Several of the comments on this blog have made it clear that I really, really rub some people the wrong way. I must say I am rather reassured by that. As a young man, I was, shall we say, a trifle provocative at times, and though I know I have mellowed, I am pleased to discover that I still have the ability to drive some people nuts, even as I am smiling and seeming to be just a regular nice guy.
Let me say a few words about an issue raised in the minds of several commentators by my naïve enthusiasm for zoom. Some people have what strikes me as an odd ambivalence about the privacy of their communications. On the one hand, they think nothing of communicating with one another by the use of their cellphones, which are essentially spiffy modern versions of the shortwave radios used by ham radio enthusiasts a century ago. On the other hand, they are shocked, shocked [if I may steal a phrase from Casablanca] to learn that the world is listening in. If you want privacy, or something pretty close to it, try snail mail, for heaven’s sake. When you communicate with the functional equivalent of a megaphone, it is a bit odd to get upset that folks can hear you.
For most of the two hundred thousand years or so of the human race, people had no more privacy than a pride of lions or a gaggle of geese. For almost all of recorded history, which is to say for the last six thousand years, give or take, most people lived in villages or nomadic tribes small enough so that everyone knew everyone, and knew everyone’s business besides. In such a setting, you knew who was being born and who was dying, who was courting, who was planting, who was tending sheep, who was shooing horses, who was good with a sword, who could play the lute, and who baked really good pies. You also knew as soon as a stranger came to town. One of the distinctively unusual features of the eighteenth and nineteenth century frontier in America was the possibility of starting afresh, taking a new name, leaving old connections behind.
The big anonymous cities that we all now take for granted were anomalies, but today they are the norm. During the seven years that I taught at Columbia, I lived at 415 W. 115th street, apartment 51. There were 24 apartments in the building, and in those seven years I only met the occupant of one other apartment – Bob Belknap, who lived in apartment 52 and taught Russian Lit at Columbia. One day I tried to explain to him my excitement about Kenneth Arrow’s General Possibility Theorem, which showed that there was no majority-rule type decision procedure that avoided possible contradictions. He looked at me uncomprehendingly and said, “But life is full of contradictions.” I guess reading too much Dostoyevsky will do that to you.