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Recommended Reading 11

This week’s reading covers: social, political, economic, and cultural craziness and breakdown in America and Europe; a dystopian view of smartphones; an official CDC denial of a zombie holocaust in the wake of horrific incidents flooding the American media; the possible action of quantum effects in the macro-world; a cogent criticism of scientistic materialism in light of psychedelic experience and the mystery of consciousness; stories about and interviews with several leading figures in the new philosophy-spirituality-consciousness movement; a deep look at the economic imperialism of Amazon and the future of reading; thoughts from C.S. Lewis on why it’s always important to read old books along with new ones; and thoughts on the death of Ray Bradbury.

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Recommended Reading 4

In this week’s roundup of recommended reading: various developments in the ongoing global economic collapse, more dystopian/totalitarian trends, the problem with America’s enduring attitude of techno-worship, the crisis in America’s education system, an earthshaking religious discovery in the Middle East, Dan Simmons on the creative daemon muse, and the imminent promise of true cinematic brilliance in Prometheus.

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Advertising is pseudo-therapy. Consumers are its patients.

Neil Postman wrote this in 1993. It still holds true today. Maybe even more so.

[A] discovery which for convenience’s sake we may attribute to Procter and Gamble [is] that advertising is most effective when it is irrational. By irrational, I do not, of course, mean crazy. I mean that products could best be sold by exploiting the magical and even poetical powers of language and pictures. In 1892, Procter and Gamble invited the public to submit rhymes to advertise Ivory Soap. Four years later, H-O employed, for the first time, a picture of a baby in a high chair, the bowl of H-O cereal before him, his spoon in hand, his face ecstatic. By the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed that reason was the best instrument for the communication of commercial products and ideas. Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory. In the process, a fundamental principle of capitalist ideology was rejected: namely, that the producer and consumer were engaged in a rational enterprise in which consumers made choices on the basis of a careful consideration of the quality of a product and their own self-interest. This, at least, is what Adam Smith had in mind. But today, the television commercial, for example, is rarely about the character of the products. It is about the character of the consumers of products. Images of movie stars and famous athletes, of serene lakes and macho fishing trips, of elegant dinners and romantic interludes, of happy families packing their station wagons for a picnic in the country — these tell nothing about the products being sold. But they tell everything about the fears, fancies, and dreams of those who might buy them. What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer. And so the balance of business expenditures shifts from product research to market research, which means orienting business away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable. The business of business becomes pseudo-therapy; the consumer, a patient reassured by psychodramas.

— Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993)

(When Postman observes that image-and-emotion-based advertising “tells us nothing about the products being sold” but “tells us everything about the fears, fancies, and dreams of those who might buy them,” I’m compelled to quote the words of philosopher Michael J. Sandel, who noted in a recent piece for The Atlantic that “If you’ve ever seen the television commercials on the evening news, you could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest health crisis in the world is not malaria or river blindness or sleeping sickness but an epidemic of erectile dysfunction.”)

Utopia or dystopia? Corning’s viral video “A Day Made of Glass” envisions “a shift in the way we will communicate and use technology”

Ironically, just as I’m preparing to abandon Facebook within the next week or so, my horror author colleague Ted Grau has used FB to share one of the more fascinating items that I’ve encountered for quite some time. It’s a five-minute video titled “A Day Made of Glass,” and it represents Corning’s vision of a sleek future utopia where we’re all empowered by — and also surrounded by, hounded by, confronted with, and encased within — a super-high-tech “paradise” of glass fused with computer technology. The video’s production values are brilliant. Its conceptual design is astonishing. The implications are mind-blowing, although whether they seem wonderfully so or terrifyingly so depends on your starting assumptions and point of view.

No mere description will do it justice. Take five minutes and watch it for yourself:

There’s also a second installment that’s fully as amazing: Read the rest of this entry

The Google Effect: New evidence of the Internet’s impact on brain and memory recalls Plato’s ancient warning

It’s not every day you get to note/observe/say something like this: A 2400-year-old warning from Plato has just been confirmed, or at least inadvertently recalled, by newly published research about the cognitive and neurological effects of our now-ubiquitous culture of Internet searching.

Here’s the lowdown:

Researchers at Columbia University. . . say Google and its search-engine brethren have started to reshape your brain, making you more likely to forget information that is only a quick Internet search away. The new research, published in Science magazine, suggests that people are adapting to the very existence of search engines. For most of us, the thinking goes, the “what” isn’t what matters now; it’s the “where,” as in where can you find the information.

