Friday, March 3, 2017

To build the bridge, first survey the canyon.

So there was this video, which pro wrestler John Cena did for the No Labels campaign and the Ad Council. It was released in July 2016.

I'm not going to tell you it's an any way a bad video. It makes the point that a love of country based on a limited view of what makes someone a "real American" is a problem, and it is a problem. It really gets to the core of what many liberals like me see as disingenuous about some of the rhetoric from the right: that Islam is un-American, or black people protesting are thugs but white people protesting are fighting for authentic American values. It pushes back against the idea that it's “American” to use freedom of religion to tell gay people or women or any group that they are not worthy.

And yet, as I look at the right-left split in our country, it feels like something is missing from the ad. It feels good to the left, and I can hear exasperated eye-rolls from the right... and here's where I think the problem lies: Diversity is not enough. Diversity is not the thing that makes us whole. Diversity is not, despite what the video seems to want to claim, the same thing as patriotism.


I had a conversation a decade or so ago with friend Marshall Massey. We disagree on a lot of things, although we are part of the same wider Quaker community. A point he especially wanted to make then, as I was looking at ways that liberal and even non-theist Quakers (yes, there are people who belong to our religious community who do not profess belief in God. It's complicated. In my case you can read more about it here), was that there is something fundamental and important about immersion in a religious tradition—something that in his case made it important that it was that specific tradition. It matters who and what you are faithful and true to. And the repeated return to that object of faithfulness helps train you to have a kind of moral and spiritual spine.

I grew up, as I like to say, nothing in particular. My spiritual touchpoints are all over the map. But I am also aware of and am drawn to that spine. It's one of the reasons I ended up among Quakers, and not just joining a book group. It's one of the things that drew me to Quakers over Unitarians, which is where my parents met and where my fathers parents spend the latter half of their lives. It just felt that there was more of a "there there" among the liberal Friends.

But I also inherited my parents' suspicion and even reflexive allergy to the merest hint of orthodox rigidity. So much spiritual tradition is rooted in faithfulness not just to a teaching but to a teacher. Again, this makes sense: to be loyal to a person is more hardwired into us that being loyal to an abstract idea. But the ways we've seen that charismatic trust betrayed in modern mass society—the demagogues, charlatans, would-be prophets who want power above all—are also hard to ignore. And a lot of a-religious and a-political liberals have learned this lesson as gospel: people with a religious message are trying to sell you something, and that something is probably a rip-off.

And so many of us gravitate to a kind of syncretism, a do-it-yourself judgment of the appropriate materials for a spiritual life. Instead of the Singular Book, we study the library. The whole library, or as much of it as we can manage. The liberal arts as a whole becomes the basis for our faith. And those who value singular faithfulness recoil in kind, and so we are left with this great cultural chasm that's been playing out now for well over two centuries: the universalist, pan-humanists and the Keepers of a bunch of True Faiths.


I think Jesus was way ahead of us. And I say this as one of those atheists I mentioned. Actually, it was my wife who pointed out to me that this divide between straight and narrow on one hand, and broad and all-encompassing on the other, was essentially restating what Jesus said about the two central commandments, in Mark 12:
28 Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving[a] that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” 
29 Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. 31 And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no other commandment greater than these.”
As Ingrid likes to say, doing these two things, and doing them both at the same time, is damned near impossible. "If I've managed it more than a few minutes in my entire life," she says, "I'd say I'm doing pretty well." And the two are twinned, that pattern repeating not just in our spiritual life, but in any activity in which we need in some way to follow someone or something, or in which we need to open ourselves to the experience of loving the strange. We need the singularity to hold us onto the world, and not let us become loopy floaters in the whatever-sphere; and we need the love of the other to keep us from becoming uptight, pious jackasses about pretty much anything.

It's tempting to try and just put these two into one soup. The video does that in a way. It was specifically written to argue against a straight-and-narrow conservatism that seeks not to "love your neighbor as yourself" but instead just to love "the country." But—and here's the problem—it fails to address that initial patriotism itself. Like so many liberal appeals to diversity, it doesn't really face the value of the unitary and disciplining love of country. It just argues that that unity isn't as unitary as the (supposed) viewer thinks.

And if we look hard, those of us who don't get why it's so important, may begin to understand why arguments over the Trinity end up feeling so important that you might break a church up over them. Without a sense of singularity of focus, of path, of leadership, the first part of the triad loses its power. It stops being as meaningful a counterbalance to loving your neighbor, whoever that neighbor is. And in a sense, that imbalance is exactly what liberals are experiencing when we try to make diversity a defining unitary principle. It's trying to make the yin and yang of this dynamic into a single thing.


