Asocial Media

I’ve been a bit too sparse on Printculture lately. Blame deadlines, children, moving, administration. It’s not for lack of things to talk about– but it’s in the nature of a notebook or a blog that if you let the moment pass, the thought that was gathering in your mind, like a droplet on a leaf, has already cascaded and can’t be hauled back up the track. “The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, and these are of them.” The blogger’s life should be full of temporal bubbles. How about twenty minutes set aside every two hours to capture those roving thoughts? There must be a scheduling app for that…

If the widely-reported tendency of electronic media is to let Facebook and quasi-Facebook applications absorb the heretofore distinct media of email, blogging, news and shopping, I’d like to lie down athwart the tracks of progress. In the name of what? Well, like all the Luddites who’ve preceded me, in the name of “silence and slow time.” Over the last year or so I have been unable to repress an ever stronger urge to turn up the nose when glancing at my friends’ postings on the inevitable FB. The form is a composite of vices. Binary thinking: you “like” something or you write to denounce it. Competitiveness: you are encouraged to brag about your successes, your cute children, your artfully disposed lunch. Conformism: to post something that garners vast numbers of “likes” and “followers” is how you win the game of FB. Triviality: spend your time clicking on silly symbolic matters rather than getting together with people to deal with the root causes of violence, racism and drastic inequality. And most of all, snap judgment: you’re supposed to spring out with an instantaneous reaction to postings, before they scroll down and away, but that means posting before you can do any research, find out the background, do your own thinking. Short of being a troll, you are encouraged to conform, or to gravitate toward the group of people with whom you can most easily conform by “sharing” and “liking” the same things. I know social media are supposed to democratize, and in some ways they have acted to bring vast numbers of people together who might otherwise be moving in their separate channels, but the quality of interaction is low and causes people to act stupid. (I don’t mean to call anyone stupid; the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in the constraints of the medium.)

Thus, in the last few months, we’ve seen rushes to condemn people as e.g. racists on the strength of somebody else’s say-so, or a generalized eagerness to mark oneself off from those racists over there; hasty approval and disapproval of public figures because of some kind of imputed association; threats of mayhem (amply “liked” by the like-minded); the joys of hyperbole and denunciation. Oh, did I fail to accuse so-and-so of some alleged bad attitude? Then I must share that bad attitude.

Although I was grousing two paragraphs ago about the instantaneous character of the medium, imposing rushes to judgment, I have to acknowledge another dimension of social-media temporality, and that is repetition. The pile-ons of self-approving approvals are never sufficient in their moment. If you go around in the same circles as me, you probably are likely to vote for B rather than T, are generally in favor of policies X, Y and Z and have a dim view of issues P, Q, and R. But if you are somebody I see in work or life, you probably don’t bother telling me what you think of (B+T+X+Y+Z+P+Q+R) two or three times a day; as a Facebook self-fashioner you probably let pass no opportunity to do so. On the surface of things, FB operates in its own sandbox, but if it’s true that FB users are getting most of their political news from it, that sandbox spills out into pragmatic public life. And it just works to flatten opinion, to make evidence-based thinking with room for history and exceptions impossible, to turn each of us into an obedient member of this or that mob.

Room for thinking, room for “play” (which means: considering the possibility that things are not what they seem). Blogs allow for these– books even more so– so it will have to be blogs and books for me. Reflection doesn’t need a faster chip. It needs more space for maneuver.

(Hat tip and thematic overlap to Evgeny Morozov.)


Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You (Other Conditions May Apply)

The brag, from Fordham University Press.
The Ethnography of Rhythm
Orality and Its Technologies
Haun Saussy

Who speaks? The author as producer, the contingency of the text, intertextuality, the “device”—core ideas of modern literary theory– were all pioneered in the shadow of oral literature. Authorless, loosely dated, and variable, oral texts have always posed a challenge to critical interpretation. When it began to be thought that culturally significant texts—starting with Homer and the Bible—had emerged from an oral tradition, assumptions on how to read these texts were greatly perturbed. Through readings that range from ancient Greece, Rome and China to the Cold War imaginary, The Ethnography of Rhythm situates the study of oral traditions in the contentious space of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinking about language, mind, and culture. It also demonstrates the role of technologies in framing this category of poetic creation. By making possible a new understanding of Maussian “techniques of the body” as belonging to the domain of Derridean “arche-writing,” Haun Saussy shows how oral tradition is a means of inscription in its own right, rather than an antecedent made obsolete by the written word or other media and data-storage devices.

