ALCStudies Journal

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Category Archives: Technology

Leadership Trivia

One of our associates used the following inspiring speech in teaching his English class. Do you know the name of the person who originally presented the speech? Extra points for the year and occasion. Hint: It’s not by one of our current world leaders.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an Emperor — that’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible — Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another; human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there’s room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.

The way of life can be free and beautiful.

But we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

To those who can hear me I say, “Do not despair.” The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass and dictators die; and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

Soldiers: Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel; who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don’t hate; only the unloved hate, the unloved and the unnatural.

Soldiers: Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written, “the kingdom of God is within man” — not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men, in you, you the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power! Let us all unite!! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie! They do not fulfill their promise; they never will. Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people!! Now, let us fight to fulfill that promise!! Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

Soldiers: In the name of democracy, let us all unite!!!

 

Please click the link to hear the original audio of this speech in a new page at American Rhetoric.

– DA

The Machine Stops

Readings from E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909). Created for the ALCStudies project on Technology in Literature & Popular Culture.

Open to the Good

An update from one of our associates in Latin America. – DA

The C-virus put the hammer down like Thor in the Vikings series for the time-being on plans to go RV-camping in the U.S.. So we are are focusing on plans closer to home. Very close. Not only are flights out restricted, I’m told we are restricted from even going outside our apartment, pending a three-hundred dollar fine and arrest. So we do exercises and yoga, drink wine, fix good food, read and watch Netflix. Sex gets a pretty good thumbs-up, too.

IMG_20200318_134311377

Chana Masala, in Case You Were Wondering (And we have to replace those place-mats.)

IMG_20200318_201428752

Sincere experts and virtue-signaling harpies on the web give us advice to focus on the positive – exhorting us to breathe, eat and improve ourselves to make a gift of our enforced isolation. At the same time social media has given rise to a cottage industry emphasizing the current mayhem of the world and pushing our fear buttons. This is nothing new, as evidenced by Old Testament fixations on blood and revenge, prognostications revealed to the Greeks in the intestines of animals, murder and alarm in the penny press of Dickens’ day and the Hearst papers’ yellow journalism. Human beings love a good disaster, real or presumed. It makes us feel virtuous if we survive.

I refuse to be guilted or shamed for acknowledging what is in front of my face based on fifty-plus years of experience. And honestly, the hype and continuous doom-saying vying with those preaching unthinking optimism in these latter days grows a trifle boring. A therapist I visited a few years back when I was in the midst of darkness gave me advice I cherish every day: try to remain open to the good. So here goes.

After a few false starts I found a gig teaching conversational English for non-native speakers. Teaching draws on my background in education, theater and writing. More than that, I enjoy it. It allows me to get paid for bullshitting part of the time.1 One of my students is a young man about my son’s age. I’ll call him Juan. Juan runs his own IT consulting business and is good at what he does. His customers include banks, businesses and government agencies. Juan often texts me saying he’s running a few minutes behind, which is pretty de rigueur  for business owners. We’ve developed a good rapport that includes being flexible on time.

I bring in exercises Juan and I work on covering diction, pronunciation and fluency. English is a weird amalgam of Latin and German with a few other languages thrown in. Juan, who has a Ph.D. from a business school in Italy, often has specific questions on expressions and idioms. We have fun tracking down word origins and meanings. His questions often prompt me to draw on outside resources on the web and elsewhere. Apparently there was a reason for my reading Partridges Etymological Dictionary twenty years ago. I also get to practice diagramming sentences, something I actually enjoyed in school.

English may be lingua franca for business (for now), but English is not simply English. Juan conducts conference calls with customers in the U.S., Canada, the UK and India, as well as Brazil and Argentina. His English reading and writing skills for emails and business documents are excellent. But sorting out what is being said and expressing ideas verbally over the phone, with different accents and often without the benefit of facial expressions and body language, can be a challenge. So we focus on his enunciation as well as listening skills.

Juan surprised me early on by telling me he was interested in children’s stories rather than simply business English and technical jargon. He wants to help his two young daughters as well as help his business. So we’ve added Dr. Suess and Beatrix Potter into the mix. My mother read books by these authors and others to my brothers and sister and me when I was a kid. I, in turn, read them to my two children. Reading aloud confers a special bond. Wordplay and rhyme allow the gift of quality time and interaction between parents and kids.2 I’ve talked to my mother about this and thanked her. I’m honored to pass the gift on.

