My Information Age: weekly varia 11/20/22

One of the things that I have been thinking a lot about as Twitter lists toward the waterline is how I receive my information about the world. For better and for worse, tapping into Twitter feels like connecting into a larger hive mind and thus has become my primary source of information about any number of topics. What I see is absolutely filtered through a particular information bubble because I aggressively mute both topics and accounts that I believe are not worth my attention, but the accounts I follow do a much better job of curating information for me than I could ever do for myself. Sometimes this information came because I was able to lurk in conversations I would otherwise never have been in a position to hear, as David Perry recently wrote on CNN. Sometimes it was in long threads by a single author. Frequently, though, Twitter was a platform where people would link to and discuss stories from a whole range of outlets.

I have other sources of information, of course. Several places in my RSS feed bring me a healthy dose of information and commentary, including three (Keith Law, Bill Caraher, and Joy the Baker) that do weekly roundups up things that they read, for instance, and I am in several Discord groups that share links. Nor am I opposed to trekking into the wilds of the internet to hunt down my own stories. What Twitter offered was the convenience of having a diverse selection of information brought into one place. Finding stories of note from a range of outlets represents a significant time commitment that I rarely feel that I have these days, even when those stories are not found behind a paywall (I understand the need for paywalls as a business model, but I can only subscribe to so many things).

The question I have is not whether this is a habit I need to develop, but whether I should commit to doing some sort of weekly roundup of essays and articles that I discover in the process. In some ways this would mark a return to my roots, since, years ago I did regular roundups in this sort. The last of those posts went up nearly a decade ago, with links to five stories about topics that ranged from the diary of Franz Ferdinand to a profile of King Abdullah of Jordan to an Onion story that I found amusing. I stopped writing these posts for a few reasons, including that they didn’t get a lot of traction, which made writing them seem like a futile exercise, and that Twitter had come to fill that role in my media engagement. It doesn’t help, that I tend to skim this sort of post that other blogs put out.

And yet, thinking out loud here, I am warming to the idea of a weekly wrap of some sort with a short reflection, links to stories worth reading from the week and a short-form update on articles and books that I’ve read. Such a post would give me motivation to read more widely to curate my list and provide another low-stakes chance to talk about things that I have been reading even when I won’t be writing a full review. In fact, my primary hesitation is over whether writing this post will be something that gets lost in the wash of the other things I have going on.

But there is only one way to find out. For now I’m going to mimic Bill Caraher in calling these posts “weekly varia” that go up either Saturday or Sunday, but I also expect the format, content, and timing of these posts will evolve as I find my groove.

Without further ado, here are the varia for 11/20/2022.

  • Climate change has been a significant factor behind the malaise I have felt this year and, despite the general advice to PhDs in my position to apply for every opportunity, there are jobs I have opted not to apply to for environmental reasons. Reuters published a lengthy piece (with pictures) about how one of the cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia, is drying up. Climate change in this case is being compounded by water usage upriver.
  • From NPR, the FDA approved a safety study from Upside Foods for no-kill meat—that is, meat grown in vats and a feature of speculative fiction stories like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I am skeptical that this innovation will save humanity, but it is absolutely necessary. This week an Environmental Science professor shared an infographic on Twitter about the distribution of mammalian biomass on earth. Wild animals represent 4%, compared to 34% for humans and 35% for cows.
  • The Guardian has a long read about infrastructure challenges of coastal West Africa, where a booming population is leading to a boom of urbanization. I find it hard to read stories like this and not think about climate change.
  • The New York Times has an article about the minister Rob Schenck, who alleges that the leaked draft of Justice Alito’s decision in the Dobbs decision from earlier this year is not the first time that the outcome of contentious cases were leaked to allow Christian groups to prepare their messaging campaign. He goes further, too, claiming that he had exploited access to influence justices during his time as an anti-abortion activist. The Times says that they found gaps in his story, but also a trail of corroborating evidence. For a branch of government whose authority rests almost entirely on the perceived legitimacy of precedent, the current conservative majority seems hellbent on burning the entire institution to the ground. The only question seems to be how much damage will they do before that process is complete?
  • NPR had a story about how culture war issues are creating a teacher shortage. The article correctly identifies the rise in harassment of teachers and points to the numerous bills that have been introduced to punish them for addressing current issues, but it does not identify any of the other issues behind the teacher shortage (e.g. pay, burnout). I also hate that there is a cursory attempt at making this a “both sides” issue when only one ideological position is misrepresenting what happens in a classroom and introducing bills that criminalize teaching.
  • Jonathan Malesic writes in the Atlantic ($) about how employers moving from “sick” days to “wellness” days is a good thing, but that “mental-health days” are no substitute for changing the structures of work that actually cause burnout. This piece is an addendum to his excellent book that I reviewed earlier this year. I have found mental-health days hard to justify, despite an encouraging email from my employer at the start of the semester. Taking a day simply puts me one day further behind on grading and cancelling class periods creates work of reorganizing schedules and coordinating with the students that takes nearly as much time as the cancellations save. Then again, I have also been dragging myself to the finish line. Suffice to say, I am quite persuaded by Malesic’s arguments.
  • The Dig podcast from Jacobin Magazine has been running a very long listen five-part series on the history of modern Iran with Eskandar Sadeghi and Golnar Nikpour. I am an intermittent listener to this podcast, but this series has been a can’t-miss for me these past few weeks.
  • Another podcast, Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra has one final episode to go. The series is a dive back into the archival footage of 1940 that explores the plots to overthrow the US government and establish a fascist regime in its place, and how sitting members of congress working with German agents were complicit in these conspiracies. These agents were particularly effective at finding the preexisting fault lines in this country and fanning the flames.
  • The French Olympic Committee has chosen the bonnet rouge for the Olympic mascot in 2024. The brand director offered some platitudes about the power of sport to change the world before saying “The mascot must embody the French spirit, which is something very fine to grasp. It’s an ideal, a kind of conviction that carries the values of our country, and which has been built up over time, over history.” Which political cartoonist will be first with a smiling Phryges operating a guillotine? Then again, Gritty seems to make it work.

