Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric and writing.
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Pannapacker on academic woe

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William Pannapacker will soon be leaving academia. He writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education about being “Tenured, Trapped, and Miserable in the Humanities”:
How many of us understood what we were embarking upon when we decided to become professors? How could we even grasp the accelerating rate of change in higher education: neoliberal managerial approaches; part-time, no-benefit, transient adjunct teaching; the uncapping of mandatory retirement and the graying of the profession; the withdrawal of state funding; the endless political attacks from all directions; the unsustainable increases in student debt; and, with all that, declining enrollments in any field that does not lead directly and obviously to employment?

Even now, in my experience, if you point out these trends, you risk being accused by students of “crushing their dreams” and by colleagues, in effect, of “disrupting the Ponzi.”
I would never have called myself trapped or miserable. (Tenured, yes!) But life in academia ain’t what it used to be, if indeed it ever was. Something I wrote to a colleague not long ago:
I think every day about how fortunate I am to be retired, and how fortunate I was to be in on many good years of English studies. Any of us who were in there beat some long odds, getting longer all the time.
[Pannapacker’s celebrated Chronicle piece “Remedial Civility Training” should be required reading in college. It’s back behind the Chronicle paywall, but you can read a long excerpt in this blog post. The whole piece is also here.]
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betajames
16 days ago
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Katharine Hayhoe: We think of climate change as a separate issue on our priority...

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Katharine Hayhoe:

We think of climate change as a separate issue on our priority list, but the only reason you care about climate change is because of what’s already at the top of your list – keeping your job, taking care of your family, worrying about your health, worrying about your kids, worrying about the place where you live – whatever it is that you’re already worrying about.

When you are taking action for climate, it’s not for climate change, it’s for you. It’s for your family, it’s for everything you love, everyone you love, every place that you love – that’s why you’re doing it. There’s a significant mind shift there, so that we don’t see it as an extra “to do” on our list.

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16 days ago
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Weekly Review

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After three months of negotiations, the United States House of Representatives passed a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that, among other goals, aims to improve public transportation; expand broadband internet access; establish a Women of Trucking Advisory Board, motivated in part by findings that female truck drivers are 20 percent less likely than their male counterparts to be involved in a crash; and impose the same taxes on cryptocurrencies as on stocks and other securities.1 2 3 4 The “play-to-earn” cryptocurrency SQUID, named after Squid Game, lost an investor $28,000—his life savings—when the developers abruptly abandoned the project because they were “depressed from the scammers,” and New York City’s mayor-elect, Eric Adams, announced in a tweet that he will receive his first three paychecks in Bitcoin.5 6 At least 10 attendees of the January 6 rally leading up to the riot at the U.S. Capitol were voted into office; the Federal Election Commission ruled to allow foreign donors to finance referendum campaigns; and after governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia, a memo from an influential group of Republican House members advocated for future candidates to follow his lead and make the fight against imposing “critical race theory” in schools central to their campaigns.7 8 9 10 It was discovered that the winner of a Florida congressional Republican primary was a convicted felon and therefore ineligible to hold political office; Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, who in 1967 was imprisoned for seven years for robbing a bank to help fund resistance against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, won reelection after jailing seven rival presidential candidates and dozens of members of the opposition; and Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for brokering a peace agreement with Eritrea, said of Tigrayan rebels advancing toward the capital, “We will sacrifice our blood and bone to bury this enemy.”11 12 13 14 15 Taliban officials instructed taxi drivers in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province to refuse rides to gunmen unaffiliated with their organization.16

The judge presiding over the trial of the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery noted that there “appears to be intentional discrimination” in the selection of the jury, which includes 11 white people and one black man in a county that is more than 25 percent black, but did not take steps to correct the imbalance or halt the legal proceedings.17 18 Minneapolis residents voted against a measure to replace the city’s police with a more public health–focused Department of Public Safety, Cleveland residents voted in favor of a proposal to increase civilian oversight of the police department, and Philadelphia’s mayor signed a law that will make the municipality the first major city in the country to ban traffic stops for minor violations.19 20 21 A man in Scotland was arrested for possession of roughly $190,000 worth of marijuana after he accepted a ride during a blizzard from police officers, who noticed the smell coming from his suitcases.22 Igor Danchenko, a Russian analyst who provided information for the 2016 Steele dossier, alleging ties between Donald Trump and Russia, was charged with five counts of lying to FBI investigators.23 IRS files showed that at least 18 billionaires received CARES Act stimulus checks in the spring of 2020, after reporting taxable income below the government’s eligibility threshold.24 In a move denounced by the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Elon Musk promised to abide by the results of a Twitter poll as to whether he should sell 10 percent of his Tesla stock to pay his taxes, and the crew of a SpaceX capsule were forced to wear diapers on their flight back from the International Space Station after the ship’s toilet broke.25 26 27 28 29 “You know, space flight is full of lots of little challenges,” said NASA astronaut Megan McArthur.

