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evolution is a knowledge process
the technologies in our environment and what they do to us
the necessity of hype in technological revolutions
when disbelief is voluntarily suspended
the nature of perception and deception
evolutionary patterns in history
accepting "dangerous ideas"
books to look into
...but had to blog it anyway
...I gotta prolong this hiatus. Too much going on right now. Got a business that's starting to take off and the rest of the time I'm teaching sci-fi literature for a Humanities course at York University. But I am going to continue to hack away at Norm Walsh's blogware, which I decided was the right package for me. I will be back in April some time, after teaching ends and I have time to turn my intellect to something other than aliens and time travel.
I am not stopping for good! The idea here is to integrate blogging into your productive life. The asweknowit project will always be an open-source research project. It's just being crowded out by sports stats and sci-fi right now.
And if anyone can help me figure out how to get saxon to work via Walsh's Makefile, I'd greatly appreciate it.
I need to switch blogware. I'm using very out-of-date software but it was, at the time, the only one which offered the kind of categorization I'm interested in. Now that Userland seems capable of incoporating topics I'm going to jump ship. This will take time away from posting to this blog. I may, however, write about my requirements and how they are, or are not, being met.
Jonathan Druy has done it again. A great memorial web site for Neil Postman. A collection of eulogies, obits, etc. You'll remember I blogged his Ong site last summer.
This has little to do with "the evolution of culture, technology and knowledge" but it happens to be the business I'm in. Introducing Statsology, "tracking innovations in sports data processing". Then again, when I get around to reading Moneyball this Christmas, I might be able to make the connection i.e. how are computing machines revolutionizing the sports world? That's good media ecology and fodder for this here blog. It's also a preoccupation with Statsology. Check it out.
I should mention the good work Ian Glendinning is doing over at Psybertron. Not just because he's always blogging me but because we're working on similar problems from different approaches. Ian's one of the KM people (and an engineer with over 20 years' experience) whom it never occured to me would be interested in asweknowit. In my ignorance, I didn't realize how philosophical some KM types were. So if you want to know what Rorty and Nietzsche have to do with business knowledge, have a visit. If you like the problem raised in his manifesto--as I understand it: How can we better understand what we do given we never know precisely what it is we are doing--then have a visit. Check out my blogroll (finally back up after some kind of DNS snafu) for more KM with a philosophical bent from the likes of Dave Pollard and Ton Zijlstra a>.
Although I was only there for the Saturday, I had a great time at NYSCA. Saw two panels apart from my own and attended the memorial for Neil Postman. For details on the people I mention and the titles of their talks, check the link provided to the NYSCA programme.
My co-presenters on "The Wonderful World of Blogs" were Eric Lears and Lisa Hanson. Eric spoke about implementing blogs in organizations and there's a pdf version of his talk available. Lisa covered the Sina Motallebi case and examined the cultural context of blogging in Iran. (I can't go into detail since, being a fellow presenter, I was unable to take notes.)
Lance Strate gave a fun talk on the Tolkien panel comparing Tolkien to McLuhan. Both were Oxbridge-educated, colonial, Catholic converts with anti-modernist sentiments who were big in the '60s. The two shared a fascination with speech, grammar and language. Tolkien said "All my work is philological"; McLuhan's doctoral dissertation was on the history of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and the dialectic) in Western education. Mcluhan took the side of the Grammarians and so, it seems, did Tolkien whose Treebeard says "My name is like a story". Next up was Susan Jacobson who demonstrated her Countless Stories production of testimonies from Tolkein fans. This is a non-linear story engine developed to accomodate open-ended narrative. You can see for yourself here. Type "treebeard" into the search engine for the Strate dope. Paul Levinson, who's been blogged more than once here, spoke after Susan. His "Confessions of a Science Fiction Chauvinist'" delved into the differences between sci-fi and fantasy. Although no fan of the latter, Levinson was taken by the Ring movies and suggested they might be science fiction after all.
