“Human Wholeness”

“Human wholeness” seems to be a central theme in Bookchin’s “Towards a Liberatory Technology”. He deems the true issue in new technology as to whether it can help “humanize” society. As I discussed in an earlier blog post, it seems as if our readings can be divided into two general lines of thinking: those of “inventors” and those of “humanists”, and Bookchin seems to fall into the latter category. Tagore, Schumacher, and Gandhi all touch upon this idea of human “wholeness” and what it means to be “human”.

In addition to the theme of “humanism”, Bookchin often discusses “creativity”. He writes that technology can play a significant role in the formation of personality, and that every art has its “technical side”. Further, he mentions that “Art would assimilate technology by becoming social art, the art of the community as a whole”. Thus, Tagore may view such an idea as productive to conquering “limited reality” (which I found similar to the idea of Bookchin’s formation of “personality”) and achieving the “Creative Ideal”. Schumacher notes (from a Buddhist point of view) that it is erroneous to consider consumption more important than creative activity, and that “the less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity.” In a similar vein, Bookchin notes that, in a liberated society, technology will not be negated, but used to “remove the toil from the production process, leaving its artistic completion to man”. I found his quote — “The machine, in effect, will participate in human creativity” particularly interesting, as it gives notable agency and “human-ness” to technology.

While I do believe that Bookchin has a significantly more optimistic view than of new technology than Gandhi, they both share an interest in the “liberation” of man and its connection to technology. I enjoyed how Buckchin symbolized “liberatory technology” as the abolition of mining, as mining is “man’s image of hell”. Perhaps more than the other authors we’ve read, Bookchin places much emphasis on the natural world, which he claims we must reintroduce into our human experience to achieve “human wholeness”.

1) Bookchin’s vision is wrong in a sense that, while much toil has been removed from the production process with the introduction of new technology, more work has been required of workers (technology workers). He envisions that artistic creativity is, to the delight of its workers, added after the toil of work has been completed. How is this view problematic?

2) Creativity seems to be a distinctly “human” trait and a theme shared amongst many of the authors we’ve read. Can machines really participate in human creativity? Can machines be “creative”, and can they replace human creativity? (In other words, what the hell does “creativity” even mean?)

ooh, shiny!

One of the problems with hackathons is that they place too much focus on speed and novelty, leading to a hacker culture which expects us to build something quickly, then move on to the next new thing. The maker culture isn’t that much different: makers build something based on a new idea, just to try it out. In many cases, this is a good thing: innovation thrives when we push the boundaries of what we know. But when we focus more on “newer” and “sooner” we tend to skip steps, or make sacrifices which result in poor long-term quality.

It would be false to assume, however, that this mentality is restricted to hackers and makers; I think this is systemic across most human activities. We touched on some topics of power and dominance when we read Freire, and I think those themes are especially relevant here, where “newer” is assumed to be “better” and “sooner” really means “before anybody else.”

I think I am much more pessimistic than Bookchin, and I really liked this line: “We are still the offspring of a violent, blood-soaked, ignoble history–the end products of man’s domination of man. We may never end this condition of domination.” While Bookchin felt that it was possible to end that cycle through anarchy, I am not so certain.

Am I wrong to think so pessimistically of the human race? Give me some hope that we as a society can eventually move beyond “Ooh, shiny!” to some state of mind based on a better good.

Work and want in career discernment

I want to explore what makes some work lame and other work prestigious by comparing trash collection and health care. One is seen as lowly employment while the other is up on a pedestal. Environmental issues are widely ignored while our bodily comfort is given the highest priority. As a society, we miss the point that these are deeply interconnected.

Taking care of human bodies does require more formal education, but I imagine that trash collectors learn a lot on the job: what people throw away, what companies throw away, precisely what happens when things are thrown away, the environmental and health consequences of our sophisticated waste systems. Health care providers are a sought out source of wisdom, as they should be. The trash workers know that big companies send out-of-season inventory to a landfill rather than risk a dent in demand by donating it. Recycling and trash workers know exactly what materials people are good or bad at recycling regularly, but they’re not consulted about trying to improve this system that is at the heart of the struggle between man and nature.

The disconnectedness between man and nature, via our trash system impedes our attention to sustainable living, which encourages our wants. I met a kindergartener once who got made fun of for telling his class he wanted to be a trash man. His teacher put a stop to it by saying, “Hey! Can you imagine a world without trash collectors? They help keep our communities clean. Plus, they get to drive those big trucks… How cool is that!?” In contrast, I once met a premed student taking engineering classes just in case doctors stopped getting paid so much under Obamacare…

So, what if trash collectors were more empowered to participate in history? Personally, I wouldn’t want to drive a big stinky truck anymore than I’d want to stick my hands in an open wound, but I think if society did a better job of recognizing the important service in each, we could start to move away from this over arching problem of work and want.

Related: The Problem With Trash Cans

Seeking salvation in tools alone

All semester we have attempted to design tools that satisfy the perceived criteria for “alternative” technology. However, we have never failed to mention that reform does not lie in tools alone.

