Wednesday 03 December 2003


Am I the only one around here who feels overwhelmed by the volume of data I expect myself to absorb and process every day?

I just did a Google search for “information overload”. It yielded “about 296,000” results. The first, a 1994 Patti Maes paper on Agents that Reduce Work and Information Overload:

The metaphor used is that of a personal assistant who is collaborating with the user in the same work environment. The assistant becomes gradually more effective as it learns the user’s interests, habits and preferences (as well as those of his or her community)…

The set of tasks or applications with which an agent can assist the user is virtually unlimited: information filtering, information retrieval, mail management, meeting scheduling, selection of books, movies, music, etc.

The second, a three-year-old InfoWorld article on Overcoming information overload:

Alan Lightman, a humanities professor and physics lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., also takes a pessimistic view of the effect of technology on communication. People need to examine what they are getting into when they adopt technologies, he says.

“I think that the high-speed information technologies, while very useful in many ways, have robbed us of our necessary silences of time to reflect on values on who we are and where we’re going,” Lightman says.

The optimist and the pessimist: both from MIT.

I started to make a list of all the stuff I’m thinking about (let alone trying to write about) then gave up. It doesn’t really matter, given that functionally your list is identical to mine even if they don’t have even a single item in common. What’s important is the size of the list, not its contents.

I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t try to emulate my friend Karl, whom I’d describe as a late/reluctant adopter. In 1986, when I suggested that it might be useful to buy an external 400K floppy drive for his Macintosh Plus, he told me that the internal floppy drive was more than adequate. A couple of years ago he bought a television set and a VCR, having lived without television for the fifteen years I’ve known him. When I asked him last week whether he’d seen such-and-such on TV, he reminded me that his television wasn’t connected to any kind of antenna—he’d only bought it so that his young daughters could watch videos once or twice a week. Yesterday he called and asked me to send him a test email, to check that he hadn’t screwed up his email account while setting up his new ADSL connection. That surprised me. But I’d expect that within a month he’ll have figured out how to throttle back his high speed Internet access.

Karl’s not a Luddite. He has a notebook and a desktop machine and knows more about computing than most of the IT staff at the major hospital where he works as a neonatologist. Nor is he uninformed about local and international events: he listens to the radio a lot, mainly ABC Radio National (roughly the Australian equivalent of NPR). Not listening to the radio—not at home nor in the car—is perhaps my only means of filtering out information.

Even though he works longer hours than I do, Karl’s rigorous defence against the flow of unnecessary information provides him with far more time than I allow myself to read, to think, and to be silent. And even if ADSL turns out to offer a formidable challenge to his minimalist ethic, Karl has one huge advantage over me: he doesn’t blog.

Self-employment, a constant Internet connection, a weblog, and a mildly addictive personality turn out to be a killer combination—even for someone who no longer feels compelled to post regularly, let alone every day. Liz Lawley went cold turkey by taking a vacation with her family:

The best part of the trip was that by midweek I’d stopped blogging things in my head. I hadn’t realized how much I’d begun to detach from real life, always running meta-commentary in my head to save for later blogging. Letting go of that was very refreshing. It’s not that I don’t want to blog, it’s that I don’t want to do it all the time.

Although Liz didn’t say this explicitly, I think she realized that having a weblog turns information overload into a two-way process: first you suck all this stuff into your head for processing; and then you regurgitate it as weblog posts. And, while this process isn’t all that different from the ways in which we manipulate information in our jobs, it’s something that we’ve chosen to do in addition to our jobs, something that detaches us even further from “real life”. I suspect that the problem is compounded by the fact that weblog entries are—overwhelmingly—expressions of opinion and, to make it worse, many of the opinions are opinions about opinions on issues concerning which the opinionators have little, if any, firsthand knowledge or experience. Me included.

Now I’m beginning to understand what I valued so much about photography. Photographs are, to be sure, just as much a means of expressing an opinion as any other form of communication. But, somehow, its non-verbal nature confers upon the photograph an opacity that I find incredibly appealing, particularly if any captions are restricted to a spare description of the time, place, and (if appropriate) person’s name. I don’t, however, believe that this preference means that I’m assuming—in Jeff Ward’s words—that “there is an intrinsic quality to images which is either diluted or enhanced by the presence or absence of the caption”. It’s more that, for me, the absence of a comprehensive caption makes it more difficult for the photograph to trumpet an opinion. To paraphrase Lisette Model, the less the photograph tries to prove something, the more likely I am to get the lesson.

Leica Digilux 2 cameraThe other thing I realize about all that time I spent taking pictures is that photography provided an amazingly effective choke on all the extraneous information that was trying to cram itself into my head. In those years, I was preoccupied with looking at photographs, shooting photographs, processing film and making prints, thinking about photography, and watching movies. But, despite the temptation posed by this new “analog” digital Leica, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever go back to photographing with the passion and commitment I once had.

I’m also beginning to realize why, when I abandoned photography, I took up studying Japanese. It (Japanese) offers the same kind of opacity that I valued in photographs, the opacity which ensured that I never really understood even my own photographs—particularly those I was proudest of. My last photographic project was a series taken in the neonatal intensive care ward at Karl’s hospital. A couple of years later he said to me, “Just as well you managed to replace photography with Japanese… that should keep you productively engaged until you die.”