My last panel of the day was "Media: The Dark Side". Lily Alexander discussed notions of shame and transgression in the context of the public trials of celebrities like Gary Condit, Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson, etc. She noted the historical link between shameful acts and drama. All those Greek plays--or at least the ones we know--are about vile behaviour. Paul Grosswiler spoke about student plagiarism and the Internet. It's been 36 years since McLuhan wrote: "Take any books on any subject and custom-make your own book by simply xeroxing a chapter from this one, a chapter from that one--instant steal!" (The Medium is the Massage) Grossweiler updated this analysis ("substitute 'downloading' for 'xeroxing'") and discussed and discussed McLuhanesque concepts like patchwriting.
The Postman memorial left no doubt Postman was a great teacher who made a strong impression on the lives of his students. Many spoke at the memorial. Having met Neil only once, I didn't speak. But I thought afterwards that, being one of the few Canadians in attendance, I might have acknowledged how he helped keep McLuhan's legacy alive. The Media Ecology Association is a continuation of Postman's efforts to teach us that the medium matters.
This is the title of a talk I gave at the annual convention of the New York State Communications Association last October 25. Nothing innovative, just a synthesis of state-of-the-art thinking on blogs. The idea was to give a sophisticated understanding of the blog world to smart but non-techie communications scholars.
Abstract: Blogs cause a shift in the balance of power between writer and reader. Blog research and press coverage focuses too much on the supply side (writers), ignoring the two other main players in the blogosphere: readers and machines. The outlook for blogs depends as much upon innovation in reading tech (RSS aggregators) as in writing tech (blogware). Evolutionary trajectory of this medium is toward a relevance-switched content network. Current pre-occupation with "bloggers versus journalists" is an example of McLuhan's rear-view mirrorism. But misunderstanding new technologies is unavoidable, interesting and revealing.
I'm at AoIR 2003 in the second blogging session. Wireless just came on. Listening now to Taso Lagos. Just thought I'd do my first post straight from a con. If any of you are here, watch for me. Or email me and we can arrange to meet.
A long and very good memorial by Jay Rosen.
Another great media ecologist has died. We mourn the loss. He will be sorely missed.
"Technological change is neither additive or subtractive. It is ecological. I mean "ecological" in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change. If you remove the caterpillar from a given habitat, you are left not with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival. . . In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe. After television, the United States was not America plus television; television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry.
Postman, Neil, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, New York, Vintage Books. p. 18
"If any student comes to me and says he wants to be useful to mankind and go into research to alleviate human suffering, I advise him to go into charity instead. Research wants real egoists, who seek their own pleasure and satisfaction, but find it in solving the puzzles of nature."--Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Thanks, Alex!)
From Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles:
Truth is, Im just not interested in sex anymore. Knowledge, on the other hand Theres still a desire for knowledge. Its a curious thing, the thirst for knowledge very few people have it, you know, even among scientists. Most of them are happy to make a career for themselves and move into management, but its incredibly important to the history of humanity. Its easy to imagine a fable in which a small group of mena couple hundred, at most, in the whole worldwork intensively on something very difficult, very abstract, completely incomprehensible to the uninitiated. These men remain completely unknown to the rest of the world; they have no apparent power, no money, no honors; nobody can understand the pleasure they get from their work. In fact, they are the most powerful men in the world, for one simple reason: they hold the keys to rational certainty. Everything they declare to be true will be accepted, sooner or later, by the whole population. There is no power in the worldeconomic, political, religious, or socialthat can compete with rational certainty. Western society is interested beyond all measure in philosophy and politics, and the most vicious, ridiculous conflicts have been about philosophy and politics; it has also had a passionate love affair with literature and the arts, but nothing in its history has been as important as the need for rational certainty. The West has sacrificed everything to this need: religion, happiness, hope--and, finally, its own life. You have to remember this when passing judgment on Western civilization. (221)
This book is a contemporary Frankenstein. The hero is an emotional invalid named Djerzinski who creates an improved successor to homo sapiens. This new species is immortal and each organism has the same genetic code. Says one of them: "Science and art are still a part of our society; but without the stimulus of personal vanity, the pursuit of Truth and Beauty has taken on a less urgent aspect. To humans of the old species, our world seems a paradise. We have even been known to refer to ourselves--with a certain humor--by the name they so long dreamed of: gods." (263)
Dr. Frankenstein was another victim of Apollo. Instead of slaying a monster, however, he made one:
I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
Frankenstein already knew the dangers of possession when he warned the would-be polar explorer Walton: "Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me, -- let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!" And also: "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow."
