30 August 2005

War and Peace in the Global Village: The Terrorist Discourse

Last evening at the McLuhan Program, we hosted a "McLuhan Salon" on this topic. The following longish post are my opening comments at that event.

On September 11, 2001, hijackers presumably organized by Osama bin Laden turned what might be considered the defining technology of the United States of America – namely, television – from a weapon of mass distraction, into a weapon of mass destruction. Not only were the 50,000 people who worked in the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center attacked. 300 million Americans were simultaneously attacked in their homes, living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. Americans were held captive, to relive that violence again and again, through the video replays of the 24-hour news channels. The cultural and societal reaction of the American leadership in the wake of that disaster instructed antagonistic organizations around the world in precisely what must be done in the ensuing years to lead to the ultimate destruction of that country, with the potential of destroying the entirety of the Western world.

As Marshall McLuhan writes in his book, War and Peace in the Global Village,
In any war the foe studies the resources and characteristics of his attacker as earnestly as the attacker tries to understand the foe in depth. The generals and their staffs discuss and meditate on every aspect of the enemies’ psychology, studying their cultural histories and resources and technologies, so that today war, as it were, has become the little red schoolhouse of the global village. It’s a gory little schoolhouse at that.
In warfare, each opponent attempts to destroy infrastructure, plunder the resources of the land, and demoralize populations. The tactics and weaponry are selected for maximum effectiveness in accomplishing these tasks, with particular attention paid to the last one – demoralizing the population. “When our identity is in danger, we feel certain that we have a mandate for war,” observes McLuhan. Indeed, one can easily make the argument that all wars of the modern era are wars of identity, or at the very least, wars of ideology that is a proxy for identity. If this demoralization can be accomplished, if one side loses its will to fight – not against an enemy, but for the unique defining characteristic of their society – then they will capitulate and come under the control of the victor, who will then impose his own social and cultural definition upon the conquered.

In prior wars, one of the most successful tactics in accomplishing this demoralization was the destruction of habitat: Think of the bombing of London and Dresden, think of deforestation and burning of villages, think of the destruction and bulldozing of towns and settlements, think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The cold-war concept of the so-called neutron bomb was not terrifying, since it would instantly kill only people, and spare their environment. Poisoning the water supply, or sending anthrax through the mail is far more effective, since it infiltrates the total environment, rendering it unfit for habitation, and thereby instilling terror.

If terrorism is the use of fear as a weapon, to accomplish military or political objectives, then all modern wars are wars of terror. The tragedies of East Timor, Rwanda, Darfur in Sudan, the Congo, are all, first and foremost, wars of terror. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a prolonged civil war of terror, not unlike Ceausescu’s Romania, or Honecker’s East Germany. Ever-present fear was used as a weapon by a totalitarian leader against his own population, to maintain total control. And the more deftly and effectively that weapon is deployed, the less actual violence is required.

The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center attacked 300 million people at one blow. As the superstructure of that building began to crumble, so too did the superstructure of the nation itself, that superstructure being its fundamental founding principles, its Constitution and Bill of Rights. It cannot be argued that the USA Patriot Act is not a direct attack on fundamental Constitutional rights and freedoms, regardless of whether one believes it is a justified attack on those freedoms, or not. I find it interesting in the extreme that the extension of the Patriot Act came up for Congressional consideration and passage in the wake of the recent London bombings. Most certainly, it was the rhetoric of fear that carried the day for George W Bush’s re-election in 2004. In essence, spreading fear amongst the population effectively accomplishes the political objective. Currently, the big guns of fear are being rolled out and aimed directly at America’s heartland to bolster flagging support for the war in Iraq.

The lessons that we have learned in the “gory little red schoolhouse of the global village” is that success in modern warfare depends on demoralizing, not necessarily physically destroying, your adversary. That demoralization is most effectively accomplished by attacking the habitat in which your adversary exists. And, as has been most clearly demonstrated in the United States, fear can be used with tremendous efficacy as a weapon in a civil war of terror that divides north from south, east from west, red from blue, and pits neighbour against neighbour.

