Archive | Feature Articles

Review: To Save Everything, Click Here

To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist
by Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane, 2013, 415 pages.

To Save Everything, Click HereFor around $80,000 plus a modest annual fee, a company called Alcor can preserve your brain when you die by enrolling you in its ‘Life Extension Program’. This involves putting the recently deceased’s brain through an ice-free preservation, or vitrification, storing it at a very low temperature ‘until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health.’

Cryonics—the prospect of immortality through freezing people’s bodies soon after the moment of death in the hope of reviving them later when science has caught up—has been part of the popular imagination since the 1960s. Alcor has been in operation since the 1970s and has over 100 patients currently ‘preserved’. While it was once the fashion to freeze the whole body, in the last decade it has become more common to remove the head and simply preserve the brain. This is reportedly cheaper, easier to transport and less prone to damage (In an enlightening episode of This American Life called ‘Mistakes Were Made’, we hear how an enterprising TV repairman started his own cryonics business in the 60s and later had to explain to families of the frozen about the consequences of a damaging leak). Steve Bridge, a former Alcor president, describes the experience of conducting tours of the cryonics storage facility. After showing visitors the full-body containers, he would point to a smaller one and explain that some people had chosen to have only their heads frozen:

The most common reaction is a stunned pause with eyes growing to the size of saucers. For them, the entire building has just melted into surreality, like Salvador Dali’s clocks, sculpted in ice. A few people laugh in surprise or nervousness. A small number look queasy or disgusted. And occasionally, if I have done my job well and set up the visitor with descriptions of the repairs that will be possible in the future, the visitor will say, “Oh, that makes sense. You can just grow a new body for the brain.

Bridge must have done his job well more than once, as not only has neuropreservation become the more popular choice, but several of Alcor’s existing patients have since been ‘converted to neuro’.

The quest to conquer death is much older than cryonics of course. What’s interesting is why so many modern adventurers use the vocabulary of science. John Gray has explored this intriguing question in The Immortalization Commission, in which he claims this strange mix of science and the supernatural, of materialism and magical thinking, is really about a refusal to accept the materialist implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s science, he says, “had disclosed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing final oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species.”

Gray’s book chronicles the delusional nature of two such refusals. One is the eponymous Russian Immortalization Commission, an organisation of ‘God-builders’ tasked with preserving Lenin’s remains for future deification—“a true revolutionary must aim to deify humanity, an enterprise that includes the abolition of death.” The other is a Victorian England group called the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation whose membership ranks boasted physicists, philosophers, poets, physiologists, politicians and prime ministers. The Society used ‘unbiased and scientific’ methods to investigate the paranormal, including telepathy and automatic writing—that is, messages received from the dead through a medium. Most of all, they wanted to find a way for human beings to survive death.

Charles Darwin himself once attended a séance with George Eliot and Francis Galton (some of their peers and acquaintances would later become involved with the SPR.) Reportedly Darwin “found the experience ‘hot and tiring’ and left before anything unusual happened.” But evidently not everyone found it so important to keep a cool head. Darwin’s message of final oblivion and eventual extinction was not one that sat well with the optimism of the age, steeped in Enlightenment values of progress, scientific rationality, and liberation from an age of faith and superstition. As Gray suggests, “For nearly everyone it was an intolerable vision, and since most had given up religion they turned to science for escape from the world that science had revealed.”

Is cryonics too best understood this way? Certainly the more recent ‘neuropreservation’ turn in cryonics smacks of disgust at the mortal and decaying nature of the human body. What could be purer than a brain? Indeed, it is curious that the present enthusiasm for neuroscience, with its incautious assumption that we are our brains, should develop around the same time that we are getting the best evidence that Descartes may have had it wrong all along, that mind and body are not separate and that reason, emotion, thinking and feeling are all part of a complex process that involves our whole bodies.

Is the quest to find the essential truth of our humanity in our neurons a turn to science to escape the world that science is revealing? Psychologist Paolo Legrenzi and others have begun to critique our growing ‘neuromania’ and its technological claims, particularly the use of fMRI scans that show the brain ‘lighting up’ under different conditions—“you could be forgiven for thinking of the brain as being managed by a crooked estate agent letting out the same bit of real estate simultaneously to different clients.” Recently, a pair of researchers performed fMRI on a dead Atlantic salmon. While showing the salmon pictures of humans in different social interactions, they were surprised to find it showed ‘neural activity’ when asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.