The book is full of reflections on the Apollonian paradox. Here Frankenstein calls on the more familiar Apollo of balance and order:
"A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed."
Yet the book also has a tendency to glorify the scientist-- "the modern prometheus" of the book's subtitle--as an anti-hero. He is like Milton's fascinating rebel Satan. There is also something inhuman about Dr. Frankenstein: his love of desolate landscapes, his lonely brooding. He is like Coleridge's poet in the last part of Kubla Khan--someone to be wary of, yet the Romantic hero through and through. The romantics were all for striving beyond the human and the book leaves it open whether or not the pursuit of knowledge is indeed compatible with a balanced mind. A cautionary tale?
One obvious victim of Apollo is Oedipus, who gets done in after he does the sphinx in. Seeking knowledge of his origins as a young man, he is shunned by the Apollonian Oracle at Delphi. Later, in the part of the story taken up in Sophocles's drama, we see him single-mindedly, if deludedly, pursuing the answer. He does so with considerable skill, using the talents which served him in his confrontation with the sphinx. He mocks the blind soothsayer Teiresias and ignores his warnings. But wise Teiresias knows that it is Oedipus's own greatness that is his undoing. It is as if the original mystery of his birth has set in motion his considerable mental powers.
His wife and mother, Jocasta, pleads with him:
Why should a mortal man, the sport of chance,
She says, "Oh, as thou carest for thy life, give o'er this quest."
"I cannot; I must probe this matter home," he answers.
"Ah mayst thou ne'er discover who thou art!"
His acumen is short-sighted but effective at uncovering truth. Always questioning, always pursuing some blinding hypothesis: that Creon is the guilty party, that the Shepherd will only reveal his low birth. Then the moment of truth and off he runs. When he returns the Chorus asks him what made him pluck his own eyes out: "Apollo! oh, my friends, the God, Apollo! Who worketh all my woes yes, all my woes."
Oh boy, another series, just like "We Are Stupid For a Reason, Parts I-V". This one requires some explanation, however. For starters, we need to establish there is such a thing and that it is as powerful as the more familiar Dionysian possession. Apollo is, after all, the god of rational detachment, order, good government, etc. Possession suggests a frenzy that is anything but those things.
To make my case I use no less an authority than Roberto Calasso whose The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is an epic of near-musical analogy applied to the Greek myths. The harmonies between D and A make them brothers under the skin:
The destiny of death by burning runs through the stories of Apollo and Dionysus like a scar. Semele is burned to death, and she is Dionysus's mother; Coronis and Asclepius are reduced to ashes, and they are Apollo's lover and son. The divine fire devours those venturing outside the human sphere, whether they be betraying a god, bringing a man back to life, or seeing a god bereft of the cloaking veil of epiphany. Beyond the limit laid down for what is acceptable, burns the fire. Apollo and Dionysus are often to be found along the edges of that borderline, on the divine side and the human; they provoke that back-and-forth in men, that desire to go beyond oneself, which we seem to cling to even more than to our humanity, even more than life itself. (59-60)
The Dionysian frenzy is a giving in, a letting go:
Dionysus is not a useful god who helps weave or knot things together, but a god who loosens and unties. The weavers are his enemies. Yet there comes a moment when the weavers will abandon their looms to dash off after him into the mountains. Dionysus is the river we hear flowing by in the distance, an incessant booming from far away; then one day it rises and floods everything, as if the normal above-water state of things, the sober delimitation of our existence, were but a brief parenthesis overwhelmed in an instant. (45)
The Apollonian frenzy, on the other hand, happens when one is taken by the vision of things woven together in abstract harmony. The promise of new powers and a new day beyond the present one, the attainment of which requires great sacrifice. That is Apollo's promise. Those possessed might be visionaries, so certain of the outcome of things, or those who monomaniacally pursue truth and knowledge or a political cause.
