10 dezembro 2017

Translators are people who read books for us.

Gained in Translation - Tim Parks for the NYRB

“But isn’t it all just subjective?”
The scene is a Translation Slam, so-called. Two translators translate the same short passage and discuss their versions with a moderator in front of an audience of other translators. “Slam” suggests violent struggle and eventual victory or defeat. In reality, it’s all very polite and even protective. There will be no vote to decide which version wins. Nobody is going to be humiliated.

All the same, the question of which choice is better comes up again and again. Right now, we’re looking at the difference between “group” and “phalanx” in the phrases “commander of a group of loyal knights” and “commander of a phalanx of faithful men”—both translations of the Italian “comandante a una schiera di fedeli.”

The translator who has used “knights” explains that since the “commander” in question is King Arthur, the “fedeli” or “faithful” whom he commands would surely be the Knights of the Round Table. The translator who has used “phalanx” explains that the Italian word “schiera,” as he sees it, means men arranged in a particular formation or order. And a phalanx would be such a formation.

What about “faithful” and “loyal”? “Faithful” alliterates with “phalanx.” “Loyal” commonly collocates with “knights,” and perhaps borrows a corroborating aura from its assonance with “royal.”

We discuss all this for some time, until someone in the audience objects, “Isn’t it all just subjective?” Meaning, this debate is pointless. De gustibus non est disputandum. Once the literal meaning has been more or less respected, a translation choice, or indeed any literary usage or style, is merely a question of personal taste. You like it or you don’t.
The objection is persuasive, but is it true that aesthetic preferences are “just subjective?” We need to put some pressure on this idea. Does such a description match our experience of books, theater, films, and music? Not all our dealings with books are arbitrary. Young children tend to like a certain kind of story, a certain manner of storytelling, then they “grow out of it.” This or that narrative formula begins to seem too simple, perhaps. Adolescents might enjoy romance or fantasy fiction, then their accumulating experience leads them to look elsewhere. 

Two facts seem obvious here. Any element of choice is limited. The child cannot help first liking such and such a story, then eventually putting it aside. When your mother reads you Where the Wild Things Are, you are immediately hooked. Or not. So it’s true that one simply likes or doesn’t like something. You can’t choose to respond positively to “Earth hath not anything to show more fair” if it doesn’t grab you. And if you like Fifty Shades of Grey, you like it, even though it might be convenient to say you don’t.
But it’s also true that when preferences shift they do so for a reason, if not as a result of reasoning. Growing up, one brings more context and experience, more world, to one’s reading and this “more” changes one’s taste. We might even say this new experience changes the person and with the person the book. At this point, earlier preferences will likely be disparaged, or fondly set aside.

From this observation, it’s a small step to the idea of education and learning. I deliberately, systematically, increase my experience and knowledge in order to have a richer encounter with what I read. The appropriateness of this approach is obvious when, say, reading in a second language: I know enough French to read Bonjour Tristesse, perhaps, but not enough to appreciate Proust. Or when reading things from other times: I pick up The Faerie Queene and am soon aware that the experience would be less frustrating if I knew more about the period and the genre. Our responses and preferences are not arbitrary; they depend on what we bring to what we read or watch.

Does this mean we can say that this preference is better than that? Or that this critical reading is superior to another? Let’s go back to the Translation Slam. The passage we’re looking at is the opening, three short paragraphs, of L’isola di Arturo, by Elsa Morante, which was a major bestseller when it was published in 1957. The first thing that strikes the reader is the way a highly elaborate style, packed with parentheses, subordinates, and rhetorical outbursts, has been placed in the mouth of someone remembering what it was like to be a little boy. Here is an unapologetically literal translation of the first paragraph, to give you an idea:
One of my first boasts had been my name. I had soon learned (it was he, it seems to me, who was first to inform me of it) that Arturo is a star: the fastest and brightest light of the constellation of Boötes, in the northern sky! And that what’s more this name was also borne by a king of ancient times, commander of a band of loyal men: who were all heroes, like their king himself, and by their king treated as equals, like brothers.
As an evocation of childhood, this is hardly Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye. Or even David Copperfield. How to deal with it? One of the translators felt that the challenge of the Slam was to translate the passage in isolation, so he hasn’t, he tells us, looked up the novel or read any further. In the Italian, he finds the style over-elaborate in places; it needs reining in, he feels, because English doesn’t do these things.

