Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thinking Polanyi “The Great Transformation” (136-170)

Try to put this all together in brief and maybe with less cleverness than I’d like, perhaps I can revisit this again and revise.

A Double Movement

On 136 Polanyi identifies a double movement of modern society: “the market expanded continuously but this movement was met by a countermovement checking the expansion in definite directions.” And it’s this struggle of opposites that he addresses throughout – the juggernaut of the market sprawling across the globe and the resistance “countermovement.” He quotes Robert Owen who said: “market economy if left to evolve according to its own laws would create great and permanent evils.” These will be identified as being evils to humans and society, as well as eventually to the market itself.

The first evil of the market is the reduction of humans to commodities, to parts. He defines production as the “interaction of man and nature; if this process is to be organized through a self-regulating mechanism of barter and exchange, then man and nature must be brought into its orbit; they must be subject to supply and demand, that is be dealt with as commodities, as goods produced for sale.” Essentially under this system, the human could be less than human. On 137, Polanyi suggests that this is a “fiction” disregarding the health of the “soil and the people” and leaving their fate in the hands of the market “would be tantamount to annihilating them.” Hence, he says, “the countermove consisted in checking the action of the market in respect to the factors of production, labor, and land. This was the main function of interventionism.”

The Paradox

Ok, it’s a long quote, but this is the main key on 147:

“And yet all these strongholds of governmental interference were erected with a view to the organizing of some simple freedom – such as that of land, labor, or municipal administration. Just as, contrary to expectation, the invention of laborsaving machinery had not diminished but actually increased the uses of human labor, the introduction of free markets, far from doing away with the need for control, regulation, and intervention, enormously increased their range. Administrators had to be constantly on the watch to ensure the free working of the system. Thus even those who wished ardently to free the state from all unnecessary duties, and whose whole philosophy demanded the restriction of state activities, could not but entrust the self-same state with the new powers, organs and instruments required for the establishment of laissez-faire.”

Continuing, Polanyi writes: “This paradox was topped by another. While laissez-faire economy was the product of deliberate State action, subsequent restrictions on laissez-faire started in a spontaneous way. Laissez-faire was planned; planning was not.”

That’s a pretty cool thought, while economic liberals complain about a collectivist conspiracy, it seems that “The great variety of forms in which the ‘collectivist’ countermovement appeared was not due to any preference for socialism or nationalism on the part of concerted interests, but exclusively to the broad range of the vital social interests affected by the expanding market mechanism.” Intervention wasn’t planned, it emerged out of necessity and emerged all over nearly simultaneously. (154) Polanyi states that this is not the work of socialists at all, rather, (153) “On the contrary, the sponsors of these legislative acts were as a rule uncompromising opponents of socialism, or any other form of collectivism.”

One more key thought in this section, on 138, “Paradoxically enough, not human beings and natural resources only but also the organization of capitalistic production itself had to be sheltered from the devastating effects of a self-regulating market.” That is, it’s not just about protecting people, but the system if left alone will tear itself apart. We’re seeing this now and it’s long been coming. Let’s think about it like a sensible renewable energy policy. If we lived on an island and used all our trees for firewood, quickly we’d be out. (This may have happened on Easter Island.) But something more sensible, regulated, and all can survive to thrive longer.


So why isn’t this seen by economic liberals? Polanyi writes on 166: “Nothing obscures our social vision as effectively as the economistic prejudice.” Shortsightedness and faith, he repeats how the mantra of the free market is essentially a religion “a crusading passion” (143), sacred and holy (139). On 141he writes, “Economic liberalism was the organizing principle of society engaged in creating a market system. Born as a mere penchant for nonbureaucratic methods, it evolved into a veritable faith in man’s secular salvation through a self-regulating market. Such fanaticism was the result of the sudden aggravation of the task it found itself committed to …. The liberal creed assumed its evangelical fervor only in response to the needs of a fully deployed market economy.”

But it didn’t start out that way, for (on 142) “In England, too, laissez-faire was interpreted narrowly; it meant freedom from regulation in production; trade was not comprised.” Thus, “Protectionism was so ingrained that Manchester cotton manufacturers demanded, in 1800, the prohibition of the export of yarn, though they were conscious the fact that this meant loss of business to them.” This is KEY: “Freedom from regulation in the sphere of production was all the industry wanted; freedom in the sphere of exchange was still deemed danger.”


Keeping on this religious mantra, Polanyi writes, (150) “The root of all evil, the liberal insists, was precisely this interference with the freedom of employment, trade and currencies practiced by the various schools of social, national, and monopolistic protectionism since the third quarter of the nineteenth century; …” Also on 150 he writes, “Its apologists are repeating in endless variations that but for the policies advocated by its critics, liberalism would have delivered the goods; that not the competitive system and the self-regulating market, but interference with that system and interventions with that market are responsible for our ills.” We’re hearing exactly these words today, even in the face of deregulation that’s crippled us.

However, proponents of a self-regulating market are all for regulation when it suits the market. On 155 he writes, “In other words, if the needs of a self-regulating market proved incompatible with the demands of laissez-faire, the economic liberal turned against laissez-faire and preferred – as any antiliberal would have done – the so-called collectivist methods of regulation and restriction.” It’s hypocrisy at its worst. Furthermore “For as long as that systems is established, economic liberals must and will unhesitatingly call for the intervention of the state in order to establish it, and once established, in order to maintain it.” And he writes on (156) “The accusation of interventionism on the part of liberal writers is thus an empty slogan, implying the denunciation of one and the same set of actions according to whether they happen to approve of them or not.” Rampant hypocrisy, blinders on by the religion of the free market.

All of this brings me back to John Dewey and previous weeks’ readings. The idea that in fact the collective can bring about the personal liberty we seek, rather than constraining it. “They may think they are clamoring for a purely personal liberty, but what they are doing is to bring into being a greater liberty to share in other associations, so that more of their individual potentialities will be released and their personal experience enriched.” (193-4) On 216, Dewey further states, “Organization as a means to an end would reinforce individuality and enable it to be securely itself by enduring it with resources beyond its unaided reach.”

Not a Class War

Polanyi dismisses class as contributing to the problems. On 159 he writes, “The fate of classes is more frequently determined by the needs of society than the fate of society is determined by the needs of the classes.” In fact, classes are brought together by failures of the market. “Precisely because not the economic but the social interests of different cross sections of the population were threatened by the market, persons belonging to various economic strata unconsciously joined forces to meet the danger.” (162)


The concluding parts of the essay deal with annihilation of people under the gears of the market system. Lots of discussion on this on 148, how people are made unemployed and destitute and constitutional liberties lost all “judged a fair price to pay for the fulfillment of the requirement of sound budgets and sound currencies, these a priori of economic liberalism.” He calls this a “destructive landscape (164) and a destruction of people’s cultures. And perhaps most scarily, as opposed to systems before, now, “under the rule of the market the people could not be prevented from starving according to the rules of the game.” “… under free and equal exchange Indians perished by the million.” (168)

We feel these effects today all too painfully. – Nick

Monday, February 23, 2009

Metropolis (in brief)

Finally got to see the film this weekend (though i'd seen perhaps all of it as a kid, it'd faded from view.)
First thought on watching the march of the workers was a piece of art of my own, which in turn had been influenced by Piranesi and things that had been influenced by Lang's film like Star Trek's the Borg and the Matrix. Please see images of it and accompanying artist statement here:

Another quick note, randomly stumbled on artist Michael Kaluta's website and noticed a link for "Metropolis" drawings he'd done for an illustrated book on it. It's stunning and very human work - well worth checking out:

One last quick thought - intrigued by how much silent film resembled a comic book - overly dramatic acting to carry the content through action over words, the insertion of captions.

More thoughts coming later... - N

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dewey’s The Problem of Method

The primary theme in this section is the interconnectedness of individual and collective – we have associations within ourselves and without and are engaged in multiple unions. It’s not a matter of opposition as we fluidly move between associations, which are all interdependent. Dewey argues against J.S. Mill (195) in that human thought is not individual, but always shaped by the “social medium” in which we live. Dewey claims, powerfully, the collective can in fact bring about the personal liberty we seek, rather than constraining it. “They may think they are clamoring for a purely personal liberty, but what they are doing is to bring into being a greater liberty to share in other associations, so that more of their individual potentialities will be released and their personal experience enriched.” (193-4) This goes back to the idea of the “goodness of a state” (71-2) expressed earlier to allow us more freedom to be ourselves. On 216, Dewey further states, “Organization as a means to an end would reinforce individuality and enable it to be securely itself by enduring it with resources beyond its unaided reach.”

The heart of strengthening the collective is the individual, and the means are education. Dewey illustrates how better understanding of human nature modifies social relationships, which in turn leads to changes in education, and sets up a continuing cycle of growth. (197, 200) But growth for the whole is built on growth in the individual, as Dewey writes: (200-1) “Every care would be taken to surround the young with the physical and social conditions which best conduce, as far as freed knowledge extends, to release of personal potentialities.” This is powerful, in treating people with care, we can release their possibilities, rather than the probabilities that mark a person’s life from the day they’re born.

Throughout all of this work, Dewey always stresses that there’s no absolute right answers, as with continually striving for a better state, he writes, “thinking and beliefs should be experimental, not absolutistic” (202) He suggests putting philosophers in charge of things, rather than experts/specialists – who are often too narrow in their thinking to recognize associations/connections within the state. (205) There are “common interests” between us all and there needs to be dialogue to establish that. Dewey offers an elegant metaphor: “The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.” (207)

Ultimately, Dewey stresses the importance of community remaining “a matter of face-to-face intercourse. This is why the family and neighborhood, with all their deficiencies, have always been the chief agencies of nurture, the means by which dispositions are stably formed and ideas acquired which laid hold on the roots of character. The Great Community, in the sense of free and full communication, is conceivable. But it can never possess all the qualities which mark a local community.” (211) Again, it’s a dialogue between one another at the local level, that leads to a dialogue with those at larger level – keep in mind the global as we act local. Only this true community can come from local community. (219) Peace on earth is in his view only achievable by understanding “peoples of foreign lands.” (213) Yet to do this, we need to first understand our neighbors, remove the “otherness” about them, which in turn helps us conceive of neighbors more distant (Maxine Greene suggests this comes through the imagination.)

Dewey again emphasizes the importance of “signs and symbols” (218) and that they, like the State, must be subject to continuous inquiry in helping to bring about “a true public.” He offers this beautiful contrast, “Vision is a spectator; hearing is a participator.” (219) If seeing, in this regard, stops at the surface, we need to learn to hear each other, that is truly understand “others” to build great community. It’s a conclusion filled with hope. Dewey suggests that the means are there to achieve this notion of community, and it starts in the smallest of ways. A closing aside, the tagline of the arts and cultural web-mag I ran was “unearthing a great American city, one story at a time” (and I know there are lots of slogans like this) but to me it’s a way of thinking about community, person by person, story by story, removing otherness, and building community day by day. – Nick

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Signature: Benjamin Part 3

I’m writing the biography of Detroit artist Charles McGee. The book is called “Signature” which refers to McGee’s view on art and life – that we imbue everything we do with ourselves, with all the layers of experience that make us unique individuals. I liken this to Benjamin’s notion of “aura” – a work of art’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” (220)

Mechanical reproduction transforms the aura of a work of art into an image of itself. We “flatten” it out to make it reproducible, transportable. A painting becomes a dot matrix of a photograph, a symphony becomes analog grooves in vinyl, a recipe becomes a combination of chemicals – all of these things have now become binary bits in a digital universe – all ready to be restored, decoded, and thus reproduced anywhere, anytime. Benjamin’s essay persists because of how relevant it continues to be. These continue to be the issues of our time. As Valery wrote (as quoted by Benjamin): “… We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.” Absolutely, this is the case. And while things have always been able to be copied – we’re good at copying – they’re still originals of a sort after all. Mechanical reproduction is something else altogether.

Art is now transportable – and increasingly more so all the time – to the eyes and laptops of the public. (231) This is something that happened to language a long time ago, and in Benjamin’s time it was happening to the visual, to music, and really to life. As letters allowed stories and ideas to be transmitted, photos allowed images of things to shared, and the digital allows all of it. This bifurcates art: on the one hand it becomes more about things that can be reproduced – art is about ideas. On the other hand, the original is treasured even more for its unreproducibility – hence the emergence of Dada (237), of performance art, of the situationists, earth art, and much more. Art is democratized/art is liberated to be its own thing, in service of only itself.