The cases of Asclepius and Coronis mentioned above are instructive. Asclepius was an ancient Dr. Frankenstein who "had dared to bring a dead man back to life, so Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt. And, just that once, Apollo cried." (59) His mother Coronis preferred a mere mortal, Ischys, to Apollo.
Pindar comments proverbially: "The craziest type of people are those who scorn what they have around them and look elsewhere / vainly searching for what cannot exist." In Coronis's case, what she had around her was a god, a god whose child, Asclepius, she was already bearing. It is as if, out of sheer caprice, the fullness of the Greek heaven were fractured here. The stranger from Arcadia [Ischys] was even more of a stranger than the god, and hence more attractive. The bright enamel of divine apparition is scarred by sudden cracks. But this allows it to breathe with the naturalness of literature, which rejects the coercion of the scared text. (59)
There are strong parallels between Ischys and Theseus, says Calasso. Theseus belongs to the age of heroes, of men acting like gods, adopting the strength of gods. "With the heroes, man takes his first step beyond the necessary: into the realm of risk, defiance, shrewdness, deceit, art." (70) Once he could detach himself from his environment, he could also detach from himself and conquer that self; he could ask for more. The monster the hero slays is the given, the old order which conspires against the possible. Apollo, who killed Python and took over the Delphic cult, was the first slayer of monsters, the first model for the heroes.
The heroic impulse strives to clear some breathing room, to escape the old circumscriptions of fate. But it requires not only turning against the divine order but against ourselves: "It is part of the hero's civilizing work to suppress himself, because the hero is monstrous. Immediately after the monsters, die the heroes." (70) The hero dies because he is unable to appreciate that he is also doing battle with himself. Had he known that he probably would not have embarked on the adventure in the first place. The hero is therefore tragic, unable to know what he is doing until it is too late. Yet the hero is stupid for a reason, a good evolutionary reason: the hero builds culture. His sacrifice is good for us all.
The Dionysian impulse dissolves the ego, alters the self to attain union with the other, or with nature. The Dionysian accepts the world as given, the Apollonian remakes the world. The Apollonian impulse adapts the world to man. But a new world means a new man of unknown fate. In both cases an alignment and dissolving of boundaries is sought. This blog is concerned with the Apollonian impulse because it is based on a fascinating paradox: the god of order and detachment is really the god of a different kind of intoxication.
This one relates to recent comments from Jean-Luc Delatre. Harvard Business School prof. Henry Chesbrough makes the point that "the most valuable use of a technology by a customer or user is often very hard to foresee". He cites the VCR: originally intended for time-shifted viewing but no one foresaw the video rental market. Hollywood originally feared it but later adapted and profited.
So the emotional responses to innovation of "fear" and "replacement" are based on a misconception: the idea that the likely impact of a technology is readily foreseen at the outset. The reality is that extensive experimentation and trial and error may have to occur before the best use of a new technology can be discovered. And the creator of the technology may not even know what this best use might be.
So far so good. But he goes on:
This suggests that managers ought to downplay the hype about the enormous potential of a new technologyuntil some compelling uses begin to emerge - both to keep investor expectations down, and to reduce the possible consumer fear factor associated with that new technology.
This sounds unrealistic. Will the primitive and over-priced early version of a technology ever attract interest without hype, without an emphasis on potential over actuality? Innovators are risk takers, how can we expect them to exercise caution in their claims for their gadgets? And lastly, isn't the demand for attention so high, and the supply so rare, that the only way to attract investors is through attention-grabbing hype? Innovation practically requires hype and there's a built-in inflationary tendency in the development of new technology. Compelling uses later emerge for the successful mistakes. But has any modest technology ever made it that far?