Perhaps reading Japanese more than English offers one way of filtering out the information that threatens to overwhelm me, since my lack of expertise ensures that interpreting and understanding a Japanese sentence takes much longer than one in English. And, even though this is a strategy whose effectiveness will diminish as my facility with the language improves, it might provide me with a buffer until I can figure out other ways of dealing with all the excess data.

Another way might be to try to modify my relationship with my surroundings, in Godard’s words to “go on listening… go on looking about me even more attentively than before… the world… my fellow creatures… my brothers.”

Today Norm Jenson quoted Richard Feynman:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.

To which I added, in a comment: “I also think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be right.”

Again, paraphrasing Lisette Model, when you point your camera at something, (ideally) you are asking a question and the photograph is sometimes (the right or the wrong) answer.

So perhaps I’m thinking about the ideal weblog post as one that privileges questions over opinions. Except it’s more complex than that. After all, couldn’t an opinion expressed with subtlety and restraint be another way of asking a question?

Either way, my question is the one I asked at the beginning: who else feels overwhelmed by the volume of information we expect ourselves to absorb and process every day? And how do you manage to deal with it?

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Monday 08 December 2003

I’ll link to whoever he’s linking to

Since 95 percent of people are imitators and only five percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.

Cavett Roberts

It’s amazing to me that in all the argy-bargy about men’s alleged reluctance to link to women bloggers and the connected issue of the WizBang award for Best Female Authored Blog no-one has ever mentioned Robert Cialdini’s concept of Social Proof.

I accept that male bloggers are less likely to link to female bloggers: whatever the topic being debated, technology-related or not. But I referred to “men’s alleged reluctance to link to women bloggers” because running through the entire discussion is the unstated assumption that, even though men might not be actively colluding to ignore women, the situation could be turned around if they were made aware of their “unfair” (albeit unconscious) behavior. Yet it is abundantly clear (to me, anyway) that linking practices have far less to do with gender than with deeply ingrained human behavior.

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, identifies six principles of persuasion—reciprocity, commitment/consistency, social proof, liking, authority, scarcity—discussed by Cialdini in this interview and explained here in the context of cult recruitment.

Reciprocity: When we receive an unsolicited gift, we feel an obligation to give something in return.

Commitment and Consistency: Once we make a commitment, there is a natural tendency to “behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent” with our earlier decision, even if that decision turns out to be mistaken.

Social Proof: In a given situation, our view of whether a particular behavior is correct or not is directly proportional to the number of other people we see performing that behaviour.

Liking: We prefer to say yes to people we know and like—especially people who are physically attractive, who are similar to us, who praise us (subtly), whom we encounter regularly, and who are associated with individuals or events we admire.

Authority: Since we have been socialized to obey legitimate authorities, we tend to also obey individuals whom we perceive to possess “high levels of knowledge, wisdom, and power”.

Scarcity: We assign greater value to opportunities when they become less available and frequently assume that scarcity is an indicator of quality.

One only needs to have had a weblog for about five minutes to see the relevance to blogging of Cialdini’s ideas about how we are persuaded and how we reach decisions—particularly concerning whom one links to or adds to one’s blogroll. If you’re honest, you’ll recognize that at least some of Cialdini’s principles have determined your linking/blogrolling preferences:

  • Reciprocity (If I put you on my blogroll, you’ll feel obliged to put me on yours.)
  • Commitment/Consistency (Now that you’re on my blogroll I’m unlikely to remove you.)
  • Social Proof (If all those other people have X on their blogrolls, then he definitely should be on my blogroll.)
  • Liking (The people I link to and have on my blogroll are similar to me, have praised me, are associated with events or projects I’d like to be a part of… at the very least, since I’m never going to reach the A-list, I can bask in the A-lister’s reflected glory.)
  • Authority (Anyone on the Technorati Top 100 must automatically be knowledgeable, wise, and powerful.)
  • Scarcity (Since the A-list has so few members relative to the total blogging population, what A-listers write must necessarily be of high quality. Similarly, a link from an A-lister is enormously valuable—regardless of the quality of the item at the end of that link.)

Although each of these factors probably has some influence, I suggest that Social Proof is far and away the most important factor in the “female bloggers don’t get their fair share of links and therefore need their own blogging award” fracas.

Remember what Cavett Roberts (the founding president of the National Speakers Association) said: “Since 95 percent of people are imitators and only five percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.”

Social Proof ensures that those who either lack the time to thoughtfully investigate the alternatives or lack the capacity to think for themselves can make decisions quickly, easily, and—above all—correctly since, as Cialdini points out: “The greater the number of people who find an idea correct, the more the idea will be correct.”

One could hardly be surprised that decisions based on Social Proof will result in something like Clay Shirkey’s Power Law Distribution:

To see how freedom of choice could create such unequal distributions, consider a hypothetical population of a thousand people, each picking their 10 favorite blogs. One way to model such a system is simply to assume that each person has an equal chance of liking each blog. This distribution would be basically flat - most blogs will have the same number of people listing it as a favorite. A few blogs will be more popular than average and a few less, of course, but that will be statistical noise. The bulk of the blogs will be of average popularity, and the highs and lows will not be too far different from this average. In this model, neither the quality of the writing nor other people’s choices have any effect; there are no shared tastes, no preferred genres, no effects from marketing or recommendations from friends.