So this I think is where we find ourselves as a country, divided into yin and yang, dependent on each other but insisting in large part that we each can be a closed-set solution: that diversity will give us spine, or that our patriotism will be loving and just in and of itself. It's just not so. We need to have a central guiding thingie. "Conservatives" know we need that root source of patriotism, and "liberals" know we need the sense of diversity and openness. What we can't seem to figure out is a kind of strong patriotism that liberals can trust, or a way to frame justice and diversity in a way that conservatives can trust. Without a monarchy, or a unifying religion or language or Ancient Nationhood, without those things that satisfy us that something unitary is in place, our job is cut out for us. But other nations in a sense are living the same dilemma, propping it up with illusory commonalities. We don't have that luxury. That specific bridging of the two halves of our national culture is, I think, our biggest national task.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Voices, late 2014

The fierce voice that argues. Eloquently laid out thoughts crystalizing hard and unswerving. Experience laid out incontrovertible. An argument between two giants, prizefighters offering up a spectacle of dialectic, and between their verbal punches, a diamond of pure truth is created.

The quiet voice, almost silent, that doubts itself, water running out of cupped hands: drink from it now and it’s gone back to ground. Evidence shifting, hiding like a rabbit that knows from birth what it is to be hunted. Nothing is certain, nothing is safe, except the dark place, which no one has discovered. Not yet.

Which voice wins? Which voice is correct? Which voice needs our attention and listening? Which voice will lead us to success? Which voice are we called to be faithful to?

What does it mean to win? Is accuracy a kind of voice? Do we follow our instincts in who we pay attention to, and how are those instincts formed? How do we define success? What does it mean to be faithful, and how is that different from being loyal?

What then must we do?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Commodities and Experts, Part 2

[Edited for clarity, October 11]

It’s respectable—a mark of prestige—to say you are a professional. We still talk about “the professions,” practices that require advanced education and licensure. Like the last vestiges of the medieval guilds, they are meant to ensure quality, but these professional bars also serve to create elites.

Not all fields that aspire to this kind of professionalism achieve it using formal licensure. Accountants, teachers, doctors, nurses, architects, and lawyers do, and so do the trades: bricklayers, plumbers, electricians... but cartographers? journalists? graphic designers and printers? When it comes to the communications fields, our desire for an open public forum has meant we haven't put restrictions on professional practice we take for granted in the “professions.”

And yet, here we are, practiced and respected professionals. We are hired on the basis of our portfolio, and we pride ourselves on satisfies clients and audiences, and on the technical qualities of our work. Much of our “quality,” as with experienced practitioners in any field, is simply consistency: when you you go to a doctor, you may not be looking for the next mad genius; you want someone whose is consistently trustworthy, knowledgable, and understanding.

This is very much like the standard we might call “commodifiction” in the industrial world. Any product becomes a commodity when there is little difference in quality from example to example. This can occur within a brand: a Toyota Corolla is a Toyota Corolla, or it should be. It can also be true of a type of material: a bag of flour is a bag of flour, more or less, though any given mill may want to differentiate their product in the marketplace. Do you really choose one gas station or another because their gasoline is "better?"

I want to be treated as a professional whose work is consistently of high quality. But I do not want my products to be treated as commodities, though I also want them to be of consistently high quality. This is because, in a commodified world, price rules all, and in a global economy if my maps are just maps and I am paid for them accordingly, I cannot hope to earn a living wage in Minneapolis, competing with cartographers in the Philippines or Bangladesh.

Professions are a way of maintaining elites. What is the difference between the uniform standards of quality a lawyer must maintain to be admitted to the bar and the uniform standards a McDonald’s line cook must maintain? The major difference is the amount of education the lawyer must put in to achieve a legal standard, and the complexity of the system they must exercise their experience within. The degree of uniformity, of conformity to a standard, is virtually the same.

And so, what happens when a field no longer requires the accumulated knowledge it used to? When machines do more of the knowing and balancing and precision that it used to take an apprentice years to acquire? What happens, in short, to the cartographers of today?

Fifty years ago, map makers were a mysterious little cabal. We've never lived on gilded perches, like doctors or lawyers, or teachers in some parts of the world. We've always been a kind of hodgepodge, even when we tried to reach a more uniform respectability in the academy, coining ourselves "cartographers." We included people with backgrounds in printing, surveying, drafting, and the arts. One of the things that unified us was the specialized tools used to make published maps—whether abstract like the mathematics of map projections, or concrete like the scribers and scribe-coat, the rubylith, and the vacuum tables that road map publishers of my youth used. Today there are still specialized tools—GIS and graphics software—but they are ever more broadly used by fields outside cartography.