264 pages, 13 b/w illustrations
978-0-8232-7047-7, Paper, $32.00 (01)
978-0-8232-7046-0, Cloth, $100.00 (06)
Verbal Arts: Studies in Poetics


A Farewell to Tony Yu

Many traditions depict life as a pilgrimage. Though he spent much of his life in Chicago, I can’t imagine Tony otherwise than en route to somewhere. In him the seriousness of the Tang Monk was always mixed with the mischief of the Monkey King– these being the two main protagonists of the Journey to the West to which he dedicated many years of his full life. Like them, he had powers of perception and transformation that seemed superhuman, and any demons on his path had to reckon with his swift ripostes; and like them, he was restless in the pursuit of a world-embracing harmony with room for rebels and saints alike. If you had not been so vividly and undeniably part of our world, Tony, we might have thought someone like you could only have been dreamt up in fiction.


Listen to Your Elders

Jean-Luc Godard, at 84, can still do a good enfant terrible. See Sofilm #30 (May 2015):

–Since you’re interested in History, what do you think about the Greek demand that Germany pay them war indemnities?

— They’re completely right to do so! And I suggest you watch Chris Marker’s film The Owl’s Legacy” which shows how we owe everything to Greek thought, which lasted two thousand years. He even shows it influencing Japan. Give yourself one evening to watch “The Owl’s Legacy” and you’ve solved the Greek-European-German problem. Europe and Germany ought to get down on their knees and say thank you to Greece. That’s all. Every time you utter a sentence and you use the word “therefore,” the Greeks ought to get ten dollars of royalties, and that would take care of the Greek debt.

— Do you consider yourself an “auteur”?

— These days everybody’s an “auteur.” The guy who claps the clapperboard wants to be the auteur of the clap. This question of royalties has swollen to grotesque proportions, especially with the Internet. … I got paid, and I don’t have any further rights in it. Afterward, let people do what they want. If they want to make off with the film, it’s not my business. A director should know how much he wants to be paid for his film, and once he’s received that, he can just hand over the excess to Amnesty or the Red Cross. …

The whole idea of intellectual property, of patents and copyrights, goes right over my head. I don’t even know who came up with three quarters of the dialogues in my films, I don’t write them down. I take snippets that interest me and I don’t care about the rights. If somebody sues me– but nobody ever has; sometimes I’d have welcomed a lawsuit. Once Anne-Marie [Miéville] and I were imagining she might sue me, just to create the precedent… Bottom line, it’s just literature, because it doesn’t exist except through texts, on paper. When the judge sentences you and says, “By virtue of the law such-and-such,” somebody is the author of that law too, and often the law bears the name of its author, the Tom-Dick-and-Harry Act, and so on. In France, there’s the Evin Act that regulates smoking. Somebody should ask the judge, “And how about you, are you paying royalties to M. Evin?”

— So the idea of the “auteur” is misused?

— Absolutely, but there’s a lot of money riding on this kind of thing, they put a sixty-year limit on it, pretty much the same time they put on archives before they’re declassified. What about news agencies, what royalties do they handle? Plenty of dead people have never seen a penny of their royalties. Three-quarters of the pictures in the paper come without a statement of ownership, you see a guy in poverty, a drowned girl. The TV stations and newspapers could put a little money aside and try to find out who really owns that. When there’s a close-up on the front page of the paper, the photographer got his salary, but the crash victim, she never got a penny. There are thousands of cases like this.

— The industry’s terrified of the Internet.

