Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Design of the Megamachine -- Review

I've been talking too much about myself lately, (and I have about five minutes before I host a wild pset party in my room,) so tonight, I have nothing for you but a review/summary I wrote recently of an essay called "The Design of the Megamachine" by Lewis Mumford. I may have mentioned him in a recent post, and I find his ideas interesting.


The megamachine draws its strength from the authority of the kingship. Only a powerful ruler, often abetted by tools of social control such as religion and the military, can mobilize the requisite number of people in an organized enough way. The megamachine is often used to produce more tangible works, such as the pyramids of Egypt or the Roman roads, but is itself invisible because the components—the ordinary people who, through joining the megamachine, lose their individual identity— can disperse to their own pursuits when the authority is no longer strong enough to direct them.

At the top of the hierarchical structure is a mind with a purpose: a king. Behind the king stands the threat of coercive power. The king works through bureaucrats, lines of communication, and other administrative structures to transmit his will to labor units which are at once specialized and interchangeable. He directs action at a distance, and ensures fidelity of will-transmission through writing down orders and putting into place systems for accountability. The holder of this role needs a suite of design skills: the ability to abstract into the future (conceptualizing the goal—he must be a “visionary”), the ability to foresee which steps need to occur to achieve that goal, consummate skill in organizing systems (mostly of people; logistical concerns may, perhaps, be delegated to a skilled underling), and practical instinct (can this really be done?). The worker must have complementary traits: obedience, patience, and precision.

Between the king and the workers are, as mentioned, other systems. First, the megamachine requires a body of knowledge, practical and otherwise. In the ancient world this was embodied in the priesthood, and the exclusiveness thereof contributed to the power of those who were educated. Knowledge of science, astronomy in particular, allowed the priests to solidify their spiritual authority. Second, the megamachine needs a structure for executing orders. This is the bureaucracy or the administration, and consists of several parts: communications corps such as scribes and messengers who move information around the structure, directors and managers such as stewards, and finally, specialized workers.

Some invisible machines are the military, labor forces, and the bureaucracy. They can, of course, join forces or in some cases overlap.

The ancient human megamachine was intended to use labor; the modern mechanical equivalents instead seek to save labor. But both sought efficiency and exactitude.

Of course the megamachine glorifies the king and reinforces his power; but what, if anything, do ordinary people get out of it? The works of the megamachine often include useful public infrastructure such as roads and aqueducts. Beyond that, being part of the megamachine integrates people with respect to society, bringing people together in pursuit of a common goal. Thus the megamachine is a force for law and order in society, and a source of pride and identity for its components. It leads to an urban mindset, one of concentrated and consciously directed action, of expanded human possibility and imagination. Kingly egotism may benefit society.


Relevant music:

Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Lorde

Friday, October 17, 2014

Community and Conformity

At the end of week four, I'm starting to feel more at home at college. I can signal turns while riding my bike; I know librarians and dining hall staff by sight; I stay up late doing homework because I got distracted earlier in the evening by interesting conversations with friends on my hall.

(On the other hand, my writing has ground down to a few paragraphs a week, which is awful because I've been stuck in the same scene for weeks and Marilla is not the only one getting bored. I may just do an awkward scene cut to get to the next bit.)

In particular, what strikes me is that what was true in high school is still true in college. Namely, when I get caught up in classes and schoolwork then I get tunnel vision and often feel sad and insecure and anxious. When, however, I am participating in something outside of classes--band, hall conversations, seismic design team--I feel, perhaps not happy all the time, but more optimistic, more purposeful, and more in power.

I also worry about conformity. The topic is on my mind right now because not an hour ago I was in section for my class on Evil, and the readings for today included a piece about the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments (read here). In general, though, I sometimes get worried that being part of something bigger than myself, being part of a group, means sacrificing my individuality.

Mostly, I've gotten over this fear. Playing a certain role in a group doesn't have to entail selling your soul; it's a matter of taking on suitable roles, of letting the character you play hew to the character you have. That's part of why I don't feel completely at home in band yet: yes, the more experienced players are very kind and helpful, and I appreciate that, but it doesn't suit me to be in a position where I need their help in order to get anything done. I want to be useful and reliable, someone who, if not in a leadership position, can at least be relied upon by leadership to play point person--and I'm not there yet, which is uncomfortable.

Honestly I'm not sure why I'm so worried about conformity. My problem is more likely to be that I don't *get* the implicit rules of a group and do something aberrant and weird and awkward than that I internalize the rules too well. Conformity lies on the other side of community, and you have to get in before you can't get out.

(I'm also not that worried that I'll compromise myself in order to gain acceptance. As this blog, especially of late, should demonstrate, I am far too self-absorbed for that.)


