Jamie on Software

Books I Wish Existed

For a while I’ve been collecting a list of interesting book-length projects. Since I’m never going to write the bloody things, I figured it’d be better to throw them into the light of day and see what daylight makes of them. Here is a preliminary, first stab at a list of books I wish existed: books that haven’t been written yet, but could be.

A collection of short books on the history and interpretation of U.S. constitutional amendments One under-explored feature of the US constitution is its deep cultural, as well as judicial, role in modern American politics. Each amendment has its own motivations, historical context, and judicial precedent; but each amendment also serves as the starting point for contemporary arguments for or against certain policies: even, today, the policies of private companies.

I’d like to see a series of short, concise, focussed books – think roughly the length and depth of the OUP Very Short Introductions series – with each volume focussed around an amendment to the U.S. constitution. Each book could discuss the amendment’s historical context, important cases in its subsequent judicial precedent, and the moral and legal and institutional justifications for the amendment and how they have changed.

Most amendments would have their own volume, while some of the more arcane amendments might be bundled together, where appropriate. The 18th & 21st are a natural pairing; the 13th, 14th and 15th sit snugly together in terms of their shared historical context, but are perhaps each significant enough, with their own rich set of continuing precedent and relevance, for their own volumes; perhaps the 3rd, 4th and 5th. It might also be interesting to conclude the series with a volume on the amendments that didn’t get passed: amongst many others, the ERA, balanced budget amendments, the We the People amendment.

Seeing Like A Startup Scott’s Seeing Like A State is an excellent piece of political epistemology, not because he makes a powerful moral argument to curtail the absolute power of the state – which he does – nor because of the trenchant analysis he applies to the material and sociopolitical conditions under which the tools of statecraft are likely to be abused – which he gives – but because it grounds the analysis in a Weltanschauung, an all-encompassing frame of reference, a set of spectacles that underpin the identity of those who wear them. To see like a state is not just to see the world a certain way, to plan with a specific framework, to write with a specific dictionary, but also to be somebody.

Isn’t the same true of startup-land? Isn’t working in a startup with its techno-optimism and its studied disregard of conventional wisdom and Disruption with a Capital D a form of world-view? Weren’t we decades ahead on remote work and Agile / Lean Startup approaches to product development? Don’t startups, especially tech startups, have a distinctive set of incentives and respond to a distinctive set of internal and external cues? Isn’t this weird (physical or virtual) Bay Area we inhabit a conduit for a specific mode of thought, a Weltanschauung, a pair of spectacles?

A full-length biography of Évariste Galois Évariste Galois died aged 20, after being shot in the stomach with a pistol. He died a gregarious yet unlikable, angry young man, but he bequeathed us a small elliptic body of mathematical work that has proven to be incredibly fertile.

The short biographies that accompany discussions of his work are useful and evocative, but focus almost exclusively on either his precociousness, or the Potemkin-romanticism of his death. His life was short but full of activity, sadness, anger, intense adolescence, mental illness and revolutionary politics.

The best biography of him so far (fr) focusses on Galois-as-mathematical-figure (‘personne’ vs ‘personnage’). I’d like to see a full-length biography of Galois-as-boy and Galois-as-man, as well as Galois-as-mathematician: something that draws out the dynamics of a Republican and Bonapartite household in restoration Paris, the stability of his mother and bipolarity of his father (who himself committed suicide when Évariste was 15), the friends and foes, real and imagined, that shaped this troubled young boy.

I’ve been trying to write this book for a while, but have put the project on hold. Perhaps I’ll resurrect it one day.

Uses and abuses of popular science The effective communication of science is incredibly important. What the electorate understands and values about scientific output can translate meaningfully into policy outcomes, on the one hand, and our continued ability to discover more about the world on the other. (At its limit, it can cause deadly incentives failures when the scientific bureaucracy needs to reengage a science-saturated public).  Simplifying without talking down is a tough job, and the very best writers do it with elegance and wit and humanity. But so much of it is reductionist, factually incorrect, statistically ignorant, sensationalist drivel.

Writing about science poorly harms us all. Being excessively confident about scientists’ predictions – “toast causes cancer!” – shifts our focus onto the wrong things, or erodes trust in the output of science when it turns out that, you know, the world might be a little more complicated. Being excessively cynical about science’s output is so often a tiresome postmodern ploy to import political solutions to yet-understood social issues.

