Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Art Solipsist

Guest post by C. Thi Nguyen

[cross-posted at Aesthetics for Birds]

I was a pretty isolated kid, raised on classical music and 60’s rock and roll by my parents. Then, in high school, I started making, you know, actual friends. And they expanded my musical world, but only a little bit. The indie rock they got me into was pretty close to the classic rock and classical music my parents had raised me. The aesthetic sensibility, the particular flavor of emotional build-up and release — they all made sense to my ear. But I distinctly remember, in my teenage years, having my first exposures to rap and thinking: this isn’t music. This is just some dudes, like, talking. All the melody is just this hyper-simplistic looping sample, and then they’re just, like, talking over it. Where’s the music?

This is now an exquisitely embarrassing memory. My tastes have blown well past those early borders. I’ve become the kind of person who thinks that, right now, some of the greatest heights of musical wonder and emotional expression are pouring out of the world of rap and hip hop, and later stuff that has grown out of the soundscape of hip-hop. But I can still remember what it was like, to be my teenage self, hearing rappers that I would eventually come to revere — Nas, Erik B, Biggie — and somehow hearing just some dudes, like, talking.

The transformation in experience is particularly sharp with Wu Tang Clan’s ultra-classic, Enter the 36th Chamber. Eventually, this album would come to reside in the bleeding core of my musical aesthetic — a mind-bending, world-warping musical wonder. But on the first exposure I missed all of it: all the weird genius use of silence and gaps, all the emotional load in those de-tuned strings, all the textural contrasts, the way the reverb-laden old R&B sounds conjured up sad nostalgia, all that ferocious metrical genius. The first few times I heard it, all I heard was just some dudes, like, yelling.

Caption: Screencap from Wu Tang Clan, C.R.E.A.M.

What got me through was somebody I trusted telling me to listen to it, telling me to give it serious attention. I had somebody I trusted deeply, assuring me that there wonders in Wu Tang I wasn’t hearing — that it was worth the effort. And they said things that helped me find those wonders. I remember what my buddy told me: “If you’re used to listening only to classical and rock, you’re used to a complex and varying melodies over a simple repeating rhythm line. But with a lot of rap, it’s a simple repeating melody, and everything interesting is going on in the vocals, as a complex and endlessly rhythmic line. You have to listen in the right place.”

That comment really helped me parse what was going on in rap, to actually pay attention to where the action was. The words helped me focus in the right place. But the most important part was that there somebody I trusted deeply, in aesthetic matters — whose taste I respected about food and novels and classical music — also telling me that this Wu Tang stuff was worth listening to, worth my time and energy.[1]

Because navigating the world of art takes trust. This is the basic epistemic dilemma of much art: many forms of art takes time and devotion to really get. So why would you ever put in the effort in the first place? Before you learn to hear all the subtleties of a particular genre or style — or even a particular album — it can just sound worthless. So why put in the energy? Where would the motivation come from?

Some art is, let’s say, difficult. A piece of art is difficult if its value isn’t obvious from first inspection — if it takes some time and effort to see that it’s worth your time and effort. (This is my own slightly personalized terminology.) Maybe some art is difficult for everybody — like maybe Marianne Moore’s peculiar and hyper-dense poems. Her poems are so utterly unlike anything else, that you just kind of have to learn to figure out what the hell Moore is doing.

But in many cases, difficulty is relative to familiarity and experience. Somebody like me who grew up on classical music probably experiences no difficulty listening to a new, complex piece in a familiar style. But rappers like Notorious B.I.G. were difficult for me when I first encountered even his poppiest stuff, with my utter paucity of rap experience.

And the whole point is that difficult art doesn’t always wear its difficulty on its face. Some stuff is showily difficult. I bet, for a lot of people, if you first encountered Joyce’s Ulysses or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and didn’t get it, you’d see that there was a serious, complex, arty thing there. The surface density makes it clear that there’s something to chew on, there. But other stuff is stealth difficult. Like Biggie’s “Juicy”, for teenage me: I didn’t get it, so it sounded like nothing, like simplistic fluff. It seemed simplistic to me because I was looking in the wrong place; I just wasn’t attuned enough even to realize how much weird, fascinating, subtle rhythmic texture was in his vocal line. I wasn’t listening for the way he caressed the beat; I was just listening for some goddamn melody, because that’s the only place I was trained to look for musical complexity.

I think haiku can be like this for a lot of people too: if you’re raised expect poetry to wave complex symbolism in your face, and drown you in fancy literary references, then the surface clarity of haiku can just make it seem like superficial fluff.

So, if you’re not steeped in a form, or even a particular artist, it’s easy to encounter something and not see what’s really going on, and miss it. You can dismiss Ornette Coleman’s free jazz improvisations as random noise, or Theodore Rothko’s moody color studies as pretentious art-world bunk, or Joanna Newsom’s dense expressive textures as precious hippie hipster shit.

Caption: Light Red Over Black, Mark Rothko, 1957

If you’re trained, like I was, in the aesthetic of clear controlled vocals and melodic complexity, then your first encounter with punk might just yield total disdain. The whole expressive aim of punk is just so far from what you’re used to, you might just not get it.

