MM: Do you think nepotism and privilege might actually be a thing?
JS: Nah, it’s the story they tell children to frighten them at night.
– Heard the other day on the podcast Reconcilable Differences #88 hosted by John Siracusa and Merlin Mann (at 48:00 min)
I recently read a book by the New Zealand poet and academic Helen Sword called Stylish Academic Writing. It’s a thoughtful, considered and very well written guide for students and academics to think about the nature of the language they use. Below are three quotes that stayed with me.
On using the personal voice:
When we muzzle the personal voice, we risk subverting our whole purpose as researchers, which is to foster change by communicating new knowledge to our intended audience in the most effective and persuasive way possible.
Language and power:
Academics who are committed to using language effectively and ethically— as a tool for communication, not as an emblem of power— need first of all to acknowledge the seductive power of jargon to bamboozle, obfuscate, and impress.
Academics identified by their peers as stylish writers for other reasons— their intelligence, humor, personal voice, or descriptive power— are invariably sticklers for well-crafted prose. Their sentences may vary in length, subject matter, and style; however, their writing is nearly always governed by three key principles that any writer can learn. First, they employ plenty of concrete nouns and vivid verbs, especially when discussing abstract concepts. Second, they keep nouns and verbs close together, so that readers can easily identify “who’s kicking whom.” Third, they avoid weighing down their sentences with extraneous words and phrases, or “clutter.” Far from eschewing theoretical intricacy or syntactical nuance, stylish academic writers deploy these three core principles in the service of eloquent expression and complex ideas.
In the latest edition of Wired magazine computer philosopher Jaron Lanier writes of social media and the advertising business model of the internet:
We call it advertising, but that name in itself is misleading. It is really statistical behaviour-modification of the population in a stealthy way. Unlike [traditional] advertising, which works via persuasion, this business model depends on manipulating people’s attention and their perceptions of choice.
The behaviourist BF Skinner designed an experimental box for conditioning animals in laboratory experiments. A person in a Skinner box has an illusion of control, but is actually controlled by the box or whoever is behind the box. In this case they’re algorithmically designed. Because they are not physically contained in the Skinner Box, you have to keep people attentive to the device. The only way to do that is to create a continuous urgency, and that can only be achieved through conflict and danger. So, intrinsically, the business plan breaks apart the world, including any efforts to prevent things from stopping it.
– Jaron Lanier, Save the internet – but change the business model, Wired, January 2018
If all people want to do is go and look at other people so that they can compare themselves to them and copy what they want – if that is the final, deepest truth about humanity and its motivations – then Facebook doesn’t really have to take too much trouble over humanity’s welfare, since all the bad things that happen to us are things we are doing to ourselves.
– John Lanchester, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-product
The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite; these people, as unworldly as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material to construct, in miniature, a strange and utterly individual image of the world.
– Stefan Zweig, Chess Story