Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Wall Street Journal

The end of flexibility

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A few days ago, I picked up my old paperback copy of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which collects the major papers of the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson. I’ve been browsing through this dense little volume since I was in my teens, but I’ve never managed to work through it all from beginning to end, and I turned to it recently out of a vague instinct that it was somehow what I needed. (Among other things, I’m hoping to put together a collection of my short stories, and I’m starting to see that many of Bateson’s ideas are relevant to the themes that I’ve explored as a science fiction writer.) I owe my introduction to his work, as with so many other authors, to Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalog, who advised in one edition:

[Bateson] wandered thornily in and out of various disciplines—biology, ethnology, linguistics, epistemology, psychotherapy—and left each of them altered with his passage. Steps to an Ecology of Mind chronicles that journey…In recommending the book I’ve learned to suggest that it be read backwards. Read the broad analyses of mind and ecology at the end of the book and then work back to see where the premises come from.

This always seemed reasonable to me, so when I returned to it last week, I flipped immediately to the final paper, “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,” which was first presented in 1970. I must have read it at some point—I’ve quoted from it several times on this blog before—but as I looked over it again, I found that it suddenly seemed remarkably urgent. As I had suspected, it was exactly what I needed to read right now. And its message is far from reassuring.

Bateson’s central point, which seems hard to deny, revolves around the concept of flexibility, or “uncommitted potentiality for change,” which he identifies as a fundamental quality of any healthy civilization. In order to survive, a society has to be able to evolve in response to changing conditions, to the point of rethinking even its most basic values and assumptions. Bateson proposes that any kind of planning for the future include a budget for flexibility itself, which is what enables the system to change in response to pressures that can’t be anticipated in advance. He uses the analogy of an acrobat who moves his arms between different positions of temporary instability in order to remain on the wire, and he notes that a viable civilization organizes itself in ways that allow it to draw on such reserves of flexibility when needed. (One of his prescriptions, incidentally, serves as a powerful argument for diversity as a positive good in its own right: “There shall be diversity in the civilization, not only to accommodate the genetic and experiential diversity of persons, but also to provide the flexibility and ‘preadaptation’ necessary for unpredictable change.”) The trouble is that a system tends to eat up its own flexibility whenever a single variable becomes inflexible, or “uptight,” compared to the rest:

Because the variables are interlinked, to be uptight in respect to one variable commonly means that other variables cannot be changed without pushing the uptight variable. The loss of flexibility spreads throughout the system. In extreme cases, the system will only accept those changes which change the tolerance limits for the uptight variable. For example, an overpopulated society looks for those changes (increased food, new roads, more houses, etc.) which will make the pathological and pathogenic conditions of overpopulation more comfortable. But these ad hoc changes are precisely those which in longer time can lead to more fundamental ecological pathology.

When I consider these lines now, it’s hard for me not to feel deeply unsettled. Writing in the early seventies, Bateson saw overpopulation as the most dangerous source of stress in the global system, and these days, we’re more likely to speak of global warming, resource depletion, and income inequality. Change a few phrases here and there, however, and the situation seems largely the same: “The pathologies of our time may broadly be said to be the accumulated results of this process—the eating up of flexibility in response to stresses of one sort or another…and the refusal to bear with those byproducts of stress…which are the age-old correctives.” Bateson observes, crucially, that the inflexible variables don’t need to be fundamental in themselves—they just need to resist change long enough to become a habit. Once we find it impossible to imagine life without fossil fuels, for example, we become willing to condone all kinds of other disruptions to keep that one hard-programmed variable in place. A civilization naturally tends to expand into any available pocket of flexibility, blowing through the budget that it should have been holding in reserve. The result is a society structured along lines that are manifestly rigid, irrational, indefensible, and seemingly unchangeable. As Bateson puts it grimly:

Civilizations have risen and fallen. A new technology for the exploitation of nature or a new technique for the exploitation of other men permits the rise of a civilization. But each civilization, as it reaches the limits of what can be exploited in that particular way, must eventually fall. The new invention gives elbow room or flexibility, but the using up of that flexibility is death.

And it’s difficult for me to read this today without thinking of all the aspects of our present predicament—political, environmental, social, and economic. Since Bateson sounded his warning half a century ago, we’ve consumed our entire budget of flexibility, largely in response to a single hard-programmed variable that undermined all the other factors that it was meant to sustain. At its best, the free market can be the best imaginable mechanism for ensuring flexibility, by allocating resources more efficiently than any system of central planning ever could. (As one prominent politician recently said to The Atlantic: “I love competition. I want to see every start-up business, everybody who’s got a good idea, have a chance to get in the market and try…Really what excites me about markets is competition. I want to make sure we’ve got a set of rules that lets everybody who’s got a good, competitive idea get in the game.” It was Elizabeth Warren.) When capital is concentrated beyond reason, however, and solely for its own sake, it becomes a weapon that can be used to freeze other cultural variables into place, no matter how much pain it causes. As the anonymous opinion writer indicated in the New York Times last week, it will tolerate a president who demeans the very idea of democracy itself, as long as it gets “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” because it no longer sees any other alternative. And this is where it gets us. For most of my life, I was ready to defend capitalism as the best system available, as long as its worst excesses were kept in check by measures that Bateson dismissively describes as “legally slapping the wrists of encroaching authority.” I know now that these norms were far more fragile than I wanted to acknowledge, and it may be too late to recover. Bateson writes: “Either man is too clever, in which case we are doomed, or he was not clever enough to limit his greed to courses which would not destroy the ongoing total system. I prefer the second hypothesis.” And I do, too. But I no longer really believe it.