But it’s not like you can just spend your attention on anything. This is the heart of the problem: it’s not like every piece of art is worthwhile. The world is actually full of random noise, pretentious art-world bunk, and precious worthless hipster shit. And we need to be able to filter it out quickly, so we don’t waste energy on the crap. The deep epistemic problem of art is that, when you’re an outsider, you just can’t tell the poser crap from the good stuff. But to be able to tell, you need to gain skill and experience — which takes effort. And since we are cognitively limited beings with incredibly tiny shares of time and energy, facing a ceaselessly and endlessly overwhelming world, we need a good reason to spend that time and effort. Attention is the most precious cognitive resource. But difficult art is exactly the stuff that, on its face, doesn’t give you a reason to spend that resource. So why would we ever spend the time and effort?

I think the answer is: a lot of the time, it’s because we trust somebody. Maybe we trust a reviewer or a critic or a teacher, or a friend with shared taste. Maybe we trust the artist — so if you dug Miles Davis’ early, more comprehensible stuff, you might spend the effort to dig into his weirder-sounding later stuff, even if it just strikes you as totally bizarre on a first listen. Maybe you trust a community. For example: right now, the Atlanta trap musical community is putting out such a constant stream of relentlessly good stuff, that I’ll basically give at least one serious listen to anything that comes out of the scene.

It is extremely hard to understand how we would ever possibly navigate the world of art on our own. It’s the social network that surrounds and interweaves the world of art, that makes it possible for us to expand our tastes, that gives us the motivation to press on into the unfamiliar.

This also helps us diagnose some problems and traps that might arise in the aesthetic exploration process.

Imagine a kind of person who simply doesn’t trust anybody else about art. (Probably, you don’t have to imagine them; you probably already know lots.) Let’s call this distrusting person Roger. Roger experiences a piece of art — if they listen to a song, or watch a TV show — and doesn’t like it. Then somebody else tells Roger, “Oh my god, that artist/show/album/book/genre is amazing! Give it another go.” An adequately trusting person would, in the right circumstances, give that kind of testimony some weight. The adequately trusting person might, say, let another’s positive word outweigh their own first impressions.

But Roger does not. Roger extends no real aesthetic trust to other people. Maybe he grants a tiny sliver of trust, in that he’ll take recommendations of stuff he hasn’t heard. But Roger always trusts his first impressions over the word of others. In any conflict, Roger dismisses others’ taste, rather than let others’ word push him to re-examine things. Even in cases when it’s Roger’s brief opinion up against somebody else’s life-long devotion: Roger dismisses. Roger would rather think that, say, the entire world of people who were into rap were all just crude simpletons, rather than think that he might have missed something — that he might have failed to cultivate the right sensibility. Roger cannot imagine that there is a difficult skill to listening to rap, that he might need time and experience to catch onto.

Perhaps you know people like this. We can call them aesthetic solipsists: in their universe, their experience overrides all other people’s. Their own experience is the only one that carries weight. They act as if other people’s aesthetic experiences didn’t really exist — as if it was impossible for another person to carry a sensitivity that they themselves did not.

And we can find a subtle social variant of the aesthetic solipsist. Imagine a person who does trust lots of others and takes their recommendations — and even occasionally lets a deeply trusted advisor give them reason to think again. But they extend their trust based only on a pattern of profound similarity of taste. So: imagine I grew up only into classical music and I despised hip hop. So I choose who I trust about aesthetic matters based on who agrees with my specific taste. That is, I only trust other people if they share my love of classical, and my specific tastes in classical — and only if they despise hip hop. (You can imagine the thought process of such a person: anybody who is into hip hop, by that very fact, reveals their bad taste.) So I let people I trust recommend me things; I will let a trusted advisor’s testimony partially override my own experiences, and let them direct me to look again at a performance or piece that I’d initially thought was bad. But notice that I will never, following my network of aesthetic trust, get into hip hop.

If I were to act this way, I wouldn't exactly be acting as a pure aesthetic solipsist. I would, sometimes, be letting a trusted advisor’s word outweigh my initial impressions. But something subtler, and perhaps creepier, would be going going on. I'll have hidden a more complex version of aesthetic solipsism inside the structure of my trust-network. Since I'd be trusting my advisors only if they largely align with my own tastes, then I will have constructing an aesthetic echo chamber. My trust in others will be based, in its root, on profound trust in the clarity and completeness of my own taste, and so will have constructed my social world of art so that I will never be able to expand, and comprehend new forms of loveliness and expression.

Endnote: This blog post draws from some scholarly work of mine: “Trust and Sincerity in Art” and “Cognitive Islands and Runaway Echo Chambers”. Autobiographical side-note: I’ve written some stuff on political echo chambers, but I actually started thinking about echo chambers, long ago, on cases about art and aesthetics. My original question was: is there any way for an outsider to tell the difference between a community with an aesthetic sensitivity that the outsider did not possess, and a community of hipster posers?


Something similar I think is going on with the Dissect Podcast, which devotes a whole season to dissecting particular hip hop albums. The podcast has done Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Beyonce, Lauren Hill. In particular, there is a particularly excellent Season 2, devoted to dissecting Kanye West’s astonishing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I have some private reservations, though. On the one hand, I’ve recommended that podcast to a whole legion of friends, who were often hip-hop averse, and the intellectual clarity to the podcast has brought so many skeptics to see the depth in these albums. Host Cole Cuchna is particularly good at getting people to see the density and subtlety going on underneath the surface. On the other hand, I am sometimes worry that the podcast involves an extremely obviously white host, with a background in classical musical theory, and a perfectly NPR voice, getting people onto Black music. My discomfort isn’t about appropriation or anything, and it’s no knock on Cuchna’s obvious pedagogical brilliance. It’s just a discomfort about the fact that so many people seem to need the stamp of approval of a Western European Musical Expert, with every possible signifier of whiteness, to let themselves be guided into getting hip hop. Of course, then again, my younger self probably wouldn’t have been willing to trust somebody about the wonder of rap, if that somebody hadn’t already proven their chops to me in my classical music world. So maybe it’s all fine and I should just relax. In short, listen to Dissect, especially Season 2.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

New Article (Yay!) on How to Continue to Be Puzzled about Robot/A.I. Consciousness

How can you tell whether a robot, or some other A.I. system, has conscious experiences (i.e., phenomenal consciousness, i.e., that there's "something it's like" to be that system)?