In a series of experiments, researchers found that subjects “were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later,” as the New York Times puts it. When subjects were given information and folder names in which the info was stored in one test, they were more likely to recall the folder names than the information itself. The researchers, naturally, have coined a term for this development: the “Google effect.”

The Internet has become “an external memory source that we can access at any time,” Betsy Sparrow, the study’s principle researcher, explains on Columbia’s website.

— “Study Shows Internet Alters Memory,” Christina Gossmann, Slate, July 15, 2011

And here’s the Plato connection: In the Phaedrus, a dialogue written circa 370 B.C.E., Plato depicted his teacher Socrates telling the story of Thamus, a great Egyptian king who once entertained the god Theuth, inventor of mathematics, astronomy, and many other such things, including, most famously, writing. (Obviously, Theuth is probably Plato/Socrates’ variation on Thoth or Hermes.) Theuth showed Thamus many of his inventions, and Thamus praised them all. But Theuth was especially proud of his invention of writing, and he introduced it to Thamus by saying, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.”

In a needle-scratching response that clashes jaggedly with our modern-day cultural assumptions about the supreme intellectual value of writing and literacy, Thamus vigorously disagreed that writing was a good thing. The wording of his reply makes it sound like he was peering through a wormhole into the 21st century and reading the new Columbia University report:

You, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.

Phaedrus, trans. Walter Hamilton

So what’s to make of this? For one thing, it’s instructive to consider the possible negative effects of the phenomenon in question. Nicole Ferraro, writing for Internet Evolution, offers these thoughts on the Columbia study’s findings:

To tell the truth, we’ve done this to ourselves: Why know directions when we can get turn-by-turn directions on our iPhones? Why remember someone’s email address when Gmail is going to produce it automatically when we begin typing letters? I mean, why remember any fact that can easily be pulled up on the search engines we carry in our pockets? And how are we expected to remember information when we’re consuming so much at once and jumping from task to task?

So, yes, this was bound to happen. But what are the implications of this? Would you agree with the headline on this Register article about the same study?: “Google turning us into forgetful morons.”

— “Redefining ‘Knowledge’ in the Age of Google,” Nicole Ferraro, Internet Evolution, July 15, 2011

But Ferraro’s concerns about forgotten directions and phone numbers and email addresses pale in comparison to the dire moral/intellectual/social prognosis that Thamus drew from his insight:

And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instructions, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

The aforementioned Betsy Sparrow, head of the Columbia University research team, told The New York Times “her experiments had led her to conclude that the Internet has become our primary external storage system. ‘Human memory,’ she said, ‘is adapting to new communications technology.'” Inspired by Thamus, Plato, and all of the above, we might pause to notice the troubling conundrum built into the very idea of an “external storage medium” for the human mind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking literacy. There’s obviously a very strong case to be made for the idea that it’s precisely our development of external storage media — books and so on, and now the Internet — that has allowed us to accomplish so many of the great things that we as a species have accomplished, and that the very definition of wisdom must now involve literacy, and not just bare-bones reading and writing skills as promoted by godawful social engineering programs like No Child Left Behind, but a foundational knowledge of the great things that have been thought, said, and written in the past, along with — to ping another aspect of the Columbia report — the increasingly important ability to access information accurately. Profound forgetfulness of the past, now preserved in writing and increasingly in digital form, is the very definition of a dystopian dark age.

But that said, we’ll all be well-advised to keep an eye and ear on the judgment of Thamus as we live our way inevitably into the Brave New World of our collective cyberfuture. A crucial aspect of authentic wisdom is the ability, and more, the drive, to become aware of our guiding axioms, so that we can really see, know, and understand — and question and, when necessary, revise or reject — the assumptions by which we conduct our lives. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates famously said. Today we’re living in a period where technology’s power within and over culture and human life is reaching a kind of critical mass, just as Neil Postman observed and prophesied in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology — a book that begins with Postman’s recounting of the story of Thamus and his judgment on writing. We long ago passed the threshold where writing and literacy became an ineradicable and inescapable part of who we are, both societally and individually. As we hurtle toward a future along the lines of, perhaps, what the Singularitans are slavering to see, one of the simplest yet trickiest things we can do to keep our bearings and preserve our humanity — even as the very meaning of that word may begin to shift — is to remain awake and reflective about the changes it’s all working on our very souls.

Image credit: “Computer Business,” from Truthout.org under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

School Meets the Matrix

Not much original content to post today. As the school year enters its terminal phase, I’m engulfed in that ominous fourth-quarter weariness that translates into a creeping internal silence. It’s a great time to listen to Current93 and read Ligotti, Cioran, Amiel, Lovecraft, Robert Frost, and other prophets of the void. It’s also a great time just to sit outside or before a window, remain motionless, and contemplate the essential serenity — or maybe it’s better characterized as a perpetual, limpid exhaustion — of nature. But it’s not such a great time to talk (whether verbally or textually) or be active.

