Aug 162013

A short and sour answer to the question posed by the title of today’s post would be: “Basically because we have very little.”

Of course, technological progress and its proponents sell themselves very well.  Like a war photographer who only wants you to see what they’re paid for you to see, the frame is positioned in order to benefit those who would have us believe in their wares.  As it is easy to measure the easily quantitative, so the qualitative in life becomes much less important.  The soft aspects of relationships, where we express emotions, feelings and love, lose their traction in a society where everything must be measured in terms of monetary transactions.

Technology is good at measuring us in terms of money.  Technology is good at measuring itself in terms of what it can achieve.

So good, in fact, its proponents seem to believe – and manage to convince us it is so – that it’s the only possible way to move forwards.

Yet even those of us less enamoured with the development throughout human history of marvellous machines various, inevitably find ourselves in our daily lives unable to resist their bewitchingly gadget-infused attractions.  From those stories of Walt Disney’s frozen brain and the overheated magnificence of William Shatner’s “Star Trek” – both populating the Sixties and Seventies of my still scientifically entranced childhood – to the overwhelming success of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, the arrival of the mobile phone, streaming Internet video and now computer spectacles we can wear and inform ourselves with wherever we go, on its own very specific terms technology does – nevertheless – represent progress.

Perhaps more now, for the majority of the population, than ever before.

Even so, myself, I’m beginning to become a little less entranced with this technology I describe – as well as the progress it supposedly represents.  There are, of course, the obvious downsides: for every computer we make, there is the pollution it generates.  For every TED talk that informs, we have pornography that exploits.  Nothing is new in such an assertion.  For what appears to have been forever, the natural equilibrium in human existence requires every good to have its contrasting and counterpointing bad.

In a sense, then, God and the Devil are hard-wired into our actions.  As, indeed, must be the idea of faith.  And in this case, a very 21st century faith.  Despite every evidence to the contrary, we continue to believe in the validity of technology and its summative progress.  All the rubbish we know more and more about – all the stats and realities which tell a quite different story – are nothing compared to our fervent attachment to the benefits of technological progress.

In fact, I’m getting to the point where I’m beginning to believe that corporate capitalism, a centralising capitalism which generates technological advances like no other in history, is driven not so much by the quest for wealth – nor even power – but, rather, by the unconscious desire to beat death.

Remember, if you will, those stories about Walt Disney’s cryogenics – and multiply them up to our days.

Yes.  If those who concentrate such wealth in order to effervescently develop more technologies, even where this is at the manifest expense of a wider societal wellbeing, continue to effervescently develop, perhaps what we have is an otherwise noble desire to beat the impending apocalypse:

[…] Jensen believes we can and should do something to prepare for the coming collapse. For Jensen, how we live now is going to determine how well we’ll do when the great factories of Guangdong fall fallow. Jensen says people should “prepare for it on a local level”, rebuild communities as much as they can, put in place alternative systems of local governance, think about their food supply.

And whilst the rest of us may soon have to get used to the idea of giving up on the future of technological progress – of giving in to this apocalypse some are beginning to speak of – maybe in some strange way the opposite has been the story of capitalism all along.  The impatience of perishable lives which recognise, subconsciously, how little they will eventually achieve.  Capitalism as a latterday manifestation of that ancient pursuit of the Holy Grail?  I shouldn’t be surprised.  Everything goes, everything is justified, any means can find their precious ends … if, that is, the precious ends involve successfully challenging an awfully Final Judgment.

Maybe, then, we need to believe in the progress of technology – in the unseemly concentration of wealth, in the considerable phallacy of top-down trickle-down economics – because all of us, somehow, somewhere and some time, have dreamt of beating our fate.

The fate of the civilisation we’ve built, first and foremost.

The fate of the species, next along the line.

Finally, the fate of the planet itself.

And all along, all our achievements only measured on their own deliberately limited terms.

Our choice in the light of the above?  Between the progress of a technology for all or the decline of a standard of living for the majority?  Is that where we are now?  Is that the crossroads?  Has capitalism finally given up on its historically implicit – even where, perhaps, disingenuous – assertion that it might, one day, beat the Final Judgment for everyone?

Yesterday, I spoke about how we, as intimate participants, were creating the conditions for capitalism’s own Achilles’ heel.  Perhaps those who run the beast have realised this and have themselves given up on any further intent at deception.  This may, after all, be not so much an apocalypse now but – instead – an apocalypse delayed.

Time to run our society down.

Capitalism’s assertion was, in any case, only a mirage all along.  And realising this is a logical consequence of universal education.  In a sense, then, capitalism’s decay is actually our fault.  In the past, its success depended so much on our faith, confidence, trust and belief – none of which, in the light of modern mindsets and behaviours, is likely to be easily deposited by us any more.

