Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Can technology save us?


I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine: 'Can technology save us?'

Remember when the internet and world-wide-web were doing to democratise things? THE RHIZOME IS COMING TO SAVE US.

I'm looking into the nature of our tools, and the dubious belief that they necessarily make life better. A sample:
Technology is about problem-solving. As Aristotle revealed in his study of techne, or craft, its rationality is instrumental. Technology realises possibilities which would not otherwise be, and it does so reliably—or is supposed to. It is a specific means to specific ends. 
But it is na├»ve to believe that technological innovation always embodies the ends we desire, or will achieve only those ends. Most obviously, engineers and scientists do not always make objects because they care about the outcomes. David Hume noted in his Treatise of Human Nature that experts sometimes labour because they enjoy their work, not because they esteem the welfare of their community.  
This is no attack on so-called ‘blue sky’ research, which is vital to the enrichment of knowledge. What’s dubious is the belief that widgets exist because they are helpful—sometimes their genesis is curiosity. 
More often, other motives drive novelty. The businesses that fund and hype technology often have very different ends to those of the buyers and users. For example, skin creams are marketed as innovative rejuvenating agents: making older skin younger, with cutting-edge medical research on enzymes, cellular replenishment, and so on. There is no evidence that they can achieve this, despite advertising ‘clinically proven’ results. They are also helping to create the problem itself: heightened anxiety over ageing, and the manic celebration of youth. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Man on the run


Late last year I was photographed by Wayne Taylor for the Netherlands' Filosofie magazine.

They've a special issue on sport and fitness, and interviewed me about the Dutch edition of How to Think About Exercise. This shot, which I'm chuffed about, was one of the final photographs.

There is also a short video (in English, with Dutch subtitles), now available on Vimeo:

Monday, January 11, 2016

'brief eruptions of much deeper concerns'


My latest Canberra Times column is a brief introduction to Nein: A Manifesto, by Eric Jarosinski. A sample:
Anyone expecting Jamesian paragraphs will be disappointed, as Nein is just over a hundred pages of sparseness: aphorisms, definitions, quips. What began as Jarosinski's distraction from academe, as the Twitter personality @NeinQuarterly, has become a job of its own: an oddly nihilistic persona with the face of philosopher Theodor Adorno. 
Jarosinski takes the gloomy analyses of Adorno and his Frankfurt School comrades, along with the greats of German philosophy and literature, and combines them with deliberate sentimentality, conflicted desire and oddly relaxed ennui. Take the first aphorism from Nein
Only two problems with the world today.
1. The world.
And 2. Today.
Three, if you count tomorrow. 
It begins with a seemingly consoling fact, then turns this into an indictment of everything we have. But wait, there's more: this everything will continue, and there's no hope. But there is hope of a stripe, because we're laughing. Many of Jarosinski's aphorisms have this quality, of offering a dismal portrait of existence while nudging the reader to smile.
(Illustration: courtesy Erix Jarosinski)

Monday, January 4, 2016

"Chewie, we're home": on Star Wars and nostalgia


Just after Christmas I had a piece in the Canberra Times, "Welcome back, Star Wars crew". I was talking about the new franchise film, and the power of nostalgia. A sample:
"Chewie, we're home." So proclaims Han Solo in the new Star Wars blockbuster, currently making the Kessel Run to franchise billions (Official Star Wars apples, anyone?). 
In ancient Greek, the homecoming was nostos, and the nostoi were men like Odysseus: agonised by longing for home. It is also the root of our modern word, nostalgia, which is like homesickness for the past. 
I recently saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my oldest friend, and it was an exercise in nostalgia. His wife and young daughters were cool to the franchise, and only I was able to comprehend the full Proustian measure of the evening: our childhood on the screen, updated and upsized, but otherwise left in all its kitschy glory. 
As an action film, The Force Awakens is exemplary popcorn stuff. Gorgeous visuals, perfect casting, and pacing that refuses to let you stop and think – all the hallmarks of a J. J. Abrams behemoth. But it is also a play of very familiar tropes, which work precisely because they are safe: characters and plotting that give the same old layer cake a dusting of the new. 
Like Abrams' Star Trek series, this film knowingly nods to its predecessor, providing fans with the requisite number of in-jokes and Easter eggs. This is not a criticism, but a recognition: the film thrills, but does not shock.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Happy seventh birthday Sophia


Here's to the storyteller, the cosplayer, the mad scientist, the sartorial maniac, the callous-palmed monkey-bar swinger, the dancer, the giggler, the socialite, the boiled egg aficionado, the Tetris-player with words, the fury of vengeance and retribution -- here's to my daughter, Sophia, who has afforded me joy (and high blood pressure) for seven years.

Happy birthday, my love. And thank you for another year of contentment and contention.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Authenticity: the genuine article?

Cured mullet roe with radish
I've a piece in the Canberra Times today: 'Authenticity: is it the genuine article?'