I’d like to see a book on popular science and the popularisation of science: what good it can do when it’s good, what harm it can do when it’s bad, and how we can get more of the former and less of the latter. I’d also like to learn more about how science fiction fits into all this. We will never get to a stage where science is not weaponised in one direction or another – discovery is, as the physicists of the Manhattan Project discovered, the beginning of the moral story, not the end of it – but with a better understanding of how science is reported, we might be able to give people the tools to at least discount the views of the most egregious of offenders.

What could science look like? The way that modern science is structured – the categories and classifications of physics, biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, philosophy, the social sciences – forms a reasonably arbitrary and path-dependent structure. A few changes in how humans organised themselves at various stages, how projects got funded, and which questions happened to be salient (for cultural or contingent material reasons), and we have a very different body of knowledge, structured along different lines, today. What, for instance, would modern AI look like if the centre of gravity in computer science hadn’t drifted away from cybernetics and the HCI-focussed research tradition during the ARPA golden years, and toward applied mathematics and algorithm design? What could biology look like if our best mathematicians were more interested in biological systems rather than physical systems? What would Newton have done if he hadn’t spent so much time pursuing alchemy?

A good moral, economic and psychological investigation into paternalism. I have a set of libertarian-ish (which is to say, mostly negative) aesthetic reactions to paternalism, and, in a trivial sense, ‘paternalism is bad’ seems true by definition – at least on a normative reading of ‘paternalism’. Naturally, these intuitions have come into much sharper focus throughout the pandemic. But state interventions in private lives are nothing new, in many cases they are basically uncontroversial (e.g. seat belts) and there are a whole host of moral and economic arguments in favour as well as against.

Perhaps paternalistic reasoning is our default mode of thought and respect for individual freedom only gets bolted on in certain contexts? If you really believe that such-and-such a lifestyle is immoral, harmful materially and spiritually to he who practices it, why wouldn’t you want to intervene? Liberalism is a position most have to contort themselves into. I’d like to see a modern book-length treatment of this subject, exploring the changing relationship between individual and society, ideally within a framework that make sense of big data, the long death of privacy, and crypto- or techno-libertarianism.

Aesthetics in politics. Hume never got to finish his ‘examination of morals, politics, and criticism’, but if he had, I imagine much of the project would be spent grounding political discourse in terms of human sentiments like approval and disgust. Jonathan Haidt offers a modern-day version of this story, arguing for the centrality of psychology in politics and religious discourse.

But one thing that often gets ignored, I think, is how much aesthetics play a part. People find views they dislike not just disagreeable but ugly, and often detached logical reasoning takes a backseat to matters of taste. I’d wager that a lot of opposition to virtue signalling, for instance, is simply that it seems distasteful, or uncouth, or something like that.

To what extent do we elevate matters of taste to matters of shared social importance? (There’s an interesting Twitter thread here on conservatism and aesthetic sense, which might begin to address these issues.)

The House of Uncommons: the rise and fall of excellence in politics Why has politics lost its cultural cachet? Why do we pay our governors so little relative to other, arguably better run, countries – and certainly less than a lot of private-sector high-status jobs? Are our politicians getting more incompetent and panderous, as they do indeed seem to be? When was the golden era of the politician? What characteristics should we try to select for? Given the unpredictability of democracy and the epistemic credentials of the average voter, how can we reshape our institutions to better encourage the selection of these characteristics?

The Aesthetics of Programming Languages One thing that often gets lost amongst the computer science jargon and expediencies of writing functional software is that there’s an important aesthetic dimension to programming, a concern with the beauty of the code and algorithms we write. We throw around words like ‘beautiful’ when we talk about code, but we’re usually just gesturing toward some muddy intuitive notion, something like ‘clean’. There’s been little attempt to define these words more rigorously, or explore other aesthetic or aesthetic-adjacent virtues, such as simplicity, or parsimony.

It’s not merely syntactic, either. Much of what a programmer does is invent abstractions, extract out pieces of a system into reusable and more generic chunks. Some abstractions are intuitively better than others. But on what grounds? It’s not just “how widely applicable is this thing”, or “how performant is this thing”, or “how few lines of code does this thing take to implement or call”. There’s a notion of expressivity, the capacity for the abstraction to open and close the right set of logical doors, that is crucially important, and, crucially, misunderstood.