As the arts have always enabled new ways of seeing, mechanical reproduction makes “a new kind of perception” (222) possible. Benjamin cites “slow motion”, zooming in, now we have HDTV that enables vision we don’t even have – we can’t look that closely at something while still so far away. Our means of reproducing reality have given us the power of Superman. Benjamin writes: “With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was invisible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.” (236)I’ll let Benjamin speak uninterrupted here: “The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.” “These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of traditions which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is film.” (221)

Benjamin makes an excellent point: “Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question – whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised.” (227) Photography changed how we saw the world, it froze it in a sense. Whatever aura a moment in time has, it’s ethereal and dissipates. Even if we capture its image, this is a fallacy, it’s only an image, a mechanical reproduction and any sense that it has that aura – that signature of a unique moment of time is false. Yes, we can send an image of that thing anywhere, but it remains an image, a flattened out version of the real thing, a string of letters standing in for the sound of someone’s voice and the power of their intonation. Benjamin writes (223) “Unmistakable, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.” Reproduction is flatness. Although mechanical reproduction has made it possible to see more of our world in great detail, our view of actual experience is mediated by the images of what we’ve seen on our screens. I see something that strikes me in the formation of clouds and perhaps that conjures up something I’ve seen on TV, which in itself is an attempt to reproduce reality. It’s a two-sided coin – with something gained as something is lost. Perhaps (as I wrote in the culinary arts essay) we’ll demand more experiences filled with aura, the art we’ll value is the art of moments, only that imbued with signature, and we’ll make purposeful choices of how we live in this world – rather than leaving it to the chance of the toss of that coin.

A few disjointed thoughts:

Benjamin discusses the difference between film and theater (quoting Pirandello, 229): in film the “body loses corporeality, it evaporates, it is deprived of reality, life, voice, and the noises caused by his moving about, in order to be changed into a mute image, flickering an instant on the screen, then vanishing into silence. … The project will play with his shadow before the public, and he himself must be content to play before the camera.” In reading this, I can’t help but think of Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo,” and Jeff Daniels character in the film within the film walking off the screen, only to eventually meet the actor who plays him…

More on film. As Benjamin rightly points out, the shooting of a film “affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this.” (232-3) We’re witness to a reality never possible before. A movie scene is not a real place and only exists as a result of “cutting” (233). Disagreeing with Benjamin – a cameraman is like a painter – bringing new world’s into existence through his tools. This was true in the early days of film and is becoming more so with digital age.

Finally, a bit about war. Confess, I didn’t follow all of his conclusion about war. Can’t see how “war is beautiful” in the least. Perhaps I’m missing the ironic tone, reading this mechanically reproduced as it were. No – war is the end of possibilities. Period. Not beautiful. – Nick

The Culinary Arts in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Part 2 of 3)

Though actual research would make this a stronger essay, we can imagine translating Benjamin’s ideas about the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction to the culinary arts. By Benjamin’s time some things have happened to change cooking: the means of production to produce food stuffs are in place and on the verge of the mechanical reproduction of the food itself – if it can still be called food, that is. Wonder bread is around the corner, and Twinkies not far down the road. Things accelerate from there and today prepackaged entire meals of any sort – reproductions of how “mom” used to make it can be popped in the microwave. To paraphrase Valery (217) there has indeed been an “amazing change in our very notion of cooking.” The aura (I’ll call it “signature” in another essay) is lost, the ritual of making food or as Benjamin puts it “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (220) is no more. When we can all eat exactly the same thing, we no longer eat anything that’s particularly special. We’re eating an image of food but nothing imbued with human care. If a painting invites us to contemplate (238) so too did a dinner cooked with authenticity. Dinner at McDonald’s? It’s a whir of the assembly line – bite, gulp, slurp, repeat – and move along.

However, in this age of mechanical reproduction we can eat any cuisine we wish from whichsoever corner of the world we all like available at the local bodega. In Benjamin’s words: “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.” (220) Also, flavors and combinations beyond “natural vision” (220) or natural tastes as it were, are now possible. This also means that things like corn syrup are possible as well.

Benjamin would claim a sense of “authenticity” is removed. I’d agree. Something is flattened in flavor. Everyone can eat Thai food but it perhaps ceases to offer that very identity that marked it as emanating from this unique culture, these particular people. As art is liberated by mechanical reproduction, so too is food. That is, because of reproduction, dining experiences become more than just eating well, they become works of art. The chef creates a masterpiece and we pay to be able to eat at the exhibition. In this way, culinary arts come more into being and thus seek to create something truly irreproducible. Food for “food’s sake,” so to speak. Food too was once magical (225) – those stone age art, rituals of hunt were about what nature provided – dinner. And now, we don’t know what our food comes from, what it used to look like. Like art, food loses its ritual value and has become political. And today, we’re beginning to think about slowing down, reconsidering where our food comes from. Mechanical reproduction in the culinary arts, may eventually spawn its antithesis – an awareness of what we eat in ways never possible before. – Nick

Ransom Notes (Benjamin Pt 1)

Okay, going forward, I’m dispensing with the practice of dropping my notes on the readings into the blogs – too long and unwieldy. Instead, I’ll only be putting the essay-esque bits and commentary. On the odd chance there’s a reader out there, this should make the experience a bit more palatable. – N

Re: Arendt’s introduction:
I was struck by Benjamin the collector, particularly Benjamin the collector of quotes. My own writing is often prompted by and laced with quotations from a range of sources – songs, philosophers, fiction, whatever works, almost like creating a soundtrack for the story. Arendt discusses his juxtaposition of wildly diverse quotations, and we can imagine the new meanings that hence arise. It’s imperative to note, that the age of reproduction, such that all sorts of texts are available to everyone, makes this possible.

The title of this essay-logue, “Ransom Notes” reflects the way kidnappers cut and pasted letters from newspapers and magazines to prevent tracing of their identity through handwriting, the pen they used, etc. I’ve long envisioned doing a piece entirely by such means – all song quotes for instance – to tell a new story. It was thus heartening to read: “Benjamin’s ideal of producing a work consisting entirely of quotations, one that was mounted so masterfully that it could dispense with any accompanying text, may strike one as whimsical in the extreme and self-destructive to boot, but it was not….”

Arendt refers to these “thought fragments” as pearls, and the writer as a “pearl diver” descending to the bottom of the sea excavating “rich and strange” fragments. This way the past is made new, kept fresh and alive, and new meaning is created. While my quotations are random and diverse, there are a few that make their way into my work on multiple occasions and they’ve offered important meaning to me over the years. I present them here:

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” – George Harrison.

“To ask for a map is to say, ‘Tell me a story.’” – Peter Turchi

“Not the maps to guide where we go from here
The road twists and braids our hair
Until we all get there”
Speech – “Braided Hair”

“We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.” – Alan Moore, Watchmen Ch. 10: p. 27.

