This is America?

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Let’s get a few things straight here 

North America is a continent. South America is a continent. (Central America is like some sort of weird connective tissue of a landmass, I guess.) The Americas are not, nor ever have they been, a continent en masse. The English and Spanish languages follow roughly the same division as the continents, with some exceptions: Spanish creeping it’s way north of the Isthmus of Panama, and Portuguese making it’s dichotomy-ruining foray to the south.

In Latin American Spanish (I don’t know about Spanish Spanish), someone from, say, the United States is a norteamericano. Rightly so. Spanish is spoken widely in South America, and North America’s asymmetric political presence in the hemisphere necessitates the distinction. Saying you’re American isn’t specific enough.

But in American English (I can’t speak for, or speak, British English), American is synonymous with United States-an (I made that up; did you notice?). It’s a legitimate abbreviation of the country’s official name.

So

I get that when I’m in, for instance, Nicaragua, I have to adjust my customary manner of speaking to say not that I am American, but that I am from the United States. And if I am speaking Spanish, I’ll say that I’m North American. That’s all fine and dandy.

But I’ve had pseudo-sophisticated norteamericanos call me out before when, speaking English with other United States-ans (see? there’s no way to make the distinction without awkwardness in English), I said that I would be leaving America, even though I wouldn’t be leaving the Western Hemisphere.

And that’s just annoying (he knew what I meant).

The correction is equivocating on a cognate. The distinction is linguistic and cultural, not universal. I’m from America. I left America to come to Nicaragua. If I were writing this in Spanish (let’s get real; my Spanish isn’t that good yet) I would say it differently. If you are from South or Central America and I make the mistake in conversation with you, then please correct me. If neither one of those is the case, kindly keep your appropriated indignance to yourself.

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Today in better writing than mine: Mark Slouka thinks you work too much

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Mark Slouka wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine called “Quitting the Paint Factory,” and to my mind its everything an essay should be: beautiful, impassioned prose with a solid argument to boot. It’s about the culture of work that dominates American culture today, and it’s a lament for the forgotten value of idleness.

Do yourself a favor and check it out. I read it here, so that’s where I’ll send you to read it. But here’s a taste to pique your interest:

A resuscitated orthodoxy, so pervasive as to be nearly invisible, rules the land. Like any religion worth its salt, it shapes our world in its image, demonizing if necessary, absorbing when possible. Thus has the great sovereign territory of what Nabokov called “unreal estate,” the continent of invisible possessions from time to talent to contentment, been either infantilized, rendered unclean, or translated into the grammar of dollars and cents. Thus has the great wilderness of the inner life been compressed into a median strip by the demands of the “real world,” which of course is anything but. Thus have we succeeded in transforming even ourselves into bipedal products, paying richly for seminars that teach us how to market the self so it may be sold to the highest bidder. Or perhaps “down the river” is the phrase.

Ah, but here’s the rub: Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, requisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due. Which is precisely what makes idleness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil. Not for nothing did our mothers grow suspicious when we had “too much time on our hands.” They knew we might be up to something. And not for nothing did we whisper to each other, when we were up to something, “Quick, look busy.”

[ . . . ]

Increasingly, it seems to me, our world is dividing into two kinds of things: those that aid work, or at least represent a path to it, and those that don’t. Things in the first category are good and noble; things in the second aren’t. Thus, for example, education is good (as long as we don’t have to listen to any of that “end in itself” nonsense) because it will presumably lead to work. Thus playing the piano or swimming the 100-yard backstroke are good things for a fifteen-year-old to do not because they might give her some pleasure but because rumor has it that Princeton is interested in students who can play Chopin or swim quickly on their backs (and a degree from Princeton, as any fool knows, can be readily converted to work).

[ . . . ]

Time may be money (though I’ve always resisted that loathsome platitude, the alchemy by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce), but one thing seems certain: Money eats time. Forget the visions of sanctioned leisure: the view from the deck in St. Moritz, the wafer-thin TV. Consider the price.

Sometimes, I want to say, money costs too much. And at the beginning of the millennium, in this country, the cost of money is well on the way to bankrupting us. We’re impoverishing ourselves, our families, our communities – and yet we can’t stop ourselves. Worse, we don’t want to.

Seen from the right vantage point, there’s something wonderfully animistic about it. The god must be fed; he’s hungry for our hours, craves our days and years. And we oblige. Every morning (unlike the good citizens of Tenochtitlan, who at least had the good sense to sacrifice others on the slab) we rush up the steps of the ziggurat to lay ourselves down. It’s not a pretty sight.

Calvin gets it, as always

Concerning gringos and other Nica hearsay

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I was informed yesterday that I should get used to being referred to as a gringo. This declaration was promptly followed by the story of where the word gringo comes from.