— Yeah, but “the industry,” it’s like “the market,” it’s made up of men and women. People say “the markets” the way they’d say “the dragons.”…

— Why did you give up your studio?… And are you happy like this?

— If you’re even slightly well-off, if you have a roof over your head, if you manage to think a little on your own, and have a few people around you that you can talk to, some landscapes and a dog, that’s such a huge stroke of luck that in some ways you just say: this is an amazing world. Because for a long time, it was changing and nobody saw it change; today, three-quarters of people can see that it’s changing right before their eyes. Whether it’s climate, politics, whatever…. People feel that it’s changing, and it’s beyond their control. …

Merci Jean-Luc.

(Translated HS. In the spirit of the interview, I didn’t ask anyone’s permission.)



Taking and Giving Offense

Something came full circle the other day. On a mailing list for historians of France, H-FRANCE, someone had asked for good teaching materials about the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent events. Many suggestions came forth, including some of the commentaries that blame the Charlie journalists for being Islamophobic (a view more common in the US and UK than in France). And this too:

As a former journalist in Charlie, really offended by what I read about my ex-magazine (a real antiracist newspaper who just did laugh about fanatics of all religions), I would love to be part of the discussion by adding this article : http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/7185898

Thank you, Caroline Fourest

I would never deny Caroline Fourest the right to be “offended” by what she reads. I don’t doubt that her feelings are sincere. “Offended,” in this case, means “outraged to read things said about this group that I, as a member of the group, am sure are not true.”

Being offended has become the primary channel of response to works of art and the intellect, it seems to me sometimes. Not that everyone acts on their offense by pulling out the automatic weapons, mercifully; but rare it is that anybody bothers to pause and think about how something might have been constructed, or how one’s own perception delicately interacts with properties of the message proposed, or whether there is a looming situation or context that predetermines the way something will be taken– in short, whether there are mitigating factors. People are offended, they demand that the offending word be taken back or eliminated, and they usually preface their declarations with an “As…” clause. “As a former Comcast subscriber,” “As a graduate of a non-Ivy institution,” “As a sufferer from myopia,” I hereby announce to you that your words or images have the effect of demeaning me in the eyes of the world, and I call on you to retract, apologize, and right this wrong.

The judgment of offense is easier to put forth than the judgment of taste (at least as Manny Kant formulated it) because the latter seeks recognition as a “universal,” whereas to be offended, all you have to do is name yourself as a member of a group and claim that your particular group is wronged. And far from being “universal,” the judgment of offense can’t be subjected to dialectical testing (I can’t say “no, you’re not offended”; I can barely say, “you have no reason to be offended,” but that’s not often going to be accepted). Moreover, the relation between the truth and falsity of the representation at issue can be completely flexible. I might denounce your account of me because it is inaccurate, or I might denounce it because it is too accurate (but I don’t want to argue about its accuracy): the shriek of being offended obscures the matter of fact. If you wanted to prove that Charlie was not a racist periodical, there are ways of doing that. You show examples, you quote statements of policy, you do statistics, you tell stories about the editorial board (which counted several people of a non-Vieille-France background). But being “offended” seems to be beside the point.

Especially since the point of Charlie— and of so many journals that came before it, on the right and on the left– was to offend.

Is nothing sacred?


De Selby Evolution

It was the first handshake that told me we were in De Selby territory. The dentist held out his wrist to me, as we do in bike repair shops. Only a bike repairman extends the wrist because his hand is covered in black grease, and Dr. Bellaiche’s were in green gloves.

The purpose of our little get-together was to extract a cracked eyetooth and replace it with an implant. I expected drilling, discomfort, time spent staring up at a bright light. I hadn’t anticipated such great strides forward on the path outlined for us by De Selby so many years ago.

I was aware I would leave with new substances filling new hollows in my body: metal, resin, fiberglass, even gutta-percha. But the fully realized De Selby moment came when the stalk for the implant was rooted, and the dentist screwed the crown on it: twist, twist, twist, and a last hard half-twist.

