Yesterday I was helping someone craft a piece of writing, and noticed that — maybe because as an editor I felt more detached — I was able to do something that I normally have trouble with: start a sentence, knowing that it wouldn't sound good, and write it out completely. I would even preface myself as I did it: "this isn't going to work, but let's just see what it looks like". I think in that context I was pushed to do this because I needed to try something in order to know what my suggestions would be, and moreover to get my idea on the page so we could workshop it together.

I’d like to push myself to do this more consciously in my own writing too; here's a perhaps a decent representation of my current process, to the extent that I have one:

  1. I bullet-outline rough ideas about what I want to say, and in the process generate certain gestures and turns of phrase that I might want to bring to the prose

  2. Once I feel confident in this, I try to translate it into coherent sentences. Despite my best intentions I typically fail, and output a pile of garbage.

  3. I reread the garbage over and over, and copy-paste it again and again, tweaking aspects of the phrasing, turning it around, adding and discarding, until it smells less like garbage (or I get tired and decide to run with it anyway).

  4. Rinse and repeat.

So I suppose what I’m saying is I can at least help myself out by acknowledging openly at step 2 that I’m going to produce garbage, and not censor myself by holding it all in. And with this I’m just reiterating that anecdote that I love from Philippa Foot’s introduction to Natural Goodness:

Wittgenstein interrupted a speaker who had realized that he was about to say something that, although it seemed compelling, was clearly ridiculous, and was trying (as we all do in such circumstances) to say something sensible instead. ‘No,’ said Wittgenstein. ‘Say what you want to say. Be crude and then we shall get on.’

7/7/2024

But as the sciences have developed farther the notion has gained ground that most, perhaps all, of our laws are only approximations. The laws themselves, moreover, have grown so numerous that there is no counting them; and so many rival formulations are proposed in all the branches of science that investigators have become accustomed to the notion that no theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but that any one of them may from some point of view be useful. Their great use is to summarize old facts and to lead to new ones. They are only a man-made language, a conceptual shorthand, as some one calls them, in which we write our reports of nature; and languages, as is well known, tolerate much choice of expression and many dialects.

— from What Pragmatism Means

6/30/2024 William James

A recent conversation with Patrick helped clarify a little bit, at least for me, how I think about sources of technological convenience/entertainment/pleasure in my life, like music-streaming services (as came up in this discussion), and what it might mean to abstain from those things, on a temporary or permanent basis.

To forego a convenience, such as sending snail mail instead of texting, listening to cassettes instead of streaming music, etc, doesn’t have to be absolute, and it doesn’t have to mean you think the thing is bad, or that life would be fundamentally better without it. In most cases the water is murky: from new technologies, things are often gained and lost.

Rather, I want to think about these abstentions as a kind of ritual: something you practice — with as much or as little commitment as you feel comfortable with — to break out of your comfort zone, see from a different point of view, flex different mental muscles.

Relates also to this Confucian idea of ritual as a way of breaking unhealthy patterns of behavior

6/28/2024 ritual abstention
6/20/2024 from Mario Breskic: max-bittker

hello nico!! I am passing through are.na again. how have you been? what have you been up to? hope spring has treated you kindly :)


Nico Chilla:

Hi Lina, welcome back! I gather that you’re in the midst PhD? I hope that has been generative and rewarding (and I’m impressed you have time for are.na!).

On my part, maybe I can describe it this way: I started a job, and I’m thinking through how various parts of my life might fall into place around it.

6/9/2024 from lina l.:

thanks again for your thoughts on truth, it's given me so much to mull over.

as spring draws to a close, I wonder about whether you have any spring traditions/memories/details you find yourself looking forward to or thinking of each year. I often think about how you never know it's the last snowfall of the year while it's happening. there's some bittersweetness in that, so whenever it snows I quietly try to guess whether it will be the last. during the years I lived in new york, I think it actually snowed more in march than it ever did in december.

take care, nico! 🪜


Nico Chilla:

Mmm yeah, and it felt like a particularly fickle spring this year… My partner and I had maybe the inverse ritual: on 75ish-degree days in March and April, we tried to guess whether the warmth would persist, or if it would drop back down in a number of days. New York faked us out multiple times — filled with sunny optimism we would predict the beginning of true spring weather, only for a rain storm to shortly mark the return to chill and wind.

Nico Chilla:

“🪜” — I like your invocation of a step ladder here — it made me think of another resonant passage from Wittgenstein:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

— Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, prop. §6.54

6/8/2024 from dani bloop:

This page is my notepad and guestbook. It pulls from an Are.na channel that I have used for over two years to record random musings and receive messages from online neighbors.

Leave me a note! The channel is open for anyone to add to, and this page updates once per day.

…the first fact of works of art is that they are meant, meant to be understood. A poem, whatever else it is, is an utterance (outer-ance). It is as true to say of poems that they are physical objects as to say of human actions that they are physical motions (though it is perfectly true that there would not be an action unless somebody moved, did something).

From A Matter of Meaning It, one of the essays compiled in “Must We Mean What We Say?”

6/8/2024 Stanley Cavell

Maybe it’s not that any given statement is either “a fact” or “a convention”, but rather that our agreement or disagreement about the truth of a given statement is a matter of either fact or convention.


That is: “the sky is blue” is a statement, and we may disagree about its truth either because one of us looks up and sees a different color, or because we mean different things by “blue” or “sky” or “is”.


Though I’m still inclined to say a true statement is factual, a fact — maybe what I’m really getting at here is just that it’s wrong to oppose “facts” and “conventions” because there’s no such thing as a purely “conventional” statement, and of course all facts are factual in part because of conventions.


Though I’m also compelled by the idea, which I started to get at here, that factuality doesn't live in statements — statements are true or false, and the true statements aren’t the facts themselves, but more precisely, they express facts.

6/8/2024

I really like this idea—which Emily shared with me from the museum world—of treating an art exhibition like a thesis, and the exhibited objects as pieces of evidence placed in defense of that thesis. It’s obviously not all that an exhibition can be, but it’s a powerful framing.

Kim Kleinert’s wonderful channel of channel introductions makes me think that you can really apply a very similar framing to channels. That is, channels can be sites of “curation”, not in the debased form that is promoted by social media, but in a manner that insists upon context and multidimensional citation, while gathering blocks to arrive at a singular point of view or provocation.

6/4/2024

I want to suggest that part of what makes the conversation about attention right now oh-so-difficult and so important is that secreted within that term are in fact two very different projects bumping up against each other.

In a laboratory you use instruments. As it turns out, if you use instruments to get at a thing called “attention”, you end up finding an instrumentalized form of attention. Is that form of attention real? Absolutely. In fact, the technologies for making it real are powerful: you can quantify it, you can place it in evidence experimentally... Is it part of what’s in that sort of worker conception of attention that you invoked? Yes as it happens it is, but that other thing that you’re calling in when you talk about meditation, when you talk about awareness, when we invoke the experience of being: the kind of ecstasy that can come with a certain durational flow of immersion in a person, a conversation, a book, the experience of reading an object... That comes from a different place. It’s also in the language of attention and it has its own separate history.

If you want to see both of those operating now, let me give you two recent theorists of attention, both very prominent, whose accounts of what attention is are absolutely contradictory. Perfectly paradoxical, but both interestingly true.

Two biz school theorists, Davenport and Beck, do a book called The Attention Economy, I think in 2001 — they don’t actually coin the phrase, but they’re responsible for its exploding into the collective conversation. How do they define attention in that book? They say: “attention is what triggers–catalyzes–awareness into action”. Attention is what catalyzes awareness into action.

A definition that couldn’t be more different: the recently deceased French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, in a beautiful and difficult book called Taking Care of the Youth and the Generations, centers that book on attention. What does he say attention is? He says attention — playing with the attendre in French — is waiting. The exact opposite of my catalytic triggering–it’s waiting. It’s in fact for him infinite waiting. And what are you waiting on when you attend to an object, wait on it? He says you are waiting on the disclosure of the long webs of connectedness that are in the object. Which long webs of connectedness are a mirroring of the rich, long webs of connectedness that are in you.