One thing that has still managed to catch my attention lately is the relationship between education and cutting-edge digital technology. This isn’t a purely theoretical interest; the school where I teach has applied for a grant to transform itself entirely into an eMINTS school. Part of the school was converted a couple of years ago. The hope is for the conversion to be completed over the next two years. If you’re not familiar with eMINTS, just visit their Website to learn more.

The term itself is an acronym for “enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies.” In a nutshell, it’s a program that remakes traditional schools into computer-centered ones. For each classroom it provides one computer for every two students, plus a computer control center for the teacher and an electronic white board (as in a SMART Board). But it’s more than just a passel of technology. The eMINTS people come in and provide 200 hours (!!) of initial professional development training for faculty to teach them how best to integrate the technology into their classroom instruction. The entire edifice is built around a “student-centered” approach to education and predicated upon the constructivist theory of learning, all of which is entirely in keeping with well-established trends in American educational practice that reach as far back as the progressive education movement of the 1920s and 30s, and even farther.

Since all of this promises to work radical changes on the nature of what I do here at my job, if indeed I stay on at it, I’ve thought it prudent to learn as much as I can about these matters. So for several weeks now I’ve positively inundated myself with articles, essays, and reports about constructivism, student-centered learning, and the use of computers and other digital technology in education.

Thus far, the result has been to turn me into a naysayer, or even a mild doomsayer. (Big surprise, that.)

Among the mountain of materials I’ve read and am still reading, a handful of essays, papers, and articles stand out as particularly illuminating, intelligent, and helpful. Below are links to three of them, along with relevant excerpts. Be advised that all of this research I’m performing has spontaneously evolved into a work in progress; I may well have a whole lot more to say about the issue of computers and digital technology in education as the weeks and months go by. For now, suffice it to say that while I think the integration of computer technology and Internet access into education offers some undeniably attractive, useful, and truly beneficial capabilities — such as a recent circumstance in the Great Books class that I teach, where I had students download portions of Plutarch’s Lives instead of being forced to buy new books or forego Plutarch entirely — in general the whole push seems founded upon two less-than-honorable and less-than-beneficial motivations: first, the further subsumption of formal education in America under the rubric of consumerism, vocationalism, and the rest of the Ellulian scenario that makes technical efficiency and economic gain the be-all, end-all of life; and second, a wholesale desire, which is framed by techno-evangelists as a simple necessity, for schools and teachers to capitulate to the outlook, mindset, sensibility, and worldview of an entire generation, or two, or three, of people who have been shaped from earliest childhood by a mass media-saturated environment. In other words, it’s education as framed and conducted for economic slaves who demand that everything they do be entertaining. And it’s being aided and abetted in ferocious fashion by the U.S. government via the No Child Left Behind Act and other such measures.

If this characterization sounds more like a caricaturization, I urge you to look up and read various recent publications by the U.S. Department of Education that address the issue of technology and education. Relevant reports and documents include, e.g., 2002’s 2020 Visions: Transforming Education and Training through Advanced Technology and 2004’s Toward a New Golden Age in American Education. The latter was released in late 2004/early 2005 to serve as the official federal education technology plan, and is subtitled “How the Internet, the Law, and Today’s Students are Revolutionizing Expectations.” If you read through these and other such government publications, you’ll find not a whit of restraint or self-awareness regarding the double-edged nature of what digital technologies and Internet access have to offer schools. You’ll find nothing in the way of examination, or even an acknowledgment, of the fact that the benefits of these technologies to education are hardly a matter of settled consensus or established fact. Instead, all you’ll find is a blatantly cheerleading-toned promotion of the transformation of schools into high-tech centers, all of it justified by repeated references to “the global economy” and “economic competitiveness” and “the knowledge and skills needed for the 21st century workplace.” If you think I exaggerate, I urge you to read these materials for yourself. And while you’re at it, don’t fail to notice the science fiction-sounding tone that enters in when surveyed students and technology experts wax enthusiastic about the future educational uses of virtual reality and computer-generated tutors.