I wanted to make one more point in this post, which is that, as I said I'd do in a post from last week, I've reached out more to people in my department. The response has been illuminating thus far, and every week I feel more certain that I will indeed end up in civil engineering. Walking around Y2E2, where most of the CEE faculty have offices, is one of the things that makes me the happiest here: just looking at the research posters, all the fascinating work going on, gets me excited to get started.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The City

Recently I went to San Francisco for a day with my dorm on a Scavenger Hunt. For anyone who isn't local, in the Bay Area we refer to San Francisco as "the City" (not San Fran, not Frisco), which is one reason for the title of this post.

It was a fun day. My group wasn't going all-out competitive, and we started by getting lunch. We walked all over, and ran back from Ghirardelli Square to catch a train.

  • Meeting people from other parts of my dorm
  • SFMoMA "play artfully" suggestions on the sides of buildings
  • Going through tunnels
  • City Lights bookstore
  • Seeing beautiful buildings
  • Brownie from Ghirardelli Square
  • Running along the Embarcadero (no, really)
  • Coming home along Campus Drive while having a philosophical conversation with friends

I'm local, but I actually haven't done a whole lot in the City, and being with out of state people happy just to explore made me see San Francisco in a different light. Something I regret about high school is that I didn't get out more. This, I thought, should be my city, but I don't know it as well as I should. Instead of having a clear mental map of how long it takes to get from place to place and by what means, I stumbled around dependent upon Google Maps. I know the big tourist destinations, but not the smaller places that one would expect to get to know, living near a place for so long.

I mentioned that our name for SF was one reason for this post title, but there is another one: I want to think through (or perhaps just about) the idea of the city. The idea of living in one. My thoughts about maybe doing that when I'm older.

What do we associate with the word "city"? Fast-paced, hectic, exciting, dangerous, busy, public transportation, culture, museums, shops, restaurants, landmarks, lack of parking, business, international corporations, wealth, poverty, penthouses, slums. Simultaneous magnification and compression of human experiences. Intensity, variety, diversity. For me, personally, the idea of the city is tied up with notions of being young and free and possibly wealthy.

Cities may be megamachines: power multipliers, levers for action at a distance, systems that reduce people to functional units. (I should probably read more Lewis Mumford.) New York is probably the most archetypal American big city, and I am pretty sure that I wouldn't want to live in New York. But there are other cities, like Boston and San Francisco, which seem milder but without losing that "cityness."

What is this "cityness"? Well, the opposite of rural or provincial. Worldly, future-oriented, fast-paced, perhaps unstable. When we think of city dwellers we often think of rudeness or callousness, anonymity. Kitty Genovese being murdered and no one calling for the police. Skyscrapers. Ambition.

Please read "Cities and Ambition," an essay by Paul Graham. He talks about how different cities make different value judgments, and about how the ambitions of one city differ from the ambitions of another. New York values money, Cambridge values intelligence, Silicon Valley values power. He also says that cities are important as a locus for specific types of ambition: gathering like-minded people, the right colleagues, to work on problems together.

Furthermore, because (in case you haven't noticed over the past month) I've just started college, the last paragraph in his essay resonated with me quite a bit:
Some people know at 16 what sort of work they're going to do, but in most ambitious kids, ambition seems to precede anything specific to be ambitious about. They know they want to do something great. They just haven't decided yet whether they're going to be a rock star or a brain surgeon. There's nothing wrong with that. But it means if you have this most common type of ambition, you'll probably have to figure out where to live by trial and error. You'll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have.

I think I do want to live in a city during my early career. Actually, for my early career I imagine being somewhat itinerant, living where my projects are, following the work. But I like the idea of living in a city, young and free and on my way to becoming a force for good in the world (I may criticize the Silicon Valley conceit, but I have it too). Knowing the city in and out, having a favorite cafe and bookstore, being surrounded by people doing interesting things. Working hard and learning a lot and becoming a real person. Though that process, I hope, is already under way.

So what do I do with this? If you've been reading AI for a while, then you know I like things to be useful. What does this thinking about the city give me? Well, I know what I want--to expand my mind and worldview, and for my life and my world to act indelibly upon one another. To channel my ambition into something important and worthy. I knew these things already, but the thoughts of the city concentrate them somehow. Which, I suppose, is one of the city's functions: as a lens to collect ambition, distill it into something bright and cutting and capable of effecting change in the world.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sanctuary: Reading Room

Lane Reading Room, Green Library

The reading room is large and quiet, with skylights and lamps all down its ceiling. There are eleven high, arched windows that let in the gray morning light along the north wall, and two on the east which look onto another wing of the library. If slumped at the correct angle in one of the squashy leather armchairs, you can see Hoover Tower neatly framed in one of the north windows.

It has been a long and busy week, and I can expect more of the same today and tomorrow. Fun or at least interesting busyness, but busyness all the same. It leaves one tired and wishing for an hour to eat dinner with friends and a day or two empty to square away the assignments.