The other translator says she initially felt disoriented by this extravagant voice and so found a copy of the novel and read on. What did she find? The narrator tells of his lonely boyhood on the island of Procida off the bay of Naples. His mother died at his birth. His father—who turns out to be the “he” of the second sentence—is mostly absent. Aided by a couple of elderly peasant folk, Arturo grows up in a house mysteriously known as the House of Rascals, in the company of a cheerful dog. The house is full of classical literature, myths and heroes and epic wars, which become the boy’s only education; so he spends his days in a fantasy world imagining grand exploits, beside his dog, in his Mediterranean paradise, yearning for the presence of a father, who, Ulysses-like, is always traveling. Alas, with time Arturo will discover that the reality behind the House of Rascals and his father’s absence is depressingly squalid. The book ends as he abandons his boyhood island for the continent of adulthood.

The elaborate nature of the style aligns with pleasurable illusion, pretensions, posturings, and boyish boasts that are inflated only to be later deflated and disappointed. Looking at the translations, one of the slammers has talked about being “proud of my name”; one has kept the idea of boasting. One has talked about Arturo being “the name of a star”; one has stayed closed to the original and said, “Arthur is a star.” One has simplified and shortened the paragraph; one hasn’t. Perhaps we can’t decide which of these two brief translations is better in absolute terms, as a passage in English, but we might begin to sense which is more in line with the book’s pattern of inflated illusion followed by disillusionment. And if we want to translate a book because we admire the original, perhaps that pattern is worth keeping. Fortunately, to warn us what she has in store, Morante gives us the emotional cadence of her story in miniature right on the first page. Thus the second paragraph, again in merely literal translation, begins:
Unfortunately, I later came to know that this famous Arturo king of Britain was not definite history, just legend; and so I left him aside for other more historical kings (in my opinion legends were childish things).
It is exactly the learning process we mentioned before. Discovery of the problem of historicity has altered Arturo’s appreciation of his name. But no sooner has the Camelot boast been shot down than the boy launches into another self-aggrandizing reflection:
But another reason, all the same, was enough to give, for me, a heraldic importance to the name Arturo: and that is, that to destine me this name (even without knowing, I think, its titled symbols) had been, I discovered, my mother. Who, in herself, was no more than an illiterate girl; but more than a queen, for me.
Of course, the verb “destine” is rarely used, aside from the past participle “destined,” and won’t do in a final translation, but I put it in this literal version to suggest just how much the narrator is puffing things up. One of our two translators felt this long sentence (which, in spite of the period, actually continues in the relative clause “Who, in herself,…”) was really too much; it was overheated, he thought, and manically indirect. In fact, both translators have split it into three, more standard segments. As if to show, though, that the overheating was precisely the point, Morante’s next paragraph again begins with a splash of cold water. Translated literally, we have:
About her, in reality, I have always known little, almost nothing: since she died, at the age of not even eighteen years, in the very moment that I, her first son, was born.
Have we done anything to counter the objection that response to translator choices are “just subjective,” and so beyond discussion? If we turn to the published translation (1959; by Isabel Quigly), we notice that our three paragraphs have been reduced to two; the boy’s disappointment that King Arthur was only legend is now included in the first paragraph, while the second begins with the fact that it was his mother who chose the name. At the same time, the register in this translation shifts radically toward something colloquial and recognizably boyish: “ages ago there was some king called Arthur as well… I thought legends were kid’s stuff… a sort of heraldic ring.”

Here we have neither the rhetorical puffing-up of the boyish boast, nor the paragraph interruption that underlines its deflation. This observation is not subjective, any more than it is subjective to say that “phalanx” is a word generally used in the context of ancient Greece rather than ancient Britain. It’s true, though, that we might find, in spite of these observations, that we prefer Quigly’s version. There is no reasoning that can make us like or dislike something. But with the knowledge we now have of the original, we might also wonder how Quigly’s different, more laconic voice can possibly be made to fit with the story that is going to be told. Just as, once it is pointed out, you might start to feel that Arthur’s knights are not the 300 Spartans.

Translating literature is not always more difficult than translating other texts—tourist brochures, technical manuals, art catalogues, sales contracts, and the like. But it does have this distinguishing characteristic: its sense is not limited to a simple function of informing or persuading, but rather thrives on a superabundance of possible meanings, an openness to interpretation, an invitation to measure what is described against our experience. This is stimulating. The more we bring to it, the more it offers, with the result that later readings will be different from the first in a way that is hardly true of a product description or city guide.  

Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.






15 setembro 2017

Greek philosopher or ailment? The Art of Wrong Hands


Translating and Being Translated

by Primo Levi. Translated by Harry Thomas, found at Berfrois


Genesis tells us that the first men had only one language: this made them so ambitious and powerful they began building a tower high into the sky. God was offended by their audacity and punished them subtly: not with lightning, but by confounding their language, and so making it impossible for them to go on with their blasphemous work. A not casual parallel to this tale, which comes just before it in the text, is that of original sin and its punishment by expulsion from Eden. One can conclude that from the earliest times linguistic differences were felt as a curse.
And a curse they still are, as anyone knows who has to stay, or worse, to work, in a country in which one doesn’t know the language, or who has had to contend with learning a foreign language as an adult when the mysterious material in which meaning does its work gets more refractory. Besides, on a level more or less conscious, many regard someone who speaks another language as a foreigner by definition, the stranger, the “alien,” the different from me, and the different is a potential enemy, or at least a barbarian: that is, etymologically, a stammerer, one who doesn’t know how to speak, an almost non-human. In this way, linguistic discord tends to become racial and political discord, another of our curses.
It ought to follow that those who exercise the trade of translator or of interpreter should feel honored because they exert themselves to limit the damage of the curse of Babel. But this seldom happens, because translating is difficult, and therefore the result of the translator’s work is often unsatisfactory. A vicious circle is born: the translator is badly paid, and whoever might be or become a good translator seeks a more profitable occupation.
Translating is difficult work because the barriers between languages are larger than we commonly think. Dictionaries, especially pocket dictionaries for tourists, can be useful for basic needs, but they represent a dangerous source of illusions, which can also be said of the those multilingual electronic devices that have been available for some years now. There is seldom a true equivalence between a word in the language one is moving from and the language one is moving to. Their respective meanings may partly overlap, but they rarely coincide, even when the languages are structurally similar and historically related.
The Italian invidia carries a more specialized meaning than the French envie, which also signifies desire, or the Latin invidia, a word that includes hatred, aversion, as witnessed by the Italian adjective inviso. It is possible that this family of words began by expressing ill-seeing, both in the sense of causing damage by watching, that is, by casting a spell, and of feeling uneasiness when watching someone we dislike, someone we “cannot see,” non possiamo vedere, as one says in Italian, but that later this family slid off in a different direction.
There do not seem to be any languages with closely defined word meanings or indeed any with broadly defined word meanings: the whole thing is always a mess. The Italian fregare has at least seven meanings; the English to get is really without meaning; Stuhl in German is chair, but also, by way of a chain of metaphorical associations that are easy to retrieve, excrement. Italian appears to be the only language that distinguishes piume (down) and penne (feathers); French, English, and German do not, and in German Feder refers to at least four different objects: a feather, down, a pen, and any kind of spring.
Other traps for translators are the so-called false friends. For remote historical reasons (which may be interesting to trace, case by case), or deriving from a single misunder-standing, some words in one language can turn up in another with completely different meanings. In German, Stipendium is scholarship, Statist is theater company, Kantine is cafeteria, Kapelle is orchestra, Konkurs is failure, Konzept is draft copy, and Konfetti is confetti.
French macarons are not macaroni but macaroons. In English, aperitif, sensible, ejaculation, apology, compass do not mean, as an Italian might think at first sight, aperitivo, sensibile, eiaculazione, apologia, and compasso. Second mate is the third officer. An engineer is not an ingegnere, but someone who deals with engines, which explains how, in the years after World War II, an aristocratic lady from southern Italy married a train conductor in the United States on the basis of a statement made in good faith but sadly misunderstood.
I am not fortunate enough to know Romanian, a language that linguistic experts love passionately, but I am told that it is full of false friends, and it is a real mine field for translators, if it is true that friptura means a roast, suflet is soul, dezmierda means to stroke, an indispensabili are underpants. Any one of these terms waits in ambush for the careless or inexperienced translator, and it is amusing to think that the trap works both ways: a German risks mistaking a statista, an Italian statesman, for an actor with a small part.