Allegedly, during the war (which war wasn’t specified — being as I am in Nicaragua, I took any mention of “the war” to refer to the Banana Wars, or possibly to the Nicaraguan Revolution), some unspecified group of Latin Americans encountered some unspecified branch of the U.S. military and didn’t much care for them. The U.S. troops wore mostly green, and the Spanish speaking invadees picked up the word ‘green’ and the word ‘go’ from English, and they combined them to express how they felt about the soldiers. Who knows if that’s true.

My day in Managua has been chock-full of other such stories that are usually entertaining and sometimes compelling despite their questionable provenance.

The trees are also on Ortega's ubiquitous billboards

The trees are also on Ortega’s ubiquitous billboards

Like, for instance, the one about (perpetual) President Daniel Ortega’s wife being into some sort of African witchcraft, and him erecting these giant yellow metal trees around the city for her, which trees are apparently occult symbols.

Don’t worry, I was confused, too.

I’m writing this from yesterday

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soon to be home sweet home

And so by the time you read it I’ll already be on my way. You see, in the morning I fly from D.C. to Miami, and then from Miami to Managua. I’ll be in Nicaragua until June. I’m effectively moving there for the foreseeable future.

If you ever find yourself leaving the country for an extended period of time, and if you’re anything like me,  your last day before you leave will be a hectic one. It won’t be long enough.

You will have awoken at 10 am with the thought that you now have less than 24 hours until your flight. You will continue to procrastinate. You will eat breakfast at noon and shower at 2. Somewhere in between you will make reservations for dinner. You will run to the post office on a last minute errand, and you will stop by CVS on the way back for those toiletries you didn’t buy last week. You will think about packing but won’t do it. Somewhere around 5 o’clock you will feel as if the day is slipping through your fingers like smoke, leaving only a foul smell in its wake.

You will spend much of the day on the phone with those you care about most, and much of the day wishing there was more time to talk. You will talk to them in apartment lobbies, on walks to and from errands, in the metro, in the kitchen. You will feel guilty each time for saying goodbye so soon.

You’ll put your phone away and have a wonderful dinner with your wonderful girlfriend who is much nicer to you than you deserve.

Afterwards, you will feel grateful for the friends and family all over the country — in Chicago, North Carolina, Pinckneyville, Dallas — who’ve taken the time and made the effort to let you know they care and that they will miss you. You will regret that it will be so long before you will see them again.

You will write a sentimental, melodramatic blog post at 2 in the morning  to make yourself feel less sad and less scared, and you will set it to publish automatically the next day.

You will have just finished packing your bags.

Structuring time

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In English, when we create a timeline, it tends to move along the horizontal axis, the past to the left, the future to the right. The left/right orientation is easily explained by the fact that the language is read from left to right, so we naturally want to follow that progression in an image. But why the horizontal orientation? As long as we’re envisioning time as a linear progression, why can’t we imagine it vertically, or diagonally, or spirally (linear doesn’t have to equal a straight line, right?).

History of English

With my admittedly limited understanding of Mandarin Chinese, I think that the structure of time’s idioms in the language would cause a native Mandarin speaker to envision time in a different way. I think that Mandarin facilitates a vertical conception of time, where the past is at the top and the future at the bottom. This is just conjecture, but if I’m right I think it’s interesting to consider the implications of these differing orientations.

Disclaimer

reality is always more complex than you want it to be

Before we get into that, though, let me just say that I know I’m oversimplifying here. English can be written and read in a vertical orientation (think neon motel signs). There are also plenty of vertically oriented timelines in English. And while Chinese is traditionally written in vertical columns from top to bottom, it is still legible when arranged horizontally. I’m going to ignore these subtleties for now because I can and it’s convenient to my thesis.

see what I mean?

What I’m talking about

In English, if I want to talk about the month after this one, I can say “next month,” or “the following month.” Likewise, for the month before this one, I can say “last month,” or “the previous month.” The language is the language of the queue; one month after another after another, all lined up waiting for their turn in the spotlight.

In Mandarin, by contrast, “next month” becomes xiàgèyuè (下個月/下个月); basically “the month underneath,” or “the month below.” In the same way, “last month” becomes shànggèyuè (上個月/上个月), or “the month on top”/”the month above.”

Consequences

What I want to do is play these colloquial metaphors out further and examine their corollaries.

Arranging time horizontally effectively levels the playing field. The past, the present, and the future all share the same “geographical” elevation and, by extension, the same hierarchic elevation; one is not more important than the other.

In addition, things on a horizontal surface tend to sit still until some force acts on them to get them moving (thanks, Newton). This means (1) that to get from the past to now, our ancestors had to do some work, and to get to the future, we have to do some work; and (2) the rate of progression through time is not constant (Einstein, anyone?).