Not easily, for sure.

Not whilst we begin to acquire the tools to think with intelligence; to reach our considered conclusions carefully and firmly.


One final question, then – a question I ask in all good faith: can we recover that faith, confidence, trust and belief in order that we might avoid the apocalypse I have mentioned?

Oh, to believe in the onwards and upwards march of technology again.  To believe in its being shared around.  To believe in its utility for all human beings.  To believe in reciprocity and kindness.

To recover gentlemen and women as our model to follow.

If only.

Feb 242013

My sister just sent me a link to a TED talk.  TED talks are fascinating.  This one describes itself thus:

Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

I think it’s a beautiful idea, one I am inclined to value highly.  I have been a teacher most of my working life – and soon learned to value highly the contribution of students.  Not only in terms of what I asked them to do but – also, and more importantly – in terms of what they learned to ask me to do.

Genius is not the preserve of a man or woman our society determines as being so.  And even if it is, it is only because our society is incapable of perceiving the genius that all of us contain.  Even as we like to focus from a distance on the visibly astonishing, we miss out on the beauty that we exhibit every single day of our lives.  We are clever souls, we human beings.  The virtual democratisation of content we are witnessing this last decade is not primarily a cause of information ills but, rather, a massive release of pent-up generations of humanity unable for so long to visibly express their genius.

And now I have a confession to make.  I haven’t watched the TED talk my sister has sent me as yet.  And I probably won’t.  I really do hope, however, that she doesn’t stop sending them to me.  Today’s post would not have got written if it hadn’t been for her thoughtful including of me in a footnote to a Facebook post.  Although I very rarely watch videos at all, their synopses rapidly read do often spark unfinished and engaging business.

To be honest, I think there’s a reason.  I think I’m a natural reader, not a watcher.  What’s more, I think those who watch are – more often than not (though clearly an exception in the case of my book-loving sister) – natural watchers, not readers.  Which leads me to draw the following conclusion: the old-age battle (or, at least, the sixty-year-old battle) waged between literature and television has subtly restarted since the arrival of the web.  Following on from the middle of the 20th century, our early 21st century online humanity has reasserted a division which should please us enormously.  For between the geniuses of industrialised art and the geniuses of individualised art, we stumble across everything we should admire.  That some of us should continue to find pleasure and intellectual involvement in this century’s equivalent of tablets and scrolls of yore and that others of us should continue to find pleasure and intellectual involvement in this century’s equivalent of more oral and theatrical tradition simply underlines the power and strength of them both.

All those centuries ago, we got it right first time.

The instincts to register through writing and speech the thoughts, occurrences and imaginations of a wonderful species were just as accurate and apposite then as they still are these days – continuing as they do to strive and fight their way above the flood waters of passing and irrelevant technologies and discourses.

A reader then, are you?  Or a watcher?  Or a marvellous – highly literate – combination of the two?

Lucky you!

Sep 222011

Troy Davis has been legally killed in the US state of Georgia, by people who should’ve known far better.  You can find the full sad story here at the Economist – a measured piece which concludes with these sober words:

[…] His body was removed from the prison grounds at around midnight. When it was all over, Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Church, where Martin Luther King preached, said, “This is one of those moments when the nation is called to examine itself and ask, ‘Is this who we are?'” It seems that it is, alas.

And it is these words that I quote from, as well as these words I find myself writing, which make me wonder if the afterlife we have pursued since time immemorial isn’t actually beginning to make itself known all around us.  I don’t mean to say this with the intention of hurting people who believe in God – nor, the Lord forbid, denigrate the memory of Mr Davis.  I just look at the virtual landscape which surrounds us – where the memories of people, their events and their imaginings are beginning to be irrevocably recorded in so many different digital places – that I can’t help think the words “God” and “digital” are acquiring the status of synonymic ideas.

Which brings me to a post over at Microtask’s blog, which has brought the following idea to my attention:

A few weeks ago, while watching TED videos to escape the scorching Italian sun (it’s a tough life, I know), I came across this off-beat and slightly creepy talk by Adam Ostrow, Mashable’s Editor in Chief.

Adam’s subject was our online (im)mortality. These days people are constantly uploading stuff: social networking profiles, tweets and even humble blogs. Long-term, this means we’re all creating virtual “life-journals” that will, eventually, outlive us. Unable to ignore this disturbing thought, Adam began to explore the weird and wonderful world of post-mortem posting.

Taken to its logical conclusion, Microtask’s author reports, we could find ourselves in this environment:

Following the “virtual afterlife” meme to its logical conclusion, Adam Ostrow ends his talk by discussing the possibility of converting a person’s entire “online archive” into a kind of immortal social media avatar. This “entity” could continue updating for you even after your physical death. It’s a bizarre but compelling concept and, technologically speaking, could soon be possible. Recently, there have been endless projects combining human and artificial intelligence – could the same thing work here? Imagine the crowd checking machine-produced “beyond the grave” posts to make sure they sound human enough.