Other traps for the translator are idiomatic expressions, present in every language but specific to each. Some are easy to interpret or else so bizarre as to alert even a neophyte translator. When translating it’s raining cats and dogs into Italian, nobody, I think, would lightheartedly write that piovono cani e gatti instead of piove a dirotto, even though in some other contexts a sentence may get confused with standard speech and so be translated literally, as when, in the rendering of a novel from English, one reads in Italian, with interest, of a respectable dowager who has a skeleton in her cupboard, which is indeed possible, though unusual.
A writer who does not want to embarrass his or her translators should refrain from using idiomatic expressions, but this is hard, because all of us, when we speak and when we write, come up with these turns of phrase without thinking. There is nothing more natural for an Italian than saying siamo a posto (we are fine), fare fiasco (to fail), farsi vivo (to keep in touch), rendere un granchio (to make a mistake), non posso vederlo (I can’t stand him), and hundreds of other similar expressions. Yet they are meaningless to a foreigner, and not all of them are in bilingual dictionaries. Even asking someone’s age is an idiomatic expression: an Englishman or a German asks how you are, which sounds ridiculous to an Italian, especially if the question is addressed to a child.
Other difficulties are generated by the use, in every language, of localisms. Every Italian knows what Juventus is, and every Italian reader of newspapers is aware of what Quirinale, Farnesina, Piazza del Gesu and via delle Botteghe Oscure stand for. But the translator of an Italian text who has not been immersed in our affairs will be puzzled, and no dictionary will help. What will help the translator (if he has it) is his linguistic sensitivity—the translator’s strongest weapon. But this sensitivity cannot be taught in school any more than the ability to write verse or compose music can be taught. Linguistic sensitivity enables the translator to take on the personality of the author, to identify with the author, and alerts him when something in the text doesn’t seem right, doesn’t work, doesn’t read well, doesn’t make sense, or comes across as redundant or inconsistent. When this happens, it may be the author’s fault, but more often than not it is a warning: some of the traps described above are there, invisible but with jaws gaping.
But to be a good translator it is not enough to avoid snares. The task is more demanding: to transfer the expressive energy of the text to another language is super-human work, so much so that some well-known translations (like the translation of the Odyssey into Latin and the Bible into German) have been turning points in the history of our civilization.
However, because a text is generated by a profound interaction between the creative talent of the author and the language he uses, every translation involves inevitable loss, just like when you change currency. This loss may be great or small, depending on the translator’s skills and the nature of the original text. It is usually minimal with technical or scientific texts (but here the translator, in addition to speaking both languages, has to understand what he is translating: in other words, he needs a third expertise), but it is greatest with poetry (what is left of Dante’s e vegno in parte ove non e che luca if it becomes I come to a dark place or, in Italian, vengo in un luogo buio?)
All these “cons” can frighten and dishearten any aspiring translator, but one can throw a few “pros” into the mix. Apart from being civilized peaceful work, translating can bring unique rewards: the translator is the only one to really read the text, to read it in depth, in all its nuances, weighing and appreciating every word and every image, or perhaps detecting voids and untruths. When the translator manages to come up with or even to invent a solution for a crux, he feels godlike, without the responsibility that burdens the author. In this sense, the joys and efforts of translating compared to creative writing are like the joys and efforts of grandparents compared to those of parents.
Many authors, both ancient and modern (Catullus, Foscolo, Baudelaire, Pavese), translated texts that were congenial to them, getting joy out of it for themselves and for their readers, and often achieving the happy state of mind of someone who takes time out to devote himself to a job different from the one he does every day.
It is worth saying a few words about the situation of the author when he is translated. Being translated is neither a weekday nor a holiday job; actually, it is not a job at all, it is a semi-passive state similar to that of a patient on a surgeon’s operating table or on the psychoanalyst’s couch, though it is a state filled with strong and contradictory emotions.
When the author comes across a passage of his work translated into a language he knows, the author feels—one at a time or all at once—flattered, betrayed, ennobled, x-rayed, castrated, flattened, raped, adorned, killed. It is rare that an author remains indifferent toward a translator, however renowned or unknown, who has stuck his nose and fingers into the author’s guts: the author would like to send the translator—one at a time or all at once—the author’s heart (carefully packed), a check, a laurel wreath, or the mafia’s enforcers.

“Tradurre ed essere tradotti” appeared first in Levi’s column in La Stampa, the Turin newspaper, then in the collection of Levi’s articles, L’altrui mestiere (1985).

17 agosto 2017

The Most Iconic Books Set in 150 Countries

Click to access Global English Editing's blog and full explanation on books selected by country.



Eliminating the Human, by David Byrne, with mention to António Damásio

Click to read fully at David Byrne's website.

I have a theory that much recent tech development and innovation over the last decade or so has had an unspoken overarching agenda—it has been about facilitating the need for LESS human interaction. It’s not a bug—it’s a feature. We might think Amazon was about selling us books we couldn’t find locally—and it was and what a brilliant idea—but maybe it was also just as much about eliminating human interaction. I see a pattern emerging in the innovative technology that has gotten the most attention, gets the bucks and often, no surprise, ends up getting developed and implemented. What much of this technology seems to have in common is that it removes the need to deal with humans directly. The tech doesn’t claim or acknowledge this as its primary goal, but it seems to often be the consequence. I’m sort of thinking maybe it is the primary goal. There are so many ways imagination can be manifested in the technical sphere. Many are wonderful and seem like social goods, but allow me a little conspiracy mongering here—an awful lot of them have the consequence of lessening human interaction.
I suspect that we almost don’t notice this pattern because it’s hard to imagine what an alternative focus of tech development might be. Most of the news we get barraged with is about algorithms, AI, robots and self driving cars, all of which fit this pattern, though there are indeed many technological innovations underway that have nothing to do with eliminating human interaction from our lives. CRISPR-cas9 in genetics, new films that can efficiently and cheaply cool houses and quantum computing to name a few, but what we read about most and what touches us daily is the trajectory towards less human involvement. Note: I don’t consider chat rooms and product reviews as “human interaction”; they’re mediated and filtered by a screen.
I am not saying these developments are not efficient and convenient; this is not a judgement regarding the services and technology. I am simply noticing a pattern and wondering if that pattern means there are other possible roads we could be going down, and that the way we’re going is not in fact inevitable, but is (possibly unconsciously) chosen.
Here are some examples of tech that allows for less human interaction:

Online ordering and home delivery- Online ordering is hugely convenient. Amazon, FreshDirect, Instacart, etc. have not just cut out interactions at bookstores and checkout lines, they have eliminated ALL human interaction barring the (often paid) online recommendations. New York has had home take-out delivery for decades—one simply phones the local take-out place—but New York also has never had a shortage of random human interaction.
Here’s an Amazon warehouse in Peterborough, Cambridge. Increasingly the picking is done by a combination of humans working with robots. (...)

Gig Jobs- TaskRabbit and other services—there are people who perform these tasks in the gig economy, but as a client one does not necessarily have to interact with them in a meaningful way.
Airbnb- There is no check-in desk interaction; often there is no human contact at all.
Digital music- Downloads and streaming—there is no physical store, of course, so there are no snobby, know-it-all clerks to deal with. Whew, you might say. There are algorithmic recommendations on some services so you don’t even have to discuss music with your friends to know what they like—the service knows what they like, and you can know too without actually talking to them. Is music as a kind of social glue and lubricant also being eliminated?
Car driver apps- There is minimal interaction—one doesn’t have to tell the driver the address, the preferred route or interact while paying the check.
Driverless cars- In one sense, if you’re out with your friends, not having one of you drive means more time to chat. Or drink. Very nice. But driverless tech is also very much aimed at eliminating taxi drivers, truck drivers, delivery drivers and many others. There are huge advantages to eliminating humans here—theoretically machines should drive more safely than humans—so there might be fewer accidents and fatalities. The disadvantages include massive job loss. But that’s another subject. What I’m seeing here is the consistent “eliminating the human” pattern.
Automated checkout- Eatsa is a new version of the Automat, a once popular “restaurant” with no visible staff. My local CVS has been training their staff to help us learn to use the checkout machines which will replace them. At the same time, they are training their customers to do the work of the cashiers.

Amazon has been testing stores—even grocery stores!—with automated shopping. They’re called Amazon Go. If the items are placed perfectly on the shelves, then sensors know what you’ve picked up, and you can simply walk out with your “purchases” without any human contact. But they still need to get quite a few bugs out.
At some airports, one orders and pays via tablets—that system has some bugs in it too. I watched a lot of people simply walk away in frustration, but those bugs will get sorted someday soon.

Online Art Sales- Art is increasingly being sold online, so one can avoid any possible awkward encounters with intimidating gallery staff.
eBay- “Auctions” without the human drama and excitement.

AI- AI is often (though not always) truly better at decision-making than humans. In some areas, we might expect this. For example, AI will suggest the fastest route on a map accounting for traffic and distance while we as humans wouldn’t have the time to check all that traffic data, and we’d be prone to taking our tried and true route. But some less expected areas where AI is better than humans are opening up. As Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in The New Yorker, AI is getting better at spotting melanomas than many doctors. Much routine legal work will soon be done by computer programs and financial assessments are now being done by machines.