Late at night I often feel despairing--not despair itself, mind--about all the stuff I have to do. If this seems hard, I ask myself, then how am I ever to do anything in life? When I'm a real person on my own, I'll have a lot more to deal with than a difficult pset.

But this is a physiological pessimism. When I'm hungry or tired I feel worse both mentally and physically. That is all. The experience of a mind emerges from the firing of neurons in a physical body; we expect this.

So now I am sitting in a squashy armchair from which I can see Hoover Tower from a northern window, and I do not know what to say. There's been plenty on which I could comment:
  • the creation of a sense of belonging in a group and the artificiality of such measures at the beginning
  • the unfamiliar ethos by which I was confused in the movie "Winter's Bone"
  • attitudes toward professors and how these differ from attitudes toward teachers in high school (and the difference between a professor and a teacher)
  • confidence and competence and the necessity of risk in a PowerPoint presentation
  • the comfort of open lines of communication
  • how I am managing my schedule and the peculiar non-impossibility of college without a laptop (mine had a serious malfunction at the very beginning of quarter; the replacement should be here soon)
  • my sense of being uncultured because Mephistopheles did not resonate with me at all
  • the things I worried about in high school that don't bother me here.

Yet I will not delve much deeper into any of those topics here, though I may feel the need to get my thoughts on some of them out at a later point. Because it is Friday and the morning light is coming in gray, and sometimes the body, and its needy component the mind, must rest.

The world is quiet here.* Have a good weekend.


*See: Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bringing It

On Sunday I went to the first meeting this quarter of the Stanford Roundtable. Being a freshman (as you may be sick of hearing about), I had never been before, and intended to observe only.

But a friendly upperclassman suggested I take a seat at the table. "Get closer to the action," he said. "It'll be fun."

I must admit that I really only made one statement during the entire Roundtable, even though I kept on having thoughts and not articulating them aloud. Everyone else seemed a lot smarter than me (and given that they were mostly upperclassmen, I really hope they were) and my thoughts seemed either too tangential or too personal or too obvious. Thus I stayed silent, which is a problem.

This, I thought as I sat silent at the table, is ridiculous. I got into this university: why do I need to keep justifying my presence to other people? This fear didn't make sense in high school and it only makes less sense now. Wasn't I the one who took as my senior quote the venerable words of Feynman, that "we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible because only in this way can we find progress"?

Finally the topic turned to global inequality, and I could no longer stay silent. I cleared my throat, put up my hand, and said my thought. Of course there was a gaping hole in it--or there appeared to be--but people considered my words and responded to them and the conversation went on.

Because I spoke up, even if it was just the once, I could count the evening as a step toward a version of myself who is generally competent and confident, who speaks and is heard. If I had stayed silent the whole time, I would have been able to count the evening only as a failure.

I keep telling myself to be patient and let myself grow more accustomed to college before demanding too much of myself. But I also feel, in the back of my thoughts, always, a sense of urgency which has the potential to make my entire existence very stressful. I don't have enough time. I will never have enough time to do all of the things that will make me a better person. I will never have the time--much less the energy--to have all the potentially formative experiences on offer.

Every moment counts. Every decision counts. Courage is a muscle, says Goss, and one must exercise it. Do the right thing as much as possible as often as possible. You do not have enough time.

Note to self: college is expensive. Your parents are paying for you to be here. How dare you half-ass anything?*

*I am not advocating for an unrelenting schedule, nor for 100% uprightness and responsibility for everything around you. If you don't take care of yourself, physically/mentally/emotionally, you will burn out. Take breaks. But when you are on, be on.

I need to do more reaching out. Talk to professors, talk to upperclassmen, start conversations that are over my head. People who were "smart kids" in high school may relate to the fear I have of looking stupid. The instinct is to retreat, to over prepare, not to take any risks that will endanger the one commodity we have: perceived intelligence. But instinct is a poor guide, and defensiveness both stems from and breeds weakness.

All throughout NSO, people kept on throwing advice at us. One thing that everyone said was "talk to professors. Ask them about their work, their interests. Let them get to know you. They won't bite, honest."

I haven't done that yet, but I'm going to. I've identified one professor whose work matches my interests so perfectly that I can't justify not talking to her. (Now that it's public, I'm accountable and I'll have to do it or else be ashamed.) Others exist as well; I know they do, and I'll find them. How can I hope to change the world if I don't even have the courage to knock on a few doors?

Teddy Roosevelt said "speak softly and carry a big stick." But he also said, somewhat more stirringly:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

I want to know victory more than I fear defeat--or at least I think I do. To avoid painful cognitive dissonance, therefore, I must strive. I have something of value in myself: now I have to bring it to the table. Bring it, in general.

Because I'm a connoisseur of bad puns, one more. To the world, I say, bring it on.

Back to work.