Postscript: As a longtime arts critic appreciated Kant’s words on criticism and the critic as alchemist: “Critique is concerned with the truth content of a work of art, the commentary with its subject matter.”
Also, lovely stuff about metaphor and Benjamin thinking poetically: “metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about.” (14)
And the thought of Kafka, Benjamin and others trapped by the very language that was German, suffocating, stifling, powerful thoughts… - N

Monday, February 9, 2009

Community Stew and other musings on Dewey’s “The Public and Its Problems”

Community Stew (or my vision of democracy as dinner)

While this thought has been brewing for some time, I found a a bit more clarity in this Monday’s discussion. We’ve been (as did Dewey) wrestling with the idea of how to be part of a community yet not lost in it. All our individual voices turned to mush, as it were. I compare this to preparing dinner – we want to incorporate various foods, spices, and allow them to retain their individual flavors, textures, but still work in service with the entire meal. Too far on one end, the dish doesn’t hold together (why not just have a tray of separate items?) Too far weighted on the other – and bland, tasteless, uniform mush. Perhaps the “Melting Pot” has been the wrong analogy. That makes us all go to the same. But that’s not what we want. However, the rugged individual – “every man for himself” – doesn’t work so well either. It’s all finding balance – that tricky tightrope walk between participatory democracy and an “eclipsed public,” or a savory delicacy and nondistinct goop.

On this subject on p115, Dewey wrote, “The creation of political unity has also promoted social and intellectual uniformity, a standardization favorable to mediocrity.” Society is flattened out, rather than made rich. He writes on 150 that equality “denotes effective regard for whatever is distinctive and unique in each, irrespective of physical and psychological inequalities. It is not a natural possession but is a fruit of the community when its action is directed by its character as a community.” Community as core of individuality….

The more things change…

While the stylistic use of language has altered somewhat and technology has certainly changed, Dewey’s words some 80 years ago could have been written today, and apply today as urgently as they did then. We still face the same issues and need to ask the same questions he was asking. Perhaps over time, a layering effect has happened where this thought is building up in a greater percentage of the population – and they can articulate it in their own (non-mushy) ways. He writes on 110, “Optimism about democracy is today under a cloud.” Then and now… On 117 he talks of the vanishing public and decreasing voting – again this sounds familiar.

We, the People, means me and you….

The interconnectedness of our individual interactions and those of groups (and individual may belong to various groups) moves them from the realm of the private to the Public. The need to manage such transactions of individuals and groups leads to the creation of the State. (P15 and 64) Dewey reminds us that the State isn’t “Sacred.” (P170) In fact, the author of the State is “nothing but singular persons, you, they, me.” (P37) This is a big point, we make the State, it isn’t the mysterious or holy collective – but ALL of us signing off on it. Why should we submit to the will of authority – only because we allow it (P53)? On 74 he talks of there being no more sanctity in church, unions, etc. than there is in the state. These are all inventions of men, and thus can be reinvented, dismantled by men too.

It’s significant to his argument that Dewey states perhaps we’ve never had democracy and makes a distinction “between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a system of government.” We may have democracy as our political system, but not clear we’ve realized it as social idea. (143) A democratic government “exists to serve its community…” (145-6) and until all are empowered and individual enabled, we’re not there. On 71-2, he writes, “A measure of the goodness of a state is the degree in which it relieves individuals from the waste of negative struggle and needless conflict and confers upon him positive assurance and reinforcement in what he undertakes.” Are we there yet?

The Grand (continual) Experiment

The other central tenet, on p33-4 Dewey writes: “The formation of states must be an experimental process. … since conditions of action and inquiry and knowledge are always changing, the experiment must always be retried; the State must always be rediscovered. … we have no idea what history may bring forth.” This reminds me of the “Peril of Perfection” as applied to the French Revolution. Everyone thought that they got it right, as a result – kept killing each other, tearing down government. Knowing that we don’t have it right, that it’s a constant experiment, allows for growth, humbleness in recognizing that you’re part of a continuum not an endpoint… On 159-60, Dewey discusses “habit,” we need habits to operate but we need to keep questioning and experimenting – only on this balance between habit and reinvention can true growth occur.

Easy as A,B,C, 1,2,3…

On 163, Dewey stresses the importance of childhood education for shaping good citizens – a key to a true democratic state. We need to know our world (P173) in order to affect change, in order to ask the sorts of questions that must be continually asked to shape our democracy. We must be versed in the signs/symbols of community to be able to interact with one another and invent new symbols (p152) – education is empowering the individual to be able to participate in the community. The uneducated public is “mush” and thus dangerous. (178) He speaks of “too much Public” (137) voices lost, not educated enough to deal with matters. It all comes down to communication.

We (“you, they, me”) need to be watchful to keep the experiment of the State changing and constantly serving our community better. (P68-9) Hence the cornerstone of democracy is an educated public, adept at communication. We can build this “Great Community” (instead of limited “Great Society”) (126-7)
by remembering that we make the state and we must continually question that State. As he writes on 184, “Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a lie of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.” Communication is the key to community. (142) Building up from “communal life” (149) we can grow democracy – otherwise it’s a false approach built on hollow words and not communication….

It’s Not Technology

While yes, technology does exacerbate conditions (particular in making the larger public not only possible but unavoidable by its ability to connect everything), Dewey identifies correctly that technology is not evil, the real devil are “ideas” that change “more slowly than outward conditions.” (141) Looking at ideas as being viral (memetics theory) use people to perpetuate themselves. Hard to inoculate against and get people to think for themselves. This where Dewey’s impassioned plea for the arts comes in. “Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.” (184) The arts are pioneers, seeing in ways others don’t and thus acting as the voice of continual questioning, seeking ways to see not imagined yet….