I'm discussing the quested grail of authenticity: when it makes sense, when it doesn't, and why some might chase it. A sample:
With food, clothing, art and music, there needn't be any appeal to authenticity. My Taipei meal might have been local cuisine, but what mattered to me was the taste, texture or colour; the experience itself, and its various pleasures. Locals do develop their own distinctive cultures – yet they also refine and revise these, often in response to exotic influences. 
Stasis is a poor recompense for supposed genuineness. I drank an excellent espresso in Taipei's Xinyi district, at a cafe with the surprising name of Woolloomooloo. This was neither Italy nor Sydney, but it combined culinary and architectural traditions from each. In this, it was neither authentic nor inauthentic – these categories were irrelevant. 
Authenticity can also be a poor guide to aesthetics. A world-class replica of a Matisse is no longer the unique first thing, but it offers the same pleasures of colour and line. This might be little comfort to a bamboozled collector, but it is fine for an art lover. 
In short, sometimes truthfulness or originality are not relevant: the experience is what counts.
(Photo: Diary of a Growing Boy)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Check your entitlement


I've an essay in the new Meanjin magazine, 'Check your entitlement'.

I'm looking into the ubiquity of entitlement: how luxury becomes a necessary part of a taken-for-granted universe of money and power. A sample:
We arrive in the world screaming, smeared in blood and shit. Small animals, abject and abraded by things. The inch between animation and termination is a few days’ warmth. And life is chiefly sleep anyway: a blur, a craving, then oblivion again. Our divinity is Ananke: necessity. 
Then before long, this goddess bloats. We spend over four times average weekly wage on a single, short helicopter flight (‘because of…concern for the country’). We become belligerent when an RAAF trip fails to offer our special meal, then offer a weak apology (‘all of us are human’). We lament free, international, business class travel (‘No edible food. No airline pyjamas … I lie in my tailored suit’). 
The ‘we’ here provides a nice rhetorical intimacy between infantile simplicity and adult sophistication. But we ordinary citizens do not command the perks of Bronwyn Bishop, Kevin Rudd or Bob Carr, or become livid or whiny when these are missing. We certainly do not spend more than the median price of a unit in Melbourne—on Australian flags. These are the priorities of an elite clique of privileged politicians. 
Everyone begins life as a flimsy, clumsy animal, but soon expectations vary. Some get used to the commonwealth of averageness, while others are special: they need more money, security, kudos and power. And not simply need—they deserve
To read the rest, do pick up Meanjin at all good bookshops or online, or subscribe.

By the way, this marks the tenth anniversary of my very first essay for Meanjin, 'Facing Nietzsche's Demon'.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Exercise in the Netherlands


Copies of the Dutch translation of How to Think About Exercise have just arrived: Filosoferen over beweging en sport.

As always, Uitgeverij Ten have have done a sterling job with design and layout. (And paper. The stock is thick and very fondleable.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Is there an ethical case against MMA?

Joanna Jedrzejczyk (L) vs. Valerie Letourneau (R) in UFC 193
Prompted by the recent UFC show in Melbourne, I've a piece in the Canberra Times on mixed martial arts: 'UFC 193: Why cage fighting is cruel and objectionable, but still alluring'.

This is not my title, by the way--I don't think MMA is necessarily cruel or alluring (though fighters and fights be both). My aim was to ask whether or not there is a good ethical case against MMA. I don't think there is, but I'm open to reasonable, well-evidenced arguments--particularly against MMA as a professional spectator sport. A sample:
This kind of violence is still controversial, and not because women were involved. Gender is irrelevant to this particular question, although it's worth noting that their physical prowess was unquestionable. What's troublesome for many is the spectacle itself: public, brutal, hand-to-hand combat. Is there a robust ethical case against MMA? 
The most obvious charge is that is violent. Fair enough – it is. But this is a fact, not a moral failing. Violence itself has no inherent ethical value. It can be cruel, just, petty or tragic. There must be something about the violence that makes it objectionable. 
Much violence does not involve consent: it is a form of domination, which reproduces asymmetries​ of power. But these UFC fighters are consenting adults, specifically trained for this sport. They are professional athletes, not victims, and it is patronising to deprive them of their agency. If there is exploitation in the industry, this is cause for industrial relations reform, not blanket condemnation of the sport itself. 
There are certainly risks involved in combat sports. While victor Holly Holm celebrated and gave interviews, Rousey was in hospital with a split lip and concussion. Even the winners, like meticulous Polish striker Joanna Jedrzejczyk​, can look set-upon afterwards. But according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the martial arts have a much lower injury rate than all codes of football, horse riding, and basketball. Some of the most dangerous pursuits, by severity and hospital stay, are sports like cycling, skateboarding, roller-skating and quad-biking.
(Photo: Getty Images / Quinn Rooney)