Posts Tagged “culture”
Jan 24, 2014
These are my notes for “Coding Freedom”, a sociology/anthropology book that analyses the free software community. You can download it for free from its website, or buy a paper version. These notes cover only the history of free software, which I found very interesting even if I basically knew it already.
1970-1984: The commodification of software
During the 1960s and part of the 1970s, most hardware was sold with software and there was no software patent or copyright protection. Programmers in university labs routinely read and modified the computer source code of software produced by others.
In 1976, just as companies began to assert copyrights over software, Gates wrote a letter to a group of hobbyists chastising them for, as he saw it, stealing his software: they had freely distributed copies of Gates’ BASIC interpreter at one of their meetings.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s the US software industries dominated internationally. Amid fears of losing ground to foreigners, US legislators launched an aggressive campaign to develop and fund the high-tech and knowledge economic sector and encountered little friction when accepting software patents in 1980.
1984-1991: Hacking and its discontents
In the late 1970s and the 1980s, corporations started to deny university-based hackers access to the source code to their corporate software, even if the hackers only intended to use it for personal or noncommercial use. This infuriated Richard Stallman, who became a “revenge programmer” (whole, fascinating story in p.68) and ultimately founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985 and then wrote the first draft of the General Public License in 1989. In 1984 he actually said “I am the last survivor of a dead culture. And I don’t really belong in the world anymore. And in some ways I feel like I ought to be dead”.
1991-1998: Silent Revolutions
Trade groups intensified their efforts to change intellectual property law largely through international treaties. They worked with law enforcement to strike against “pirates”, pursued civil court remedies against copyright infringers, launched moral education campaigns about the evils of piracy, and pushed aggressively for the inclusion of intellectual property provisions in the multilateral trade treaties of the 1990s. For example, through TRIPS, patents had to ultimately be open to all technological fields.
In the meantime, Linux would gain momentum in companies: managers would say they were not using Linux, but techies would say “yes… but don’t tell my boss”.
1998-2004: Triumph of open source and ominous DMCA
The term “open source” (less philosophical and more technical) was created and won, and the DMCA was passed, which criminalised all attempts to circumvent access control measures (ie. DRM), practically giving copyright owners technological control over digitized copyright material.
Misc final notes
For most developers, acceptance of free software rarely led to political opposition producers of proprietary software, but made them develop a critical eye toward practices such as abuse of intellectual property law and tendency to hide problems from costumers: “Free software encourages active participation. Coporate software encourages consumption”.
One of the most profound political effects of free software has been to weaken the hegemonic status of intellectual property law; copyright and patents now have company.
And that’s it. I hope you enjoy it. Go download the book if it sounds interesting or you want to learn more about hacker culture and free software.
Feb 4, 2012
This is something I’ve been thinking about for months, but took me a while to give it a shape in my mind and put it into words. I’m not done exploring these ideas, I might write about them again.
Edit: forgot to thank Manu for her feedback on a draft of this post.
It all started with a couple of conversations I have had with different people, about different topics. The common denominator was me not doing/buying certain stuff for “non-consumer reasons”. Some examples (feel free to skip):
Apple. I don’t buy anything from Apple. The most important reason is that I don’t believe in a closed software ecosystem controlled by a single company (even if I know it has advantages in the short term). There are other reasons, like them trying to fight the right to jailbreak or them supporting SOPA.
Sony/PlayStation. Although I do own a PlayStation 2, many things that have happened since then made me decide not to buy a PlayStation 3 (yes, there are many PS3 games, some of them exclusive, that make me drool and I’d love to play them). Partly closed systems, partly Sony fighting users’ rights on court and chasing homebrew developers, partly the draconian terms of the PSN.
Being vegetarian/vegan. I’m actually not a vegetarian (but I’m somewhat close; long story), but I understand and support vegetarianism and veganism. I was pretty surprised that one concrete person I talked to about this hadn’t even thought of it as a form of belief or activism (the person thought vegetarians were, more or less, people who “don’t like meat”).
Note that I don’t claim to be right about these beliefs or about the best/most practical way to support them, but that’s completely besides the point I’m trying to make, namely that many people seem pretty surprised by those decisions, as if anything that doesn’t maximise your short-term “joy” or minimise the money spent was irrelevant when spending money. As if it was unthinkable not to be a Homo economicus. I mean, money has essentially zero influence on your happiness once you have enough to live comfortably. Thus, I fail to see how money should be a deciding factor for close to nothing at all (again, assuming you already have enough to live without worrying about money).
I think of myself, first and foremost, as a human being (with values, morals, empathy, etc), not as a consumer or a money-spender. For me it follows that mainly caring about money and “consumer values” is wrong, because that consumer identity I have can never override most of my other identities. Even feeling the need to write about this and explain it is pretty awkward. It seems to be a suspicious position to be in, as if you had to explain that not making “consumer values” the centre of your life doesn’t make you a crazy extremist. Part of this awkwardness is somewhat confirmed by a comment I have heard several times, something along the lines of “it’s your loss”, as if eg. having a PlayStation (as opposed to other consoles, or devoting your time to reading more books or jogging or playing board games or whatever) had to be more important than anything else I might care about.
But this is not just a philosophical question, there are two practical points in all this. The first is that how and where you spend your money matters and lot. Let’s say there’s two companies providing the same product. Company A offers it cheaper and uses illegal, poorly paid workers, while company B is more expensive but its workers have normal working conditions (this is of course a simplification for the sake of the argument). When you give your money to company A, you are saying that using illegal workforce with a shitty pay is ok as long as they give you a better price. You are saying than you, deep inside, care more about saving a couple of bucks than about having normal working conditions. Those decisions, our decisions, are what make companies behave in this or that way.