The question matters because conscious experience, or at least certain types of conscious experience, is the most valuable thing in the universe. A planet devoid of all consciousness -- mere stones and algae, say -- is missing something amazing that Earth has: joy, sadness, insight, inspiration, wonder, imagination, relief, longing, understanding, sympathy... each assumed to have experiential components. If we build robots who genuinely possess consciousness, as opposed to being mere empty machines (so to speak), we will have succeeded in something wondrous: the creation of a new type of experiential entity, with a new range of experiential capacities. Such entities will deserve our solicitude and care, perhaps even more care than we owe to human strangers, due to obligations attached to being its creators.

This question throws us upon one of the most difficult questions in all of science: how to detect the presence or absence of conscious experience in entities very different from us.

[the android Data from Star Trek, testifying in a 24th-century court trial concerning his status as a conscious entity with rights]

Now there are two views on which the question is easy. According to panpsychism, consciousness is ubiquitous, so even currently existing robots are conscious, or contain consciousness, or participate in some cosmic consciousness. Far on the other end, according to biological views of consciousness (especially John Searle's view), no artificially constructed, non-biological system could ever be conscious, no matter how sophisticated it seemed to outside observers. Both views are extreme, so let's set them aside (despite their merits).

If we cut off those extremes, we are still left with a wide range of middling views about robot consciousness -- all the way from very liberal views according to which we are already close to creating robot consciousness to very conservative views in which the possibility might require radically new technologies of the far distant future. Even among moderate views, positions differ regarding what's necessary for consciousness like ours (the right kind of integrated information? the right kind of "global workspace"? higher-order self-monitoring?).

These debates show no sign of subsiding in the foreseeable future. So it would be nice if we could have a relatively theory-neutral test of robot consciousness -- a test that at least most moderately inclined theorists of consciousness could agree was diagnostic, despite continuing disputes about underlying theory.

The most famous relatively theory-neutral test is the Turing Test, according to which a machine counts as "thinking", or (adapting to the present case) "being conscious", if its verbal outputs are indistinguishable from those of an ordinary adult human. Unfortunately, the Turing Test has at least three crucial limitations:

First, some entities that most of us would agree have conscious experiences, such as babies and dogs, fail the test.

Second, the test relies exclusively on patterns of external behavior, and so it assumes the falsity of any theory of consciousness on which consciousness depends on internal mechanisms separable from outward behavior (which is probably, in fact, most current theories).

Third, currently existing chatbots already come close to passing it despite, on most moderate views of consciousness, not being conscious. This suggests that the test is liable to "cheating strategies" in which a machine could pass by superficial imitation of human linguistic patterns.

In her 2019 book, Susan Schneider comes to the rescue, proposing a couple of, purportedly, relatively theory-neutral tests of robot consciousness.

One is the AI Consciousness Test (ACT), which is a version of the Turing Test designed to limit cheating strategies by preventing the machine from having access to textual data on human discussions of consciousness. The ACT also focuses the machine's responses to philosophical questions concerning consciousness (life after death, soul swapping, etc.). Schneider and her collaborator on this test, Edwin Turner, hope that with the right kinds of restrictions and a focus on questions concerning consciousness, the machine would only speak like a human if it had genuine introspective access to real conscious experiences.

Schneider's second test is the Chip Test, which involves gradually replacing parts of your brain with silicon (or other artificial) chips, then introspecting. If you introspectively detect that consciousness continues to be as vividly present, you can infer that the silicon chip supports consciousness. If you introspectively detect a decline in consciousness, then you can infer that the chip does not adequately support consciousness.

So now, to the new article promised in the title of this post.

Back in 2017 or 2018, my awesome undergraduate student David Billy Udell became fascinated with these issues. He decided to write an honors thesis about them, focusing on Schneider's two tests (familiar from her presentations in popular media and then later from an advance draft of her book that she kindly shared). David finished his thesis in 2019, then went off to graduate school in philosophy at CUNY. Together, we revised his critique of Schneider into a journal article, finally published last weekend.

His/our fundamental criticism is that neither test is as theory-neutral as it might seem. In other words, they have an "audience problem". Liberals about A.I. consciousness will probably think the tests are unnecessary or too stringent; skeptics and conservatives will probably think they aren't stringent enough. The tests are a partial advance, helpful to a limited range of theorists whose doubt or skepticism is of exactly the right sort to be addressed by the specifics of the tests. However, in short, the ACT is still open to cheating/mimicking strategies, despite Schneider and Turner's efforts. And the Chip Test relies on an awkward combination of skepticism about the purported introspections of fully-chipped robots and uncritical acceptance of the tester's purported introspections after partially replacing their brain with chips.

For the full critique, see the official published version at Journal of Consciousness Studies or the final MS version here).

What a pleasure to see David's work now in print in a prominent journal -- hopefully the start of a magnificient academic career!

Monday, June 21, 2021

Chatting about Jerks with Myisha Cherry

... on the UnMute podcast, episode #062 released last week!