###

1Thanks to Andrew Hearle at Stagemilk for encouragement and ideas.

2See Walter Ong’s, Orality & Literacy, as well as Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading.

Tolkien’s Legacy

Please enjoy the following long-form piece by a member of the ALCStudies team. Happy holidays. — DA

J.R.R.Tolkien’s Legacy to the Modern World

Courtesy Tolkien Gateway (http://tolkiengateway.net)

The biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien released this past year1 reinforces the relevance of his life and work in our modern (or post-modern world). Tolkien conceived the creation of Middle Earth in The Hobbit, which he initially wrote for his children and published in1937. The final book of The Lord of the Rings followed in 1954. The film focuses less on Tolkien’s writing than his life, but gives insight into the evolution of his ideas.

Tolkien was caught up in the forces of industrialization and global conflict during his childhood and adolescence. In the second decade of the 20th century these culminated in a war devastating and profound. Rather than being a war to end all wars, the First World War, the 100th anniversary of whose end we observed recently, unleashed a conflagration of economic, technological and cultural forces that few understood then and which we fail to understand today at our peril. It raised the curtain on the carnage and brutality of the last century and the one in which we live now.

Tolkien and his boyhood comrades served in the trenches where artillery, high explosives, aerial warfare, gas and machine guns shredded bodies, maimed souls and devastated minds. The trauma the war and its aftermath inflicted on the soldiers and the populations on both sides led Sigmund Freud to question the value and prospects for western civilization.2 It is not too much to say that Tolkien and his companions, along with the populations of most of Europe, never knew what hit them. Their lives were divided forever by their experiences.

The comfort-loving hobbits encounter similar threats to their existence. The Lord of the Rings is set in the fictitious land of Middle Earth inspired by Tolkien’s study of Old English, Norse and Anglo Saxon myth and language. The Catholic-raised Tolkien claimed his story of the one ring was not an allegory, as opposed to his Oxford colleague C.S. Lewis’s Christian-influenced Narnia series. But given The Lord of the Rings’ mix of good, evil, ambition, sacrifice and loss, it’s hard not to see at least allegorical elements.

My two friends and I read the series starting when we were twelve, when it was popular on college campuses and in communes across the country. On the threshold of adolescence and just beginning to confront the complications and realities of the adult world, we were enthralled by the story populated by elves, wizards, dwarves, men, goblins, orcs and hobbits confronting dark forces beyond their understanding and control looming beyond the the Shire. While our other friends were playing cops and robbers and army (somehow still innocently in the Vietnam war era), we created our own fellowship, undertaking quests among the mountains of central Pennsylvania as our stand-in for Middle Earth while quoting passages and dialogue from the books,.3

Tolkien’s legacy resonates today in contemporary games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Peter Jackson’s film interpretation and in television shows such as Game of Thrones.4 Tolkien did not originate the archetypes and mythology these contain of course. From creation stories told around campfires to the Greek’s Odysseus to the Wizard of Oz, books and stories have always allowed us to escape or at least re-frame our experience to make it bearable through narrative. But long before film, television and web technology commodified the process, Tolkien tapped into a visceral desire among his readers to undertake heroic quests and inhabit a secondary world of their imagination.5 In our ostensibly civilized, rational, enlightened and data-driven age, the popularity of television shows such as Game of Thrones, online gaming sites, sword and sorcery graphic novels, films such as the Matrix and Bladerunner and fan fiction sites reflects a persistent yearning to connect to some human part of ourselves and transcend the world that often disappoints. Many of the people involved in developing and promoting the Internet came from the counterculture generation of the 1960s and 70s and were influenced by The Lord of the Rings.6 As our lives today seem ruled by obscure forces and impersonal algorithms, our souls threatened with being reduced to a series of data points solely for the profit of others, often hidden from us, it is perhaps useful to revisit the tale of the one ring again.

Steeped as he was in Edwardian education ranging from Greek and Roman classics to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, it’s easy to think of an orphaned young Tolkien creating scenarios that allowed him to prevail against dark forces and vanquish his grief. The trauma of the trenches, the loss of his friends and a bucolic way of life, preceded by the loss of his parents confronted Tolkien with an almost unbearable reality. After 1914 the trauma was compounded tenfold. The world he had known was gone, along with childhood friends killed. His relationships with his friends and remaining family were immeasurably altered. It is a cliché by now to say that soldiers enduring combat have difficulty relating to others who don’t share their experience. But you don’t need to have an official diagnosis of PTSD (Shell Shock) to be affected by the constant stress of battle and witnessing your companions blown to bits.