One wonders what Darwin would have made of fMRIs. But what is it about the world that his science reveals that is so intolerable to so many? Perhaps it’s not just oblivion and extinction that are unacceptable, but the sheer chaos of this. Evolution, we should remember, is drift—it has no purpose or direction. But chaos is the enemy of progress, especially the kind of incremental, orderly progress to a better future for humanity that characterised the Victorian era but that is also the credo of much present-day middle-class liberal progressivism. Gray says such people “look for a way out of chaos; but they are part of that chaos; natural or divine.”

If one pays close attention, one of the striking characteristics of the kinds of utopian worlds described and promised by those who flee from chaos is often how spectacularly boring they are. Utopias are often stuffy, lifeless places devoid of detail and colour. They lack the kind of particularities that make real life so interesting. One might think that given the limitless possibilities on offer, this sort of poor imagination is really letting the side down a bit. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by this if it is after all a kind of avoidance of life and its chaotic particularities that drives a certain sort of person to imagine perfectly ordered worlds in the first place.

Perhaps it is an unwillingness to be part of life’s chaos that produces the kind of progressivist techno-babble that has become so much a part of today’s public imagination. When it is possible to write books with titles like What Technology Wants and have them sell in large quantities, one begins to suspect there is some seriously magical thinking going on. In this climate, ‘technology’, and especially ‘the Internet’, has become something with a life of its own, a force outside time, society and politics that offers new and better futures if only we are prepared to listen closely to what it has to say. That an idea like technology having the capacity to ‘want’ anything is a bit bonkers hasn’t stopped large numbers of very clever people taking it quite seriously, but when has it ever? Indeed, the breathtaking magnitude of its silliness is undoubtedly a large part of its novelty.

Evgeny Morozov sounds like a man who went to a séance once and found it hot and tiring. In his book To Save Everything, Click Here he describes this sort of techno-babble as: Continue Reading →

Mind the Gap

What can public transport tell us about a city’s character? Danu makes an unlikely comparison of the public transport experiences in Melbourne and Singapore and thinks through how to make sense of the differences.

Melbourne-Singapore Transport

I have what many would consider to be a peculiar fondness for public transport. Sometimes I will catch trains and buses just to see where they go. The logic and layout of a city’s public transport network, it seems to me, reveals a lot about the character of a place. Thus, whenever I find myself in a new city, I make a point of getting to grips with its public transport system.

In the course of my travels I asked myself an innocent question. Why is it that in Singapore (one of my favourite cities) I can get from the airport to anywhere in the entire city in a clean and comfortable train that leaves every 6 minutes, for less than $2, while in Melbourne (also one of my favourite cities, and where I live) I have to get a $17 bus that connects to an unreliable, expensive and often filthy train network where I have to spend another $3.70 using a different ticket that may or may not work? Melbourne is, after all, the second most populous city in one of the richest countries in the world. Singapore is now a rich and developed country also, but this is a comparatively recent development. To put the comparison another way, Melbourne’s last new suburban train line (Glen Waverley) opened in 1930. The last major work was the city loop, completed in 1985, whereas Singapore’s entire 150km island-wide rail network was constructed since then.

Without quite doing so consciously, I now realise I have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to find good ways to make sense of this. Among other things, this has included taking a course in contemporary planning issues as part of my postgraduate policy studies, as well as relocating to Singapore and working for a time as a researcher inside the country’s Land Transport Authority to get an inside perspective. Not to mention a lot of time riding road and rail in both places.

A large part of this search for answers has consisted in deciding what terms of understanding are appropriate to the situation. Many people would reject a comparison between Melbourne and Singapore out of hand, given that one is a city and one is a nation in its own right, or on the basis that one is a liberal democracy while the other is perceived as an authoritarian state. Would it not make more sense to compare Melbourne to somewhere like Berlin?

Rather than rejecting the comparison on such a basis, this to me seems an excellent reason to pursue the question. What if the different political arrangements are not merely incidental factors, but part of the explanation? What would be the implications of this? In any event, the comparison I want to make is based on experience and conceptual rationality rather than demographics, so I have deliberately chosen Singapore as an extreme, or limiting, case. That is to say, I am mostly interested in what it is like to experience public transport in Melbourne and Singapore as someone who uses it, and how the city’s respective attitudes towards public transport result in that kind of experience. Continue Reading →

Review: The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest

The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest
The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest by Yochai Benkler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yochai Benkler’s brief and approachable book takes issue with the founding premises of many of our institutions that humans are in general not to be trusted and that we need strong authority and incentives to keep us in line lest we run amok. He seeks to show us that our basic nature, though far from perfect, is far more cooperative and altruistic than is commonly thought.