But people’s choices do affect one another. If we assume that any blog chosen by one user is more likely, by even a fractional amount, to be chosen by another user, the system changes dramatically. Alice, the first user, chooses her blogs unaffected by anyone else, but Bob has a slightly higher chance of liking Alice’s blogs than the others. When Bob is done, any blog that both he and Alice like has a higher chance of being picked by Carmen, and so on, with a small number of blogs becoming increasingly likely to be chosen in the future because they were chosen in the past.

Think of this positive feedback as a preference premium. The system assumes that later users come into an environment shaped by earlier users; the thousand-and-first user will not be selecting blogs at random, but will rather be affected, even if unconsciously, by the preference premiums built up in the system previously.

Although he doesn’t mention Robert Cialdini in his Power Law essay, Shirky is describing a perfect example of Social Proof in action. Cialdini elaborates:

First, we seem to assume that if a lot of people are doing the same thing, they must know something we don’t. Especially when we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd. Second, quite frequently the crowd is mistaken because they are not acting on the basis of any superior information but are reacting, themselves, to the principle of social proof.

This neatly describes what occurs when a new blogger arrives on the scene wondering who to put on his or her blogroll or, alternatively, a more experienced blogger needs to quickly publish a post or two. In either case, the easiest course of action is to place one’s trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd. In other words, “I’ll link to whoever he’s linking to.”

So when Burningbird wrote:

To be honest, if the Wizbang awards person had taken the nominations, went out to Technorati and found the least linked of them and put only them into the award lists, I would have promoted the hell out of it. I wouldn’t have been on that list, but I still would have promoted the hell out of it.

she was expecting the Wizbang awards person—and many of those who took part in the nominations—to do something that is almost totally counter-intuitive. Unless you’re among the five percent initiators, like Burningbird.

In the same post, titled Blogger Strike, Burningbird listed her reasons for focusing on this issue:

I do have a fairly good rating in Technorati, and people must wonder why I write so much on this — what do I have to bitch about: the A-Lists, the hunt for links, and women’s writing. I have people coming by, writing comments, linking to me, and I’m a woman. What do I have to complain about?

True. All true. That’s why I felt more obligated to write what I do, because I remember all too well coming close to quitting two years ago this Christmas, when I was alone in San Francisco and felt even more alone online because no one was around, or commented, or seemed to see me.

I’ve never forgotten this and hoped to make a difference, but I’m fighting against human nature. I wasn’t helping, and once you get to the point of having to explain your motivation, you’ve already lost the battle.

Interesting that Burningbird sees it in terms of “fighting against human nature”, since it is possible to frame my argument about the influence of Social Proof in a way that suggests there’s little point in attempting to argue with the numbers, given that they are a direct reflection of “human nature”. Yet Cialdini’s insights can be employed in the service of diametrically opposed aims: to manipulate others so that their behavior conforms to our wishes or to defend ourselves against such manipulation.

It’s instructive that one A-list blogger has analyzed link dynamics from an engineer’s perspective and figured out—as far as it is possible for an individual to do so—a way to subvert the effects of Social Proof. Steven Den Beste has a long-standing, carefully-articulated policy of replacing the names on his USS Clueless sidebar every four months or so. He wrote about it at length in an earlier post ( Inverse Network Effect) and a few days ago when he turned over the list again (Best Original Content). But this paragraph, from a post written last July (Rototilling the Sidebar) neatly summarizes his policy:

The basic idea is to try to give several months of concentrated exposure to a small number of blogs which I think deserve far more attention than they get. With any luck, during that time they’ll build up a large enough regular readership that their traffic can continue to grow on its own thereafter. So periodically I replace the list with another group to try to do the same for them.

Why do I do this? Mostly because it’s what I wish someone had done for me, back when I first started out.

It’s entirely in character that, in a post referring to his 2003 Warblogger Award for Best Original Content, Den Beste wrote at length about why another blogger, who didn’t even rate a place in the category, deserved the award more.

As important as it is to draw our attention to “injustice”, as Burningbird has done, it’s far more useful to transform theory into practice, as Steven Den Beste has done. Given the differential value of links, I doubt that—without the support of a majority of A-listers—it would be possible to cause even a crack in the citadel based upon Social Proof and the Power Law Distribution.

And I’m sufficiently pessimistic about “human nature” to doubt that this could result in such a radical transformation of the A-list that the current members will find themselves back in line outside the club whilst some of the formerly tired and huddled masses suddenly find themselves whooping it up in the VIP lounge. But who knows? If enough of us followed Den Beste’s example, it might prompt a shift in the way people think about blogrolls and links.

Nor do I think there’s anything to be gained by attacking awards, no matter how predictable or ill-considered the basis upon which they are bestowed. Better to do what Burningbird, after reflecting on the problem, suggested:

Disregard my earlier rants about the Wizbang awards. Instead, go out there and look at the lists. From each, find the sites with the fewest links in Technorati, visit them. For those you like, leave a comment or two, and then vote for them.

Notice that following Burningbird’s suggestion will require time and effort—and it’s exactly our reluctance to thoughtfully consider the alternatives and think for ourselves that Social Proof depends on and therefore that created the current situation. (You might also want to be careful—in choosing the weblogs “you like”—to recall Cialdini’s principle of Liking and resist the temptation to select those who are similar to you, have praised you, or are associated with events or projects you’d like to be a part of.)

Even so, I am convinced that, although it is unlikely to overcome the hegemony of the Power Law, the widespread adoption of Steven Den Beste’s rotating blogroll idea would have a greater impact than any weblog award by creating a healthier array of niche communities and, simultaneously, providing a kind of principled resistance to the tyranny of Social Proof.