Perhaps Tolkien and his surviving comrades felt in the aftermath, as Bilbo tells Frodo, their spirits ‘stretched ‘ like butter scraped over too much bread’. The Lord of the Rings (and before it the Hobbit, along with The Silmarillion) where forged in the smithy of Tolkien’s soul as an anodyne to his pain and confusion as a survivor of the 20th century’s opening apocalypse.

My two friends and I had no clue of this when we read the books in the early 1970s. While the generation ahead of us occupied themselves with the Vietnam War, accelerating changes in technology, the environment, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and opportunities provided by protests, drugs and sex, we found a more youthful and innocent escape from the anxieties of adolescence. We inhabited a world filled with swashbuckling heroes carrying swords such as as Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, and of course Gandalf, along with elvish queens and princesses such as Galadriel and Arwen. We could have found worse inspiration to counter the excesses and incipient narcissism around us. Many since have found solace in the books’ mix of Christian moralism, ancient mythology, and presentations of chivalry. Maybe that accounts for The Lord of the Rings’ persistent popularity as a best-seller.

In creating the tale of the Hobbit’s journey there and back again in the mythic Middle Earth, Tolkien undertook a personal journey to expunge the horrors of the war. This allowed him to live his life in England with a wife and family with a measure of peace and acceptance. Like the hobbits,Tolkien and his comrades were small, seemingly powerless beings caught up in events beyond their understanding that challenged their capacity to endure, let alone survive.

The story resonated with college students, professors and others in the 60s and 70s beset by rumors and realities of war, clashes between East and West, and threats of Armageddon. Tolkien’s tale of life in the Shire is filled with gardens, second breakfasts and parties. Their existence is interrupted by distant events that threaten the occupants’ bucolic way of life: a ring, a wizard, rumors of disquiet and revelation, forces and visions, machines and technology and the passing of an age.

Today in a reality increasingly of our own construction, our individual and collective fantasies provide an alternative to a world that daily challenges our capacity to understand or endure it. We seek refuge in our own private secondary worlds, spending time in social networks and in possession of smartphones and other technology that reflect a narrow slice of reality to suit our desires. These representations are not always benign. Many appeal to our herd instinct and need for reassurance in return for our uncritical allegiance to an organization, group or ideology.

We are caught between those who would unleash dark forces to control the world in their own image and the quest to preserve our humanity7. Perhaps we are more like Saruman, the foolish wizard, than Sauron, the manifestation of evil who seeks to bring all of Middle Earth under his thrall. Saruman possesses the craft and desire to rival his nemesis. But he falls prey to o’erweening ambition similar to the Greek’s hamartia.8 He becomes himself possessed by the will to power, drawn into Sauron’s circle and seduced.

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

In The Lord of the Rings good ultimately prevails. The ring is cast into the ancient fire of its origin. The old world passes away and a new world emerges through the combined efforts of former enemies — the peoples of Middle Earth. But as with Tolkien’s wartime experience, no one escapes unscathed. The one ring corrupts those who wear it9, testing the will of the most noble and brave. It causes the breaking of the Fellowship and the death of one of its members. Frodo, the protagonist, receives a permanent wound: The portion of a Morgul10 blade pierces his flesh and makes its way toward his heart. The wound would prove fatal to his soul except for the ministrations of Aragorn and the elf-queen Galadriel. The pain flares yearly on the anniversary of its receipt.

Far from being a book for children,The Lord of the Rings presents an adult tale of suffering, hope and redemption. People die and don’t return. Frodo, Bilbo Sam and the others don’t simply move on with the right therapy, medication and a positive attitude. They are permanently altered, even damaged, by their experiences. At the end of The Return of the King, the final book of the series, Frodo and Bilbo leave Middle Earth forever with Gandalf and the elves at the Gray Havens.

Whatever Tolkien’s original intent, The Lord of the Rings contains elements of allegory still relevant to our own age. The ring itself is being re-forged by those who would obey only the power of technology. Saruman has incorporated as a consultant, headquartered at his tower of Orthanc – offering his dark satanic mills and workforce of orcs, half-men and goblins for offshore manufacturing. The dark riders are abroad, sowing fear and distrust on social media. Each of us carries our own personal palantir which draws our gaze and through which we are gazed at by the unblinking eye of consumerism.11 Anyone who attempts to assert their agency and think critically about the world we are creating risks being labeled of subversive or malcontent.

The Lord of the Rings reminds us there are consequences to dedicating our efforts solely toward the unchecked machine of progress. We surrender our peril those small gardens of humanity where love and laughter flourish and are shared, where we are free to enjoy elevenses and birthday parties. It was a world Tolkien grew up in and enjoyed before war destroyed it. But of course that was just a fable. — CDL

# # #

1Tolkien, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2019

2Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930

3Including naming specific geographic features of the terrain after those in the LOR, such as the Carrock.

4Often unacknowledged

5Tolkien wrote about the appeal of such secondary worlds and standards for their success or failure in his essay On Fairy Stories.

6Tim Berners-Lee, a co-developer of the ArpaNet and Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog and current promoter of trans-humanism, to name two.

7See David Noble’s, The Religion of Technology; The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, 1997

8Greek ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν hamartán, a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.

9Even, significantly, those who would use its power for good.

10Signifying the black arts, sorcery or necromancy. (Tolkien Gateway).

11See Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism ( “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization.” Journal of Information Technology 30, no. 1 (March 2015)

Those Who Can

After twenty-seven years working in a corporate environment in the U.S., a colleague has taken a job teaching in a different country. He has left his own country, his own language, to travel 8000 miles away.

I am intimidated at the prospect of teaching kids who have grown up in a different culture with a different language. But they want someone to teach them English and other skills necessary to compete in the global economy. My friends here are supportive. But I am a guest. I have spent months (and a chunk of change) getting a visa, having my CV translated, becoming familiar with the customs, and gaining a basic knowledge of the language.

In the West we seem increasingly preoccupied over the complications and dangers of living in the civilization we have created over the last 2000 years. A lot of ex-pat sites on the web extol the virtues of living in a supposedly simpler third- (or second-) world country.

For all the benefits — and there are benefits, not the least of which is the weather here — the society around me has absorbed some of the worst lessons from the West. These include toxic consumerism, idolatrous worship of technology oblivious to its dysfunctional effects, and a view of urban development that still equates progress with larger cities, more cars and more buildings.

More Buildings

Competing for the Ugliest Building in the World


So why did he leave?

I spent years doing office work related to IT trying to convince myself (and allowing myself to be convinced) that it was meaningful labor. It’s increasingly evident it was a vain pursuit for a paycheck to support someone else’s bottom line. This was achieved by treating employees and customers as commodities. My ideas, goodwill and efforts were ultimately wasted to perpetuate the vast shell game of corporate capitalism.

What about volunteering? Or joining a commune, if he is against capitalism?

I’m not against capitalism practiced on a human scale. And I’m not a fan of communism, which historically has led to its own depredations. The fact  is in the West we recognize the value of work by paying for it. I and those close to me have volunteered in the past, teaching literacy, working with the homeless, and assisting with various causes. In some cases these efforts have enabled the very dysfunction they seek to ameliorate. I’ve paid my dues. At this point I want to be compensated for my time, talent, effort and experience. I want to enjoy what I do and feel rewarded. Plus, I can use the money. (The cost of living here is more modest, but not nonexistent.)

And will teaching accomplish that? Colleges and universities are tied up in knots nowadays over political correctness and questions about their relevance. Public schools are threatened as safe havens for children to learn and be nurtured. Society seems to celebrate being unenlightened and anti-intellectual. The public itself are increasingly treated merely as marks to be exploited by rampant consumerism and venal politicians.

I’ve passed my sixth decade and my life is still a work in progress. I look at this as an experiment. I’ve committed to the coming year. I’d be an idiot if I didn’t admit to being intimidated. The kids I’m teaching range from 11 – 14. The subjects covered in school range from English and history to humanities and science. As adults these kids will make decisions that will affect not only their own lives, but the direction their society (and maybe the world) takes. My desire is to instill some knowledge and perspective that will help them live their lives with a sense of agency. Why not try?

— DA

# # #

A Wild Demise

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been …

— John Keats

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

 

Thanks to Facebook Business for reminding us, no matter what (fire, flood, earthquake, chemotherapy, ecstasies, epiphanies, personal crises, or a bad day), we must produce fresh content for their – I mean our — ‘customers’:

Hi Valued Advertiser,

People visiting Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies haven’t heard from you in a while. Write a post or share a photo or video to keep people engaged.
Thanks,

The Facebook Ads Team

We unsubscribed from FB’s services a year ago. In any event I am happy to say my imminent demise has been exaggerated, so that I can share this blast from the past. Ladies & gentlemen (and everyone in between), please see a link to the Connections series from the 70s created and hosted by James Burke, and available on the Internet Archive, Enjoy. – DA.

