A Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry

The invention of the idea of a theory—a systematic set of logically related propositions that attempt to explain the phenomena of some domain—was perhaps the greatest single achievement of Greek civilization.

– John Searle

Ryan Holiday recently published a piece about Why You Should Study Philosophy. It’s a good read, and Holiday makes a number of insightful points about the value of inviting big ideas into one’s life. Philosophers through the ages have had a lot to say about the widest possible range of topics, spanning from the broadest generalities to the oddest particularities. They’ve mused on how to live a good life and the sorts of endeavors that are worth pursuing; they’ve argued about how to discern right from wrong and what it means to be a moral person; and they’ve postulated innumerable theories about the nature of reality and the origins of human consciousness. And these don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the painstakingly researched esoteric minutia the philosophers of today dedicate their lives to litigating, one peer-reviewed journal submission at a time. Truly, there exists no lack of rigorously interrogated philosophical scholarship regarding just about any specific domain of inquiry today.

Studying philosophy has long been more than a pastime of mine, to the extent that I’ve devoted years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars to doing so in the form of pursuing a Philosophy degree. And one realization I’ve come to as a student of the discipline is that studying philosophy is quite different from doing philosophy. Just as reading a chemistry textbook is quite different from spending time in a laboratory, studying the latest anthology of contemporary problems in philosophy of mind is quite different from spending time methodically formulating one’s own beliefs into a rational and coherent framework by following a predetermined recipe for rational thinking.

But in spite of the preponderance of philosophical literature available today, these are troubling times for knowledge creation and the recognition of true facts, with practices of thoughtless information consumption and pseudointellectualism running wild. Even trusted news sources walk the line on a regular basis between sensationalism and blatant disinformation. The Washington Post, for instance, recently ran the following headline: ‘Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests. Despite the Lovecraftian mental images this headline may invoke, the “horns” referenced in the article turn out to be what are more accurately (but less sensationally) known as bone spurs: a phenomenon commonly linked to poor posture. Further, a day after its publication, WaPo prepended the following update to the article:

Update 6/25: After publication of this story, concerns were raised about an undisclosed business venture of one of the researchers, who works as a chiropractor. This story has been updated to reflect questions about a possible conflict of interest involving his business. The journal that published the main study in question said it was investigating the concerns. The researchers say they are making minor changes to their paper, but stand by their work.

This is only the most recent case of flagrant sensationalism and click-bait reporting to come across my newsfeed, but more extreme and potentially harmful stories have abounded for years. During the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election in the US, we saw false reports of the Pope endorsing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton spread like wildfire across social media. We also saw verified reports of Macedonian troll farms employing disinformation artists working full time to corrupt the flow of factual information from reputable sources to the screens and eyeballs of would-be voters.

I posted last year about the telos of fake news, and danah boyd, Founder and President of Data & Society has taken note as well. According to DataSociety.net, the organization is a nonprofit “research institute that advances public understanding of the social implications of data-centric technologies and automation.” In April 2019, boyd gave a talk at the Digital Public Library of America conference in which she enumerated the vulnerabilities of social media and the news media. She discussed concerns over “data voids” and both sides-ism, and she presented a clear case regarding the dangers of epistemological fragmentation that emerge when knowledge (or its absence) is weaponized. All this is to say that the trouble is twofold: while trust in the information economy has gradually eroded on the one hand, our ability as individuals to sift through and make sense of the onslaught of dis/information has simultaneously become an increasingly difficult and rarely-exercised skill.

In light of this rather bleak state of affairs, I propose the adoption of the following model: a Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry. It is my belief that if we arm ourselves with a more robust framework for discussing, debating, deciphering, and deconstructing today’s never ending waterfall of digitally distributed information, we might have a better shot at coming to a higher number of valid conclusions about the world. Indeed, this is the very purpose of philosophy in its most pragmatic sense: to make our ideas clear, not to muddy the waters.

Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry

  1. Define the domain
  2. Explore the domain
  3. Initialize the argument
  4. Engage via proper inquiry and argumentation with style

1. Define the domain: What are we talking about?

This is your first opportunity to state what it is you’ll be talking, writing, or arguing about. More generally and in short, simply (but precisely) state the topic. In addition, be sure to inform your reader or audience of what will not be part of the discussion. This is called restricting the scope. Another important step in defining the domain is “bracketing,” which is a term used in philosophy to set aside special cases. These special cases are technically part of the domain of inquiry, but due to a number of factors specific to each case, they don’t fit neatly within the path of discourse that will be followed as the inquiry progresses.

