Americas (South & North)

I am not a gadget

Jaron Lanier, author of "You are not a gadget", is very well-informed about what he is writing about, which is some of the social consequences of the internet, and some of the implicit ideologies that are built into the internet as we are living with it today. Lanier was one of the early minds behind virtual reality and has helped create a lot of the technology that shapes how we live and how we think. In his book, "You are not a gadget" (Knopf NY 2010) he offers some reflections on this technology, recent trends and coming trends, and the relationship of the technology to society.

Raj Patel's "Value of Nothing"

For various reasons I found myself with several hours on public transit and with Raj Patel's fine book "The Value of Nothing" in hand. I really liked a few things about it. First, it's a very readable summary of a lot of economic theories (and ideologies) that guide policies today. For a more mathematical treatment of these I really like Steve Keen's "Debunking Economics" which is recommended by Jonathan Nitzan, another very interesting political economist who argues that money is the commodification of power, and makes the argument utilizing some interesting analyses of data.

Thoughts on Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows"

After a couple of recommendations from a couple of different directions, I read Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains". It combines neuroplasticity research (which I read about in Norman Doidge's "The Brain that Changes Itself") with ideas about a literary, print-based culture versus an electronic media-based culture. The book was mentioned in Tapscott & Williams's "Macrowikinomics" and in Chris Hedges's "Death of the Liberal Class". Hedges also criticizes electronic media based culture and laments the death of print-based culture in his "Empire of Illusion".

The basic argument of "The Shallows" is that the web is good for associating bits of information but print was good for deep reading, thinking, and contemplation. My friend Michael Albert focused on the attention span aspect of the argument in a recent blog post on ZNet: that attention spans decrease as online information flow increases.

Here's a hopeful aspect: neuroplasticity goes both ways. If lots of internet use can reprogram us to lose our attention spans, practice thinking and contemplating can reprogram us to be reflective and thoughtful.

The other point that I've been thinking about is where Carr quotes Neil Postman, a very interesting writer on technology and society. On pg.151-2, Carr quotes Postman's book "Technopoly", who in turn was describing the key elements of scientific management. The six assumptions of Taylorism, or scientific management, as Postman writes - quoted in Carr:

"that the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts."

Carr uses this quote in a discussion about Google's philosophy, and corrects the sixth assumption for the case of Google: "Google doesn't believe that the affairs of citizens are best guided by experts. It believes that those affairs are best guided by software algorithms".

Wikileaks Cablegate

The US Embassy cables put out by Wikileaks are not the truth. Even though I knew it, a part of me was disappointed at how ideological some of the cables were. Take #09TELAVIV1060, "Rep. Wexler discusses Iran with IDF Intelligence". The entire discussion is about the threat posed by Iran to Israel. Even among themselves, even when they think their communications are secret, they engage in fear mongering. Much of the cables are this sort of exchange of opinions. It is only when these opinions are given to journalists at press conferences or in anonymous phone interviews to become "US officials said" that these kinds of speculations take on the appearance of facts.

For those paying close attention, the views expressed in the cables belong to the same world view that these same officials express in the media. Following events in Israel/Palestine without any access to any secret cables, one would be led to the conclusion that the US and Israel have the same kinds of obsessions (control of the region, Iran) with very minor differences between them (none of which differences benefit the Palestinians). So, when the Tel Aviv Embassy (#09TELAVIV1060) cables that "Rep Wexler stated that he expected Israel would be pleasantly surprised by the President's acceptance of all possible options in regards to Iran", it isn't a big surprise.

At times, however, the cables do show that US diplomats sometimes have an accurate understanding of situations - which the US proceeds to not use. For example, #09ISLAMABAD2295, relating to the US desire to fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's border areas. "Increased unilateral operations in these areas risk destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis in Pakistan without finally achieving the goal." Of course, the US response since has been - increased unilateral operations in those areas, which have destabilized the Pakistani state, alienated the civilian government and the military leadership...

Wikileaks Cablegate! Panamanians hope for a successful coup!

I was just peeking around Wikileaks's Cablegate ( This looks like the real thing folks!

Take a look at this 1989 cable on Panama for example:


More analysis to follow...

Also there's Haiti elections. Isabel's article should help you get started.

Political theory interlude

Manuel suggested I read Norberto Bobbio, an Italian socialist writer on democracy. So I picked up his "Which Socialism?" In it, Bobbio argues that there's no necessary connection between democracy and socialism. Contrary to what socialists would like to believe, democracy doesn't automatically happen in a socialist economy. And also, democracies don't automatically evolve towards socialism. He thinks that socialists should pay as much attention to democratic theory and practice as liberals. He thinks the socialist dismissal of liberal democratic theory as simply 'bourgeois' is too summary. And worst of all, it can lead to a certain contempt of democracy on the part of socialists. And why hasn't socialist theory included more theorizing about the state and democratic arrangements? Probably because in socialist theory, the state is supposed to wither away, so why spend a lot of effort figuring out how something is supposed to work when it's supposed to wither away anyway?

"Which Socialism?" had a few other interesting ideas, especially Bobbio's 4 paradoxes of democracy. These are 1) that direct democracy is difficult in small organizations, but almost impossible in large ones. Pg.69 has this very interesting quote:

"Direct, or 'Athenian', democracy, which was revived by the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s, has almost always been deceptive: it consists, on the one hand, of an assembly whose function is limited, limited more severely in some respects than that of the worst parliaments, to ratifying (often by acclamation) the decisions of the executive as expressed in motions; on the other hand, of an executive, the basis of whose power is charismatic (in the technical sense of the word according to which 'charismatic is contrasted with 'democratic'), and whose power is far more immovable and irresistible than that of any executive of a representative body."

The second paradox 2) is that a more comprehensive democracy requires a more comprehensive administration. "To extend democracy means extending bureaucracy" (pg. 70-71).

Teaching: Jacques Ranciere and Sugata Mitra

A few months ago I was blown away by Sugata Mitra's TED talk on child-driven education. Mitra's thesis is that children can teach themselves. What they need is not teachers who know how to do what they are trying to learn, but materials, problems, one another (groups), and perhaps encouragement. Mitra put computers out and watched what children did with them. Groups of children would gather around the computer and teach themselves how to use them. Their "performance" teaching themselves ended up to be as good or better than those with teachers. What Mitra introduced in this talk that wasn't in the previous TED Talk by him (also very good) is the "granny cloud". These "grannies" just expressed enthusiasm and interest in what the students were doing, no evaluation, and it improved student learning immensely.

The other day I was at a friend's house and saw a book by Jacques Ranciere called "The Ignorant Schoolmaster". Ranciere tells the story of the 19th century version of Sugata Mitra, someone named Joseph Jacotot. Jacotot managed to teach a group of Flemish students to write a series of things in French, although he knew no Flemish and they knew no French (similar to Mitra at the end of the talk writing english questions on a blackboard with Italian students, who answered his questions reasonably quickly). Jacotot showed that you don't need to know, to teach. What you need to do to teach is set a problem for a student so that the student must use their own intelligence to solve. There was no need for additional explanation of texts - the text was the explanation, there's no need for a teacher to explain it. But current methods of teaching don't serve learning or students, is Ranciere's point - they serve the system, and the teachers. "Universal teaching", in which students teach themselves, isn't useful to the system, and won't ever be adopted by it, because it has totally different objectives than the current system.