We mammals, unlike our friends the snails and shellfish, don’t have a lot of body parts with a spiral structure. Hard ones, at least (the labyrinth of the ear forming a semi-counterexample). This must have to do with the medium we spend most of our time in, the air, which is more easily parted than wet sand. The combatant creatures with twisted horns, like the gazelles and narwhals, are the other counterexample, and I don’t know whether the torsade is there for piercing effectively or for reinforcement.

So the tapping of a screw course into my upper jaw and the movement of a bolt-shaped object up it confirmed that I am conclusively on the way to a merger of man and bicycle. What sort of part could it be, the torsaded stem, if it had to serve as unit of human and cycle biomechanics simultaneously? I thought that as we have 32 teeth, and 32 spokes is a good number for a wheel (though less stout than a 36-spoke cross-laced), then today’s centaurification must have begun with a spoke, as good a place as any.

The repair was over. I rose to my feet, said thank you and staggered home. If you see me falling to the ground after abruptly jerking my head to the left or right, you’ll know that the transmutation is advancing.


My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.

Dr. Elizabeth Bennett
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697

Dear Dr. Bennett:

In the course of job applications, I have recently requested transcripts from my undergraduate institution, Yale, and my graduate school, UCI. Both were obtained through the National Student Clearinghouse. The Yale transcript cost $7, without a convenience fee. UCI’s cost $17, with an additional convenience fee of $2.65.

I realize that it may be a point of Anteater pride, but surely you do not believe that UCI’s transcript is worth two-and-a-half times the price of Yale’s! Insofar as I can tell, the quality of the data, paper, and ink is the same. Given that I may require a dozen of these documents in the next six months, the added expense is both real and onerous. Please consider this when setting your fees.

Respectfully, Jonathan Cohen, MA ’91


[I have received no response to this message.]



1. The things that make life most worth living are “cost centers.”

2. One is human exactly insofar as one does not fit into someone else’s “business model.”


Massacre Relativity

Some of my friends are outraged by the fact that one media story after another comes along analyzing to the nth degree the known facts in the case of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who committed suicide and took 150 strangers along with him, while at the same time the cold-blooded, deliberate murder of 148 university students in Kenya merits only a passing mention. Depending on your media feed, your results may differ: I’m not in the US and only rarely pick up the NYT, so I’ve seen less Lubitz and more Garissa– but not enough to make me feel that a just equality of attention has been applied to these two stories, analogous by number and by horror but different in so many other regards.

The hasty conclusion is that the Kenyans’ deaths matter less than the Europeans’ because they were black. And relatively less well-off (though as university students they were part of a lucky minority in their home country). To better gauge the proportion of sheer racism, however, read “The Structure of Foreign News” (1965) by the great peace scholar Johan Galtung, where it’s reported that the importance given to a news story will be a factor of geography (is it close to us?), of identification (did it happen to people like us?), legibility, confirmation bias, and other features– go read the article, it’s better than my ability to summarize today. So obviously for European media, the Germanwings crash ranks higher than a Kenyan massacre on many of these scores. But Galling wasn’t just observing that this is the way of the world: he was convinced that if this is the way of the world, it is wrong, and we should counterbalance our egocentric news media in order to give reality to the sufferings of people distant from us on this or that axis.

And another reason for paying more attention to Kenya and less to Germanwings. What happened in the Alps was a one-off thing, extremely unlikely to happen to you (though of course it could, despite whatever new security measures are installed). What happened at Garissa is a lamentably frequent thing these days, and could indeed happen to you, maybe not this week or this year, but sooner or later, if something is not done to rein in the free romp of heavily-armed religious madmen. I don’t specifically mean the madmen in the Villains of the Week Club; there’s a lot of madness to go around. Let us stop funding one bunch of madmen in the hopes that they will do something more agreeable to our interests than whatever the last bunch of madmen (possibly funded by us, or by people in competition with us) did. And (a far more subordinate issue) let us stop whingeing about whether the diagnosis of depression in the co-pilot’s case is stigmatizing for other depressed people, and blabbering about it with such frequency that this seems to be the major problem facing humanity at this moment. (People do tend to talk about what concerns them, and they like to fill the air with whatever they have expertise in, but enough is enough.) Let the ancient formula of damnatio memoriae be applied to Andreas what’s-his-name, and let the students of Garissa, the women of Nigeria, and all such victims of armed bigotry occupy our attention most urgently.