 

We Need Some Human Help

Welcome to the Valentine’s Day installment.

We navigate our days these days watched and prodded by our non-human talismans of technology1. These constant companions prompt us with questions or suggestions under the guise of being interactive. One not-so-subtly pops up on my phone lately, like an annoying partner in an old comedy routine (Didya see, didya see? What? Huh? What? Huh?), with the ironic phrase We need some human help.

Knowing our days are numbered to a suddenly-definable sum (whether the Biblical three-score and ten, shorter or longer) focuses our attention remarkably on what is important and what is not. Having been informed that I am scheduled to leave this earth sooner than I planned, I confess to a certain sensitivity to having my time wasted. In the past year I have confronted what seems more than my share of dysfunctional officials, health insurance that fails to reassure, and medical care that feels anything but caring. I know I’m not the only one facing an individual Gethsemane, but since when has that been a real consolation? I have watched my friends and acquaintances at home and abroad wishing the cup would pass for all of us: the lady whose son was diagnosed with schizophrenia last year, a former colleague staying in a dissatisfying job for the health insurance, men and women seeking love and connection amidst the wasteland and darkling plain of fraught relationships. For some it proves too much to endure. We try to live our lives with a modicum of peace and happiness amidst Dickensian bureaucracy allied with bad technology, dysfunctional workplaces [bullshit jobs, ‘open’ offices], alienated lives and absurd trappings of so-called civilization. Human help indeed.

In your life you will know trouble, Jesus said, a phrase curiously absent from the dogma of positive thinking. Like too much sugar, being optimistically (if not relentlessly) positive can sweeten the appreciation of life or make it almost intolerable. Troubles exist in our lives whether we are rich or poor, privileged or marginalized, mentally-challenged or on the genius scale.

There are plenty of reasons to feel cynical and hopeless amidst the dehumanizing juggernaut of technology and capitalism, including an apparent media obsession with bad news and human failure. But being optimistic does not mean suspending our critical faculties or our humanity. I think it’s about time we fessed up, set aside our fear (or meanness or just plain obliviousness which technology so easily aids and abets2) and did what we can to ameliorate or sympathize with, rather than marginalizing, fellow human beings.

I don’t much care if you text, blog, tweet, e-mail or use a carrier pigeon. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes writes about the dilemma of globalization and the need for human (and local) connection. Globalization and technology used exclusively in the service of profit threaten to undermine our sense of agency and make individuals feel expendable. If community is to be more than a marketing ploy and love not just a slogan, the primary job each of us in this world of our creation is to take back hope from the ashes and connect to our own hearts and the hearts of others . ### — DA

1See Shoshanna Zuboff’s recent, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

2See emotional deskilling.

L is for —

Leap
Leave
Lose
Legal
Ludicrous

I am waiting to hear whether I can stay. We assembled my documents as best we can according to the latest information (which keeps changing). We woke in the middle of the night to try and make another (fourth? fifth?) appointment at the immigration office using the broken online scheduling system (which keeps breaking). Bureaucracy and crappy technology are a bad combination.

On TV here there are stories of political corruption, financial malfeasance and bus crashes. Despite this, immigrants from another country where things are worse flock across the borders. Since the fall in oil prices, professionals and working-class, immigrants and locals alike struggle to find work. People sell oranges in the streets and juggle at traffic lights.

In keeping with the Halloween spirit in my home country citizens exclaim and pontificate like people trying to dislodge a rabid bat that has flown in their house. The word loser has gotten a lot of attention there in the past few years – occupying the public rhetoric to the point of irony. It’s a sort of joke unless you are on the receiving end – among those who, to paraphrase A Wonderful Life (the title itself a bit of irony) ‘do most of the working and paying and living and dying’ in this world.

BBC/Getty Images


Love
Loyal
Laughter
Lucky

Like other immigrants, I left personal heartache and darkness; my job, my home, my city, my language, my connections – familiar landmarks by which I navigated a former life. I traveled to a different culture. I was fortunate to find new friends, affection, joy and love among intelligent, hard-working people who know how to enjoy life. Many of them have lost as well.

