Some notes about public reason, the fate of place in a wireless
culture, and cyber skepticism, plus follow-ups and recommendations.

We have an ongoing problem with RRE subscribers getting magically
unsubscribed from the list.  We've studied the problem and taken steps
to alleviate it, but it continues.  The underlying problem, which I've
discussed before, is that bouncemail is not standardized.  I'm aware
of the automated solutions; suffice it to say that we're working on it.
My point here is simply that if RRE stops arriving, you can check the
RRE home page to see what you've been missing and how to get back on:

You might check it out anyway.  It's a regular oasis of the Internet.

I have been describing a crisis of public reason in American political
culture.  Public reason concerns the norms of public argument, and
the health of a modern society can almost be measured by the extent
to which norms of public reason are upheld.  The theory behind public
reason, which dates to the Enlightenment, is that power-holders can
be constrained by compelling them to give reasons for their actions.
If the reasons don't make sense then citizens can point that out,
and the disjunction between reason and action will eventually cause
the powerholders to lose their legitimacy and thus their power.  The
idea originates as a generalization of scientists' understandings of
their own norms of debate, and it is often scientists who insist most
strongly on the connection between reason and the health of political
institutions.  If people believe in UFOs, the argument goes, then
politicians can say any old crazy thing they want, and society will
lose its last fragile protection against authoritarianism and anarchy
(these opposites often being fused by people who make this argument).

Public reason faces a long series of challenges, which taken together
are formidable.  One major challenge is the professionally cultivated
practice of simulated rationality: if you're a powerholder, or more
likely a loose network or segmentary coalition of powerholders, and
you want to take certain actions, and if norms of public reason are in
effect, then you will naturally search for rational-sounding arguments
for your plans.  This procedure -- decision first, then arguments --
is utterly routinized throughout the public and private bureaucracies
of the world, and a whole industry of public relations (and other
communications professions that operate on the same conceptual basis
as public relations) exists to support it.  The core concept of public
relations is the "perception": what matters in practical terms is not
whether one's arguments are rational, but whether they are perceived
as rational.  One must adopt the surface forms of rational argument --
arranging words in logical-seeming ways, using scientific vocabulary,
adducing (carefully selected) facts, providing impressive-sounding
statistics, citing the opinions of authorities (that is, people who
will be perceived as authorities), and so forth.  When norms of public
reason have been institutionalized, producing this reason-effect is
half the battle, and one can purchase reason-effects by the yard.

A second challenge to public reason is technical rationalization,
by which I mean the application of math-based analytical frameworks
to practical problems.  Examples include the mathematical models
of operations research, a tremendous variety of simulation methods,
and too many others to enumerate.  These models reached their peak of
cultural legitimacy during the Cold War, but they date back centuries
and persist robustly today.  Rationalization produces reason-effects
in the sense just described, but its use of mathematics and its
apparatus of deductive logic also give it a special claim to reason.
Deductive logic is airtight in a precise sense: given the premises,
the conclusions follow.  Proponents of technical rationalization often
feel very strongly, and it is easy to see where they get their fervor.
The matters that they model are often controversial, and answers that
can be publicly defended through airtight deductive logic are greatly
to be preferred to the hidden agendas of politicians and entrepreneurs.
To question rationalization, on this view, is to question rationality,
with all of the dire consequences that I mentioned before.

The serious problem with rationalization concerns the premises and
presuppositions of the model: "given the premises, the conclusions
follow", but the premises are rarely as "given" as all that, and the
conclusions only follow if the world corresponds to the assumptions
that have been built into the model.  Most of these models depend on
quantitative "inputs" that are subject to measurement error, assuming
that they can even be measured.  Sensitivity analysis (computing the
partial derivative of the output with respect to a particular input)
often reveals that the answers that formal models provide depend so
radically on unmeasurable inputs that they are worthless.  Worthless
estimates of ten-year budget surpluses in the United States and the
State of Texas are current examples.  The point is not that formal
models are incompatible with public reason; reasonable people can
argue about the models themselves.  Where rationalization becomes 
pathological is where this meta-level debate about the premises and
presuppositions of models is suppressed.  This can (and routinely
does) happen in several ways.  The models themselves can be obscure,
whether by design or not, and this can suppress participation in the
necessary debate.  The people who apply the models can be trained
to apply them in a mechanical and superficial way, and may lack the
skill to question and evaluate them.  This happens every single day.
Or the dynamics of public debate, as in the compression of sound-bite
journalism, can give an unfair advantage to those who can offer a
neat answer over those who can offer a ten-page explanation of what's
wrong with it.  An extensive literature documents these problems;
see for example William H. Dutton and Kenneth L. Kraemer, Modeling as
Negotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy
Process (Ablex, 1985).