Think Global, Act Local

We tend to vote global, but ignore the local, where our impact could really be felt, and trickle upwards. Community begins at home, all around us. Technology is changing the geographic boundaries of communication and hence community, but regardless, the heart of democracy remains in community however we continually redefine it. – N

The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey (Long Form)

Notes, summation, and tangents

Some summary:
It’s interesting to see how Dewey’s argument written 80 some years ago, with a few stylistic changes and reference swaps could be for today. We face the same issues and still seem oblivious to the same problems as when he was writing. That’s touched on throughout all the notes here. Rather depressing, but hopeful to know that people have been thinking clearly, and perhaps the time will come when we act on them – and these sorts of texts will have provided a foundation for shaping the future…

P3) Addresses the idea that “facts don’t carry their meaning along with them” We have to construct it, hence objectivity of facts is called into question. I think of my term, unflattening in terms of taking information that’s flat and making it into something of meaning.
P15) Definition of the Public: “The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for.” We see this reiterated throughout – public/private, when things can’t just be in public sphere because of interconnectedness, become Public.
P18) States that while “Individual human beings may lose their identity in a mob or in a political convention … [doesn’t mean] that some mysterious collective agency is making decisions, but that some few persons who know what they are about are taking advantage of massed force to conduct the mob their way…” There are still “concrete persons” involved – acting as representatives (true or not) of the public. Makes clear distinction between person in private and representative character. As per last week’s discussion, this mystery of the collective is talked about here….
P19) Distinction between authorship and authority – officials control behavior as public agents…
P21) “the society itself has been pulverized into an aggregate of unrelated wants and wills.” Thus state is viewed as oppressive or pooling of resources of all.
P22) “Singular things act, but they act together. Nothing has been discovered which acts in entire isolation.” This was known then, Dewey connects idea to biology, which has known this for some time, it seems the only people who don’t – deny climate change, deny problems are connected.
P24) More on connections between us all, and that all of us were infants and cared for – even when we were helpless. Example of acting in interests of others, based on understanding of benefits for all. We can apply this to importance of education (which Dewey does), to having health care, clean water, food, etc. It benefits all of us to have a healthy community.
P25) Humans become “a social animal in the make-up of his ideas, sentiments, and deliberate behavior.” Again, things are connected, ideas come from “association and intercourse” with community – inseparable.
P33-4) Dewey writes: “The formation of states must be an experimental process. … since conditions of action and inquiry and knowledge are always changing, the experiment must always be retried; the State must always be rediscovered. … we have no idea what history may bring forth.” This is key, reminds me of “peril of perfection” in thinking about the French Revolution. Everyone thought that they got it right, as a result – kept killing each other, tearing down government. Knowing that we don’t have it right, that it’s a constant experiment, allows for growth, humbleness in recognizing that you’re part of a continuum not an endpoint…
P37) Dewey says the author of the state is “nothing but singular persons, you, they, me.” We forget, it’s “we the people,” and this is Dewey’s larger point – we make the state, it wasn’t the mysterious collective but all of us signing off on it. And if we want it to be otherwise, the responsibility lies in our hands.
P41) Gives an example of village tightly connected to one another, everyone knows everything – in such a “condition of intimacy, the state is an impertinence.” And truly, we need the state to negotiate that space between people, the lack of intimacy…
P48-9) Move from public to private domain of religion. He writes, “As long as the prevailing mentality thought that the consequences of piety and irreligion affected the entire community, religion was of necessity a public affair.”
P50) Extends example above to intellectual matters – again moving from public to private. Gets to reason of why we do make some of these things public – organization and need for the State.
P53) Great question: “Why should the will of the rulers have more authority than that of others? Why should the latter submit?” Force, or is it “general will”? or because we don’t ask this question?
P63) Public to private again, in reverse: Children are educated by the State even though cared for by family. Stresses importance of childhood for shaping good citizens.
P64) “Transactions between singular persons and groups bring a public into being when their indirect consequences – their effects beyond those immediately engaged in them – are of importance.” When things we do have effects beyond the private, then it becomes realm of the public – need a State to govern those transactions. Good definition of origin of State or purpose of it.
P65) Following on from this: “The line of demarcation between actions left to private initiative and management and those regulated by the state has to be discovered experimentally.” Goes on to talk about how this line is drawn differently at different times and places. It’s blurry, we all have different definitions of it, and indeed that landscape continually shifts…
P67) KEY: “the lasting, extensive and serious consequences of associated activity bring into existence a public. In itself it is unorganized and formless. By means of officials and their special powers it becomes a state. A public articulated and operating through representative officers is the state; there is no state without a government, but also there is none without the public. The officers are still singular beings, but they exercise new and special powers.” Argument comes together from thinking about public, connections between all, line between public and private, and need to negotiate that space – need State.
P68-9) More GOOD Stuff: discussion of officials of the state “the state is its officials are. Only through constant watchfulness and criticism of public officials by citizens can a state be maintained in its integrity and usefulness.” Excellent. Again, it’s “you, they, me.” It’s up to us to watch, to keep the experiment going…
P71-2) Talks of strength of state in enabling individualism, protecting people from external forces – “A measure of the goodness of a state is the degree in which it relieves individuals from the waste of negative struggle and needless conflict and confers upon him positive assurance and reinforcement in what he undertakes.” Perhaps we could pass this sentence to the Republican Party? Of course, I suppose one reading for it could be “less taxes, less government” but I think that would be a poor reading.
P74) KEY: “There is no more inherent sanctity in a church, trade-union, business corporation, or family institution than there is in the state.” These are all inventions of men, and thus can be reinvented, dismantled by men too.
P110) “Optimism about democracy is today under a cloud.” Then and now… Stresses the need for constant criticism of the state for better democracy.
P112) I keep returning throughout this (and the class thus far) to the idea of Thinking Global, Acting Local. We tend to vote global, but ignore the local, where our impact could really be felt, and trickle upwards. Dewey talks about local formation of school districts. Perhaps this speaks against the federal or even State involvement in the schools, taking away the local ability to be active, have a voice.
P113-4) On this global-local trend, Dewey discusses town/village hall models, and how local and national are patched together. Our giant heterogeneous state is made possible by technology – but stresses how “piecemeal” this is.
P115) In mushing together heterogeneous people, lose individual ideas (See Wisdom of the Crowds) thus “The creation of political unity has also promoted social and intellectual uniformity, a standardization favorable to mediocrity.” Society is flattened out, rather than made rich. Not like making a tasty dish with different flavors, but blending it into tasteless goop.
P117) Dewey has really gotten into his argument of what’s gone wrong (evident by “Eclipse of the Public” as title of chapter), Vanishing public, decreasing vote. Don’t we hear that today? Disenfranchisement continues. Can we get “Change” that this election signaled? Perhaps only when all the people realize their ownership, their “you, they, me”….
P123) Address public not being concerned with finding “expert school instructors, competent doctors…” Missing out on the things that are really important – our health…
P126-7) Says machine age has made for “Great Society” but not “great Community.” Not truly democratic – great for some….
P131) “Publics are amorphous and unarticulated.” No focus, “canalization” – perhaps Obama did it, and Rush’s dittoheads have… But not a true public.
P133) Discusses inconsistencies in governing, saying one thing, and acting in other interests…
P137) It’s NOT not enough public, “too much Public.” Again, wisdom of the crowds. Voices lost and not educated enough to deal with all the matters. Argument for acting locally…
P140) “How can a public be organized when it doesn’t stay in place?” Need to find common denominators, unite people – get them thinking about the whole community. Huge challenge….
P141) KEY: Real devil are “Ideas” not machines – they change “more slowly than outward conditions.” Speaks to idea of memes – ideas are viral. Catch on, use technology to perpetuate themselves, infecting humans. Hard to inoculate against, get people to think for themselves…
P142) I like this: “Our Babel is not one of tongues but of the signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible.” Even though we have great tools of communication (even more true than when Dewey wrote) we need common signs/symbols to forge great community.
P143) Makes distinction “between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a system of government.” We may have democracy as our political system, but not clear we’ve realized it as social idea.
P145-6) Reliance on doctrines, become dogma, even good ideas – in a new situation, time, environment, too rigid. Need to question, criticism, keep experimenting. Democratic government “exists to serve its community, and that this purpose cannot be achieved unless the community itself shares in selecting its governors and determining their policies,….” Inclusion of all, realization of empowerment.
P147) Interacting of individuals with groups, groups with other groups, individuals in multiple groups, getting them all to work together, necessity of all-encompassing group – the democratic State.
P149) Beginning with “Communal life” – lead to idea of democracy. Need to start from that, otherwise false “utopian view.”
P150) re: Equality – “denotes effective regard for whatever is distinctive and unique in each, irrespective of physical and psychological inequalities. It is not a natural possession but is a fruit of the community when its action is directed by its character as a community.” Very hopeful – community as core of individuality….
P152) Signs and symbols give rise to new mediums, tools for communication. How community interacts. This means it’s essential to be versed in the signs/symbols of community to be able to interact, and invent new symbols…
P154) “We are not born members of a community” have to learn this, be educated into it… “Everything which is distinctively human is learned, not native…” Again, importance of education – in terms of community, in terms of democracy…
P159-60) Habit (Think “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof) Malcolm Gladwell talks about there being a “Southern-ness” that persists in geography. Habits (like memes) continue. Need habits to operate, but also we need to keep questioning, it seems to me, only on this balance between habit and reinvention, can we grow healthily.
P167) “free in thought but not in expression…”
P170) Again, question “sacred” and “sanctity” of courts, governments. But as Dewey argues, these aren’t supernatural, or holy, they are created by you, me, they… Have to always keep this in mind.
P171-2) Organization of physics making chemistry possible and thus making biology possible. Good ordering (my dad did this when he first developed science curriculum for his school as a young teacher…)
P173) KEY: Talks about how anything that makes environment “unknown and incommunicable” to human being as a disaster. Yet we allow this, prevent knowledge. Discourage education, but how can this be a democratic society if we don’t know our world?
P175) Men becoming machines to tend inanimate machines… We are becoming the Borg? Dewey questions the humanity of our choices. As we should. “The instrumentality becomes a master and works fatally as if possessed of a will of its own – not because it has a will but because man has not.” We’re not subjects to our machines by force, but because we let it happen… Continual inquiry (peril of perfection.)
P178) “Public opinion, even if it happens to be correct, is intermittent when it is not the product of methods of investigation and reporting constantly at work. It appears only in crises.” Opinion polls don’t reflect our logical thought or exploration – but simply that, uninformed opinion. An uneducated public is thus dangerous…
P181-2) Assent of the public “must be secured.” Need to be educated and empowered to give it….
P184) “Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a lie of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.”
re: the News – as series of events, distractions. Argues instead: “Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.” Mirrors other arguments that artists are pioneers of the future, speaks to importance of the arts to see ways that we don’t, to be that voice of continual questioning, to probe, to seek, to give us a way to see not imagined yet…. Yes to all of that. – N

