Trial & Error

“There might be a compromise here.” ~ Jason, earlier today

I think it depends on the ‘localist/artisanist/do-it-yourself’ individual, obviously, but I think many would certainly like Make magazine. I hadn’t heard of it before, but after spending a few minutes at the site, it certainly seems pretty cool to me. Plenty of localist types, as well as the greens and sustainable living types, love innovation – especially architectural innovation. (That last link is to inhabitat.org which I believe I first stumbled on when reading Matt and David’s old blog.)

What a good few localists, extolling the virtues of mud huts, are actually doing is saying “Look to the past when you look to the future.” You might actually find the secrets of innovation locked in the plain view of the past. This doesn’t mean the past is better than the present, or that the future would be unbearable without carrying over some traditions from the past. It just means that progress should be tempered, aided even, by what has come before. This is not a revanchist’s sentiment. This is not a call to halt progress or stymie innovation.

Hopefully localism and the mining of tradition will not lead us to blind faith in a mythical past. This would be to miss the point entirely. The purpose of looking back is to look forward. That’s what being a student of history is all about. But while studying how things were (or are) done in primitive cultures might not tell us much about how to tinker with a computer, it might help us understand more about sustainability or – if you happen to be a libertarian – it might help you understand more about stateless societies.

Studying the ways towns were built in the past might help elucidate how they can be built better now. The accidents of the past can become the purposeful intentions of the present.

For instance, the number one deterrent to crime in a city is foot traffic. Building cities where shops and homes are distant from one another leads to uninhabited streets at night which leads to higher likelihood of crime, which leads to politicians demanding more police, which leads to higher taxes with no results because – the number one deterrent to crime is us. Just people, walking around. Why spend tax dollars on cops when you could just give out a few more permits to street vendors?

So it’s important that we not make caricatures of one another. Certainly sometimes people really are the caricature you would expect – the die-hard uncompromising localist, or the glibertarian, or the hippie who names their kids after astronomical bodies. But most of us are somewhere in between. I may be a localist (to some degree) but I’ve also built a half dozen computers or so just for fun. We are very rarely one self, one set of ideas, one uncompromising vision. People are piecemeal. We are governed by the tensions of our compromises.

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20 thoughts on “Trial & Error

  1. Maybe I should do a post on this, but I’ve lately been reading a number of Romantic authors who reflected on the value of history after the French Revolution, as there was a common belief that the 18th century was now isolated from the 19th- that there had been a historical fracture, or as many called it a river of blood separating the past from the present.

    The short (and maybe questionable) version of this was that some said that the break with the past was a cataclysm and modernity meant the loss of spiritual hope- Chateaubriand tends towards this, although he’s not always so glum. Others said that something had indeed been lost, but history was following a providential sort of design towards a more perfect society and human race- maybe Quinet, and definitely Lamartine make this argument, and probably the Saint-Simonians too. Here, the past is lost, but it’s impossible to go back and we’re headed towards a better world anyway. This sort of progressive/liberal writing tends towards the pseudo-prophetic: we read the past in order to find the “direction” of history and, thereby, predict the future.

    Finally, though, there’s Nerval, who argues that, yes, certain events alter society in far-reaching structural ways; however, there remain subterranean thread of continuity linking the generations in a dialog- he uses the example of a literary community of writers and readers that transcend centuries of difference. By this view, the past contains what he calls ‘latencies’- ideas, viewpoints, esoteric knowledge, and other things that we can make use of and tap into their power, while adapting them to our own historical and individual situation. So, where it seems to me that Chateaubriand is saying the past is lost and so are we, and Lamartine is saying the past is lost but that’s all for the good, Nerval is saying that the knowledge worth having is never fully lost. You can probably imagine who I sympathize with on this one.

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    • @Rufus F., are you lucky enough to have picked up a set of “Everybody’s ‘Cylopedia”? They put out a billion of them in 1911. Everybody and his brother bought a set. Most used bookstores have a set (only five books in it).

      You probably wouldn’t want to write an essay using it as a source for a scientific paper (“While man has not yet set foot on the moon…”) but the entries devoted to various periods of history will make your eyes widen. (The Temperance Movement, for example.)

      Seeing how differently we see things today and comparing to a primary source as to how things were seen then will make you start asking some serious “Ministry of Truth” kinda questions.

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        • @Rufus F., the perspective has switched *SO* violently that it doesn’t seem like it’s possible for both interpretations to be accurate.