Benkler makes his case using a range of detailed examples, many of which will be familiar to readers of other work of this nature. In fact, The Penguin and the Leviathan can be regarded as something of a synthesis of Michael Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy’, Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ and Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s ‘Practical Wisdom.’ In my opinion these are all better books in their own right, but the value of Benkler’s offering is that it puts together many of their disparate insights in a sustained and focused way. That this book is coming from a business/economics/technology background in itself makes this a worthwhile and encouraging contribution.

Benkler seems alive too to the darker side of cooperative behaviour, though this is not sufficiently developed in my view. Overall though, The Penguin and the Leviathan provides a measured, accessible and persuasive take on the age-old problem of how to design organisational systems that bring out the best in humanity. It’s a great, up-to-date starting place for anyone with an interest in this question.

View all my reviews

Guilty Acts and Bad Minds

What is the relation between a criminal justice system and the society of which it is a part? Danu asks what Breivik, James Bulger and Bastøy can tell us about ourselves.

Guilty Acts and Bad Minds

“A man’s character is most evident by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or reciprocate.” – Paul Eldridge

The way a society treats its criminals can be thought of as a reflection of its character. It seems banal to observe that a society’s criminal justice system reflects the broader values of that society, so allow me to unpack what I mean by that and why it is of some interest.

This begins with an acknowledgement of the essentially constructed nature of the phenomena we are describing. We may say things like ‘society’, ‘justice’ or indeed ‘criminal’ and assume we can agree on what they mean, but such categories are far from fixed — indeed, like most categories, upon closer examination they turn out to be quite fuzzy.

For instance, it is hardly novel to point out that a criminal only exists because of the law that created him. To observe this is only to remind ourselves of von Feuerbach’s maxim nullum crimen sine lege — there can be no crime without laws. We have thus already established the political nature of law and crime — it is part of the apparatus of state. Let us leave aside for our present purposes considerations of natural law and focus instead on the positive law made by states.

That such laws are a reflection of a society’s values and preoccupations is evidenced by the way they change over time. Alcohol was prohibited entirely in the US for a time, heroin was dispensed as an over-the-counter children’s medicine before it became an illicit substance and gambling was at various times outlawed before it became a major source of government taxation revenue.

Although these examples should be sufficient to make the point, it is important to note that frequently the categories of activity and people they describe are themselves social constructions. If bigamy is to be a crime, then we must first have some understanding of what we mean by ‘marriage’. If it is a crime to outrage a woman’s modesty, we must first have constructed an idea of modesty and linked it to certain social actions which are themselves placed somewhere on a related continuum of acceptable behaviour. It would be a grave (though common) mistake to assume that these terms behave as labels we can simply pin on concepts that exist ‘out there’. With Ian Hacking, we could ask, rhetorically:

Were there any perverts before the latter part of the nineteenth century? According to Arnold Davidson [1990], “the answer is no … Perversion was not a disease that lurked about in nature, waiting for a psychiatrist with especially acute powers of observation to discover it hiding somewhere. It was a disease created by a new [functional] understanding of disease.” Davidson is not denying that there have been odd people at all times. He is asserting that perversion, as a disease, and the pervert, as a diseased person, was created in the nineteenth century. Davidson’s claim, one of many now in circulation, illustrates what I call making up people.1

This ‘making up’ of people is an essential part of how a society understands and regulates itself. The social structures and power relations by which this process occurs make for fruitful and fascinating study. Continue Reading →

Too Much Reason

In this instalment I continue my exploration of our public character by asking is there such a thing as too much reason?


Regular readers will be familiar with the quotation by Tony Judt that I like to roll out from time to time, as I feel it captures succinctly something of our current state of affairs, how this came to be and what’s at stake. Let’s revisit it:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today … We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.1

There are a constellation of factors and forces that have led us to the picture Judt describes; in this piece I’d like to continue the process of examining one small patch of sky at at time. As usual it will necessarily be an abridged discussion — a full treatment would take at least a couple of bookshelves.