So let’s imagine for a second that there was a painting on the wall of this studio, and you and I were looking at it together. We might look at that painting —it might be let’s say a religious icon or something — and you and I would bring to the experience of looking at it what we have: we would notice colors, we would think about other images like it that we might have seen, we would think about the other images that might not be here but could be, or the other symbolic things that are in it... and as we experience that web of things that are in the image, we’d really be seeing a long web of connectedness that’s in ourselves. So for Steigler attention is waiting on the disclosure of those long webs of connectedness which are a mirroring of our own infinitude in the world.

Attention: infinite waiting. Attention: triggering. Sharp contrast.

— D. Graham Burnett, on The Ezra Klein Show

6/4/2024 D. Graham Burnett

Dear Nico,

I am so honored to receive your attention and lengthy comments. Thank you for your response and please do not apologize, or I hope this will help curb the disclaimer instinct.

I connected the prior block as you mentioned a nagging concern about a loss/lack of serendipity when it comes to the music searching experience. That resonated with me a lot as I sometimes hold on to "origin stories" with certain musicians because it has a mythic quality (feels like I've been repeating this initial encounter thing a bit too much lately...) — whereas with other musicians, I've resorted to accepting that it's algorithmically tuned to predict my taste... which makes me wonder how to seek the generative friction a lot of us desire. (Something about echo chambers here that gets too into online politics, setting that aside here) I think improvisational dance/music helps with that...

More generally though, I think there’s a false equivalence being made between “technology”/“bureaucracy” and what is “rational” or “sensible”.

+1

Maybe it's because I've been public transit reliant for the past couple years, but I really doubt whether maintenance of a vehicle would count as bureaucracy[1]; Hickman writes of car culture reflecting the regulatory, rules-based aspects of an American society — this I suppose I can understand, though to me the auto enthusiasts' passion lies not in a desire to follow the rules of "bureaucracy"/the drudgery of maintenance, but rather to understand the rules of speaking the language of cars/the underlying technology. [2]

This is where it gets highly idiosyncratic, ideology wise: for me, the central appeal of a car is the potential for movement, so the central appeal of computers for me is the potential for movement across mental landscapes (if we were to continue this spatial metaphor). I feel the maintenance schedules, monthly bills, mechanical inspections, vehicle purchases, and trips to the gas pump would read not as tedious, but rather resonate as acts and gestures, mundane tasks of care for one's car. But lol see [1] — maybe I am romanticizing this too...

And on the other side, I don’t think technology is devoid of beauty/spontaneity/what he calls “romance”. Technology companies often mistakenly treat convenience, comfort, and abundance as absolute rather than relative goods. But I feel like this is an element of capitalism, not something fundamental about the human pursuit of knowledge or technology

Agreed. And +1 to the bike comment... It's been a while since I last revisited some of my channels sketching out an understanding of our relationship with technology... but I'd like to return to this central idea of technology being beautiful because it reminds us of who we are (as humans), where we've come from (from books as technology to oral histories as technology to other containers, e.g.), and where we want to go (what gaps do we see in contemporary society and how do we want to navigate them)?

I'd properly watched a TikTok (it feels like I assign myself homework when I go on extended browsing sessions on the app) that discussed OpenAI's GPT4o — and all the Her film analyses aside, a central point someone mentioned that I echoed strongly was this concern that the expectation of frictionlessness would irreversibly harm us psychologically.

I think back a lot on this comment ... and I feel that it's central to the convenience-resistant thread that we (along with MM and everyone else) are pulling on.

  1. Or perhaps I don't fully grasp the meaning of bureaucracy that Hickman is describing here.
  2. Besides the other psychosexual (sorry I had to Ballard), commercial elements

Temperamentally cool regards,

Leslie

5/27/2024 from leslie liu: on technology | bureaucracy

Hi Nico,

Reading this now — Cylinder Misfire — and curious if you've come across it too. Trying to spin up some discussion around it, though I don't know where to begin...


Nico Chilla:

Thanks so much for sharing Leslie, I found this text really interesting and I appreciate you picking this place to stir discussion :-)

I’ll say at the start that I have misgivings about this text, but I think it very beautifully identifies a real void in contemporary life. I feel like I most often “crave a luddic escape” when I think about the way I listen to music (mostly through Spotify). I’ve had so many conversations with people about something that seems to have been lost with the convenience and abundance of music streaming:

  • the sense of serendipity in finding things that may not be popular and algorithmically inclined to please

  • the way that, if you’re limited to a certain # of records/CDs/cassettes, and map the experience of listening to a physical object, you may pay more attention and derive more meaning from what’s available

  • the way streaming mechanics reflect back on how music is made, e.g. it feels like songs are now privileged over albums as the artistic unit in pop music, because they’re how discovery and sales are quantified

Maybe I should cancel my subscription and buy a walkman or something? 

There is something really persuasive about analog nostalgia and simpler ways of living that the author seems to be championing here, but something feels incomplete about that to me. For one thing, I think there’s more than auto-philia to blame for our reliance on cars — there’s a systemic element that we’ve discussed before, in that our cities and infrastructure are designed around certain technology, to the point that depending on where you are, they really are needs not wants.

Nico Chilla:

More generally though, I think there’s a false equivalence being made between “technology”/“bureaucracy” and what is “rational” or “sensible”. It may very well be rational to go the long way, partake in beauty, take a break from routine, and so on. There’s nothing necessarily mysterious, spiritual, or ineffable about these things in my experience — they’re just elements of a healthy and fulfilling life. 

And on the other side, I don’t think technology is devoid of beauty/spontaneity/what he calls “romance”. Technology companies often mistakenly treat convenience, comfort, and abundance as absolute rather than relative goods (see Malte Müller’s Opposing Convenience). But I feel like this is an element of capitalism, not something fundamental about the human pursuit of knowledge or technology (not to mention the author’s bike is a kind of technology — thinking of a certain meme graphic you used to have on your website…)

Nico Chilla:

Anyway sorry to gush as usual (for me to respond promptly is to respond lengthily) but curious where your head is at with this all

leslie liu:

@nico-chilla I appreciate our neighborship so so much, do you have any idea? https://www.are.na/block/28305275

5/24/2024 from leslie liu:

I like thinking of truth as akin to a sturdy board: you can step on it, rely on it to prop something up, and so forth. It’s the idea that what makes a “fact” is no more and no less than the ability to act assuredly and make good predictions on its basis.


dani bloop:

truth is a little step ladder

5/7/2024

Descartes had the notion of “substance”, and that was his fundamental category. He asked ‘What is substance? What substances are there?’ Actually he really thought that God was in effect the only substance, because God was the only independent thing. But ignoring that, among created things, there was matter and there was mind. Now if we don’t have that question — what is substance, or what is the fundamental nature of all reality — then we’re not led into this position of asking what matter “fundamentally” is. There may be nothing that matter fundamentally is — there’s this kind of matter, there’s that kind of matter, there’s the periodical table of the elements that tells you what all the elements are, how they fit together.

The mistake as I see it is asking the question “what is the fundamental nature of matter”. This was a question they asked in the 17th century. Descartes asked it because he believed in the concept of substance. We don’t believe in the concept of substance now — maybe you do, maybe Philip [Goff] does, but I don’t, and I don’t think we should believe it. I don’t think it’s actually a very workable concept. If we don’t have the concept of substance, then we shouldn’t be asking the question “what is matter _as such_”. We can ask “what is lead”, “what is gold”, “what is an organism”, “what is a tree”, and the totality of that knowledge is the totality of those things. But there’s no further question “what is matter?”