Topics include:

* the nature of jerkitude and how it differs from assholery
* jerks and social privilege
* the good and bad aspects of moralizing jerks
* seeing the world through jerk goggles
* the difficulty of knowing whether you're a jerk
* the value of public philosophy


Myisha is a terrific interviewer who brings out the best in her many amazing guests. Check out the whole new season!

Monday, June 14, 2021

Review Drift

Guest post by C. Thi Nguyen

Here are three stories about one thing. The first story is about social media and donuts.

Before COVID destroyed travel, I kept having this same experience. I’d be in some new city. I’d do a little online research and hear about some new donut shop that everybody was raving about. I’d go, wait in the enormous line, see all the stickers about winning awards, and admire the gorgeous donuts in joyous anticipation. And then I’d eat the donut — and it would turn out to be some horrible waxy cardboard thing. Each bite was, like, some kind of pasty mouth-death. And then I’d sit there on the curb, with my sad half-eaten donut, watching the line of people out the door, all chattering about their excitement to finally get to be able to get one of these very famous donuts, everybody carefully taking donut pics the whole while.

And weirdly, totally different cities would give me the same kind of bad donut. These donuts all had a similar kind of visual flair: they were vividly colored; and they were big, impressively structural affairs — like little sculptures in the medium of donut. But they all had that weird, tasteless, over-waxy chaw. My theory: these donuts were being optimized, not for deliciousness, but for Instagram pop. And that optimization can involve certain trade-offs. You need a dough that’s optimized for structural stability, and a frosting that’s optimized for intense color.

Right now, Instagram is where food goes viral. And I’m not saying that the visual quality is unimportant. Appearance is part of the aesthetics of food. But what makes food unique, in the aesthetic realm, is the eating part: the taste, the smell, and texture. And I’m not saying it’s impossible to make a beautiful, yet delicious donut. I’ve had some, rarely. But Instagram seems to be enabling the rise of donuts made primarily for the eye. When Instagram becomes a primary medium for recommending food, you get this weird kind of aesthetic capture. Instagram will rewards those restauranteurs who are willing to trade away taste and texture in exchange for more visual pop.

The second story is about clothes. I’ve been buying my clothes online these last few years, and I keep having the same experience. I buy something from a relatively new company with a lot of Internet presence and very good reviews. The clothes arrive. They look awesome; on the first wear, they’re incredibly comfortable. Then, pretty quickly, they start falling apart. They stretch out of shape, they start pilling, they fall apart at the seams.

Some of it is surely the current economics of fast fashion. And some of it is that a lot of these companies are spending more on advertising than on clothing quality. But that doesn’t explain the barrage of good reviews on uncurated sites. What I’m starting to suspect is that, in the online shopping world, a lot of companies are starting to specifically target the moment of review.

The vast majority of online reviews are submitted close to the moment of purchase, after only a few wears. So online reviews mostly capture short-term, and not long-term, data. So new companies are heavily incentivized to optimize for short-term satisfaction. A stiff piece of clothing that slowly breaks in to comfortable and lasts forever won’t get great reviews. A piece of clothing that has been acid-washed to the peak of softness will review quite well — and then fall apart a few months later. (You can find a similar effect on Twitter. Twitter Likes are usually recorded at the moment of first reading — so simple ideas we already agree with are more likely to get Likes, but long-burn difficult ideas that change our minds, eventually, get lost.)

Call this phenomenon review drift. Review drift happens whenever the context of review differs from the context of use. In the current online shopping environment, good online reviews drive sales. So companies are incentivized to make products for the context of review. If the context of review is typically short-term, then companies are incentivized to optimize for short-term satisfaction, even at the cost of long-term quality. (A related phenomenon is purchase drift: when the context of purchase differs from the context of use.)

A third story: Seventeen years ago, I was backpacking and camping almost every weekend. In quick succession, I had three horrifying moments with some cheap folding knives. One of those left me cut to the bone. So I had a “As God as my witness, I’ll never use crappy knives again!” moment. I decided to ask some park rangers for recommendations. The next three park rangers I met all turned out to be carrying variations on the same pocket-knife, from the same company. And I read some reviews online praising these same knives to the stars, as lifelong companions. So I bought one.

Here is a picture of my own personal Spyderco Delica 4, which has served me incredibly well for 17 years.

It is basically indestructible. I dropped if off a 100 foot cliff once and it was fine. It also has a thousand subtle design features that took me years to really appreciate. One of the interesting things about Spyderco knives: they look fucking weird. I think we have a particular Platonic image of a knife — military, stabby, tough — and Spydercos don’t look like that. (A common complaint among bro-type dudes that want to look all tactical tough: “Spyderco looks like wounded pelicans.”) But all those weird organic design swoops are amazing in the hand. Spyderco’s ergonomic design genius is well-known in the online knife appreciation community. The classic Spyderco designs just meld into your hand; they become fully intuitive, natural extensions of you. But it took me years to fully appreciate it. When you first see and hold one of these knives, especially the lightest and grippiest plastic-handled ones, they just feel cheap and weird.

A couple months ago, somebody stole my other favorite pocket-knife out of my car. It was pandemic, and my brain was starved for sensation, so I had no other choice but to go looking at updated knife reviews. And what I found was that, in between my last knife-buying venture, 17 years ago, and the current one, a vast sprawling network of knife reviewers had arisen, mostly clustered around certain YouTube channels. There is now entire online community that had sprung up dedicated to constantly reviewing and collecting knives. And this community had developed an obsession with a feature called “fidget-quality”. This is how fun it is just to sit and open and close the knife, over and over again.