Perhaps bloggers would start to believe that if enough people (us) are doing the same thing (basing blogrolls and links on the quality and originality of the ideas and writing) then we must know something they don’t (that excellence rather than reputation deserves to be celebrated).

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Friday 12 December 2003

Beauty, sadness, and existential choice

From Donald Richie’s Ozu:

It is here that morality enters into the Ozu film. What Ozu is saying is not that the old way is the best way, or that youth must have its fling, or that you come into the world and leave it all alone—though all these thoughts have their places in the Ozu universe. Ozu is saying, rather, that within the given constraints, one forms one’s own character by consciously deciding upon this course or that. One does not delve into oneself, find there a character already formed, then recognize it as one’s own. Rather, out of the inchoate material of human nature one forms a single human being, inconsistencies and all.

Morality exists that one may have a guide through the labyrinth. Ozu’s morality, like that of most Asians, is simple. You act in a way that is consistent with nature, for you observe your kinship with other beings and perceive that you are a part of the nature around you, neither its slave nor its overlord. You observe the laws of your civilization until the point at which they seriously interfere with your own well-being, and then you make a compromise. You behave like the guest in this world you truly are.

You are a transient in a transitory world. With a feeling that goes far beyond the demands of good breeding, you gently celebrate (mono no aware) those very qualities which threaten (and eventually extinguish) your personal entity. You do so because you are part of this world and you know its rules, and you accept them. They are right because they are.

To achieve this relationship with the world, you learn to choose. We watch the people in an Ozu film choosing and deliberating over and over again, usually in the knowledge that in choosing one forms one’s character. You are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself. In choosing, you not only create self, you transcend it. You are, in a way, the self you always were, but the awareness of alternatives brings awareness of the most important fact of human life: there is no immutable inner reality, no inner person, no soul. You choose what you will become.

Here, perhaps, is the reason why Ozu’s characters have, as has been mentioned, no past. They may refer to times past, but we never see them. Ozu is one of the very few directors who never once in his entire career used a flashback. A person’s past has done its work, but it is not interesting. Of his people you may truly say what is important is not what life has done to them, but what they do with what life has done to them.

One understands, then, Ozu’s dislike and distrust of plot. Plot is possible only if it is agreed that a character is a certain kind of person with a certain kind of past who will therefore predictably do certain kinds of things and not others—that he is, in short, limited in a way people never are, before death. One understands also why inconsistency of character is so important to Ozu: it is a sign of life because it is a sign of choice. Choice is important to all of Ozu’s people, as it is to all of us, which is one of the things that makes them so lifelike. What is involved, one must add, is nothing so sweeping as absolute free will. The freedom of Ozu’s characters is, from the first, restricted. They are after all, human, which implies certain constraints; they must live together, another constraint; and they are part of a larger society, yet another constraint. They are offered not the à la carte menu, but the table d’hôte. Limitless choice exists no more for them than it does for anyone, but the range of choice is wide enough to be meaningful, to let Ozu’s people form their own character.

And this, finally, is what the Ozu film shows us—character being formed through choice.

Today, as Michael Kerpan points out, is the 100th anniversary of Ozu’s birth and the 40th anniversary of his death.

Earlier in his book on the director, Richie describes the central pleasure that comes from watching one of Ozu’s films:

What remains after an Ozu film is the feeling that, if only for an hour or two, you have seen the goodness and beauty of everyday things and everyday people; you have had experiences you cannot describe because only film, not words, can describe them; you have seen a few small, unforgettable actions, beautiful because real. You are left with a feeling of sadness, too, because you will see them no more. They are already gone. In the feeling of transience, of the mutability and beauty of all life, Ozu joins the greatest Japanese artists. It is here that we taste, undiluted and authentic, the Japanese flavor.

The other—equally important though less obvious—characteristic of the Ozu film is its emphasis on existential choice. It’s difficult to conceive of anything more at odds with contemporary Western society’s willingness to concoct excuses for all kinds of bad behavior than the notion that you are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself.

Those of us who agree with Richie that “there is no immutable inner reality, no inner person, no soul” could do infinitely worse than follow a morality based on an appreciation of the transient beauty of everyday life and the need to accept responsibility for both our choices and the consequences that flow from them.

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Wednesday 17 December 2003

Mainstream media—just say no!

Commenting on my post about coping with information overload, Robert Castelo wrote: “The secret of course is filtering”.

Although he has access to 100 cable channels, Robert restricts his viewing to one: BBC4, which—by focusing on arts, culture, documentaries, debate and world cinema— has already done a substantial amount of filtering for him. He refines their filtering by going through the BBC4 schedule and choosing what he wants.

I implemented Robert’s filtering strategy a long time ago: firstly, by refusing to have cable TV installed, thereby restricting myself to five free-to-air networks; and secondly, by mostly watching SBS, the Australian network whose programming policy has, until recently, closely resembled that of BBC4. But SBS has a new Head of Television, New Zealander Shaun Brown, who in the last few months has implemented additional filtering on my behalf by ruthlessly cutting back the world cinema and the arts/culture/documentary programs—part of his plan to move the network downmarket in search of “a ‘younger, groovier’ audience”.

Although I still have a residual loyalty for a few shows that run on the commercial networks—such as The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, and Survivor—the neutering of SBS has made it possible for me to take Robert Castelo’s TV filtering strategy to its logical conclusion. On Monday night, as the final credits rolled on the Survivor Reunion show, I said a silent prayer of thanks that Sandra—and not the odious Lill—had won the million dollars then disconnected the TV from the external antenna.