4/26/2024 Tim Crane

The science historian Veirmeer, in his conclusion, notes that the lanterns “could shift from magical contexts to natural philosophy, and sometimes the borderlines are far from clear… They were analogical demonstrations of undemonstrable philosophical principles.”

I love that phrase. Incidentally, it’s a pretty good way to describe how chatbots and image generators function for AI executives and true believers in AGI: as “analogical demonstrations of undemonstrable philosophical principles.” After all, there is no scientifically determined point or threshold at which we will have “reached” or “achieved” AGI — it’s an ambiguous conceit rooted largely in the ideas of technologists, futurists and Silicon Valley operators. These AI-produced images and videos, these interactions with chatbots and text generators, are analogical demonstrations of the future those parties believe, or want to believe, AGI renders inevitable.

4/24/2024 Brian Merchant quoting Koen Vermeir

hi nico! only just realized you were sat behind me today. i'm gonna do my springtime edition of guestbook signing soon so stay tuned, happy spring 🌼


Nico Chilla:

ah didn't realize that was you either! looking forward to it

4/22/2024 from dani bloop:

your website is so cool


Nico Chilla:

why thank you, your site is pretty neat too 😎 been meaning to try your testflight are.na client

4/21/2024 from Yihui H.:

I love my cobwebs!!!!


Nico Chilla:

🕸️

4/21/2024 from Cole Bryant:

wagwan


Nico Chilla:

👋 thanks for introducing me to this expression!

4/21/2024 from Jingqi Kay Liu:

hi from spring cleaning


Nico Chilla:

thanks for dropping by! ⭐️

4/21/2024 from Christina 💗:

The process of domain naming acknowledges our self-made authority to define the environments we inhabit, and thus ourselves. As we settle with language, words determine the visibility of a place's logic. Logic in turn, is just an evaluation of language. Within these dichotomies, naming treads the line between liberation and oppression, illegibility and clarity, obfuscation and identification. 

The secret to construction (of identity, object, or place) has always been in naming. Language and space are interlinked, each mutating our understanding of a world and the possibilities within. Truth is revealed when it is recognized. Names are tools for recognition / memory-making / cognition / meaning-making. Like a collective contract to recognize one color as red, or to dispute for centuries over the name of a land and its authority, names as relations are always embroiled with questions of power.

3/13/2024 Chia Amisola

In search for better descriptors than “personal” for work that is done without any financial or institutional motivator. The word seems to imply I don’t put a lot of myself into my professional work, which is hardly true, and it also seems to exclude projects I do collaboratively.

The term that best captures the spirit of the thing is causa sui — but you can’t use it as an adjective, and no one would get it anyway.

2/12/2024

Through all these kinds of image references, there seems to be something kind of paradoxical about editing. The conventional view of the editor is one that envisages the editorial mandate as one of shortening; of cutting, of removal and abbreviation. But as these images show, within the figure of editing and the role of the editor, there is simultaneously an opposing process of assemblage, of generating stuff, of collecting writers and images, of acquisition. Editing, then, does two opposite things at exactly the same time.

Edit or be Damned talk given at Columbia GSAPP

2/9/2024 Thomas Weaver

On one level it’s impressive that Spotify can perfectly capture my musical taste in a series of data points, and regurgitate it to me in a series of weekly playlists. But as good as it has gotten, I can’t remember the last time it pointed me to something I never expected I would like, but ultimately fell totally in love with. 

For that you needed someone who could go beyond the data to tell you the story: of the artist, of the genre, of the music they made. For that you needed criticism.

– from Why Pitchfork Died

1/21/2024 Casey Newton

You don’t want people to be too happy with who they are, too early in their lives. Like a two-year-old should not be happy to remain a two-year-old. Kids are great! But they haven’t really encountered most of the valuable things in life yet. A really big part of life is coming to care about new things that you didn’t even know were valuable beforehand. We want people to do that, and there’s a problem with how people can do it, because it doesn’t seem valuable to them, so why are they gonna start valuing it. Competition is a really powerful psychological mechanism for that. You see it in schools — people want to get a good grade, and because they want to get a good grade they study, and because they study they’re immersed in a world. We use competition to leverage ourselves out of what would have been an impoverished point of view on value; I think that’s got to be the ultimate justification of meritocracy. But that justification is only a justification of meritocracy as a way to motivate people. It’s not a justification of meritocracy as a way to ultimately assess the value of your life or what you care about. It’s sort of a theory of transition, not a theory of the end point. I think one of the really deep ways in which meritocracy gets corrupted is when people take it to be a theory of the end point. In effect, my view is if you are comparing yourself negatively to someone else — which is I think a perfectly fine thing and a very useful thing to do — you better be in the process of trying to become better.

— from this interview with Ezra Klein

1/15/2024 Agnes Callard on the justification of meritocracy

I think we’re way too quick to identify ourselves with long-term goals, especially when we’re not in the moment of being tempted. We can say “look, I know how I should really live. I know that I should read those books, and I should not eat the cookies, and I should be less stressed about these things, and I should spend more time with my family—these are things that I know”. And I think the truth is that I do not know any of them. I believe them, and I also believe the opposite. Some of my beliefs are more presentable to other people; so I am more to you if I say, “yeah I know I should spend more time with my kids” than if I say “I have a profound need to escape my kids”. But both of those things are true of me, and I think the violence to the self occurs as long as both are true of you. I think — but this is sort of just me agreeing with Socrates about something — that if you had knowledge, you would not have that conflict. A lot of people have the goal of mastering themselves, which is to say exerting enough violence over themselves to quiet that other voice, because they “know” the other thing. But the truth is the fact that the other voice is there means you don’t know it. The violence over yourself is trying to quiet it when it’s really there. Knowledge would mean that you unanimously and obviously in a very simple way did the thing you thought you should. … Suppose that I feel like having the cookie but I “know” I shouldn’t. I think people are inclined to think of the feeling that you want the cookie as bodily, and the knowing that you shouldn’t as not-bodily, but I think that’s bodily too. That’s just how things look to you in a bodily way when you’re looking from far away. You are somebody who is just trapped in the images of things. And when you look at something like eating a cookie from close-up it looks really good to you, and when you look at it from far away it looks not very good. Those are both bodily judgements— there are just proximate and distant bodily judgements. And what we do when we don’t have knowledge is we just vacillate between these bodily judgements, and we dress one of them up as though it were knowledge, namely the distant one. … The way I am is that I see a bunch of conflicts, and I don’t know how to resolve them, and that’s just my ignorance. If I had knowledge, I would know how to resolve them. But what I at least try to do is not be under the illusion that I have the knowledge already.

— from this interview with Ezra Klein

1/15/2024 Agnes Callard’s Socratic framing of knowledge

What’s especially fascinating about Times New Roman and Arial is they’ve acquired an air of neutrality — moreso than Helvetica or Akzidenz — not because of some aspect of their type design, but rather by virtue of their ubiquity. By being used widely, democratically, and indiscriminately, the specific history and original connotations of the typefaces have been more or less drowned out.

1/10/2024 The neutrality of system fonts

A takeaway from this piece by Agnes Callard: “Person A thought...” or “Person A frames X as...” is a better way of bringing in a reference to another author’s idea than some of the formulations I typically use, like “There’s this compelling idea from Person A, that...” or “This is similar to the Person A’s conception of X as...”.

These latter phrasings, I’m realizing, feel verbose and overly scholarly, and they usually force me to rely on the author’s specific terminology. That might be valuable if I was still doing academic writing, but not when writing an essay for a general audience. What I want now is just to bring in an idea to support or apply to the topic at hand, while properly attributing its source. Thus I like “He/she/they thought...” — it allows me to give credit and then get right into the flow of explaining the idea in a simple and accessible form.

But I guess the thing to be careful of, and the reason I sometimes avoid the more simple phrasings, is that they can feel like authoritative descriptions of an author’s thinking, which I don’t necessarily feel qualified to give.

1/10/2024

The tourist is a deferential character. He outsources the vindication of his experiences to the ethnologist, to postcards, to conventional wisdom about what you are or are not supposed to do in a place. This deference, this “openness to experience,” is exactly what renders the tourist incapable of experience. Emerson confessed, “I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated.” He speaks for every tourist who has stood before a monument, or a painting, or a falcon, and demanded herself to feel something. Emerson and Percy help us understand why this demand is unreasonable: to be a tourist is to have already decided that it is not one’s own feelings that count. Whether an experience is authentically X is precisely what you, as a non-X, cannot judge. ... The single most important fact about tourism is this: we already know what we will be like when we return. A vacation is not like immigrating to a foreign country, or matriculating at a university, or starting a new job, or falling in love. We embark on those pursuits with the trepidation of one who enters a tunnel not knowing who she will be when she walks out. The traveller departs confident that she will come back with the same basic interests, political beliefs, and living arrangements. Travel is a boomerang. It drops you right where you started.

— In The Case Against Travel, for The New Yorker

1/10/2024 Agnes Callard

In an ironic turn of events, I’m afraid to visit my own website on my work laptop because one of the page themes crashes the operating system.


Nico Chilla:

Update: as of installing a newer version of Ventura, this no longer happens :)

leslie liu:

this is ideal (pre-OS update)

1/10/2024

People will often censure ChatGPT, DALL-E, and other AI products for stealing human intellectual and creative output without compensating the sources of their data. As this line of thinking goes, the works generated by these programs are purely derivative; they take advantage of human originality to generate infinite renditions that then compete with and cheapen the value of the works they were trained on.

My concern is, if you compare AI authorship and human authorship, it seems like this attitude penalizes behavior in AI which we consider harmless and ordinary in humans, not to mention foundational to human creative practice: Like generative AI, people absorb large amounts of writing and artwork corresponding to their disciplines; interfacing with that existing world of intellectual output develops our mastery of language and understanding as writers, or of craft as artists and designers. I think producing “original” work then consists not of working from a clean slate, but rather making new connections and observations, remixing, reframing, challenging existing material, intermingling it with our individual experiences. Looked at this way, human work is ‘derivative’ in the same way AI works are derivative.

You might justifiably challenge me on this: you could argue that even if people do similarly start from an existing corpus, they grow it into work which is more inventive, more rational, somehow more “original” than AI output. And aside from these doubts, I obviously grant that today’s AIs don’t have personal histories and experiences that inform their work. But the first response I have to this kind of skepticism is that it feels like philosophical hedging to me. That is: it draws a line around the state of the technology today and uses that as an essential delimiter of what AI is capable of, and of what differentiates human and AI creativity. I think this is an ill-advised position to take, not just because the technology is evolving rapidly, but because at a fundamental level I don’t believe there’s any categorical boundary barring machines from becoming as creatively competent as professional human authors.

My second response to this skepticism is that regardless of AI’s actual capabilities, I’m actually more interested in what the mere possibility of genuinely generative, creative AI means for the way we understand our own work. What if the only thing that significantly distinguished the quality of the output of a machine from that of a human was the fact that a machine can do it a lot faster, and with far vaster resources and references than any human can gather? Like a piece of good science fiction, that looming technological threat allows us to reframe our preconceptions about the world: it allows us to reflect on creativity and creative value not as essential qualities, but as concepts formed out of contingent social, economic, and human conditions.

12/30/2023 what do we mean by creative?

Something I think I’ve noticed about myself is that I slip into different states of “flow” where my attention and decision-making become bound to particular patterns. For example, when I establish deep focus on a particular task or activity, I become obsessed with it — even my absent mind gravitates towards it, and it becomes difficult to think intentionally about anything beyond it. At other times I just succumb repeatedly and absent-mindedly to habits, like listening or watching something while I brush my teeth (I’ve done this for long enough that I now find it uncomfortable to brush my teeth without any auditory accompaniment).

This connects to a confucian idea I heard a while ago (ironically on a podcast, which I probably listened to while brushing my teeth): people tend to naturally fall into patterns of behavior; it’s the role of ritual to break those patterns. So although rituals can feel forced and arbitrary, they disrupt rather than maintain the status quo — I really like this framing.

12/24/2023

My problem with the “it’s all subjective” line of thinking isn’t necessarily that it’s a position with no merit, but rather that it masks a lack of understanding, and prevents meaningful disagreement or reconciliation of different points of view.

Matters of artistic taste, matters of ethics, these things can’t be reduced to differences in personal preference, like your favorite flavor of ice cream. Again, that’s not to deny that they are relative in an important sense. But their relativity is contingent on shared culture and a shared human condition.

12/6/2023

Something I would like to think about more intentionally is serendipity, and particularly the role of serendipity in the techno-capitalist age we live in.

12/4/2023

A conflation I would like to explore: we typically use “narrative” to mean a chronology, but we also use it to refer to representations of people or things at single moments in time. Maybe the meaning has expanded in this way because we pull from our pasts to generate unified representations of our present selves?

12/1/2023

People often use the term “philosophy” to describe a set of rules or guiding principles for how to behave, but I like to think of it as almost the antithesis to this: philosophy is what you do when your rules cease to make sense or fail to account for your present circumstances. This is similar to the distinction that John Dewey marks between “customary” and “reflective” morality.

11/12/2023

One thing that it has taken me a while to wrap my head around is how designers work collaboratively; design seems to depend on the execution of a single coherent vision, and I wasn't sure how you could bring multiple people into that process as equal creative partners.

In my first forays into the professional world, I've gotten exposed to several approaches to this, and I’m tentatively forming an insight about what works well for me: it’s ideal to avoid situations where multiple people independently tackle the same asset. This forces a team to try to consolidate and litigate between different concepts that each author feels creatively invested in. In my experience it’s far easier to build on a single concept, driven by one primary author, through discussion and debate with backseat collaborators.

As a primary author, I’ve really appreciated this model because it allows me to address my collaborators’ feedback in a way that feels unified and coherent with my own ideas. And on the other side, I was surprised to find that as a backseat collaborator I don’t feel creatively disempowered (although this is partially to the credit of generous collaborators). On the contrary, I feel creatively empowered because I can spitball ideas and amendments to the design without putting the primary author under any pressure to accept them directly, and the end product feels like something which I share authorship in.

I should probably make clear that this is by no means a categorical rule: there are probably many cases, such as a preliminary ideation phase or a particularly large project with many components, where working simultaneously is useful or even necessary. It just hinges on being and working with collaborators that don’t invest too heavily in their own ideas, and possibly having a hierarchy where lead designers set the direction and adjudicate disagreements.

11/8/2023 some thoughts on designing collaboratively

Kleptoplasty is a phenomenon so strange and alien that before its discovery it would have been considered physically and anatomically impossible. Certain sea slugs can steal an algae’s lifegiving material, sucking up DNA, proteins, and cells through a straw-like organ. The slugs are then able to photosynthesize, metabolizing light just like the planta they’ve pillaged, turning green with chlorophyll. The divide between fauna and flora, alive or not, dissolves under the pressure of this discovery. How can you not be moved? Where is the sense in insisting, “No, I am a slug. And you are a plant”? Or “I am the plant and you are the slug”?

In that dissolution is a demonstration of the cultural power of science. The seemingly obvious axioms of our humanity—who we are, what we are—are in an instant reconceived.

— editor’s introduction to Issue 1, Fall 2023 of Broadcast (print edition)

11/5/2023 Janna Levin & Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Contrary to Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, I’m now of the attitude that ideas do transcend language: you can believe something without being able to articulate it. But I think his basic point was that ideas don’t live in some untouchable mental realm; they manifest themselves in our everyday practices and dispositions.

10/30/2023

This page caps at the ~40ish latest entries — partly because it would be laborious to implement a dynamic feed, and partly because I like the idea of this page being finite, like a journal ran out of pages — you can see earlier blocks in the full channel on are.na.

continued on are.na...

