28 May 2007

Quality & Judgment

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Like many (most?) people with e-mail, digital cameras, word processors, web browsers, digital music and more, I often face challenges with file storage, management, and retrieval. Finding things amidst years of archived information can be a complicated task, despite the fact that I try hard to be selective about what I keep and what I discard, and about how those things I save are organized for the future. (This is to say nothing of the paper files I keep, and boxes of photos and other items from moments past.) Therefore it was with much interest that I read Alec Wilkinson’s profile of technology pioneer Gordon Bell in a recent issue of The New Yorker, focused on Bell’s current work at Microsoft on something called “lifelogging.” Forget “blogging”; “lifelogging is about using technology to record digitally “everything we do in life” (as the article’s subtitle would have it), deploying a variety of recording devices to capture all in image, word, and sound.

In reading this article, it didn’t take me long to go from engaged to dispirited, disturbed at the implications of Bell’s project for the future of society (never mind what it says about Microsoft’s sense of humanity’s needs). While the libertarian in me was concerned about the privacy implications of capturing and controlling such a vast amount of daily data, I could not escape a bigger and more complicated question by the time I had finished reading: is there any value to having a log of everything? And is everything we do of value?

Around the same time, I happened across Jeff Leeds’ article in The New York Times, “Second CD By Maroon 5 Faces Great Expectations.” The title sums up the focus of the piece, about whether this pop band can follow-up its “wildly successful debut” with another big success. “Early signs suggest that the new Maroon 5 album will be a hit, though how big is hard to say,” Leeds writes. “And it is the long bet on relatively new talent that has made this deal so buzz-worthy.” Clocking in at a little over 1300 words, Leeds details the shift in ownership of the band’s label, whether this might affect the success of the album, and what it all means in an environment of declining music sales.

And that’s when I realized what was missing from both Gordon Bell’s “lifelogging” vision for the future and Leeds’ article about Maroon 5: quality. Neither article does much to recognize explicitly the value of (aesthetic) judgment. Bell may be a genius who is helping to invent amazing new “recording” devices that cover every aspect of life – from what we see, to what we read, to our childhood memories – but to what good purpose, we must ask. I suspect that most of us are already swimming in more information than we can manage. Anyone who has ever made a scrapbook or a photo album, or spent time going through their notebooks from high school, will surely understand the importance of quality and judgment in decision-making. Yes, sure, we can save everything (shove all the photos into a shoe box, let’s say) and some of us do. Mostly, though, we don’t save everything, every newspaper read, every bus map interpreted, every TV ad consumed, every poop taken; and we don’t want to do so, either.

We don’t save everything not only because it is (for most of us, even in digital form) impractical, but because it is completely unnecessary. We want the parts of life that matter, or that matter to us, or that we think matter; we make judgments about what objects connect to which memories, good or ill, and decide what to keep because of how they make us feel. Ultimately, we are better off with those qualitative decisions, because if we weighed our lives in relation to what we did with each second – as opposed to what matters to us about what we have done – we would likely minimize our own impact on the world. Focusing on every moment will not implicitly make each moment more valuable.

Likewise, it is an odd reflection of where we are as a society that the word “quality” appeared in Leeds’ article just once, in a reference by Jimmy Iovine, the chairman of music label Interscope, to the importance of “the quality of your roster” of bands in determining a label’s success. Nothing else in the article even suggests that the success of Maroon 5’s new album might have something to do with whether it’s any good or actually worth hearing. It must be said that Leeds was not writing a review of the album, but rather exploring industry expectations for its success; yet the idea that even those expectations can be discussed without reference to the quality of the music reinforces the sense that we are, as a society, held rather hostage by the marketing muscle of our corporations. Clearly, we could choose not to buy the album because it might be terrible, but no one expects that reaction; we’re expected to buy it even if it is bad, and it’s just a matter of how many of us can be cajoled into playing along.

It’s Memorial Day in the United States, a holiday to remember the citizen soldiers who gave their lives for our country. Perhaps it seems an odd jump from a criticism of “lifelogging” and music industry reportage, but I think the themes are strongly connected: the terrible situation the U.S. is in stems from a lack of critical judgment, from the failures of our theoretically-vibrant citizenry to engage fully with ideas and facts, and not just ideologies or dreams. Just as we should be saying to ourselves “don’t believe the hype” about Maroon 5 or the latest tech gizmo, we should be saying the same about the news we read, how we act, and how we vote. Perhaps for Gordon Bell we are simply what we do each day. To me, we are what we decide to do, for better or worse, and with consequences with which we must live.