One had her social security savings embezzled at a previous employer. Another lost her husband to someone else. A young man in his late twenties fled from a nearby country and now works for low wages in a local restaurant. A few weeks ago we heard a Vivaldi concert with two of them. The weekend after we ate dinner and drank wine and danced at a friend’s house till three in the morning. People here know how to throw a party. If they are losers, I’m proud to be in their company.

Living in a privileged society does not make you immune from challenges and loss, of course. In the past six months a former colleague back home died in her sleep. She had a voice like angel and was afraid to tell our employer when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Another colleague in his forties who races bicycles had serious surgery last summer. A third in his fifties has a non-fatal form of leukemia and works to retain his benefits. Some self- help advice I’ve read suggests separating yourself from such people and the ‘negative energy’ they carry — a curious inversion of Christian charity.

Even though the rainy season has arrived, the strong sun requires liberal amounts of sun block. We were hoping to visit the surrounding villages and see historic sites. It’s hard to make plans. Leaving the country starts the visa process over, and I might have to pay a fine to return: Do not pass Go; Do not collect $200. Some days I feel like an exile. Contacting our embassy twice by phone and e-mail for an appointment resulted in impersonal replies to check their web site.

Lo siento (I’m Sorry)
Llegar (Arrive)
Levantar (Raise up, Carry)
Libre (Freedom)

We are all going about the business of trying to live as human beings in the face of institutions, bureaucracies and technologies that increasingly confound our notions of being human. Businesses wittingly or unwittingly abuse the talent and motivation of their employees. Countries squander the hope and goodwill of their citizens and immigrants arriving to seek a better life. Who are the losers?

We are programmed to pursue the better, the new and improved, the different. Because nothing is more constant than change, and what we have is never enough. As for me, here I am 2800 miles away from what used to be home. I tell myself in the positive thinking parlance of the day that I am going toward something. – CDL

###

 

‘Smart Machines’ 30 Years Later

‘Dave? Dave? What are you doing?’ (Image courtesy Amazon)

 

Thirty years ago a book appeared that anticipated the automation of nearly every aspect of our lives and the world we live in, including the promise and dilemmas of computers in the workplace, social networking, privacy and the recent debacle with Facebook.

The New York Times called In the Age of the Smart Machine ‘a penetrating study of how automation is affecting the workplace.’ But the implications go much further. The author, Shoshana Zuboff, based the book on her consulting work in the 1980s with business organizations installing personal computers in the 1980s and her Ph.D. research at Harvard. The book’s full title, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, belied its uniqueness and the breadth and depth of the material covered.

When the first PCs emerged from antediluvian garages and hobbyists’ living rooms1 in the last decades of the 20th Century, early businesses were not quite sure what to do with them. Before the Internet, before email, before Facebook, texts and Twitter, large mainframe computers dominated the marketplace. Apple’s IIc and Macintosh, lurking in the evolutionary underbrush with their revolutionary graphical user interfaces, were the domain mainly of college professors, designers and artists.

Zuboff went into paper mills, insurance companies and other organizations experimenting with the new technology. She investigated how the new technology implemented at the time affected employees’ and managements’ jobs and the ways they interacted. She combined her findings with research on communication theory, cognitive psychology and labor and social history. The result is one part oral history, one part case study and two parts social history accompanied by a plethora of citations.2 Along the way Zuboff coined several terms, including informating and intellective skills. The former she defined as follows:


… [informating] technology is used to reproduce and extend the process of substituting machines for human agency… Devices that automate by translating information into action also register data about those automated activities, thus generating new streams of information. (Smart Machine, page 9)

In comparison to 1970s and 1980s prognosticators of the future such as as Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt3, Zuboff’s writing is even-handed and thoughtful. Her work compares favorably to that of 90s writer Neil Postman.4 Why the book is not more widely known is somewhat of a mystery. Amidst the current hype over virtual reality, artificial intelligence and smart cars, Smart Machine still stands as the sine qua non toward thoughtful discourse on the place of computing technology in the workplace and society against the pessimism of writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov5 on one hand, and the relentless promotion of technology by business and academia on the other.

Although retired from teaching, Zuboff continues to write on the vicissitudes and dilemmas of computing.6 Nowadays the vagaries of social networking, the abstraction of labor, deskilling, and monopolies of power are becoming abundantly clear. Zuboff shows that the seeds for the unchecked flow, control and consumption of data and digitization of our lives were sown in the factory system of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including technologies such as the power-loom and Ford’s assembly lines. Contemporary dilemmas around the impact of computers on human agency, alienation and our fraught online interactions have their antecedents in the telegraph and telephone7. The radio and television brought information to the masses. The world wide web expanded the role of technology as a magnifier of thought and ideas8, for good or ill.