Instant karma

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Last year, my wife and I bought an Instant Pot. (If you’re already dreading the rest of this post, I promise in advance that it won’t be devoted solely to singing its praises.) If you somehow haven’t encountered one before, it’s a basically a programmable pressure cooker. It has a bunch of other functions, including slow cooking and making yogurt, but aside from its sauté setting, I haven’t had a chance to use them yet. At first, I suspected that it would be another appliance, like our bread maker, that we would take out of the box once and then never touch again, but somewhat to my surprise, I’ve found myself using it on a regular basis, and not just as a reliable topic for small talk at parties. Its great virtue is that it allows you to prepare certain tasty but otherwise time-consuming recipes—like the butter chicken so famous that it received its own writeup in The New Yorker—with a minimum of fuss. As I write these lines, my Instant Pot has just finished a batch of soft-boiled eggs, which is its most common function in my house these days, and I might use it tomorrow to make chicken adobo. Occasionally, I’ll be mildly annoyed by its minor shortcomings, such as the fact that an egg set for four minutes at low pressure might have a perfect runny yolk one day and verge on hard-boiled the next. It saves time, but when you add in the waiting period to build and then release the pressure, which isn’t factored into most recipes, it can still take an hour or more to make dinner. But it still marks the most significant step forward in my life in the kitchen since Mark Bittman taught me how to use the broiler more than a decade ago.

My wife hasn’t touched it. In fact, she probably wouldn’t mind if I said that she was scared of the Instant Pot—and she isn’t alone in this. A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a feature by Ellen Byron titled “America’s Instant-Pot Anxiety,” with multiple anecdotes about home cooks who find themselves afraid of their new appliance:

Missing from the enclosed manual and recipe book is how to fix Instant Pot anxiety. Debbie Rochester, an elementary-school teacher in Atlanta, bought an Instant Pot months ago but returned it unopened. “It was too scary, too complicated,” she says. “The front of the thing has so many buttons.” After Ms. Rochester’s friends kept raving about their Instant Pot meals, she bought another one…Days later, Ms. Rochester began her first beef stew. After about ten minutes of cooking, it was time to release the pressure valve, the step she feared most. Ms. Rochester pulled her sweater over her hand, turned her back and twisted the knob without looking. “I was praying that nothing would blow up,” she says.

Elsewhere, the article quotes Sharon Gebauer of San Diego, who just wanted to make beef and barley soup, only to be filled with sudden misgivings: “I filled it up, started it pressure cooking, and then I started to think, what happens when the barley expands? I just said a prayer and stayed the hell away.”

Not surprisingly, the article has inspired derision from Instant Pot enthusiasts, among whom one common response seems to be: “People are dumb. They don’t read instruction manuals.” Yet I can testify firsthand that the Instant Pot can be intimidating. The manual is thick and not especially organized, and it does a poor job of explaining such crucial features as the steam release and float valve. (I had to watch a video to learn how to handle the former, and I didn’t figure out what the latter was until I had been using the pot for weeks.) But I’ve found that you can safely ignore most of it and fall back on a few basic tricks— as soon as you manage to get through at least one meal. Once I successfully prepared my first dish, my confidence increased enormously, and I barely remember how it felt to be nervous around it. And that may be the single most relevant point about the cult that the Instant Pot has inspired, which rivals the most fervent corners of fan culture. As Kevin Roose noted in a recent article in the New York Times:

A new religion has been born…Its deity is the Instant Pot, a line of electric multicookers that has become an internet phenomenon and inspired a legion of passionate foodies and home cooks. These devotees—they call themselves “Potheads”—use their Instant Pots for virtually every kitchen task imaginable: sautéing, pressure-cooking, steaming, even making yogurt and cheesecakes. Then, they evangelize on the internet, using social media to sing the gadget’s praises to the unconverted.

And when you look at the Instant Pot from a certain angle, you realize that it has all of the qualities required to create a specific kind of fan community. There’s an initial learning curve that’s daunting enough to keep out the casuals, but not so steep that it prevents a critical mass of enthusiasts from forming. Once you learn the basics, you forget how intimidating it seemed when you were on the outside. And it has a huge body of associated lore that discourages newbies from diving in, even if it doesn’t matter much in practice. (In the months that I’ve been using the Instant Pot, I’ve never used anything except the manual pressure and sauté functions, and I’ve disregarded the rest of the manual, just as I draw a blank on pretty much every element of the mytharc on The X-Files.) Most of all, perhaps, it takes something that is genuinely good, but imperfect, and elevates it into an object of veneration. There are plenty of examples in pop culture, from Doctor Who to Infinite Jest, and perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that the Instant Pot has a vaguely futuristic feel to it. A science fiction or fantasy franchise can turn off a lot of potential fans because of its history and complicated externals, even if most are peripheral to the actual experience. Using the Instant Pot for the first time is probably easier than trying to get into Doctor Who, or so I assume—I’ve steered clear of that franchise for many of the same reasons, reasonable or otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with being part of a group drawn together by the shared object of your affection. But once you’re on the inside, it can be hard to put yourself in the position of someone who might be afraid to try it because it has so many buttons.

Written by nevalalee

February 15, 2018 at 8:45 am

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