Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not a Dark Age, maybe just a dim one.

The digerati believe that we don't need to memorize things anymore. Well, maybe some things, but not most things. The reason should be apparent to anyone from my generation, and perhaps just taken for granted by kids. Its because the machine will do it for you. Think Wikipedia. As the apostles of the new age have said, its not vital to know the date of the Battle of Hastings. you can just look that up. What is important, is that the Norman Conquest influenced English culture by bringing in a permanent French influence etc. Just Google it.

Similarly, it has been argued that we should stop teaching algebra in high schools. The rational here is that whatever simple operations algebra helps us with in everyday life - like paying a tip perhaps - can be done on a smartphone. Instead, what we should be teaching kids to do is to program to design and develop the tools (software and hardware) that are going to continue to power innovation, efficiency and productivity.

It seems to me that the implication of this is two fold. First, we are talking about basically abandoning certain assumptions about education, that have hitherto been thought of as "classical education." In the case of algebra, the refrain from students for decades has been "why do I need to learn how to do this. I am never going to use it." And while that was most likely true, there were some good reasons for it. the most important of which is that perhaps as a freshman in highs school, you just don't know any better. You may find after a year that you have a knack for math and science and that you in fact want to become an engineer. The education system was designed in some ways to allow for that self-discovery. Of course, others argue that it also made students suffer for struggling with subjects for which they simply had no affinity (this is a subject I will tackle in a future post).

This is the other aspect of the classical education that we assumed valuable on its face for so long. And that is, simply put, that learning for learning's sake is a fundamental good. You learn about literature, not because the school expect you to become a writer, but they expect you to be able to make sense of all the artifacts of culture you may encounter in the world. I think that this assumption is now threatened and its continued influence may be crumbling.

What I don't know is whether or not its a bad thing. The second implication contained in the idea of essentially uploading vast areas of human experience to the machine is that we may end up living in a world that is not dark, but at least dim. I am delving into the realm of the speculative, but bear with me. The idea I am trying to express is that we will still have civilization, we will still have individuals with highly technical expertise, but we will lose a lot as well. What we consider great and good is simply a product of a particular moment in time. In one hundred years, the idea of a Beethoven or a Picasso or a Frank Lloyd Wright may seem quaint, when the value system, language and discourse of that future is considered.  I use the examples of artists because I think that a society based on instrumentalist, individually adapted education and the economic system that it seeks to support, would likely reduce the artistic bandwidth of the population overall. Artists, writer and composers will still exist, but most likely only through a system of patronage, or more likely will be more akin to designers of  various technical products.

Those who see the change coming, who can read the writing on the wall that signals the end of the classical education system will lament the loss of a certain kind of human ingenuity, and may well look back at the industrial age as a golden age. Civilization will go on, but some human knowledge will be lost. Not lost because we have forgotten, but lost because we had turned our responsibility for it over to the machines.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Left, Right and De-centered

Making sense of the world always presents certain dangers. Last night my partner and I discussed various philosophical frameworks that use the word "post" in their primary formulations. Post-modernism, post-materialism, post-liberalism; each carries with it some notion of both a break from what they proceed from, as well as containing the challenge of preventing. or at least eschewing, totalizing views. We are told, on the surface at least, that we must always remain vigilant regarding essentialist statements, and must constantly maintain that anything we can say about the world is contingent, and never to be assumed as taken for granted.

The style of post-modern analysis, of course, extends beyond the jargon of the ivory tower, and allowed for the emerging multiplicities of various minoritarian narratives and subsequent political and social movements. However, the great challenge has been, and remains, how to integrate these positions into a more comprehensive worldview, or system of worldviews that negotiates the position of the minor with the power of the major. The problem is two fold; on the one hand, there is the problem of an infinite regress of contingent propositions, the "nihilistic" tendency that post-meta narrative has oft been accused of. On the other hand, there is the problem of relevance, where by novel formulations of "oppressed" groups remain fully embedded in hegemonic capitalist discourse.

At this point you well may be accusing me of useless jargon, so let me try and put some of this in terms of "real-world" examples (forgive me that this is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis, but a starting point, this is a blog post after all). A simple example of the regress problem can be seen in large scale in the idea of Balkanization. It is not simply the historical and political process of the breakup of the Balkan states, but the notion of fragmentation. Its a question that will undoubtedly emerge (if its not already) in the ongoing breakup of oppressive regimes in the Arab world. Balkanization gained momentum from the notion of discrete groups emerging as communitarian movements arrayed in opposition to "totalizing" constructions (Yugoslavia). Similarly, one can view Iraq, and other Arab nations, as artificial political constructions based on post war geopolitical considerations rather than natural affinity of the various communities contained therein. To paraphrase Dr. Asad Ghanem of Haifa University, there is no Arab state, it simply is not there. What we find instead is a strategy against imposed discourse - the idea of "Iraq" or "Syria" - and instead a sectarian vision with shifting allegiances that more often than not transcend literal national boundaries.

