Saturday, February 28, 2015

With Liberty And Disruption For All?

I've been wrestling with this clever contemporary theory of disruption ever since I read a front page article in the Times Book Review section in January of last year, Among the Disrupted.  The article explores the issues involved in the question about disruptive innovation posed by the author: "But are we becoming posthumanist?"  The question derives from what the author sees in the process of disruption; i.e., that it assumes the primacy of a market driven value system based in data quantification, rather than in a culture driven value system based in sustaining and modifying traditional cultural values.

Much of the author's concern is with the overriding value placed on technology vis-a-vis its relationship to societal institutions.  He presents an overview of what has happened to things like journalism ("Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts...and patience is a professional liability.") and culture in general ("...the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business.  There are 'metrics' for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured [e.g. education]...Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be.  Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary understanding of, well, everything.  It is enabled by the idolatry of data."

His issue is that we have elevated what is basically merely a tool of humanity to being in its essence human society's secular god, omniscient beyond reproach, omnipotent beyond recall.  He offers the following:  "Here's a proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy.  The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers."  And he concludes disconsolately, "In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter."

So we dissenters, or monastic individuals, become increasingly isolated and ignored, and to that extent, blessed.  We are the disrupted, those who strive in futility to keep the qualities of humanism viable, the thinkers, writers, artists, and dramatists, struggling amid the forces of disruption, the doers and makers of quantification.  The dissenters, the humanists see and feel beyond quantity and standardization, the “practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject.”   These few are also disrupters, but their purpose is to grab us by the shoulders, to disrupt our sleepwalking and make us see what is happening; they seek to elevate the human experience beyond the mundane and prosaic of quantity.  The humanities pursue the feeling of being human, the essence, which transcends existence.  And data driven market values denigrate that transcendence.

A perfect example of such denigration is what is being hailed as the provision of the comfort and security of living in smart cities.  These intra-cities, smaller parcels within mega-urban entities (e.g., Williamsburg, Brooklyn/NYC), will be philosophically modeled under the aegis of neoliberalism and physically designed and operated under the uber control of data driven market values.  The small city "innovation" is a perfect example of the disruptive machinations.  Behind the blind of making life run more smoothly and more securely, these masterly innovations will be clustering humanity in dependent living styles, engorging primarily the corporatocracy that benefits from the process.  That is, people will have the feeling or sense that they are enjoying freer lives and choices,  but everything about their lives and choices will be determined by the data that drives the innovations.  Note:  Everything we "enjoy" in our digital lives is prescribed by what the digital technology wants to provide to us (not necessarily for us).  Everything we take advantage of that is provided by the world of digital technology — yes, including this blogging opportunity — is provided because we depend on it and because it increasingly controls us through that dependency.

The same is true especially with Facebook and Twitter.  I read a plaintive letter in today's newspaper, explaining how the writer is now in the bind of not knowing how to quit Facebook without severing herself from all her "friends," because she realizes how compulsively she is tied to the site, and does not want to be any longer.  Simply quitting would be the equivalent of "unfriending" all those people...and then where would she be?!  The use of social media content during a controversy in society (e.g. deflategate, American Sniper, domestic violence among NFL players, racism as the triggering element among police officers) atrophies into babble or noise in a brief amount of time, and the issue submerges into forgetfulness.  Quantification thus is the prime measure of influence in social media; that is, How many followers does it generate?  How many friends?  How many hits?  It’s never about “the force of  expression."

The insidious nature of this cancer is its relentless diffusion into all social institutions and especially into the bonds of social integrity, like friendships and all numbers of relationships.  But what no one seems willing to acknowledge is that these so-called ties and links are merely 1s and 0s; to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there is no there there.  The systems provide no smells, no touches, no human sensations of any kind.  In short, for all the human activity involved in this digital onslaught, it is bereft of humanism.  And like all cancers, its horror is that it metastasizes quickly and stealthily, so that by the time society is aware of its corruption of our institutions we are at a loss where to begin resistance.  We unconsciously have welcomed an actual matrix that was fiction in 1999.  Our acceptance of this disruption driven ethos has been evolving us into a flattening world disorder.  We can see it in the bland expressions on our faces.  We have reached the point where we don't or won't even consider such questions as:  What is the character of our society?  Is it what most of us want it to be?

In closing, I want to look at a dilemma that has emerged as a direct consequence of this quantitative ethos.  Its label comes in various terms, the most common of which is education reform.  First as one who spent his entire adult life in the world of facilitating learning (what some people, especially the reformers, call education and/or teaching), I spent probably the majority of that time finding ways to make learning better and more purposeful.  I know how learning can be reformed in a humanist way, because I've done it.  But what virtually everyone involved in the "reform" agenda completely disregards is that data driven education is a dead end process.  Just as data driven improvements in cities and factories provide end game solutions to problems, data driven improvements in education in their conception are end game processes.

Schools and classrooms are not factories, and students (at every level) are not commodities.  And yet the "reform" techniques are specifically designed to apply the same constructs and metrics to education that are applied to factories.  In all my years in the classroom and lecture hall, whether acting as the one in charge or observing a colleague, I never saw a teacher or lecturer whose performance could be measured ("reformers" prefer evaluated) through data.  No standardized test anywhere can determine the degree and kind of learning that takes place in the mind of each individual in that room.  I referred to the teacher's "performance."  Yes.  That is what happens the moment the teacher enters the room, even before a word is spoken, and each individual is reacting silently in his and her individual way.  This is one of those moments of transcendence I mentioned above.  Learning is a humanistic experience.  All the data driven machinations devised to flatten that experience, whether Common Core Standards or other types of regulation, will result in a matrix world of chilling sameness.

I chose education, because I know it the best, but we can all observe what is happening.  Social media—indeed, all media—have as their purpose to determine what is worth knowing, what, in fact, knowledge is.  And when we consider that this determination is driven by data collected from how we humans respond in real time to flash points or long term experiences in our lives, we should stop and think how limiting this is:  It encloses us in what has been and doesn't inspire us to determine what will be.  The best kind of learning is aspirational, the thinking that what has been can be changed not because of what we know but rather because of what we think can be.

I don't want to have to live in a world of what has been.  The word "standard" has to do with sameness. And we don't become better humans that way.  The best of human development derives from a simple question:  What if?  Whether in medicine, the arts, architecture, education, engineering, any expressions of the human will, this is how actual human transformation occurs.  Disruption can be very positive, so long as it disrupts and transcends the sameness.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Community Colleges Conditionally

I occasionally respond to some of David Brooks’ ideas as they appear in his New York Times op-ed pieces.  I admire his efforts to apply Edmund Burke’s principles, even though they fit less into our post-modern lives than they did into Burke’s or, for that matter, into Brooks’.

In this case, he thinks community colleges can be re-imagined into a force for positive change.  Like most people who have never had the temerity to make learning happen, Mr. Brooks, has the temerity to advise Pres. Obama on how to make community colleges better facilitators of post-K-12 learning.  On their faces, these principles or “instructions” have merit, but in essence they will face the same dilemmas that have been facing public education for decades.

First, consider that his “instructions” to the policy wonks and administrators (esp. Pres. Obama) are all couched in the conditional tense.  For example,
“you’d focus on living expenses”
“You’d subsidize guidance counselors and mentors.”
“You’d figure out the remedial education mess.”
“You’d focus on child care.”

And he summarizes by writing, “you wouldn’t write government checks for tuition. You’d strengthen structures around the schools. You’d focus on the lived environment of actual students and create relationships and cushions to help them thrive.”  Alas, writing government checks is always the ultimate bĂȘte noir for this Burkean policy advisor.  He also seems to be channeling the title of Mike Huckabee’s new book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, when he writes, “The new research emphasizes noncognitive skills — motivation, grit and attachment.”