Robot workforce- A little distinct from AI, robots are physical machines. Factories increasingly have fewer and fewer workers, which means no personalities to deal with, no workers agitating for overtime, and no illnesses. Using robots avoids an employer’s need to think about worker's comp/liability, healthcare, social security and medicare taxes and unemployment benefits.

Personal assistants- Google Home and Amazon Echo—with improved speech recognition, one can increasingly talk to a machine rather than a person. (There is the attendant question of whether these machines are always listening and possibly recording or at least tabulating one’s speech. Even when not officially addressed, an “offline” discussion might be used to improve a recommendation, for example). Amusing stories abound as the bugs get worked out. The child who says “Alexa, I want a dollhouse”... and lo and behold the parents find one in their cart. When this story became an online viral news item, the news segment replayed the girl’s request, and soon a lot of people with Amazon Echos had dollhouses in their carts.
Data analysis of behavior- Improvements and innovations in crunching massive amounts of data mean that patterns can be recognized where they weren’t seen previously. “Trust the data, not your lying eyes.” We will come to trust the gleanings from data crunching more than we do ourselves and our human colleagues and friends.
Video games (and VR)- Yes, some online games are interactive—but most are played in a room by one person jacked into the game—the interaction is virtual.
Automated high-speed stock buying and selling- A machine crunching huge amounts of data can spot trends and patterns quickly and act on them faster than a person can.

MOOCS- Online education, with no direct teacher interaction.

Lastly, "Social" media- social “interaction” that isn’t really social.
While the appearance on social networks is one of connection—as Facebook and others frequently claim—the fact is a lot of social media is a simulation of real social connection. As has been in evidence recently, social media actually increases divisions amongst us by amplifying echo effects and allowing us to live in cognitive bubbles. We are fed what we already like or what our similarly inclined friends like… or more likely now what someone has payed for us to see in an ad that mimics content. In this way, we actually become less connected except to those in our group.
Social networks also increase envy and unhappiness. From a recent study:
“The challenge is that most of the work on social interaction has been conducted using ‘real world,’ face-to-face social networks, in contrast to the types of online relationships that are increasingly common.
Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”
While claiming to connect us, the sad and surely unintended effect is that they also drive us apart. This, in my opinion, is partly due to pandering to the pleasure one gets from only hearing things you agree with, but it’s also because the social connection was never real, it was virtual—not between real people but between their online selves.
The counterargument to the dangers of social media has been “look at Arab Spring”. Yes, social media was a much used tool to spread news and to alert, but can social media be credited with facilitating the uprising? The answer is complicated, and there are various points of view.
It seems that an equally important factor in the rise and manifestation was how well-organized the groups were. And we can’t forget that it’s a two way street—social media was also used by the oppressive regimes to tack down and locate the resistance.
“‘High risk’ social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”
Many transformative movements in the past succeed based on leaders, agreed upon principles and organization. Although social media is a great tool for rallying people and bypassing government channels, it does not guarantee eventual success.
Social media is not really social—ticking boxes and having followers and getting feeds is NOT being social—it's a screen simulation of human interaction. Human interaction is much more nuanced and complicated than what happens online. Engineers like things that are quantifiable. Smells, gestures, expression, tone of voice, etc. etc.—in short, all the various ways we communicate are VERY hard to quantify, and those are often how we tell if someone likes us or not.
Why this focus on bypassing humans?
There are lots of reasons one might want to avoid human interaction:
1. Human interaction is perceived as complicated, inefficient, noisy and slow.
2. Less human interaction makes for cheaper manufacturing, services and exchange. It’s good, at least in the short run, for the bosses, owners and investors.
3. We’re told that automation means we won’t have to work at menial tasks any more. We’ll have more leisure time—though how we’ll make a living is a looming question.
4. Engineers and coders as people are often less than comfortable with human interaction, so naturally they are making a world that is more accommodating to themselves.
This last one might be a bit contentious, but hear me out. My theory is that much tech was coded and created by folks somewhere on the spectrum (I should know—I’m different now, but I used to find most social interactions terrifying). Therefore, for those of us who used to or who do find human interactions awkward and uncomfortable, there would naturally be an unconscious drive to make our own lives more comfortable—why wouldn’t we? One way for an engineer to do that would be to remove as much human interaction from their life, and therefore also our lives, as possible. Part of something being “frictionless” is getting the human part out of the way.
Humans are capricious, erratic, emotional, irrational and biased in what sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. Some claim that the survival of humans depends on us giving some control over to the machines—we seem to be botching the CO2 emission control issue pretty badly, for example. It often seems that our emotional, quick-thinking and selfish nature will be our downfall. There are lots of arguments for getting humans out of the equation, but many might not admit that it is a conscious goal. The stated goal might be finding melanomas or ordering groceries, not eliminating human interaction.
I’m also not saying that any of these apps and tech are not hugely convenient, clever or efficient. I use many of them. But from the automated checkout lines to self-driving cars, I see a trend that is accelerating, and I sense that as it does, human interaction will become rarer and therefore increasingly more difficult for people—not just people on the spectrum, but for all of us.
Is there a downside?
Obviously jobs are a big question mark. When people become superfluous, what do they do for a living? Two MIT faculty members claim that productivity has become “decoupled” from wages and employment. We’re becoming more efficient but don’t need as many people.

