The building blocks of the present rest upon the foundations of the past
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair
“Every generation renews itself in its own way; there’s always a reaction against whatever is standard.” – Sol Lewitt
When did we begin to forget?
Lately I’ve been driven by one thought: when did we begin to forget? For instance: in a world of near-infinite access to historical knowledge at our fingertips, why is it that whenever there’s a major stock market crash, usually created by an artificial ‘bubble,’ we don’t recall that the first instance of a ‘bubble’ (and why it is so called) happened in 1719 with the stock collapse of the South Sea Company? Humans are of course fallible, but what’s the excuse for denying history and preferring to remain ignorant? Why are our memories so selective?
It’s far too easy to blame technology for our lack of “remembering.” Not too long ago, Zeynep Tufekci had to school the then Executive Editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, who blamed Twitter for “displacing remembering.” She pointed out that Keller focused on the wrong technology platform in regard to “displaced remembering.” It is Google that empties the “memory,” while Twitter stores the “remembering.” She finds Twitter “the most conversational, and thus most oral of these (social) mediums.” I agree with her.
I wrote back then: As we see, new communication platforms disrupt Keller’s worldview but inspire and inform Tufekci’s. What Tufekci is saying is that Twitter not only revives human oral psychodynamics but stores them too. Much would be lost if technology simply had its way and people like Keller carped about these advances without fully understanding them. Tufekci brings a focus to Twitter that experienced journalists like Keller cannot comprehend, or don’t want to, because they have a stake in the survival of newspapers. This won’t hold. (Keller has since stepped down from his Executive Editor role at the Times, and it’s worth noting that if he was confused about the difference between Google and Twitter, where does that leave the general population?)
Meanwhile, the technologists of Silicon Valley are encroaching upon us. They don’t want us to forget either. No, they want to “tidy up” our messy lives. Evgeny Morozov has a fascinating opinion piece, ‘The Perils of Perfection,’ where he writes: “Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who celebrated the anguish of decision as a hallmark of responsibility, has no place in Silicon Valley. Whatever their contribution to our maturity as human beings, decisions also bring out pain and, faced with a choice between maturity and pain-minimization, Silicon Valley has chosen the latter — perhaps as a result of yet another instant poll.”
“Recent debates about Twitter revolutions or the Internet’s impact on cognition have mostly glossed over the fact that Silicon Valley’s technophilic gurus and futurists have embarked on a quest to develop the ultimate patch to the nasty bugs of humanity. If they have their way, no individual foibles would go unpunished — ideally, technology would even make such foibles obsolete.
[...] if you tend to forget things, Silicon Valley wants to give you an app to remember everything. If you occasionally prevaricate in order to meet your clashing obligations as a parent, friend or colleague, another app might spot inconsistencies in your behavior and inform your interlocutors if you are telling the truth. If you experience discomfort because you encounter people and things that you do not like, another app or gadget might spare you the pain by rendering them invisible.
Sunny, smooth, clean: with Silicon Valley at the helm, our life will become one long California highway.”
What Morozov describes sounds more like Hotel California to me, where “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”
Apropos all of the above, I remind myself that John N Gray wrote “in evolutionary prehistory, consciousness emerged as a side effect of language. Today it is a by product of media,” when he was considering how “suggestions might become “group think.” Of course there’s also Marshall McLuhan, who understood our pre-history better than most when he coined his one-liner: “We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror,” by which he meant – a device by which we are able to determine what is about to overtake us from our past. [Source]
History is our source, group think is akin to the curse of knowledge, media are compliant.
Following in McLuhan and Gray’s footsteps, Douglas Rushkoff points out – “When we got language, we didn’t just learn how to listen, but how to speak. When we got text, we didn’t just learn how to read, but how to write. Now that we have computers, we’re learning how to use them — but not how to program them.”
An insight then – why is learning how to code and program not a prerequisite for all North American college undergrads? Also, students ought to look to history through that rearview mirror, as doing so may bring better results. There’s one part of recent history they should avoid though – 1970′s business-self-help books remade for an A.D.D. 21st century audience.
I don’t need to point out that knowledge is abundant in history and how nowadays it’s available en masse. But let’s not forget that the knowledge base is no less important just because we are currently swimming against a tide of information white noise, as delivered by modern media platforms – Google, Reddit, RSS, BuzzFeed et al.
In my notebook I’ve recently racked up a whole stack of questions around education, knowledge and past information, not really looking for answers, but as an exercise for myself as I think about what to change up in my University of Oregon digital strategy class. Nothing too elegant here as I’ve created a brain dump, but I give you a selection from the notebook scratchings, for what they’re worth, and please excuse any run on sentences:
What’s with the rush to buy freshly-published books (in an era of information overload,) when it’s often more intellectually invigorating, and mind opening, searching for historic parallels amongst older books, plays, diaries, essays, manuscripts, even the ramblings of seers and mystics? Why not contemplate the machinations of the Greek philosophers who wrestled with the struggles of the gods and nature and law, and their roles, if any, in budding democratic societies? We know the depth of their studies in ethics, rhetoric and aesthetics, not to mention mathematics, ontology and cosmology – particularly in the school we term Athenian. Its influence on Western culture has been great, even as those ancient Greeks themselves had been influenced by Eastern teachings. And then there’s Cleopatra, she who inhabits a pop culture cul-de-sac of ancient Egyptian, Greco-Roman history, whose leadership and strategic seductions of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, actions that kept her on the Egyptian throne for a while longer, are a great study.
Which leads me to a bigger question: When young people study marketing and advertising why are they not being persuaded to also take classes in anthropology, philosophy, physics and technology (and learning to code,) disciplines that would help them understand how societal and cultural tailwinds lead to everything that burns holes in static, status quo infrastructures? It would make them better, well-rounded employees or entrepreneurs I’d say – whatever their career paths.
Finally, for this section: Why do we think that technology is always “new” when we are technological beings after all, invented by ancient bacterial communities as a means of genetic survival? (Reference: John N Gray.)
Some thoughts on music and history
Music is a technology, so why aren’t musicians creating “new” music? Did they forget? Or is the right question – what does “new” even mean in music? Can we look to the Jazz greats – John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus, and ask if they played to a different universal heartbeat? Or was it that they deeply understood their historical and cultural heritage and then they simply took risks in their music, music that at times bled anguish? Perhaps music isn’t meant to be “new” when the drum is the beat behind our breastbones?
Who took note when Rishad Tobaccowala said “The future does not fit in the containers of the past”? Do musicians care that the end of the container frees them from mortgaging their life and talent to record companies? Do musicians agree with Brian Eno when he most famously said “Recorded music equals whale blubber?
The rearview mirror
There are not many “new” things when you research long enough. When one looks to history, you’ll often discover the building blocks of the present, the “new thing,” rest upon the foundations of the past.
[Update 3/5/13] Bill Keller: The Bullying Pulpit
I found this insight today:
“When computers are properly used, in fact, they are almost certain to increase individual diversity. A worldwide network of computers will make all of mankind’s factual knowledge available to students everywhere in a matter of minutes or seconds. Then, the human brain will not have to serve as a repository of specific facts, and the uses of memory will shift in the new education, breaking the timeworn, rigid chains of memory may have greater priority than forging new links. New materials may be learned just as were the great myths of past cultures-as fully integrated systems that resonate on several levels and share the qualities of poetry and song.” [Source]