Brooks includes other ideas about how community colleges can and must step up to the challenges of creating a viable 21st century workforce, just like all the rest of the bloviators on education who have never been responsible for a learning process in a classroom at any level.  But he never even flirts with the idea that all of the above conditional ideas are what experienced learning facilitators (classroom teachers) have been saying ever since America thought it might be a good idea to consider how people learn and how we must apply a holistic approach: i.e., improve the community’s social and economic viability, increase funding for mentors and counselors, provide “remedial” learning before it is remedial, and so on…and all this ought to be done during the K-12 experience.  Why wait for community college? 

Much as he would like his ideas to be new, Brooks is simply stirring an old stew that the “decision makers” have been ignoring for decades.  Nobody wants to get gritty in those communities that represent the 51% of American children who attend public schools while they are living in poverty.
K-12 learners find learning to be very difficult when they have to decide on what will be the one meal they eat on any school day and where they will be sleeping, and will it be a place safe from theft and abuse?  And too many Americans focus on the plight of the poverty/education vicious cycle in urban schools, while they overlook the enormous range of the same cycle in rural and exurban schools.

As I have written many times, there are no quick, easy cheesy fixes in learning.  Learning begins in the home, as the child listens to the words of its parents’ and relative’s voices, sees the various relationships developing, wonders at the marvelous tales being read at bedtime, and the child learns from the community, from how neighbors act toward each other, from the sounds and smells of the community and from the well being of the community.

I doubt that Mr. Brooks considered these things while he was focusing on the conditional foundations of the promises implicit in a community college education.  And I doubt that Pres. Obama will mention them in his exaltations about the community college panacea. (But I’m pretty sure he’ll have a stellar success story sitting in the gallery.)  And I doubt that many of us will be willing to take a very hard look at and spend the huge amounts of what will be necessary to make our large and small communities and their people viable opportunities for learning.  The costs and tectonic social shifts would be mind-boggling.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Fire Next Time?

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so 

stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will 

be forced to deal with pain.” 

“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only 

be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot 

do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” 

[both quotations from James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time]

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I Seriously Wonder

The following letter to the New York Times got me thinking, wondering about how facile we can be regarding our assumptions about who we are and what we think.

"To the Editor:
Re “Huge Show of Solidarity in Paris Against Terrorism” (front page, Jan. 12):
It is an insult to all in France, all in Europe and all in America that the Obama administration failed to send a high-level representative for the Paris march on Sunday denouncing last week’s murderous Islamic terrorist attacks and proclaiming solidarity with the principles of free speech and a free press.
Our attorney general, Eric Holder, was in Paris but didn’t show up. Our secretary of state, John Kerry, was in India (though he plans a Paris visit this week). The Obama administration could have sent the vice president, or even the speaker of the House or Senate majority leader. And maybe even the president?
I am mortified, and I know the vast majority of my fellow Americans are as well.
Rye Brook, N.Y., Jan. 12, 2015"
My concern is not with the sentiment expressed.  I agree that for such an historical moment, the U.S. should have had leadership representation.  But that's only me.  And the letter writer is only himself.  With all due respects to Mr. Hubert, for either of us to presume to project outward from ourselves to include "the vast majority of [our] fellow Americans" is a reach way beyond credulity.

Consider the meaning of "vast majority" of Americans.  Let's be conservative and say that a vast majority of Americans is about two thirds; that is, 200+ million of our "fellow" citizens.  Everything I have been able to understand about the opinions of these numbers of us concludes that mostly they pursue what has become the growing response to everything from tsunamis to cops killing kids bearing toy guns—the "meh" response. I'm going to guess that among the readership of the NYTimes (a so-called cosmopolitan-minded readership), perhaps 50% are concerned about our lack of representation.  I don't like concluding that, I don't like thinking cynically, but the evidence is everywhere. 