A folding knife has a quality called “action”. The way that it opens and closes — the speed, the feel of the flick, the satisfying hefty click of the locking mechanism — can all be aestheticized. There are even love-odes to which knives sound good — which ring like some kind of hyper-masculinized bell when they snap open and closed. And I’ll give it to you: good action is sweet. I’m totally up for aestheticizing anything and everything. But — and some of the Internet Knife Community[1] have started to notice this — some of these very expensive, wonderfully fidgety knives don’t actually cut that well. Or that some of them have handles with really clean, pretty metals — which Instagram nicely, but which also turn out to be really, really slippery.

Here is a theory: knife sales right now are driven by the Internet Knife Community. The Internet Knife Community is driven by Instagram, but most heavily by YouTube knife reviewers — like the knife-review superstar Nick Shabazz. Nick is a great, fun, lively reviewer. But, to get popular, a reviewer has to put out a lot of regular content — like multiple knife reviews a week. But somebody who is sitting in their room, making multiple knife-review videos a week, isn’t out in the woods for years with the same knife. So what they’re doing, to review the knife, is cutting the few cardboard boxes they might have around, and then fidgeting with it — and paying lots of attention to the fidget-quality. The context of review exaggerates the importance of fidget-quality, compared to the importance of, you know, cutting stuff.

A similar thing seems to happening in the boardgame community. Boardgames are, one might hope, made for hundreds and thousands of plays. One of the reason boardgames are such a good value proposition is that you can slowly discover the depths of the game over years of repeat play. But the community is now getting driven by popular reviewers, often on YouTube, and getting popular requires putting out frequent and regular content — multiple reviews a week. Which means the most dominant voices, which drive the market, are playing each game a couple of times and then reviewing. And that drives the market in a particular direction. It drives it away from deep rich games that take a few plays to wrap your mind around. The current landscape of popular reviewers seems to be driving the market towards games which are immediately comprehensible, fun for a handful of plays, and then collapse into boring sameness.

So: the structure of the online environment right now seems to demand that superstar reviewers put up frequent updates. Which means reviewing lots of products in rapid succession. But if you’re reviewing the kind of thing that is subtle, that takes a long time to really get to know, then the context of review has drifted really far from the context of use. So we’re evolving this perverse ecosystem centered around influential reviewers — but, where, to become influential, their review-context must be really far from the standard use-context.

Review drift isn’t new. Every age has its own mediums for review and every review medium has its strengths and weaknesses. An earlier era was dominated by written reviews, which have their own limitations. (A lot of the times, I suspect that much art that’s been critically revered in the past has gotten that status, in part, because it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to write about. Like, clever symbolic intellectual stuff is easier for academics and clever art critics to write about than subtle, spare, moody stuff.)

The new wrinkle, I think, is the degree to which many modern contexts concentrate review drift and homogenize it. This is starting to become apparent in all kinds of technological circumstances. A lot of modern technologies create concentrated gateways, which channel the majority of the public’s attention through a single portal. So much of our collective attention is set by how, exactly, Google’s search engine algorithms work, and how it ranks the result. So much of our collective purchasing is set by how exactly Amazon’s algorithm works. And one thing we know is: the more a single system becomes dominant, and the more legible its internal mechanics are, the easier it is for interested parties to game that system and to hyper-optimize. There are whole industries that exist around optimizing your Google search ranking and your Amazon product ranking.

So: there’s always going to be review drift; reviews can never be perfect. But if, at least, review drift happens for different reasons, and in a plurality of directions, then it’ll be a hard target for a big company to optimize for. But if there is some kind of systematic, structural feature that encourages the same kind of review drift across a whole reviewing community, then we create a clearer system for companies to target. And this can happen when a whole body of reviews gets filtered through a particular portal — like Instagram or YouTube — which homogenizes the patterns by which reviewers get famous, or strongly filters the kinds of reviews that get recorded. The more uniform the review drift, the more legible the target for the optimizers.

This is part of a larger pattern we’re starting to see more and more. We can call it the phenomenon of squashed evaluations. When an entire rich form of activity gets evaluated through one tiny window, then the importance of whatever’s in-frame gets over-exaggerated — and whatever’s outside of that frame gets swamped. So the same general kind of pressure that’s giving us high schools laser-focused on standardized tests, pre-meds obsessed with their GPAs, and journalists obsessed with click counts, is also giving us beautiful tasteless donuts and sexy flickable knives that aren’t good at cutting.


[1] This is their actual name for themselves.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Diversity and Equity in Recruitment and Retention

by Sherri Conklin, Gregory Peterson, Michael Rea, Eric Schwitzgebel, and Nicole Hassoun

[cross-posted from The Blog of the APA]

How philosophers hire, tenure, and promote faculty in the U.S. likely contributes to philosophy’s low overall demographic diversity. For example, a recent study shows that the proportion of women in tenure track positions is lowest in the most prestigious positions and programs, and women are especially underrepresented at the highest professorial ranks (Conklin, Artamonova, and Hassoun 2019; see also the Academic Placement Data and Analysis site). The underrepresentation of Black and disabled philosophers on the tenure track is even greater (Tremain 2013; Botts et al. 2014). Such disparities reflect a structural problem in the discipline: The fundamental questions of philosophy are of just as much relevance to people depending on their race, sex, ability, and so forth; and we believe that people in academically underrepresented groups have lots of value to contribute.