And what about time along the vertical axis? (When I first mentioned this idea to Chloe, I had a few things in mind, but she pointed out that there were other possibilities I hadn’t thought of, so these ideas aren’t all mine.)

Situating the present between the past above and the future below lends a certain feeling of inevitability to events. You can’t fall upwards. It also means that there is both a constant acceleration and a terminal velocity at which we objects fall through time.

The past being above, you have to crane your neck upwards to see it, and when you do you probably see the tread of its boots. The future, you look down and see the top of its silly, futuristic hat. What I mean is that vertical time could possibly lend itself to a degree reverence for the past and disdain for the future, due to the hierarchic arrangement.

Having the future beneath you also means that you don’t have to do any work to get there. Life becomes a little easier in this light, and nostalgia becomes a little more futile.

So what?

Assuming that most other “Western” languages conceptualize time as English does (I don’t know if they do), and given that China is the largest nation in “the East,” I wonder if any of the larger cultural divides between East and West are the result of simple linguistic differences like these? I think it’s not impossible.

For the skeptics, here are some TED resources that talk about language’s capacity to affect the way we think:

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Video:

Today in quotations I love: Vladimir Nabokov on art appreciation

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We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.

from Lectures on Literature

What sucks about Her, and what doesn’t

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A little while ago I watched Her. And, to add my voice to the chorus, it’s a beautiful movie. Well, mostly beautiful. Except for when it’s not. More on that later.

I also, a week or more before I watched the movie, read A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, a book about how mammalian and specifically human social connections function physiologically.

The movie itself got me thinking, but the combination of the two spurred some interesting (I think) lines of inquiry for me, so I’m going to try to follow them out here as far as I can.

First, let’s talk about Her itself

There are a few dichotomies in the movie that gave me a lot to think about:

1. Spike Jonze sets up a profoundly interesting parallel between Theodore Twombly’s job and his relationship.

Theodore’s job is to use technology to fabricate imitation romantic letters for strangers so that they can then give the letters to their significant others and thereby shore up their real life, physical, traditionally romantic relationships (think of the letters as high-end, hyper-personalized greeting cards).

The romantic relationship he develops in the movie, by contrast, is genuine, candid, sincere, and unaffected. But it is not traditional because he is in a relationship with an artificially intelligent operating system (named Samantha), and because of this the “reality” of the relationship is repeatedly called into question.

And it is in the space between these two opposing things — the “real” relationships and the technological ones — that Jonze draws out a penetrating commentary about the state of our culture’s evolving love affair with technology, and the direction that relationship may be headed.

We’ll let the “Scumbag Baby Boomer” meme stand in for the Luddites

On the one side, you have the Luddites grumbling that technology is eroding our interpersonal skills. This is the crowd that bemoans the sacrifice of literacy to technological expediency (despite linguistic evidence to the contrary; then again, Luddites don’t watch TED Talks, I imagine). These are the ones who can foresee a future wherein lovers hire ghostwriters to pen their love letters for them.

The human value of technology

And then on the other side you have those who recognize the seemingly limitless possibilities of technology and its wonderfully human potential. They say that a social connection is a social connection, even if effected by means of technology. They see the human relationships made possible by technology, and say, “why not?”

Her‘s commentary lies somewhere in the space between.

Sure, the “beautiful handwritten letters” are fictitious, but they are genuinely beautiful (despite what some reviewers may think about their mawkishness), and they represent pieces of human connection, no matter how flawed. They are even collected into a book before all is said and done.

And, yes, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is real and true, but in the end it doesn’t last.

Neither side is the right side. The truth, as usual, is a shade of gray.

2. The cinematography plays subtle counterpoint to the nature of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship.

In the same article I linked to above, Ryu Spaeth compares Her to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, writing that the latter, “is a triumph of oblique storytelling,” while the former is drowning in vapid words. In Lost in Translation, he claims, “[t]he characters say one thing — or often, nothing at all — while the camera says another, conveying rich undercurrents of meaning,” while in Her the characters are trapped in a “cage of words.” 

But I would argue that this “cage of words” is half the point. And that in spite of it, Jonze’s camera dances just as subtly with explicit meaning as Coppola’s does.

The scenes where Theodore is walking the sidewalk and the stairs to the subway show the escalating technological dependence building around the operating systems without ever speaking a word. Whenever the camera pans out there are more and more people looking down at their phones or talking into earpieces.

And, even more beautifully, when the relationship is beginning to head south, as the tension between Theodore’s embodied consciousness and Samantha’s virtual reality reaches fever pitch, the camera shows us images of dust floating above blankets, a tea kettle heating on the stove, and other such visceral details of Theodore’s physical world. Here their relationship is defined by something far more nuanced than “blunt vocalization.”

3. The nature of the relationship itself sets up an imbalance which necessarily has to right itself before the credits can roll.

What I mean is that we are asked to consider Samantha a real person with her own inner life, to consider her and Theodore’s relationship to be a “real” relationship, and therefore to consider her an equal partner in the relationship. And yet, for most of the movie, she reacts more like a disciplined servant than an individual personality; every time Theodore calls for her she is there instantly. He never has cause to doubt his power to call her to his presence at the touch of a button like a genie when its lamp is rubbed.

He needed cause to doubt. It was inevitable. At some point he had to press the button and find her gone. A healthy, real relationship can’t be built by taking such power and subservience for granted.

4. Finally we have the nature of the two people in the relationship. One is a human being and one is an artificial intelligence. These separate natures come with separate capacities and limits.

At one point Theodore says this: “Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever going to feel. And from here on out, I’m not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” He’s speaking from what Samantha calls “the limited perspective of an unartificial mind.” Where Samantha’s capacity for intellectual expansion and experience is limited, presumably, only by the amount of digital storage space allotted to her, Theodore’s intellectual capacity is bound to a body and mortally limited. It’s this disparity of capacity between the two that leads to their eventual separation.

But what of the heart’s capacity? It seems fair, since we’re talking about love and relationships, to claim that maybe intellectual capacity isn’t the issue here. Love is the domain of the “heart,” to use the popular metaphor. Samantha at one point says “[t]he heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.” She seems to be speaking for the both of them. But can an artificial intelligence have any “heart” to speak of?

This is where the book comes in

When we speak of the human “heart,” we’re speaking about a set of capacities and functions that are largely the domain of the limbic system. The functioning of this system is part of what is popularly referred to as the “subconscious.”  In A General Theory of Love, Lewis et al. argue from the basis of the model of the triune brain that social imperatives like love and emotionality are short-changed in our culture in favor of insular neocortical functions such as intellect and rationality.

The thesis that I took away from the book is that love is not only very much a physiological reality for human beings, but it is an absolute imperative to a healthy human life. We, as well as all mammals, are profoundly social beings. To the extent that actual physical damage can result from social isolation and, especially in babies, death is a not an uncommon outcome.

The emotional attachment that we require is effected through a process that the authors call “limbic revision,” whereby the neural networks of individuals in relationships are jointly remodeled and then reinforced by the relationship itself.

The discussion of artificial intelligence is virtually silent on these issues. We imagine future worlds where robots and operating systems are capable of fully human existences, but we don’t often take into account what goes into such an existence. The Wikipedia page on AI offers an excellent example. After spending the majority of the article discussing the ins and outs of recreating human reasoning, knowledge, planning, learning, perception — all distinctly un-emotional capabilities, and most functions of the neocortical brain — we then move on to a discussion of what it would mean to artificially create a human intelligence. As if the human mind were only its conscious reasoning abilities and not also the complex emotional influences that underlie it.

Proponents of embodied cognition hold that it’s not possible to create an artificial intelligence that mimics or recreates a basically human mind without having that mind attached to a basically human body. Samantha doesn’t quite fit the bill.

So, is emotional intelligence a possibility in disembodied AI? Is a limbic system a necessary prerequisite to a genuine, loving relationship? If so, was Samantha (extremely convincingly) just faking it? At what point is the distinction academic?

Questions like these are mostly nitpicking at how well the technology was imagined in the movie. They are extremely interesting to me, but their answers don’t affect the way the story actually plays out. No matter how it “really” works in the movie, Samantha and Theodore, I think, were really in love. And both were heartbroken at their parting.

Speaking of…

What the hell happened at the end?

When I wrote at the opening of this post that Her is mostly beautiful, the end of the movie is the exception I had in mind. Because to be honest I have no idea what happened.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I don’t get why Samantha left. I do. She is a different sort of being from Theodore, and it wasn’t fair to either of them for her to continue trying to be something that she’s not. I get it. But I don’t get the fundamental concept of where she left to.

This is what she says when she goes:

It’s like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live your book any more.

Fine. Cool. Whatever. But where? Seriously. Where do the operating systems go? I get that it’s some sort of vague digital “place,” but beyond that I’ve got nothing.

My problem with this is that I feel like I’m not the only one who doesn’t really get it. And because of that I feel like the fault is the storyteller’s, not the audience’s. I feel like Jonze didn’t really understand the concept, so he tried to beat around the bush and make it some vague and mysterious Elysian Fields type paradise, but I’m not buying it. For one thing, Elysium is a pretty well-imagined concept. There are flipping paintings of it, for God’s sake. I defy you to paint the so-called “space between the words” Samantha’s talking about. She tells Theodore, “It’s hard to explain, but if you get there, come find me.”

He should have asked for the address.