We’ll see how it goes. If I want to watch a movie, I have plenty to choose from: a few dozen DVDs and a couple of hundred Japanese movies that I taped on VHS as SBS screened them over the past fifteen years. I’m writing this while I’m waiting for the DHL driver to deliver another Ozu DVD box set.

What will I miss on TV this week? A German documentary about the failure of the CIA and FBI to act on intelligence warnings received prior to the September attacks. Underground, Emir Kusturica’s foray through Yugoslav history (which I saw at the cinema). A Spanish documentary about the architect Antoni Gaudi. The Ginkgo Bed (a Korean ghost movie). A profile of The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan. NYPD Blue. The 30-minute SBS evening news bulletin. (Shaun Brown hasn’t managed to screw that yet though, given time, he’ll no doubt reshape the news for his younger, groovier audience.)

In other words, no great loss.

I stopped buying the Sydney Morning Herald years ago, though every day I visit the SMH website to stay in touch with local and international events and read the opinion pages. But the quality of writing and analysis that is available from the weblogs I read regularly is vastly superior to anything that the Herald (or any other mainstream publication) has to offer. For example:

So I just deleted the SMH website from the list of sites that load by default every time I open Mozilla Phoenix.

My new motto? Mainstream media—just say no! As tonio wrote in a comment on my Overloaded post:

If there’s something I desperately need to know about, someone will tell me whether I want them to or not, but not having already heard the same thing 50 times on 8 different news stations, radio, and the web makes their telling me a lot more interesting.

But what will I do with all this free time? Go for a walk every day, in addition to swimming laps at the pool. Read a lot more—especially now that I’m starting to read real stories in Japanese by writers such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Natsume Sōseki, and Arishima Takeo. As well as writing the occasional weblog post. Which means that this evening I can start work on the post(s) about Sexual Globalization that I promised Halley Suitt.

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Friday 19 December 2003

The Human Condition

In his Salon review of The Return of the King, the final film in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Andrew O’Hehir writes:

Although I’ll always have a soft spot for “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which made us all believe that this implausible endeavor might actually work, this one is Jackson’s crowning achievement. It marks “The Lord of the Rings,” without any serious question, as the greatest long-form work in the history of mainstream cinema. (Do I hear any other nominees?)

As a matter of fact, yes.

Poster for Kobayashi's The Human Condition Kobayashi Masaki’s Ningen no Jōken (The Human Condition).

Between 1959 and 1961 Kobayashi compressed Gomikawa Junpei’s six-volume novel into three feature films, each over three hours long. The trilogy left an indelible impression when I saw it years ago, on television, before I had a VCR. I’ve always regretted not being able to tape Kobayashi’s trilogy but, happily, it’s now available on DVD. Based partly on the director’s own war experiences, The Human Condition tells the story of a pacifist, Kaji (played by Nakadai Tatsuya), who is drafted into the Imperial Army.

In the first film, No Greater Love, Kaji is punished by being sent to a mine in Manchuria. After unsuccessfully trying to improve the conditions of the native slave laborers, he is charged with treason, tortured, and forced to join a combat unit.

The second film, Road to Eternity, depicts in unflinching detail the brutality of the Imperial Army—not just to the tyrannized Chinese but also to the Japanese enlisted men. Despite Kaji’s reluctance he is promoted and, in trying to alleviate the hardships of his subordinates, incurs the hostility of his fellow officers. After a series of pointless attacks, he is one of only three members of his unit to survive the final battle.

In the last installment, A Soldier’s Prayer, the Japanese forces surrender but Kaji—who imagines he will soon return to Japan—is captured by Soviet troops and sent to a POW camp where he is accused of murder and sentenced to be executed. He escapes into a Siberian blizzard and dies dreaming of being reunited with his wife.

I would much prefer to have seen The Human Condition at the cinema in a single sitting: starting around nine in the morning with ninety minute breaks for lunch and dinner. But even watching it on a tiny TV screen over three consecutive nights was an amazing experience. That Kobayashi was able to finance a nine hour trilogy based on such an uncompromising script is a tribute to the vitality of the postwar Japanese film industry. I can’t help but feel that my interest in—and sympathy for—the Japanese experience of the Pacific War is a direct consequence of seeing this film.

Nakadai Tatsuya is perfectly cast in the role of Kaji. As Satō Tadao writes in Currents in Japanese Cinema:

In adverse situations this strong, samurai-like man remembers his beautiful wife and, by calling out her name, is able to endure his suffering. Nakadai’s performance was a revolutionary transformation of the traditional Confucian dictum that a noble man does not love a woman.

Kobayashi based much of The Human Condition on his own experiences: eight months after entering Shochiku’s Ōfuna studio as an assistant director, he was drafted in January 1942 and by April had arrived in Harbin, Manchuria. As Audie Bock explains in her book Japanese Film Directors, Kobayashi expressed “his opposition to the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army system by refusing to rise above the rank of private, which he remained for the duration of his military service.”

About his pacifist hero, Kobayashi said: “I am Kaji in the film.”

Is Kobayashi’s epic “greater” than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy? I think so (from what I’ve seen of LoTR so far) though I can’t think of a single person who might agree with me. I quite enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring, was bored to stupefaction by The Two Towers, and will see The Return of the King only because I’m anal-retentive and hate to leave things unfinished. I guess I prefer bleak realism to vulgar spectacle.