An analysis of participants at the COP26 climate change conference identified 503 people linked to the fossil fuel industry, a total exceeding the number of delegates from any single country in attendance.30 31 “There is a process to transition that’s under way,” commented a spokesperson for the International Emissions Trading Association, a group whose speakers at the summit included the CEO of BP, “and carbon markets are the best way to make sure that transition takes place.” In Brazil, a man was eaten by piranhas after jumping into a lake to escape a swarm of bees.32 “Be realistic,” said a retired utility worker in Maryland after winning a $2 million lottery prize for the second time in his life.33 “As long as you enjoy what you are doing, win or lose, you’ve already won.” After eight people died and hundreds of others were injured at a Travis Scott concert in Houston, the rapper partnered with BetterHelp—an online therapy service that has been criticized for poor patient care and underpaying practitioners—to offer one free month of sessions for attendees who are struggling with grief, trauma, and survivor’s guilt.34 35 36 37Clara Olshansky

The post Weekly Review first appeared on Harper's Magazine.

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betajames
18 days ago
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Meanings of the metaverse: Productizing reality

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Welcome, Earthlings.

Facebook, it’s now widely accepted, has been a calamity for the world. The obvious solution, most people would agree, is to get rid of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has a different idea: Get rid of the world.

Cyberutopians have been dreaming about replacing the physical world with a virtual one since Zuckerberg was in Oshkosh B’gosh overalls. The desire is rooted in misanthropy — meatspace, yuck — but it is also deeply idealistic, Platonic even. The world as we know it, the thinking goes, is messy and chaotic, illogical and unpredictable. It is a place of death and decay, where mind — the true essence of the human — is subordinate to the vagaries of the flesh. Cyberspace liberates the mind from its bodily trappings. It is a place of pure form. Everything in it reflects the logic and order inherent to computer programming.

Hints of that old cyberian idealism float through Zuckerberg’s conception of the metaverse — he’s big on teleportation — but despite his habit of reminding us that he took philosophy and classics courses in college, Zuckerberg is no metaphysician. A Mammonist rather than a Platonist, he’s in it for the money. His goal with the metaverse is not just to create a virtual world that is more encompassing, more totalizing, than what we experience today with social media and videogames. It’s to turn reality itself into a product. In the metaverse, nothing happens that is not computable. That also means that, assuming the computers doing the computing are in private hands, nothing happens that is not a market transaction, a moment of monetization, either directly through an exchange of money or indirectly through the capture of data. With the metaverse, capital subsumes reality. It’s money all the way down.

Zuckerberg’s public embrace of the metaverse, culminating in last week’s Meta rebranding, has been widely seen as a cynical ploy to distract the public from the mess Facebook has made for itself and everyone else. There’s truth in that view, but it would be a mistake to think that the metaverse is just a change-the-subject tactic. It’s a coldly calculated, high-stakes, speculative bet on the future. Zuckerberg believes that several trends are coming together now, commercial, technological, and social, that justify big investments in an all-encompassing virtual sphere. He knows that Facebook — er, Meta — needs to act quickly if it’s to become the dominant player in what could be the biggest of all markets. As one of his lieutenants wrote in a recent memo, “The Metaverse is ours to lose.”

For Meta, Facebook and Instagram are cash cows — established, mature businesses that throw off a lot of cash. The company will milk those social media platforms to fund billions of dollars of investment in metaverse technologies ($10 billion this year alone). Much of that money will go into hardware, including virtual-reality headsets, artificial-reality glasses, hologram projectors, and a myriad of digital sensor systems. Facebook’s greatest vulnerability has always been its dependence on competitors — Apple, Google, Microsoft — to provide the hardware and associated operating systems required to access its sites and apps. The extent of that vulnerability was made clear this year when Apple instituted its data blockade, curtailing Facebook’s ability to track people online and hence making its ads less effective.

If Meta can control the hardware and operating systems people use to frolic in the metaverse, it will neutralize the threat posed by Apple and its other rivals. It will disintermediate the intermediaries. Beyond the hardware, though, the very structure of the metaverse, as envisioned by Zuckerberg, would make it hard if not impossible to prevent a company like Meta from collecting personal data. That’s because, as Zuckerberg emphasized in his Facebook Connect keynote Thursday, a universal metaverse requires universal interoperability. Being in the metaverse needs to be as seamless an experience as being in the real world. That can only happen if all data is shared. Gaps in the flow of data become holes in reality.

And what data! Two of the most revealing, and unsettling, moments in Zuckerberg’s keynote came when he was describing work now being done in the company’s “Reality Labs.” (Does Facebook have a Senior Vice President of Dystopian Branding?) He showed a demo of a woman walking through her home while wearing a pair of Meta AR glasses. The glasses mapped, automatically and in precise detail, everything she looked at. Such digital mapping will allow Meta to create, as Reality Labs Chief Scientist Michael Abrash explained, “an index” of “every single object” in a person’s home, “including not only location, but also the texture, geometry, and function.” The maps will become the basis for “contextual AI” that will be able to anticipate a person’s intentions and desires by tracking eye movements. What you look at, after all, is what you’re interested in. “Ultimately,” said Abrash, “her AR glasses will tell her what her available actions are at any time.” The advertising opportunities are endless.