Good Friday

I was just flicking through Tolstoy’s writings on Christianity. Not very interesting reading, because I couldn’t find much to disagree with. The anarchist Count thought, as I do, that if your religion tells you to kill, torture, starve and maim people, it must not be a very good religion–it must rather be a tool of the devil. Whereas there is apparently a significant fraction of opinion today that conceives that killing people, the more the better, in the name of your religion glorifies that religion.

I do find it hard to turn the other cheek to that kind of diabolism.

(Some unintentional humor about Tolstoy’s break with religion here.)


A Long Fuse

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), last chapter:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now built on the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.

And then what?


Sunny Flat

Perhaps you’ve been tempted by an announcement for a “Sunny Flat in Paris” (airbnb). Or perhaps you’ve clicked on item #57214 (sabbaticalhomes.com). I would recommend looking further, for example on a site directed to French consumers like seloger.com; or even biting the bullet of a finder’s fee and dealing with a real estate agency (agence immobilière, they call it in the local parlance). The difference is that with a non-localized site like airbnb, you are outside of any jurisdiction, and recourse will be difficult in case it turns out that the apartment you’ve rented is small, dirty, ill-equipped, and does not have the nice view you were counting on. Say you were attracted by a charming urban vista like this:


and arrived with baggage and children after many hours of flight to look out the window at this:

rear balcony

You would, I think, wish you had taken another apartment. It’s been known to happen.

George Akerlof (co-laureate of the 2000 Nobel Prize) analyzed this situation in his classic paper “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism” (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 84 [1970]: 488-500).

There may be potential buyers of good quality products and there may be potential sellers of such products in the appropriate price range; however, the presence of people who wish to pawn bad wares as good wares tends to drive out the legitimate business. The cost of dishonesty, therefore, lies not only in the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost must also include the cost incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence. (495)

Akerlof continues: “Dishonesty in business is a serious problem in underdeveloped countries.” Well, perhaps the judicial void in which many Internet businesses operate is, for all its technological smoothness and the quality of its air-conditioning, in these terms still an “underdeveloped country.” Akerlof sees in traditional “underdeveloped” societies, with their wide disparities in quality among instances of a like commodity (one grain dealer will put pebbles in the rice to add to its weight, another won’t), a function to be filled by the entrepreneur or merchant, the person who makes a living from assessing good quality and bringing it to the end user. But as everyone knows, the great value of Internet commerce has always been to put you in direct contact with the primary seller– who may have as his or her rule of practice “Let the buyer beware.”



Indiscriminate Discrimination

A friend wrote to ask me to sign on to a petition demanding that the Modern Language Association, a scholarly society with “over 26,000 members in 100 countries,” apply the policies of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement toward Israeli universities and academics. I wrote back as follows:

I’ve been meaning to write you back but haven’t found the time or the words to do it right. I’m more than a little ambivalent about BDS. I share in the signers’ horror and anger about the occupation, continued settlement-building, harassment, denial of basic rights and necessities, etc., that have been the daily lot of most Palestinians for decades now. And Netanyahu’s promise to kill the two-state solution, which resulted in his reelection, just slams the door on the reasonable aspirations of all Palestinians. In all of this I’m with the proponents of BDS. But I can’t see myself as a co-signer because I don’t believe in boycotts based on nationality. In denying a platform to Israeli academics generally, a boycott would deny a platform to the “good Israelis” (the ones who are for peace, diplomacy, and neighborly relations with a Palestinian state) no less than to the “bad Israelis”; and since the “good Israelis” are in the disadvantaged position just now (the “bad Israelis” won’t give a damn about our boycott and will continue to appear in such fora as joint sessions of the US Congress), BDS would have the perverse effect of strengthening the dominance of the “bad Israelis” over political discourse concerning the future of Israel-Palestine. Although the statement says that it is directed at the Israeli state and not at individual Israeli academics, how is one to tell an Israeli colleague who has, let’s say, applied to give a paper at the MLA annual meeting that “it’s nothing personal” but s/he is not going to be accepted because of his/her nationality? I don’t think this is a good path for the MLA or any scholarly organization to go down. Free and open discourse, that’s what we should be about. I know that Palestinian intellectuals are routinely denied a platform for their views, and I am ready to protest and agitate for their freedom to travel, speak and have normal relations with their colleagues across the world.
You’ve probably heard all this before.
Anyway, that’s how I feel about it– it’s a little more complicated than “yes” or “no.”

