Lewis Mumford on Specialization

September 26th, 2005

…Those who still sought for some sort of wholeness, balance, and autonomy were driven to the outskirts of western society: the pioneer alone preserved the qualities of the all-round man, though he was forced to sacrifice many of the goods of a rich historic tradition to achieve this. In general, the notion of the segmentation of labor was carried from the factory to every other human province.
In accepting this partition of functions and this over-emphasis of a single narrow skill, men were content, not merely to become fragments of men, but to become fragments of fragments: the physician ceased to deal with the gody as a whole and looked after a single organ, indeed, even in Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes’s time, he remarked on specialists in the diseases of the right leg, who would not treat those of the left.

…In those periods of balance and completeness — and completeness is an essential attribute of the balanced person — Hegel’s definition of an educated man still magnificently held: “He who is capable of doing anything any other man can do.”
This view of human development contradicts the central dogma of modern civilization: that specialism is here to “stay.” Rather, to the very extent that the perversions of specialism are accepted as inevitable, the civilization that clings to them is doomed. Our deepening insight into the needs of organisms, societies, and personalities supports just the opposite conclusion: specialism is hostile to life, for it is the non-specialized organisms that are in the line of growth; and only by overcoming the tendency to specialization can the community or person combat the rigidity which leads to inefficiency and a general failure to meet life’s fresh demands.

– From The Conduct of Life

People’s Temple at the Berkeley Rep

May 19th, 2005

The Berkeley Rep is showing The People’s Temple, and it’s really well done – they de-mystified it without either overly demonizing or romanticizing it. The KKK did shoot bullets at them; and they were Truly Paranoid. They did deceive people with chicken liver cancer healings; and they did pay for lots of real medical and social services for really poor people. The people there really loved each other; and they were incredibly cruel to each other…

However heroic, foolish, or evil some of the people there might have been, and for whatever emotional extremes of joy and fear they might have created, I don’t get the sense that many of laughed that much, and wonder if a better sense of humor might have prevented that tragedy.

Once you dig into it, the pathologies there aren’t unique, just more extreme. There’s a long description of Jones’ attempts to shut down stories about himself and the Temple; last month Steve Jobs was desperately trying to shut down the publication of a biography he didn’t like.

Charisma can be a dangerous gift…I wonder how much richer the bay area would be if those 914 people were still living.

Philip K. Dick on Schooling

April 13th, 2005

From The Martian Time-Slip:

…the entire Public School was geared to a task which went contrary to his grain: the school was not there to inform or educate, but to mold, and along severely limited lines. It was the link to their inherited culture, and it peddled that culture, in its entirety, to the young. It bent its pupils to it; perpetuation of the culture was the goal, and any special quirks in the children which might lead them in another direction had to be ironed out.

It was a battle, Jack realized, between the composite psyche of the school, and the individual psyches of the children, and the form held all the key cards. A child who did not properly respond was assumed to be autistic…he went, after that, to another school entirely, one designed to rehabilitate him…He could not be taught, he could only be dealt with as <i>ill.</i>

…The Public School, he had long ago decided, was neurotic. It wanted a world in which nothing new came about, in which there were no surprises. And that was the world of the compulsive-obsessive neurotic; it was not a healthy world at all.

Music Mafia

December 11th, 2003

Tavern owner ends live music after ASCAP suits

Proof that it’s the industries with no morals at all that make the loudest claims about moral rights.

…But the stage at Skip’s has been silent since Oct. 1, when owner Bill Courtright pulled the plug after deciding that offering live music wasn’t worth the legal trouble it was attracting.

Twice in less than a year, Courtright was sued for copyright infringement by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which collects royalty payments for copyright holders and represents them in legal disputes.
Courtright’s troubles began in September 2002, when he received a letter claiming that a private investigator hired by ASCAP heard musicians playing covers of copyrighted songs at Skip’s on June 22, 2002.

The letter, from the San Francisco office of the law firm Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, threatened a lawsuit.

Under copyright law, Courtright can be held liable for the copyright infringements at his club because he never purchased a license from ASCAP.

Yet Courtright and Regi Harvey, a drummer and guitarist who was on stage on the night in question, vehemently deny that any such infringement took place. In fact, copies of the lawsuits and supporting documentation reveal two very different versions of what was played that night.

Harvey said the three songs in question — “Shop Around,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Where Is the Love?” — are not even in his band’s repertoire….

Alfred de Grazia

November 30th, 2003

Every once in awhile, I come across a writer whose words are those I wish I’d said, who expresses my own thinking a better than I can. The latest in the line of such writers is Alfred de Grazia, who has published an archive of his work at the Grazian Archive.

A sample:

Of artists and scholars, of the creative class, it is said, “Their work lives on.” But does it? If as much effort were put into carrying the effects of a creative mind into the future as is put into keeping it oxygenated for a few weeks longer, the American cultural heritage would be much the richer. Not that our proposition would be sharply for the one or the other. It is rather that much can be done to invent a low-cost socially beneficial system of managing intellectual estates, which would operate also to resolve the typical anxieties of creators and their intimates.

But my real admiration with de Grazia is for the scope of his thinking, his ability to draw connections between the personal and political, local and global, overt and covert.

Socrates on Politics and Competence

November 12th, 2003

Do I understand you, I said; and is your meaning that you teach the art of politics, and that you promise to make men good citizens?

That, Socrates, is exactly the profession which I make.