As an example, we may want to set the stage for a philosophical inquiry concerning the nature of consciousness. We may state, while defining the domain, that we will be concerned with differing states of consciousness such as sleeping and waking states, but that this particular inquiry will not be concerned with what are known as “out-of-body experiences.” Thus, the domain of our philosophical inquiry is defined as one concerning the nature of consciousness as restricted to sleeping and waking states, but bracketing (or setting aside) out-of-body experiences for consideration at another time.

The goal of defining the domain and restricting its scope is simply to narrow down the range of possible inquiries from an infinite set of topics or questions to a single clearly defined area of interest. The goal of bracketing is to make further progress by clarifying which possible points of contention within that area of interest are up for grabs, versus which ones we will reserve our judgment for at another time. There are a number of good reasons to bracket special cases within any given domain, including that they fall outside one’s expertise or individual knowledge, or because they’re problems that are too easily solved and consensus is already assumed, or even because they are simply too boring to discuss at this time.

In the example given here, out-of-body experiences are bracketed because although understanding their intricacies might be useful for understanding the nature of consciousness as a whole, these experiences are brought about by a number of various factors (e.g. meditation, intoxication, near-death experiences, etc.) which are necessary to be discussed in detail individually and in their own context. Out-of-body experiences are certainly within the domain as defined, but to include them in the broader discussion would only serve to slow down or hijack the inquiry as a whole.

2. Exploring the domain: What have others said?

Exploring the domain can be half the fun of the entire philosophical inquiry. In the previous step of the inquiry we defined the domain to say what it is we’ll be talking about. In this step, what we present our readers or audience with are the ideas and arguments of others working within this domain. A thorough explanation includes defining technical terms often encountered within the domain, as well as explanations of common themes or theories espoused by those working within the domain.

Taking again the example domain of the nature of consciousness, here we might explore the mind-body problem, or we might explain what philosophers of mind refer to as the hard problem of consciousness. It might also be useful in this exploration to define terms such as intentionality or qualia. These are terms and ideas that our argument might intersect with or rely upon at various points within the broader inquiry, but unless we establish a foundational understanding of them first, our argument will be less coherent to our reader or audience, and the philosophical inquiry as a whole will be less fruitful.

Exploring the domain is also an opportunity to discuss specific works by other thinkers within the domain as a way of providing necessary context for the remainder of inquiry. In cases where we plan to argue in opposition to a particular theory or thinker, this is the appropriate place to introduce the argument we intend to oppose. For example, we might provide a description of Daniel Dennett’s view of Physicalism or his definition of “wetware,” or we may choose to present an overview of his characterization of the mind-body problem by paraphrasing his use of the well-known brain-in-a-vat thought experiment.

In any case, thoroughly exploring the domain also serves to establish one’s own credibility on the topic, and to illustrate one’s standing as a reputable (or at the very least informed) individual, whose opinions, beliefs, research, and conclusions ought to be taken seriously.

3. Initialize the argument: Where will I dive in?

Initialization is a term I’ve taken from computer programming. In the sequential process of running a program, initialization is the assignment of all variables to their original state. It is an essential step to running the program because it determines the resulting features or outcomes that follow as the program runs. If you imagine the domain as an Olympic-sized swimming pool, initializing an argument takes place the moment you step onto the diving board. It is the moment of truth before diving in, where everything is laid bare prior to fully progressing one’s own argument or viewpoint.

To initialize an argument, begin by acknowledging any presumptions you’ve made in order to support the argument you intend to progress. Some presumptions are easily conceded and generally agreed to be true, while others might merit entire philosophical inquiries of their own in order to establish their validity. The key here is to remember that presumptions underly an argument, but they aren’t necessarily part of the argument itself. For example, you might present a white paper from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as part of your argument that wide-scale anthropogenic climate change is occurring due to the increased presence of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Your presumption here is that the IPCC is a reliable source of climate data, and I would agree. This is a clear example of one type of presumption we make hundreds of times a day, often without a second thought: the presumption of a source’s reliability.