Although the APA and other organizations are pursuing active initiatives in the United States and abroad to improve the diversity of the discipline, for example through diversity grants and workshops, little has been done discipline-wide that focuses directly on improving faculty recruitment practices in the U.S. (See for example, MAP, the BPA/SWIP Best Practices Scheme, and the APA’s Diversity Resources Page.)

The Demographics in Philosophy project has collected and collated data on underrepresentation in the discipline since 2015. Here we detail a list of potentially diversity-enhancing faculty recruitment and retention practices. We developed this list of suggested practices from a review of the literature, surveys and other relevant data, and panel discussions on diversity during and after the 2018 and 2019 Pacific APA meetings.

So far, we have:

        Collected and analyzed data on underrepresentation of women faculty in philosophy at 98 institutions between 2004 and 2020.

        Conducted a survey of 75 philosophy departments to evaluate current hiring and recruitment practices.

        Collaborated with the APA Committee on the Status of Women to host an open meeting at the Pacific Division APA with the department chairs and representatives from 19 philosophy departments to discuss existing practices and possible improvements.

        Organized a series of blog posts on diversity in philosophy departments at The Blog of the APA.

Changing the hiring, tenuring, and promotion practices in even of a few dozen influential philosophy departments might have a large impact on the discipline. Improvements in diversity in graduate recruitment must be matched by corresponding improvements in tenure-track career opportunities and subsequent career advancement.

We invite you to collaborate with us in discovering and supporting practical and effective methods of improving the diversity of faculty in academic philosophy.

Practices to Consider for Improving the Diversity of Philosophy Departments


  1. Diversify hiring and tenure committees to include more people from underrepresented groups.
    • Appoint a diversity officer who will be responsible for ensuring each applicant is reviewed equitably.
    • Commit to inclusion with influence. However, also be cautious about creating disproportionate burdens on members of underrepresented groups, especially if those burdens do not come with public recognition. So, consider relieving diversity officers, and members of underrepresented groups, of correspondingly difficult committee related obligations in asking them to take on these roles or otherwise compensate them for their efforts.


  1. Reconsider what constitutes a “well-rounded” department. What topics, approaches, and interests have been neglected but deserve representation?
    • If your department is unfamiliar with a desired research area, reach out to experts in other philosophy departments, or in other disciplines, for feedback on assessing candidates.


  1. Hire faculty using approaches and evaluation methods that encourage and appropriately value applicants who would contribute to your department’s diversity.
    • Advertise positions in areas likely to attract a wide diversity of applicants.
    • Include language in the job description signaling interest in applicants who contribute to the department’s diversity.
    • Encourage application from diverse candidates, including reaching out to people in diversity-relevant venues such as the Up-Directory and other diversity focused blogs and associations.
    • Use clear criteria of evaluation that minimize the likelihood of bias and favoritism.


  1. Create post-docs aimed at recruiting philosophers from underrepresented groups or philosophers who work in underrepresented areas of philosophy, for the purpose of supporting their academic development and eventually competing to hire them.
    • Provide the requisite mentorship.
    • Make your commitment to a potential hire explicit.


  1. Re-evaluate your department’s perception of prestige.
    • Refine the notion of prestige by getting a clearer understanding what counts as the top journals or conferences in the subfield relating to the applicant’s specialty.
    • Instead of focusing on prestige, focus instead on the quality of the applicant’s work, how interesting or relevant it is to their sub-specialty, and how relevant it is to the job description requirements.

          Consider removing markers of prestige when making hiring and tenuring decisions.


  1. Agree in advance about what the department is looking for when hiring new faculty.
    • Evaluate whether your conception of “core philosophy” and/or the mission of your philosophy program needs updating and discuss what you are looking for in a “good candidate”.

          These definitions should include expectations about, for example, the number and quality of publications to prevent holding different applicants to different standards.

    • Before considering applications, identify how items in the job description will be weighted for each applicant.
    • Develop clear guidelines for the evaluation criteria and adhere to them.
    • Take special care to ensure that any non-anonymous parts of the review process do not omit, or unfairly disadvantage, applicants from underrepresented groups.
    • Attend to your regional context as well as the overall global context (e.g. the importance of including adequate geographical and indigenous representation in your department).
    • Re-evaluate applications with high diversity ratings to determine whether bias played a role in excluding the applicants from getting an interview or in the interview process.


  1. Consider giving diversity-related contributions more weight when evaluating applicants.
    • Keep in mind that being a member of an underrepresented group in philosophy can require additional labor, burdens, stressors, and expectations, which is often not recognized.
    • Keep in mind that philosophers from underrepresented groups are often expected to take on a disproportionate amount of service work in addition to their research.
    • Consider requiring and scoring diversity statements.


  1. Sustained efforts to increase diversity in your department may be required.
    • Use each new hire and new tenure case as an opportunity to increase diversity in your department.
    • Revise your practices until you adopt practices that work for your university and department context.


  1. Develop formal policies for managing the needs of diverse groups.
    • Ensure appropriate disability related accommodations are in place.
    • Support mentoring and provide support networks for people you hire from underrepresented groups.


  1. Learn about the issues that underrepresented colleagues typically face so that you can advocate more effectively with difficult colleagues for faculty retention and promotion.
    • Diversity and excellence are not divergent aims.  Diversity is a component of excellence.
    • Practices employed by hiring and tenuring committees likely play a substantial role in the problem of underrepresentation in philosophy.
    • Keep in mind that managing underrepresentation in philosophy will help with philosophy’s relevance at a time when the value of the humanities is contested.


  1. Collect data on diversity relevant hiring practices, e.g. applicant and hiring rates for members of underrepresented groups, tenure and retention rates, hiring committee composition, etc., and track progress in increasing diversity in your department.


