HEWN, No. 290

"It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person" -- James Baldwin

I almost opted to not write a newsletter today.

You see, I had an incredible “a-ha” moment last night while reading Norbert Wiener’s 1948 book Cybernetics. (Okay, “reading” might be a bit of an exaggeration as there were many pages filled with mathematical formulas that I skipped right over.) Wiener was at Harvard at the same time as one of the main characters in my book, Sidney Pressey — often credited as the inventor of the first teaching machine — which is a fun little bit of trivia, I suppose, although I haven’t found any evidence that they knew one another. Nonetheless, I hope to make a connection in the book between psychologists’ work on teaching machines and Wiener’s work on learning machines — ideas that remain with us, that serve as the roots for technologies and disciplines and ideologies. I’ve long wanted to understand why and how analogies about “intelligent” machines and “thinking” machines and “living” machines came to be. So “a-ha!” Thumbing through Cybernetics helped me make some headway here. Spoiler alert: the answer lies in behaviorism. Because of course it does.

Oh sure, I should explain this all in more detail. Good newsletters — Tressie’s, for example — don't just allude to the author’s revelations; they spell things out rather explicitly. But I reckon I’m going to spell things out in the book, which beginning in a month or so I’ll be writing (not just researching) full time. So who knows how often this newsletter will hit your inbox. I’ll probably get more coy about teaching machines, not less.

In the meantime, you can read this: “Trump’s Caravan Hysteria Led to This” — “this” being the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend — by Adam Serwer. “This Is How We Radicalized the World” — “this” being American social networking companies’ role in facilitating fascism — by Ryan Broderick. Some of these same folks keep trying to sell us on their cryptocurrency “utopias,” but more likely, it’s “dystopias now,” KSR argues. “There’s Nothing Virtuous about Finding Common Ground,” Tayari Jones insists — and I’d add that’s true even in the face of the end of the world. There’s nothing virtuous, either, about repeating tired Mr. Rogers’s memes. Or at least, that’s what Ian Bogost says, noting the problem with adults invoking his “Look for the helpers” saying at every tragic turn. It’s selfish, Bogost contends. We are supposed to be the ones who help, who make children’s lives better and safer. (The testimonies in this article in New York Magazine and the powerful photos that accompany it show just one area in which we grownups have failed — and failed for decades now: “Twenty-seven school-shooting survivors bear their scars, and bear witness.”) We have work to do.

(A Victoria-crowned pigeon. The image credits point to Flickr. Bye, Flickr. It was beautiful... for a while.)

Yours in struggle,