Next, you’ll want to explicitly state any attitudinal stances or biases you bring with you as an agent with a subjective point of view. Let’s deconstruct the term attitudinal stance, which is common in philosophy. Simply put, it is a sort of theoretical attitude, belief set, or state of mind about a specific topic that informs one’s opinion about a topic and in turn affects one’s interpretation or judgement of that topic. For example, you might have an attitudinal stance about Biblical reasoning, namely that it isn’t a valid basis upon which to form rational conclusions. Or, you might have an attitudinal stance about art, namely that it is a uniquely human endeavor that occurs at the intersection of creativity and spontaneity.

Acknowledging the former stance as part of initialization would have a drastic effect on the trajectory of an argument addressing the origins of our species. Likewise, stating an adherence to the latter stance would affect the trajectory of an argument addressing the moral status of non-humans, which by virtue of one’s stated attitude automatically precludes animals from being capable of producing art.

Finally, it’s always good form to acknowledge one’s own blindspots and potential conflicts of interest before progressing an argument. For example, if you intend to discuss the nature of consciousness, you would do well to distinguish yourself as a philosopher rather than a neuroscientist or psychologist. Each field boasts a number of strengths not shared by its counterparts, as well as a number of shortfalls. Additionally, when discussing the current opioid epidemic in America, it would be relevant to know if your viewpoint is informed by your experience as a member of the governing board of a pharmaceutical company versus your experience as a parent of a child whose life was lost as a result of addiction.

4. Engage via proper inquiry and argumentation with style: What do I have to contribute?

The fourth and final step of the Standard Method is where much of what everyday people associate with philosophy takes place. It is here that you finally present your own argument and engage directly with the ideas of others previously explored in the inquiry. In order to meaningfully engage with the domain of inquiry, we must take time to challenge any shaky propositions presented by other thinkers, clarify the meanings of words or concepts that have previously been accepted with little examination, and identify any logical fallacies that have been overlooked prior to our own inquiry into the domain. This is what is meant by proper inquiry.

There are many ways to formulate a skillfully crafted argument, but the minimum standard against which all philosophical arguments are judged is validity. An argument is valid if and only if it is impossible for the conclusion to be false while its premises are all true. In other words, if the premises of your argument are all simultaneously true, the conclusion must necessarily follow. In the context of philosophy, testing for validity sets the bar much higher than a simple “that makes sense.” This is what is meant by proper argumentation.

However, proper inquiry combined with proper argumentation is still not enough. As a final cherry on top, we must inquire and argue with style. We accomplish this through strict adherence to discourse ethics of high standards. This means that we elevate the discourse through deference for others working within the domain, and by honoring intellectual diversity as long as it’s authentically and respectfully expressed. We ask follow-up questions in good faith, and we offer a charitable reading of opposing viewpoints. We utilize humor tactically, deploy irony where appropriate, and we acknowledge our own human foibles as a way of constructing a bullet-proof ethos that even Ayn Rand would envy.

Multiple Intelligences: Biological and Artificial

The original draft of this post was written on May 26, 2013 as part of my unpublished (and as of yet unfinished) work, The New Era of Tech: How Emergent Virtual Constructs are Reshaping the World. As our civilization finds itself today on the precipice of fully embracing a world of algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and neural engines, I find now to be a more appropriate time to publicly share this and other works I’ve previously held as works in progress. I ask that the casual reader forgive the formality with which I’ve chosen to write, as this is the voice and ethos of my training in the discipline of Philosophy.

These articles, and my thesis more broadly, are primarily grounded in the dialectic principles of Hegel, as observed through a specific understanding of historical progression. It’s my hope that as I continue to write and publish, it will become evident how virtual constructs in their many forms pull us ever closer to the inevitable moment of Singularity, perhaps best articulated by Ray Kurzweil, and to illustrate the myriad other ways in which EVCs have fundamentally changed our world for good.

It’s difficult to identify one achievement alone for which Kurzweil is best known, but his work expounding upon the Law of Accelerating Returns (LOAR) shines bright among many. Although Kurzweil may be credited with progressing one of the most formal and well-known articulations of the LOAR in his book The Singularity is Near, he’s not the first to make note of the increasing pace and significance of technological development that underlie the law itself. As he acknowledges in his 2012 book How to Create a Mind:

“A year after his [John von Neumann’s] death in 1957, fellow mathematician Stan Ulam quoted him as having said in the early 1950s that ‘the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.’ This is the first known use of the word singularity in the context of human technological history” (194).

Understanding our Biology in Context with Technology

How to Create a MindOn April 2, 2013, just 5 months after Kurzweil published How to Create a Mind, President Barack Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative: a government-funded project aimed at mapping the brain. The BRAIN initiative is precisely the sort of project Kurzweil argues is needed so as to further unlock the mysteries of the human brain, and more specifically the biological neocortex.

