Thursday, July 29, 2010


Paul Graham is one of the Big Thinkers of the computer context, inventing early languages and strategies, but he is also a painter and his bio calls him an “essayist.” I discover that I’ve marked his essays several times. His most recent essay is “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.”>

My practice is to approach big essays through small evidences. Therefore, consider my cat, Crackers, the stupidest of my two cats, and easily addicted. I noticed she was having a hard time getting her little bits of dry cat food cornered in the slick bowl so she could get them into her mouth. To help, I poured a little of it onto the corner of the rag rug where the roughness made it harder for the bits to slide away. Absentmindedly, I did the same thing the next day and the next. Now Crackers will not eat her food unless it’s on the corner (the SAME corner) of that rug and I have learned to step over that corner even though it’s right in front of the sink.

Graham is not quite talking about cat habituation, which only takes three repetitions, but about the intensifying by technology of things we like in irresistible addictions. His examples are hard liquor, heroin, crack and Facebook. They started out as beer, organic ingestibles and neighbors. He says “increasing numbers of things we like will be transformed into things we like too much.” He says, “As far as I know there’s no word for something we like too much. The closest is the colloquial sense of “addictive.”

Other examples are food: Big Macs, Twinkies, potato chips -- “can’t stop eatin’ em.” But there are also people hooked on NOT eating: anorexic. Board games have become interactive electronic games. Print has become 3-D CGI Blu-Ray. The neighborhood wraps around the planet. More, more, more -- can’t stop doin’ it. Tactfully, he’s not mentioning exercise or sex or Big Ship Cruises. Or, indeed, oil.

Then he says, “The two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of ‘normal’ is statistically normal: what everyone else does.” This is operative within Valier. Not that everyone thinks normal is what the state, the nation, or the continent does, but that people watch their neighbors pretty carefully to see what they’re doing and whether it works. It’s a problem to try to “norm” to TV sit coms, though they do that as well, because they have more predictable script writers and anyway, neighbors don’t all watch the same programs. There is a gamut from those who are hypnotized by Fox to those who are studying Wikileaks on the Internet. But generally, dry land farmers learn early to stay aware and not get too far off the norm. Now if the weather would stay something like normal . . .

The other meaning Graham brings up is also well-known to dry land farmers: “the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.” The trouble is that they tend not to bring that concept home to their own bodies and households, until someone realizes how much damage is done by some practice, like smoking. Graham speaks of his effort to escape the Internet by taking long hikes, which give him time to “think without interruption.” Personally, that’s my norm. It’s probably closer to the norm here where farmers with big machines spend long days alone. Which immediately brings up the problem of urban thoughts dominating rural experience, when maybe it ought to be the other way around.

“What works best?” Of course, it’s always contingent on environment so it’s smart to move to where your normal IS normal. It makes me crazy when newcomers bring their normal to Valier and try to impose it on everyone. It made me crazy to sit in meetings in Portland where City Planning and Zoning women in their early thirties with degrees from elite schools tried to impose their idea of Sim-City on people they didn’t know existed. Yesterday I talked to a dentist who was so nagged by formal regulations carrying penalties, imposed by overseers who were NOT dentists but operated according to statistical norms researched in other places, that he retired early. I have a friend who does property maintenance and management who says that the restrictions and requirements are so onerous in Montana that he would reject doing business in this state and just confine his clients to Idaho, except that the population is thinner there.

The phrase “best practices” seemed a good one when it meant general recommendations about the use of certain materials or routines, as in engineering. Learning from each other is a good thing. But when they are imposed, based on statistics and a specific environment, they can NOT be best everywhere. But they CAN be addictive in Graham’s sense of becoming so common that no one has a “raised consciousness” or the freedom to reexamine through reflection -- assuming they have the opportunity for quiet uninterrupted thought. Addiction to uniformity is a pathway to oppression by authority.

I freely admit that I’m addicted by now to writing this 1,000 word blog post every morning. Sometimes I get up thinking, “Why am I chained to this practice? There’s no money in it. I alienate about as many people as I attract. When readers try to make a blog into a personal relationship, it can go very wrong. People read blogs carelessly because they assume they are just personal opinions flung up in fungible prose. Maybe. Maybe that’s the norm.

Graham suggests that “customs” may develop that bundle up eccentricities into categories. I don’t much like that idea. The great thing about this last few years working with Tim has been his defiance of norming and customs, even within the boundaries of the various wickednesses where he could be assigned. It’s not that he’s not addicted -- he has no choice in some respects. It turned out that my unconventional and private norms were not so different from his. The thing about humans is that if their sense of “what works” gets too far off the physical norms, they just die in spite of every high tech intervention. That’s the definition of “not working.” But we are just as capable of getting habituated as any cat.

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