The second practical point is that if one makes all decisions based only on “consumer values”, you are defining your path of least resistance. And it’s big companies and lobby groups that have all the money and resources to make that path of least resistance something that makes you do whatever is in their interest (and possibly against yours, in the long term). And I know it’s human nature to save energy, be lazy, not think too much about every single thing we do, etc. I do that myself all the time. What kills me is not that people don’t resist, is that people don’t seem to see it as a limitation in themselves, but as a weirdness in anyone that tries to.
Dec 7, 2011
This is my summary of “Bodies”, by Susie Orbach. It’s a book about the relationship to our body and how it affects us and our life. As this book is sort of similar to “Who are we” in the sense that there are several general points being made and most of the book are stories supporting or explaining those points, I’m not writing my notes about each chapter separately but doing a more “proper” summary. I’ve also written a mini-review below.
There has never been a “natural” body: bodies have always been the expression of a specific period, geography, sexual, religious and cultural place. However, today only a few aspirational and idealised body types are taking the place of all possible bodies. We’re losing body variety as fast as we’re losing languages. Again like with languages, there’s a critical period for “body acquisition”. We can feel alienated of our own body (for the rest of our lives) if we don’t learn to feel comfortable with it in that critical period.
The individual is now deemed accountable for his/her body and judged by it, turning “looking after oneself” into a moral value. A search for contentment around the body is a hallmark of our times, and a belief in both the perfectible body and the notion that we should accede to improve it has contributed to a progressively unstable body.
The body is becoming akin to a worthy personal object. Body transformation is today less of a social ritual, and more wanting to produce an acceptable body (wounded soldiers vs. TV contestants on p. 84-85). We seem to believe that almost anything about the body can be changed by the individual, turning plastic surgery into a consumer item: a treat, like a holiday. Sexuality has to be conjured and performed, it doesn’t exist or flow naturally.
The new grammar of visual culture, which is not even real (Photoshop), produces that even children photos are “enhanced”, generating frustration and even making people lose accurate records of their visual history (very interesting notes on p. 87-90). We fall into the trap of us “enjoying fashion and beauty”, believing we’re agents instead of victims, but we aren’t being creative with our bodies or having fun with them: we feel at fault for not matching up to the current, impossible to reach imagery. We take for granted that looking good for ourselves is going to make us feel good, find faults in our bodies and say that it makes us feel better, more in control, to improve them.
I generally liked the book, but sometimes I thought it was a bit too long. Many of the important points are already made in the introduction, and the rest of the chapters are more stories and references supporting the initial points. Worse yet, I sometimes found those arguments or stories not completely believable or convincing (eg. using controversial material like some Harry Harlow experiments or Victor of Aveyron’s story to support her points). In other cases, some relatively bold claims were not backed up by references, which made me feel could be not representative or poorly-researched or, at least, made them weaker because of a lack of context.
However, the book is well written and made me reconsider several things, which is what books like this should do. Recommended if you’re interested in psychology or if you find it intriguing to learn about our relationship to our physical bodies. Although I skipped them in the summary, some of the stories (like the man who didn’t want to have legs) are pretty mind-blowing and interesting in themselves.
Aug 25, 2011
This is my summary of the book “Who are we — and should it matter in the 21st century”, by Gary Younge, about identity and nationalism in a globalised world. This time, instead of following the structure of the book, I’m going to do something similar to what Josh Kaufman does with his summaries: extract the most important ideas from the book. I think it’s especially appropriate in this case because most of the book is stories that support the author’s theories. After the ideas there’s a selection of quotes taken from the book. I hope you like it.
The notion that identity is a refugee for the poor and dispossessed is misguided. The most chained to identity are often the powerful, because they have the most to lose. They don’t just call it “identity”, they call it “tradition”, “heritage”, or simply “history”. See example of girl whose parents would be disappointed if she married someone from another race or religion (p. 30), and “Just assume everybody is gay” theory on p. 38.
Everybody has an identity, but the more power it carries the less likely they’re aware of it. Those that have never been asked “how to you balance childcare and work?” are less likely to think that their masculinity is anything but the normal state of affairs. Because their identity is never interrogated, they’re likely to think they don’t have one. Finally, power seems to have many parents, but the brutality it takes to acquire it is an orphan (those who will claim they didn’t have anything to do with slavery will proudly attach themselves to events at which they were not present and hail achievements to which they contributed nothing).
Every identity has gatekeepers, official or not. They decide who belongs and who doesn’t by ignoring the complexity and enforce the archetype, on what basis and to what end. Official gatekeepers hold great power, for with certain pieces of paper come certain rights. The demanded threshold for entry (which keeps on changing according to the political, social and economic demands of the time, even as they insist they’re authenticating a timeless truth) is typically higher than the norm for those inside. Example of official gatekeepers for the “Jewish” identity, and the difference between Jewish for the Estate, and Jewish for the rabbis, on p. 98.
Identities change over the years, because they’re rooted in people’s lives and aspirations. Occasionally, a single event, such as a terrorist attack, a riot, election, murder or judicial ruling, might appear to change people’s sense of themselves instantaneously. Examples on p. 131, 132. In order to rally people around a flag and anthem, nationalism must convince people not only that their nation has given them exclusive human qualities but that those are eternal. What masquerades as a return to the ancient roots is the invention of tradition, making a desperate bid to prove that the identity doesn’t change (by, in fact, changing it).
We all have multiple identities. But that doesn’t mean that certain identities don’t come to the front sometimes, according to the circumstances. Example on p. 146. Failing to understand the existence and importance of multiple identities is not just a philosophical problem. Example of unemployed Bangladeshi being addressed by the British government as Muslims rather than poor people who could be assisted economically.
Minorities attacking/comparing with other minorities is wrong. Three reasons: (1) it treats identities as interchangeable, when they’re not (they affect different things and work in different ways), (2) it assumes there’s a “league” of better/worse identities, which is wrong and even dangerous, and (3) putting minorities against each other undermines the potential to form coalitions, necessary to eradicate the discrimination.
Identities are rooted in material conditions. They confer power and privilege in relation to one another. Example of British Muslims alienated and excluded on p.180-182, and comparison to American Muslims on p. 184. Refusing to acknowledge the root causes for these problems helps no one. That the response is through religion is no surprise either (“attacked as X, they defend themselves as X”). When Muslims do bad things, it’s never about individuals, national customs, or political/economical context. It’s about Islam.
The question is not whether you draw a line for acceptable and non-acceptable, but who gets to draw it (power) and where they draw it (ideology). No process of integration can have much moral meaning without some reckoning with where power lies and how it might be differently distributed. Very interesting analysis of the Danish cartoons on p.189-193 (in summary, “it was a tale of power, hypocrisy and a crippling lack of self-knowledge”). Finally, see Sarkozy’s quote below. About it: if this relationship is going to work, France will also have to become more Islamic. This is only a problem for those who believe that Islam doesn’t have anything positive to offer France. Otherwise, it is up to them to explain why any self-respecting Muslim would want to integrate in a society that sees his or her faith as incapable of making a valuable contribution.
Globalisation brings identity extremism. The smaller the world seems and the less control we have over it, the more likely we are to retreat into the local spheres where we might have influence. The reason is that globalisation undermines democracy and the sovereignty of the nation state, which results in a dislocation of power because you don’t get to vote for corporations. Feeling they live in a world where they don’t have much control, many resort to the defence of “culture”, the one thing people think they have a grip on. Not only nationalism is on the increase, so too is the number of “nations” seeking to be recognised. The bigger the EU becomes, the smaller the areas where a strong sense of identity may take hold. Some notes about “national languages” on p. 220, 221.
Integration of Islam in European countries
Whether I like it or not, Islam is the second biggest religion in France. So you've got to integrate it to make it more French. —Nicolas Sarkozy
Globalisation brings identity extremism
What ends as Jihad may well begin as a simple search for a local identity, some set of common personal attributes to hold against the numbing and neutering uniformities of industrial modernization and the colonizing culture of McWorld. —Benjamin Barber, _Jihad vs. McWorld_
The lie of nationalism
Nationalism is not the awakening of nations into self-conciousness. It invents nations were they didn't exist. —Ernest Gellner, _Thought and Change_
Humans being all mixed
Marble cake, crazy quilt and tutti-frutti are all better metaphors of human physical variability than is the x number of races of humankind. —Roger Sanjek
The danger for minority languages —and for all small languages— is to be excluded from a select circle of languages, for which it is commercially viable to develop system of voice recognition or of translation by computer. —Ned Thomas
May 11, 2011
Looking for the mouse
Transforming free time into cognitive surplus is not just about social tools. We need motive and opportunity, too. The open question is what benefits will emerge from our ability to form this time into cognitive surplus. At the lolcats end, experimentation won’t stop, but we can’t count on new kinds of socially beneficial activities just happening. Creating a participatory culture with wider benefits for society is harder than sharing amusing photos.
While it’s tempting to imagine a broad conversation about what we should do as a society with the possibilities and virtues of participation, society doesn’t work like that. The essential source of value right now is coming less from a master strategy and move from broad experimentation, that’s why we need to improve the ability of small groups to try radical things. We’re still disoriented by having two billion new participants in a media previously operated by a small group of professionals (this is the paradox of revolution: the bigger the opportunity, the less anyone can extrapolate the future from the present).
Lessons for social software (in three categories):
Creating new opportunities: Start small (it’s harder to imagine how a service will be useful when it doesn’t have many users; but if they only work when large, they’ll probably never grow); Ask “Why?” (different people have different motivations, not necessarily close to that of the designers; take into account); Behaviour follows opportunity (if you want different behaviour, you have to provide different opportunities); Default to social (not opt-in; Delicious vs. Backflip story on p.196).
Dealing with early growth: A hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand (there’s a medium size that doesn’t have the advantages of intimacy or of big communities); People differ. More people differ more (when given a narrow range, people converge; but when anyone can create media, the array of interests goes full crazy; in participatory systems, “average” is an almost useless concept; people running the service can’t insist on participation being equal or universal; long tail of participation); Intimacy doesn’t scale (but you can cluster participants into smaller groups, like Yahoo! mailing lists); Support a supportive culture (“quiet car” behaviour, p.202).
Adapting to users’ surprises: The faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt; Success causes more problems that failure (success brings people, not always with realistic expectations or good will; trying to prepare in advance works very poorly in real life; “if you want to solve hard problems, have hard problems”); Clarity is violence (groups tolerate governance only after enough value is generated to make the burden worthwhile; since it builds over time, rules have to follow, not lead); Try anything. Try everything (the single greatest predictor of how much value we get of our cognitive surplus is how much we allow and encourage to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everybody).
And that’s it. I hope you enjoyed it :-)
May 11, 2011
This is the second part of my summary of “Cognitive Surplus”, by Clay Shirky. It will cover chapters “Culture” and “Personal, Communal, Public, Civic”. EDIT: You can read parts one and three in this blog.