Using the neocortex as a basis first for understanding human intelligence and creativity, then as a model for replicating that intelligence primarily through the utilization of cloud-based computational processing power, Kurzweil believes we will soon augment human biology to such an extent as to achieve transcendent capabilities.

Evidence presented by early mathematicians and computer scientists (von Neumann, Moore, Turing, et al.) support the theory that the human brain processes information in ways similar to primitive computation machines, but as technology has advanced it has become clear that there are several key differences between biological human intelligence and technological computational power. For example, increases in processing capabilities and memory capacity within super computers has resulted in vast improvements to the overall computational power of machines, making them capable of tasks far beyond the scope of a human brain.

It has been posited by other modern thinkers such as Kevin Kelly that there are multiple and different types of intelligence, and that the best kind may in fact be the combination of human intelligence with super computer brain power. Today’s AI excels at automating the duties of household appliances, suggesting solutions to scheduling conflicts among groups, and intelligently routing us around traffic accidents on our daily commute, but it doesn’t do well at nurturing children the way human parents can, or catalyzing creativity and innovation in students the way an engaging teacher can. When we combine these intelligences together, we see great advances in efficiency, safety, creativity, and happiness in the home and in schools.

The growing chasm of capability between machine and human intelligence suggests that the creation of new and uniquely significant human knowledge without the aid of AI has come increasingly close to its limit. This isn’t to say that we’re approaching a point of absolute omniscience in which we will know all there is to know. This is only to say that very soon, the primary task of the creative human mind will be to develop insight into that which is already known: to make meaning from knowledge already made by humans and information already indexed by machines, through the exploration and expression of human experience.

Qualia and Consciousness

Not only does computational processing differ from human intelligence in scope by virtue of its capacity for infinite expansion, but it differs in method as well. As Kurzweil states, “There is considerable plasticity in the brain, which enables us to learn. But there is far greater plasticity in a computer, which can completely restructure its methods by changing its software. Thus, in that respect, a computer will be able to emulate a brain, but the converse is not the case” (193). Personally, I would append but one word to this claim: yet.

The human brain has no formal or automatic method for weeding out inconsistencies in thought or contradictions of belief. This can result in a range of undesired phenomena, from irrational behavior to cognitive dissonance. Although humans are capable of what has been called “critical thinking,” Kurzweil cites this faculty only as a “weak mechanism,” and a skill “not practiced nearly as often as it should be.” For as he writes in Chapter 8 of How to Create a Mind, “In a software-based neocortex, we can build in a process that reveals inconsistencies for further review” (197). In other words, computer scientists can integrate superior methods of data processing and error-correction into the foundations of consciousness for artificially intelligent machines.

With the potential for superior error-correction built into AI, the question then arises whether or not an artificially intelligent machine can/will eventually replicate the workings of a biological human brain, and to what extent such a creation will resemble true human intelligence.

This is question can very likely can be answered via scientific inquiry: through experimentation and observation, along with proper interpretation and wise application of the results derived from said inquiry. This question asks us to shift from the brain as biological substance, to the mind and consciousness as Philosophical concepts.

Kurzweil continues, “Consciousness, and the closely related question of qualia are a fundamental, perhaps the ultimate, philosophical question” and “I maintain that these questions can never be fully resolved through science. In other words, there are no falsifiable experiments that we can contemplate that would resolve them, not without making philosophical assumptions” (205).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say on the topic of qualia:

Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. In this broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia. Disagreement typically centers on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head. The status of qualia is hotly debated in philosophy largely because it is central to a proper understanding of the nature of consciousness. Qualia are at the very heart of the mind-body problem.

Although there are a number of compelling theories that attempt to define the point at which a being is fully endowed with true consciousness, Kurzweil believes that in the end there is a fundamental need for a leap of faith on our part when assessing the (non)consciousness of machines. Whether or not they are in fact conscious, “machines in the future will appear to be conscious and that they will be convincing to biological people when they speak of their qualia” (209). Kurzweil’s leap of faith is that once this convincing occurs, they [machines] “will indeed constitute conscious persons.”

I believe this leap of faith to be quite rational, as it follows from the claim that although not all beings with consciousness are capable of convincing others of their consciousness, that any being capable of convincing others of their conscious is, in fact, conscious.

The key to understanding the thought experiment of machine consciousness is to invest fully in the “convincing” itself. For if we are in fact convinced of a nonbiological, artificially intelligent being’s narrative of self-reflection and description of individual qualia, what difference does it make whether or not a true consciousness lies behind the eyes? Indeed, the bulk of this conclusion may translate to life in general: if you are fully convinced of anything yet act the opposite, where is your integrity? The feminist philosopher belle hooks once said in a lecture I attended that integrity is the congruence of that which we believe, think, and act.

The emergence, identification, and recognition of this consciousness will each undoubtedly stand as epochal moments in the history of what Kurzweil and others term the human-machine civilization. It may sound like the stuff of Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons and Westworld’s Hosts to some, and they would be right to reflect upon the problem as such.

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Fake News: the Telos to Confuse

“The goal is to make you question logic and reason, and to sow mistrust toward exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidenced, and ourselves.”

-Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened (2017)

The first draft of this piece was written on April 29, 2017. It was initially framed as a response to a story about the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and until now remained unfinished. Given current events in the US with the #MeToo movement, Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and magazine cover stories sounding the alarm bells of Chinese spyware, it appears that this moment may be either the best or the worst time to publish another piece about Fake News. This is a topic I find intriguing regardless of political preference, and I believe that the media in our country should be held to a higher standard than it is currently. And to clarify, the fake in fake news is applied here to the News itself, rather than the story or events being reported on.

My aim isn’t to make light about a person’s lived experiences, or to cast doubt about their account of those experiences. The subject of my interest in Fake News is the News Media, and the ways they use those accounts to push larger narratives, entertain without informing, and monetize the fears and impulses of their audience. As a culture, we’re quick to jump on the day’s outrage bandwagon, and we’re slow to think critically about what we’re being told to accept as true. News outlets from across the political spectrum know this, and they take advantage of it everyday.

I’m not a journalist, nor do I have formal training in media studies (my education is in analytical Philosophy), but I am a citizen doing my best to sort through it all and better understand what’s really going on.

How do we spot Fake News?

After reading or hearing a story in its entirety, begin by identifying the story’s telos. This can be done by asking, “What is the story’s purpose?” Perhaps because it’s so easily done, the purpose of many harmful fake news sites and stories is to confuse the audience about what’s fact and what’s fiction, or to instill doubt and obfuscate the truth. This can be accomplished in myriad ways, and with very little effort on the part of the news media.

If the story misleads, intentionally shocks the audience, is full of omissions that leave you wondering, or if it contains only a conclusion without premises that logically support that conclusion, it’s likely fake news.

If the story’s primary purpose is to trigger an emotional reaction from the viewer/reader without providing sufficient verifiable evidence to support the emotion-triggering claims made in the story, there is a high chance the story is fake news.

Determine whether any original research, investigative journalism, or additional fact-finding on the part of the writer or the publisher as means to verify the claims made has been attempted. If the media outlet fails to provide any additional context for understanding the story, it may be fake news. Finally, if a news story shows you only what people are saying, without reference to what any statistics or data say, it may be fake news.

So, what are people saying?

An easy way of showing what people are saying is to gather a collection of quotations from bystanders or witnesses, and reciting or replaying them in quick succession. The classic Human on the Street segment, is one example of a model used today to create quick, entertaining segments that can be packaged and distributed to affiliates across a news network.

Here’s an example of fake news from the late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Keep in mind that the people appearing in the segment need not necessarily be liars for the segment itself to be fake news. The segment is fake news because it is itself based on a falsehood, not because of anything the people on the street recount.

Testimony isn’t a substitute for verifiable fact, nor should it be discarded out of hand. What’s critical is that speech alone not be mistaken for fact by the critical observer or careful reader. Close attention should be paid to opinion-based testimony that isn’t reporting on facts, and closer attention should be paid to the framing of the conversation in its entirety.

There’s a common understanding that there are always two sides to a story. Typically, the “two sides” refer to the possibility that there are at least two versions–two sides–of a story. But what if we used this turn of phrase in a different manner? What if the two sides instead referred to (1) the interviewer, and (2) the individual recounting the story.

Look again to the video example above to see how two parties engaged in a single dialogue can participate in two entirely different conversations, exacerbated by a vacuum of facts and an abundance of bad faith. Listen for gossip and opinion as response to a leading question. Pay as much attention to the questions and to the interviewer as you do to those providing a response.