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Tuesday 30 December 2003

Conflicting visions

Listen, here’s the thing about politics: It’s not an expression of your moral purity and your ethics and your probity and your fond dreams of some utopian future. Progressive people constantly fail to get this.

Tony Kushner, Mother Jones interview (via Scott Rosenberg)

At last, someone (a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, actually) gets to the essence of why I have such a low regard for “progressive people”—even though I strongly support so many of the policies they espouse.

It’s also why Scott Reynen could write six weeks ago:

reading jonathon delacour’s revelation that he’s “conservative” makes it clear to me that the old left-right axis is almost entirely useless. i generally consider myself “liberal”, but i generally agree with jonathon’s opinions, as expressed in his weblog. so either i’m not really “liberal”, or he’s not really “conservative”, or those words aren’t really important. i strongly suspect the last option

My position on the political compass: Left LibertarianScott made this observation in the context of discussing the Political Compass test, which indicated that he is a “left libertarian”. I took this test eighteen months ago and was also judged to be a left libertarian (although, as you can see from the illustration, I only just slip into that quadrant).

Out of curiosity, I took the test a couple of weeks ago and got exactly the same result.

In his post, Scott took issue with the test’s libertarian vs. authoritarian axis:

while putting “libertarian” at the opposite end of the spectrum as “authoritarian” is something libertarians like to do, i think it’s ridiculous. “authoritarian” is not the opposite of “libertarian”. defines “authoritarian” in part as against individual freedom. the problem is that “libertarian” means both advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state (as recognizes) and “member of the libertarian party”.

In my case, the “libertarian” label is especially meaningless, given that I support maximizing state involvement or intervention in a whole range of sectors, such as:

  • universal health care and pharmaceutical benefits;
  • competition/anti-monopoly and consumer protection laws;
  • environmental safeguards;
  • public transportation;
  • communications and cross-media regulation; and
  • publicly-funded broadcasting.

Anyone reading that list would automatically assume that I’m “liberal” rather than “conservative”. I was initially surprised, however, that when I took the Christian Science Monitor’s Neocon Quiz I turned out—like Joe Duemer—to be a liberal on foreign policy too (the possible categories are Isolationist, Liberal, Realist, Neoconservative).

On reflection, it was clear why I hadn’t been scored as a Realist, the position that would more accurately reflect my views on foreign policy: the Quiz assumes that you’re an American whereas I answered as a non-American, whose foreign policy interests don’t necessarily coincide with those of the United States. Had I answered as an American—or had the Quiz taken into account that non-Americans also use the Internet—I have no doubt that my responses would identify me as a Realist.

That’s the problem with quizzes like this—they don’t map well to the real world.

Scott continues:

i think there’s a real need for something to move us beyond thinking of politics in terms of “left” and “right”, but i don’t think the political compass is a solution. rather than adding another axis, i think we need to get rid of the axes altogether. a new axis just doubles the number of ways in which you can be “with us or against us”.

I’m not sure we can “get rid of the axes altogether” though I think there’s a better way to look at the problem. Before I get to that, however, let me quote from another (more recent) post by Scott Reynen:

a few days ago i unsubscribed myself from yet another conservative weblog. in principle, i believe it’s possible for someone with a liberal bias such as myself to have a reasonable discussion with someone with a conservative bias. but in practice, i’ve found it difficult to find someone with a conservative bias who doesn’t equate my liberal bias with terrorism. of course, the same problem exists with overtly liberal weblogs, which too often equate conservatism with fascism.

maybe this makes sense outside of america, but here i just don’t get it. whether you are a liberal or conservative american, roughly half of the country is in the opposing camp. i don’t understand what sort of views would support the painting of half of all americans as evil. maybe it makes those who agree with the writer feel better about themselves, but isn’t it more important to be changing the minds of those who don’t agree with the writer? isn’t it a safe assumption that the american government will continue to (albeit poorly) represent both liberal and conservative americans, and will thus be required to find some middle ground? is there no longer a middle ground in american politics?

The polarization to which Scott refers has been skilfully exploited by conservative governments in Australia and the United States, both of whom have nurtured a “politics of terror” as the easiest way of maintaining their grip on power. And polarization works since it’s simpler to see things in terms of black and white, rather than in shades of gray. As for “changing the minds of those who don’t agree with the writer”, Burningbird outlined the method:

You want to change minds? Find your way into the kind of mind you want to change, and speak the language it can understand. That’ll change minds.

and then pointed to a superb example, David Brooks’ support for gay marriage:

The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.

I know from experience how difficult it is to find your way into the mind of someone you love, let alone the mind of someone with whom you profoundly disagree. And equally difficult to find the language to speak your mind in terms that their mind can understand.

As for whether “this [polarization] makes sense outside of America”, it does—though not in quite the same way.

One thing that needs to be said is that “liberal” and “conservative” are not the same in Australia as in the United States. For a start, the main conservative party in Australia is called the Liberal Party, which governs in a coalition with the National Party. So, in our case, the Liberals are the conservatives (and the Australian Labor Party represents what Americans would regard as liberal values).