In the contemporary developed world, we inhabit more than physical space. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that intellectually, socially, politically and culturally, we are increasingly finding our habitat extending to a world that is less and less tangible. We first made our entry into this world in the 1930s and 40s via radio, through the 1950s, 60s and 70s via television, and from the 1990s through to today via instantaneous, multi-way communications. At one time, fear would race through a village by word of mouth, leaving psychological devastation in its wake. Today, as word of mouth has accelerated to word of mouse, fear becomes a far more potent weapon with which to lay waste to the global village.

What better way is there to attack the contemporary habitat of modern humankind than to fly planes into buildings in full view of television cameras. What better way is there to demoralize troops and war profiteers alike than with videos of decapitations. What better way is there to dehumanize and objectify the quote-unquote enemy than by injecting photographs of apparently government-sanctioned torture techniques into the digital zeitgeist. What better way is there to carpet-bomb into submission what may remain of critical thinking and incisive investigative journalism that might challenge political leadership or incite a population to action than with Janet Jackson’s breast, Michael Jackson’s boys, and one missing, blonde white-woman after another. The populace is left reeling, losing its will to fight for the unique defining characteristic of their society, capitulating and coming under the control and social definition of the victor.

In his inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt intoned these now famous words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Over seventy years later, in the reversal that has resulted from our age of ubiquitous connectivity, the only truly effective weapon available is that nameless, unreasoning unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to liberate an unwitting, and unaware society. Today, the discourse of war and conflict is necessarily a discourse of terror.
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28 August 2005

The Context of Terror

For the past four years, Paul Rogers has written a weekly column for openDemocracy on global security. This week, he marked his 200th column with "highlights" - five seminal events that are important markers and milestones in what is proving to be an increasingly complex "war." What struck me as particularly interesting about these events is that they are all examples of the differences between a culture that is dominated by figure, as opposed to a culture dominated by ground.

As a highly visual culture, the United States (and by extension, most of the developed, Western world) is dominated by what is obviously noticeable. About the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Rogers observes,
Overnight, however, Kabul fell, and the regime disappeared as if it had never existed. By December 2001, the Taliban seemed already to belong to the past, and George W Bush could make his State of the Union speech a month later on a note of triumph. The moment was shortlived, as intense fighting in Tora Bora showed a determined guerrilla force that would prove to be a major problem for the United States and its coalition partners.
From the beginning of the Iraq war,
the widely ridiculed Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf ("Comical Ali") was disturbingly prescient in warning the newly occupying US forces: "we will bury you"...

George W Bush's "mission accomplished" address on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003 is perhaps the most spectacular misjudgement of this period. It took months before the US-led coalition acknowledged the scale of the insurgency it was facing, and more than a year before the Coalition Provisional Authority stopped describing its enemy as "remnants".
In all the cases that Rogers notes, it is the contextual ground that is the most revealing about the true dynamics at work, and the most powerful effects of the actions. It is not what is obviously seen, but the forces that operate more subtly that are the most potent. America's opponents operate in ground, as opposed to figure, and thus are easily able to manipulate their apparently more sophisticated foes to their own advantage. Considering the contextual ground, part of this manipulation involves convincing America's leaders to induce fear among their own people, thereby disrupting their comfortable and privileged lifestyle. This creates conditions whereby a large segment of the population will willingly relinquish the fundamental principles upon which the country was founded, in favour of more ascetic fundamentalist principles.

The context of terror will be explored in more depth at the McLuhan Program on Monday, August 29, beginning at 17:30, in the form of a colloquium on The Terrorist Discourse. I'll be posting some more thoughts on this topic over the next few days.

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26 August 2005

Invisibility, and the Case for Structural Change

Invisibility, about which I wrote yesterday, is largely culturally conditioned. We can also condition ourselves to make things temporarily invisible, that is, not perceptible or noticeable. Biologically, it makes sense that we are wired this way – it allows us to avoid distractions and to filter out the relatively static information in our environment to better detect anomalies, like tigers rustling in the bushes, (or protesters rustling the Bushes…) The ability to make things invisible can be conditioned or trained, as a long term base, or learned for a short term purpose. Essentially, it is the mechanism that enables us to recognize patterns amidst a rich, but generally constant, ground.

There are some empirical experiments that demonstrate this phenomenon quite effectively. In one (scroll down to “inattention blindness” and try the “opaque gorilla” java applet), the observer’s task is to explicitly notice the activity of players wearing light clothing, and ignore the players wearing dark clothes. When a person wearing a dark gorilla costume enters the scene, she is ignored. When the task requirement is eliminated, the gorilla’s appearance is obvious. Another experiment involves a change that happens across a scene cut. Since we have been conditioned for linearity in cinematic story-telling, we assume character continuity across scene cuts. Changes are simply not noticed.

Research on culturally-differentiated observation indicates that these instances of selective invisibility are indeed cultural artefacts; Toronto School of Communication theory suggests that they are consequently technological artefacts, for example of the different forms of writing – ideographic vs. phonetic, and culturally-mediated differences in the ways narrative is constructed. But these findings also suggest that similar mechanisms can be deliberately employed to exploit other cultural constructs to enable invisibility and assumptive continuity for the benefit of enterprises that rely on influencing behaviour – politics, advertising, management, military, education, and religion, among others.

As these are culturally – hence technologically and medially – conditioned and enabled, changes in technology will change observers’ responses to the invisibility effect: what is invisible to a generation on one side of a technological divide will be obviously evident to those on the other side.

Historically, at the break boundary between primary oral and primary literate cultures, there always is, and has been, conflict. At the break boundary between primary literate and primary audile cultures, we should expect to find conflict – and that is precisely where and when we are living: at that break boundary. The big push for literacy today can be “read” as a violent, colonial action of an older generation against a younger one that will ultimately be futile. The intellectual property debates, and technology that attempts to maintain the dominance of literate artefacts – privacy, ownership of intangibles, authority, hierarchies of power – are aggressively propagandizing against the changes that are emerging from the very innovations that the former culture created.

The kids today are different. Not because they are biologically more adept at technological devices than their parents were, but because they are being socialized in a world that is different from that of their parents in profound ways. This divide (and conflict) does not happen in cultures in which technologies and media remain largely unchanged generation to generation. But in developed countries today, there are several generations of technological change within one genealogical generation. The acceleration of change may be more characteristic of conditions at the break boundary rather than of the technology itself - that remains to be seen. However, because of that accelerated intra-generational technological change, cultural conditioning for invisibility – what is systematically not noticed – changes significantly between one generation and another. And for the enterprises that I noted earlier – politics, advertising, management, military, education, religion – that specifically rely on culturally conditioned invisibility, this reality means either trouble, or the necessity to influence behaviour in a way that embraces the phenomenon of emergent transparency. This, in turn, necessitates fundamental and structural change to these enterprises, and the people who run them.
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24 August 2005

Do Violent Videogames and Song Lyrics Cause Invisibility?

Why yes. Yes they do.

In my role at the McLuhan Program, I am frequently asked that perennial mass-media chestnut, do violent videogames and song lyrics cause violence in youth? The latest came today. So if you are a journalist or a stringer, sent out by an editor or producer to get the answer to this question from that guy at the McLuhan Program, I’ll save you the nickel.*

Usually the unfortunate reporter who is sent on this assignment is relatively young, and I always turn the question back – did you experience so-called violence in video games and/or song lyrics when you were a teen? Did they induce you to violence? Do they induce you to violence today? Then why should we expect that there is any direct causal connection between media violence and violence in youth?

A better question probes the ground: Why is it that people in authority – politicians, police officials, educators – invariably turn to the relatively simplistic apparent causality between violence in pop culture and violence in youth? For example, as people like Hillary Clinton in the United States decries Grand Theft Auto for corrupting the morals of impressionable minds – oh yes, it was the sex that caught her attention, not the violence – attention shifts away from other, well-documented systemic and societal conditions that tend to engender youth alienation and ultimately, youth violence as an aggressive quest for imperilled identity. Things like systemic racism, lack of funding for recreational and vocational opportunities for youth, lack of decent employment opportunities for new immigrants – many of whom have skills, education and professional experience, otherwise they wouldn’t have been allowed to immigrate under Canada’s points system – years of negatively aggressive responses, lip service and occasionally deceit from authorities, that have destroyed community trust, and any sense of optimism or hope of reward for working within "the system."