20 May 2007

Shifting Places

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Anyone with a digital video recorder (e.g., a TiVO) or a VCR should be familiar with the idea of time shifting: the use of a tool that allows you to change the viewing time of a TV show from its scheduled one to whenever it’s convenient for you, the viewer. By recording the program and watching it on your own schedule, you are said to be time shifting. It stands to reason then that place shifting would be a corollary concept: the ability to watch TV on your own time-shifted schedule but also from a location you choose, i.e., not necessarily in your living room, in front of your TV. That is, in fact, how place shifting is defined in Wikipedia, and a search turns up similar kinds of references in many other sites, some of them offering place shifting technologies.

It stands to reason – but I don’t think it’s completely accurate. The idea of place shifting could also probably be traced to the arrival and evolution of the cell phone, when the whole idea of one’s geography being defined by one’s phone number was turned on its head. This happened in two stages. The first was the arrival of the cellular phone in its own right, when the caller knew that the cell phone’s user could be (almost) anywhere, so that a call to someone theoretically in New York might turn up a person actually in San Francisco. Maybe this is what lead to our societal obsession with always asking “Where are you?” at the beginning of cell phone calls: when we call someone we know, we’re picturing that person. In the old days (which were not so long ago), we knew that the number we dialed was almost certain to ring at a specific location, so our friend might be in their living room or their bedroom, or wandering with a cordless phone but within a limited range. With a cell phone, we cannot conjure those mental images without knowing where they are – New York? No, San Francisco. Oh, where? Standing in line to buy chocolate in Ghirardelli Square – and we get an incomplete picture, which inhibits conversation, we have to ask, “Where are you?”

The second stage was the formal upending of the system of telephone area codes and exchanges. Time was (not so very long ago, either) that calling someone with a “212” area code meant calling a Manhattanite somewhere in Manhattan, and calling someone with a “917” number meant dialing a New Yorker’s cell phone, wherever they happened to be at the time. Now, even the formality of those telephone systems, more than 100 years in the making, has been upended. Some New York businesses have 917 area codes, even though it was originally used only for cell phones; 646 was introduced as the secondary area code for Manhattan, when 212 maxed out, but some people have 646-based cell phones. Friends who used to live in NYC, but now do not, have nonetheless retained their 917-based cell phones, while people who once lived in Washington, DC, kept their 202-based cell phones. The 917’ers living in DC are still a “local” call; the 202’ers living six blocks away are still a “long distance” call. Except that even those terms are rendered meaningless with “nationwide” calling plans that formally remove the whole lexicon built up over the last century; where you are, and where you are calling, now matter only to the caller and the recipient, but not the phone company. In a sense, those two annoying questions – “Where are you?” and “Can you hear me now” – have replaced the whole array of terms that defined our understanding of telephony.

The 20th century is definitely dead, and has itself been place shifted rapidly into ancient history.


It might also just be that all of this is, after a fashion, self-congratulatory hooey: that the origins of time and place shifting rest in the very beginnings of human civilization, when we learned to write and to read, and found different media (stones, or papyrus) on which to put those writings, from which we could then draw later readings, at a different time and even a different place. Our history, so much of which used to be oral (think of Homer, spinning his poetic stories), now transcribed, to be read later by anyone with the skill in any place with the capacity – freed from the need for the author himself, in fact. Painting, too, shifted our understanding of a particular time and place beyond the immediate; we examine cave drawings in Lascaux or Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, but we do so without needing to be a cave man, or to have sat with Edouard as he painted, and we experience a little bit of Tahiti in Gauguin, through his eyes, despite never having been there.

As always, we flatter ourselves, and our nearly boundless (technological) creativity, and boy what a world we live in. In the long run, though, we may be better at the definitions – at creating for ourselves new ontologies that let us believe in our own superiority over that which came before us – than we are at the underlying creativity. If the past is any guide, we can be certain our children, and our children’s children, will time and place shift us into history, too.

19 May 2007

Is Shaha Riza Jewish?

A. D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In the weeks since I posted a column about former World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz and his “girlfriend” Shaha Riza, I have received a lot of web traffic from people searching for information about whether Riza is Jewish.

Presumably, this is because Wolfowitz is Jewish – so people want to know whether Riza (despite being of Lebanese descent and having grown up in Saudi Arabia) is also Jewish. Perhaps they figure this would explain the relationship, or explain her views on spreading democracy in the Middle East, or help satisfy some prurient desire to know that these political bedfellows aren’t really all that strange after all. Or maybe it’s the opposite: maybe there’s an equally prurient desire to confirm that Wolfowitz, one of Bush’s leading Neocon Jews, actually is sleeping with a Muslim woman. No doubt there are people who would find this situation titillating.

I don’t see what difference it would make either way, whether Riza is Jewish or not. Her relationship with Wolfowitz is real, and while there has been much speculation about the various intellectual connections between them and their presumably simpatico views on world politics – like most relationships, I think we can safely assume that the animating components are much more human. They like each other, are attracted to each other, and so: good for them.