Day care fines story on p.131. Knowledge is the most combinable thing we have, but taking advantage of it requires special conditions (“The Economics of Knowledge” by Dominique Foray): (1) size of the community, (2) cost of sharing knowledge, (3) clarity of knowledge shared (also for people outside the group) and (4) culture (ie. community’s set of shared assumptions about its work and member relations with one another).
Society is shaped as much by inconvenience as by capability. When things that used to be inconvenient stop being so, things change. Some inconvenience-managing professions, like restaurant critics, stop being so useful or change their role when it’s easy to access dozens of opinions of people who have eaten there. A common objection to the spread of shared knowledge is that we need professional skill (“you don’t want a brain surgery from someone that learned it from Wikipedia”). Two weaknesses of this thought: (1) you don’t want a brain surgery from someone that learned in Encyclopaedia Britannica either, and (2) it suggests you should always choose professional over amateur, which nobody does (even people using that argument).
Personal, Communal, Public, Civic
We come from an era in which sharing was thought to be inherently (not accidentally) limited to small groups. Big change in social production is not utopia: throwing off old constraints won’t leave us without constraints, just with new ones. For most groups, the primary threat is internal: the risk of falling into emotionally satisfying but ineffective behaviour (p.163-164).
Increased communication and contact with others isn’t risk-free, and new opportunity requires ways to manage risk (couch surfing vs. “Brides on Tour” story, p.166-168).
Our new freedom to act in concert and in public is good at a personal level, but also others. Sharing has a spectrum, with four interesting points:
Personal. Hobbyists, think icanhascheezburger. Between uncoordinated individuals.
Communal. Inside a group of collaborators (eg. meetup group for post-partum depression).
Public. People actively creating a public resource (e.g. the Apache project).
Civic. Groups actively trying to change society, like Pink Chaddi.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have lolcats of fan-fiction: it’s that the latter groups are harder to create and maintain (“what you want” vs. “what you need”), and they benefit society more.
No fixed set of rules for governing groups that create social value (eBay cheater story, p.177-178), but two universals: a group must defend itself against external and internal threats. The former are more attention-getting, but the latter are more serious in keeping a group of volunteers committed and focused. Understanding how to create/maintain a group like this is one of the great challenges of our era.
And that was it for the second part. The next part will cover the last chapter, “Looking for the Mouse”.
May 10, 2011
This is the first part of my summary of “Cognitive Surplus”, by Clay Shirky. It will cover chapters “Gin, TV and Cognitive Surplus”, “Means”, “Motive” and “Opportunity”. EDIT: You can read parts two and three in this blog.
1. Gin, TV and Cognitive Surplus
The Gin craze in early 1700 in England didn’t stop because of laws. It was treated as the problem to be solved, but was the reaction to the problem (dramatic social change and inability to adapt). Since World War II, increases in GDP and others have forced the industrialised world to deal with free time on a national scale. We didn’t watch good or bad TV: the decision to watch it often preceded any concern about what was being shown. TV became the gin. We have known the effects of TV on happiness for long, but it kept growing because it was the reaction to the problem (free time).
Wikipedia is roughly 100 million hours of human thought. Americans watch roughly 200 billion hours of TV a year: that’s 2000 Wikipedias annually. Something that makes today remarkable is that we can treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects. Society never knows what to do with a surplus at first (hence “surplus”). Passive participation is easier… but things are changing (less TV watched, not pure consumers anymore). Some TV executives think that youngsters behaviour will change when they grow up and they will want to just sit in front of the TV (“milkshake mistake”, p. 13).
Lessons learned from the Ushahidi service (p.15): People want to do something to make the world a better place. They will help if invited. Access to cheap, flexible tools removes many of the barriers for trying new things. No need for fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus, phones are enough. One you have figured out how to harness, other can replicate your technique.
For the first time in history, being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens.
Story of Korean boy band fan activists, p.32. The old view of online as a separate space was an accident of history. Back when the online population was tiny, most people you knew in your daily life were not part of it.
Edgar Allan Poe quote, p.47 (summary: “multiplication of books is evil”). Correct, but freedom has compensating values, like increase of experimentation. It’s not choosing between trash or classics (p.50), we get both. And we can’t get new classics without experimenting.
We have to rethink the basic concept of media: it’s society’s connective tissue. It’s how you know about anything more than 10 yards away. It used to be separated into public media and personal media (letters, phone calls). People surprised at new behaviour assume behaviour is a stable category, but it isn’t: human motivations change little, but opportunity can change a lot.
Story about Grobanites for Charity on p.67-68. The important question is not “where did they find the time?”, it’s “why create a separate entity for themselves?”. They didn’t take any money for expenses (see p.75)! Reference to experiment when people are less interested in a task after being paid for it, p.71.
There are two intrinsic personal motivations: be autonomous and desire to be competent. Social motivations: connectedness/membership and sharing/generosity. Benkler and Nissenbaum (p.78) conclude that social motivations reinforce personal ones.
When coordinating group action was hard, most amateur groups stayed small and informal. With today’s tools, we see a new hybrid: large, public, amateur groups. Globalisation isn’t necessarily about size, but about scope: you can have a tiny global organisation. Amateurs generally use public access not to reach the broadest possible audience, but people like themselves. If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy, competence, or generosity and sharing, they might take you up for it. Only pretending might make people want to revolt (Angry Drunken Dwarf story, p.94).
Story of experiment rejecting unfair splits (p.106-108). People derive pleasure from punishing wrongdoing, but doesn’t happen against computers.
Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do.