The essence of the argument is that over the years, there have been things — an increasingly large number of things — we have decided are not important, and in some cases have forgotten how to see. The tools that we now use to craft our societies, though as sophisticated as ever, are brittle and incomplete. We have simply become blind to certain things that matter, and worse, we do not know that we are blind.

Much of the problem has to do with an over-reliance on reason. As Jonathan Haidt argues:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude … as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it.2 (emphasis in original)

For many, this will be an odd proposition. Surely reason is an unqualified good — a gold standard which we should strive to attain and by whose marker we shall know we have become fully enlightened, whether it be by the rule of philosopher kings or our arrival in the kingdom of ends. Continue Reading →

The Ethical Question

Practical Wisdom
by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe
Riverhead Books, 2010, 324 pages.
Harvard University, presented by Michael Sandel
Lecture Series, 2005, 12 x 55 minutes.
Friday Night Lights
Television series, 2006–2011, 76 episodes.

The ethical question is a simple one. It can be asked any number of ways, but the best form may be the simplest—what should I do here?

It’s a question everyone can recognise, one we all answer many times every day. When we think about ethics as an idea, we tend often to be tempted by thought experiments that pose impossible moral choices (imagine you’re driving a trolley car hurtling out of control down a hill towards five workers on the track who will be killed if you hit them. Now imagine there’s a side track you can swerve onto to avoid them, but instead you will hit and kill a single worker. What should you do?). Indeed, a scholarly appraisal may well conclude there is no moral way out of some situations. And yet, as Mary Midgley reminds us, in real life, real people still make real choices, however impossible. Morality does not occur in a vacuum.

What can we learn from people’s real ethical choices? What do we think we know? Ideas about morality have extraordinary reach and purchase in our public lives. This is of course evident when we talk about censorship, free speech or Roe v Wade, but also in ways that are less obvious and more pervasive, more pernicious.

Are people basically good, wanting to do the right thing but not always sure what it is? Or are people basically vicious and only out for themselves, needing to be restrained from violence against each other by a powerful and compelling mediator?

More importantly, do either of these views reflect things as they really are? Should we say instead either that most people are good, but a few evil folk do terrible things, or the reverse? The white hat/black hat idea is a popular one intuitively held by many of us, but as Midgley again reminds us, most binaries are false. When we say either/or, we should not forget to consider and. If we are to learn anything from looking at evil, it must surely be that things are not so convenient as black hats and white hats. The greatest evils are done by ordinary people who think they are doing good.

That makes the ethical question a little more urgent. Each time we ask ‘what should I do here?’, we must have some basis for answering.

Continue Reading →

A Tall Story

The Tall Man
Directed by Tony Krawitz
Documentary, 2011, 78 minutes.

The Tall ManOn the morning of November 19, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, an indigineous resident of Palm Island in tropical Queensland, was arrested for swearing at Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley and taken to the local police station. 45 minutes later, he was found dead in his cell. Later, he was found to have had four broken ribs and a ruptured liver and spleen. The police claimed he had tripped on a step. It is perhaps the most high profile case of an Aboriginal death in custody on record, and certainly one of the most complicated.

Doomadgee and Hurley were the same age — 36 at the time of the incident. In some ways what happened reads as a story of two men from very different walks of life who cross paths and cannot help but bring their different social circumstances and history to bear upon the situation. Those histories, and the timeline of events following Doomadgee’s death, are the subject of Tony Krawitz’s documentary The Tall Man. The film aired on SBS in 2011 and is based on the book of the same name by Chloe Hooper.

The film puts the audience in the position of a jury as it follows the events following Doomadgee’s death and by the end we form a fairly clear impression of what happened, given the available evidence. But The Tall Man is equally concerned with how those affected have made sense of what happened and what the sequence of tragic events tells us about race relations in Australia. This is where the film is most powerful. Continue Reading →

The Price of Everything: Neoliberalism and its blind spots

Neoliberalism is among the most influential social, political and economic forces of our time. Danu describes the neoliberal project and examines its effects upon higher education in Australia by beginning with a simple question — does it produce good social outcomes?

The Price of Everything

Have the economic reforms pursued in Australia since the early 1980s produced positive social outcomes?

To give this question proper consideration, we shall need to do a number of things, beginning of course with an explanation of what economic reforms are in question. To do this, I will focus on one particular policy area — higher education policy. This is an area of policy to which the sort of economic reforms we will be discussing have been applied visibly and purposively; it is also a policy area in which we can comfortably discuss social outcomes. We will also need to tackle the more difficult issue of evaluating what constitutes a positive social outcome and how we might recognise one.