In fact, I'm willing to say, within the "meh" response to this particular incident, an abiding feeling festers that the French got what they deserved.  They did not take seriously enough the terror threat simmering among Muslims and let them wander into their country unheeded.  That's sort of the "meh" mentality.

You see, I wonder about my fellow citizens.  I wonder about them every time I leave my home.  What sort of self-absorbing rudeness and incivility will I encounter?  Who will veer into my driving lane transfixed by the wonderfulness of themselves and their Friends and Followers  on their smart phones?  You see, I wonder about this, and it informs me to the point that the hubris it instills and the "exceptionalism" it engenders fully explain why our representatives to the world could not be bothered to alter their schedules to commiserate and support our oldest historical ally, indeed our spiritual kin.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Who Diminishes Us?

"These people control most aspects of public life. Whether you live poorly or well, you work so they can be richer. You’re fired when they want you fired. You’re killed — in their wars; by their poisons; by their unaffordable health care system; by your poverty; by their police — when they want you to die.

Like fish in water, you live with their greed every day. You watch their propaganda (we call it “entertainment”). You vote for their candidates. Their touch and reach is everywhere, yet they’re invisible to us. The key to their destruction is to expose their lives to view.

I’ve talked about “collapse” — social, political, climatological — most recently on Virtually Speaking. When collapses come, they usually come fast. The last time we came close to collapse was the Great Depression. If we’re poised on the cusp of another, god help us … no one will have fun then, not us, not them. But if things do break apart, it won’t be for lack of patience on our side, but hubris on theirs. They will have forced it themselves … unless they’re stopped."

From Bill Moyers on naked capitalism.  "I can't breathe" is about more than racism.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

We, The Exceptional "Folks"

We, the people, are indeed exceptional.  But not necessarily in the ways that President Obama wants his "folks" to think of themselves as exceptional.  And this Thanksgiving demonstrates this actual exceptionality in some discomfiting ways.

I have posted previously about the "Black Friday" cattle drive, or more accurately credit-card lemmings migration.  And I saw in last night's news that Londoners (more accurately, London marketeers, rhymes with privateers) have adopted this bait-and-switch practice to coincide with ours, even though they don't practice the excuse of Thanksgiving.  When asked about this seeming contradiction, one British marketing interviewee noted that. oh well, I guess it will simply continue on up to Christmas, and people will get their "bargains" sooner rather than waiting until Boxing Day, a less fulfilling "bargain" feast.  So our exceptionality continues apace.  We "folks," indeed now have this to be thankful for as well.  The practice of gourmanding can be so self-satisfying, coinciding with our self-absorption.  (By the way, the techno-feature of selfies has become somewhat institutionalized this holiday season.  Some marketing groups have put together selfies competitions.  For an example go here.)  So all we "folks" are doing this together...except that we're not.

But this all isn't our only exceptionalism this holiday (think of that colossal Black Friday irony, holiday being a contraction of holy day).   This Black Friday established a new milestone, which coincides with another cultural phenomenon, marking our exceptionalism; this year's Black Friday saw a new record for sales of guns on that day.  How about that!  And it coincides with our exceptionalism of having runaway numbers of domestic gun deaths per year, greater than any other "developed" society.  And all of this amid the pontificating punditry's handwringing and deconstructing of kids being killed in suicide-by-cop "incidents" or by drive-by shootings.   Apparently, this boom in gun sales to celebrate the holidays represents heartfelt gift giving among family members and loved ones to ensure that they will be protected...part of the exceptionalism the NRA provides.  Unfortunately, most domestic deaths from guns have used family members as their targets.

Well, this Thanksgiving I am thankful for the one thing I think we could all be more mindful of.  We could all strive harder to be the exceptions to the rule of bigotry, unkindness, rudeness and incivility in our rush to be "exceptional."

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Isolato's Desperation

The isolato is a literary character separated from other people, mostly spiritually and frequently physically.  This person is familiar to readers of what has become known as literary fiction (a bemusing phrase, I think), especially by American male authors.  In fact, much of famous American literature is rife with these characters, some tragic-comic, Huck Finn, and some tragic, Ishmael in Melville's Moby Dick.  More (much more) on Ishmael later.

I'm thinking about this today because I stumbled upon a recent blog post in Esquire online.  The author traces the increase in male American separation from other male friends and acquaintances, which ironically parallels an increase in the white male "bro" meme, itself co-opted from a singularly African-American male usage during the 1970s.  The author, however, is less interested in tracing the linguistic trails of the term so much as he is interested in discussing what he contends is the growing phenomenon of American male aloneness (distinguished from loneliness, an entirely different signifier).

The author compares the male experience to the female experience and focuses on the evidence that individual females, whether as a result of nature or nurture, have a far greater propensity to engage with or gather among other females, especially during times of personal stress.  He provides statistics for both males and females that demonstrate that the more stress the females experience, the more they are drawn toward other females, whereas the males do the opposite—the more stress they experience, the more they withdraw into their personal selves, often to the point of self-destruction of one sort or another.

And so we have the male isolato, the literary figure driven to seek relief from a sense of suffering that cannot be resolved by immersing himself in a community of fellow males, but rather turns inward, most often moving toward the very source of the suffering he seeks refuge from.

Let's consider Melville's Ishmael.  He is a curious person, indeed.  As soon as he utters his first three words, we know he is not a regular guy, at least not by our perceived notions of "regular."  Why, for example, this announced subterfuge, "Call me Ishmael"?   That is, he tells us he is someone other than the person he wants us to think of him as.  Many people overlook this in Ishmael, and yet it sets up the entire dramatic dynamic of the story.  In a sense he plays us; call me Ishmael, if you care to listen to me.  He deliberately distances himself from us.  Curious indeed.

Then, he goes on to detail something about himself, which is in fact a set up for why he's about to go to sea, an irrational rationale, so to speak, as well as the profound irony of his story.

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

That is to say, when I'm feeling destitute in spirit, associating with all things funereal and contemplating suicide, I think it's best that I join a crew aboard a whaling ship.  Clearly, our storyteller, apart from wanting us to accept his charade, wants us to trust someone who has lost his trust and faith in his fellow human beings in the society from which he desperately seeks refuge.

Critics have made much of the crew as a microcosm of humanity.  And yet few will step back and see that Ishmael adapts to this crew precisely because they are not of the humanity he belongs to.  And the more he seeks to comprehend their customs and mores the less he understands.  The very spiritual salve Ishmael sought for his destitute soul becomes an intense nightmare, an operatic drama of good and evil—if we accept all of Ahab's preaching and Queequeq's mystique.  

The pathetic irony of Ishmael's story is that when he resurfaces (literally), the sole survivor of Ahab's madness, he is no more aware of the meaning of what he has experienced than he was of the mystery of life on land that drove him into his isolation in the first place.  He is not even as aware as Huck Finn is at the end of his story.  Huck knows adults will try to "sivilize" him, but he also knows now that he is confident and competent enough to "light out for the territory."  Ishamel has no such self-assurance.  We can only conclude that he will need to return ashore and most likely resume feeling the drizzly November in his soul.  He becomes as self-pityingly saccharine as the narrator in Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 "Alone Again Naturally."  One wonders if that might have been the anthem of some of the men's groups that arose during that period (just wondering).

Like so many of Melville's alone isolatos, the lawyer/narrator of "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is another classic in this form; like Ishmael's story his story functions as an apologia for his aloneness, for his inability to empathetically engage with his male counterparts in a resourceful community.  Their isolation, like a cocoon, simultaneously keeps them protected from the risk of sharing as well as masking their true self.

Likewise, this then is the contemporary mask or cover of the "bro" meme and all its morphs—bromance, broflick, etc.  It provides cover for the aloneness and isolation of being male, a  characteristic that has been very much a part of our culture for a very long time.  I haven't even mentioned Natty Bumppo or Holden Caulfield...yet!