Mar 16, 2011
This is the fourth (and last) part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman. It covers the two final chapters, “The Great Symbol Drain” and “The Loving Resistance Fighter”. You can see parts one, two and three in this blog.
The Great Symbol Drain
Examples of “blasphemous” ads in p. 164-165. It’s not blasphemy but trivialisation conducted by the commercial enterprise, against which there can’t be laws. The adoration of technology pre-empts the adoration of anything else, and thus religious or national symbols are made impotent quickly, drained of sacred or serious connotations. [Question: The US has stayed quite religious…] But mass-advertising is not the cause of the great symbol drain: such cultural abuse could not have occurred without technologies to make it possible and a world-view to make it desirable. The erosion of symbols is followed by loss of narrative.
Symbols are made meaningless by frequent invocation and indiscriminate contexts in which they’re used. Sometimes the argument is made that the promiscuous use of serious symbols is a form of irreverence, the antidote to excessive or artificial piety. But there’s nothing in the commercial exploitation that suggests that excess piety is a vice: business is too serious for that (example in p. 167).
Two main points: (1) cultures must have narratives (the alternative is living without meaning, the ultimate negation of life), and (2) narratives are given form by symbols that call for respect, even devotion.
In Education, we improve the education of our youth by improving the “learning technologies”. To the question “why should we do this?” the answer is “to make learning more efficient and more interesting”. The answer is considered adequate, since in technopoly efficiency and interest need no justification. But it’s usually not noticed that the answer is about means, not ends. It offers no way to educational philosophy, and even blocks it by focusing on the how, rather than why. What do we believe education is for? One discouraging answer is to get persevering students a good job, or to compete with the Japanese or Germans to be the first economy. Neither is grand or inspiring and suggests that the US is not a culture, but an economy.
The technopoly story is progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, technology without cost. It doesn’t have moral centre. It puts it its place efficiency, interest and economic advance, and promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells instead a life of skills, technological expertise, ecstasy of consumption. The purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing technopoly.
The Loving Resistance Fighter
The response to living in a technopoly can be divided in two: what individuals can do and what the culture can do. For individuals, can’t give a how-to (that would be what “experts” do), just a principle: be a loving resistance fighter. “Loving” means keeping the symbols and narratives close to your heart, despite the confusion, errors and stupidities. As for “resistance fighter”, people who can resist technopoly are those who:
don’t pay attention to polls unless they know the questions asked, and why
refuse to accept efficiency as pre-eminent goal in human relations
have freed themselves from the magical power of numbers, don’t regard calculation as an appropriate substitute for judgement, or precision as synonym of truth
refuse to allow psychology or other “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense
are at least suspicious of the idea of progress, and don’t confuse information with understanding
don’t regard the aged as irrelevant
take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honour, and to “reach out and touch someone” expect the person to be in the same room
take great narratives of religion seriously and don’t believe that science is the only system of thought capable of truth
know the difference between sacred and profane, and don’t wink at tradition for modernity’s sake
admire technological ingenuity and don’t think it’s the highest form of human achievement
A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, and therefore require scrutiny, criticism and control.
What the culture can do: the best way to achieve a revolution is through school. Even though education is itself a technology, this is persistently scrutinised, criticised and modified.
The most important contribution schools can make is to give a sense of coherence in their studies, sense of meaning and interconnectedness. Modern secular education fails because it has no moral, social or intellectual centre. No set of ideas permeates the whole curriculum. It doesn’t even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person, unless it’s someone who has “skills” (a technocrat’s ideal: a person without commitment and no point of view, but with plenty of marketable skills).
It’s obvious that schools cannot restore religion to the centre of the life of learning, no one would take “learning for the greater glory of god” seriously. Some people would have us stress love of country as a unifying principle, but experience has shown that this invariably translates into love of government, in practice indistinguishable from Soviet or Chinese education. Others would put “emotional health” as the core of the curriculum, but that’d make a curriculum irrelevant since only “self-knowledge” is considered worthwhile. It’s hard to suggest a theme for a diverse, secularised population, but the theme from Jacob Kronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” (the story of Humanity’s creativeness trying to conquer loneliness, ignorance and disorder) is proposed. That would require joining art and science, past and present (as it’s a continuous story).
Virtues of adopting ascent of Humanity as a scaffolding: it doesn’t require changing the list of subjects much; it’s a theme that can begin in the earliest grades and extend through college; provides a point of view to understand the meaning of subjects (each subject would be a “battleground” of intellectual struggle that has taken and still takes place). The curriculum itself may be seen as a celebration of human intelligence and creativity, not a meaningless collection of diploma requirements. And the theme of ascent of Humanity gives a non-technical, non-commercial definition of education. Becoming educated means being aware of origins and growth of knowledge, to learn how to participate, even as listener, in that ascent. It’s an idea- and coherence-centred education, that stresses history, scientific mode of thinking, disciplined use of language, knowledge of arts and religion, and the continuity of the human enterprise.
History is in some ways the central discipline. It’s not really one subject, but all subjects have history. Teaching biology today without teaching what we knew or thought we knew is to reduce knowledge to a mere consumer product, and deprives students of a sense of meaning of what and how we know. Children would thus begin to understand that knowledge is not a fixed thing, but a stage in human development with past and future. Semantics should be taught, and would give the capability of critical thought (a reading test doesn’t invite to ask whether or not what’s written is true; or if it is, what is has to do with anything).
Finally, two indispensable subjects to understand where we came from:
History of technology, so students understand the relations between our technics and our social and psychic worlds, so they begin informed conversations about where technology takes us and how.