We are living in horrible times. I don’t have a solution. But I can recognize a counterproductive measure.


Loyalty Oath

A little over two decades ago, I signed a loyalty oath. In exchange for employment by the University of California, I pledged to “protect and defend the Constitutions of the United States of America and the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The loyalty oath was a relic of the McCarthy era, and there is an entirely unpleasant episode in University of California history, from 1949-1951, in which non-signers were dismissed. It was entirely clear to me that to HR, the oath was a formality I was supposed to sign in an instant and hand over. But I thought for a long time about whether I could sign it in good faith, “without mental reservation.” In the end, I signed. Allegiance to a Constitution is allegiance to a principle, although I did not foresee the possibility of future amendments with which I might disagree. Allegiance to a flag is trickier — we are taught to pledge it every morning of our elementary school life, although I suspect for many children it is just a succession of syllables that one has gotten right if one has mastered the intonation. (I think Messaien, who notated birdsong, could have gotten a creditable piece out of the raw pitches of the Pledge of Allegiance.)

Loyalty to a flag is the subject of a kerfuffle at my alma mater. Some students in UCI student government patched together and passed a very poorly written piece of legislation removing all flags, but pointedly that of the United States, from a display area. What seemed like an enunciation of principle to them was anathema to others; I think that high in the minds of administrators was the awful prospect of being a Fox News headline for weeks or months. The Chancellor wrote the only letter he could have written, castigating the students and promising more and better flags at UCI “before too long.” Fox News approved. Unfortunately, its viewers did not get the message, and are now threatening the students with death.

Obviously, the students had their principles, enunciated them, and could do so freely — although their bill, once passed, was vetoed by another committee. But the question I have is counterintuitive: by choosing to go to a public university, did the students incur any obligation, however small, of loyalty to the institution, the State, or its symbols? If that obligation existed, was it large enough to be given any place in their thinking? Or was their attending UC a consumer choice, like selecting Levis jeans over Wranglers, and where one doesn’t give the jeans a second thought unless one has an unusually positive experience? Is attending a state school — the only Federal colleges and universities are military — any different in its requirements on the conscience than attending a private school?

The University of California has done its best to make the relationship between it and its students purely commercial. Its financial exactions on students are so great that there can be no reservoir of good will out of which loyalty might spring. Instead, students hand over their money (whether their own or the banks’), wash their hands, and move on. In exchange, say the Governor and the President, they will get a meal ticket to capitalist society. It is a quid pro quo transaction all the way; I can foresee a time when you can buy that meal ticket directly without the hindering formalities of professors and classes. As for the human emotion of loyalty, if it should still exist, the University has subcontracted its handling to its athletic department and its alumni association, both of which are here to extract still more money from students.

Because of this economic relation, which stunts the emotional relation, where can one find loyalty? In a world where the Presidentially lauded STEM disciplines do not, in fact, lead to jobs as a certainty — think of engineers after the “peace dividend,” or computer programmers deracinated and displaced by hungry H1-B visa-holders — is there really even an economic contract between student and university?

So, I think that there is a generational gap between me and the drafters of the anti-flag bill. Even before I signed the loyalty oath, I had a sense that the University had given more to me than I could possibly give it in return. If the United States and the State of California made it possible, I owed something to them. Despite the idealism of the drafters of the flag bill, I don’t think they felt they owed anything to the University, the State, or the United States. Thanks to institutional greed and governmental defunding, the drafters felt themselves to be free agents. That is a heady jumping off point from which to mount a critique — one from which it is too easy to fall.



The American Academy

I am at the 2015 AAAS conference in San Jose with my wife, Natasha, to see for myself the decadent state of American biological science. Now that Putin has rehabilitated Lysenko — the traitor Sakharov would spin in his grave to hear it — there is no limit to our future. We attended the plenary lecture of one Daphne Koller, who is supposedly a “big cheese,” but I have not heard of her, as she has never received the Order of the Badge of Honor. Next to us was a young, American, red-haired scribbler with a laptop — doubtless some kind of junior graduate student — and despite the enormous screens with Koller’s image on them, I found myself looking over his shoulder to see what he was writing. To my horror, at the end of the lecture, I found that I had remembered every word he had written, but none of Koller’s lecture. To get it out of my mind, I am reproducing what he wrote in its entirety:

I’m at the plenary session with Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera, one of the two major MOOC companies. It’s a straight-on paean to the things, rosy beyond all belief, and even more rosy in 2015 than in 2012.

There are a few slight problems with MOOCs, which is one of the reasons there’s been almost no time allotted for questions.

MOOCs make it possible for only a few professors to teach hundreds of thousands of students; grading is taken care of either by computer (for most structured question types) or peer grading (for everything else.) Crowdsourcing, usually acquired for free, is used to accomplish most other tasks, such as translation of course material into multiple languages. Coursera’s investment is mainly in its computer infrastructure, including mobile apps and sophisticated analytics, and secondarily in the acquisition and filming of “talent” to teach its courses.

If indeed Coursera continues to grow, a few things will happen to its supporting ecosystem; like most colonialist enterprises, it pays little attention to the ecosystem that has made it possible. The academic enterprise, in my conception, consists of three things: preserving knowledge, transmitting knowledge, and extending knowledge. The only thing anyone understands needs to be paid for is transmitting knowledge: teaching and grading. In a world where only a few professors are teaching and where no one, adjunct or otherwise, is grading, the ecosystem will fail. There will be no more “star” professors to teach the MOOCs (or to do other research), there will be no graduate students or postdocs to follow along after them, and there will be few undergraduates, distance or otherwise, who will care to enter into such a tenuous enterprise as post-secondary education. We would need something like a “Farm Bill,” where, just as farmers are paid not to plant corn, professors, adjuncts, and graduate students are paid not to teach or to grade. Try getting that through a Tea Party Senate. Coursera parasitizes off the top of the existing academic system; its instructors have appointments at their own institutions, the names of the institutions are used to add prestige to Coursera’s courses’ certificates of completion, and the lure of the classes is that they are taught by conventionally, prestigiously educated people. When Coursera starts to “eat its own dog food” and feature premium classes taught by people possessing no credentials other than their own certificates, perhaps then they will begin to be in earnest.

But perhaps they are already doing this, in a sense. All non-objective grading in Coursera is done by groups of five peers. None of these students may know the right answer. It is entirely likely that a few of them will know the wrong answer, which they will transmit to their less-certain peers. This is why, in more conventional institutions, feedback is provided by people more knowledgable and experienced than the students themselves. Here, though, Coursera risks transmitting ignorance; what it gains, however, is that grading is not a cost center — at all. Ms. Koller, who, by the way, seems to have obtained every achievement and credential one could possibly have short of a Nobel Prize, was a little shy about admitting that Coursera hasn’t made any money yet. That day will come, and some very important part of the educational chain will very quickly become very expensive — likely after conventional instutions have fallen by the wayside.

But, in the audience, I could see people nodding. “Science has grant money for professors and postdocs. Teaching and grading are inconveniences. As long as we get grants, they’ll leave us alone, and perhaps we can make some extra money on the side by teaching one of these courses.” But an ecosystem is an ecosystem. The failure of one of its parts means the inevitable, wrenching alteration of the rest of its parts. They just don’t see it yet.