The overall uber-optimistic tone of things is captured in a passage from the latter of the above-named documents that I find to be fascinating for its combination of hubris and heedlessness: “Within 10 years [No Child Left Behind] aims to abolish illiteracy and bring millions of children currently ‘lost’ to the educational system into the mainstream of learning and achievement. It is comparable in many ways to this country’s 1960s quest to put a man on the moon. Combined with the increased use of new technologies and the motivated expertise of today’s students, it means that 10 years from now we could be looking at the greatest leap forward in achievement in the history of education.” The implications are most visible in the context of the opening line of the report’s executive summary, which makes clear its primarily economic focus: “Over the next decade, the United States will face ever increasing competition in the global economy.”

As an aside to all this, I’ll point out that it’s been interesting and refreshing through the course of all this reading and research to rediscover Jacques Ellul, whose work I first discovered through my reading of Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends in 1991, and which exercised an enormous influence over me.

* * * * *

And now for a few extended quotations from some of the things I’ve been reading lately in relation to all of the above. If the following excerpts interest you, I urge you to follow the links and read the essays/articles in their entirety, since they do a wonderful job of articulating some of the issues that should — but currently don’t — occupy centerstage in a lively national dialogue about the pros and cons of re-visioning and restructuring America’s educational institutions according to the technological imperative.

– – – – –

Michael T. Charles, “Where are we going as we leave no child behind? La technique and Postman, Papers, and Palmer — Part One.

NCLB represents a watershed mark in a century-long movement to think of education as a production task. Standards are established for all students — analogous to a set of product specifications for a production assembly line. Curricula are written for teachers to use to build those products. Standardized exams function as quality control checks of those products on that production line. NCLB mandates that all products from the line be raised to a certain quality standard — i.e. all students must pass the exam. No child should be left behind. It is difficult to argue against this notion of higher quality once one views education as a production task. My suggestion is that this idea is fundamentally wrong, and that education is instead a profoundly human endeavor.

.”The phenomenon that lies behind the NCLB legislation was described by Jacques Ellul as la technique in his book of the same name in 1954, translated into English as The Technological Society in part because of the recommendation of Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World in 1932. Ellul (1964) defines la technique as the ‘totality of means, rationally arrived at and having (for any given stage of development) absolute efficiency.’ (xxv). He argues that the effect of this phenomenon is the consumption of all human ends by increasingly technological means.

“Ellul’s writing can be a challenging read, and many of his examples are from postwar France and world events which many of us today may not find so compelling. The contemporary American writer Neil Postman revisits much of Ellul’s argument in his book Technopoly – the monopoly of technical thinking. In this book he describes the surrender of culture to technology. His premise is that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. In the field of education I would restate his argument to say that the fundamentally human character of education is being increasingly invaded by the same technological thinking that dominates in our culture. NCLB is an embodiment of that invasion.”

– – – – –

Michael T. Charles, “Where are we going as we leave no child behind? La technique and Postman, Papers, and Palmer — Part Two.

“Thus if one is concerned about the invasion of technopoly into education, then the critical thing to oppose is not, for example, the use of computers in K-12 education or the possibility that computers will one day replace teachers in schools. The thing to oppose is the kind of technical thinking embodied in legislation like NCLB which suggests that improved school productivity is synonymous with better student learning. Postman is particularly skilled in arguing against a ‘sleepwalking attitude’ against using computers in the schools in ways that might ‘distract us from more important things.’ What I am suggesting is that we need to guard against this same sleepwalking attitude regarding the larger invasion of technical thinking into how we help students learn. The triumph of technical thinking is best embodied in the mechanism of NCLB and not in the presence of computers in classrooms.

….“Ironically [Seymour Papert’s] argument for school reform is ultimately that our current schools are inefficient. According to Jacques Ellul, efficiency is the sole value of our technical system. Thus Papert proposes to undo technical thinking using technology. But the reason that he gives for undoing this technical thinking is fundamentally technical — to help a complex system function more efficiently. So while in many ways Papert seems to understand the heart of Ellul’s argument about the predominance of la technique or technical thinking, in the end he appeals to the technical value of efficiency to make his case. One of the most profound parts of Ellul’s critique is that he argues that technical thinking is so pervasive that it is very difficult to escape it, even when one is consciously trying to do so. Ellul’s point is not simply that there are the ‘good thinkers’ who critique technology and the ‘bad thinkers’ who are its sponsors. His point is that all thought is pulled in the technical direction, and that our technical solutions are ultimately exacerbating our human problems. For Ellul technical thinking is the only way we have left to think in this modern (and post-modern) age. This brief exploration of Papert’s perceptive critique of technical thinking makes that point once more. Doing things more efficiently is something that even our best critics of technology must appeal to if they are to be heard.”

– – – – –

Marc Marenco, “Glowing Glass Islands, Invisible Musicians, and the Brave New World: Accomodation and Critique in the Age of Access.”