Religion, with painting, music, technology, architecture, literature and science intertwined. Specifically, course on comparative religion. Deal with religion as expression of human creativeness to answer fundamental questions. This course would be descriptive, not promoting any religion.
To summarise, all subjects would be seen as a stage in humanity’s historical development. There should be no illusion that this education will bring the thrust of the tech-world to a halt, but it will help begin and sustain serious conversation to distance ourselves from it and criticise and modify it.
Mar 10, 2011
This is the third part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman. You can read parts one and two on this blog. This part covers chapters “The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology”, “The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology”, “Invisible Technologies” and “Scientism”.
The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology
Example of lie detector on p. 92,93. In technopoly, accuracy in insisted on for machinery. The idea embedded in the machine is ignored, no matter how peculiar. People who have lived together for years would know if they get along, but in technopoly subjective knowledge has no official status: it must be confirmed by tests administered by experts. Machines eliminate complexity, doubt and ambiguity. They provide numbers we can see and calculate with. What’s significant about this “magic” is that it directs our attention to the wrong place, and by doing so it evokes wonder, not understanding. We are encouraged to ignore the ideas inside machines, which makes us blind to their ideology. Example of stethoscope in p. 97-99. Two key ideas promoted by the stethoscope: medicine is about the disease, not the patient; what the patient knows is untrustworthy, and what the machine knows, reliable. Another reason for physicians to be estranged from their own judgement: everyone with a headache wants a CAT scan (roughly 60% are unnecessary). They’re done as protection against malpractice suits. Thus medical practice has moved to total reliance on machine-generated information, so have the patients. Also, doctors are reimbursed by insurance based on what they do, not the amount of time spent with a patient. It’s more profitable to do CAT scan than to investigate. They ideas promoted by this domination of technology can be summarised as: Nature is an implacable enemy that can be subdued only by technology means; problems created by technology can only be solved by more technology; medical practice must be focused on disease, not patients (it’s possible to say that the operation/therapy was successful but the patient died); information from the patient cannot be taken as seriously as from a machine.
Does this lead to better medicine? In some cases, yes. Would medicine be better were it not to totally reliant on technology? Yes. very few doctors are satisfied with technology’s stronghold on medicine. [Question: no references to back up that claim? seriously?]
The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology
McCarthy: “even machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs […] it’s too hot in there, it’s too cold in here, and it’s just right in here”. Redefinition of “belief”, simulating an idea is the same as replicating it; most important, rejecting the idea that mind is a biological phenomenon. Part of humans’ intangible life can be simulated by a machine in some respects, but never duplicated. This kind of language is not merely picturesque anthropomorphism: it’s implied that computers have will, intentions or reasons, so humans are relieved of their responsibility over its decisions, something bureaucrats love. “The computer show…” and “The computer has determined…” is technopoly’s equivalent of “It’s God will…”.
Computers have served to strengthen technopoly’s hold to make people believe that technological innovation is synonym with human progress. We have lost confidence in human judgement and subjectivity and devalued the singular capacity to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions and replaced this with faith in the powers of technical calculation. Emphasis on the technological processes and little in the substance. Believing most serious problems (personal and public) are due to lack of fast access to information is nonsense: people dying of starvation, families braking up, mistreated children, crime, etc. Lack of “technological modesty”: if digital computers had been around before the atomic bomb, people would have said the bomb could hot have been invented without it. But it was, and many things are possible without it.
This chapter considers mechanisms that act like machines but aren’t normally thought of as part of technopoly’s repertoire. Questions give direction to our thoughts, generate new ideas, venerate old ones, expose facts, hide them. Examples in p. 125,126.
Examples of “statistics gone wild” on p. 129. Stephen Jay Gould’s book “The Mismeasure of Man” explores the malignant role of stats in “measurement” of intelligence. Three points from it: (1) reification (turning an abstract idea into a thing): we use “intelligence” for a variety of human capabilities of which we approve, but if we believe it to be a thing, we’ll believe scientific procedures can locate and measure it; (2) ranking requires a criterion for assigning individuals in a single series; thus we assume that intelligence is not only a thing, but a single thing, located in the brain and accessible to the assignment of a number; (3) this restricts and biases us, but it would go unnoticed because numbers are the ultimate test of objectivity. Fundamental subjectivity will become invisible and the objective number will become reified.
It’s not unreasonable to argue that polling of public opinion is good. Our political leaders must have some information about what we believe to represent us. The problems are:
The forms of the questions condition the answers.
Promoting the assumption that an opinion is a thing inside people that can be exactly located and extracted with the pollster’s questions.
Ignoring (generally) what people know about the subjects they’re queried on.
Shifting responsibility between political leaders and their constituents. Congressmen were expected to use their own judgement about what was in the public interest.
Not all statistics statements are useless, just that like any other technology it tends to go out of control. In technopoly, we tend to believe that only through autonomy of techniques we can achieve our goals. But will we control them or will they control us?
The argument is not with technique, but with techniques that become sanctified and rule out the possibilities of other ones. When a method of doing things is so associated with an institution that we don’t know what came first, it’s hard to change the institution or even imagine alternative methods for achieving our purposes. So it’s necessary to understand where our techniques come from and what they’re good for; we must make them visible so that they may be restored to our sovereignty.
Scientism is three interrelated ideas that, together, stand as one of the pillars of technopoly: (1) natural sciences provide a way to unlock the secrets of both the human heart and the direction of social life; (2) society can be rationally and humanely reorganisation according to principles social science will uncover, and (3) faith in science can serve as a belief system that gives meaning to life, sense of well-being, morality and even immortality.