For example, if one wanted to design a community-driven transportation service to replace cars/taxis, one would have to consider social incentives and legislation to put in place for having neighbors have an equal time-share of having to drive their neighbors around regardless of class and wealth.

In Morozov’s article, we hear about how Lee Felsenstein, influenced by Illich’s Tools of Conviviality, tries to create a device that is easy to learn, understand, and repair making experts unnecessary and decentralizing power. He installs a handful of terminals in public spaces across the Bay allowing local residents to communicate anonymously — a truly “social media.”

If we look at the purpose of the newspaper and the role it played in decentralizing power during the American Revolution, it is one similar to that of Felsenstein’s “free speech terminals.” However, with time, political and economical systems redirected the power over the newspapers allowing people with more money and social influence to buy ink on a page.

Instead of building tools to deinstitutionalize society, Morozov believes we should try pushing reform to “secure the transparency and decentralization of power” we associates with our favorite technology.

Does this mean maker culture belongs in politics? Must every tool we design to power the people come with accompanying legislation?

 

Maker Culture and Che Guevera Tees

As a computer science student who has been somewhat dubious of the ‘Maker’ movement for reasons I have found difficult to place, Morozov’s criticism of the Maker movement and its ‘hacker’ predecessor struck a chord with me.   The collusion of the department of defense and a variety of corporate interests in the fostering of makerspaces, along with the very consumerist catalogs of tools which are inevitably a necessity for becoming a ‘free-spirited’ maker have always stuck slightly in my craw, and they do seem to paint a rather cynical picture of the underlying motivations for the movement.  Morozov makes a salient point about the consumers of the hacker era being convinced that by adopting certain tools they were being more revolutionary than the protestors out risking life and limb for their cause, and the same holds true today, plus or minus a couple of labels.

Yet while I am dubious of the ability of the maker movement to effect any sort of real revolutionary change in society, I also doubt that there is anything specific to the use of technology that makes it particularly prone to capitalist subversion. Is there anything particular to the application of technology toward revolutionary ends that ends with the sort of consumerist rebranding of once-sincere movements?  Or is the monetization of the hacker and maker movements simply another repetition of the same pattern that has turned a huge variety of counter-culture movements (try searching amazon for ‘occupy wall street,’ or, god forbid, ‘che guevera t-shirts’ if you need an example) into yet another stepping stone for dewy-eyed capitalists hoping to make it into the 1%?

Employees as stakeholders

The biggest problem I see with Bookchin’s vision of utopian regional production is cheap transport mechanisms for raw and finished goods. His dream of regional, community centered, holistic production cannot exist in a world where goods can be so cheaply transferred. The other thing he overlooks is the impact of economies of scale on centralization of production. The economics of scale argument is that per-widget costs decrease as number of widgets manufactured increases. Coupling economics of scale with low costs for transporting raw and finished goods inevitably leads to a centralization of production. Smaller manufacturers get squeezed out by larger players who can produce the same widget for less.

So maybe we’ll never have the small community minded production that Bookchin proposes. Imagine a firm where instead of salaries every employee received a stake in the firm’s output. Not stock like we now conceive of it, but a stake that only current employees would get. Employees get their stake when they join the company and they relinquish it when they leave. An employee cannot sell or otherwise transfer their stake. Different levels of employee would have more or less stake. It would not per se be egalitarian, or distributed equally. A CEO might have ten times more stake than a janitor, but they would all receive their monthly salary based on how much stake they had. Employees would get paid based on the performance of the firm X months previously. Where X is probably between 3-6 months depending on how tight the accounting needs to be. The firm would generate no profit; its entire proceeds would instead be paid to its employees. The CEO could still get rich, as he might have 50 times more stake than the janitor. The important thing is that everyone’s compensation is tied to the firm’s performance. They all have a stake in it.

A constitution could be written to constrain, among other things, the multiplier between the smallest stakeholder and the largest stakeholder. Maybe the CEO could never have more than 30 times stake than the janitor? Employees would regularly provide confidential feedback on their immediate superiors, their subordinates, and their peers. Using this information, and most likely a complex governing process, stake could be reapportioned at a given interval.

Could this work? It’s something of a compromise between Bookchin’s need for the workers to own the production, and the realities of global production I outlined in the first paragraph.

How to speak to a computer

“everybody In computers has deeper motivations and interior twists that form his own special ties to these machines; and when It comes to our choices of fantasy machines, obviously an even deeper level of psychic imprint la projecting Itself Into the world.”

Latour, in his critique of scientific objectivity, argues that a large majority of science is simply problem solving.  Without a problem to be solved, there is no scientific work to be done.  Nelson’s computer dreams made me reflect on this idea based on the degree of whimsy he describes the computer engineers to be acting on. This is to ask what is the result if we look at computing the same way Sir Edmund Hilary looked at Everest?  Is “because its there”  a good enough reason to create and deploy these untested visions?

 

In this light, I see a strange world of computer science, one that is funded to build better bombs and police state control, but is staffed by human dreamers who wish to make their imagination a reality.