“I tend to agree with Postman and others who see these figures as reflecting, at least in part, a being overwhelmed with entertainment-saturated developmental milieus and a continual bombardment of endless, useless, unintegrated facts; what Brown and Duguid calls ‘information’ in contrast to ‘knowledge.’ It is a cliché, but a true one, that the ‘medium is the message’ and we are absorbing the media of ICT into our bones without, in my view, critique and analysis commensurate with the seriousness of the enterprise. I am not here arguing for the elimination of ICT in higher education. But it is amazing to me how rapidly this question of the reduction or elimination of ICT has become un-askable. It is all simply there like the air somehow and one is only chided or smiled at in pointing that out in a serious tone of voice.

“Hubert Dreyfus writes, ‘…not only are we transformed by the way we use our tools, we are not aware of how we are being transformed, so we need all the more to try to make explicit what the Net is doing for us and what it is doing to us in the process.’ What I am looking for, what I am committed to, is a robust, open, sustained conversation about the psychological, social, economic, educational, moral and spiritual impact of ICT that is just as robust as the evangelical fervor with which ICT is being embraced in our schools and homes. THAT, it seems to me, is what education is all about – not only teaching our students to ADAPT to the world they are being thrust into but developing a strong personal and social centering that is able to imagine change and act on that imagination.”

High tide for anti-intellectualism

This post is in response to a query somebody made at the Shocklines forum. In various conversations at that board, people have recently been mentioning a supposed surge of anti-intellectualism in America today. One person responded with the following:

I’ve been hearing a lot about this ‘wave of anti-intellectualism’. I’m curious about it.

All artistic ventures aren’t immediately dismissed by the general public. Memento springs to mind; it was certainly a different sort of film, but it also had reasonable legs as a movie which didn’t even break 600 screens, and its DVD sales seemed pretty strong. While it’s undeniably true that the most innovative movies do not have corresponding box office receipts (hey, Shallow Hal beat out Memento by a long shot) it’s also true that this is not a new thing. I don’t recall a time when the most innovative films racked up the best box office.

What is the root of the anti-intellectualism argument?

I could go on and on about this topic all day, and would end up thanking you for the provocation to vent. But I’ll restrain myself, relatively speaking. Apologies in advance if I sound smotheringly didactic at points. I’ve recognized that fact about my writing for years but have thus far been unable to overcome it.

I think the basic idea behind the anti-intellectualist argument presents at least two aspects. One of these is the simple recognition that “dumb is in.” I remember seeing Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey mention this in an interview a couple of years ago. When the interviewer brought up the subject of Ms. Fey’s reputation for intelligence and wit, she jumped on the opportunity to express serious concerns about the fact that in American pop culture, which for several decades has been synonymous with (prepackaged) youth culture, it’s become hip to be stupid. She talked about kids, and especially girls, feeling pressured to suppress their intelligence and appear stupid and vapid in order to fit in. And she contrasted this with her parents’ generation, when the counterculture was in full swing and it was hip to be über-intelligent and well-read so that you could effectively criticize the American government or the radical commie sympathizers or whomever, depending on your stance.

So this is the first and easiest-to-get-at arm of the argument, this pointing-out of what might be called the Bill & Ted syndrome, or the Harry & Lloyd syndrome, or the Jesse & Chester syndrome. Especially among the under-thirty crowd, there’s a cultural pressure to act stupid even if you’re not, and this is hostile to intelligence.

The deeper and more extended aspect of the argument represents a kind of medical diagnosis of a peculiarly American pathology that has now infected the rest of the world by means of cultural imperialism — that is, via the aggressive exporting of a lifestyle centered around consumerism and mass media entertainment. The idea is that America is in the throes of a systemic crisis that is largely economic in nature, the effects and implications of which have inevitably spun off into a detrimental effect on the American intellectual character. Then there’s also the related recognition of America’s longstanding bias in favor of what might be called “down home-ism” and against anything perceived as highfalutin, a tendency that has been alternately muted and dominant at various periods in the nation’s history. People who point to current anti-intellectual trends like to say the tendency has now moved dramatically and perhaps definitively to the fore, with youth culture’s “dumb is in” phenomenon representing just the tip of the iceberg.

Please pardon me while I let other people do much of my thinking and speaking. When I first started writing this reply to your query, I was just out of bed and my brain was quite foggy. (I’ve never been able to fathom how or why so many writers find this time of day to be the best for doing their work, since I myself can barely put two words together until mid-morning.) So I’m just going to offer some quotations from, summaries of, and links to a number of books and articles whose ideas have amplified, shaped, and/or coincided with my own. Read the rest of this entry