Let us turn first to the discussion of the economic reform itself. ‘Since the 1980s’ is code for a number of related and complementary notions and assumptions about economics, society and human behaviour that became widely influential and accepted around this time — the sort of constellation of ideas that we might best describe as a movement. The movement in question has been variously described as ‘neoliberalism’, ‘economic rationalism’, ‘free-market’, ‘Friedmanite’, ‘lassez-faire’, ‘small government’ and even ‘Reaganomics’. These labels all emphasise different aspects of the movement and are largely interchangeable, though my preferred term is neoliberalism, which I will use hereafter.

Attempting a precise definition of such a fuzzy category as neoliberalism is a futile exercise, so let me instead lay out some of the core principles that underwrite it. At heart, neoliberalism combines a libertarian political philosophy with an economic world-view. That is to say, it invokes an image of humanity as a collection of rational individuals each acting in their own self-interest — the role of public policy on this view is to ensure each individual has freedom to exercise his or her rational choices as efficiently as possible. Efficiency here means with as much information (price signals) and as little interference (government) as possible. Neoliberals believe that in this state of affairs, the sum of each individual’s rational, self-interested choices in a perfect market will secure the best possible outcome for all. Free markets, free people. (In that order.)

By valuing education wholly on economic terms, we begin to deprive ourselves as a society of the capacity to comprehend our own folly in doing so.

When former US President Ronald Reagan famously said, ‘government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’, we can see what he was getting at. Similarly, when former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher more ominously said ‘there is no such thing as society’, we see she was appealing to a vision of homo economicusEconomic Man. Continue Reading →

Going Nowhere

Public transportation is a complicated business. Liam examines Melbourne’s much-maligned network, stepping past the anger and obfuscation to think clearly about the shape of the problem.

Going Nowhere

A lot of things have been said about Melbourne’s public transport. Whether you think it’s good or atrocious depends on what you compare it to and what sort of criteria of quality you want to apply. It is, in a lot of ways, good. A lot of people have also gone to great pains to diagnose and describe problems with the network. The main newspapers in Melbourne, The Age and The Herald Sun, have run a lot of articles highlighting the notable service failures, the mistreatment of commuters by ticket inspectors and the minimal government response.

The tone of the discussion reminds me of a cheap perfume bought on sale — sharp, shallow and repugnant whilst ostensibly respectable. This is a fact that is in many ways more interesting than the object of the outrage. It’s the shape of the problem that I’m interested in discussing here, rather than the ‘substance’ of horserace-like commentary. I’ll do that by setting out a few aspects of the state of affairs and then attempting to formulate some questions with which to ask what can be done about it.

Continue Reading →

Heart of Darkness

Rebelle (War Witch)
Directed by Kim Nguyen
Starring Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien
2012, 90 minutes.

War WitchKomona is 12 years old and lives in a small village in war-torn Africa. One day she is out gathering food when she sees a gang of rebels closing in. She runs back to warn the village but the rebels are soon upon them, killing the adults indiscriminately — they are recruiting child soldiers. In the aftermath, Komona stands facing her parents, shadowed by the towering presence of the rebel captain. She is handed a gun and told to shoot her parents. If she does not, the rebel captain will kill them instead. With a machete. Komona meets her parents eyes for a long moment, and then it is time to choose. Do it, her father says. She does. The rebel captain congratulates her — “Now you are one of Great Tiger’s rebels.”

Did Komona do the right thing? It seems odd to describe killing your parents execution-style as doing the right thing, yet most of us would similarly hesitate to say what Komona did was wrong. It seems like an impossible situation, but impossible situations happen more often than you’d think. Most of us will be fortunate enough never to find ourselves confronted with Komona’s choice, but all of us can recall the experience of being faced with a decision where there are no good options. In moral philosophy, this is known as a tragic choice.

From an intellectual perspective, tragic choices are untidy. It would be nice if we could come up with some all-purpose general formula that allowed us to decide the right thing to do in any given situation. Indeed, much effort has been expended by countless clever people on just this kind of project, the assumption underlying their theories being that if we follow the process faithfully, the good thing will happen. When reality intrudes on these kinds of fanciful musings however, we may find such formulas are not really up to the job of facing life’s complexities. Continue Reading →