7/7/2024

Yesterday I was helping someone craft a piece of writing, and noticed that — maybe because as an editor I felt more detached — I was able to do something that I normally have trouble with: start a sentence, knowing that it wouldn't sound good, and write it out completely. I would even preface myself as I did it: "this isn't going to work, but let's just see what it looks like". I think in that context I was pushed to do this because I needed to try something in order to know what my suggestions would be, and moreover to get my idea on the page so we could workshop it together.

I’d like to push myself to do this more consciously in my own writing too; here's a perhaps a decent representation of my current process, to the extent that I have one:

  1. I bullet-outline rough ideas about what I want to say, and in the process generate certain gestures and turns of phrase that I might want to bring to the prose

  2. Once I feel confident in this, I try to translate it into coherent sentences. Despite my best intentions I typically fail, and output a pile of garbage.

  3. I reread the garbage over and over, and copy-paste it again and again, tweaking aspects of the phrasing, turning it around, adding and discarding, until it smells less like garbage (or I get tired and decide to run with it anyway).

  4. Rinse and repeat.

So I suppose what I’m saying is I can at least help myself out by acknowledging openly at step 2 that I’m going to produce garbage, and not censor myself by holding it all in. And with this I’m just reiterating that anecdote that I love from Philippa Foot’s introduction to Natural Goodness:

Wittgenstein interrupted a speaker who had realized that he was about to say something that, although it seemed compelling, was clearly ridiculous, and was trying (as we all do in such circumstances) to say something sensible instead. ‘No,’ said Wittgenstein. ‘Say what you want to say. Be crude and then we shall get on.’

6/30/2024 William James

But as the sciences have developed farther the notion has gained ground that most, perhaps all, of our laws are only approximations. The laws themselves, moreover, have grown so numerous that there is no counting them; and so many rival formulations are proposed in all the branches of science that investigators have become accustomed to the notion that no theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but that any one of them may from some point of view be useful. Their great use is to summarize old facts and to lead to new ones. They are only a man-made language, a conceptual shorthand, as some one calls them, in which we write our reports of nature; and languages, as is well known, tolerate much choice of expression and many dialects.

— from What Pragmatism Means

6/28/2024 ritual abstention

A recent conversation with Patrick helped clarify a little bit, at least for me, how I think about sources of technological convenience/entertainment/pleasure in my life, like music-streaming services (as came up in this discussion), and what it might mean to abstain from those things, on a temporary or permanent basis.

To forego a convenience, such as sending snail mail instead of texting, listening to cassettes instead of streaming music, etc, doesn’t have to be absolute, and it doesn’t have to mean you think the thing is bad, or that life would be fundamentally better without it. In most cases the water is murky: from new technologies, things are often gained and lost.

Rather, I want to think about these abstentions as a kind of ritual: something you practice — with as much or as little commitment as you feel comfortable with — to break out of your comfort zone, see from a different point of view, flex different mental muscles.

Relates also to this Confucian idea of ritual as a way of breaking unhealthy patterns of behavior

6/20/2024 from Mario Breskic: max-bittker

6/9/2024 from lina l.:

hello nico!! I am passing through are.na again. how have you been? what have you been up to? hope spring has treated you kindly :)


Nico Chilla:

Hi Lina, welcome back! I gather that you’re in the midst PhD? I hope that has been generative and rewarding (and I’m impressed you have time for are.na!).

On my part, maybe I can describe it this way: I started a job, and I’m thinking through how various parts of my life might fall into place around it.

6/8/2024 from dani bloop:

thanks again for your thoughts on truth, it's given me so much to mull over.

as spring draws to a close, I wonder about whether you have any spring traditions/memories/details you find yourself looking forward to or thinking of each year. I often think about how you never know it's the last snowfall of the year while it's happening. there's some bittersweetness in that, so whenever it snows I quietly try to guess whether it will be the last. during the years I lived in new york, I think it actually snowed more in march than it ever did in december.

take care, nico! 🪜


Nico Chilla:

Mmm yeah, and it felt like a particularly fickle spring this year… My partner and I had maybe the inverse ritual: on 75ish-degree days in March and April, we tried to guess whether the warmth would persist, or if it would drop back down in a number of days. New York faked us out multiple times — filled with sunny optimism we would predict the beginning of true spring weather, only for a rain storm to shortly mark the return to chill and wind.

Nico Chilla:

“🪜” — I like your invocation of a step ladder here — it made me think of another resonant passage from Wittgenstein:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

— Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, prop. §6.54

6/8/2024 Stanley Cavell

…the first fact of works of art is that they are meant, meant to be understood. A poem, whatever else it is, is an utterance (outer-ance). It is as true to say of poems that they are physical objects as to say of human actions that they are physical motions (though it is perfectly true that there would not be an action unless somebody moved, did something).

From A Matter of Meaning It, one of the essays compiled in “Must We Mean What We Say?”

6/8/2024

Maybe it’s not that any given statement is either “a fact” or “a convention”, but rather that our agreement or disagreement about the truth of a given statement is a matter of either fact or convention.


That is: “the sky is blue” is a statement, and we may disagree about its truth either because one of us looks up and sees a different color, or because we mean different things by “blue” or “sky” or “is”.


Though I’m still inclined to say a true statement is factual, a fact — maybe what I’m really getting at here is just that it’s wrong to oppose “facts” and “conventions” because there’s no such thing as a purely “conventional” statement, and of course all facts are factual in part because of conventions.


Though I’m also compelled by the idea, which I started to get at here, that factuality doesn't live in statements — statements are true or false, and the true statements aren’t the facts themselves, but more precisely, they express facts.

6/4/2024

I really like this idea—which Emily shared with me from the museum world—of treating an art exhibition like a thesis, and the exhibited objects as pieces of evidence placed in defense of that thesis. It’s obviously not all that an exhibition can be, but it’s a powerful framing.

Kim Kleinert’s wonderful channel of channel introductions makes me think that you can really apply a very similar framing to channels. That is, channels can be sites of “curation”, not in the debased form that is promoted by social media, but in a manner that insists upon context and multidimensional citation, while gathering blocks to arrive at a singular point of view or provocation.

6/4/2024 D. Graham Burnett

I want to suggest that part of what makes the conversation about attention right now oh-so-difficult and so important is that secreted within that term are in fact two very different projects bumping up against each other.

In a laboratory you use instruments. As it turns out, if you use instruments to get at a thing called “attention”, you end up finding an instrumentalized form of attention. Is that form of attention real? Absolutely. In fact, the technologies for making it real are powerful: you can quantify it, you can place it in evidence experimentally... Is it part of what’s in that sort of worker conception of attention that you invoked? Yes as it happens it is, but that other thing that you’re calling in when you talk about meditation, when you talk about awareness, when we invoke the experience of being: the kind of ecstasy that can come with a certain durational flow of immersion in a person, a conversation, a book, the experience of reading an object... That comes from a different place. It’s also in the language of attention and it has its own separate history.

If you want to see both of those operating now, let me give you two recent theorists of attention, both very prominent, whose accounts of what attention is are absolutely contradictory. Perfectly paradoxical, but both interestingly true.

Two biz school theorists, Davenport and Beck, do a book called The Attention Economy, I think in 2001 — they don’t actually coin the phrase, but they’re responsible for its exploding into the collective conversation. How do they define attention in that book? They say: “attention is what triggers–catalyzes–awareness into action”. Attention is what catalyzes awareness into action.

A definition that couldn’t be more different: the recently deceased French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, in a beautiful and difficult book called Taking Care of the Youth and the Generations, centers that book on attention. What does he say attention is? He says attention — playing with the attendre in French — is waiting. The exact opposite of my catalytic triggering–it’s waiting. It’s in fact for him infinite waiting. And what are you waiting on when you attend to an object, wait on it? He says you are waiting on the disclosure of the long webs of connectedness that are in the object. Which long webs of connectedness are a mirroring of the rich, long webs of connectedness that are in you.

So let’s imagine for a second that there was a painting on the wall of this studio, and you and I were looking at it together. We might look at that painting —it might be let’s say a religious icon or something — and you and I would bring to the experience of looking at it what we have: we would notice colors, we would think about other images like it that we might have seen, we would think about the other images that might not be here but could be, or the other symbolic things that are in it... and as we experience that web of things that are in the image, we’d really be seeing a long web of connectedness that’s in ourselves. So for Steigler attention is waiting on the disclosure of those long webs of connectedness which are a mirroring of our own infinitude in the world.

Attention: infinite waiting. Attention: triggering. Sharp contrast.

— D. Graham Burnett, on The Ezra Klein Show

5/27/2024 from leslie liu: on technology | bureaucracy

Dear Nico,

I am so honored to receive your attention and lengthy comments. Thank you for your response and please do not apologize, or I hope this will help curb the disclaimer instinct.

I connected the prior block as you mentioned a nagging concern about a loss/lack of serendipity when it comes to the music searching experience. That resonated with me a lot as I sometimes hold on to "origin stories" with certain musicians because it has a mythic quality (feels like I've been repeating this initial encounter thing a bit too much lately...) — whereas with other musicians, I've resorted to accepting that it's algorithmically tuned to predict my taste... which makes me wonder how to seek the generative friction a lot of us desire. (Something about echo chambers here that gets too into online politics, setting that aside here) I think improvisational dance/music helps with that...

More generally though, I think there’s a false equivalence being made between “technology”/“bureaucracy” and what is “rational” or “sensible”.

+1

Maybe it's because I've been public transit reliant for the past couple years, but I really doubt whether maintenance of a vehicle would count as bureaucracy[1]; Hickman writes of car culture reflecting the regulatory, rules-based aspects of an American society — this I suppose I can understand, though to me the auto enthusiasts' passion lies not in a desire to follow the rules of "bureaucracy"/the drudgery of maintenance, but rather to understand the rules of speaking the language of cars/the underlying technology. [2]

This is where it gets highly idiosyncratic, ideology wise: for me, the central appeal of a car is the potential for movement, so the central appeal of computers for me is the potential for movement across mental landscapes (if we were to continue this spatial metaphor). I feel the maintenance schedules, monthly bills, mechanical inspections, vehicle purchases, and trips to the gas pump would read not as tedious, but rather resonate as acts and gestures, mundane tasks of care for one's car. But lol see [1] — maybe I am romanticizing this too...

And on the other side, I don’t think technology is devoid of beauty/spontaneity/what he calls “romance”. Technology companies often mistakenly treat convenience, comfort, and abundance as absolute rather than relative goods. But I feel like this is an element of capitalism, not something fundamental about the human pursuit of knowledge or technology

Agreed. And +1 to the bike comment... It's been a while since I last revisited some of my channels sketching out an understanding of our relationship with technology... but I'd like to return to this central idea of technology being beautiful because it reminds us of who we are (as humans), where we've come from (from books as technology to oral histories as technology to other containers, e.g.), and where we want to go (what gaps do we see in contemporary society and how do we want to navigate them)?

I'd properly watched a TikTok (it feels like I assign myself homework when I go on extended browsing sessions on the app) that discussed OpenAI's GPT4o — and all the Her film analyses aside, a central point someone mentioned that I echoed strongly was this concern that the expectation of frictionlessness would irreversibly harm us psychologically.

I think back a lot on this comment ... and I feel that it's central to the convenience-resistant thread that we (along with MM and everyone else) are pulling on.

  1. Or perhaps I don't fully grasp the meaning of bureaucracy that Hickman is describing here.
  2. Besides the other psychosexual (sorry I had to Ballard), commercial elements

Temperamentally cool regards,

Leslie

5/24/2024 from leslie liu:

Hi Nico,

Reading this now — Cylinder Misfire — and curious if you've come across it too. Trying to spin up some discussion around it, though I don't know where to begin...


Nico Chilla:

Thanks so much for sharing Leslie, I found this text really interesting and I appreciate you picking this place to stir discussion :-)

I’ll say at the start that I have misgivings about this text, but I think it very beautifully identifies a real void in contemporary life. I feel like I most often “crave a luddic escape” when I think about the way I listen to music (mostly through Spotify). I’ve had so many conversations with people about something that seems to have been lost with the convenience and abundance of music streaming:

  • the sense of serendipity in finding things that may not be popular and algorithmically inclined to please

  • the way that, if you’re limited to a certain # of records/CDs/cassettes, and map the experience of listening to a physical object, you may pay more attention and derive more meaning from what’s available

  • the way streaming mechanics reflect back on how music is made, e.g. it feels like songs are now privileged over albums as the artistic unit in pop music, because they’re how discovery and sales are quantified

Maybe I should cancel my subscription and buy a walkman or something? 

There is something really persuasive about analog nostalgia and simpler ways of living that the author seems to be championing here, but something feels incomplete about that to me. For one thing, I think there’s more than auto-philia to blame for our reliance on cars — there’s a systemic element that we’ve discussed before, in that our cities and infrastructure are designed around certain technology, to the point that depending on where you are, they really are needs not wants.

Nico Chilla:

More generally though, I think there’s a false equivalence being made between “technology”/“bureaucracy” and what is “rational” or “sensible”. It may very well be rational to go the long way, partake in beauty, take a break from routine, and so on. There’s nothing necessarily mysterious, spiritual, or ineffable about these things in my experience — they’re just elements of a healthy and fulfilling life. 

And on the other side, I don’t think technology is devoid of beauty/spontaneity/what he calls “romance”. Technology companies often mistakenly treat convenience, comfort, and abundance as absolute rather than relative goods (see Malte Müller’s Opposing Convenience). But I feel like this is an element of capitalism, not something fundamental about the human pursuit of knowledge or technology (not to mention the author’s bike is a kind of technology — thinking of a certain meme graphic you used to have on your website…)

Nico Chilla:

Anyway sorry to gush as usual (for me to respond promptly is to respond lengthily) but curious where your head is at with this all

leslie liu:

@nico-chilla I appreciate our neighborship so so much, do you have any idea? https://www.are.na/block/28305275

5/7/2024

I like thinking of truth as akin to a sturdy board: you can step on it, rely on it to prop something up, and so forth. It’s the idea that what makes a “fact” is no more and no less than the ability to act assuredly and make good predictions on its basis.


dani bloop:

truth is a little step ladder

4/26/2024 Tim Crane

Descartes had the notion of “substance”, and that was his fundamental category. He asked ‘What is substance? What substances are there?’ Actually he really thought that God was in effect the only substance, because God was the only independent thing. But ignoring that, among created things, there was matter and there was mind. Now if we don’t have that question — what is substance, or what is the fundamental nature of all reality — then we’re not led into this position of asking what matter “fundamentally” is. There may be nothing that matter fundamentally is — there’s this kind of matter, there’s that kind of matter, there’s the periodical table of the elements that tells you what all the elements are, how they fit together.

The mistake as I see it is asking the question “what is the fundamental nature of matter”. This was a question they asked in the 17th century. Descartes asked it because he believed in the concept of substance. We don’t believe in the concept of substance now — maybe you do, maybe Philip [Goff] does, but I don’t, and I don’t think we should believe it. I don’t think it’s actually a very workable concept. If we don’t have the concept of substance, then we shouldn’t be asking the question “what is matter _as such_”. We can ask “what is lead”, “what is gold”, “what is an organism”, “what is a tree”, and the totality of that knowledge is the totality of those things. But there’s no further question “what is matter?”