“Come into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly.

But that’s just the start. Meta has designs on our bodies that go well beyond eye-tracking. Zuckerberg explained that Reality Labs is at work on “neural interfaces” that will tap directly into the nervous system:

We believe that neural interfaces are going to be an important part of how we interact with AR glasses, and more specifically EMG [electromyography] input from the muscles on your wrist combined with contextualized AI. It turns out that we all have unused neuromotor pathways, and with simple and perhaps even imperceptible gestures, sensors will one day be able to translate those neuromotor signals into digital commands that enable you to control your devices. It’s pretty wild.

Wild, indeed. If Facebook’s ability to collect, analyze, and monetize your personal data makes you nervous now, wait till you see what Meta has in store. There are no secrets in the metaverse.

There is, however, private property. One of the obstacles to the computerized productization of reality has always been the difficulty in establishing and enforcing property rights in cyberspace. Fifteen years ago, a company called Linden Lab took a stab at building a proto-metaverse in the form of the much-hyped videogame Second Life. The company promised its users, including many of the world’s biggest businesses, that they would be able to buy, sell, and own virtual goods in Second Life. What it failed to mention was that those goods, being composed purely of data, could be easily and perfectly copied. And that’s exactly what happened. Second Life was invaded by the so-called CopyBot, a software program that could replicate any object in the virtual world, including people’s avatars. An orgy of piracy ensued, dooming Second Life to irrelevance. Today, thanks to blockchains, cryptocurrencies, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the copyability problem seems to have been solved. Property rights, including identity rights, will be able to be enforced in the metaverse, which vastly expands its commercial potential.

Just because Zuckerberg wants a universal metaverse to exist doesn’t mean that it will exist. Anyone who’s been on a Zoom call knows that, even at a pretty basic level, we’re a long way from the kind of seamless, perfectly synchronized virtual existence that Meta is promising. As Michael Abrash himself cautioned, “It’s going to take about a dozen major technological breakthroughs to get to the next-generation metaverse.” That’s a lot of breakthroughs, and no breakthrough is foreordained.

But Zuckerberg has one thing on his side: When given the opportunity, people have shown themselves to be willing, even eager, to choose a simulation over the real thing. The metaverse, should it arrive, may feel like home, only better.

_____________

Part 2: “Secondary Embodiment.”

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betajames
22 days ago
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cjmcnamara
24 days ago
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two quotations on the metaverse

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Nick Carr:

Facebook, it’s now widely accepted, has been a calamity for the world. The obvious solution, most people would agree, is to get rid of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has a different idea: Get rid of the world. […] 

His goal with the metaverse is not just to create a virtual world that is more encompassing, more totalizing, than what we experience today with social media and videogames. It’s to turn reality itself into a product. In the metaverse, nothing happens that is not computable. That also means that, assuming the computers doing the computing are in private hands, nothing happens that is not a market transaction, a moment of monetization, either directly through an exchange of money or indirectly through the capture of data. With the metaverse, capital subsumes reality. It’s money all the way down.

Clive Thompson:

The truth is, a thriving metaverse already exists. It’s incredibly high-functioning, with millions of people immersed in it for hours a day. In this metaverse, people have built uncountable custom worlds, and generated god knows how many profitable businesses and six-figure careers. Yet this terrain looks absolutely nothing the like one Zuckerberg showed off.

It’s Minecraft, of course. 

(I am not returning to blogging as such, not until 2022 at the earliest, but it occurred to me this morning that I still need a place to put quotes I want to remember and use later, so I’ll keep using the blog for that.) 

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22 days ago
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Michael Lind: The contemporary American university is an enormous Kafkaesque bu...

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Michael Lind:

The contemporary American university is an enormous Kafkaesque bureaucracy teetering on top of a small Dickensian sweatshop. If we don’t count the sports teams and the research institutes, the university consists of preindustrial artisans, the instructors, divided between a small and shrinking group of elite tenured artisans and a huge and growing number of impoverished apprentices with no hope of decent jobs — with all of the artisans, affluent and poor, crushed beneath the weight of thickening layers of middle managers.

Apart from useful research, most of which could be done just as well in independent institutes, the product of all but the most prestigious American universities consists of diplomas which are rendered progressively more worthless each year thanks to credential inflation. According to the Federal Reserve of New York, the underemployment rate for recent college grads — that is, the percentage working in jobs that do not require a college diploma — was 40% at the end of March 2021. True, workers with college diplomas tend to make more than those without them — but at least some of the premium comes from Starbucks baristas with B.A.s pushing high school graduates into even worse jobs.

In a productive economic sector, labor-saving technology and/or the factory-style division of labor result in what might be called the virtuous circle of industrialism: Prices for consumers fall, wages for workers rise, and the ratio of managers to productive workers stays the same or shrinks. In the American university, however, technological stagnation, artisanal production, and administrative bloat result in rising prices for consumers, falling wages for the majority of productive workers (nontenured instructors) and more and more bureaucrats per worker over time.

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