Nelson’s advice is to

“sort out the dreams and put them on hangers so you can try them on, and maybe choose an ensemble for yourself.”

I wonder if this self reflectivity is far enough or even explains the complexity of the tensions between the visions of these technologies and their realities.  Instead, when I observe the backlash (In Europe) over GMO’s and early fears over bioengineering I see a conflict between un-involved publics and those who hold the keys to the direction of future technologies.

 

As an aside, I see an interesting divergence of Nelson’s critique on the future of information retrieval.  Although it is true that Google search would fail to answer his question  “What did Hegel say about determinism”, folks wanting to know the answer would use different inputs they would feel would deliver better results like “Hegel” “Determinism” “early works” “counter argument”. In a way, we have learned to speak like a computer program to maximize the output.

Full Nelson

1. Nelson, like many of the alternative thinkers we have read about so far, spills a good deal of ink on education and the possibilities for education reform using technology. Why is education almost invariably chosen as a means of applying these authors’ ideas? What is it about the educational endeavour specifically that makes it so conducive to both criticism and the application of technological ideas?

2. What potential downsides can you see to two-directional linking as envisioned by Nelson? How might the WWW have evolved differently if it had been implemented in this way?

Cultural Evolution

I have noticed two themes in our semester’s readings. One is about augmenting ourselves with technology. The other is moving ourselves away from excessive technology. While one is a push for advancing the culture and efficiency of the human race, the other is a receding to the pure essence of what it means to be “human” – the “primary wants” and “individualization” of humans (Gandhi, Schumacher, Tagore).

Ted Nelson falls into the second category. His solution, hypermedia, augments and makes more efficient the process of organization, ideation, writing, and even education. Such hypermedia transcend the linear “experience” of which physical paper documents are characterized.

Nelson distinguishes file structures used for creativity and those used for data processing; the former being that which he designs “hypermedia”.

Contradiction: If Nelson’s idea heightens efficiency in creativity and problem solving, then why do so many creative writers prefer using traditional paper and pen? Why is Nelson’s complex organization tool not in pervasive use for creating fictional masterpieces?

Perhaps the way a traditional book is read and the means in which a writer writes are successful because of what the second category of our readings touch upon: they are more “human”. More simply, perhaps our minds have been selected, evolutionarily speaking, to think linearly and to write linearly. After all, men have, even before the rise of writing, told stories in a linear, narrative fashion. This harkens back to some of our first civilized societies. Our sentences are crafted linearly. We communicate with one another in a linear fashion; one thing comes after another.

The core of Nelson’s design is that which is “hyper” – complex and interrelated. And perhaps this works with some domains of work, recollection, and retrieval. But for domains of creative writing and personal reading, the linear, the “un-hyper” dimensions, seem to reign supreme. It just seems more “natural”, more “human”.

The act of writing on paper, which is so personal, lends to creativity and memory making in a way that technology does not come near.

A parallel exists for Nelson’s perspective on education. In a diagram in Dream Machines, the teacher and computer is seen as a barrier to a student’s understanding of the subject matter. The solution? Hypermedia (which he emphasizes in all caps). Education and proper learning is augmented by technology, not a far cry from his solution to solving our poor organization and writing habits.

This question has been running through my mind the past couple of weeks:

There seems to be a conflict between two different categories of thought:

1) Being more “human” (Gandhi’s “Primary Wants of Man” and “Individuality of Man”, Schumacher’s “Buddhist Economics”, Tagore’s “Creative Freedom”)

and 2) Inventive and futuristic technology to augment human capabilities and encourage thinking “Outside the Box” (like Nelson’s hypermedia)

How, as designers, can we leverage these two categories? Should we design technologies that elegantly accompany the evolutionary biologies of our brain and behavior (What it means to be human), or should we design technologies that augment and expand the “human” experience further than that of “social animals”?

“The last thing to be ruined determines your profession.”

Nelson’s piece on education in Dream Machines is pretty interesting.  While I like the idea of letting students dictate their path, decide when they’re prepared for tests, and generally take more autonomy in the classroom, I’m not sure its realistic. Nelson writes,

“Motivate the user and let him loose in a wonderful place.

Let the student control the sequence, put him in control of interesting and clear material, and make him feel good — comfortable, interested, and autonomous. Teach him to orient himself… Such ultra-rich environments allow the student to choose what he will study, when he will study it and how he will study it, and to what criteria of accomplishment he will aim. “

That kind of transformation would require both a fundamental change in teaching and an equivalent — or larger — change in students. Education here is built upon teacher-as-head, slow, steady, ‘all move as one’ didacticism. Maybe younger students are pliable and would be able to cope with a change to an more enlightened teaching — but the thought of the chaos of that initial transition is a little scary.

Nelson’s “fundamental point”:

“Computer assisted instruction, applied thoughtlessly and imitatively , threatens to extend the worst features of education as it is now.”

is reasonable. This seems to be a trap some large webcast courses and MOOCs fall into. Are there examples of those that don’t? What are examples of good integration of technology (as defined by Nelson) in public schools?