Social science bashing in p. 147-155. Social researchers tell their stories essentially for didactic and moralistic purposes, like Buddha, Confucius or Jesus. They never discover anything, only rediscover what people were once told and needed to be told again. So Scientism is the desperate hope, wish and illusory belief that the standardised procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority.
And this is the end of the third part of my summary. The fourth and last one will cover the last two chapters, “The Great Symbol Drain” and “The Loving Resistance Fighter”.
Mar 8, 2011
This is the second part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman (see the first one on this blog). It covers chapters “From Technocracy to Technopoly”, “The Improbable World” and “The Broken Defenses”.
From Technocracy to Technopoly
By the end of the 18th century, technocracy was well underway. The greatest invention of the 19th was the idea of invention itself. We had learned how to invent things, and why became less important. The idea that if something could be done, should, was born in 19th century and along with it, a belief in all principles through which invention succeeds: objectivity, efficiency, expertise, standardisation, measurement and progress.
Technocracy gave the idea of progress, and necessarily loosened our bonds with tradition. Technocracy filled the air with the promise of new freedoms and new forms of social organisation. It also speeded up the world and turned time into an adversary technology could defeat. Citizens of technocracies knew that science and technology didn’t provide philosophies by which to live and clung to their fathers’ philosophies. The opposing world-views (technological and traditional) coexisted in tension.
Technopoly eliminated one of those thought-worlds. It did so not by making them illegal, immoral or unpopular, but invisible and therefore irrelevant by redefining religion, art, family, politics, history, truth, privacy, intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly is a totalitarian technocracy.
In 1911, The Principles of Scientific Management, by Frederick W. Taylor, contains the first explicit and formal outline of assumptions of the thought-world of technopoly. These include the beliefs that the primary, if not only, goal of human labour and thought is efficiency; that technology calculation is in all respects superior to human judgement; that human judgement can in fact not be trusted (for it is ambiguous and complex); that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured doesn’t exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided or conducted by experts. Workers would have to abandon any traditional rules of thumb, and in fact were relieved of any responsibility to think at all. Led to the idea that techniques of any kind can do our thinking for us, which is among the basic principles of technopoly.
The Improbable World
In the Middle Ages, people believed in the authority of their religion no matter what. Today, in the authority of our science, because the world is incomprehensible to most of us and it’s hard to keep a comprehensive and consistent picture of the world.
Information being the new god of culture solves the information scarcity problem, but says nothing about information gluttony. It’s strange that few have noticed. The problem in the Middle East, South Africa or Northern Ireland, or with starvation or crime rates is not lack of information. Yet, technopolists insist that the world needs more information. Information is elevated to a metaphysical status: it’s both the means and ends of human creativity.
One way to define technopoly is a society with an inoperable information immune system (cultural AIDS). That’s why it’s possible to say almost anything without contradiction provided you begin with “a study has shown” or “scientists now tell us that”. And it’s why in technopoly there can be no transcendent sense of purpose or meaning, no cultural coherence. Information is dangerous if there’s no higher purpose it serves.
The presumed close connection among information, reason and usefulness began to lose its legitimacy toward mid-19th century with telegraph. This created the idea of context-free information, ie. the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social or political decision-making and action. Technopoly’s milieu is one with damaged ties between information and human purpose: information appears indiscriminately directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and high speeds, disconnected from theory, meaning or purpose.
It’s a world in which the idea of human progress has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but no accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies.
The Broken Defenses
Technopoly is the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes orders from technology. One way of defining technopoly is “what happens to a society when defenses against information glut have broken down”. A society needs to remove or protect from information, like an organism protects itself from unwanted (incompatible?) cell growth. [Question: what does this mean in a globalised world with so many migrants?]
Social institutions do that by denying people access to information, but mainly by assigning the weight/value one must give to information. Example of court of law (no personal opinions, no mention of previous convictions, etc.) in p. 73. Schools have a curriculum, implying that what is outside of it, a serious student ought not think about. Together with family and political party, they are a culture’s information immune system. The most imposing institutions are religion and state. They manage information through myths and theories about fundamental questions.
Theories are (or lead to) oversimplifications. That is their function: to oversimplify to allow people to organise, weight and exclude information. [Question: how does this relate to “not taking sides” (staying in “the middle ground”)?]
The peril of trusting social, moral and political affairs to bureaucrat is great, as a bureaucrat is indifferent to both content and totality of a human problem. “I have no responsibility for the human consequence of my decisions, only for the efficiency of my part of the bureaucracy, which must be maintained at all costs”.
Experts in technopoly claim dominion not only over technological matters, but also social, psychological and moral. There’s nothing that hasn’t been technicalised and relegated to the control of experts. The role of an expert is to concentrate on one field of knowledge, eliminate what has no bearing of a problem, and use the rest to assist solving it. This works very well for technical problems (rockets, sewers). Less well when technology and human purposes might conflict, like architecture and medicine. Disastrous for situations that cannot be solved by technological means and where efficiency is irrelevant, like education, family, law, etc.
In technopoly, experts have the charisma of priestliness. Their god speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity. They call sin “social deviance”, evil “psychopathology”. Sin and evil disappear because can’t be measured or objectified, and thus not be dealt with by experts. The rest of the book explains why it cannot work, and the pain and consequences of trying.
And this is the end of the second part of my summary. The next part will cover chapters “The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology”, “The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology”, “Invisible Technologies” and “Scientism”.