More importantly, the Australian political spectrum is skewed to the left, compared to the Republican-Democratic axis in the US, as shown in the following illustration:

Comparison of where Australian and American parties lie on the political spectrum

I accept that not just Edward R. Tufte but Australians and Americans of every political persuasion will find fault with my diagram, since it is not merely graphically inept but, more importantly, it is based on nothing more than my entirely subjective analysis of US and Australian political differences. That’s OK, you can use the comments to register your criticisms or make suggestions on how it might be improved. Do not, however, point out that I should have used color more imaginatively—namely red to represent the left and blue for the right. For reasons best known to themselves, Americans use red for the (conservative) Republicans and blue for the (liberal) Democrats. (I’d love to hear Edward Tufte’s view on that.)

Putting to one side my diagram’s shortcomings, I’d argue that similar diagrams—generated by replacing Australia with almost any European, Asian, and South American country—would show a greater or smaller degree of skew compared to the left/right spectrum in the United States. The amount of skew doesn’t really matter since the point I’m trying to make is that when Americans and non-Americans talk about “liberal” and “conservative” they’re not talking about exactly the same thing. Just as I’m a “liberal” on foreign policy when I answer the questions as an Australian, whereas I’d be a “realist” if I answered them as an American.

In my own case, if I were forced to join an Australian political party, I’d opt for the (left) Labor Party. But I’d join the right-wing faction of the Labor Party since the left-wing of the party is populated by Kushner’s progressives, accurately (though unkindly) summed up by conservative columnist PP McGuinness:

It has always been the case that Labor has had a substantial proportion of its membership much preferring the luxury of a highfalutin moral stance in opposition to the inevitable compromises, and sometimes the dirty hands, of practical government.

These are the people for whom [party president Carmen] Lawrence now speaks. Most of the people who usurp the high moral ground do so from a comfortable economic base—they have good jobs (often in the public sector) which give them plenty of leisure, they attend dinner parties with their ilk and sing choruses of hate directed at anyone who challenges their right to govern the world.

They put one hand on their hearts to declare their concerns for the poor and disadvantaged while putting the other hand in the public purse for themselves.

The fact that I would choose to align myself with the hard-headed (and, by the standards of left wing, hard-hearted) pragmatists of Labor’s right wing goes some way to explaining how I can appear to be simultaneously “liberal” and “conservative”, since—as the JD button indicates—it places me close to the conventional political center in Australia but on the left of the Democratic party in the US.

The one thing you can take away from this is that it all depends on your frame of reference.

But there’s another way of looking at the problem, and that is to replace the liberal-conservative axis with what Thomas Sowell calls unconstrained and constrained visions of the nature of human beings. This makes a lot more sense to me and it provides a better understanding why “liberals” and “conservatives” hold their respective positions.

In his book A Conflict of Visions, Sowell compares the unconstrained vision expressed by William Godwin with the constrained vision of Adam Smith. Whereas Godwin argued that although human behavior appears to be motivated primarily by self-interest, this egocentric behavior “arises from a combination of circumstances and is not the necessary and invariable law of our nature”. For Godwin, the underlying nature of human potential suggested that “man was capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own, and therefore of consistently acting impartially, even when his own interests or those of his family were involved”. Moreover, “Godwin regarded the intention to benefit others as being ‘of the essence of virtue’, and virtue in turn as being the road to human happiness”.

For Smith, on the other hand, “the moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular, were neither lamented… nor regarded as things to be changed. They were treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in his vision… Instead of regarding man’s nature as something that could or should be changed, Smith attempted to determine how the moral and social benefits desired could be produced in the most efficient way, within that constraint”. In other words, “one of the hallmarks of the constrained vision is that it deals in tradeoffs rather than solutions”.

Sowell sums up the conflicting visions in these terms:

The constrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition. The unconstrained vision is a moral vision of human intentions, which are viewed as ultimately decisive. The unconstrained vision promotes pursuit of the highest ideals and the best solutions. By contrast, the constrained vision sees the best as the enemy of the good—a vain attempt to reach the unattainable being seen as not only futile but often counterproductive, while the same efforts could have produced a viable and beneficial tradeoff.

Those who see the potentialities of human nature as extending far beyond what is currently manifested have a social vision quite different from those who see human beings as tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects.

Running through the tradition of the unconstrained vision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution… By contrast, the constrained vision sees the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.

In my Ozu anniversary post I quoted Donald Richie’s belief that “you are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself”. Thus it should be clear that my antipathy towards the unconstrained vision of human nature is based at least partly upon a conviction that intentions count for nothing, that only actions have value.

Although it would be foolish to deny the existence of altruism, the capacity to “directly [feel] other people’s needs as more important than one’s own”, everyday observation suggests that, for the most part, we are no more capable of acting impartially when our own interests or those of our family are concerned than were those who enthused over Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in the years following its publication in 1793.

As a young man and a new recruit to the Labor Party, Paul Keating—in my view Australia’s greatest Prime Minister since John Curtin led a Labor government during World War II—used to meet each week to discuss politics with Jack Lang, the former Premier of New South Wales, who was dismissed from office by the State Governor (representing the British Crown) when, in an attempt to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression, he refused to pay interest owed to British banks. Despite his commitment to Labor ideals and social justice, Lang revealed himself as a believer in the constrained vision when he gave Keating this invaluable piece of political advice:

If you’re ever in any doubt as to which horse to back in the Political Stakes, put your money on Self Interest. There’s nothing certain in politics, in racing, or in life itself—but you can be sure of one thing, Self Interest will always be in there, trying its hardest.

