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Rethinking Invention

April 13, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.” - T. S. Eliot

I used to work for a professor who would say: “Without the toaster, we’d have no computers!” Each invention brings about a whole new world of possibilities. The toaster may not resemble the computer, but they are stages on a continuum once seen at a distance. Of course, that is not apparent in the beginning of any invention, only hindsight provides that kind of perspective.

The first toaster came about in the early 1900s and even it did not resemble the toasters of today. The first toaster browned one side of bread at a time, requiring the user to flip the toast halfway through. And wouldn’t you know the invention that immediately followed the toaster? Presliced bread. In other words, the new product created space for another new product. This is not surprising, and in fact, seems to be an unwritten rule of invention. It is anyone’s guess which products will survive (like presliced bread) and which will fade.

Listening to Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony got me thinking about invention in general. Zuckerberg has repeated that he did not know exactly what he was creating Facebook. I think that can be said of all invention. And if the inventor does not fully understand the capabilities and repercussions of their creation, imagine the public. We are left wandering behind in a variety of states of interest, desire, greed, paranoia and ignorance. Listening to the questions I had two thoughts. First: clearly there is a difficulty in framing the right questions, particularly about something so foreign to our own experience and training. And two: humans really do not understand these new technologies.

It is likely that all teenagers function on nothing less than three social media platforms a day. Maybe more. They may not be able to imagine a day when these platforms did not exist. But I think it is worth our time to offer some perspective on technology. For this, I thought it best to offer a very visual demonstration of invention, namely, the airplane. In 1903, the Wright brothers successfully flew the Flyer. It was not their first attempt at a plane, but it finally proved that humans could fly. Furthermore, they “discovered the first principles of human flight”. And of course, flight experimentation did not stop there. Nineteen years after the Flyer, Italian designer Caproni built the Ca 60, a prototype of a flying boat, intended for transatlantic travel. To look at it now, in retrospect, it looks like a science project (because, of course, it was). On its second flight, the Ca 60 crashed into the water and broke apart. Airplanes nowadays are sleeker, constructed from entirely different materials and a whole lot more sophisticated, but the builders learned a lot from these early experiments.

Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

That there were nineteen years between the first flight and the first pursuit of transatlantic flight is important, however, because it is also roughly equivalent to the length of time in which we have had social media. (The first blogs were generated in 1999, and took off by 2004. The intent of my blog today, however, is not to define social media, which will have to wait for another day). Blogs arrived in early 2000 and became heavy traffickers by 2010. Other sites naturally filtered in to fill niche markets. Sites like Photobucket and Flickr, Tumblr and Youtube generated a new way to use, share and create our own content. (During this time, Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004.) As social media sites visibly changed and grew with their markets, they also changed on the back end. Data-mining and information-gathering changed too. I think it is important to remember how revolutionary the internet was (and is!). Whereas with the Flyer and Ca 60 one could see the differences and reasons for construction, social media markets are much more subtle.

It seems to me that social media is less social and more media than we originally imagined. What is hidden may be more important than what is received. The way that we code documents, tag them, like them, share them, all create invisible data which now hangs onto the content in question, but also hangs onto the users. Ironically, this data is parsed and stored in a variety of middleman’s hands, on sites like Facebook and Twitter. In complete contrast to the airplane, the internet has masked invention in such a subtle way that the user is unaware of our own participation in invention.


When humans did achieve the first transatlantic flight, they had few navigational systems, and no bathrooms or heaters. Imagine Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh, who were embraced for their spirit of adventure and bold daring. The first airplanes carried one person or a few people at their own cost and risk of their own life. Today, we use the internet more often than we use transportation and yet we understand it less. Its implications are creating profound effects upon our lives and yet we still cannot see the wheels or wings. How do we make transparent that which cannot be seen? How do we create a spirit of cooperation, much like the Wright brothers or Charles Lindbergh?

I am simply wondering if, as concepts become murkier and more nuanced, how do we educate a global population which is heavily dependent upon such technologies? The Ca 60’s first flight was short and its second, disastrous. Can we risk that of our websites and internet services? Yet, one idea often inspires the next. We are fortunate to have inventors willing to test their ideas, but what happens when the inventions risk issues of identity and truth? I ask this because I believe that future inventions will continue to be hidden from sight and we should find ways for dealing with such subtlety.

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Charting Kant

October 20, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon for today's post.