My dad was an electrical engineer—I love the engineer's’ way of looking at the world. I myself applied to both art school AND to engineering school (my frustration was that there was little or no cross-pollination. I was told at the time that taking classes in both disciplines would be VERY difficult). I am familiar with and enjoy both the engineer's mindset and the arty mindset (and I’ve heard that now mixing one’s studies is not as hard as it used to be).
The point is not that making a world to accommodate oneself is bad, but that when one has as much power over the rest of the world as the tech sector does, over folks who don’t naturally share its worldview, then there is a risk of a strange imbalance. The tech world is predominantly male—very much so. Testosterone combined with a drive to eliminate as much interaction with real humans as possible—do the math, and there’s the future.
We’ve gotten used to service personnel and staff who have no interest or participation in the businesses where they work. They have no incentive to make the products or the services better. This is a long legacy of the assembly line, standardising, franchising and other practices that increase efficiency and lower costs. It’s a small step then from a worker that doesn’t care to a robot. To consumers, it doesn’t seem like a big loss.
Those who oversee the AI and robots will, not coincidentally, make a lot of money as this trend towards less human interaction continues and accelerates—as many of the products produced above are hugely and addictively convenient. Google, Facebook and other companies are powerful and yes, innovative, but the innovation curiously seems to have had an invisible trajectory. Our imaginations are constrained by who and what we are. We are biased in our drives, which in some ways is good, but maybe some diversity in what influences the world might be reasonable and may be beneficial to all.
To repeat what I wrote above—humans are capricious, erratic, emotional, irrational and biased in what sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. I’d argue that though those might seem like liabilities, many of those attributes actually work in our favor. Many of our emotional responses have evolved over millennia, and they are based on the probability that our responses, often prodded by an emotion, will more likely than not offer the best way to deal with a situation.
Neuroscientist António Damásio wrote about a patient he called Elliot, who had damage to his frontal lobe that made him unemotional. In all other respects he was fine—intelligent, healthy—but emotionally he was Spock. Elliot couldn’t make decisions. He’d waffle endlessly over details. Damásio concluded that though we think decision-making is rational and machinelike, it’s our emotions that enable us to actually decide.
With humans being somewhat unpredictable (well, until an algorithm completely removes that illusion), we get the benefit of surprises, happy accidents and unexpected connections and intuitions. Interaction, cooperation and collaboration with others multiplies those opportunities.
We’re a social species—we benefit from passing discoveries on, and we benefit from our tendency to cooperate to achieve what we cannot alone. In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari claims this is what allowed us to be so successful. He also claims that this cooperation was often facilitated by a possibility to believe in “fictions” such as nations, money, religions and legal institutions. Machines don’t believe in fictions, or not yet anyway. That’s not to say they won’t surpass us, but if machines are designed to be mainly self-interested, they may hit a roadblock. If less human interaction enables us to forget how to cooperate, then we lose our advantage.
Our random accidents and odd behaviors are fun—they make life enjoyable. I’m wondering what we’re left with when there are fewer and fewer human interactions. Remove humans from the equation and we are less complete as people or as a society. “We” do not exist as isolated individuals—we as individuals are inhabitants of networks, we are relationships. That is how we prosper and thrive.