This kind of tough pragmatism is anathema to many progressives, who would prefer to maintain their political ideals and their moral purity—even at the cost of remaining ineffectual. But Tony Kushner gets it right in this exchange with the Mother Jones interviewer:

MJ: You’re saying progressives are undone by their own idealism?

TK: The system isn’t about ideals. The country doesn’t elect great leaders. It elects fucked-up people who for reasons of ego want to run the world. Then the citizenry makes them become great.

One of the great Labor leaders in New South Wales was Neville Wran, who was Premier from 1976 to 1986. One of his ministers was asked why Wran had been so successful. “It’s simple,” he replied, “Neville doesn’t believe in anything.”

Which, of course, is not exactly true. What Wran didn’t believe in was ideology for its own sake, and he certainly didn’t believe in “the highest ideals and the best solutions” beloved of proponents of the unconstrained vision. But he definitely believed in “viable and beneficial tradeoffs”. In other words, Neville Wran believed in Deng Xiaoping’s dictum:

“No matter if it’s a black cat or a white cat; if it can catch rats, it’s a good cat.”

I’ve already argued that, in the absence of actions, intentions count for nothing. In the same way, ideals are useless unless they are tempered by a regard for consequences. As Camus said, “It’s better to be wrong by killing no one than to be right with mass graves.”

“In the constrained vision,” writes Thomas Sowell, “whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.”

There is, underlying this statement, a “thoroughgoing rejection” of what Andrew O’Hehir calls “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress”, a rejection I warmly endorse.

In an earlier post about the decline of romance, I quoted a passage from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. It’s worth quoting again:

Ada could hear in Ruby’s breathing that she was yet awake, and so she said, Do you remember that song of your father’s about the mole in the ground? Ruby said that she did, and Ada asked if Ruby thought Stobrod had written the song. Ruby said there were many songs that you could not say anybody in particular made by himself. A song went around from fiddler to fiddler and each one added something and took something away so that in time the song became a different thing from what it had been, barely recognizable in either tune or lyric. But you could not say the song had been improved, for as was true of all human effort, there was never advancement. Everything added meant something lost, and about as often as not the thing lost was preferable to the thing gained, so that over time we’d be lucky if we just broke even. Any thought otherwise was empty pride.

As I wrote back in March, 2002, that passage floored me, crystallizing beliefs I’d held unconsciously for years:

  • Everything has a cost.
  • Our gains rarely, if ever, outweigh our losses.
  • The past is precious.
  • Progress is an illusion.

In this light, both my “liberal” and my “conservative” beliefs flow from an acceptance of the constrained vision of human nature.

As I see it, universal health care and pharmaceutical benefits, anti-monopoly and consumer protection laws, environmental safeguards, public transportation, communications and cross-media regulation, and publicly-funded broadcasting are all viable and beneficial tradeoffs that balance the interests of individual, corporation, and government.

Experience shows me that, while free and open markets offer the most effective way of improving living standards, corporations can rarely be trusted to place (for example) the well-being of the environment ahead of the interests of their shareholders. Equally, individuals can not always be trusted to act in the best interests of themselves and their families. The Happy Tutor put it well:

What 95% of the people may tell the pollster is that they love God and want to be happy with him in Heaven, rather than burning in hell with Satan for all eternity. But with their earthly wallet and mortal attention what they buy is violence, perversity, fleshly pleasure, vanity, pride, pain, and death—all that Satan sponsors.

And until we inhabit a Utopia in which nations consistently place the interests of others above their own, I’ll continue to believe that the high moral ground is a poor vantage point from which to conduct foreign policy. Again, the Happy Tutor is correct when he says:

That is why when True Believers rise in political, religious, military or military circles they are so dangerous, for they are at war not only with Terror, but with their own illicit and unacknowledged fascination with evil.

But True Believers exist at both ends of the political spectrum and I fear those on the left as much as those on the right. Both make a claim to virtue and both are equally dangerous; for, as Adam Smith pointed out:

Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.

I’ll finish as I started, with a quote from Tony Kushner:

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again: Anyone that the Democrats run against Bush, even the appalling Joe Lieberman, should be a candidate around whom every progressive person in the United States who cares about the country’s future and the future of the world rallies. Money should be thrown at that candidate. And if Ralph Nader runs—if the Green Party makes the terrible mistake of running a presidential candidate—don’t give him your vote. Listen, here’s the thing about politics: It’s not an expression of your moral purity and your ethics and your probity and your fond dreams of some utopian future. Progressive people constantly fail to get this.

I, on the other hand, will probably vote for the Green Party, in the Senate at least. The trendy inner-city electorate where I live is largely populated by progressives who relish the freedom to indulge their moral purity at little or no personal cost. What an irony that my parliamentary representative, who has an absolutely safe seat, is a leading member of the progressive-left Labor faction that I abhor.

The Senate is a different story entirely. Australians have long shown a preference for a hung Senate in which neither of the major parties (Liberal/National and Labor) have sufficient seats to exercise control and must therefore negotiate with the smaller parties to have their legislation passed. Currently, the balance of power is shared by the Greens, the (centrist) Australian Democrats, and a couple of Independents. I’ve usually voted for the Democrats in the Senate but the party is unraveling. So, as a way of countering the gradual shift to the right in Australian politics, I may well vote for the nutty, naïve, Utopian Greens.

But a vote for the Greens in Australia will have quite different consequences from a vote for the Greens in the United States. As I said before, it all depends on one’s frame of reference. Any American who votes for Ralph Nader, however, deserves another four years of George W. Bush.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour