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Saturday, September 27, 2014

A friend to entropy and an anarchist at heart

by John MacBeath Watkins

S. was a tall woman, in her private life a sort of den mother for anarchists with whom she shared a house. Some time after she started working for me, she began dating a cousin of mine who I'd never previously met, and eventually she married him.

So, I suppose whatever forces shape our fate must have Intended that she be part of my cohort. I thought of her recently, when I asked my business partner where something was.

"Why do men always ask women where things are?" she replied.

That was an easy one.

"Because you move them."

She had, in fact, tidied away the object in question, and knew exactly where it was in precisely the way I did not. And that is one of the many great things about Jamie. She generally knows where she puts things.

Not so with S. And this was a problem, because of the way I tend to organize things.

If I want to be able to find something, I do the obvious thing: I leave it out in plain sight. This tends to lead to a bit of clutter, with the most often-used items on top.

S. wanted a neat work environment. To her, this meant less clutter. The way she achieved less clutter was in the obvious way: She put things out of view. Unfortunately, once things were out of view, she seemed to think the problem was solved, and actually finding the object next time it was needed was not a high priority for her unless it was something she used.

I came to view this in terms of entropy. Entropy isn't just a good idea, it's the law, and it clearly states that the universe is going from a higher state of organization to a lower state of organization.

My system of organization acknowledges this. My environment is in a state of apparently increasing disorder, and yet, for the most part, I can find things. The system S. used involved the expenditure of energy, which is entropy itself, to bring the environment to a state of greater disorder, in which information about where things were was destroyed, which is entropy again.

Now, it is possible for a system of putting things out of sight to preserve this information, even for it to preserve information better than my somewhat sedimentary system of piles. You would, for example, put stuff under "S" for "stuff," and other stuff under "O" for "other stuff."

This was not the method S. employed. Her method was to expend energy to destroy information, and I cannot help but think that on some level, she did so as a friend to entropy, an anarchist at heart.



Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Self-conscious mythology of literature (The Strangeness of being human, cont'd)

by John MacBeath Watkins

There was an age of myth, when we explained the world to each other by telling stories about the gods. There was an age of fable, when we explained morality to each other by telling folk stories that belonged to the culture.

And there is the age of literature, when we know who wrote the story, and make it their property.

In the age of myth, we told each other stories that were supposed to be true, and didn't know where they came from. During the age of fable we understood them as parables. In our age of literature, we understand them as personal insight.

We regard all as contributing to our understanding of the nature of human nature, but by stages, they have become more tenuously connected with socially constructed truth, and more subject to our self-conscious understanding. We ask ourselves, is this a story we can accept as telling a truth about humanity, or do we reject it? Rejecting the myths was not optional during the time those religions were active. People lived in societies where the truth of the history of the gods was too socially accepted.

To reject the story of a fable, we would have to say that we disagree with the culture, not with the gods. To disagree with an author, we have only to disagree with one individual. The judgments of the author and the reader are those of individuals, with the social acceptance mediated by markets -- which books people talk about, and buy, or feel left out because they haven't read.

We have other ways of understanding human nature, such as the more rigorous storytelling of science, the unreliable narrators of our families and friends explaining themselves as best they understand themselves, or the frantic efforts of our news sources trying to attract our attention to fragments or figments of information or gossip they think we might like to know.

But it is literature which works the most like mythology, transporting us into stories and allowing us to experience things that have not happened in our own lives. It instructs us or subverts us in ways mere facts do not, influencing the emotional armature on which we hang our facts and shape them into our beliefs.

As our culture has changed, we've become more self-conscious of the process. We may choose to judge a book by its author. We might decide that if Ayn Rand could live off Social Security in her old age, perhaps the philosophy she pushed, which would claim only the morally inferior "takers" would need a safety net, was not even something she could live by.

Or we may say to ourselves, "J.D. Salinger seems so deep when I was so shallow, such a sallow youth, but now that I'm in the working world I have put aside that juvenile cynicism and taken up the more useful and manipulative cynicism of Dale Carnegie."

The ability to do this makes our emotional structure more malleable than we would be if the stories we based our lives on were eternal verities handed to us by the gods, as if the clay of our feet never hardens. This gives us an adaptability our ancestors never knew or needed, but what is the cost? Do we become chameleons, taking on the coloration of our social surroundings to better camouflage our true selves, or do we change our true selves at a pace never before seen in human history?

I suspect the latter. We are bombarded with stories, on television, in games, in books, even, for the dwindling few, in magazines. We grow by accepting them into ourselves, or set boundaries by rejecting them, and we are constantly reshaped, little by little, meme by meme.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

On the persistence of print and absorbing information (publishing in the twilight of the printed word and the strangeness of being human)

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been reading The Shallows, a 2011 book by Nicholas Carr about how the internet is rewiring our brains, and in the midst of this alarmist text on how much shallower we shall become because of the internet, I've found a cause for hope.

You see, the PewResearch Internet Project has found that younger people are more keenly aware of the limitations of the internet then their elders.

I am not a digital native. You might call me an internet immigrant, or even a digital alien. I've come to use the internet quite a lot, but I'm keenly aware that much of what we know isn't there. It's in books, or in peoples' heads.

But on this issue, as on so many others, I find that young folks today are in better agreement with me than my own generational cohort. From the report:

Despite their embrace of technology, 62% of Americans under age 30 agree there is “a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet,” compared with 53% of older Americans who believe that. At the same time, 79% of Millennials believe that people without internet access are at a real disadvantage.
I think that's a very realistic assessment. The internet makes it easy to find the information on it, but there's a lot that just isn't there.

And there is also the issue of what you want to read on the screen. In At Random, Bennett Cerf's memoir of his life in the publishing business, he noted that prior to the introduction of television, fiction outsold non-fiction about three to one. After its introduction and subsequent ubiquity, that reversed.

But when I looked at Amazon's list of top-selling e-books recently, there wasn't a non-fiction book in the top 40. The Barnes & Noble list of the top-selling hardcover and paperback books shows five of the top 10 being non-fiction.

It would appear that peoples' reading habits are adapting to the reality of reading things on a screen which can also be used to go on the internet and buy things or roam around the infosphere. It is Carr's contention that silent reading, which invites us into the private contemplation of the information and thinking of the author better than the public performance of reading aloud, has been with us for about a thousand years. Printed books invited us into this quite, private world, while reading on a device connected to the internet invites constant interruption. A text littered with links, GIFs, and videos invites cursory and distracted reading.

But stories were performed by a storyteller or a cast of actors long before silent reading came about. We can immerse ourselves in stories without thinking deeply, let them wash over us and sweep us away without trying to interpret or challenge their thinking. That seems to be the sort of thing we are willing to read on the screen, partly because the experience of being transported into the story makes lower demands on our intellect.

It seems odd that the newest technology is best for the sort of mythopoetic storytelling where we don't consciously absorb information, while books that demand our use of instrumental logic are best read on paper. Mr. Carr has himself noted that while e-books are now about a third of the market for new books, they are only about 12 percent of the sales of his own, somewhat intellectually demanding books.

Perhaps this is only a pause in the twilight of the printed word, until e-publishers work out the interface a little better. But I found when I was reading A Course in General Linguistics on line, I wasn't getting as much out of it as I did when I got a paper copy. The text was not interspersed with links, and the copy I got in book form had the distraction of marginalia, but I found it easier to immerse myself in a text I needed to read critically and contemplatively when it lay before me on paper.

Now, you might think that the young, more adapted to reading on the screen, would simply read more of the sort of short, punchy stories about who was showing side boob at the Oscars and watching cat videos and porn, but according to the Pew study, they are more likely to have read a book in the past year.

Some 43% (of millenials) report reading a book—in any format—on a daily basis, a rate similar to older adults. Overall, 88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older. Young adults have caught up to those in their thirties and forties in e-reading, with 37% of adults ages 18-29 reporting that they have read an e-book in the past year.
Interestingly, e-books seem to have caught on with older adults first, perhaps because you can adjust the type size in an e-book.

But for now, e-books seem to have unexpectedly plateaued, and printed books persist.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Religion as an interface: The Strangeness of being human cont'd.

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the most popular posts on this blog explores the roots of religion, and the need we have for a mythopoetic understanding of the world. Scot Adams, blogger and cartoonist of the Dilbert strip, says that religion is not a bad interface with reality.

And it strikes me that as we've made our machines more compatible with us, we've made them more artistic and poetic. I do not speak machine language, but I am able to communicate with my computer through my simple faith that when I reverently click an icon, the file will open.

On rare occasions, I have to use the command line to communicate in a more concrete way with my computer, and sometimes I even have to open the back and stick in more memory. But I don't really understand the machine in the way my nephew Atom Ray Powers, a network administrator, does, nor do I understand the software the way his brother, Jeremy, a programmer does. And neither has studied assembler code, which my uncle Paul learned after he was injured out of the woods as a logger.

It's as if we are replicating the way people perceive the world. The graphical user interface gives us a visual, metaphorical understanding of how to face the reality of the computer, just as religion gave us a metaphorical, poetic, and often visual way of interacting with the reality of the world. The command line gives us greater control of the computer, just as technology gives us the control of nature.  Science attempts to learn how the world really works, at deeper and deeper levels, similar to knowing how the transistors work and how to read machine language..

The fact that computer scientists, who started at the scientific end of things, felt a need to make the interface more metaphorical and even artistic tells us something about how humanity interacts with the world. The intuitive approximation is vital if we are not to be overwhelmed with detail. It is sometimes said that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, because every fetus goes through phases of looking like a primitive fish, then a salamander, and eventually takes on human form. It would appear that the same thing happens cognitively.

Those of us, like myself, who follow the methods of the metaphorical interface in our daily lives often seek guidance from computer gurus. And those gurus, when they are not repairing malfunctioning machines or recalcitrant code, operate their computers in the symbolic realm made possible by the GUI.

We seem to have some difficulty doing this in our world of faith and science. This is usually because each side insists that its way of understanding the world is truth, therefore the other cannot be truth. But a model of an atom isn't what an atom really looks like, because an atom is smaller than a visible light wave. All of our understanding is metaphor and artistic license at some level. In my view, we have understandings at different levels.

Now, perhaps I've offended some religious people by saying religion is metaphor. But all sacred texts were written to be understood by people, not by gods. All of our understanding is metaphor. "For now we see through a glass, darkly" a biblical passage says. We understand the world by telling stories about it, and deciding which best describe it. Sometimes, as with math, the stories can be very precise, and the grammar quite rigorous, but they are stories none the less.