Bruno Latour Lecture

I caught the Bruno Latour lecture on Thursday, February 5th. He’s a delightful speaker, humorous and deadly serious all at once. Made for an engaging experience even when the material veered into dense territory.

Broke his talk into sections, how we’ve come to be who we are – perhaps the myth of modernity (said the West has never been Modern), where we are now, and his solution to get people to talk together and essentially, save the planet. While I’ve got a lot of notes on this, I’ll try to summarize just that last part here. He talks of “Cosmo-politics” a term which by using “Cosmo” ensures it refers to more than just humans and by using “politics” means more than nature. Comes up with an idea of politics of nature, whereby “Spokespersons” for humans and “spokespersons” for nonhumans, their representatives so to speak, gather at a parliament, congress, arena of all, and work out the best ways for all to survive, co-exist. It’s a hopeful image, unfortunately founded on the need to have representatives in good faith of all these parties – including humans, and that having organized it, they can act. It’s amazing to see the enormity of articles in science magazines, the emphasis in his talk, to act now. For people seeing the big picture, as I believe Latour does quite well, it’s unfathomable to unravel how come everyone isn’t realizing how urgent this is and now. Here’s hoping more people here him and start acting.

On a related note, his solution of bringing together complex issues, reminded me more than a little bit of “Consilience” E.O. Wilson’s proposal for the coming together of the sciences and the arts, which has spoken strongly to me since I first encountered it. Great book:– N

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Castells and Dyson

Castells introduces the idea of a Network society, which is very much our reality today. The global economy transforms work into a “unit in real time on a planetary scale.” This is a big shift, even if we’ve been traded and exchanging globally for hundreds of years – not like this. As he notes, “labour tends to be local, capital is by and large globalized.” Thus labor is sought out where less capital can be spent. A big focus of this article is the exclusion of people from globalization – even as it connects the world, many are left out. What’s not valuable to it, is out. Calls it a Fourth World (Jack Kirby’s comics?) of exclusion – from Africa to the South Bronx.

He calls the linking structure of globalization “Network enterprise” cleverly different than a “network of enterprises.” It’s a specific set of linkages organized for a specific project that dissolves/reforms after project is complete… Transformation of power relationships between capital and labour in favour of capital. Again, capital flows where it can get labor cheapest, the flow of information and materials (air travel, etc.) make it unnecessary to centralize labor. People fall behind into inescapable “black holes” in the midst of others thriving like gangbusters. “The information Age does not have to be the age of stepped-up inequality, polarization and social exclusion. But for the moment it is.” I like this phrase – “Instead of a global village we are moving towards mass production of customized cottages.” We’re uniform in our individuality. He calls it “culture of real virtuality.”