Then, I said, you do indeed possess a noble art, if there is no mistake about this; for I will freely confess to you, Protagoras, that I have a doubt whether this art is capable of being taught, and yet I know not how to disbelieve your assertion. And I ought to tell you why I am of opinion that this art cannot be taught or communicated by man to man. I say that the Athenians are an understanding people, and indeed they are esteemed to be such by the other Hellenes.

Now I observe that when we are met together in the assembly, and the matter in hand relates to building, the builders are summoned as advisers; when the question is one of shipbuilding, then the ship-wrights; and the like of other arts which they think capable of being taught and learned. And if some person offers to give them advice who is not supposed by them to have any skill in the art, even though he be good-looking, and rich, and noble, they will not listen to him, but laugh and hoot at him, until either he is clamoured down and retires of himself; or if he persist, he is dragged away or put out by the constables at the command of the prytanes. This is their way of behaving about professors of the arts.

But when the question is an affair of state, then everybody is free to have a say-carpenter, tinker, cobbler, sailor, passenger; rich and poor, high and low-any one who likes gets up, and no one reproaches him, as in the former case, with not having learned, and having no teacher, and yet giving advice; evidently because they are under the impression that this sort of knowledge cannot be taught.

And not only is this true of the state, but of individuals; the best and wisest of our citizens are unable to impart their political wisdom to others: as for example, Pericles, the father of these young men, who gave them excellent instruction in all that could be learned from masters, in his own department of politics neither taught them, nor gave them teachers; but they were allowed to wander at their own free will in a sort of hope that they would light upon virtue of their own accord.

– from Protagoras

Shrinks and con men

November 6th, 2003

Salon’s piece from February, 2000 on the misuses of psychology to manipulate kids and consumers is a great read. The piece is a little old, but still highly relevant, and the topic isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

An unholy alliance of psychologists and advertisers targets kiddie consumers.

Shrinks and con men

An unholy alliance of psychologists and advertisers targets kiddie consumers.

- – - – - – - – - – - -
By Arthur Allen

A 7-year-old boy and his mother sit at play behind a two-way mirror, research subjects scrutinized by an ad team seeking ways to sell a new breakfast cereal.

An interviewer probes the child’s feelings about some established brands, eliciting heartfelt opinions about Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch. After a while the boy begins to tire, though, and when he’s asked about a particular brand, he turns to his mother and asks, “Do I like that one, Mom?”

For a parent, this vignette is oddly touching. It captures a truth about little ones: For all children’s mulish intensity, their wants and plans are innocently evanescent; all that’s real is the fiendish attachment to mother.

But for Langebourne Rust, who cons the soul of the family on behalf of corporations that want to sell more stuff to kids, this moment of
childish confusion yields an insight that can be spun into gold.

The 7-year-old “couldn’t remember, but he trusted his mom’s judgment,” concluded Rust, the marketing consultant at the controls on the other side of the mirror. “In the real world, lots of kids don’t know what they want and look eagerly to Mom to direct them.”

Rust, who has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Columbia University, has been delivering emotional intelligence to corporate clients for 28 years. His craft is to convert knowledge of kids and their families into messages that sell. And it is Rust, and professionals like him, whom a group of activists have in mind as they lobby the American Psychological Association to discipline those of its 159,000 members who “use psychological techniques to assist corporate marketing and advertising to children.” (The activists, most of them psychologists who belong to the APA, formally petitioned the association with their demands in October.)

Marketing aimed at children has reached “epidemic levels,” their letter stated. It is an “enormous onslaught” that constitutes “arguably the largest single psychological project ever undertaken.” Psychologists who lend their services to this business, it went on, “are not using their knowledge to mitigate the causes of human suffering. They are using it instead to promote and assist the commercial exploitation and manipulation of children.”

Two groups of psychologists have been targeted by the campaign. One includes child psychologists like Rust, who work in corporate advertising or as consultants. The other includes the 700 members of the Society for Consumer Psychology, who do academic research that the critics charge is too frequently aimed at improving marketing techniques rather than examining their deleterious effects……

Thomas Edison on Solar Power

October 28th, 2003

“Some day some fellow will invent a way of concentrating and storing up sunshine instead of this old, absurd Prometheus scheme of fire…This scheme of combustion to get power makes me sick to think of – it is so wasteful….You see, we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy. Do we use them? Oh, no! We burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.” — quoted by Elbert Hubbard in Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great, Volume 1, page 339
Moore’s Law for solar cells would be good next step…

Thomas Edison on Solar Power

October 28th, 2003

“Some day some fellow will invent a way of concentrating and storing up sunshine instead of this old, absurd Prometheus scheme of fire…This scheme of combustion to get power makes me sick to think of – it is so wasteful….You see, we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy. Do we use them? Oh, no! We burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.” — quoted by Elbert Hubbard in Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great, Volume 1, page 339
Moore’s Law for solar cells would be good next step…

Robert Musil on Money and Hype

June 25th, 2003

From the Man Without Qualities:
The ambitious moneyman finds himself in a difficult spot these days. To place himself on a level with the established powers, he must dress up his activities in great ideas. But great ideas that command instant allegiance no longer exist, because our skeptical contemporaries believe in neither God nor humanity, kings nor morality—unless they believe in them all indiscriminately, which amounts to the same thing. So the captain of industry, disinclined to forego greatness, which serves him as a compass, must resort to the democratic dodge of replacing the immeasurable influence of greatness with the measurable greatness of influence. So now whatever counts as great *is* great; but this means that eventually whatever is most loudly hawked as great is also great, and not all of us have the knack of swallowing this innermost truth of our times without gagging a little.