You didn't see cartographers on talk shows, but you saw maps, and these maps told you about the world in an omniscient, distant, authoritative way.

Today, and for a while now, anyone can make a map. They may have power and use, but they are hardly mysterious. And so, we cartographers—old-fashioned static cartographers—find ourselves in a gradually shrinking field.

Our situation is not new, nor is it hopeless. Expertise has been replaced by commodification over and over in our continuing industrial revolution. In my college years, it happened to graphic design. What was typographically sophisticated in my youth—this blog for example—is commonplace. It's templated, standardized, and those templates and standards come with the software. For many purposes, you don't need a professional.

And yet, there are professional designers. They create templates, they put a unique spin on products for high-paying clients, they engage in stylistic antics in the name of creativity. And they perform like consistent professionals. They deliver what is requested, without fail.

Plumbing isn't really mysterious. But it takes skill. I can now do very simple plumbing, but we still call the pro when it comes to leaks in hidden places. The risk of my being an inconsistent amateur and messing up is too big. Our spongy kitchen floor is a result of my thinking I could hook up a new dishwasher, for example. So, there are still places where you want a professional cartographer.

The question is (and this is not at all clear): where is that line for us? What are the things that cannot be reliably automated, or figured out by the equivalent of me with a wrench? When is it important, even where there is a consistent system in place, to have someone experienced behind the mapmaking wheel? When the constant change of geotechnology slows, what will it look like to be a "professional cartographer"? And will I want to do that work?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Commodities and Experts, Part 1

Hearing Sandeep Jauhar interviewed by Terry Gross yesterday about the changing world of being a physician got me thinking about something that's been on the edge of my awareness for a while now: the conflict in our society between what I'll call "commodification" and "expertise." It's not strictly speaking an economics argument, though economics do certainly play a central role. It actually has to do more with the creation of a commons, the kind of thing I ascribed to "the grid" and other pidgin mindpaces, several years ago here.

Jauhar's point, or at any rate the piece that grabbed me, was that doctors are being steered from private practice into larger, integrated environments like hospitals, so their care will be more integrated with other specialists, and can be shared instead of overlapping inefficiently. And these arguments from efficiency really do make a lot of sense. I don't want to have doctor one take a full medical history and draw blood only to have doctor two do the same exact thing two days later. Talk to each other, people!

But doctors also feel a lot of stress. Jauhar ascribes this to the mechanical, no-time-for-hands-on-medicine life doctors have to lead these days, but I also think part of it is related to what Atul Gawande referred to in his book and article about the need for checklists in modern medical treatment: in essence, medicine has now gotten complex enough and the consequences of forgetting a step (especially in regards to infection) so great, that seat-of-the-pants reliance on a doctor's orderly mind is not enough. You need to conform to a system, rigorously, in order to be as good a doctor as you can be.

I know why doctors get nervous about this. It's not just the adrenaline rush, the cowboy scalpel-jockey thing. It's that their own aura of expertise disappears, the more dependent that they become on an external system. I know this because I'm a cartographer. It's kind of hard to imagine today, with ubiquitous data and maps, that maps used to have a kind of mystery to them, and the making of them was kind of an arcane skill. Like being a scribe in an age of illiteracy. It's not that we were superhuman, but we had a kind of mysterious cabal going: we knew how to make these elaborate, complex things. And you didn't.

Except, now you do. Or you can. It's not that hard. And there are fewer of us as a result.

But something interesting happened on the way to this glut of cartographers: maps got noticeably better, especially bad maps. It used to be there were companies that made terrible, hard-to-read, really almost illegible maps, but they were cheaper, and so people used them. Now? The cheapest map is a screen-shot from Google Maps (not legal, but lots of people do it), and you know, they don't look half bad.

At my former employer, we made a point of not entering what we called the "commodity map" market. This was a situation where a map retailer or distributor just wanted a generic "road map" or "street map" and didn't actually care how good it was. Like selling milk or windshield fluid: get something in the rack that people will buy if they just want a map. We specialized in a cut above that: maps for people who actually cared about which map they were buying. Selective buyers...

And it's not a bad niche to try and fill, if you can persuade people your product is better. You can get it placed, and maybe you can sell it for a little more. Not always, but sometimes.

The thing is, the way you persuade anyone that your product is better, is by comparing it to those products that are not as good as yours. And so the rising quality of the worst maps has made it harder to market oneself as a "premium" map publisher. The gap just isn't as dramatic as it used to be.

