‘I Would Prefer Not To’...
...said Bartleby the Scrivener in Herman Melville's famous 1853 short story. Usually I prefer to dig right in and do things. Here are a few that I'm passing up for now.
I am not flying sea planes at the moment, despite loving the chance to do so during our years in the Seattle area. Some other things I’m not doing are the theme of what follows. (Why this image, which is from Decatur Island in Washington before the pandemic? Because it reminds me of a marvelous illustration for ‘Bartleby’ by Bill Bragg in a Folio Society Edition of Melville’s short fiction, as shown below. This photo is by Deborah Fallows.)
Here is a roundup of recent news, presented this time in a “negative spaces” form. That is: some things I am not doing, as a set-up for things I hope are ahead. My theme for the day is that of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” whose mantra was, “I would prefer not to.”
I would prefer not to sign up with Threads.
Twitter, now X or Xitter, is in hospice. No one knows how long this stage will last. Perhaps no one will ever know whether it was on purpose, through narcissistic impulse, or by sheer incompetence that Elon Musk destroyed the most valuable function that Twitter over 15 years had evolved to serve.
That role, Twitter at its best, was as a near-instant, near-global nervous system that could alert people to events anywhere. It could be an earthquake, an outbreak, an uprising, a World Cup match: through its own version of AI, the old Twitter could direct attention to the people and organizations best positioned to comment about it. That early AI-before-the-name was known as “verification,” which helped you know at a glance which updates were coming from, say, the Ukrainian government after a rocket attack, or Martina Navratilova during a Grand Slam match, or Joan Baez after a concert or protest march. And which updates were not.
Twitter had its obvious, very serious problems, as laid out here. But it had sprawled and experimented its way into being an information community that hadn’t existed before, with spillover benefits even for the vast majority of people who never logged in. How did bystanders benefit? Because, despite the risk of “Twitter mobs” or of luring users into the mistaken belief that “Twitter is reality,” on balance it gave its core constituency, reporters and editors, a more accurate and fine-grained view of the world than they would have otherwise.
That’s gone. It’s like looking at the stumps of a forest that has been clear-cut. Something will grow back, but it will take a long time. And meanwhile, where do you go—for picnics, for walks, for things you used to do when there were trees?
I have reserved user-name accounts on Bluesky, Mastodon, Post, and other ice floes in a warming ocean. (To use another ecological metaphor.) But I would prefer not to sign up for Threads, even though it started out with more users than any of the others. Why? Three reasons:
Ownership. I have gone this far in life without using any account run by Instagram, Facebook, or “Meta.” Despite the billions of people in the world I know this has cut me off from. (For instance: the whole online life of the Philippines seems to be run on Facebook. I have friends there but am not able to connect with them this way.) Elon Musk has a several-year record of proving himself untrustworthy. Mark Zuckerberg and his companies have a much longer bad record to assess. I would prefer not to be involved with anything they run.
User interface. I think with my fingers, and I do so most efficiently on a “real” keyboard. Threads so far can be used only on phones, Android or iOS. For me: No way. Life is too short, phone keyboards are too clumsy, attention is too scarce. Also: phone-based apps are built to suck out more of your personal data than are Web-based apps, which offer more ways to set limits and rein them in. Phone-only is for me a step too far.
Critical mass. Months ago, people were abandoning Xitter for Mastodon. Weeks ago, for Bluesky. Days ago, for Threads. None of these alternatives has—so far—recreated the centrality of the old Twitter, for those who viewed it as central. Musk’s destruction of this forum is a dead loss all around. The fact that he has created a gap doesn’t mean that anyone else can fill it.
We’re in the clear-cut forest, wondering what might fill it in. Meanwhile we stumble through the stumps—which means, for now, watching what remains on Xitter.
This is a detail from Bill Bragg’s illustration of ‘Bartleby’ in the Folio Society edition of the book. You can see the whole image in a 2017 New York Review of Books essay by Christopher Benfey.
I would prefer not to write further about the ‘Lab Leak.’