Testimony in formal argumentation, when delivered effectively, can be used to supplement pathos. It may be permitted to persuade, but it may not be held in equivalence to proof. This distinction between persuasion and proof is essential when further attempting to distinguish between feelings and facts, fake news and real news.

To borrow another turn of phrase from YouTuber and internet influencer Philip DeFranco, “Why be informed when you can use your feelings as facts?”

For Reference

  • Pathos: emotion
  • Ethos: style, mood
  • Logos: logic
  • Telos: purpose

Infinite Jest Reading Log

The Book

infinite jestPeople my age and younger might not be familiar with David Foster Wallace’s seminal work, Infinite Jest, as it was first published in 1996 when we were all quite young. I hadn’t even heard of David Foster Wallace until 2009 when a good friend began reading IJ. Although I was interested, another two years went by before I gave any of his works a chance.

I dove into the Pale King, which is another of DFW’s sizable novels, and is sometimes credited as being the opposite side of the same coin that includes Infinite Jest as the Pale King’s more notable counterpart.

Published three years after DFW’s death, and still largely unfinished, the Pale King acts an appropriate foil to Infinite Jest. TPK’s central theme is arguably that of a world of never-ending, mind-numbing boredom, whereas IJ is broadly about America’s relationship to an overabundance of entertainment and endless distraction.

With the 20th anniversary of the book’s release looming on the horizon, I thought now would be a good time to finally take the 1000-page plunge.

How does one describe the Entertainment?

The story is set in the near future and takes place in the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN), which so far appears to be a mega-nation of sorts that includes the US and Canada (and maybe Mexico and more?).

Although ONAN exists in the near future, it’s not a science fictiony kind of future. The futurism affords DFW the freedom needed to make keen observations about trends in the present (whenever that happens to be), without the reader feeling overwhelmed. In other words, even 20 years after publication, IJ is just far off enough to be whimsical while remaining completely recognizable.

The world of IJ is one of subsidized time, meaning the naming rights of each year are sold off to the highest bidder. Chapters jump back and forth through time, but the majority of the main storyline takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU). One exciting part of reading Infinite Jest right now is that after a bit of sleuthing and dot-connecting, it becomes apparent that the dates of YDAU align with the year 2015. As a reader, you feel like you’re experiencing the book in quite a special moment.

I’m still discovering and understanding the plot, which is only just beginning to emerge in any coherent form. Most novels are written linearly, with a beginning, middle and end. The plot of these novels follows the common format of Exposition, Rising Action (conflict, conflict, conflict), Climax, Falling Action, Resolution. Not so with IJ.

The timeline of events within Infinite Jest more closely resembles an enormous yarn ball, all knotted up with each chapter zooming into a section of that yarn ball and unraveling it just enough to begin looking comprehensible before stringing the reader along to a completely different but somehow connected part of the story on the other side of that yarn ball.

Much of the yarn has to do with the Incandenza family, who live at an elite youth tennis academy near Boston, which they founded and operate to this day. The family’s patriarch, James O. Incandenza (who is a filmmaker as well as a tennis-enthusiast) creates a film so enchantingly entertaining that anyone who consumes it loses all desire to do anything else in life aside from continue watching it. Hilarity and chaos ensue.

Incandenza’s film is sometimes simply referred to as the Entertainment, though it’s proper and fitting title is Infinite Jest.

The Genius, David Foster Wallace Himself

I’ve watched and listened to a handful of interviews with David Foster Wallace, and when they’re combined with reading his work, one thing is abundantly clear: DFW was a genius.

I mean, really. You read his work and listen to him speak in these interviews, and you can tell. It’s like he sees the world in such a unique and precise way, that when he describes it everything is so obvious. It’s painfully apparent how frustrated he is by others, how it’s clear that if the world could see at even 10% of what he sees at 110%, then! Well, then we’d all be geniuses.

I know that authors are always compared to the characters they create, but without spoiling it, I’ll just say that the parallels between DFW and James O. Incandenza are striking indeed.

Advice So Far

Read this book! I’m just about 1/3 of the way through Infinite Jest, but I think I’m in love. I’ve never enjoyed a work of fiction in quite this way or to quite this degree. Every page is as challenging as it is rewarding.

My goal is to finish by the end of December, by which time I fully expect to have a much-loved (bent, torn, stained) 1,079-page paperback trophy to add to my bookshelf: a well-deserved and hard-earned sign of the numerous hours I spent this winter in the land of ONAN.