The media plays an important role in politics and behavior of public – it simplifies messages, turns issues into soap operas, distracts from thinking about how our lives are being warped.

Information age ushering in new forms of time. We’ve moved from biological time to clock time in the industrial age. An aside on the time of industrial age from a past document of mine:

Even time got conscripted into the service of work and money, for “time is money” in today’s economy. People have observed the passage of time ever since they could pause and reflect on their environment and its seasonal changes. Within our own bodies we can detect the rhythm of our heartbeat, the alternation of our breath and in women, the menstrual cycle. The seasons, phases of the moon, and movements of the stars were all incorporated into early human calendars. Agriculture required a thorough knowledge of the seasons in order to plant and harvest at the proper time of year. The mechanical clock was first constructed in the eighth century in China to precisely calculate the actions of the emperor. Europeans later adopted this invention and perfected their own version, used at sea to calculated longitude. The mechanical clock made possible and then necessary the ability to mark off precise amounts of time that could not have been measured before. Time no longer needed to be thought of in terms of human responses or of the movement of the sun, but instead as the movement of a wheeled gear. Lewis Mumford states, “The automation of time, in the clock, is the pattern of all larger systems of automation.”[i] Newton conceived of the universe as a mechanical clockwork; ever since, human lives have been marked off and fit into the clicks of a ticking clock.

The clock became far more than just a useful tool, but a change in how humans interacted with the world. Things have to be done on time, not according to a human’s life and behavior, but of the arbitrary ratio of gears to one another. Mumford noted that “Abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it.”[ii] He also stated the influence of the clock on the modern industrial age was more important than the steam engine because it was “not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.”[iii] People, conceived the mechanical clock to track the motions of their world. In turn, the clock gave rise to the idea of a mechanized society.

[i] Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, 286.
[ii] Arthur O. Lewis, Jr., ed., Of Men and Machines (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1963), 63.
[iii] Ibid., 60.

Castells suggests that today with the information age and network society we have timeless time, where the sequence of time is eliminated altogether. These redefinitions of time have a tremendous effect on us as a species – whose biology can’t keep up with what technology has wrought. Castells next moves to Space, and the Space of Flows. Even place is beginning to have a different meaning. In discussion group, Cindy talked about someone listening to Satellite radio while driving and hence unaware of a tornado bearing down. We lose our sense of place and I’d think a sense of community associated with it. Structured around networks our sense of community is fragile and unstable and constantly being reordered. We’ll return to this again, but Castells talks about globalization as switching on valuable people and territories, while devalued ones are switched off. The flow of wealth bypasses whatever it doesn’t need and thus even as it grows doesn’t benefit all, but a specific few.

All of this loss of time and place, speaks to loss of identity. Our cultural codes and communities are dismantled, thus meaning we either are out or we have to fight to preserve and reconstruct our identity…

Castells Information City

Internet is vehicle of new economy, just as electricity was vehicle – neither is the economy itself. Our new mobility (rapid air transit etc.) is part of this economy – linking digital and material.

3 features of new economy: Productivity – derived from application of knowledge and practice of innovation. 2) Competitiveness in global environment. We are in a globally interdependent system. As in previous article, idea of work today as a unit in real time on a planetary scale – this is new, even if trading around the world is old. It’s the “real time” that changes everything. Scary thought – we’ve created globalization but can’t control it. This is a big idea running throughout all these pieces. The systems we’ve put in place, the ideas of them, take off and we fit into them or try to. But it’s more than a runaway train, it’s a runaway train picking up steam, reinventing itself to be bigger and faster. Let’s come to the 3rd feature – Networking – assembling resources in a very flexible, adaptable way around projects – which are then done and network is dissolved to be reformed around another project. Can’t network? Can’t survive. Another scary sentence – “the only thing that counts, ultimately, is what this global financial market thinks of you.” If the runaway train wants to pick you up, it will, or it will run you down…

Information turbulences – a lovely phrase. The complexity of the systems means that small factors, moods almost, can swing and bring down the value of something. Nokia example – of company doing well but a little tremor of fear about it, and bam – trouble for the company. And it’s near instantaneous.

Emphasis on “products” – as result of innovation. None of this speaks to ability for people to live better – this seems the failure of what we’ve created and of the analysis of futurists.

Vertical organization giving way to territorially based networks – example of Boston and Silicon Valley.

Key idea: The social fabric of society is being transformed into networks, which is good for the individuals who feel great, but it’s not so good for those who cannot afford being individuals.
True – those who can game the system, play it well, can and do thrive. Others drop off the map – out of network. “The digital divide is a cultural and educational divide.” Absolutely.

Coming to cities as it’s the best environment to network to connect to others with ideas. Here we are in New York. In part, this is why I left Detroit – desire to see what other people are doing, and perhaps more cynically, this is where capital flow is. I might have the greatest idea in the world, but West of the Hudson – who’s going to plug me into the flow? It’s not that people are necessarily smarter here, but the flow IS here and that matters.

Concerning this geographical importance of cities, even when we could be decentralizing, speaks to Richard Florida’s “Rise of the Creative Class” and “cool cities” movements around the country.
Castells points out how social, educational, and health services are underdeveloped technological – points out where are emphasis is – on making products, not making life better. The launch of the new IPod merits more than a better classroom…

“A society of individualism is a society which is extraordinarily dynamic, but at the same time a society of potential isolation in terms of cultural meaning that could be shared by society.” We have shared meaning, but not shared influence or power. Again, we’re leaving people farther out.
I like this: local governments are better placed than national governments to rebuild trust and legitimacy between people and their governments.
Nation article from 2004, talked about how the key to change was at the local level, local governments. Again, think global, act local. Speaks to our discussion group conversation about media monopolies and the necessity of local media. It was not our initial intent, but it became more of our mission at to be a voice for our community in the face of global attempts to marginalize what was happening right here. We need more voices like this….

Dyson, et al.

A lot of “shoulds,” and predictions that haven’t borne fruit. But plenty of ideas to chew on I suppose.

“The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter.” This is huge. True. Then, cyberspace “is more ecosystem than machine.” True too – it’s not simply a tool, it’s a paradigm changing way of connecting one another. Not simply faster, but squashing time and space as Castells suggested.

Are information technologies really driving costs down toward zero? I suppose, but maybe quality of products is heading towards zero too…. I do see how this is all leading to decentralization of governments, etc. But perhaps there is a need to see them grow stronger, as a means of protecting people from dehumanization of globalization….