Album of the week: Justin Townes Earle, The Saint of Lost Causes.

Currently reading: Fonda Lee, Jade City; Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire.

Parable of the Sower

Human beings are good at creating hells for themselves even out of richness.

The year is 2024. Climate change has parched and torched the American Southwest and what is left of the United States is, functionally, a failed state. The president Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner believes that all Americans really need to get back to work, which means cutting back on needless regulation. We enter into this dystopian landscape through the journal of Lauren Olamina: author, prophet of Earthseed, teen-aged girl.

When we first meet Lauren she lives in Robledo with her father (a priest and professor), step-mother, and siblings. Robledo is nothing special: a poor community just outside Los Angeles, gated, if barely. Inside the walls is a community. There are families. They grow food. Lauren’s stepmother teaches the kids how to read. That is not to say things are perfect, but it is an island of stability. Outside the walls lies danger: drug users, roving bands, packs of wild dogs. For Lauren, the stability offered by Robledo is of particular importance because of her particular condition. She is an empath who feels the pain and joy of other people, which is a particular danger in such a violent world.

Although Parable of the Sower unfolds over four years, the story is actually divided in two parts: in Robledo and on the road. About halfway through the book, the bubble of stability suddenly implodes and Lauren suddenly finds herself cast onto the road. With just two survivors from Robledo, Zahra Moss, the youngest wife in a polygamous family, and Harry Balter, a white teenager her own age, Lauren resolves to head north to find a better land where she can build a new community based on her new religion: Earthseed. Food is scarce, water expensive, and every person in the vast human tide moving north is a potential thief or worse. And yet, there is also safety in numbers, so they find themselves accumulating traveling companions, whether in the form of Allie and Jill Gilchrist, runaway sisters whose father became their pimp, or a small family of runaway slaves Travis and Natividad Douglas with their infant child. An exception to the apparent strays that Lauren accumulates is Bankole, an aging black man who is just a little bit too prepared and a little bit too competent and starts by conspicuously traveling alongside the group rather than with it. Each new addition to the group gets the same message:

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Although Butler wrote Parable of the Sower in 1994, a world in which the American southwest is on fire, presidents call for deregulation, and people desperate for work take jobs in ever-worse conditions while the core problems are left unaddressed is an eerily plausible setting. And the imminent arrival of the year 2024 makes it seem all the more prescient. This is a world built on the bones of American social institutions going back to the time of slavery, but imagined in the context of the very real social and environmental problems of the twenty-first century.

As a near-future history of a failing United States Parable of the Sower falls into the same genre as Omar El Akkad’s American War, which envisions a future where the Civil War reignites over the issue of fossil fuels, splitting the country and allowing him to invert the paradigms of the American “War on Terror” as applied to the American south. I really liked American War and thought its project was a clever one, but, in a lot of ways, what Butler does in Parable of the Sower strikes closer to home. For one, Butler is significantly more insightful about the race-based schisms that linger in the United States and the gradual erosion of social order because of environmental change seems a bit more plausible than the neat resurrection of the Confederacy. Similarly, the 2019 documentary American Factory won an Academy Award for its look at the working conditions at a Chinese-owned factory in Moraine Ohio. The conditions in the Ohio factory were not as extreme as those imagined in Parable of the Sower, but it is easy to hear an echo of the same processes at work, particularly since American companies have created comparable conditions by sending their production overseas. From there it is a short leap to the reintroduction of outright slavery.

“You might be able to get a job as a driver,” she said. “They like white men to be drivers. If you can read and write, and if you’d do the work, you might get hired.”

“I don’t know how to drive, but I could learn,” Harry said. “You mean driving those big armored trucks, don’t you?”

Emery looked confused. “Trucks? No, I mean driving people. Making them work. Pushing them to work faster. Making them do…whatever the owners say.”

In short, I loved Parable of the Sower. This is my first exposure to Butler’s writing, but I was blown away by how vivid and specific it was, both in imagining the world and in painting the characters and relationships. For instance, I’m not one to usually cast books as I read them, but I could not stop imagining Bankole as Idris Elba as I read it. The book’s format as both the diary and gospel of a precocious teenaged girl is deceptively easy to read, even as the world itself is unrelenting. I can imagine a complaint that Lauren is too precocious, but this actually becomes a plot point and the format is a perfect vehicle for capturing Lauren’s empathy, which, in turn, puts both the pain and joy of the world on display. This book is incisive, painful, and optimistic by turns, and entirely worth reading.

ΔΔΔ

I reached a point of the semester where I struggled to read anything except science fiction and fantasy novels. Most recently I read N.K. Jemisin’s latest work, the excellent novel The City We Became and before that Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January (about which I was more mixed). Next up, I’m reading Jeffery Pilcher’s Planet Taco, a global history of Mexican food.