Monday, December 15, 2003

Is This the Right Room for an Argument?
I got into a week-long email argument with a friend last week. There were two threads to it: computers and politics. As always happens when I argue with Billie, I learned a lot, but I don't think either of us budged much, if at all, from our original perspectives. Rather, we settled in to our stances even more solidly. I'm a big believer that you don't really know what you believe until you're forced to defend it, so this was a valuable exercise. What did I learn? Read on, dear readers, for the story of how my head got lodged even further in my own navel.

Billie's a big proponent of defenestration, in the figurative, rather than literal sense. Most of us have experienced a yearning to throw a computer out of a window, but Billie wants to get Windows out of computers. He feels about Microsoft the way I feel about Wal-mart (i.e. the social costs are too large to be ignored, but often are), which gave us a common ground to work from. In the end, we agreed on quite a bit: that Microsoft is often a bad corporate citizen, that Windows isn't all it's cracked up to be, competition is good for software, and that Linux isn't just for hardcore geeks. But there were a couple of gaps we couldn't seem to bridge. For one thing, an old, dear friend of mine works for Microsoft and is vested there, so I want them to do well because I want her to do well. When I think of Microsoft failing, the first thing I think of is Michelle's retirement, and that takes all the fun out of my schadenfreude.

The other gap had to do with my personal behavior. In the abstract, I think Linux is great. But I bought a new PC a while back, it came with Windows XP installed, and I've left it that way. The fact is, I looked at Lindows PCs, I looked at blank PCs, I even looked at building my own from spare parts. The cheapest, best deal I could get was a Dell with lots of installed software, including XP. Of course, I could have wiped and partitioned the hard drive then stuck Linux on there, but I didn't. For the past six months or so, I had had a dual-boot system running Linux and Windows 98, and used Linux all the time. Or at least it seemed like I did. But when I took the hard drive out of that machine and stuck it in my new one, I had a choice: install Linux so that I could read the stuff I wrote to those sectors, or just wipe the drive after I took all the data I needed off the Windows partition. I went with door number two after realizing that there wasn't a bit of data on the Linux partition that I really cared about.

So, while I'd recommend Linux to someone setting up their first computer and to anyone for whom their computer is a hobby, I'm not sure about those of us in the middle. When I'm not at work, about all I use a computer for is writing and processing images (apart from the usual stuff like porn, stealing music, and games), and Linux doesn't have that much of an advantage over Windows in those areas. I'm sure it would use my computer's resources more efficiently, but I'm more concerned with my time and energy than my computer's and it takes a lot of time and energy to learn a new OS.

Let's say there are two ways of doing a thing, Method X and Method Y. If I'm already familiar with Method X, then Y better have some sort of competitive advantage if it wants my attention, because there's significant personal inertia to overcome. Linux' advantages are either abstract or aesthetic, which doesn't have enough pull to draw me over the wall from WindowsWorld, where I've been for many years. Reminds me of the old saw that it takes four times as much information to change a person's mind as it did to make it up in the first place.

Now, onto politics, and, again, too much personal context. Long time gone, I was doing advanced studies in literary theory at the same time the woman I was living with was doing advanced studies in molecular biology. It was a charming, magical time. We'd sit down for dinner, and neither of us would understand a word the other had said after 'So, what did you do today, dear?' I'm sure somewhere in my notebooks from that time is an attempt to merge our disciplines in a poem, rhyming mimesis with electrophoresis. But I digress.

We both had plenty of drama in our lives, but hers was about research results and grant proposals, maybe the occasional lab fire. Mine was all faculty feuds and ad hominem attacks. Nobody in Science called their opponent a bastard (the most they'd say is that their methodology was questionable), but PMLA articles got downright nasty. Having a sweet disposition at heart, I envied the collegiality of her chosen discipline, and wondered why English couldn't be that way.

In the end, I pulled a metaphor from biology and decided that it was all about available resources and territory. Biology, being an actual science, gets funding from government and corporations, while the humanities, for the most part, don't. So our resources were limited, and getting more so every year. Biology had the entire biosphere as its territory, and since each question answered produced five more that needed answering, the territory was expanding every year. The territory of literary theory, on the other hand, consisted largely of imaginary roads connecting castles built in the air. Or, at least, that was what we called it. In reality, the ivory tower we wanted to imagine ourselves standing atop was bricked with human beings, and it took a good deal of clambering and clawing just to hold your position.

And then there's the fact that biology is hard, while English is easy, so that there are many more English majors pumped out into the world than there are available resources for them. And since we don't taste very good, we were forced to cull our own herd. That's a recipe for a nasty and contentious environment.

All this is compounded by the fact that biology is, ultimately, grounded in a world that is very much real, while English is built of words on top of words, so that it takes quite a bit of digging before you hit terra firma. When two biologists disagree, they go to the data. If the data is ambiguous, they design an experiment to clear up the ambiguity. In literary theory, there is no unambiguous reality to which we can appeal, so we have two choices: attack the reasoning, or attack the person. And then the postmodernists discovered a wonderful technique: If someone attacked your reasoning, you attacked reason itself as racist, or classist, or whatever. That pretty much left the adhominem as the only available weapon, poor one though it is.

What's the connection to politics? Power, the resource politicians feed on, is bleeding into the media, technology companies, corporations and god knows where else. So we have diminishing resources. But the money is growing as our economy grows, which draws in the corporations, who hire lobbyists who are, in essence, unelected politicians, who then try to get their hands on as much power as possible so that they can then extract as much money from the system as possible. So we have a growing population.

But what's the territory? As we watch politicians comment on everything from commerce to education to entertainment, with side trips into technology, religion, medicine, etc., and it's pretty clear that the territory of politics is whatever the politicians say it is. In other words: words, words, words.

Sure, you could argue that there is a real world out there being effected by politics. Heck, I'd even agree with you. But our political reality is one that dismisses stories about the unemployed as "anecdotal evidence", discounts economic statistics as "fuzzy math" or cooks their own version of the books using wildly optimistic assumptions, invites industry-supported "independent" scientists to respond to decades of research by reputable scientists, or, if nothing else works, lie. And they've learned that if you tell a lie loudly enough, and get enough people to stand behind you and nod, then the media will report it with the weight of truth.

That's a recipe for some ugly fights, so it's no surprise we're getting them.

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