NYT Mag story by Jon Gertner about the work on "affective forecasting" by the psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Tim Wilson and the economists George Lowenstein and Daniel Kahneman. Can people accurately predict the outcomes of decisions which are supposed to make them happier? It turns out not. Things that are supposed to make us happy--dream job, dream house, dream car--don't as much as we hoped. Conversely, things we think of as disasters--death of a loved one, a disability--don't turn out to be as bad as we imagine. The implications for economics are obvious: how much does economic behaviour depend on this psychic "defect"? A lot, it turns out, and this has been known since the time of Adam Smith. Simply put, if you are comfortably off, the effort you expend trying to improve your situation is based on a delusion. It requires too much effort for too little payback. You are better off just as you are. Some highlights:
One experiment of Gilbert's had students in a photography class at Harvard choose two favourite pictures from among those they had just taken and then relinquish one to the teacher. Some students were told their choices were permanent; others were told they could exchange their print after several days. As it turned out, those who had time to change their minds were less pleased with their decisions than those whose choices were irrevocable.
This reminds me of Samuel Johnson's famous quote: "I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter." Found here. Choice does not necessarily lead to greater happiness.
According to Lowenstein, the reason the happiness brought by good fortune eventually wears off is because:
Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we're designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.
Three things: 1) This is an implicit endorsement of PCT (perceptual control theory). 2) This passage does not necessarily espouse relativism. Yes, we adjust to differences in background illumination but there are still the absolutes of total darkness and blinding light. This is why the author suggests Lowenstein's research has moved him to the left: lifting the standards of the rich has little effect on their well-being. This is not true of the poor. 3) Is depression the breakdown of this regulatory system? Are depressives too good at affective forecasting for their own good? More than that, don't we owe our general state of prosperity and well-being, so much improved since Smith's day, to the deluded over-reachers? Says Gilbert:
Maybe our caricatures of the future--these over-inflated assessments of how good or bad things will be--maybe it's these illusory assessments that keep us moving in one direction over the other. Maybe we don't want a society of people who shrug and say, "It won't really make a difference." Maybe it's important for there to be carrots and sticks in the world, even if they are illusions.
A curious story about a data network developed in Allende's Chile by Stafford Beer. To run an economy of newly nationalized industries the government needed lots of information, fast. Beer's network could achieve in a day what took months in the developed world. The article suggests the network was not biased toward centralized control and was meant to establish a socialistic peer relationship between bureaucrats and managers (it's uncertain where the workers came in to this). Apparently Pinochet's people had it destroyed, so radical was its design. As expected, the comparison is made to the Internet and its egalitarian bias even though Cybersyn, as it was called, hardly resembles the net at all. All told, a very interesting story but also a good example of the association of a communications network with far-left politics. I've therefore categorized this story in tech ideology, or perhaps I should start a separate category for Latin American dot- communism.
Until now, obtaining and processing such valuable information - even in richer, more stable countries - had taken governments at least six months. But Project Cybersyn found ways round the technical obstacles. In a forgotten warehouse, 500 telex machines were discovered which had been bought by the previous Chilean government but left unused because nobody knew what to do with them. These were distributed to factories, and linked to two control rooms in Santiago. There a small staff gathered the economic statistics as they arrived, officially at five o'clock every afternoon, and boiled them down using a single precious computer into a briefing that was dropped off daily at La Moneda, the presidential palace.
category: tech ideology
I recently had the honour of inclusion in a prestigious list of favourite Canadian blogs. The author of the list, Dave Pollard, has unleashed the interview game and I'm in for the usual reasons of fun and egotism. Besides, I never get personal here at asweknowit.ca. If you'd like to participate, see the rules at the bottom. Dave sent me the following questions and although my answers are short I laboured long over them.
1. What one thing do you most hope to be remembered for after you die?
2. What do you think is the single greatest threat to the survival of the world today, and what do you think is the greatest hope?
3. What single life lesson do you think is most important for young people to learn?
4. Of all the people alive today, who do you think would make the best Prime Minister of Canada? Why?
5. If you had a million dollars, what would you spend it on?
asweknowit.ca is about the relationship between technology and knowledge. We are what we know.