If it is true that by remembering others, and keeping with a conscience those memories in family, tribal and intellectual groupings, we ensure that – in a way – the deceased remain alive for generations to come, how much closer to a real Paradise – a real afterlife, I mean – is this concept of a permanence of act, thought and occurrence that an online virtualisation of these characteristics could represent?

And if robots can be made to feel, why can’t we – feeling beings that we already are – in turn be made robots, with all their undeniable virtues?

Eternally repairable, durable and re-engineerable.

A Paradise indeed?

Not, I would submit, for Mr Davis’s executioners.

Sep 182011

This, from Paul Clarke’s blog honestlyreally, summarising Barry Schwartz on society’s loss of wisdom, is intriguing:

Basically, he says we’ve dispensed with our humanity in our quest for efficiency and profit. The wrong things are being measured. What really counts in any public-facing service is an appreciation of the softer aspects of, well, human interaction. We’ve lost the wisdom that gives us sensible decision-making, discretion and the ability to “get” all this. Perhaps not “lost”, as much as “designed-out”, in order to please all sorts of other gods.

What’s not to like? How could he possibly be wrong?

There he is, pointing to the job description of the janitor who has a whole load of specified tasks to perform. Mop the floor. Straighten the curtains. Swab the sink. But nowhere, nowhere, does it say: “Be nice to people. Be human. Be flexible.” […]

I have to say, whilst knocking large corporations on the head quite often on these pages, I have had positive experiences too.  The company I worked for over the past seven years or so did have an HR department which tried – under two of the three regimes I experienced – to inculcate the importance of valuing how we do things and not only measuring what we do.  Unfortunately, measuring what is easier to compare and contrast objectively – valuing how depends a lot on the perceptions of your boss.  In any case, you get to the point where someone higher up, who trusts the whats more than the hows, will go ahead and invent an empirical method of defining the hows along the lines of: “How many times did you mention the customer’s name?”

I remember, quite a while ago now, before I went to uni and whilst I still read on traditional paper the prior-to-being-a-part-of-the-Guardian-group Observer, a short piece by Katherine Whitehorn on the subject of Work A and Work B.  I wrote about it here in 2008:

Katherine Whitehorn once wrote a brilliant article in the Observer whose thesis has stuck with me ever since. Work A and Work B are what it was all about. Work A was what was advertised in job descriptions whilst Work B was what made everything actually function; the stuff they couldn’t teach you on training courses.

I then went on to quote one of my favourite thinkers, Vannevar Bush, who said:

If scientific reasoning were limited to the logical processes of arithmetic, we should not get very far in our understanding of the physical world. One might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability.

Only to find myself concluding that:

Reducing everything to numbers is a game politicians have played for decades. The best politicians, the best political parties, the best nations, have always added something else.

For want of a better word, it’s the glue that makes everything else work.

More than ever, we need that glue today.

We need what intuition, ambiguity and those liquid perceptions of life bring to our experience of this world.

The world of certainties – of job descriptions, of Work A – has failed us. The world of driven salespeople has brought us to the brink. The promises of those who calculated to the edge of society’s financial envelopes in their mad desire to risk the wealth of others will increase the hardship of many over the next five quarters of recession.

This, if you will remember, having been written in 2008.

As I say at the top of this post – and as two of the three regimes I struggled to work under attempted to implement in the large corporation which has both helped and hindered my development as a worker – knowing how to value hows is just as important as measuring whats.

The problem is that the people with their hands on the levers of power only really care to deal in whats.

And meanwhile any hows which do attract their attention end up getting distorted and bent out of shape as they measure them quantitatively out of all useful recognition.

Something which, as I concluded in the 2008 piece I mention above, has relevance in any attempt to renew the Labour Party as a political and social force.  Far more than the whats which are the policy delights of any politician, and which anyone with an ability to synthesise moods can cobble together half-decently, we need the hows, the glue I allude to, the Work B Whitehorn so usefully identified, the wisdom Schwartz talks about – the soft stuff Clarke describes.

That’s what we’re getting wrong at the moment.

And it shows.

Further information: you can see Barry Schwartz’s original TED talk on the subject of society’s lost wisdom here. Well worth your time.

Feb 282010

What are the implications for the pharmaceutical industry?  Temple Grandin tells us, in a most inclusive manner, we need all minds.  Just because you think in pictures doesn’t mean you think any less.

Abnormality as a concept should be banished from our vocabulary.  We all are.  As simple as that.  This video is worth a thousand words because it reminds us that the tyranny of language is only a tyranny when we conceive that human beings must think and communicate in one type to the exclusion of others.

More here.