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Essential Elements of Strong Communities

Communities are complex systems of human people. They can be organized around any number of characteristics: geography, age, religion, creed, level of education, occupation, common interest, and more. I like one of the definitions I found in the Dictionary app on my Mac: “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” It’s not perfect, but it’s a starting point.

I’ve been a member of many different communities so far in my life, and I’ve even been lucky enough to work professionally with the aim of strengthening and enriching some of these communities for the benefit of their members. In my experience doing so, I’ve recognized a number of elements common to strong communities. Below is a brief exploration of three essential elements that have been on my mind recently.

I’m sure these ideas could be expanded even further, and I might not have them quite right as they’re articulated here, so please let me know in the comments if you have anything to add!

1) Shared Values > Shared Identity

A value is a type of belief that includes an attitude about the world.

This may go without saying, but values are different from identities. However, because of community dynamics, the two often go hand in hand. For simplicity’s sake, many communities are named for identity markers, but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that values are what give the community its shape.

For example, we may reference the LGBT community, implying that LGBT identity is the organizing characteristic of the community. I don’t think that’s quite right. There are many straight allies who feel very much a part of the LGBT community, and there are also queer-identified folks who see themselves as outsiders from the mainstream LGBT community. This means that shared identity is a sufficient condition for group membership, but it’s not a necessary condition.

2) Norms: customs of community

Communities may have explicitly stated guidelines (e.g. No hate speech) but they also have norms that are just as important. Norms are not laws, they’re not even as strict as “rules.” Think about driving. Sure, we have plenty of traffic laws on the books. “Rules of the road,” they’re sometimes called. But we also have norms. They’re not codified in law, but they’re just as important for preventing chaos on the road. Many of them are based in values of politeness and mutual respect.

Norms include customs, traditions, etiquette, and interpersonal conduct. They determine how we treat one another and what we expect from each other.

Norms change and evolve over time, just like values. The difference is that while a value is a kind of belief, a norm is a pattern of behavior. It’s something we do.

One example of a norm within the LGBT community is to ask for PGP, or preferred gender pronouns. This norm carries with it the shared value of the community that gender can be self-determined or self-defined, that a person’s gender might not fit neatly within the gender binary, and that all of us should show respect for the preferred gender pronouns of our community members. It also implies that we shouldn’t make assumptions about a person’s gender just by looking at them. Our values are manifest through norms.

Do you expect visitors to take off their shoes when they enter your home? That’s a norm. Do you have an expectation or pattern of behavior related to attribution in sharing content on social media? That’s a norm.

Developing norms contribute to the formation and maintenance of a community’s culture. The health of a community’s culture is a direct result of the degree to which that community’s norms are fine tuned to benefit the members of the community in an optimal way.

3) Language: a common tongue

This doesn’t necessarily refer to a shared written or spoken natural language, though there certainly are communities based on those. Icelandic, for example, is spoken by just over 300,000 people worldwide. This may be a sufficient condition for the recognition of a community based solely on its members speaking Icelandic.

But let’s explore an example to illustrate how the common tongue of a community is separate from that community’s spoken language. The phrase “Tap that” will mean something entirely different within the community of Magic: the Gathering players than the craft brewing community. Further, the same phrase may carry a third meaning among executives involved in petroleum extraction, and a fourth among UX designers. The phrase is in English, but depending on the context of the community in question, a different meaning is conveyed.

In the context of community, language is specialized and nuanced, and includes dialects with unique lexicons specific to those communities.

Are you fluent in the language of Twitter? If so, words like “retweet,” “@reply,” and “DMs” mean something to you. You may even remember a time when “retweet” wasn’t a feature, but instead referred to a specific syntax employed when sharing the tweets of another user. All this is part of a shared tongue unknown to those outside the community.

If the phrases “contributing to core,” “bikeshedding,” “ovo- lacto-,” ‘for the animals,” or “what’s your twenty?” mean anything to you, it says something about the communities you are a part of.

Shared values, healthy norms, and a common tongue with which to communicate.

I’m sure there are additional elements that when amplified can contribute to the strength of communities. Another I’ve been thinking a lot about are the tools we use, and the ways in which members of a community bond over the creation of and use of their tools. Can you think of any other essential elements of strong communities?