Dynamic competition vs. static. Static is making things cheaper, dynamic is making something novel. Again though, this is all about viewing things as products, not about life…

Do we celebrate individuality over conformity, reward achievement over consensus? Yes and no. We make idols of some, but refuse to value individuality of others less in the spotlight. If we can truly listen to the voices of all around us, praise their individuality, that changes things. “We all have a voice, something to offer….” I don’t hear that sort of thing often.

Is this really the end of an old civilization and start of a new? Or just another wave of change that’s nothing like our biology, that we bend and twist to fit into? Again, will governments be smaller? Not so sure – may need them ever more as protectors, regulators.

Tying all of these articles together – individualism in the face of the collective. No doubt we are being networked closer together as a result of our technology. But perhaps we have the choice to say what we value and operate from that place first, rather than the onslaught of technology. The network will keep growing and it’s up to us, as individuals collectively to define what its values are.

Unflattening the Collective (plus words about John Brockman)

The accumulation of information, catalogued, ordered, is inherently flat. It might record experience but it doesn’t resemble it. However, in organizing this information through our experience, our ideas, by infusing it with our signature, we unflatten it, and create a more dimensional experience that allows another to see through our eyes, make a journey we’ve put forth. Wikipedia is necessarily flat, but we shouldn’t expect it to be more than that.

John Brockman and me…

I visited New York City several years ago with a copy of my manuscript on creativity merging art and mathematics. John Brockman’s (the creator of Edge, and agent to nearly every science/philosophical author out there) office is in Manhattan, so I decided to wander in. I took the elevator up and expected a reception desk, wandered directly into their offices. I saw him, he asked a staff member to escort me out and after handing him my text, I went on my way….

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Lanier: Digital Mao, and Wisdom of the Crowds.

Wisdom of the crowds posits that the group collective is smarter than the individual on account of the average of all guesses of a cow’s weight being its actual weight. Lanier would have us believe otherwise.

First, let’s turn attention to the Wiki, Lanier’s first objection and erroneous information in the entry on him. This happens, no doubt. For some reason there’s an entry on me (which I didn’t write), and for a short time in there it suggested I created something that I didn’t (and don’t think it even exists.) It’s fixed now, as has Lanier’s entry – in fact his is corrected to include his own criticism of Wikipedia. However, this false information is still floating about the Internet on other aggregator sites that pulled from Wiki but apparently never refresh from it. ( So mistakes get made, but mistakes also get fixed. This is true in anything, I think of the few times I’ve been interviewed for publication, and stunned to see the inaccuracy of what shows up in print. And that is taken as gospel. So accuracy is not guaranteed anywhere (raising a whole set of philosophical questions) and wikipedia’s strength is in the multiple eyes overseeing it and able to continually correct it. So to that end, as a resource it’s a great starting point and handy in a pinch. Realizing its strengths and its limitations helps. To those of us referenced therein and find the version of our lives misrepresented, well, I suppose we could end up in the Star instead….

Concerning the fear that kids will be using this for everything – well, they used to use the encyclopedia for everything too, so the problem isn’t new. Engendering the importance of research, investigation, is essential, and creating something that is theirs, that seems key. Then they’ll use whatever tools work best. To that end, the New York Times ran an article on kids using YouTube for research projects. One quote from the article: “Video is part of the discovery process,” he said. “Depending on the user and the type of content, users may want to start with video or text.” Read it here:

Where I think Lanier runs slightly off course is conflating Wikipedia with fears about collective intelligence. We’re not expecting an individual voice to come through, though an editorial tone of how Wikipedia articles are written I believe is coming into existence. We don’t read it for its value as literature, but on its value to lead us to the source for literature.

Where I think he’s totally on the right track is here: The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.

It’s not clear that the Internet is connecting us together more, or wasting our time (he said, clicking back and forth between tabbed windows and the essay he’s writing...) Concerning blogging, he says this: The question of new business models for content creators on the Internet is a profound and difficult topic in itself, but it must at least be pointed out that writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing.
Here, I agree and disagree. Blogging as blurting out opinions, I concur – that’s not writing. However, blogging as a tool to disperse writing to an audience, well, that’s not such a bad thing. (I’m not sure I’ll count this blog as writing, it’s probably the closest to actual blogging that I can come.) Case in point from my own life, when my brother and I started in 2002, we had in mind a magazine. Blog tech made it possible for us to post our stuff ourselves, without having to html format anything (although we also did that for special features) and organize it in a database. So the blog was a tool, though we used it the same way we would for in print articles (in fact my brother’s articles often appeared in print before we ran them on the web.) We were never capable of writing a quick rant and signing off (and that’s more or less true in this more private blog as well.) The beauty of blogs and YouTube comes in making publishing of sorts as accessible and ubiquitous as a pencil. Simultaneously, the ugliness of blogs and YouTube comes in making publishing of sorts as accessible and ubiquitous as a pencil.

But Lanier’s major issue is: the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective.” I don’t know if we really believe this, even with the rise of Wikipedia. Fierce individuality and worship of the celebrity of individual thrives in the face of the collective. Let’s return to the wisdom of the crowds and connect it to Lanier’s piece with a number of analogies. Yes, we’re good at guessing weights if enough answers are sought, but that says little about creating something interesting or of value. Think about cooking. If we’ve done it well, we keep each ingredient distinct, even as they work in the service of the whole, as opposed to mush. This is true in art and music as well. In averaging out – we lose bright lights, contrast, our vision is blurred with nothing to distinguish. Fades to gray, to mush, we need the language of opposites. Thus in the collective – everything has an equal voice all at once, nothing can be heard and nothing important emerges. History is a pastiche of individual voices, as opposed to the instantaneous collective – the mob, where nothing is distinct….

Perhaps that’s a useful way of looking at it. The knowledge we have today is certainly the work of a collective. But they are a collective of individuals, of layers of thoughts over time. Instant collectives lack distinct voices, American Idol produces nothing. It’s a decision we have a vote in but not a voice and not ownership. We have ownership over our ideas, over the things we create – and that’s the defense against the hive mind. Taking ownership of ourselves and being enable by our connections rather than disabled. In the next piece tying Castells and Dyson’s works together we’ll mention that networks are good for strong individuals and bad for weak. That seems to fit right in here as more and more voices are being lost. – N

More on average: In the discussion group, Michael offered the idea of King Lear written as a Wiki. Seems like it would lack something – even if in other ways it have all these eyes and minds making it better. I suggest these things lose their voice, a smattering of average. If we call that distinctive quality “signature” it’s erased, written over – something essential is lost in the process….