  1. Evaluate progress at regular intervals and revise practices accordingly.
    • Work with researchers to isolate and implement evidence-based practices that increase diversity in academic philosophy departments.


  1. Officially adopt and implement these diversity-promoting practices to move from good intentions to good practice.
    • Widely publicize your department’s targets and commitment to promoting diversity.
    • Inform all committee members and bind future committee members to uphold these standards.
    • Publicly and explicitly adopt diversity-promoting practices, helping to create a culture of concern that enhances the department’s reputation for welcoming diversity, attracting more diverse applicants.

We hope that departments will pledge to increase diversity in our profession, but even if we are able to recruit a more demographically diverse faculty, recruitment is not enough. Philosophers from underrepresented groups must be valued and supported no less than philosophers who fit more comfortably into the mainstream culture and demographics of academic philosophy, and they must be given the support and resources necessary for them to flourish despite potentially greater burdens and obstacles, including potentially higher service and mentoring demands that follow from being called upon to represent their group.

The perception that diversity and quality are competing considerations can be especially toxic, inviting the perception that some people are hired primarily because of their contributions to diversity despite being lower quality. Better is a view on which “quality” is not always defined by contributions to what is currently mainstream and on which part of what constitutes group-level quality in a department is diversity and difference in viewpoint, interest, methods, and life experience.

Promoting diversity, if done well, will expand the pool of job candidates and the range of perspectives represented in your department. It should reduce provincialism and groupthink, add new sources of fertile ideas, provide a broader range of models for students, and extend the reach and relevance of academic philosophy.

Suggestions, objections, and contributions welcome at More data on women in philosophy are available here:

[image source]

Thursday, June 03, 2021

What Zoom Removes

Guest post by C. Thi Nguyen

The paradox of Zoom is: it should make life easy, but it can also make life really, really hard.

My time teaching on Zoom basically broke me. It left me spiritless, drained, miserable. One standard explanation is that the physical and cognitive experience of Zoom is exhausting in and of itself — that Zoom screws with all these minutae of eye contact and bodily signaling. But I’ve started to suspect that the effects of Zoom extend far beyond the experience of actually being on Zoom. Zoom re-orders your entire life.

Halfway through my first Zoom teaching term, I was absolutely falling apart. I slowly realized that, for me, a big part of it was that Zoom had eliminated by commute. Which is strange, because I thought I hated my commute. But my commute had also been one of the few totally isolated parts of my day. I was sealed off from other people and from other demands — from my email, from my phone, from my children. My car commute was enforced non-productive time. And it was non-negotiable. In work-from-home pandemic life, you can try to tell yourself that you should go for a walk or something every day. But when push comes to shove, you can always give up that walk. The commute cannot be bargained with.

Kelsey Piper puts it this way: sometimes, a tiny change in your routine can throw everything out of whack. You didn’t realize that the little change you made took out a load-bearing support for your whole emotional infrastructure. You didn’t realize that your walk to lunch was your only bit of sunshine and fresh air — and how much you needed those moments to unclench. You didn’t realize that this yoga class imposed an specific schedule into your day, or that this new emailing app would mean getting work emails on your phone 24/7. And so you change one little thing, and then everything goes haywire.

Albert Borgmann, the philosopher of technology (and one of Heidegger’s last students), talks about a similar effect, writ large. He’s worried about what a culture might unthinkingly eliminate, in the march of technology. What happens when a society takes out one of its load-bearing supports?

According to Borgmann, there are two basic kinds of human artifacts: things and devices. Things are embedded in a complex network of activity and socialization. His favorite example: a wood-burning stove. Using a wood-burning stove drags you into a complex and textured form of life. You have to acquire the wood. This means going out to chop it yourself, or talking with somebody who will chop it for you. You have to stack the wood. You have to manage the fire — watching it, stirring it, adding fuel to it. And a wood-burning stove creates a particular social world. It create a center for home life, says Borgmann — a social focal point. There is a warm spot where people congregate, and a periphery to where people can retreat. The wood-stove drags with it an entire pattern of life — of skill, of involvement, of attention to the world, of a particular embedded in a social web.

Compare a wood-burning stove with central heating. Central heating is a device. Central heating makes heat appear invisibly and effortlessly. It appears out of nowhere, evenly distributed. You don’t have to fuss with anything, or know anything about how the heat was made. You don’t have to exercise any sort of skill. The method of production drops out of sight.

Says Borgmann:

We have seen that a thing such as a fireplace provides warmth, but it inevitably provides those many other elements that compose the world of the fireplace. We are inclined to think of these additional elements as burdensome, and they were undoubtedly often so experienced. A device such as a central heating plant procures mere warmth and disburdens us of all other elements. They are taken over by the machinery of the device. The machinery makes no demands on our skill, strength, or attention, and it is less demanding the less it makes its presence felt.

The progress of technology, says Borgmann, is driving us further into what he calls “the device paradigm”. The point of a device lies solely in its output — what he calls its commodity. The commodity of central heating is warmth. The commodity of a car is transportation. And unlike a thing, a device gives its users that commodity disconnected from the process of its creation. Frozen food lets you have a meal without cooking it for yourself. Central heating lets you have warmth without fussing around with a wood stove. A device is a kind of shortcut to its commodity. And if we think that all we really want is that commodity — then we want the device to hide from us all the mechanisms by which it creates those commodities. We want the process shoved out of sight, excised from our lives. So we make better devices, that give us faster access to what we think we want. They are better, from our perspective, because they further disentangle the commodity from all these other burdensome elements.