Mar 6, 2011
This is the first part of my summary of the book “Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology”, by Neil Postman. Especially after reading this book, I feel forced to say (and insist on) that this is just my take on this book: it’s subjective and incomplete (parts that I found less interesting, agreed less with or I found less value in I cover less, or not cover at all). That said, it’s not like I agree with everything in my summary, but I found _that _the featured parts were good food for thought.
The book has an introduction and 11 chapters. This first part of the summary will cover the introduction and the first two chapters, “The judgement of Thamus” and “From Tools to Technocracy”.
The main argument this book explores is not between humanists and scientists, but between technology and everybody else. Most people believe that technology is a friend. It is a friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most give because its gifts are bountiful. The dark side it that it creates a culture without moral foundation, undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology is both a friend and enemy. The book tries to explain when, how and why technology became a particularly dangerous enemy.
The judgement of Thamus
Socrates story (p. 3,4). We can learn from it that it’s a mistake to think that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect: it’s always a blessing and a burden.
Radical technologies create new definitions for old terms, and this happens without us being fully concious of it (e.g. telegraph changed “information”, TV changed “political debate”, “news” and “public opinion”). It’s insidious and dangerous, different from the process of creating new terms. This is what Tamus tried to teach us: technology redefines all the words we live by, and it doesn’t pause to tell us. Or us to ask.
Example of technologies that creates new conceptions of what is real: giving marks in school (first done in 1792). Hard to imagine a number/letter is a tool or technology, or that by using a technology to judge someone’s behaviour we’re doing something peculiar. If a number can be given to the quality of thought, why not to mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence or sanity? Psychologists, sociologists and educators find it quite hard to work without numbers. We believe without numbers we can’t acquire or express authentic knowledge. Not arguing it’s a stupid or dangerous idea, just peculiar (even more so that not so many people find it peculiar). Saying that someone should be doing better work because has a IQ of 134, or that someone has 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo, Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson.
Embedded in every tool there’s an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world like this rather than like that (example of clock in p. 14,15). There are “knowledge monopolies” created by important technologies: benefits and deficits not distributed equally (example in p. 9). But it’s not a well-planned conspiracy, as if the winners know well what’s won and lost. Such prejudices are not evident at first, hence one can’t conspire to be a winner. Also, technological change is neither additive or subtractive, but ecological. If you remove caterpillars from a habitat, you don’t get the same without caterpillars, you get a different environment.
What we need to consider about the computer is not efficiency as a teaching tool: we need to know in what ways it’s altering our conception of learning, and how, with TV, it undermines the old idea of school. Need to know if technology changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the power, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience misses the significant question: in what sense new media alters what is meant by religion, church or even god?
These changes are strange and dangerous, and there’s only a dull, even stupid, awareness of what it is. In part because it has no name. The book calls it Technopoly.
From tools to technocracy
One taxonomy of cultures based on their relation to technology: tool-using cultures, technocracies and technopolies. All types can be found on the planet, but the first is disappearing. Until 17th century, all cultures were tool-using, but with considerable variation on the tools available. The main characteristic is that their tools were largely invented for two things: solve a specific and urgent problem of physical life, or to serve the symbolic world of arts, politics, myth, ritual and religion. Tools did not attack (or intended to) dignity or integrity of the culture. Culture actually directed the invention of the tools and limited their uses.
To avoid oversimplification on the definition of tool-using cultures: the quantity of technology is not relevant in the definition; they may be ingenious and productive in solving problems of the physical environment; and they’re not impoverished technologically (may even be surprisingly sophisticated). The name tool-using derives from the relationship between tools and the belief system or ideology. Tools are not intruders, they’re integrated into the culture. We may say tool-using cultures are theocratic or at least unified by some metaphysical theory. Such theory provides order and meaning to existence. It makes it hard for technics to subordinate people to its own needs.
In technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, to some degree, to their development. Tools are not integrated into the culture, they attack it. They bid to become the culture.
Kepler played a role toward the conception of a technocracy: a clear separation of moral and intellectual values, one of the pillars of technocracy. Bacon was the first technocracy man, but it took some time for others to follow: people came to believe that knowledge is power, humanity is capable of progressing, poverty is a great evil, and the life of an average person is as meaningful as any other. It’s not true that God died, but it lost much of its power and meaning, and with it the satisfactions of a culture in which moral and intellectual values were integrated.
And this is the end of the first part of my summary. I’ll post the second one soon, covering chapters “From Technocracy to Technopoly”, “The Improbable World” and “The Broken Defenses”.
Mar 19, 2010
Some time ago I ordered a bunch of books from Book Depository. One of them was Confessions of a Public Speaker, and another one was The Geography of Thought, a book about the differences between how East Asians and Americans think and behave.
The book explores the difference between East and West thinking and how those societies work. By using “East” the author mostly means China, Japan and Korea, and by “West” he means most Europe and America, although it’s particularly focused on the US. It starts with the old Chinese and old Greek philosophers, showing how they lived, how their societies were like, and how they approached knowledge. From there it explains how those initial philosophy approaches and how people behaved reinforced each other in a kind of spiral. Some of the findings are pretty interesting or revealing, and the book is full of examples and experiments used to discover differences in how we think. It was pretty cool that I found out things not only about Asians, but also about Americans. Actually now I have a pet theory about why I tend to dislike Hollywood films :-D
Not everything was good though. Things I didn’t like about it:
I found the language needlessly complex, it took me a chapter or two to get used to it
Some of the points felt repeated over and over again
Some (admittedly not many) parts felt a bit like a pissing contest, like somehow trying to work out which culture was “better”; I’m sure that wasn’t the author’s intention, but the wording of some parts could have been better
In summary, a quite good read on a very interesting topic, with a couple of relatively minor issues.