Nonetheless, to answer the question: no, Shaha Riza is not Jewish. At least not according to the Arab News newspaper, which in this article from March about the Riza-Wolfowitz relationship identifies her as a Muslim. Satisfied now?

14 May 2007

Non-Proliferating Identity

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

A few weeks ago, I attended a large, fancy dinner organized by an American Jewish organization. As the event began, I was stunned to find that following opening remarks, the evening kicked off with what the program announced as the “National Anthems”: an operatic cantor began singing “Hatikvah,” followed by “The Star Spangled Banner.” For a variety of reasons, I won’t name the organization directly, but I will say that of its four word name, “American” and “Jewish” constitute two – and are the only two words of ethnic or national identity in the name. Nor was this an event honoring Israel or an Israeli. And so, not for the first time, I found myself offended by some confused American Jewish sensibilities.


I feel fortunate to be an American Jew, because, as a Jewish-American, I live in a country that does not cause me to have an identity crisis about these self-proclaimed labels. I am an American citizen by birth, a proud one, grateful to this country for having accepted my immigrant family only one generation ago. I am a Jew, a member of the Jewish religion which (among other things) provides me with moral guidance and support. It also forms a strong component of my cultural identity in ways both deeply personal and, in our American melting pot, quite often shared with others, Jew and non-Jew alike.

What I am not is an Israeli. I have been to Israel and I share a connection to many of Israel’s residents, through faith. Yes, Israel has enshrined in its founding documents a guaranteed offer of citizenship to me and all other Jews, and perhaps some day I’ll consider taking Israel up on the offer. But I have not done so yet. Sitting in the grand old ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that evening, I found myself – yet again – reflecting on how my fellow Jewish-Americans have unhelpfully created and sustained a new identity crisis for themselves, and then inflicted it on the rest of us.

This is where Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem comes in. Playing Hatikvah at this event – indeed, calling the two songs our national anthems, is clearly making a statement about how that audience of (mostly) American Jews is supposed to feel about Israel. Except it isn’t working, and hasn’t been working. In my lifetime (which begins not long after the triumph of the Six Day War, and before the disaster of the Yom Kippur war) I have yet to see a mass-exodus of American Jews to Israel. American Jews give money to Israel, lend all sorts of psychological and political support, and even create programs like “Taglit – birthright Israel” to help young adults travel there. Still, there is no evidence of large numbers of Jewish-Americans abandoning the United States, or even large numbers seeking to become dual citizens of both nations. I suspect that’s because they’re happy here in these United States, and I’m glad. It just makes the national identity conflicts that much more stark: for whom was Hatikvah being played that night?


It also cannot help but touch a raw nerve about the future of Israel – and the future of Judaism. Yesterday’s New York Times has an article by Greg Myre about the extremely-challenging demographic problems Israel faces, this time about holding onto Jerusalem at a time when so many (secular, middle-class) Jews are moving out. There is nothing revelatory here; the demographic problems Israel faces are well-known and well documented. Jews of most nationalities and variants of faith (excepting the ultra-Orthodox) are not breeding rapidly enough, whether in Israel or the United States, part of a long-term trend that is consistent with how most increasingly-wealthy and well-educated communities behave. Much of (non-Jewish) western Europe faces the same set of problems, with reproduction rates that are at or below “replacement” level, threatening not only underlying economics but the continuation of national heritage. However, it is a particular problem for Jews, if we aim to continue as a (diverse) religious group with strong populations in Israel and the U.S., as well as in other countries.

Philosopher Emil Fackenheim, a holocaust survivor, postulated that Judaism should add to its existing 613 commandments a 614th: not to give any posthumous victories to Adolf Hitler. If one is inclined to accept this kind of thinking, then perhaps instead of such an extensive focus on supporting Israel, world Jewry might rather focus on reproduction, on encouraging Jews everywhere – including us wealthy, American Jews – to invest more of our resources (psychological as well as financial) in having more children. Of course, programs to encourage reproduction have their own tainted history, not least to Nazi Germany’s efforts at sustaining “Aryan” breeding. (To me, Fackenheim’s 614th commandment suffers from a tragic embedded irony: enshrining Hitler’s name in a commandment undermines exactly the goal of overcoming the holocaust, by reminding us not of our losses but of the man behind them.)

I do not like the patriotic “if you don’t like it, leave” approach. The proverbial American melting pot is big enough to hold the addition of many Jews and even more Jewish opinions (to borrow from the joke). That includes a love for Israel, and support for Israeli institutions. It also includes arguments about Israel, its policies, its future, its past, and what it all means. We are Jews, people of the book, and we should argue, debate, analyze, and have opinions about all of these things. However, all of this argument and debate should be distinct from confusion, confusion about our identity, our loyalties, and ultimately, our priorities. Let’s sing Hatikvah all we want, but for those of us who are not Israeli, let’s treat it as what it is: not our national anthem. Thus far, doing otherwise has not helped; too often it looks as though American Jews are singing Hatikvah while Israel burns.

