Identities are breaking down all over

It’s [not] funny how often I see lamentations for the way things used to be. It’s no longer pure! Whatever it is. These new people don’t get it. They ruined it!

They aren’t true Scotsmen.

You can probably think of numerous examples. This is supposedly the driving force behind right wing populism around the world, for starters.

There’s an interesting rumination on changing identity in a recent Aeon article on “hacker”. It sweeps through the evolution from curious kids playing with technology, through “cypherpunks” and “crypto-anarchists” to the modern, bro-y t-shirt and jeans Silicon Valley types.

It really gets interesting towards the end, as the author places this change within the concept of gentrification. As more people take on an identity, some of the difference, the “disaffection” as he puts it, disappears.

Technology was stereotypically the domain of “geeks”, who harnessed its power to build an identity, community and to express themselves.

But an influx of people without those same predispositions has left it a rather muddled identity. More people have worn down the edges, making it child proof.

At the frontiers of gentrification are entire ways of being – lifestyles, subcultures and outlooks that carry rebellious impulses. Rap culture is a case in point: from its ghetto roots, it has crossed over to become a safe ‘thing that white people like’. Gentrification is an enabler of doublethink, a means by which people in positions of relative power can, without contradiction, embrace practices that were formed in resistance to the very things they themselves represent

…We are currently witnessing the gentrification of hacker culture. The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.

From the POV of those who lament changing definitions, there seems to be diminishing returns to people taking on a group identity. The new people don’t have the same experiences as the founders. They have other identities that may be in conflict or demand different treatment.

It reminds me of something I noticed in Coders by Clive Thompson. He gives this pretty innocuous description of what makes a coder:

More than introversion or logic, though, coding selects for people who can handle endless frustration. Because while computers may do whatever you tell them, you need to give them inhumanly precise instructions.

This fits within the framework of the Aeon article, of an identity shedding its roots as of outcasts and rationalists to one that is purely functionary.

Just like national identities that shed ethnic and cultural roots, forming instead around civic ones. Flexible enough to embrace new people with other experiences and histories.

Maybe there isn’t really anything specific in the various, changing national, regional or activity-based identities. It’s just the result of falling barriers and more people taking them on. As ever it was.

The perversion of what makes a ‘story’

There’s a graph doing the rounds that spectacularly illutrates how context rules coverage. Taken from Our World in Data, it compares actual causes of death to Google searches and media coverage.

From the accompanying blog post:

…around one-third of the considered causes of deaths resulted from heart disease, yet this cause of death receives only 2-3 percent of Google searches and media coverage…

…When it comes to the media coverage on causes of death, violent deaths account for more than two-thirds of coverage in the New York Times and The Guardian but account for less than 3 percent of the total deaths in the US…

(My emphasis)

The stories we tell shape our reality, our concerns and actions. This places a lot of power in who and what determines a story, especially the ideological, financial and technological (etc.) incentives and constraints.

All of the journalists I’ve ever met have been hyper-concerned with being accurate. But this seems to relate more to the “facts” within the story, rather than the choice of what to cover.

Over-inflating the salience of a violent death is surely as misleading?

Be careful with the ‘obvious’

I often find myself in conversations, gleefully sharing something I’ve just read or discovered, only to be shot down. “That’s obvious”, they say.

I find this problematic not only because what you find obvious is pretty specific to your education, experiences and context. But also cause things that are “obvious” so often prove false.

Common sense just isn’t a great indicator of reality, especially when it comes to abstract subjects. The world, and especially what we should do about it, is often counterfactual. Something feeling right really isn’t indicative of a larger truth.

For the past couple of months I’ve been running a script that sends me five random articles every day from the bottom of my pocket queue.

Lately I’ve gotten a lot from the 2016 US presidential election. “Donald Trump may not have a second act” said one New Yorker headline. “How Donald Trump Loses” said another from the New York Times.

I don’t mean to call these out specifically. At the time, I read these and similar articles vociferously (hence why they are over-represented in my pocket). I made much the same arguments. But the under current through all of this is that Trump obviously can’t win. That’s simply not how the world works.

Again, this may seem obvious. We’ve all had a reckoning since Trump (and Brexit etc. etc.). But when you’re reading articles from two years ago, day after day, you realise the tone hasn’t actually changed that much. We still talk like this. Stories are still often framed or dismissed from the same hubristic certainty – that’s not how the world works!

Tab dump

Research, articles, podcasts and videos in no particular order.

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