By redirecting attention, and the general social discourse, from structural societal problems to the ills of pop culture, these difficult, systemic issues are largely made invisible, or at least diminished in their importance through the magic of moral relativism. Thus, it can be said that violent videogames and song lyrics “cause” invisibility.

Additional comments: In every age, it is the case that the pop culture of the time is said (by the elites) to cause the moral decay of society. When I was a teen, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” was considered scandalous. Comic books rotted the mind. And so forth. In Mozart's time, it was The Magic Flute that caused moral turpitude, at least according to the movie.

I will agree that the continual exposure to violence as post-hypnotic suggestion via the hot medium of television (e.g. news footage from the war zone du jour, professional football and hockey, the ravings of Fox News commentators) conditions adults’ minds to accept the normalcy of violence – violence as an assumptive ground – and thereby makes it easier to perpetrate the "politics of violence," especially when coupled with the "politics of fear," a.k.a. institutional terrorism.

Feel free to quote me on this.

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*Note to those who were socialized into a mobile world: At one time, mobile telephony was accomplished through the use of stationary telephones, strategically located throughout the city, and in public buildings. When an individual was mobile, s/he could pause at one of these stations and place a telephone call. Yes, this was clearly inconvenient to do from a moving automobile, but it generally worked out well. The cost to use these devices was originally a nickel, cash, flat fee, per call, regardless of call duration. That cost rose over the years to a dime, and later to a quarter, prior to these stations being largely discontinued, except in transportation hubs. The few that remain usually require a prepaid calling card. The reference to “saving you a nickel” came from the time when reporters were usually out of the office to get stories, and had to resort to pay telephones for conducting interviews. Yes, I am being partially facetious; the other part is a deft shift of ground in probing the effect of mobility, being able to observe that, in effect, pay phones enabled mobile communications, demonstrating that the (formal cause) effect precedes the (efficient) cause.

23 August 2005

Can We Talk?

David Weinberger is a smart guy. The type of smart guy who says or writes something, and you say, gee, I wish I wrote that. I'd hate him, if I didn't like him so much.

The thing that's got me going on about Weinberger is his latest entry, "Knowledge as Conversation." He succinctly and elegantly breezes through the distinctions among what is valued as knowledge in relation to "the other" through three relatively modern eras that can be characterized as, "I'm right, you're wrong (and going to hell)," "I'm right, you're wrong, but I'll accept the fact that you're wrong (and you're still going to hell)," and "We believe different things, and each of us has a reason for our respective beliefs; let's talk about it and share our understanding." David is much more profound:
There is a big difference between a relativistic world in which contrary beliefs assert themselves and a conversational world in which contrary beliefs talk with one another. In the relativistic world, we resign ourselves to the differences. In the conversational world, the differences talk. Even though neither side is going to "win" — conversation is the eternal fate of humankind — knowledge becomes the negotiation of beliefs in a shared world. What do we need to talk through? What can't we give up? What do we believe in common that seems so different? What should we just not talk about? These are the questions that now shape knowledge.
I'm immediately drawn to Foucault's approach to the construction of knowledge and truth as being mediated through discourses of power (and resistance), which brings to mind the controversies and discourses that are now flowing throughout our conflicted world. Here's where I would add to Weinberger: Knowledge is not only the negotiation of beliefs, but the understanding and explication of the contextual factors from which those beliefs emerge, making visible the control points and pressures on those factors, and negotiating (or perhaps navigating) those control points.

The heated-up television era that is an example of Weinberger's relativistic world is characteristic of those who exercise political power in the Western world, and importantly, in the United States. (As an aside, I should point out that McLuhan's television enabled a more conversational form, albeit in a less optimistic fashion than Weinberger perceives conversations.) On the other hand, the connectedness enabled by instantaneous, multiway communications - or ubiquitous connectivity that enables pervasive proximity, as I describe it - is the message of the conversational world medium. As these two worlds construct self and identity differently, the juxtaposition of the two leads to conflict.