I was listening to a CD of the Cars on my car stereo this week, and thinking about the incredible time and technical expertise that went into their work and some of the other top acts of the 1960s through 1980s. When I was growing up, in the mid-1970s, the technical difference between the music of thirty years prior and then was enormous: Glenn Miller vs the Eagles. That same gap doesn't exist today. Recordings aren't really all that different from 30 years ago, c 1984. Heartbeat City, which apparently took months of excruciating work to get to sound like Ric Ocasek wanted... to sound like a lot of pop records today. And that's the difference: you don't have to be a genius or have tens of thousands of dollars floating around to make a pop record that sounds like a top-quality recording. The bottom bar has raised.

And in a lot of ways, this is a really good thing. The overall technical quality of our stuff is better. Cars routinely last for way more than a decade and 200,000 miles is not freakish. I remember our old Volvo was old at ten years and 100,000 miles back in 1976. And that was a Volvo. They would run forever.

Commodification—the creation of standards—also allows things like recipe books. A cup of flour is a cup of flour now, in a way that it wouldn't have been before flour mills became national operations in the late 19th Century. What variance there is in gluten or moisture content is the kind of thing an epicure, or a commercial baker, might care about. If you want to make a cake yourself? Pillsbury, Gold Medal, King Arthur... all will do the job just fine.

But this commodification also meant that the hands-on tinkering that local millers engaged in, the learning and re-learning what this machine will do at that time of year, and how to adjust to make the best flour from the local fields... this kind of expertise is now put into a context where responsibility is given to a higher order. That miller, now working for ADM or General Mills or whatever, is working in much less forgiving conditions, in a marketplace where there are seemingly faceless competitors ready to wipe you aside in the unlikely event that you should fall off of the pretty precise standards for "flour" in todays market.

About 15 years ago, I abruptly learned from a fellow actor what "professionalism" meant in his world. He had worked in the professional world, and was now doing high-end community theater. He was good at his craft, but what he defined professionalism as was not quality but consistency. It was his employer knowing that he could be called upon to show up on time, and deliver the same quality of performance he'd demonstrated previously. Obviously, he'd be paid more and get better gigs if the quality was better. And there are plenty of examples of performers whose performance is anything but consistent... except that even these are mostly consistent in their eccentricity. Robin Williams and especially Andy Kaufmann would deliver a surprise. That was their promise. And they did.

And speaking as broadly as possible, that kind of genius is one end of what I mean by expertise. When you are selling your ability to solve a problem and deliver a finished result—whether it's by a doctor or a plumber or a comedian or a cartographer—what you are selling is expertise. But it's harder and harder to escape the fact that you are also selling the consistency of the results you deliver. So much of our economy is now based in comparison shopping for equivalent results within a narrow range of acceptable standards, it takes an effort to carve out a space where expertise is actually valuable.

In some fields (writing for example), this has been true for a long time. "Everyone's a novelist, and anyone can sing/But no one talks when the TV's on," as Moxy Früvous sang. Writers who work for non-publishers regularly face the fact that "lots of people can write." Not as consistently, but most college educated people can put together a letter in written English that will be understood by the recipient. 500 years ago, this was not so true. Also way fewer people went to college.

Others of us are just getting used to this mode of working for pay in a technology that "anyone can do." But more and more of us are living in a data-rich world, where our special knowledge isn't all that special anymore. And as the distance between what anyone can do and what only a few can do continues to narrow, will we really end up with experts anymore? Those of us who grew up into an expertise really want to find a way to hang on to that, but is it really necessary? What happens to the place experts hold in our society?

We're seeing some of that now in America, with the declining respect given to experts: scientists, doctors... what do they know? This anti-elitism is nothing new, but it's backed up now by a diffusion of knowledge—not wisdom, but knowledge—that gives those expert elites less to stand upon.

I think those elites—the knowledge and technical cabals of old—are really evidences of imbalance. I'm not sorry to see them go, except that I kind of like it when people say, "Oooh, you make maps?!?!" at dinner parties. I like it, but it gets kind of old, honestly. I'd rather focus on what makes a humane way to be "professional," in the sense that actor meant. There the expertise was not black-box magic hocus-pocus. It was a practiced skill, an ability to perform consistently. That is valuable and it's healthily sustainable.

So why then does commodification sound so unpleasant, like The Prisoner's "I am not a number, I am a human being!"? What is the difference between professionalism and commodification? I'll discuss that in the next post.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Audience

We went, my son and I, to see a performance by Zenon Dance Company, our premier local modern company. My wife and son went last spring, and thought it was fantastic. This time... it was mixed. The single piece in the second half, Danny Buraczeski's Ezekiel's Wheel, was really superb. it had flow, it had depth, it connected with the audience. The other dances... well, they had some lovely phrases, memorable pieces, but it didn't feel lilke they were paying much attention to the audience. 