4/24/2024 Brian Merchant quoting Koen Vermeir

The science historian Veirmeer, in his conclusion, notes that the lanterns “could shift from magical contexts to natural philosophy, and sometimes the borderlines are far from clear… They were analogical demonstrations of undemonstrable philosophical principles.”

I love that phrase. Incidentally, it’s a pretty good way to describe how chatbots and image generators function for AI executives and true believers in AGI: as “analogical demonstrations of undemonstrable philosophical principles.” After all, there is no scientifically determined point or threshold at which we will have “reached” or “achieved” AGI — it’s an ambiguous conceit rooted largely in the ideas of technologists, futurists and Silicon Valley operators. These AI-produced images and videos, these interactions with chatbots and text generators, are analogical demonstrations of the future those parties believe, or want to believe, AGI renders inevitable.

4/22/2024 from dani bloop:

hi nico! only just realized you were sat behind me today. i'm gonna do my springtime edition of guestbook signing soon so stay tuned, happy spring 🌼


Nico Chilla:

ah didn't realize that was you either! looking forward to it

4/21/2024 from Yihui H.:

your website is so cool


Nico Chilla:

why thank you, your site is pretty neat too 😎 been meaning to try your testflight are.na client

4/21/2024 from Cole Bryant:

I love my cobwebs!!!!


Nico Chilla:

🕸️

4/21/2024 from Jingqi Kay Liu:

wagwan


Nico Chilla:

👋 thanks for introducing me to this expression!

4/21/2024 from Christina 💗:

hi from spring cleaning


Nico Chilla:

thanks for dropping by! ⭐️

3/13/2024 Chia Amisola

The process of domain naming acknowledges our self-made authority to define the environments we inhabit, and thus ourselves. As we settle with language, words determine the visibility of a place's logic. Logic in turn, is just an evaluation of language. Within these dichotomies, naming treads the line between liberation and oppression, illegibility and clarity, obfuscation and identification. 

The secret to construction (of identity, object, or place) has always been in naming. Language and space are interlinked, each mutating our understanding of a world and the possibilities within. Truth is revealed when it is recognized. Names are tools for recognition / memory-making / cognition / meaning-making. Like a collective contract to recognize one color as red, or to dispute for centuries over the name of a land and its authority, names as relations are always embroiled with questions of power.

2/12/2024

In search for better descriptors than “personal” for work that is done without any financial or institutional motivator. The word seems to imply I don’t put a lot of myself into my professional work, which is hardly true, and it also seems to exclude projects I do collaboratively.

The term that best captures the spirit of the thing is causa sui — but you can’t use it as an adjective, and no one would get it anyway.

2/9/2024 Thomas Weaver

Through all these kinds of image references, there seems to be something kind of paradoxical about editing. The conventional view of the editor is one that envisages the editorial mandate as one of shortening; of cutting, of removal and abbreviation. But as these images show, within the figure of editing and the role of the editor, there is simultaneously an opposing process of assemblage, of generating stuff, of collecting writers and images, of acquisition. Editing, then, does two opposite things at exactly the same time.

Edit or be Damned talk given at Columbia GSAPP

1/21/2024 Casey Newton

On one level it’s impressive that Spotify can perfectly capture my musical taste in a series of data points, and regurgitate it to me in a series of weekly playlists. But as good as it has gotten, I can’t remember the last time it pointed me to something I never expected I would like, but ultimately fell totally in love with. 

For that you needed someone who could go beyond the data to tell you the story: of the artist, of the genre, of the music they made. For that you needed criticism.

– from Why Pitchfork Died

1/15/2024 Agnes Callard on the justification of meritocracy

You don’t want people to be too happy with who they are, too early in their lives. Like a two-year-old should not be happy to remain a two-year-old. Kids are great! But they haven’t really encountered most of the valuable things in life yet. A really big part of life is coming to care about new things that you didn’t even know were valuable beforehand. We want people to do that, and there’s a problem with how people can do it, because it doesn’t seem valuable to them, so why are they gonna start valuing it. Competition is a really powerful psychological mechanism for that. You see it in schools — people want to get a good grade, and because they want to get a good grade they study, and because they study they’re immersed in a world. We use competition to leverage ourselves out of what would have been an impoverished point of view on value; I think that’s got to be the ultimate justification of meritocracy. But that justification is only a justification of meritocracy as a way to motivate people. It’s not a justification of meritocracy as a way to ultimately assess the value of your life or what you care about. It’s sort of a theory of transition, not a theory of the end point. I think one of the really deep ways in which meritocracy gets corrupted is when people take it to be a theory of the end point. In effect, my view is if you are comparing yourself negatively to someone else — which is I think a perfectly fine thing and a very useful thing to do — you better be in the process of trying to become better.

— from this interview with Ezra Klein

1/15/2024 Agnes Callard’s Socratic framing of knowledge

I think we’re way too quick to identify ourselves with long-term goals, especially when we’re not in the moment of being tempted. We can say “look, I know how I should really live. I know that I should read those books, and I should not eat the cookies, and I should be less stressed about these things, and I should spend more time with my family—these are things that I know”. And I think the truth is that I do not know any of them. I believe them, and I also believe the opposite. Some of my beliefs are more presentable to other people; so I am more to you if I say, “yeah I know I should spend more time with my kids” than if I say “I have a profound need to escape my kids”. But both of those things are true of me, and I think the violence to the self occurs as long as both are true of you. I think — but this is sort of just me agreeing with Socrates about something — that if you had knowledge, you would not have that conflict. A lot of people have the goal of mastering themselves, which is to say exerting enough violence over themselves to quiet that other voice, because they “know” the other thing. But the truth is the fact that the other voice is there means you don’t know it. The violence over yourself is trying to quiet it when it’s really there. Knowledge would mean that you unanimously and obviously in a very simple way did the thing you thought you should. … Suppose that I feel like having the cookie but I “know” I shouldn’t. I think people are inclined to think of the feeling that you want the cookie as bodily, and the knowing that you shouldn’t as not-bodily, but I think that’s bodily too. That’s just how things look to you in a bodily way when you’re looking from far away. You are somebody who is just trapped in the images of things. And when you look at something like eating a cookie from close-up it looks really good to you, and when you look at it from far away it looks not very good. Those are both bodily judgements— there are just proximate and distant bodily judgements. And what we do when we don’t have knowledge is we just vacillate between these bodily judgements, and we dress one of them up as though it were knowledge, namely the distant one. … The way I am is that I see a bunch of conflicts, and I don’t know how to resolve them, and that’s just my ignorance. If I had knowledge, I would know how to resolve them. But what I at least try to do is not be under the illusion that I have the knowledge already.

— from this interview with Ezra Klein

1/10/2024 The neutrality of system fonts

What’s especially fascinating about Times New Roman and Arial is they’ve acquired an air of neutrality — moreso than Helvetica or Akzidenz — not because of some aspect of their type design, but rather by virtue of their ubiquity. By being used widely, democratically, and indiscriminately, the specific history and original connotations of the typefaces have been more or less drowned out.

1/10/2024

A takeaway from this piece by Agnes Callard: “Person A thought...” or “Person A frames X as...” is a better way of bringing in a reference to another author’s idea than some of the formulations I typically use, like “There’s this compelling idea from Person A, that...” or “This is similar to the Person A’s conception of X as...”.

These latter phrasings, I’m realizing, feel verbose and overly scholarly, and they usually force me to rely on the author’s specific terminology. That might be valuable if I was still doing academic writing, but not when writing an essay for a general audience. What I want now is just to bring in an idea to support or apply to the topic at hand, while properly attributing its source. Thus I like “He/she/they thought...” — it allows me to give credit and then get right into the flow of explaining the idea in a simple and accessible form.

But I guess the thing to be careful of, and the reason I sometimes avoid the more simple phrasings, is that they can feel like authoritative descriptions of an author’s thinking, which I don’t necessarily feel qualified to give.