As I have previously noted, this is the fundamental problem that the GW Bush administration has in managing its agenda. Bush and crew are relatively truthful, that is, they construct the truth relative to their beliefs, and consider that "I'm right, you're wrong, and I'll accept the fact that you're wrong (and you're still going to hell)." This is precisely Bush's public response, for example, to the now-iconic Cindy Sheehan. (Others, especially among the Religious Right, are more absolutist in their responses.)

The connected, conversational world enables emergent transparency that allows its participants to create knowledge based on greater information and the flow of conversation. The relativistic world creates fragmented groups that own relative truths which can only be mediated through conflict, if at all. The clash between the two defines the ground conditions of contemporary world politics, and the various "war(s) on ..." of which American politicians seem to be so enamoured.

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21 August 2005

(Un)Intelligence by Design

Flying Spaghetti Monster aside, there are far deeper, long-term implications for the current controversy in the United States concerning the teaching of so-called intelligent design. (I’ll dispense with specific links on the topic, since websites and weblog postings on the issue now number in the millions.) The New York Times, among other mass-media outlets, has been following the issue, with today’s offering examining the institute that is apparently driving the controversy – an institute heavily funded by fundamentalist Christian organizations.

That a de facto Christian theocracy (or, if you prefer a less biased approach, those who back fundamentalist, political Christianity and would like to control the U.S. political agenda) wants to bend school curricula in accordance with its doctrine is not news. What is, or will become, news, is the loss of rigorous thinking about serious worldly issues by this once great nation.

In a recent op-ed piece, Paul Krugman likens the politically-motivated and fabricated controversy over intelligent design vs. evolution, to the policy-influenced doubt raised over global warming and so-called supply-side economics (the latter already demonstrated to be a disaster; the former a disaster in progress):
But what if creationists do to evolutionary theory what corporate interests did to global warming: create a widespread impression that the scientific consensus has shaky foundations? Creationists failed when they pretended to be engaged in science, not religious indoctrination: "creation science" was too crude to fool anyone. But intelligent design, which spreads doubt about evolution without being too overtly religious, may succeed where creation science failed.

The important thing to remember is that like supply-side economics or global-warming skepticism, intelligent design doesn't have to attract significant support from actual researchers to be effective. All it has to do is create confusion, to make it seem as if there really is a controversy about the validity of evolutionary theory. That, together with the political muscle of the religious right, may be enough to start a process that ends with banishing Darwin from the classroom.
The effect of all this is to create a condition in which doctrine and political policy create fallacious but plausible “alternative scenarios” that are set equal to rigorously-achieved scientific, economic and sociological conclusions. Students and future researchers are taught the acceptability of “believing is seeing” – that you only “see” those things that you believe. Ultimately, such a view undoes the empirical basis of science.

Want a current demonstration of this process? Look no further than the pharmaceutical industry, in which there has been scandal after scandal of suppressed research, results that demonstrate harm, or lack of efficacy ignored, approvals rushed through regulatory agencies in which there may be apparent political influence, and, as a final example, the “reefer madness” political response to considering the medical use of marijuana. Many researchers have found (the hard way) that you are only permitted to see that which your funders believe.

Lack of critical thinking and awareness of the effects of processes, diminishes intelligence, and the future ability of a people to compete. Ironically, promotion of the intelligent design doctrine in the United States will prove Darwin correct, after a fashion. But by then, it will be too late.
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Life Coaching, Career Counselling, and Role* (RoleStar)

I’ve been nosing around a number of websites run by self-styled life coaches, and they mostly seem to convey two common themes: “I will change your life, but won’t tell you anything except infomercial-grade stuff until you hire me”; and “basically, what I do is act as a nanny/mother/spouse and kick your butt to do what you know you should be doing anyway.”

I don’t do that sort of “coaching.”

Similarly, I don’t examine your traits and skills, and I don’t administer questionnaires that purport to determine your personality “type.” In fact, there is considerable evidence that once people are assigned to a label or a type according to some classification scheme, they tend to “love their label as their self,” to misquote McLuhan.

When applied to career coaching, it means that I won’t tell you what job you’re suited for, or where your aptitudes lie. And, if you think about it for a bit, you may share my observation that aptitude and trait-based job selection and placement dominates hiring practices today, and yet almost every survey and piece of research I’ve seen places job dissatisfaction rates between 40% and 60%. Drilling down to the reasons for the dissatisfaction and lack of engagement, the most frequent cause has little to do with what you do, but rather, the dynamics of the environment in which you do it.

What we know from McLuhan’s approach to understanding media is that this “environment” of which we speak is entirely constructed by the interactions, and effects that we create through those interactions. As I have found through my research, most people are unaware of these effects, and especially the patterns of these effects that occur throughout their lives. This, of course, is consistent with such patterns comprising an environmental ground, or context, within which we enact our various jobs and roles. Becoming aware of these patterns takes considerable awareness and introspection.

Introspection is often an elusive commodity, even when one is offered the time, space and opportunity for reflection. From my experience with my research participants, it seems that even when one focuses on aspects of one’s own life, connections among disparate parts of highly compartmentalized lives do not come easily. And, it is from the connections among disparate elements that meaning often emerges.

Case in point: In all instances, my participants did not realize the commonality of their role* aspects among work and non-work environments. Neither did they realize the commonality of their role* aspects among multiple jobs, roles, avocations, and situations, prior to participating in the role* conversation. Additionally, when I identified their individual recurring patterns and motivating/demotivating aspects, they were unanimously surprised, and agreed that these aspects did indeed have meaning and resonance in the context of their lives. One mid-career participant in particular found that explicating her role* aspects brought significant clarity and a sense of consistency to otherwise disparate and confusing facets of her life. This suggests the importance of the specific process and aspects of discovery that are enabled by the role* approach to sense- and meaning-making for a wide array of work/life situations.

During a more recent conversation with this participant, the idea was put to the test. She related the details of a meeting that left her feeling insecure, anxious and “superfluous.” On further probing, I discovered that the specific interactions that occurred during this meetings precluded her from enacting any of her role* motivating aspects. I pointed out to her that perhaps it was the absence of a viable expression of a major role* attribute that she was experiencing as anxiety and feeling superfluous. I offered her the suggestion that, being aware of this dynamic, she might try to find another expression of a role* aspect that could counter her negative and demotivating feelings. She subsequently reported that this indeed worked, and allowed her to make an unexpected contribution elsewhere, preventing her from spiralling into a lengthy period of depression, as was her previous pattern.

This suggests another possible use for having an awareness of role* aspects. Role* aspects can be deliberately actualized by individuals to counter the negative effects of job or role situations that are beyond the ability of a person to change. This is not to say that role* reveals some sort of universal or absolute truth about a person. Rather, role* seems to provide a useful and effective mechanism that can assist in achieving a measure of self-awareness and self-actualization. When this thought is applied to either life coaching or career counselling, it suggests that an awareness of your own role* aspects will help you break through your personal blockages, and become re-engaged with what you do. Additionally, it allows you to take control over the environmental dynamics, especially when you cannot control the circumstances themselves.

Isn’t that more useful than handing you a label, or kicking your butt?
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If Role* Was a Magazine

Then it might look like this:

RoleStar magazine cover
(Cover generated at flagrantdisregard)
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18 August 2005

Intelligent Falling

"According to the ECFR paper published simultaneously this week in the International Journal Of Science and the adolescent magazine God's Word For Teens!" and reported on in The Onion, scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are proposing a theory of Intelligent Falling as an adjunct to the theory of gravity, to be taught as part of Kansas public schools' science curriculum.
"Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, 'God' if you will, is pushing them down," said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.

"Anti-falling physicists have been theorizing for decades about the 'electromagnetic force,' the 'weak nuclear force,' the 'strong nuclear force,' and so-called 'force of gravity,'" Burdett said. "And they tilt their findings toward trying to unite them into one force. But readers of the Bible have already known for millennia what this one, unified force is: His name is Jesus."
Satire is an important cognitive tool in media theory to help reveal the hidden ground of assumptions that largely go unnoticed. If we extend the application of media theory beyond our conventional notions of media - the press, radio, television, cinema, the internet - it is possible to probe many diverse issues using the same sort of critical, analytic thinking that is often brought to bear on advertising or pop culture.