Of course, in the case of the Middle East, the urge to "make sense" imposes a new meta-narrative on the situation. As I have written here and elsewhere before, one can view the emerging situation in the Middle East as the aligning of forces into two major camps: The Saudi-directed Sunni world, and the Iranian-led Shi'a world. This of course, helps us to make sense of the top-down geopolitical machinations of regional competitors, but it fails to account for further fragmented communities. How many countries should there be in the Middle East? Surely the Kurds deserve their own homeland, but what about the Marsh Arabs, or Alawites? Does the hyper-communitarianism of the post-modern age have any rational basis for limitations on self-determination?

The Western Liberal response generally comes down to projecting onto these fragmentations the idea of totalizing liberal systems. In other words, as long as all of these communities have access to the major democratic institutions - electoral, legal, socialistic - then no one should fear for their liberty. However, even we progressive minded liberals often neglect the implicit ideology present in our own nobly regarded institutions. For the liberal West, the problem isn't the totality of the system, its that occasionally it goes bad, and it requires reform. the Occupy Movement surely isn't a monolithic thing, and I know that some within it have spoken about socialism or anarchism as ways forward. However, in its early inceptions, some elements within Occupy resisted the temptation to declare the movement "anti-capitalist," and held to a more modest proposal of reform of the lobbying system, the electoral system and tax law. Thus emerges the question of relevance; the 99% may not be the 99% because of certain practices within an otherwise egalitarian narrative, but precisely because the system requires  that there be a 99%. In this case the movement has simply identified the structural relationship that defines its existence, but it remains embedded in the political economy and logic of late capitalism, and perhaps this is because the temptation to reassert an alternative meta-narrative (Marxism, anarchism) is resisted in favor of respect and tolerance for liberal institutions that simple require some tinkering.

To the right of this, is the totalitarianism of God's kingdom. I believe that we are living in a moment that is defined by the ascendancy of a sort of global conservative ideology that is rising from the ashes of the current (though perhaps not complete) failure of the left to make sense of the world. The vacuum has been filled by the God Men, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. This class of power excels at making sense of the world, and in a time when many feel that the end of the world is easier to achieve than the healing of the world, God Men have a ready audience. It is thus incumbent on the left to not only represent the needs of ever fragmenting communities, but to envision a world in which common values can unite disparate groups without a top-down reductionist narrative that forces affinities, rather than nurtures affinities that already exist.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Chirping into the Aether

I signed up for Twittter awhile ago, used it briefly, and then sort of abandoned it. I suppose I just didn't "get it." Lately, my motivation to engage with it has returned and I find myself once again chirping away. I am still not sure, however, that I get it. In fact, I am almost certain I don't.

I suppose the first problem is I don't actually have anything to sell. I would love it if I could use Twitter to bring readers to this blog, but I am afraid of the success. Now, you might think it an insane notion. However, my suspicion is that I would end up being forced to feed the Twitter beast just to sustain followers and redirect them to my blog. I want to blog, not be my own social media marketer. If I produce a couple of blog posts per week, I suspect I would have to fill the rest of the time with tweets about my shoes, or the neighbor's dog, or even -god forbid- how great a turkey sandwich that was. Otherwise, the followers would forget about me.

Maybe not. Maybe my writing is so wonderful, people are so eager to read what I have to say that they wait with bated breath for my twice a week tweet and link. Its possible. But it seems more likely that - given the crowded attention span of modern life - I would have to work to elbow into your mind-space at every opportunity.

I am not a celebrity, obviously, and so I am not going to use twitter to sell myself, or to practice the thinly veiled conceit that social media makes fans feel closer to celebrities. I don't know where this comes from. What do you think is going to happen, that your shining wit and charm is going to come through on clever status comments, or tweet replies, and the celeb in question is going to follow you? I am sure somewhere, someone will come out of the virtual woodwork and object with a vociferous "I've done it." At which point they will describe the strategy by which they convinced some celeb to follow them on twitter. And I, of course, will reply with "Perhaps you should spend that energy on a productive hobby, like wood-working or badminton."

I think the problem is not so much that I don't "get" twitter. Its just I don't care. That is to say, I am not interested in the lives of celebrities. My favorite celebrities are people whom I admire precisely because they seem like working people whose jobs happen to be entertainment. I am not interested in "brands" per se. I buy stuff I need, and I try to get a good price. I could care less about the web presence of my q-tip manufacturer. Your product is going to clean my earwax, let's just keep it real.

I am not giving up on it. I may yet figure twitter out, and if nothing else, it is a fascinating sociological artifact. Its value in grassroots political organizing has been made more than evident. There may be something to all this chipping and chirping. Who knows?

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