Advances in computing power and global networking since have led to 24/7 connectivity through our smartphones and the ubiquitous presence of applications like Facebook. Despite 1980s rhetoric promising a Third Wave of computing and mass empowerment through the free sharing of information, a digital age of Aquarius has not dawned. Unchecked social networking and social media also carry a danger of creating a more tribal, fragmented society9. We are increasingly subject in our daily lives to the Taylorization10 of our work, our thoughts, our bodies and our relationships and disconnection of our human from our virtual selves. We are sold the notion that we conduct our virtual lives through disinterested ‘bots and algorithms designed for smoothly-functioning utilitarian efficiency without messy emotion.11 In reality they reflect the predilections and character of their creators: business executives, programmers, government bureaucrats, and ‘thought leaders’ accountable to no one. Whatever opportunities they presume to offer toward enlightenment and realizing the better angels of our nature, commercial entities like Cambridge Analytics, Facebook, Uber and Google also reflect and feed off the fear, frustration, greed, anger, lust and chaos in our souls.

Zuboff is an insightful guide to the mundus novus of computing in the last century and a superb writer. She asks good questions of herself and her subjects, questions we should be asking still.

  • Is computing technology transformative, or just an extension of the automation of our lives and work that has occurred over the past 200 years?
  • What are executives’ and managers’ obligations toward workers and consumers in applying the new technology? Is it to to improve their productivity and happiness, liberating them for more creative ‘intellective’ tasks – or solely to achieve the lowest common denominator of efficiency?
  • Is technology ever merely neutral?
  • Are workers and consumers obligated to embrace possibilities of technology? Or do they have rights to obstruct and even undermine changes that may not be in their best interests?

Smart Machine offers a prescient guide toward developing a mindful, humane and sane approach to technology. However, it’s unclear who is interested in employing it thus. Corporations are driven by the same bottom line of optimizing profit that they have been since the 19th Century. Universities have become extensions of the corporate state and mere pipelines to employment. Government extols innovation for its own sake and as a spurious source of profit without regard for ethics or the public good12. The result (at least as far as computers and the web) is the expenditure of untold amounts of talent and money to develop trivial applications (think clickbait) which at best distract us from important matters and at worst separate us from our money, personal data and identity. Despite the cautionary mythology presented in films such as the Matrix, there is little relief today from an advancing tide of futurism, reductionist scientific thinking and technological determinism that sees all aspects of our existence as a nail for the same digital hammer.

The EU attempts to protect members’ privacy with it’s own bureaucracy. Writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov are shrill counterpoints to unmitigated boosterism. Small groups such as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, attempt a mindful approach through The New Atlantis to ensure the appropriate use of technology, ethics, and involvement of an informed citizenry in decision-making.

Technology is more than a device or solution. It it is a way of thinking which offers benefits and limitations in navigating this world of our creation. Far from simply being a benign extension of ourselves, the tools have the power to change the nature of the user and the manner in which we live.  -CDL

1Such as the Tandy TRS-80, which could be purchased as a kit (?) through Radio Shack.
2Including semiotics, problem-solving, the abstraction of work and media studies addressed in writing by Karl Polanyi, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman
3Authors, respectively, of the Future Shock (1970) and Megatrends (1982)
4Author of books including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Technopoly (1992), Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1995)
5Authors, respectively, of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and To Save Everything Click Here.
6No escape from the Panopticon, ScienceNode, October 14th 2017
7See Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.
8A machine is a magnifier of labor
9In Ill Fares the Land the late Tony Judt describes the ‘connected isolation’ that results.
10Named for Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Ford’s manager and promoter of ‘one best way’ for completing tasks.
11 Facilitating superficial, zipless interactions without emotional investment or accountability, to borrow a term from 1970s writer Erica Jong,
12The late Neil Postman, in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, proposed we ask of technology, What problem does it solve; what problem(s) does it create? Who benefits? Who pays?

 

But Let’s Not

(Facebook Deletion Notice)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, what the hell —

An Apology for the Internet from the People Who Built It (Noah Kulwin, New York Magazine)

Shoshana Zuboff: No Escape from the Panopticon (Lance Farrell, Sciencenode)

–CDL

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