1/10/2024 Agnes Callard

The tourist is a deferential character. He outsources the vindication of his experiences to the ethnologist, to postcards, to conventional wisdom about what you are or are not supposed to do in a place. This deference, this “openness to experience,” is exactly what renders the tourist incapable of experience. Emerson confessed, “I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated.” He speaks for every tourist who has stood before a monument, or a painting, or a falcon, and demanded herself to feel something. Emerson and Percy help us understand why this demand is unreasonable: to be a tourist is to have already decided that it is not one’s own feelings that count. Whether an experience is authentically X is precisely what you, as a non-X, cannot judge. ... The single most important fact about tourism is this: we already know what we will be like when we return. A vacation is not like immigrating to a foreign country, or matriculating at a university, or starting a new job, or falling in love. We embark on those pursuits with the trepidation of one who enters a tunnel not knowing who she will be when she walks out. The traveller departs confident that she will come back with the same basic interests, political beliefs, and living arrangements. Travel is a boomerang. It drops you right where you started.

— In The Case Against Travel, for The New Yorker

1/10/2024

In an ironic turn of events, I’m afraid to visit my own website on my work laptop because one of the page themes crashes the operating system.


Nico Chilla:

Update: as of installing a newer version of Ventura, this no longer happens :)

leslie liu:

this is ideal (pre-OS update)

12/30/2023 what do we mean by creative?

People will often censure ChatGPT, DALL-E, and other AI products for stealing human intellectual and creative output without compensating the sources of their data. As this line of thinking goes, the works generated by these programs are purely derivative; they take advantage of human originality to generate infinite renditions that then compete with and cheapen the value of the works they were trained on.

My concern is, if you compare AI authorship and human authorship, it seems like this attitude penalizes behavior in AI which we consider harmless and ordinary in humans, not to mention foundational to human creative practice: Like generative AI, people absorb large amounts of writing and artwork corresponding to their disciplines; interfacing with that existing world of intellectual output develops our mastery of language and understanding as writers, or of craft as artists and designers. I think producing “original” work then consists not of working from a clean slate, but rather making new connections and observations, remixing, reframing, challenging existing material, intermingling it with our individual experiences. Looked at this way, human work is ‘derivative’ in the same way AI works are derivative.

You might justifiably challenge me on this: you could argue that even if people do similarly start from an existing corpus, they grow it into work which is more inventive, more rational, somehow more “original” than AI output. And aside from these doubts, I obviously grant that today’s AIs don’t have personal histories and experiences that inform their work. But the first response I have to this kind of skepticism is that it feels like philosophical hedging to me. That is: it draws a line around the state of the technology today and uses that as an essential delimiter of what AI is capable of, and of what differentiates human and AI creativity. I think this is an ill-advised position to take, not just because the technology is evolving rapidly, but because at a fundamental level I don’t believe there’s any categorical boundary barring machines from becoming as creatively competent as professional human authors.

My second response to this skepticism is that regardless of AI’s actual capabilities, I’m actually more interested in what the mere possibility of genuinely generative, creative AI means for the way we understand our own work. What if the only thing that significantly distinguished the quality of the output of a machine from that of a human was the fact that a machine can do it a lot faster, and with far vaster resources and references than any human can gather? Like a piece of good science fiction, that looming technological threat allows us to reframe our preconceptions about the world: it allows us to reflect on creativity and creative value not as essential qualities, but as concepts formed out of contingent social, economic, and human conditions.

12/24/2023

Something I think I’ve noticed about myself is that I slip into different states of “flow” where my attention and decision-making become bound to particular patterns. For example, when I establish deep focus on a particular task or activity, I become obsessed with it — even my absent mind gravitates towards it, and it becomes difficult to think intentionally about anything beyond it. At other times I just succumb repeatedly and absent-mindedly to habits, like listening or watching something while I brush my teeth (I’ve done this for long enough that I now find it uncomfortable to brush my teeth without any auditory accompaniment).

This connects to a confucian idea I heard a while ago (ironically on a podcast, which I probably listened to while brushing my teeth): people tend to naturally fall into patterns of behavior; it’s the role of ritual to break those patterns. So although rituals can feel forced and arbitrary, they disrupt rather than maintain the status quo — I really like this framing.

12/6/2023

My problem with the “it’s all subjective” line of thinking isn’t necessarily that it’s a position with no merit, but rather that it masks a lack of understanding, and prevents meaningful disagreement or reconciliation of different points of view.

Matters of artistic taste, matters of ethics, these things can’t be reduced to differences in personal preference, like your favorite flavor of ice cream. Again, that’s not to deny that they are relative in an important sense. But their relativity is contingent on shared culture and a shared human condition.

12/4/2023

Something I would like to think about more intentionally is serendipity, and particularly the role of serendipity in the techno-capitalist age we live in.

12/1/2023

A conflation I would like to explore: we typically use “narrative” to mean a chronology, but we also use it to refer to representations of people or things at single moments in time. Maybe the meaning has expanded in this way because we pull from our pasts to generate unified representations of our present selves?

11/12/2023

People often use the term “philosophy” to describe a set of rules or guiding principles for how to behave, but I like to think of it as almost the antithesis to this: philosophy is what you do when your rules cease to make sense or fail to account for your present circumstances. This is similar to the distinction that John Dewey marks between “customary” and “reflective” morality.

11/8/2023 some thoughts on designing collaboratively

One thing that it has taken me a while to wrap my head around is how designers work collaboratively; design seems to depend on the execution of a single coherent vision, and I wasn't sure how you could bring multiple people into that process as equal creative partners.

In my first forays into the professional world, I've gotten exposed to several approaches to this, and I’m tentatively forming an insight about what works well for me: it’s ideal to avoid situations where multiple people independently tackle the same asset. This forces a team to try to consolidate and litigate between different concepts that each author feels creatively invested in. In my experience it’s far easier to build on a single concept, driven by one primary author, through discussion and debate with backseat collaborators.

As a primary author, I’ve really appreciated this model because it allows me to address my collaborators’ feedback in a way that feels unified and coherent with my own ideas. And on the other side, I was surprised to find that as a backseat collaborator I don’t feel creatively disempowered (although this is partially to the credit of generous collaborators). On the contrary, I feel creatively empowered because I can spitball ideas and amendments to the design without putting the primary author under any pressure to accept them directly, and the end product feels like something which I share authorship in.

I should probably make clear that this is by no means a categorical rule: there are probably many cases, such as a preliminary ideation phase or a particularly large project with many components, where working simultaneously is useful or even necessary. It just hinges on being and working with collaborators that don’t invest too heavily in their own ideas, and possibly having a hierarchy where lead designers set the direction and adjudicate disagreements.

11/5/2023 Janna Levin & Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Kleptoplasty is a phenomenon so strange and alien that before its discovery it would have been considered physically and anatomically impossible. Certain sea slugs can steal an algae’s lifegiving material, sucking up DNA, proteins, and cells through a straw-like organ. The slugs are then able to photosynthesize, metabolizing light just like the planta they’ve pillaged, turning green with chlorophyll. The divide between fauna and flora, alive or not, dissolves under the pressure of this discovery. How can you not be moved? Where is the sense in insisting, “No, I am a slug. And you are a plant”? Or “I am the plant and you are the slug”?

In that dissolution is a demonstration of the cultural power of science. The seemingly obvious axioms of our humanity—who we are, what we are—are in an instant reconceived.

— editor’s introduction to Issue 1, Fall 2023 of Broadcast (print edition)

10/30/2023

Contrary to Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, I’m now of the attitude that ideas do transcend language: you can believe something without being able to articulate it. But I think his basic point was that ideas don’t live in some untouchable mental realm; they manifest themselves in our everyday practices and dispositions.

continued on are.na...

This page caps at the ~40ish latest entries — partly because it would be laborious to implement a dynamic feed, and partly because I like the idea of this page being finite, like a journal ran out of pages — you can see earlier blocks in the full channel on are.na.