PS: I don’t claim to know everything about the communities of which I’m a part, but I’ve done my best to articulate my understanding of our various shared values and norms. I recognize I might not have described everything just right, but I hope readers will be charitable in their interpretations of what I’m trying to get at with the examples I’ve chosen. By all means, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

In Search of Meaning: Viktor Frankl and Logotherapy

Mans Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning

Last week I read Viktor Frankl’s 1946 autobiographical and philosophical work, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” At only 165 pages, it’s a relatively short book full of profoundly deep insights. Frankl’s objective is to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” He achieves this first by recounting his experiences as a prisoner in four different camps during WWII, then by providing an overview of the psychotherapeutic approach he developed during that time, called logotherapy.

Part I, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” is expectantly rich with examples of the unimaginable cruelty humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. What I didn’t expect were the numerous beautiful accounts of the great dignity and courage humans are capable of living with, even under conditions of extreme duress and ever-present threats to their mortality. The book is masterfully balanced in exploring both the terror of the camp, and the stalwart strength of the prisoners. In one particularly poignant scene in which Frankl longs to be reunited with his wife, he exclaims, “Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.”

It’s this balance of exploration that gives way to one of the great insights found in the book. Numerous examples are provided throughout, reminding us that so often when examining the fallout of WWII, we focus primarily on the evils humans brought upon one another (and there were many). But in our haste to shed light on the darkness of the Holocaust, we sometimes fail to recognize the sea of flickering lights on the horizon, each a shining example of human survival, resistance, and resilience. In Frankl’s words, “After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

Part II, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” is Frankl’s condensed treatise and explanation of his unique approach to treating psychological neurosis. As he explains, “Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life.” Drawing from his own lived experiences over the course of WWII to develop his thesis, Frankl’s approach in practice is as much applied Philosophy as it is psychotherapy, for “it does not restrict its activity to instinctual facts within the individual’s unconscious but also cares for existential realities, such as the potential meaning of his existence to be fulfilled as well as his will to meaning.”

Logotherapy turns the cliche notion of asking “What is the meaning of life?” on its head. It is our task, Frankl claims, to instead find meaning in answering for ourselves the questions that life asks of us. And where does one find meaning? According to Frankl’s thesis, there are three possibilities: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), or in courage during difficult times.

Viktor Frankl, 1949.
Viktor Frankl, 1949.

Frankl’s belief was that neurosis isn’t necessarily pathological, but in many cases is caused by “existential frustration,” which is a kind of distress stemming from an inability to actualize one’s will to meaning. In other words, when one’s effort to find meaning in work, love, or suffering is stymied, existential angst develops, often presenting in the form of neurosis.

One example Frankl gives to illuminate his point is that of “Sunday neurosis:” a type of “depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.” It is this existential vacuum (a state of excessive cognitive boredom) where the existential frustration takes hold of an individual and side-tracks their will to meaning. Discontent emerges, and any effort at achieving meaningful existence is usurped by lesser forces: the will to power, the will to money, or the will to pleasure. But all is not lost, for Frankl reminds us that “one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them.”

For one trapped in this severe state of internal self-desolation, there is but one remedy: what Frankl refers to as the “self-transcendence of human existence.” A process which is much more easily described than done, self-transcendence differs from self-actualization in that it is a side-effect of right action, rather than an attainable end in itself. In other words, self-transcendence, like happiness and success, is something that must ensue, rather than be pursued.

Self-transcendence can ensue as the result of a number of different actions. From changing one’s perspective in order to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to changing one’s self internally when it’s no longer an option to change a situation itself, and even to show one’s courage in suffering through the outward expression of angst in the form of tears, self-transcendence is Frankl’s solution to life’s inherent meaninglessness. It is the key to his “tragic optimism,” which proclaims through the words of Nietzsche that even in the worst conditions, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

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John Oliver on Native Advertising

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Native Advertising

The line between editorial content and advertising in news media is blurrier and blurrier. That’s not bullshit. It’s repurposed bovine waste.

This is why Last Week Tonight can succeed in serving the public in ways The Daily Show has never been able to. Although the shows share a similar format, they utilize completely different business models. One model allows sponsored content to masquerade as news (particularly prevalent on “slow news days”), whereas the other model is primarily supported through users’ paid subscriptions which allows for reporting and editorial segments to maintain a higher degree of integrity.

Some have called Last Week Tonight nothing more than a weak copy of The Daily Show dressed up in a British accent. Nope. Jon Stewart’s great and all, but just because he can make Taco Bell’s new menu items funny doesn’t mean his show hasn’t lost its soul.