When I first knew him, David was a precocious novelist. He is of course now one of our most distinguished science-and-nature writers, applying a novelist’s and nonfiction narrator’s sensibility to the known and unknowns of the natural world.
In his latest piece, “The Ongoing Mysteries of Covid’s Origin,” he argues one point that is different from what I had recently said. In my post I said that, because of Chinese stonewalling, the world might never “know” for sure how Covid originated—but that in practical terms the more important question was how to prepare for the inevitable next outbreak.
David Quammen says we might never know the answer—but that it’s important to continue the search. As he puts it:
Some contrarians say that it doesn’t matter, the source of the virus. What matters, they say, is how we cope with the catastrophe it has brought, the illness and death it continues to cause. Those contrarians are wrong. It does matter. Research priorities, pandemic preparedness around the world, health policies and public opinion toward science itself will be lastingly affected by the answer to the origin question — if we ever get a definitive answer.
He also goes into the unavoidable human craving to have a plot line, a cause, a story that will “explain” important events, especially disasters. He applies this to “lab leak” and the pandemic in general:
Various factors may account for this public drift to the lab-leak hypothesis. In my view, a preponderance of empirical evidence is not one of them. I agree it’s important to remain open-minded toward a lab-leak possibility, but most of the arguments made in support of that possibility boil down to conjecture from circumstance and unsupported accusations.
That is a set-up for this brilliant ending to the piece. It’s from his discussion with Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist:
I asked Bergstrom about the human affinity for dark theories of big events.
There was something about that in Thomas Hardy, he told me. “It’s in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where Tess is doomed by hapless chance. It really sucks! To live in a world where we are at the mercy of hapless chance.”
I had never read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, to my embarrassment, so I stuck with SARS-CoV-2. “This is not a contest now, in the public domain, between bodies of evidence,” I proposed. “This is a contest between stories.”
“Yeah!” Bergstrom said. “That’s right.”
Please read it all.
And meanwhile, I’ll note that I’ve had another round of exchanges with ProPublica representatives, involving questions that follow my previous piece. I would prefer to go into those in an upcoming post.
I would prefer not to write about where the economy is headed, and media coverage thereof.
I’d prefer not to write about the future course of the economy, because who knows what comes next.
And I don’t need to write about the coverage, because a U.S. Senator has made the point so concisely and well. Brian Schatz, a Democrat of Hawaii, used the vestigial Xitter to make this point yesterday:
What is he referring to? An endless series of stories, most frequently in the New York Times but also in the WaPo and public broadcasting, which follow the following narrative arc:
Report: Latest figures show things getting better for the economy. (Unemployment, inflation, supply chain, stock values, you name it).
Economic “analysis”: But things probably will get worse.
Political “analysis”: Why do people feel so bad about the economy? And why that’s a problem for Biden.
Here is how this shows up in news play. A headline this past week from the NYT:
And one the week before:
One from Politico this month:
And one from The Atlantic:
For whatever reason, the Wall Street Journal’s news—not editorial—pages have been much better in this regard.
Why do people feel so “bad” about an economy that by all measurable indicators is getting so much better? Gee, I dunno.
I would prefer not to say more right now.
I would prefer not to write about Joe Biden’s age.
And I’ll say more about the reasons why, soon.
I would also prefer not to write, today, about the scandal of the Supreme Court.
That is because I have recently had some useful interviews, including with the pioneering Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (a Democrat from Rhode Island) about ways to reckon with the reeking ethical scandal that is the Alito-Thomas-era.
And I would prefer not to have to write about the marketization of modern medicine…
… which is newly on my mind because the wonderful primary-care MD who has been our doctor over the past twenty-plus years announced out of the blue, by email, that he’s joining a pricey for-profit “concierge” practice in a few weeks.
The time will come for more on this front.
I would prefer …
… to offer thanks to all readers for their attention and support, and to dig into these and other topics. ASAP.
And to leave you with this guide, via the decaying Xitter but from the ever-vibrant Deborah Fallows, of what we have been doing recently: