Media and Radical Technology

Radical Technology

I’ve been digging through the section on communications in Radical Technology, the 1976 anthology of the magazine Undercurrents.

The global village is no such thing. It is a global castle, in which the barons may chat over their wine, while the serfs outside may overhear a few fragments of merriment.

Our planet does boast some fine communications systems: there are only a few holes left to be darned in the net of radio, TV and telephone which covers the continents. The engineers praise the vast capactiy of their systems. The talk of bits and bauds and erlangs. But their voices merge with those of the advertisers boasting of peak-hour audiences and market penetration.

The fallacy that more information, more communication must be good spreads even into the counterculture. Underground film-makers machine-gun their audiences with random images and subliminal cuts. Alternative newspapers boost their data density by printing each paragraph on multiple undercoats of coloured image.

The “information economy” stresses quantity rather than quality. It values complex data above simple truths. Computers now thrash through megabits of information in order to direct-mail us an advertising circular.

Words were not wasted in the the days when people could only engrave them on stone.

Economic and ecological self-sufficiency are respectively the prerequisites of both national liberation and of global survival. Cultural self-sufficiency must be established as part of the same revolutionary process. If a community is to be free of outside domination it must generate its own crafts, stories, architecture and rituals. This is not an argument for cultural apartheid. But it clearly presupposes radical changes in a global communications system whose greatest achievement to date has been to let ten million Japanse watch Princess Anne’s wedding. One day, the serfs must storm the global castle.

And on using half-inch portable video for community television:

The animator [the producer] should be neutral; act only when invited; help, but not direct, the slection and debate of issues [John] Hopkins adds. The Challenge for Change [a community video group] worker, as he says, becomes a “spark plug for process rather than a creator of product, and could use his previous liability as an outsider to mediate difficulties and bring conflicting parties together.”

Community television looks for consens. It uncovers ‘issues’, records opinions supporting either side, and then tries to resolve them by getting people together to watch the tapes and talk. It hopes for ‘media-tion’.

Video is prolific. Little community voice is left after cutting thirty hours of tape to thirty minutes. Standards rapidly become ‘production’ ones. Is this man interesting? Can this accent be understood? Does this woman help the argument? The editor has to choose.

Half-inch video benefits from the shadow of the BBC and network television. ‘Television’ remains a magic word. IT takes moral courage not to talk to television. Part of the ‘magic of portable television rests in the power handed down from the corporations. Community television must avoid abusing this power.

Broadcast television has established a convention of aggressive questioning. The danger is that community video can quickly become as bland.

The ‘good life’ has become a television commercial. Community must not become a television dialogue.

Community TV offers the technological fix—using the technology of an oppressive society. Like an Arab firing a Sam 7 missile, the video freak depends on high technology. If that is switched off, he is out of business. As long as his ‘freaking out’ is profitable and amusing he can continue. But when it becomes revolutionary he is soon back to the pot of whitewash and a wall.

Moving Day

norman rockwell - moving day

Visiting Western Massachussetts this weekend—Angelina sang at Tanglewood—we visited the Norman Rockwell Museum. It was beautiful in the Berkshires and while I can’t speak to the comprehensiveness of the collection, it was just what I wanted. Norman Rockwell is one of my favorite americana motifs to wallow in.

At the museum’s center was the Four Freedoms paintings. The feeling I had from reading that speech in high school—and the Port Huron Statement in college—is one of my most comforting whenever I get bogged in the cynicism of politics: that the current state of affairs (whatever they may be) is not for lack of dreams.

When looking at the paintings, I had to remind myself of the false appeal I hear to _better times. _As I learned from the museum, much of what I consider fantasy was that—the policy during the Great Depression was to avoid grim reality—or the lack of color among faces—the policy of the Saturday Evening Post was to only show african-americans if they were performing a service job.

As a tool, the drawings make a powerful message for equality and pluralism: Isn’t this wonderful? Shouldn’t have this idyllic life. This shouldn’t be an America reserved for just one race or class. Which brings up what all this harkens too—and ironically in this context, I am least moved by the I have a dream _part—_is that these paintings are the promissory notes of which all should be able to cash.

Slow Down

I have been slowly making my way through Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (one book among many). The cognitive bias being discussed at the moment is Fundamental Attribution Error (or Actor-Observer Bias, Correspondence Bias or Attribution Effect), in which humans tend to ascribe actions to some innate properties of the actor, rather than the context of the action.

Some years ago two Princeton University psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, decided to conduct a study inspired by the biblical story of the Good Samaritan.

Darley and Batson decided to replicate that study at the Princeton Theological Seminary … Darley and Batson met with a group of seminarians, individually, and asked each one to prepare a short, extemporaneous talk on a given biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it. Along the way to the presentation, each student ran into a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. The question was, who would stop and help? Darley and Batson introduced three variables into the experiment, to make its results more meaningful. First, before the experiment even started, they gave the students a questionnaire about why they had chosen to study theology. Did they see religion as a means for personal and spiritual fulfillment? Or were they looking for a practical tool for finding meaning in everyday life? Then they varied the subject of the theme the students were asked to talk about. Some were asked to speak on the relevance of the professional clergy to the religious vocation. Others were given the parable of the Good Samaritan. Finally, the instructions given by the experimenters to each student varied as well. In some of the cases, as he sent the students on their way, the experimenter would look at his watch and say, ‘Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving.’ In other cases, he would say, ‘It will be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head over now.’

If you ask people to predict which seminarians played the Good Samaritan (and subsequent studies have done just this) their answers are highly consistent. They almost all say that the students who entered the ministry to help people and those reminded of the importance of compassion by having just read the parable of the Good Samaritan will be the most likely to stop. Most of us, I think, would agree with those conclusions. In fact, neither of those factors made any difference. ‘It is hard to think of a context in which norms concerning helping those in distress are more salient than for a person thinking about the Good Samaritan, and yet it did not significantly increase helping behavior,’ Darley and Batson concluded. ‘Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.’ The only thing that really mattered was whether the student was in a rush. Of the group that was, 10 percent stopped to help. Of the group who knew they had a few minutes to spare, 63 percent stopped.

What this study is suggesting, in other words, is that the convictions of your heart and the actual contents of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior. The words ‘Oh, you’re late’ had the effect of making someone who was ordinarily compassionate into someone who was indifferent to suffering—of turning someone, in that particular moment, into a different person.

But then, the lessons of humanity to be gained (once you have studied up on the Monkey Firehose and the Monkey Pay-Per-View) is that you should be in a hurry because who is to know whether you are late or early upon your true path. And eat your spinach.

Three Americas

My friend Thomas posted a status message to Facebook “wonders why Republicans hate America?”. This is where I’m at:

Define your terms! :-) By “America” do you mean?

  1. a pluralist society striving for a more representative government and greater civil liberties
  2. a consensus society seeking a return to a more stable civic life built upon firm social and ethical principles
  3. a geo-political demarcation for a group of people equally as unexceptional as everyone else.

Clarity of hindsight: law vs. policy

Donald Rumsfield admitted that chucking the Geneva Conventions (and 50 years of military policy) came out of a bad process:

As he explained in an interview in late 2008, policies were developing so fast in the weeks after the September 11 attacks that he did not follow his own normal procedures. “All of a sudden, it was just all happening, and the general counsel’s office in the Pentagon had the lead,” he said. “It never registered in my mind in this particular instance–it did in almost every other case–that these issues ought to be in a policy development or management posture. Looking back at it now, I have a feeling that was a mistake. In retrospect, it would have been better to take all of those issues and put them in the hands of policy or management.”

They went the legal route (“the law isn’t clearly against us”) rather than the policy/management path (“how fully are we screwed if we do this?”). And, if that administration was as biblical as they claimed to be, they should have figured it out: even when following The Law, God is still a mean dude.

Judging reality and experience

The Susan Sotamayor confirmation is bringing with it some interesting commentary. While most of the pablum surrounding Sotamayor’s scutinized comments—that her Puerto Rican heritage prepares her for this position—are about racism (or reverse racicsm, whatever that is), there have been some comments on the nature of reality and the human experience. In our plural society, there is kerfuffle over two competing ideals (as I see it):

  • There exists immutable rules pulled from the eternal ether against which our frail human intellects must seek alignment with laws, policies and ourselves (and I mean all of them, not just life, liberty and property the pursuit of happiness).

  • Experience is reality and the public sphere (and its laws and policies) is the ongoing (and unending) attempt to find commonalities between all of us based upon a tiny set of values so basic that they can be declared universal (life, liberty and property the pursuit of happiness).

The following is from an editorial by Stanley Fish in the NY Times entitled _ What kind of judges do we want? (_emphasis mine):

If Sotomayor is being prescriptive, if she is saying, “I will actively (as opposed to involuntarily) consult the influences that have shaped me at every point of decision,” she is announcing a method of judging that invites Sessions’s criticism.

But if she is being descriptive, if she is saying only that no one can completely divest herself of the experiences life has delivered or function as an actor without a history, she is announcing no method at all. She is merely acknowledging a truth (as she sees it) about the human condition: the influences Sessions laments are unavoidable, which means that no one can be faulted for viewing things from one or another of the limited perspectives to which we are all (differently) confined.

In fact – and this is what Sotomayor means when she talks about reaching a better conclusion than a white man who hasn’t lived her life – rather than distorting reality, perspectives illuminate it or at least that part of it they make manifest. It follows that no one perspective suffices to capture all aspects of reality and that, therefore, the presence in the interpretive arena of multiple perspectives is a good thing. In a given instance, the “Latina Judge” might reach a better decision not because she was better in some absolute, racial sense, but because she was better acquainted than her brethren with some aspects of the situation they were considering. (As many have observed in the context of the issue of gender differences, among the current justices, only Ruth Bader Ginsburg knows what it’s like to be a 13-year-old girl and might, by virtue of that knowledge, be better able to asses the impact on such a girl of a strip-search.)

Attributes of Respected Chairs

I found the following on the photocopier (after a few days, I assume its orphaned). Sourced from a SurveyMonkey print-out, it’s part of a “BYU Chair Study” which through context I assume is polling what training resources the owner of this printout requires.

These are attributes of Respected Chairs. The context is a faculty member within an academic institution, but it’s pretty easy to convert to other contexts. As always, the gems beneath the headings (for example, anything that recognizes the time and place for procrastination has my vote).

Be healthy and well-balanced (take care of yourself and your other life): Family, friends, community, religion, teaching & research, health and emotional needs

Be competent: Key leadership skills, preparation, participation, people, issues, professional & national trends

Be collegial: Balanec of sociable and formal, work and personal, internal and external to department

Be effective at managing time: balance important vs. urgent; delegate, optimize secretary/staff/comittees, prioritize

Be proactive: Identify and implement personal program/goals, be responsible, change self - not others

Be aware of the power of your position and use it effectively: Understand sources, extent, and limitations of chair power/influence; exercise skillfully

Be effective in making decisions: Emergencies, mistakes, red flags, stakeholders, when to procrastinate; maximize or satisfy

Be credible: Authentic, believable, inspiring, reliable, sensible, appropriately transparent

Be humble: influence & success through humility, level 5 leadership, egonomics, servant chair

Be skillful in communication: Timely and appropriate information; letters, memos, personal statements/notes (in & out of department)

Be in harmony with your institution: Customs, directives, guiding principles, history, mission, official documents, tenets

Be trustworthy: Build trust in self/others, tap efficiency of trust; recognize/manage enemies of trust

Be politically adept: Allies, connections, favors, gate keepers, information, opponents, social relations

Be accepting of your role as chair; embrace and make the most of it: Less autonomy, changed relationships, careful speech, realigned perspectives, empowerment

A quote for the rain

June in Boston has been wet beneath the unicloud, as my boss calls it. A June Gloom lower and more dripping than any in Southern California. Below is the best advice I ever received for the rain (and any inclement whether, except perhaps lightning, or perhaps more so), from Tom Robbin’s Another Roadside Attraction :

…during my incarceration it had begun to rain. The legendary Seattle rain. It was a thin gray rain; hard and fast and cold. In it, we had to walk four blocks from the Public Safety Building to the Zillers’ Jeep–we were at its mercy. As was my custom in such elements I hunkered against the rain, drew my head into my collar, turned my eyes to the street, tensed my footsteps and proceeded in misery. But my hosts, I soon noticed, reacted in quite another way. They strolled calmly and smoothly, their bodies perfectly relaxed. They did not hunch away from the rain but rather glided through it. They directed their faces to it and did not flinch as it drummed their cheeks. They almost reveled in it. Somehow, I found this significant. The Zillers accepted the rain. The were not at odds with it, they did not deny it or combat it; they accepted it and went with it in harmony and ease. I tried it myself. I relaxed my neck and shoulders and turned my gaze into the wet. I let it do to me what it would. Of course, it was not trying to do anything to me. What a silly notion. It was simply falling as rain should, and I a man, another phenomenon of nature, was sharing the space in which it fell. It was much better regarding it that way. I got no wetter than I would have otherwise, and if I did not actually enjoy the wetting, at least I was free of my tension. I could even smile.

Political Rhetoric

From a Wall Street Journal article on Congressional expense accounts:

Summaries of such lawmaker expenses are available to the public in print, either by mail or in volumes that can be viewed in basement rooms on Capitol Hill. The House’s quarterly reports – which run over 3,000 pages apiece, across multiple volumes – are stored in a cupboard in a windowless office near a shoeshine stand.

It’s a piss-poor device when you actually think about it: why would you need storage to have windows (it’s probably better for the books to not have sunlight)? and who cares if it’s near a shoeshine stand (other than the associations with race and class, of course)? This is the equivalent of an ad hominem attack, but for an inaniment object.