19 maio 2017

08 março 2017

International Women's Day 2017



It Seems to Me: What young women may not know

by / Sharon Weeks

It came to my attention recently, after the March on Washington, that many young women are completely satisfied with their lives right now. I will refer to this as their “status quo.” But first a crash course in women’s history and a mention of many past marches and the influence they have had. I beg them, and you, to read on.
One thing I want to point out, as I am going to discuss women’s rights from more than a hundred years ago to 2017, is what I think these young women are missing. Women’s history has been basically excluded from the classroom text books in public schools. Many people are not aware that a select group of white men, a board of education in Texas, has been charged with the job of editing all of the history textbooks for decades. Their editing is final. (See Bill Moyers, “Messing with Textbooks,” June 2012)
That is the reason you probably didn’t know that in the 1870s women could not own property, could not sign contracts, could not vote, file law suits, nor have their own money. Under their father’s roof, he had control and that control was passed to her husband upon marriage. A woman running away from violent domestic abuse was hunted down by the law and returned to her husband as she was his property.
From the 1840s to 1920 women fought for the vote. The struggle to gain the right to vote began nearly 200 years ago. Attempts to vote in 1870 were turned away. The Supreme Court ruled against them in 1875. In 1916 Alice Paul formed the National Women’s Party. They marched. Over 200 supporters were arrested while picketing the White House. They were beaten with clubs and thrown in prison. Some went on hunger strikes and endured forced feedings. Forty prison guards wielding clubs went on a rampage against 33 women known as the “Night of Terror” on Nov. 15, 1917. (See HBO movie, “Iron Jawed Angels”).
In the 1960s women fought for birth control. It was illegal in many parts of the country then, you see. Margaret Sanger, a pioneer in the struggle for a woman’s right to birth control in an era “when it was illegal to discuss the topic,” was arrested many times for her publications and her New York City clinic.
Civil rights marches (1960s)
Again people were beaten, drowned and hanged. Because of the media, there was more attention and the marches for these rights were better known. After the Civil War, the 14th and 15th amendments adopted in 1868 and 1878 granted citizenship and suffrage to blacks, but not to women. A suffrage amendment to the federal Constitution was presented to Congress and repeatedly failed to pass.
1972: Title IX is a landmark federal civil right that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Title IX is not just about sports and it protects all students; the federal government threatened to stop aid to all public schools that did not correct this.
1973: Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal and safe. Women stopped dying from abortions. The government is planning to stop funding for Planned Parenthood and tens of thousands of women will not only lose coverage for basic health care, but they will also no longer have access to birth control. That pretty much means there will be more unwanted pregnancies and if Roe vs. Wade is overturned, which seems likely with the appointment of a new Supreme Court judge by this administration, there will be more women dying from abortions again.
Gay rights marches
Again people were beaten and killed, even when not participating in marches, but while just trying to live their lives like people of color before them. Eventually gains were made and gays were given the right to marry and the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples. LGBT people and their rights are now being subject to reversal.
Now it is 2017 and people are marching. Women, their husbands, children and fathers descended upon Washington, D.C., to march for women’s rights. There were people marching in 57 other countries around the world. They marched for women who still make less money than men for the same work; for Muslim women and their families who fear deportation and being sent back to the terribly dangerous places they were trying so hard to flee; for Mexican families who live in fear of being deported and being torn from their children; and to raise awareness for women in other countries who have few, if any, rights.
Every march, every right that was fought for, that women died for, was for your “status quo,” for the life you have now, that you take for granted. Please know that every one of these rights that let you live the life you have can be erased with the swipe of a pen. Don’t let all those who died, the fighting and suffering be for naught.
Guess what? The Equal Rights Amendment did not pass. It won the two-thirds vote from the House of Representatives in October 1971. In March of 1972 it was approved by the Senate and sent to the states for ratification. It failed to achieve ratification by 38, or three-quarters, of the states. It was not brought to a vote again.
Because of that rejection, sexual equality, with the exception of when it pertains to the right to vote, is not protected by the Constitution. However, in the late 20th century the federal government and all states have passed legislation protecting women’s rights. These protections are not amendments to the Constitution. They, too, can be wiped away with the swipe of a pen.
Please don’t be complacent and too comfortable with your life. Be aware of what has happened over the years, decades and literally centuries to get you here. Women fought and died. People march to make other people aware; pay attention, please, lest you lose it all. Lest we all lose it all.

Leader Telegram, from Wisconsin, USA, of all places :)

25 janeiro 2017

The HistoMap

Courtesy of the the David Rumsey Map Collection online and zoomable :)