It runs deeper than just the code that actually gets written. Different language design decisions force us to think about our code in different ways, and to structure our programmes along different fault lines. Type systems force us to think about our domain before we think about the processes we apply in that domain. Pure functional languages force us to think about the flow and transformation of data. Different languages, sometimes, though by no means always, designed for different tasks, start with different mental primitives which change both how we write code now, and how the norms of the broader language ecosystem evolve.

The great irony of programming: instructing computers can be a deeply human thing. It would be fun to see a thoughtful little book exploring these questions in more detail.

4:16pm. May 16, 2021.

The Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism

Ruth Kinna, Pelican, 2019.

Most political ideologies have clear theoretical commitments. Liberalism: the individual as the primitive unit of society; his wellbeing subordinate to, or exhausted by, his freedom; doctrines of rights which circumscribe and define that freedom sitting at the base of any institutional arrangements. Socialism: the collective as the primitive; the individual’s wants subordinate to the group’s needs; a commitment to equality expressed in the common ownership of property.

But anarchism doesn’t really seem to fit. Anarchism, it seems to me, isn’t a political ideology at all: it’s more like a family resemblance, each anarchism approximating the others to a greater or lesser degree, but none admitting of a common core or shared basis. A fluid set of concepts aimed at achieving a form of radical egalitarianism rather than a concrete theory. Or perhaps, like conservatism, it’s more of a temperament, an inclination to gesture toward an outcome, rather than an explicit set of instructions to achieve it.

‘Anti-capitalist egalitarianism’ holds the clue to unlocking it, says Kinna. But ‘anti-capitalist egalitarianism’ is hardly a clearer term than ‘anarchism’.

In one direction, it veers into a Kantian metaphysical liberalism of totally self-regulating agents. In another, it seems to collapse into communism. So the exponent of anarchism as a distinctive tradition must not only explain anarchism on its own terms, but also situate it relative to the primitives of both the liberal and communist traditions, without relying on the primitives of either.

It turns out that such a tradition can be cleaved out from between the two extremes. But it’s awfully difficult to do cleanly.

Kinna does well to reveal anarchism’s parallel world of literature, art and debate. And she does a good job at casting the anarchist in a positive light, of repainting the out of the colours of a psychotic lover-of-chaos and into something a little more.

But it’s not a good book.

One problem is Kinna’s bias, and how it can hinder the book’s analytical power. This is advertised as a “sympathetic account”, and, to that extent, it delivers: she clearly has an affinity with the anarchist programme and is deeply immersed in its literature. But that’s also what makes it a tough book to follow: her familiarity means that she never really explains the basics, leaving the rest of us to reconstruct the edifice on which her explanations sit.1

This lack of an accessible introduction means that, to the outsider, it is a book of half-thoughts, non-sequiturs and passages groaning under the weight of technical terminology:

The rejection of domination unifies anarchists in shared struggles against the monopolization of resources and the centralization of power, representation, racism, imperialism and authority, while leaving the institutional and sociological mechanisms that explain it open to discussion.

Passages like the above are littered throughout the book, and yet the core concepts they turn on are never really explained. Is domination just shorthand for the ‘monopolization of resources and the centralization of power’? If not, what is it? And if so, why isn’t that compatible with federalism and some liberal anti-trust laws? Isn’t the point of representation to centralise power? And what does it mean to centralise racism and imperalism? Why is authority a bad thing, its centralisation to be struggled against; doesn’t its goodness follow analytically?

And why couldn’t it be that these institutional and sociological mechanisms justify, not just explain the phenomena? Why accept these normative claims in the first place? Answers are not forthcoming, and so the whole thing feels incoherent, and in-groupy.

It is at its most incoherent and in-groupy in the section on education. Education is an important piece of the anarchist puzzle, since most people are in fact decidedly not anarchists, and the political organisation it proposes requires individuals thinking and acting freely in anarchistic (i.e. egalitarian, ‘non-dominating’) ways. But anarchist thought on education, beyond just rehashing Marxist ideas about power sustaining power through ideology, are deeply unenlightening:

Knowledge is underpinned by linear, instrumental reasoning and this is manipulative and alienating … Education … comes, instead, through re-wilding: reconnecting to undomesticated, genuinely ecological and gentler systems of knowing.

And so it goes on, and on, and on.