I was interested to read in a 2003 review of Buraczeski's work:
Ezekiel's Wheel, which he completed in 1999, seems to have been a pivotal work: interviewed shortly after the piece premiered, Buraczeski said, "[That] concert was my most personal yet, my most vulnerable. I don't make dances for audiences any more, I make them to explore my feelings....But I leave the door open so people can bring their own lives in." 
Which is odd given my experience of alienation from the other pieces in the program tonight. Or it seems odd at first. But I think it points to a false way we think of audience, and that audiences think of performance.

In the pub sings I've been involved in the last few years, audience and performer are much closer together than most people are used to, I think. The setting helps: people just get up and lead a song, often from where they are sitting in the bar. There's ambient noise, sometimes annoyingly if there are clueless patrons talking loudly just outside the circle of song (or even, incredibly, right next to the singer). But that noise also serves to ground us: we are not in a temple of perfect sound: we are in the middle of our lives. Our audience are our friends around us. We are all part of the same group, and we are sharing those functions of audience and performer in a way that feels like a deep conversation. 

What Buraczeski I think is talking about, is that he is not saying what he thinks the audience wants. He is not trying to fill their appetite. And because his work is interesting, because the ideas and shapes he presents in "leaving the door open," it's like that part of a conversation. It's something we care about.

Where I think Zenon did a poor job in the first half, is in talking about things the audience just didn't especially care about—at least not the section I was in. It was technically excellent, but it just wasn't interesting.

Artists of all kinds like to guard against "pandering." We don'r want to just spoon-feed the audience. My yearbook quote from college sums it up (it's by Duane Preble): "Aesthetic is the opposite of anaesthetic." Good art in this model has the urgency of gospel: Listen! it says, This is important! We don't have forever to learn this!

Sometimes, though, the desire to not pander means we turn our back as performers on the audience. 
Good evening. Welcome to Difficult Listening Hour. The spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music. So sit bolt upright in that straight-backed chair, button that top button, and get set for some difficult music.-Laurie Anderson
Well, OK, if you have a consensual relationship with a particular audience, where they know they are in for a hard grind. Fine. But me, I want art that reaches out not to pluck my heartstrings, but to grab me by the hand, to meet me halfway between the stage and the audience.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Harley essay and map reproduction: followup and posted files

Amongst the things I have learned the last few months is that crowd-sourcing campaigns, however well-intentioned, do not always result in the desired results. So, I did not get the amount needed to print the Ordnance Survey map that J.B. Harley so eloquently wrote about in his 1987 essay, "The Map as Biography." It's regrettable, but that's often how learning experiences go. I did however acquire a high-resolution scan of the map from the Library of Congress, and I offer a cleaned-up version of it to anyone interested here.

A few notes about this image: it is high resolution and bit-mapped, rather than grayscale. This may strike some as odd, as the on-screen quality of a grayscale image allows for more accurate viewing online. But this image is meant for printing, and it's my belief that a high-resolution bitmap ends up resulting in a crisper printed image. It's a difficult compromise, because the original imprint involved microscopic smudging and spreading which will probably not be duplicated on your plotter. If you would like a grayscale image, please get in touch with me, and I'll see if I can get it to you. a quick warning: the bitmap I've made available is 6.7 MB. You can view the image as a pan-and-zoom here.

I've also re-set the original essay as two 8.5 x 11 sheets, here. Thanks to Paul Laxton, Harley's literary executor, for his permission to reproduce this. I hope you will find the result of interest and will find it as rich a reading to come back to as I do.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Harley Essay reproduction

Many of you are familiar with J.B. Harley's 1987 essay from The Map Collector, "The Map as Biography." It discusses a 1904 1:10,560 ("six-inch") Ordnance Survey sheet of the town where he spent many years. The essay has been a touchstone to me, but I've never actually seen the map until now, except for the extract printed with the essay.

I've mentioned it several times on this blog and elsewhere:

I'm using Rockethub (similar to Kickstarter) to presell a short edition of the map and essay, printed on opposite sides of a 22 x 17 sheet. I have the blessing of Harley's estate (Paul Laxton, executor). 25% of anything I eventually make over out-of-pocket costs will go to the Harley Fellowships.

The maps will be printed on heavy paper (Mohawk 100lb text vellum, warm white), and the map image will be printed as black and white, NOT gray scale, so the details should be crisp and not fuzzy from the dot screen.

Folded maps are $10, with a $15 option to buy one for your self and one for your favorite map library. Rolled maps are $20.

Here's the site:

You only have until midnight, November 30, and as of today we're 28% of the way there!