And Now the Conspiracy Theorists

Komsomolskaya Pravda opened its columns yesterday to the head honcho of the French far-right, anti-immigrant party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has theorized that the murder of the Charlie Hebdo editorial board was permitted, if not actually orchestrated, by the French government as a means of discrediting the Front National. (Charlie was relentless in satirizing that bunch of neo-fascists.) This is likely to be received as a rational analysis in a country where not only are conspiracies stranger than fiction a matter of course, but the government itself weaves elaborate counter-scenarios to deny its involvement in things it almost certainly has been involved in.

And in the suburbs of Paris, a teacher is heard (and recorded) telling her students that “nobody ever saw the bodies of the journalists” and the “so-called dead policeman” was just a puppet in a soap opera dreamt up by the French government to incriminate the Muslim religion–which religion, by the way, “authorizes killing if it’s necessary to defend religion.” She was immediately fired. I’m sure people will leap to her defense, as to Dieudonné’s.

Meanwhile, in a Marseilles high school, some students elaborate. The whole thing was a manipulation by the French secret services, to destroy Islam. And simultaneously, it was a trick of the Mossad, to punish France for its recognition of the Palestinian proto-state. “A Muslim who dies in the course of the story, that makes it more believable, doesn’t it? And the dead policemen, one French, one black, one Arab. How symbolic!”

No one has a completely open mind. Our prior beliefs act as filters on new information. When a piece of information comes at too high a cost– when accepting it would mean sacrificing some long-held beliefs or elements of identity– people will confabulate until the (sacred) cows come home. This observation also suggests a test for the kinds of beliefs that compel an exorbitant expenditure in ad-hoc theories in order to defuse new information; and for me, perhaps an economic rationalist for today, that would be the sign that maintaining such beliefs would be a losing proposition. But the literature on “cognitive dissonance” shows that people’s behavior is otherwise: a challenge actually reinforces the unlikely belief. I suppose there are people who would be more comfortable living their lives in a village of fifty people, where little information trickles in from outside. But here they are, carrying their village explanations onto the world stage.


Feasibility Study

How can you have anti-blasphemy laws in a country with more than one major religion? What is permissible for one group will be forbidden to another, what is obligatory for you is optional or absurd or immoral to me. You can’t be a good pluralist and mandate inoffensiveness.

A story comes to mind, told me by a Maronite friend from Lebanon. As children, he and his friends used to gather on the corner and play marbles. There were Christian kids, Muslim kids, maybe a Druze or two. And as they played, they shouted at each other in Arabic, learning each other’s favorite swear words and oaths. The little Muslims said: “Mother of God, I will knock your marble out of the circle!” The little Christians said, “By the beard of the Prophet, that was a good shot!” The parents heard this and had a little meeting: henceforth, when they played, the children would have to speak French or English.

But what if there’s not another language to take refuge in?


Plus c’est la même chose.

Since the Printculture archive isn’t easily searchable from the front page, I take the liberty of putting up a direct link to one of our oldies, about caricature and the sacred, contending that the prohibition of images and the freedom of expression are at root the same thing. Thou Shalt Not, Or Thou Hadst Better Not, from 2005. (Incidentally, many of the ideas there were sparked by conversations with O Solovieva.)

And I am sad to see that, no more than in 2005, are people (many of my friends among them) willing or able to make some essential distinctions. Not only do people take it for granted that any jerk with a gun who shouts “Allah akbar!” speaks for all Muslims, they also make the Sassen Error (named for the sociologist Saskia Sassen, who in 2001 opined that the attacks on lower Manhattan were the revenge of the poor world against the rich world, conveniently ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the victims of the Taliban et consortes are poor people in the poor world); they have even found it “ironic” that the policewoman shot by one of the self-styled jihadis was a black woman from the Caribbean, as if operating on the assumption that all people of color are on “the same side.” Come on, people. You would demand subtlety and fine distinctions if someone were analyzing your social world. Do the same unto others, at least a little bit.