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The Internet Is Not as New as You Think

The Internet Is Not as New as You Think

When Kant proclaimed in the Critique of the Power of Judgment that there will never be a “Newton for the blade of grass”—that is, that no one will account for the generation and growth of grass in terms of blind mechanical laws of nature in the way that Newton had managed to do a century earlier for the motions of the planets, the tides, cannonballs, and other objects of interest to mathematical physics—he was not simply reporting on the state of research in the life sciences. Rather, Kant supposed, we will always be cognitively constrained, simply given the way our minds work, to apprehend biological systems in a way that includes, rightly or wrongly, the idea of an end-oriented design, even if we can never have any positive idea—or, as Kant would say, any determinate concept—of what the ends are or of who or what did the designing. In other words, we are constrained to cognize living beings and living systems in a way that involves an analogy to the things that we human beings design for our own ends—the clepsydras and ploughs, the smartphones and fiber-optic networks—even if we can never ultimately determine whether this analogy is only an unjustified carrying-over of explanations from a domain where they do belong into one where they do not.

Kant understood the problem as an intractable one, arising simply from the structure of human cognition. Yet this did not prevent subsequent generations from assuming dogmatic positions on one of the two possible sides of the debate concerning the boundary between the natural on the one hand and the artificial or cultural on the other. “Do male ducks rape female ducks?” is a question that sparked and sustained heated and ultimately futile debates in the late 20th century. The so-called sociobiologists, led by E. O. Wilson, took it as obvious that they do, while their opponents, notably Stephen Jay Gould, insisted that rape is by definition a morally charged category of action and so also by definition a category that pertains only to the human sphere; that it is thus an unjustified anthropomorphization of ducks to attribute the capacity for such an action to them; and that moreover it is dangerous to do so, since to say that ducks rape is to naturalize rape and in turn to open up the possibility of viewing human rape as morally neutral. If rape is so widespread as to be found even among ducks, the worry went, then some might conclude that it is simply a natural feature of the range of human actions and that it is hopeless to try to eliminate it. And the sociobiologists would reply: Perhaps, but just look at what that drake is doing, and how the female struggles to get away, and try to find a word that captures what you are seeing better than “rape.”

The debate is, again, unresolved, for reasons that Kant could probably have anticipated. We can never fully know what it is like to be a duck, and so we cannot know whether what we are seeing in nature is a mere external appearance of what would be rape if it were occurring among humans, or whether it is truly, properly, duck rape. The same goes for ant cannibalism, for gay penguins, and so many other animal behaviors that some people would prefer to think of as distinctly human, either because they are so morally atrocious that extending them to other living beings risks normalizing them by naturalizing them, or because they are so valued that our sense of our own specialness among creatures requires us to see the appearance of these behaviors in other species as mere appearance, as simulation, counterfeit, or aping. And the same holds for the mycorhizal networks that connect groves of trees. Are these “communication networks” in the same sense as the internet is, or is the “wood wide web” only a metaphor?

It is not to be flippant or to give up too easily to say that the determination is ours to make, and that no further empirical inquiry will tell us whether such a comparison or assimilation taps into some real truth about the world. The choice is ours to make, though we would perhaps do better not to make a choice at all, but instead, with Kant, to entertain the evident similarity between the living system and the artifice with an appropriate critical suspension. Our minds will just keep returning to the analogy between nature and artifice, between organism and machine, between living system and network. And the fact that our minds are doing this says something about who we are and how we make sense of the world around us. What we in any case cannot help but notice is that, like a network of roots laced with fungal filaments, like a field of grass, the internet too is a growth, an outgrowth, an excrescence of the species-specific activity of Homo sapiens.

If we were not so attached to the idea that human creations are of an ontologically different character than everything else in nature—that, in other words, human creations are not really in nature at all, but extracted out of nature and then set apart from it—we might be in a better position to see human artifice, including both the mass-scale architecture of our cities and the fine and intricate assembly of our technologies, as a properly natural outgrowth of our species-specific activity. It is not that there are cities and smartphones wherever there are human beings, but cities and smartphones themselves are only the concretions of a certain kind of natural activity in which human beings have been engaging all along.

To see this, or at least to appreciate it or take it seriously, is not to reduce human beings to ants, or to reduce love letters (or indeed sexts) to pheromone signals. We can still love our own species even as we seek to retrain it, at the end of a few millennia of forgetfulness, to feel at home in nature. And part of this must mean seeking to expose the pretense in the idea that our productions have a more exceptional character than they in fact do alongside everything else nature has yielded.

Hundreds of Ways to Get S#!+ Done—and We Still Don’t

Hundreds of Ways to Get S#!+ Done—and We Still Don’t

Something about the future defeats our imaginative capacity. “Present self screws over future self,” says Tim Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University who studies procrastination. He says that we regard our future self as a stranger, someone onto whose lap we can dump tons of work. On some weird level, we don’t get that it’ll be us doing it.

One of Pychyl’s students recently tried a clever experimental trick to get people to procrastinate less. The student took undergraduates through a guided meditation exercise in which they envisioned themselves at the end of the term—meeting that future self. “Lo and behold,” Pychyl says, those people “developed more empathy for their future self, and that was related to a decrease in procrastination.” They realized that time wasn’t infinite. Future them was no longer a stranger but someone to be protected. To get us off our butts, it seems, we need to grapple with the finite nature of our time on Earth.

This is the black-metal nature of task management: Every single time you write down a task for yourself, you are deciding how to spend a few crucial moments of the most nonrenewable resource you possess: your life. Every to-do list is, ultimately, about death. (“Dost thou love life?” wrote Ben Franklin. “Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”)

Illustration of Grim Reaper holding todo list

I began to suspect that this is the truly deep, arterial source of some of the emotions around to-do lists. The people who make to-do apps agreed with me. “What is this class of software supposed to do?” asks Patel, the creator of Workflowy, rhetorically. “It’s supposed to answer the question ‘What should I do right now in order to accomplish all of my life goals?’ The most scarce resource many of us have is time.”

Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journal paper-based method for organizing your work, puts it in even more starkly existential terms. “Each task is an experience waiting to be born,” he tells me. “When you look at your task list that way, it’s like, this will become your future.” (Or if you want the European literary-philosophical take, here’s Umberto Eco: “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”)

No wonder we get so paralyzed! The stakes with PowerPoint really aren’t that high.

Given that life is composed of time, a whole sector of the task-management philosophical magisteria argues that mere lists will always be inherently terrible. Just as Pychyl showed, we overload ourselves with more than we can accomplish and create Lists of Shame because we are terrible at grasping how little time we actually have. The only solution, this line of thinking goes, is to use an organizational system that is itself composed of time: a calendar.

Instead of putting tasks on a list, you do “time blocking,” putting every task in your calendar as a chunk of work. That way you can immediately see when you’re biting off more than you can chew. Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and guru of what he calls “deep work,” is probably the staunchest advocate of time blocking. “I think it is pretty undeniable that time blocking, done well, is going to blow the list method out of the water,” Newport tells me. He says it makes you twice as productive as those suckers who rely on lists. Time blocking forces us to wrestle directly with the angel of death. It’s natural that we then screw around less.

Several researchers who study tasks told me they generally agreed that time blocking avoids the problems of to-do apps and lists. One to-do app, Reclaim, actually has an AI that estimates how long each task will take and finds a slot in your calendar. (The secret point is to show you there isn’t much room in there.) “We’ll not only tell you when tasks are overdue, we’ll tell you that tasks are going to be overdue,” says Patrick Lightbody, Reclaim’s cofounder.

One Man’s Amazing Journey to the Center of the Bowling Ball

One Man’s Amazing Journey to the Center of the Bowling Ball

Sposato patented his diamond-shaped core, which he claims produces 20 percent more inertia than any competitor, and placed it in balls that he manufactured under the brand name Lane #1. But while he’s adamant that his core is the most advanced on the market, Sposato has always lagged behind Pinel in terms of sales and recognition. That dynamic led to years of conflict between the two ornery men. After one tussle in the online forum Bowling Ball Exchange, Pinel was banned for his caustic replies to Sposato’s criticism.

“See, Mo, he talks above everybody, talks down to people,” Sposato says. “People can’t understand what he’s talking about—physics-wise, all these big words, stuff like that. So they just look at him and they agree with him. But I can see right through it. I know what he’s talking about, what he’s saying, and I can always throw it right back in his face.” (In addition to designing Lane #1 balls, Sposato also owns a nightclub in Syracuse; he made headlines last year for openly flouting the state’s lockdown by hosting a party.)

Sposato was partially vindicated when MoRich flamed out. The company suffered from typical startup woes, notably maintaining quality control when dealing with contract factories. More fundamentally, demand was down. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of league bowlers—the folks willing to splash out for a new ball or three every year—decreased by 36 percent. But Pinel’s ideas had also been copied by bigger competitors, who were now touting audaciously asymmetric balls of their own. Unlike MoRich, those companies had the means to put their products into the hands of the most influential pros. (Getting a brand approved for use on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour, the sport’s top circuit, costs in excess of $100,000 in certification fees.)

Pinel kept sinking his dwindling savings into MoRich until 2011. Shortly thereafter, he was offered a lifeline by an old friend. Phil Cardinale, the man who’d given Pinel his first design opportunity for Track more than two decades earlier, had recently become the CEO of Radical Bowling, a niche ball brand owned by Brunswick Bowling. Cardinale and the VP of Brunswick Bowling invited Pinel to become Radical’s technology director. In addition to designing cores for the brand, Pinel became Radical’s chief ambassador. His #MoMonday YouTube series drew thousands of viewers every week, and he also scheduled more than a hundred personal appearances a year. Though in his seventies, Pinel would regularly put 45,000 miles a year on his black 2006 Chevy Malibu Maxx. He’d drive across the Dakotas in midwinter, dropping into tiny alleys to talk up the cores he’d designed for Radical, balls with names like the Ludicrous, the Katana Legend, and the Conspiracy Theory.

Pinel was still trying to maximize flare potential in his designs, an effort that was arguably becoming outmoded. A new generation of pro bowlers, both stronger and more technically sophisticated than their predecessors, have achieved unprecedented amounts of spin on their balls—sometimes as much as 600 revolutions per minute for those who opt for the increasingly popular two-handed throwing technique. Such bowlers don’t need as much hook assistance as in days gone by, so they’re using more stable balls—a strategic trend that may be having a trickle-down effect on the league bowlers who worship the sport’s stars.

In our conversations, Pinel never displayed any hint that he was worried about the future of his cores. He seemed grateful to still have a place in the industry, and he was happy to be on the road preaching about the intricate relationship between core design and ball motion. When we spoke in mid-February, he called from Fort Myers. His upcoming Southern-tour itinerary sounded brutal: Two more stops in Florida, then he’d be hitting pro shops in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, and Louisville. At the trip’s conclusion, he was slated to help announce the release of Radical’s newest balls, the Incognito Pearl and the Pandemonium Solid, which promises “a strong mid-lane motion and lots of continuation through the pin deck.”