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, whose Sagrada Familia is scheduled for completion in 2026, a full century after the architect died in a tragic tram crash, distracted by the recent rapture of his prayer.


The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, Look! Notice, as Daniel Dennett bids, how in an untrodden field in Australia there emerged and fell a structure so eerily resemblant of the one Antoni Gaudí imagined before he died, neglected like a beggar in his shabby clothes, the doctors unaware they had the chance to save the mind that preempted the fluidity of contemporary parametric architectural design by some 80 odd years, a mind supple like that of Poincaré, singular yet part of a Zeitgeist bent on infusing time into space like sandalwood in oil, inseminating Euclid’s cold geometry with femininity and life, Einstein explaining why Mercury moves retrograde, Gaudí rendering the holy spirit palpable as movement in stone, fractals of repetition and difference giving life to inorganic matter, tension between time and space the nadir of spirituality, as Andrei Tarkovsky went on to explore in his films.

tarkovsky mirror
From Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. As Tarkovsky wrote of his films in Sculpting in Time: “Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not a part of it — so the film-maker, from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film.”

The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, Look! Notice, as Daniel Dennett bids, how in an untrodden field in Australia there emerged and fell a structure so eerily resemblant of the one Antoni Gaudí imagined before he died, with the (seemingly crucial) difference that the termites built their temple without blueprints or plan, gnawing away the silence as a collectivity of single stochastic acts which, taken together over time, result in a creation that appears, to our meaning-making minds, to have been created by an intelligent designer, this termite Sagrada Familia a marvelous instance of what Dennett calls Darwin’s strange inversion of reasoning, an inversion that admits to the possibility that absolute ignorance can serve as master artificer, that IN ORDER TO MAKE A PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL MACHINE, IT IS NOT REQUISITE TO KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT*, that structures might emerge from the local activity of multiple parts, amino acids folding into proteins, bees flying into swarms, bumper-to-bumper traffic suddenly flowing freely, these complex release valves seeming like magic to the linear perspective of our linear minds.


The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, the eerie resemblance between the termite and the tourist Sagrada Familias serves as a wonderful example to anchor a very important cultural question as we move into an age of post-intelligent design, where the technologies we create exhibit competence without comprehension, diagnosing lungs as cancerous or declaring that individuals merit a mortgage or recommending that a young woman would be a good fit for a role on a software engineering team or getting better and better at Go by playing millions of games against itself in a schizophrenic twist resemblant of the pristine pathos of Stephan Zweig, one’s own mind an asylum of exiled excellence during the travesty of the second world war, why, we’ve come full circle and stand here at a crossroads, bidden by a force we ourselves created to accept the creative potential of Lucretius’ swerve, to kneel at the altar of randomness, to appreciate that computational power is not just about shuffling 1s and 0s with speed but shuffling them fast enough to enable a tiny swerve to result in wondrous capabilities, and to watch as, perhaps tragically, we apply a framework built for intelligent design onto a Darwinian architecture, clipping the wings of stochastic potential, working to wrangle our gnawing termites into a straight jacket of cause, while the systems beating Atari, by no act of strategic foresight but by the blunt speed of iteration, make a move so strange and so outside the realm of verisimilitude that, as Kasparov succumbing to Deep Blue, we misinterpret a bug for brilliance.


The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, it seems plausible that Gaudí would have reveled in the eerie resemblance between a castle built by so many gnawing termites and the temple Josep Maria Bocabella i Verdaguer, a bookseller with a popular fundamentalist newspaper, “the kind that reminded everybody that their misery was punishment for their sins,”**commissioned him to build.

Bocabella
A portrait of Josep Maria Bocabella, who commissioned Gaudí to build the Sagrada Familia.

Or would he? Gaudí was deeply Catholic. He genuflected at the temple of nature, seeing divine inspiration in the hexagons of honeycombs, imagining the columns of the Sagrada Familia to lean, buttresses, as symbols of the divine trilogy of the father (the vertical axis), son (the horizontal axis), and holy spirit (the vertical meeting the horizontal in crux of the diagonal). His creativity, therefore, always stemmed from something more than intelligent design, stood as an act of creative prayer to render homage to God the creator by creating an edifice that transformed, in fractals of repetition in difference, inert stone into movement and life.

columns
The top of the columns inside the Sagrada Familia have twice as many lines as the roots,             the doubling generating a sense of movement and life.

The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, the termite Sagrada Familia actually exists as a complete artifact, its essence revealed to the world rather than being stuck in unfinished potential. And yet, while we wait in joyful hope for its imminent completion, this unfinished, 144-year-long architectural project has already impacted so many other architects, from Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid. This unfinished vision, this scaffold, has launched a thousand ships of beauty in so many other places, changing the skylines of Bilbao and Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Perhaps, then, the legacy of the Sagrada Family is more like that of Jodorowsky’s Dune, an unfinished film that, even from its place of stunted potential,  changed the history of cinema. Perhaps, then, the neglect the doctors showed to Gaudí, the bearded beggar distracted by his act of prayer, was one of those critical swerves in history. Perhaps, had Gaudí lived to finish his work, architects during the century wouldn’t have been as puzzled by the parametric requirements of his curves and the building wouldn’t have gained the puzzling aura it gleans to this day. Perhaps, no matter how hard we try to celebrate and accept the immense potential of stochasticity, we will always be makers of meaning, finders of cause, interpreters needing narrative to live grounded in our world. And then again, perhaps not.


The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites. The termites don’t care either way. They’ll still construct their own Sagrada Familia.


The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites. How wondrous. How essential must be these shapes and forms.


The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites. It is also an unfinished neo-Gothic church in Barcelona, Spain. Please, terrorists, please don’t destroy this temple of unfinished potential, this monad brimming the history of the world, each turn, each swerve a pivot down a different section of the encyclopedia, coming full circle in its web of knowledge, imagination, and grace.


The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites. We’ll never know what Gaudí would have thought about the termite castle. All we have are the relics of his Poincaréan curves, and fish lamps to illuminate our future.

fish-4
Frank Gehry’s fish lamps, which carry forth the spirit of Antoni Gaudí

*Dennett reads these words, penned in 1868 by Robert Beverley MacKenzie, with pedantic panache, commenting that the capital letters were in the original.

**Much in this post was inspired by Roman Mars’ awesome 99% Invisible podcast about the Sagrada Familia, which features the quotation about Bocabella’s newspaper.

The featured image comes from Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back. I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Dan on the In Context podcast, where we discuss many of the ideas that appear in this post, just in a much more cogent form.