07 May 2007

Could the Center Hold?

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

We Americans seem to be a people politically adrift, simultaneously clinging to and resisting the labels we self-apply so readily. Depending on where you live, what you believe, or who your friends are, the words “liberal” or “conservative” might be said with a rather dismayed expression. We are a country of Christian Conservatives, of Blue Dog or Yellow Dog Democrats, of Rockefeller Republicans, of Clintonistas and Bushies and Defeatocrats and Warmongers and all else besides. (Just about the only thing we aren’t these days are Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys or Neo-conservatives, and that is largely because the Monkeys turned out to be better predictors of the future of the Iraq war than the Neocons.) So it makes all the sense in the world – right? – that the nature of American politics begins as a race out to the left- and right-fringes, followed by a dash to the middle. Which is why it also makes all the sense in the world that a few folks try to occupy the center from day one, or that some other folks would get together to start a part of the center, called Unity08.

Yawn. Could anything be more boring and less inspiring than a party of the center?

Over the weekend, I read through Reason magazine’s “Presidential Scouting Reports,” from their June 2007 issue. [Not yet online, but check here for it soon.] Subtitled “A libertarian’s guide to the World Series of politics,” the authors crunch through the leading candidates from both the Democrats and the GOP, giving rather accurate summaries of the candidates various strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of “voters who care about liberty.” It left me with two distinct feelings. The first, and most immediate, was my own repetition of the line Reason used at the end of the first candidate, that of Senator Hillary Clinton: “No wonder we feel sick to our stomachs.” Actually, gentlemen, the whole field – left and right – is fairly nauseating.

The second feeling was a newly-awakened interest in, of all things, the politics of the center. What I don’t mean is the center a là Unity08. That might more accurately be called the “middle ground,” a safe political terrain based on positions carefully designed to significantly-but-partially satisfy large numbers of people. Inevitably, the candidates who secure their respective parties’ nominations will wind up being compromise choices, doing strategic double-talk to various constituencies designed to convince their True Believers that they are fellow travelers, while soft-pedaling the tough stuff for the on-the-fence audiences they need to convince. An example of just one result of all this mish-mash is the “Compassionate Conservative” Bush, and I think we know how disastrous that has been.

What if, however, America was offered a party that sat comfortably at the center, ideologically? Could there be such a thing? “Liberal,” perhaps, in the true (now European) sense of the word: fiscally conservative but socially flexible? Instead of arbitrarily deciding positions based on a composite of views or an ever-present faux-pragmatism, we need a party that lives in the center as a result of the consistent application of ideology, of logically-argued perspectives based on core beliefs.

In some terribly awkward sense, we may have such a party, but it needs – of all things – a political makeover. The Libertarian party in the U.S. could, if it wanted to, claim the political center; not the middle ground, but the ideologically-based political center. Americans are not really a bigoted bunch, but they can be made afraid, and it is these fears that both the Democrats and the Republicans prey upon: fear of attack, fear of financial insecurity from over-taxation, fear of financial insecurity from an eviscerated welfare system, etc. The Libertarian focus on freedom is an antidote to most of these issues, neither weak on security nor militarily-bullying about how other countries should be run, not prone to tax increases or to overly-dictating how one’s tax dollars should be spent...

...Well. It is sometimes difficult to picture how a small government society might function; we are so trapped in a big government world that most of us literally cannot imagine it. Lefties think about the loss of the New Deal safety net, but cannot imagine that society might have learned something from the Great Depression beyond just the need for ever-present government intervention. Conservatives worry about the projection of American power, or whatever they worry about – keeping Terry Schiavo alive? I’m not sure – but things that also require a big, activist government (even though they say that they don’t want that).

Despite this, we should try to picture a different kind of American future, a world in which citizens have both greater freedom and greater responsibility – and where the governments’ issues and problems are rather more limited. Because what we have here is not just a failure to communicate, but a failure to think. As I wrote back in August of 2005:

As with so much political activity, then, the actions and beliefs of the conservatives and liberals often come down to opportunism: where and how can they most effectively achieve their aims, and what aims are best within that specific context. But opportunism as a political philosophy is extremely limiting, leading to short-term decisions with long-term impact – and forcing a continuing series of struggles over political party leadership because the issue-of-the-day continues to change. Instead of being fearful of the growth of American political perspectives, we should embrace this diversity; more parties can lead to more active political voices, and to a more thoughtful and thorough public debate of important issues. Instead of shying away from one set of power structures or another, instead of retreating behind lobbyists or large-scale ad campaigns, or financial power-brokers, American politics would improve with a more effective opportunity for real dialog, for real openness and debate, of which there is precious little.

Maybe the Libertarians are not capable of holding the center. All I know is that the Republicans and the Democrats are not offering satisfying choices, only poor comprises.