Kant's Science of Right takes time to read. In the Science of Right, Kant explains the interaction of theory with practice when defining ownership, rights, and equity. I find it difficult to pull short sections from his writing because all of his arguments build upon one another. I also find it nearly impossible to study a single quote with the hopes of gaining a better understanding to his arguments because, again, the arguments are so inextricably linked. It's almost incestuous. However, I will do that very thing today while grappling with the idea of equity. I find it helpful to chart my understanding of Kant's arguments, so I have shared a few of my visual aids in hopes that they may enhance our understanding and conversation of his principles.

Merriam-Webster's first entry for equity is “justice according to natural law or right, specifically freedom from bias or favoritism”. Likewise, Kant's entire argument rests upon the idea of categorical imperatives, or a Kantian type of natural law (see figure 1), which makes this section fantastically interesting (and dense).

Figure 1

Figure 1

The following selection from the subheading of “6. Deduction of the Conception of a Purely Juridical Possession of an External Object (Possessio Noumenon)”, offers a glimpse of a very Kantian argument. He bases theory on the practical, which actually proves how practice is more theoretical than empirical. In other words, what we think of as concretely “mine” is actually an abstraction from one of Kant's categorical imperatives. He claims that categorical imperatives form the base of our societal structure, and in so doing, he explains how we function via free will. From that, I hope to gain an understanding of how abstraction functions and also what we might be able to gain from the idea of a temporary unification of two divergent wills.

Section 6 reads:

“It has been shown in the Critique of Pure Reason that in theoretical principles a priori, an institutional perception of a priori must be supplied in connection with any given conception; and, consequently, were it a question of a purely theoretical principle, something would have to be added to the conception of the possession of an object to make it real. But in respect of the practical principle under consideration, the procedure is just the converse of the theoretical process; so that all the conditions of perception which form the foundation of empirical possession must be abstracted or taken away in order to extend the range of the juridical conception beyond the empirical sphere, and in order to be able to apply the postulate, that every external object of the free activity of my will, so far as I have it in my power, although not in the possession of it, may be reckoned as juridically mine.

“The possibility of such a possession, which consequent deduction of the conception of a non-empirical possession, is founded upon the juridical postulate of the practical reason, that 'It is a juridical duty so to act towards others that what is external and useable may come into the possession or become the property of some one.' And this postulate is conjoined with the exposition of the conception that what is externally one's own is founded upon a possession, that is not physical. The possibility of such a possession, thus conceived, cannot however be proved or comprehended in itself, because it is a rational conception for which no empirical perception can be furnished; but it follows as an immediate consequence from the postulate that has been enunciated. For, if it is necessary to act according to that juridical principle, the rational or intelligible condition of a purely juridical possession must also be possible. It need astonish no one, then, that the theoretical aspect of the principles of the external mine and thine is lost from view in the rational sphere of pure intelligence and presents no extension of knowledge; for the conception of freedom upon which they rest does not admit of any theoretical deduction of its possibility, and it can only be inferred from the practical law of reason called the categorical imperative, viewed as a fact.”

Figure 2

Figure 2

The following ideas fascinate me the most. First, the inverse relationship between the theoretical and practical seems to counteract one another, but actually they reinforce each other. Kant uses the same process to found both arguments, but they create a labyrinthine inverse of the other (see figure 2). In other words, theory enables possession, but likewise, possession enables theory. Second, Kant states that these events happen independent of space and time, but also that they depend upon successive events. Therefore, there is a chronological structure to ownership, which instantaneously merges and then separates again. I wonder if, in some sense, the idea of time is what is "added" to the object in question?

Figure 3

Figure 3

Finally, figure 3 depicts the idea of ownership as a transfer in which two separate wills momentarily converge. This idea fascinates me - that two separate beings actually unite in a single point connected by an abstracted object mid-transfer, as if runners handing off a baton during a relay - seems so straightforward and logical. Only free will doesn't always act logically. This juridical assessment of transfer only makes me want to know what we can learn from a societal construct able to unify the wills of more than one human being. Kant demonstrates that each transaction involves a meeting of wills. In other words, two wills converge instantaneously in an agreement at which time an object changes ownership, according to the categorical imperative underlying transfer. And then they separate. Their relationship exists as a point on our chart for only one, small, already-disappearing instant.

What can we learn about individual or universal will from Kant's parabolic structures?

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