Of course, the key is that we only think these other elements are burdensome. But these burdensome elements also drive us into the complex world, says Borgmann. They drive us into social relationships, into activity, into a rich and sensuous experience of the detailed world. Devices divest us of that. They give us only the thing that we thought we had wanted. But that’s good only if we know exactly what’s good for us.

In graduate school, as I was losing myself to stress, I became temporarily obsessed with fishing. I fantasized about it, I craved it, and I went every weekend I could. I was also terrible at it. I caught an embarrassingly small number of fish, in my years of fishing. Eventually I gave it up as another failed hobby. Without it, I could devote so many more of my hours to my research.

Of course, once I eliminated fishing, my mental and emotional state started to deteriorate, and fast. Here was my mistake: I had thought that the point of fishing was to catch some fish. But, in reality, it was not. The process of fishing was one that forced me out of my tiny apartment, out of the library, away from books and computers. It made me suffer through LA traffic (while listening to music). It made me search through forgotten mountain paths for an unfished stream. It made me stand in a river and do nothing but stare at moving water for hours on end. It gave me days that were so full of fussy and physical detail that I had to stop thinking about philosophy completely. And then I got rid of it, because I didn’t actually understand what I was getting out of it. Fishing wasn’t just about fish. It was a pattern of a whole life, dragged in by the attempt to catch a little fish.

Zoom, I want to suggest, is a device. It is a device for communication. And my point here isn’t that Zoom is somehow “fake” communication, or that virtual meetings aren’t real. It’s that Zoom gets rid of all the other stuff that surrounds a communicative encounter. It makes communication frictionless. It delivers communication as a commodity. Zoom offers a whole new basic pattern and rhythm for a life, by divesting us of that burdensome friction. Without Zoom, you had to commute to school or work. You had to listen to your stupid podcasts and your music. You had to walk around and run into people, to negotiate with them, to chat aimlessly with them, to figure out how to co-occupy physical spaces with them. Before the Zoom Era, I had to fly to conferences, which involved this whole weird complex and deeply annoying endeavor that took me out of my habit, out of my standard rituals. Flying pushed me into strange parts of the world where I had to re-orient myself, to figure out how to be in a space that wasn’t my own. With Zoom, I can go to an unlimited number of international conferences effortlessly. But also, I never leave the habitual patterns of my home life.

Of course, Zoom also brings enormous benefits. So does every device. In my academic life, it’s apparent: Zoom makes it easier for people without travel funding to attend conferences, for students with complex childcare obligations to attend classes. Dishwashers ease the burden of domestic labor. And I’m certainly not giving up my dishwasher or my motorized transport, and the ease and accessibility that Zoom offers is basically irresistible.

But Borgmann gives us a reason, at least, to be cautious with a device, to watch carefully how it reshapes our lives. A lot of times, the value of a thing in our lives is not just what it presents, on its face, as its function. So much of the time, the beauty of an activity is in the process of doing it, and not the simple output. But it’s easy to forget. Things spread their tendrils through our lives, they reshape our interactions and procedures in a thousand countless ways. Devices like Zoom — efficient, frictionless little miracles — give us what we think we want, but they also cut off all those tendrils. And sometimes there was value in that friction, too.


[image source]

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

New Data on the Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity of Philosophy Students and Faculty in the United States

Just out at The Philosophers' Magazine!

This is part of an special issue on diversity in philosophy at TPM, also with contributions by Simon Fokt, Helen Beebee, Zahra Thani, Shen-li Liao, Ian James Kidd, and Rochelle Duford.

In our contribution to the issue, Liam Kofi Bright, Carolyn Dicey Jennings, Morgan Thompson, Eric Winsberg, and I looked systematically at data on racial/ethnic and gender diversity throughout the academic "pipeline" into philosophy in the U.S., from first-year intention to major through entry into the professoriate and beyond, drawing on large databases from the Higher Education Research Institute, the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Science Foundation, and the Academic Data and Placement Analysis project, plus other sources.

For those of us who would like to see increasing diversity in philosophy, it's mixed news.

Good news:

* Racial and ethnic diversity in philosophy has been steadily increasing among philosophy students at all levels since the year 2000.

* The percentage of undergraduate women philosophy majors has also recently been increasing.

Before we get to the bad news, let's savor the good just a little first. Yay! {*confetti*}

Okay, done savoring? The bad news:

* American Indian / Native Alaskan people are highly underrepresented in philosophy, with only 11 philosophy PhDs recorded in NSF's Survey of Earned Doctorates in the entire 19-year period from 2001-2019.

* Black people are also highly underrepresented in philosophy, receiving only 3% of recent philosophy PhDs, though the numbers appear to be increasing, especially at the undergraduate level.

* Although Asian and Hispanic people are now represented in philosophy at the undergraduate level approximately proportionately to their representation among undergraduates overall, they remain substantially underrepresented among philosophy PhD recipients (4% and 6%, respectively).

* Despite recent increases at the undergraduate level, women remain substantially underrepresented in philosophy compared to their representation in the population as a whole (36% of recent philosophy bachelor's recipients and 30% of recent philosophy PhDs).

* There appears to be a leaky pipeline into philosophy, with men and non-Hispanic White students disproportionately more likely to continue philosophy education than women and people from other racial/ethnic groups.

One figure from our paper:

[click to enlarge and clarify]

Full paper here.

[Thanks to James Garvey at TPM for soliciting and encouraging this paper.]