The most basic problem with rationalization is hubris.  The world is
complicated, and the people who have expertise with rational models
usually do not have enough knowledge of the specifics of particular
cases to apply their models realistically.  Quite the contrary, the
model creates a set of cognitive filters that tend to exclude from
consideration any factors that do not fit it.  If one's professional
standing depends on the applicability of a certain repertoire of
formal models, then it is in one's interests to perceive the world
as fitting those models, and to stop inquiring into the particulars
as soon as the model has been fitted to them.  This is bad enough
when the model-expert suffers the full consequences of inappropriate
modeling, but it is much worse when innocent parties suffer.  This is
the story of "urban renewal" programs in the 1970s, in which anyone
who actually lived in the neighborhoods in question could have told
the modelers what their models were leaving out.  Formal models have
often proven to be quite idiotic once somebody, in many cases an
anthropologist with an equally strong disciplinary predisposition to
seeing the social world as an interconnected whole, takes the trouble
to discover the fullness of what's happening on the ground.

A variant of the problem of rationalization arises when scientists
and scientific enthusiasts (not all of them, but many) insist that
the scientific method become the sole basis for public reason.  The
problem with this position is that many questions of public concern
are simply not susceptible to scientific analysis, being for example
complex moral questions.  Another problem is that science does not
function in the way that scientific enthusiasts understand as "the
scientific method".  The literature on social studies of science has
documented this at length, and has accordingly been excoriated by
those pseudo-scientific dogmatists who believe that the question of
how science actually works is not a fit matter for scientific inquiry.

A final threat to public reason is, to put it in plain language, the
struggle over different ways of seeing things.  Different professions
and cultures have different concepts, methods, and assumptions, and
people with different social positions and life experiences go about
public reason in different ways.  Many people cannot tolerate these
sorts of epistemological diversity.  They insist that their own ways
be regarded as objectively true, and they insist that any appreciation
of others' ways be regarded as a relativistic abdication of reason.
Wrong though it is, this fear of incommensurability is understandable.
Because public reason only functions if everyone agrees to uphold
it, surely the norms of public reason themselves must be framed in a
common vocabulary, which vocabulary ought surely to provide a broader
basis for commensuration of substantive arguments.  Put more simply,
if everyone has their own idea about what public reason is, where are
the unanimously legitimated rules that are going to keep powerholders
accountable?  Why can't somebody from your culture, having ascended to
office, simply declare that their own cultural understanding of public
reason allows them to cite the authority of their familiar spirits
as an adequate justification for their actions?  But the fact remains
that people do have diverse understandings of the world and of public
reason itself, and that many of these understandings are consistent
with the spirit of public reason, and that the attempt to enforce a
single such understanding as the gold standard of all public discourse
is precisely the sort of arbitrariness that the norms of public reason
exist to rule out.  This problem has serious solutions, but they are
not solutions that can be explained briefly or written neatly into a

These difficulties tend to discredit public reason.  One encounters
foolish books such as Bent Flyvbjerg, Rationality and Power: Democracy
in Practice (translated by Steven Sampson, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1998) that discover the shenanigans that go on behind
the scenes of putatively rational public debates (in his case, over
urban planning) and concludes that rationality itself is nothing
but an effect of power.  In environmental controversies one observes
a struggle over ground rules, with business and government (usually
operating in concert) pushing the debate onto the terrain of technical
and scientific methods that cannot be employed without large amounts
of capital and community organizations pushing the debate onto the
terrain of experience, memory, and narrative.  Simulated rationality
confronts an insistence that the surfaces forms of rationality have
become irretrievably corrupt.  Of course many cases are more complex,
and the average timber war does include substantial amounts of math
and science on all sides.  Academics and activists have worked to
make the means of scientific rationality available to those without
concentrated capital, but it's an uphill fight at best.

Yet even those disputes over technical rationalization do not present
the greatest danger to public reason.  The greatest danger comes from
an even deeper interaction between two rejections of reason, the ones
that in the United States have come to be known as conservative and
liberal.  The new jargon that is increasingly spoken by conservative
pundits and activists in the United States, and is rarely denounced
by conservatives of any stripe, constitutes a vast assault on reason.
The conflict between conservatism and reason, in fact, is longstanding
and overt.  Conservatives in Burke's day were explicit about the evils
of permitting the common people to engage in rational thought, lest
they decide to replicate the French revolution, and the thoroughgoing
arbitrariness of the new jargon serves to undermine the possibility of
popular exercises of reason in the present day.  (Whether it succeeds
in this is another question.)  Even those who identify themselves as
libertarians follow an overtly anti-rationalist philosophy, as even a
brief acquaintance with the work of Friedrich Hayek should make clear.
The argument against reason in this literature is straightforward: it
is impossible or any individual to acquire enough reliable information
to make a rational decision, any actions founded on rational thought
will therefore be delusional, any attempts at reason should therefore
regarded as dangerous, and all action should instead be guided by
tradition.  This is what Burke had in mind by commending prejudice, 
even though contemporary conservatives are careful not to use that
word.  Conservatism is constitutionally opposed to public reason,
and this explains the abandon with which so many conservative pundits
embrace flagrant simulations of reason, constructed through the
methods of public relations, and exhibit so little regard for the real

But conservatives are not alone in rejecting public reason.  The
rejection of public reason is central to identity politics, whose
starting-point is not the rational overthrow of prejudice in the
public sphere but rather the creation of alternative spheres in
which silenced "voices" can be revived.  Central to this project
is the experience of a particular kind of oppression: the infliction
of irrationalist nonsense.  Let us say that a long series of jerks
indignantly sneer at you that you should stop being a "victim", or
that the Native Americans weren't really oppressed given that there
are more of them now than there were when the white men showed up.
If you are in complete possession of your rational faculties then
you will think long and hard until you understand what is twisted
about this.  But being assaulted by the indignant sneering of nonsense
is a bona fide variety of emotional trauma, and only the strongest
individual can retain the capacity for rational thought after enough
trauma of that sort.  The first step in overcoming the emotional
violence of the jargon is not the hard labor of fashioning brief
rational comebacks to the immense repertoire of nonsense lines of
the jerks.  No, the first step is to make common cause with others
who have been abused similarly, reestablish the capacity for trust,
compare notes on one's experiences, and recover the ability to speak
in a semipublic way without an internalized jerk sneering at you to
stop being such a victim.  The finer dictates of logic have to wait,
for the simple reason that an emotionally brutalized person cannot
yet distinguish between rebuttals that arise that arise from reason
and rebuttals that arise from nonreason.

The problem arises when the communities created through identity
politics fail to move past this condition by recommitting themselves
to public reason.  At its worst, this kind of interrupted recovery
can lead to the worst sorts of irrationalism, as in the elaboration
of pseudo-historical scholarship.  Even at its best, it prevents
traumatized people from acquiring the repertoire of rational arguments
that they need to build a mainstream political movement.  A vicious
circle gets going, with pundits employing the most convenient examples
of identity-politics irrationalism as a means of disguising their
own irrationalism.  The new jargon is filled with projections of this
sort, all of which are easy to sustain if one uses facts selectively
and otherwise applies the methods of public relations.  Notwithstanding
their excesses, which hardly compare to the positive contributions
that they have made, the principal threat to public reason has never
derived from the movements of identity politics.  The more basic
phenomenon is the vicious cycle set in motion by the irrationalists
who, whether consciously or by parroting a jargon whose logic they
fail to understand, promote a hierarchical culture of deference.

Public reason is not only a precondition for a functioning democracy;
it is also required for individuals to become and remain sane.  As
human beings we develop our voices by internalizing the responses of
others, and in the long run we only remain rational if we internalize
a rational interlocutor.  Only if reason is both legitimized in theory
and actually employed in practice can we be kept honest enough to make
rational sense.  Rationality is ultimately not about the procedures of
logic, which can easily be reified in an irrational way.  Rationality
is ultimately about mental health: the kind of contact with reality
that we can only maintain if we have good boundaries and a supportive
community of similarly healthy people.  To oppress people one must
wound them, so that wounded patterns of thought are reproduced from
one generation to the next.  Conservatism focuses attention on the
transient pathologies that inevitably arise as people try to regain
their sanity.  It does not focus on that sanity itself, or the
considerable progress that people have in fact achieved in recovering
it.  If we neglect the tidal wave of insanity that pours forth daily
from the punditry then that progress will be lost.

The flap over cell phone etiquette portends deeper problems.  How can
we think about them?  For one thing, the mapping between activities
and places is breaking down.  It used to be that cars were for driving,
offices for work, theaters for watching shows, restaurants for eating,
and all of them for conversing with people whose faces you could see.
What the cell phone brings (or at least amplifies) is not just faces
you can't see but voices and varieties of business that, so to speak,
don't belong there.  Each place had its own variety of conversation;
one discussed different things in different ways in the theater than
in the office, and in each case the discussing was regulated by the
customs and schedules of the place.  People who talked after the show
started had to be shushed, but not so terribly often.  Even if one
conducted business over dinner at a restaurant, the conversation was
still shaped to the sensibilities of the place.  With the cell phone,
the boundaries between places break down, or further down.  It becomes
practicable to converse with people who don't occupy the same place,
and who consequently are unable to orient to its constraints.  Phones
ring at arbitrary moments, and somehow the very fact that the caller
is innocent of the local constraints creates an obligation to answer.
It's not the caller's fault that the play had started, or that you
were in the middle of ordering your dinner from the waiter.

The idea of a place begins to break down.  Longtimers will recall
the idea, presented on this list by Michael Curry, of a "place" as
a stable pattern of activity.  A kitchen is a place, on this account,
because of the things people do there.  A cafe, likewise, can be a
place for a group of people who often meet there, just because of
the routines and customs that have evolved for the conduct of their
meetings.  Some issues are at stake in a place, and others are not.
So the place is more than the latitude, longitude, architecture,
and furniture.  A place remains the place that it is because people
continue to act and interact in a stable pattern.  Interruptions
threaten a place.  And so does the ability of arbitrarily different
places to reach themselves in.  If we regularly come to this cafe to
discuss sports, what happens to that place when my stock broker calls,
or my elderly aunt, or my biggest customer, or dentist's office wanting
to reconfirm my appointment for tomorrow?  Now every issue is at stake,
and unless we defend the place it becomes nothing in particular.

We have hardly seen the start of this.  Cell phones provide a simple
range of functionalities, and in particular a simple repertoire of
connectivities: we can be connected or not connected, with nothing
in between.  But imagine the world of connectivities that becomes
possible through wireless wristwatches and PDA's and a multitude of
other devices.  Maybe we will all learn to multiplex our attention,
keeping an eye on the ball scores and the stock prices and the kids
at day care as we converse with our friends at the cafe.  Our various
involvements will become omnipresent, always laying claim to a corner
of our awareness.  No longer will a place be devoted to a particular
relationship, and especially to a particular institutional category of
relationship.  Everyplace will be for everything all the time.

Perhaps we will get new places.  It could be liberating in a sense:
if you follow Foucault then architecture itself is a manifestation
of power, given that buildings are designed to house the activities
of particular institutions, each of which slots us into a role
that we live out both subjectively and through our bodily engagement
in the practices that the building and the institution conjointly
afford.  Hospitals -- observe that the word is ambiguous, referring
both to the building and to the institution it houses -- make us
into patients; courts make us into defendants and jurors; theaters
make us into an audience; and so on.  That's what Foucault means by
power, and the impending wireless world is place where, at a minimum,
all of our institutional roles are happening all the time.  We may not
be disentangled, but the lines of power are at least tangled with one
another.  (That sort of thing counts as a ray of hope to a Foucauldian
way of thinking.)  What would architectural design be like in a world
of endlessly cross-cutting institutional roles?  Everyplace could be a
hospital and a court and a theater at once, whatever that would mean.

Perhaps as institutions become progressively decoupled from buildings,
buildings will become even more focused in their functionality: if you
can do the informational side of being a patient without having to be
located in the hospital, then perhaps the hospital evolves so that you
only do the parts that require your body to be present.  Yet even that
category is uncertain, given that the medical world is trying to use
technology to move patient care out of the clinic and into the home.
You'll wear devices that will feed your stats back to the doctor, and
you'll have other devices that let you treat yourself, or at least be
treated at a distance.  Teleoperation opens a whole other world for
the interpenetration of different places, to the point where we start
to wear our institutional embeddings through the multitude of devices
we attach to our bodies in the morning.  Pretty weird.

My problem with the cyber enthusiasts is not with the magnitude of
their predictions, only with the direction.  Information technology
will clearly participate in huge social changes, but those changes
will be hard to generalize about because the technology admits of
so many diverse and even conflicting uses.  It follows that I also
have a problem with the cyber skeptics -- several problems in fact.
Let me describe one of them.  Cyber skeptics often argue as follows:

  The Internet is supposed to bring democracy and community and all
  sorts of other good things.  But if you look in a random online
  discussion group then you just see junk.  At best you see cultures
  of consumption built around fan clubs and commodities.  Besides,
  statistics show that the average Internet user participates in a
  few of these online discussion groups at most.  The facts clearly
  do not correspond to the starry-eyed scenarios we hear so often.

I'm sure that Internet enthusiasts exist whom this argument refutes.
But we should understand why the argument is both weak and wrong.
First of all, the democratic communitarian virtues of the Internet do
not depend on the quality of discussion in a random discussion group.
(You might think that I am caricaturing the skeptics at this point,
but the method of debunking the Internet by giving a single anecdote
from a random newsgroup is shockingly widespread, especially I'm sad
to say in the academic literature.)  It can readily be admitted that
a majority of Internet discussion groups are random junk: discussion
groups are easy to set up, and once set up they're easy to keep going
whether they are successful in intellectual terms or not.  So we are
oversupplied with discussion groups, most of which attract little or
no discussion.  Big deal.  You really need a more sophisticated sample
of discussion groups before you can make any arguments like this.

The next problem with the argument is the automatic disparagement of
"cultures of consumption" (an academic phrase, I'm again sad to say).
Lots of discussion of popular music, for example, is very much the
sort of thing that a democracy should want to encourage.  Musicians'
work often concerns serious topics, and subcultures gather around the
musicians they identify with.  This is a good thing, and trash-talk
about fans and commodities doesn't change it.  Discussion groups set
up around commodities (computers, for example) often involve political
discussion, as anyone familiar with the hacker community can tell you.
Aviation groups conduct intensive discussions of aviation regulations,
and I'm glad they're doing so.  And so on.  Furthermore, cultural and
political theorists have demonstrated over and again that discussions
can have value in democratic terms without being overtly political.
Yes, of course, much discussion in any forum is trivial or even
regressive, but nothing follows from that.  To paint the Internet as
undemocratic, then, you need a better argument.

The most important problem with the skeptic's argument is also the
most subtle.  When we use the word "community" in the vicinity of
the Internet, we often assume that we're talking about an "online
community", which we equate with particular mechanisms of newsgroups,
Web-based discussion groups, listserv mailing lists, and so on.  The
hidden assumption is that the "community" is bounded by the Internet.
But that's not usually how it works.  Communities are analytically
prior to the technologies that mediate them.  People are joined into
a community by a common interest or ideology, by a network of social
ties, by a shared fate -- by *something* that makes them want to
associate with one another.  And communities typically employ a range
of technologies to conduct their associations, including paper notes,
phone calls, e-mail, periodicals, and face-to-face meetings in various
formats and venues.  The skeptic's argument is wrong because people
can be members of several communities without being members of several
online discussion groups.  The Internet can support the collective
life of a community in many ways besides a discussion group of its
members.  Members can send e-mail messages to one another individually,
they can put up Web pages that others might occasionally be drawn
to, or they can set up private, short-term, project-focused discussion
groups that the skeptics and other outsiders will never see.  This
happens all the time.  A given community might use the Internet to
discuss political matters, or it may use the Internet to arrange the
logistics of the face-to-face meetings where it discusses politics.
Many other combinations are possible.  The Internet can be used to
strengthen a community even if most of the community's members never
use the Internet to do the community's business.

Now, it does not follow from these rebuttals that the Internet really
is intrinsically supportive of democracy and community and so forth.
First one would have to decide what "democracy" and "community" mean.
It's not obvious.  But on any definition it's surely untrue that the
Internet intrinsically, inherently, all by itself promotes political
values of any sort, positive or negative.  The political attitudes
and institutions of the Internet's users surely play some role in
shaping the purposes to which the Internet is put -- not to mention
shaping the Internet itself.  The enthusiasts and skeptics have
this in common: they both believe that the Internet changes the
world single-handedly.  Between the extremes is the realist position,
which analyzes case-by-case the interactions between technology and
institutions through which the action really unfolds.  The realist
position is less fun because it offers no simple generalizations.  But
it has the advantage of being, so far as it goes, at least compared to
the extreme alternatives, true.

In response to my suggestion of a Bluetooth-based scheme to prevent
cell phones from misbehaving, a reader pointed out that such a thing
is actually being developed by a Swedish company called Bluelinx:
<>.  This is more evidence that
the wireless revolution is happening in Europe and Japan and leaving
the United States with its fragmented standards and Internet fixation
behind.  (The 8/3/00 Wall Street Journal's "Marketplace" section
features a collection of interesting wireless devices from Europe and
Japan.)  The same reader also directed me to a commercial cell phone
jammer: <>.  I'm not a lawyer,
but this product certainly sounds illegal to me.

I'm interested in Bluetooth devices for several reasons.  I want
to overcome the mind/body distinction that has always been central
to computing, and so I want to emphasize the ways that "mind" things
are actually embedded in the physical world of embodied activities.
In particular I want to emphasize the ways that representations of
the world are grounded in (what linguists call) "indexical" terms
such as "here".  Wireless devices afford mobility, but just for that
reason they pull computing loose from particular places.  This can
be a good thing, but it's also an illusion: computing always happens
somewhere in particular, and the particularity of places keeps on
reasserting itself.

One way to re-ground computing in particular places is with so-called
location-based services that know (1) the geographic coordinates of
the device and (2) the geographic coordinates of other people, places,
and things in the world that the device might wish to know about,
interact with, depend upon, hide from, or what have you.  This is not
indexicality because everything is referred back to an objective and
universal coordinate system.  This is cumbersome because someone must
maintain a database of locations; it invites invasions of privacy
based on tracking uses of that database; and it demands unreasonably
high levels of measurement accuracy in order to determine what is
close to what based on independently measured coordinates.

Bluetooth devices, however, ground computing in particular places.
They allow a portable device, for example, to adapt its functionality
to the devices around it.  This is indexical computing because the
functionality does not depend on "you're at 43N,12E and I'm at 43N12E
so we're close to each other" but rather on "you and I are both here
(wherever that is)".  We haven't begun to imagine the ways that a
device's functionality might depend on other devices around it, but
as the world becomes saturated with devices it's an area that we will
increasingly need to conceptualize.

Recommended: The Slumberjack Big Easy Chair.  I don't get along with
chairs very well.  I can't sit up straight to save my life, and I
don't like sitting at a desk.  I mostly work on a laptop, so the only
reason I need a desk is for storage.  After going through a series
of unsatisfactory working arrangements involving sofas, beds, floors,
and office chairs tipped back against walls, I found this chair in
a sporting goods store.  Its great virtue from my perspective is
that it holds my head up while I'm working, so that I can achieve
the transcendent state that Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) described:
complete loss of all muscle tone.  I don't know what my back is going
to think about this in the long run, but in the meantime it's clearly
making me more productive.  The company has a Web page for the chair
at <>, and I find
it works best if you get a (cheap) Quad Stool to use as a footrest:
<>.  Together they
cost something like $60.  On the topic of chairs and what's wrong with
them, see Galen Cranz, Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design,
Norton, 1998.  Not that I imagine Cranz would approve of this chair.

Recommended: Brad Mehldau, Elegaic Cycle.  Brad Mehldau is a rising
and much-celebrated jazz pianist.  When he's in his resting state he
has this Keith Jarrett thing going, which is fine given that Keith
Jarrett hasn't got it going any more.  But then he leans into it, and
jazz history starts to pass before your eyes, gnarly and complicated
and dissonant, moving in all kinds of directions without ever losing
that full-blown sense that you're listening to a song.  Intelligent and
unpretentious, like if you can imagine Cecil Taylor before he started
playing with his elbows, except he's in one of those deep meditative
states where the mountain is just a mountain.  There's an LA Weekly
article on him at <>.

Recommended: Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues.  My man Steve Earle is
in some kind of pain, but that's what the blues is for.  Having gotten
past the Southern-white-guy mythologies of earlier records, here he
is going for something much more ambitious: a reinvention of the blues
as a universal form that can absorb cultural dialogue without losing
its razor edge.  Thus the title of the record, transcendence referring
both to this artistic hybridization and to the pain that happens when
you push beyond internalized borders of any sort.  The record works
best in its psychedelic phases, piling on the guitars while remaining
recognizably the blues, at turns depressive and raucous, formulaic at
a few moments to be sure but infused with the energy of a guy who's
wasted enough of his life on drugs and jail and isn't going to waste
any more on half-assed music.

Not recommended: Steven Curtis Chapman, Speechless.  Long-timers will
remember my earlier recommendations of two records by the leading
figure in Christian rock, Steven Curtis Chapman.  Chapman is a test
case for my theory that all art is a collective product of a culture.
Talented people are needed to make good art, of course, but the talent
consists in channeling the energy of the culture.  No energy, no art.
After some terrible records, Chapman's breakthrough was a remarkably
political record called "Heaven in the Real World", which is, to my
knowledge, the only artistically successful right-wing rock album ever
made.  "Artistic success" here is relative; the work is not innovative
in musical terms, and has significant musical flaws, including some
thin songwriting.  Even so, the whole record pulses with a sense of
cultural excitement.  Christians have been excited about Jesus for a
long time, of course, but only occasionally do they evince a sense of
being a fresh and dynamic social movement.  That sense comes through
clearly in "Heaven in the Real World", and then even more strongly in
the first few songs of a more personal, less political record called
"Signs of Life".  In "Speechless", however, that's all gone.  It's a
strikingly monochromatic record that takes several listenings before
anything stands out from the overproduced blandness and underwritten

If my social theory of art can be applied on such a micro scale, which
is not at all clear, then this lousy record points to a decline in the
cultural energy of American religious conservatism.  In retrospect the
peak can be dated to about 1996, and then the air really went out when
the majority of Americans repudiated the impeachment campaign against
Bill Clinton that the religious conservatives had set their hearts on.
Clearly something did change: one sees much more of the long-standing
historical tendency of religious conservatives to separate themselves
from the culture rather than trying to fix it, and one also sees some
religious conservative leaders calling for a "long march through the
institutions" rather than an exclusive focus on direct political action.
But I don't think that's the whole story.  During the election campaign
so far, the Republican leadership has very clearly made a deal with the
religious conservative leadership to return to the "stealth" strategy
of low-visibility political activism in exchange for near-control of
the platform.  George Bush's language of "compassionate conservatism",
for example, comes from the editor of a breathtakingly far-right weekly
news magazine called "World".

So what does this mean for my theory?  Can a social movement decide
to hide its energy as a political tactic?  The leadership could decide
this, but not the fan base of a rock star.  But then the decline of
cultural energy might also mean that the movement is going mainstream.
The parallels with the New Left may be instructive.  In the 1970s
the New Left had just come off a string of enormous victories that
deeply changed not just the United States but the whole world.  Many
of these changes were then institutionalized and persist to this day.
Yet the New Left activists, as Michael Lerner has pointed out, were
overwhelmed with a sense of futility.  This "surplus powerlessness",
which was no doubt learned through genuine experiences of futility
in other settings, is obviously self-defeating, and unless overcome
it can cause social movements -- at least ones whose members have
internalized patterns of oppression -- to limit themselves.  Whether
this analysis applies to the religious conservative movement remains
to be seen.  It doesn't apply at all, of course, if you think that the
religious conservative movement is a fiction created by its nefarious
leadership.  And there does exist evidence for this view, such as the
discovery that the Christian Coalition had been inflating its numbers
by a large factor.  Even so, the reductionistic view is clearly false.
Even the New York Times has been at pains to remove the horns from
its representations of rank-and-file evangelicals, and we are surely
about to see certain aspects of religious conservative culture become
institutionalized in the United States.  One hopes that they are the
healthy aspects, and not the ones that the majority has so clearly and
rationally rejected.

My summary of Shirley Brice Heath's "Ways With Words" contrasted the
two cultures of language-use that she encountered in her fieldwork:
a black working-class culture of linguistic virtuosity and a white
middle-class culture of decontextualization.  Heath argued that the
local schools, by presupposing mastery of one culture and not the
other on day one, placed the children of the disfavored culture on
a downward spiral of educational underachievement that only the most
talented among them would overcome.  As to the cultures themselves,
I said this:

  Both language cultures are equally valuable, and each could be the
  basis for a wide range of practices in school.

I'm not sure how this could be any clearer, and yet the new jargon has
evidently made such concepts as equality almost unthinkable.  Several
people took me to be disparaging the culture of decontextualization,
and one correspondent in particular went on to refute my supposed bias
by disparaging the culture of linguistic virtuosity.  The projection
is obvious: my correspondent falsely accused me of his own prejudice.

This is common: when someone suggests that different cultures are
equal, falsely accuse them of disparaging the dominant culture.
This was one of the techniques of strident cultural warrior Lynne
Cheney's incredibly dishonest attack on the proposed national history
teaching standards of a few years ago.  The basic technique was,
starting from generic messages such as the projection described above,
to pick out "facts" that only seem to provide evidence for the message
if you are completely unaware of the nature of the document that the
"facts" describe.  The document in question, far from being a complete
textbook or set of curriculum plans, provided a set of illustrative
sample lessons, some of which happened to concern minorities.  And so
Cheney, without informing her audience of this, declaimed that those
particular minorities were mentioned much more often than various
important white people who didn't happen to be the subject of sample
lessons.  The charges of reverse discrimination and of major American
institutions being omitted, were utterly false, but the "facts" seemed
to speak for themselves.  I'm glad that we'll now have a chance to
revisit that particular episode, because it's such a perfect example
of the new jargon in action.

Here's a concept.  You'll recall that I sent out the introduction from
"Making the Case: Investigating Large Scale Human Rights Violations
Using Information Systems and Data Analysis", edited by Patrick Ball,
Herbert F. Spirer, and Louise Spirer.  Well, an RRE reader wrote that
she's using "Making the Case" in her class on information organization
together with another book that I've advertised here, "Sorting Things
Out: Classification and Its Consequences" by Geoffrey C. Bowker and
Susan Leigh Star.  It struck me that, indeed, one of the great virtues
of "Making the Case" is that you can use it as an introductory text on
systems analysis.  Thousands of classes on systems analysis are taught
every year, and I think it would be fascinating to assign "Making the
Case" in them.  You wouldn't remark on it.  Just assign the book and
work through the examples in class -- building databases to document
human rights atrocities -- as if they were any old random industrial
application.  A problem with much training in computer science is that
the real world is too far away.  One gets cleaned-up cartoon versions
of reality, with all of the human complexity and moral values removed.
Taking your examples from "Making the Case" would make clear that what
we do as technical people matters, and that we are responsible for it.

Although mainstream media reporting on the US presidential elections
remains just short of psychotic, it suddenly got a little better
during the Republican convention.  The sight of the overwhelmingly
white conservative delegates suffering through a lame "hip-hop" act
and a song in Spanglish was evidently too much even for the media's
otherwise compliant selves.  Or perhaps they could no longer overlook
the howling contradiction of the Republicans' claim to be running a
clean and positive campaign ("A New Tone") while presenting almost
nothing of substance except harsh attacks on the character of their
opponents.  This is an understandable strategy coming from a party
that is on the losing side of nearly every major issue; what's so
surprising is that its very existence can remain unremarked.  Having
reported the smears without question for months, however, suddenly
the dissonance has become too much, and amidst the chatter the press
even pointed out the numerous instances of plagiarism, falsehood, and
insults in George W. Bush's wearyingly committee-written acceptance

So there's hope.  Not much, but a little.

When I sent out Ben Sims' thesis conclusion, I neglected to mention
that he is now working at Los Alamos on a sociological study of safety
rules.  His address there is <> and I'm sure he'd like
to hear from people who found some interest in his conclusion.

I gather that a couple of people were obnoxed by the following passage
in my preface to Ben's conclusion:

  It's a lucid case study in the ways that technologies are embedded
  in their social context, and you should read it.  When he says
  "bridge", I want you to think "computer", and when he says
  "earthquake retrofit", I want you to think "Y2K retrofit".

Let me assure the obnoxed that I meant nothing hostile by telling you
what to read and think.  It was a joke.  You know, like ha-ha.

Some URL's.

SSL Server Security Survey

Network Advertising Initiative: Principles not Privacy

"Pinochet Effect" Spreading

transcript of injunction against Napster

More Web Site User Data Gathering Revealed

Use of HTTP State Management

Organizing Knowledge

"Open Source" Movement Said Ready to Bloom

Robertson Promises Voters Blitz by Right

Tobacco Industry Scheme Alleged

The Few, the Rich, the Rewarded Donate the Bulk of GOP Gifts

Jesus Day

Institutional Management in Higher Education

Located Accountabilities in Technology Production

Explorapedia Nature: Earth Rotates in Wrong Direction

Scientists Spot Achilles' Heel of the Internet