Inaccessibility is this book’s original sin, but it also feels like it’s been rushed to print. Structurally, it’s organised thematically (Traditions, Cultures, Practices, Conditions, Prospects; followed by a set of anarchist biographies, which is mostly filler) and yet it focusses much on the historical development of the ideas, with the result that it keeps jolting, restarting; awkwardly lapsing into chronology, bumping against the ostensible thematic structure. Each insight and thinker tumbles into the next, presenting a cacophony of anarchisms, rather than a single unified theory. All of which means there’s little to no sustained argumentation.

The biggest sin, however, is the lack of a genuine multi-sided discussion of political violence. Government actions are described as “horrifying brutality and evident injustice”; anarchist assassinations and violent direct action are described in much cooler, theoretical terms. Her sympathy means we miss any real discussion of these very important questions: the extent to which political violence is legitimate, necessary or just. And while I understand her reluctance to encourage the typical framing of anarchism as chaos, violence and disorder, violence is anarchism’s shibboleth, and any book on the subject ought to address it.

Instead of a subtle, informed, nuanced debate of both why these given thinkers find it legitimate, and under what conditions we might today, we get quiet acquiescence, defensiveness, deflection:

One example of this is the debate about the ‘black bloc’ – the protest tactic associated with politic confrontation. Another is tactical diversity … resonant with the fluidity of historical anarchist activism, [which] encourages activists to ask whether a proposed action is ‘effective at generating power’ rather than ask whether it is ‘peaceful or violent’.

That’s as close as we get to a discussion of this central issue, and it’s a much poorer book because of it.

There’s a lot of content in here. Kinna knows the tradition well. And it may be a valuable reference for somebody already au fait with the anarchist tradition; someone already predisposed to buy what it’s selling. But that’s not me.

  1. Some of the main concepts – domination, power, self-emancipation – echo Marx, but seem to be used in a different way; anarchism doesn’t share Marxism’s explanatory basis of historical materialism. Kinna never really explains what anarchists mean by these concepts, perhaps because they’re used so variously that there isn’t any common definition to give. 

9:36am. January 9, 2020. London

A few favourite LRB pieces

The London Review of Books has been a good companion to me, its prose crisp and clean and sometimes lyrical, its horizons broad. And while it’s often a little too political, too much on its sleeve – which hinders the analytical power of some of the more polemical pieces – I was a happy subscriber for years and recommend it to anybody.

For the next month, the website’s paywall will be down and everything will be free. I figured I’d use this opportunity to link to a few pieces that I’ve read, enjoyed, not forgotten, or otherwise found interesting.

You could start with Hitchens on Ignatieff on Berlin, Meany on Schlesinger Jr., or Williams on Parfitt. Two pieces by the philosopher Amia Srinivasan, one on octopodes and consciousness, the other on politics and sexual desire are insightful and elegant. Jeremy Waldron, as ever, writes extraordinarily well on the shape and character of a politics given by a country’s constitution, and the tradeoffs (tradesoff?) involved.

David Runciman is a regular contributor, and always interesting: on David Cameron and the 2016 referendum; on Theresa May; on Trump; on Obama; on Gordon Brown; and on artificial intelligence. Jonathan Rée wrote on James Harris’s Hume, and on Edwin Curley’s Spinoza. I’ve enjoyed articles on punishment and race in America, on Entick v. Carrington, and Geoffrey Hawthorn’s reflections on my favourite philosopher, Bernard Williams.

There are three interesting pieces on antisemitism, zionism, Israel, its government, and the relations between all of the above; though none, in my opinion, quite understand the relevant problems, or render with enough subtlty the range of opinions amongst diasporic Jews –– and the dangers of getting the answers wrong. (Relatedly, Ido Vock’s piece in Vice is the best article on this subject that I’ve ever read.)

The LRB occasionally jumps to and revives older texts, like this review of my favourite Iris Murdoch novel, Under The Net. And sometimes it doesn’t review texts at all, but instead tells contemporary people’s stories.

Finally, the blogs, which always remain free, are also worth exploring. There’s a piece on Finnis, homosexuality, and academic freedom by Sophie Smith, which helped me see into a blind spot of my liberalism. Or there’s this piece on Landmines in the Sahara by an old acquaintance of mine, Matthew Porges; his piece on Killing a Camel is also good. Srinivasan also wrote a short obituary on Parfitt, which is charming.