          Either the Ministry of Truth was working overtime back then making sure that the “right” views went out then… or the Ministry of Truth has been working overtime since then making sure we have the “right” views now.

          Somebody’s wrong and spectacularly so.

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          • @Jaybird, Ah, okay. I do read a lot of primary sources and, sure, there are plenty of subjects in which the gulf is wide. That’s what makes it worthwhile- those moments in which you either totally agree with some long-dead person or recognize that they had a good point that you’ve never heard before.

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    • @Rufus F.,

      I’d say the Romantics were being a bit dramatic here. Yes, the French Revolution changed many things, but in many ways it represented an intensification of changes that were already taking place in the Old Regime, as Tocqueville argued, and as has since become consensus among present-day historians of that era.

      A quick perusal of rural notables’ lists before and after the Revolution puts paid to the claim that the Revolution changed the governing class of France. Those who didn’t lose their heads generally had kids who ran the country after the whole Napoleon business was done with.

      Also, to be Hayekian for a bit, the manners, customs, and expectations of ordinary French people didn’t really change all that much. It’s not like they abandoned wine for beer, or bread for rice. Very few even changed their professions, except for the ousted monks and nuns, and many of these came back anyway, just like the old notables.

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  2. > Hopefully localism and the mining of tradition will not
    > lead us to blind faith in a mythical past. This would be
    > to miss the point entirely.

    Unfortunately, just like any other tool, this is pretty much guaranteed to occur. Not necessarily in any individual’s case, but in a the adoptive community. Once you get a True Believer, of course, you build a cult of belief, and suddenly the original idea (“This tool is good for this purpose”) turns into the proverbial hammer, and everything is a nail. Nuance isn’t something people are good at, they like things simple.

    > We are governed by the tensions of our compromises.

    I think this is my most favoritest E.D. line I’ve read so far on this blog. I totally agree.

    My problem with public discourse is that so few people recognize that they actually have tensions, or that they’ve made compromises. Because they’ve adopted, to a lesser degree, a cult of belief about *something*. So if you point out that there is a tension, or that they’ve made compromises, they simply reject what you’re saying as your lack of understanding.

    The Empiricist: People who believe in an Almighty are FOOLS! There is no empirical evidence for the paranormal!
    Me: That’s by definition true. A paranormal entity can ignore the laws of the universe. That doesn’t mean that paranormal entities can’t exist, you can’t use empiricism for that. You’d have to add as an axiom to your belief system, “Nothing unreal exists”, to quote Star Trek. Under what logical basis can you justify adding this axiom?
    The Empiricist: Religious people believe all sorts of demonstrably false things!
    Me: Sure. That doesn’t make the underlying premise incorrect, however. You’re committing a fallacy there, dude.

    The Believer: You must accept the Lord to be happy!
    Me: I dunno, I’m well on the fence about the Lord, and I’m pretty happy.
    The Believer: Yours is a shallow happiness!
    Me: How do you know that?
    The Believer: Because you don’t accept the Lord!

    > So it’s important that we not make caricatures of one another.

    I agree (in spite of the two caricatures I just made, right there) :)

    First, though, I’d say it’s important not to make a caricature of yourself. Maybe I’m just inherently more pessimistic about people than you are, E.D., but I see people do this all the time. People don’t self-examine. People aren’t self-critical. People are intellectually lazy. People are very, very likely to suffer from gobs and gobs of confirmation bias. People are very, very unlikely to be rational about how they weigh the evidence that they’re observing. That which supports their view is interesting. That which doesn’t is irrelevant.

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  3. For instance, the number one deterrent to crime in a city is foot traffic. Building cities where shops and homes are distant from one another leads to uninhabited streets at night which leads to higher likelihood of crime, which leads to politicians demanding more police, which leads to higher taxes with no results because – the number one deterrent to crime is us. Just people, walking around. Why spend tax dollars on cops when you could just give out a few more permits to street vendors?

    That doesn’t surprise me. One of the biggest deterrents to crime – and particularly burglary – is the threat of being seen by people who will then provide info to the police. The more “eyes” on the street, the better.

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  4. Of course the past is important, the two dominant movements of the modern period, Classicism, and after the French Revolution, Romanticism were Classicism on an idealized classical period, romanticism on an idealized medieval period.

    Certain ideas and groups of ideas come in cycles, even for time periods that long.

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