The underlying action is what I call the principle of media equivalency: If multiple distinct media share at least one common Laws of Media effect relative to a particular ground, they can be considered equivalent with respect to that ground, and the concomitant Laws of Media effects. The action of satire is that it highlights one medium with respect to another, revealing the hidden, common ground. In doing so, the observer can gain a new awareness of the totality of effects of the medium in question.

That being said, I actually think that the theory of Intelligent Falling might be more plausible than the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but only if the One who controls the Falling prevents me from getting pelted by FSM's meatballs. And there's that noodly appendage to worry about...

Update (18 Aug 2005): And here's the cartoon!

(Seen at Boingboing)
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17 August 2005

Why I'm Glad Toronto "Lost" the Olympic Games

Among many other reasons, we're thankfully spared this lunacy.

And while we're talking about protection of intellectual property rights, Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, observes:
...it has become increasingly clear that excessively strong or badly formulated intellectual property rights may actually impede innovation – and not just by increasing the price of research. Monopolists may have much less incentive to innovate than they would if they had to compete. Modern research has shown that the great economist Joseph Schumpeter was wrong in thinking that competition in innovation leads to a succession of firms. In fact, a monopolist, once established, may be hard to dislodge, as Microsoft has so amply demonstrated. Indeed, once established, a monopoly can use its market power to squelch competitors, as Microsoft so amply demonstrated in the case of the Netscape Web browser. Such abuses of market power discourage innovation.

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CBC is Dead! Long Live CBC!

It's somehow appropriate that the now locked-out CBC network has the contract to televise the return of NHL hockey games this fall and winter. The parties in the broadcaster's dispute did not learn a thing from the lost year of the NHL. If nobody really cares, strikes and lock-outs irreparably damage both sides. Just ask baseball.

In case anyone is interested in following the intricacies of the ongoing soap opera, management is here, union is here, and pundits are here, here, and (ahem) here. (I guess we Canadians are just too far north for our necks to get really red.)

Antonia Zerbisias, the media columnist-cum-blogger for the Toronto Star believes that CBC Television is down for the count this time. I think this is probably as good a time as any to reconsider the role of public broadcasting in the context of the evolving definition of mass-media: Not media for the masses, but media by the masses.

Among the components that comprise the mandate of the CBC are the need to reach from the most densely populated urban areas all the way to the remote Arctic wilderness - from sea to sea to sea throughout this vast land, as they say. There is the need to promote, preserve and protect Canadian culture, and to help define that often undefinable and inexpressible notion to ourselves. And certainly, CBC tells us our own stories, from Roch Carrier's classic icon, The Sweater, to Colm Feore's portrayal of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. And where else would Tommy Douglas be recognized as The Greatest Canadian?

But under conditions of instantaneous communication, consumers of culture become producers of culture, and collaborative producers at that. This suggests that for the CBC to fulfil its mandate of promoting and preserving Canadian culture, it should become the vehicle through which we tell our stories to ourselves. As I describe in far greater detail, "the [dominant] cultural artefacts of our time are experiential in nature and create a unique form of narrative by which we are telling our stories to ourselves."

When CBC reopens for business, it should, like the BBC, open its archives and make its footage available to Canadians (and others citizens of the global village) for the express purpose of remixing and remaking our stories. It should foster participatory culture, whereby Canadian's stories, made and told by ordinary Canadians, are made available throughout the land - from sea to sea to sea - as well as throughout the world, since contemporary Canadian culture is inherently métissage:
We hear it in music, we see it in art and design, we taste it in our restaurants, we wear it in our fashions, we tell it in our new mythologies. And, we create it when we touch, and are touched, by each other’s indigenous heritages, that we combine and recombine, mix and remix. The history of human culture has slowly evolved through processes of integration, acquisition, adoption, rejection, extinction, yielding a modern métissage that emerges from a complex socio-cultural matrix. Pervasive proximity accelerates what has, until recently, been a project on the time scale of centuries, but now occurs in days, or – given the right meme – in hours or even minutes. Canadian anthropologist and essayist Serge Bouchard puts it this way:

“…humanity has been intercultural and polyglot since the dawn of time. … In today’s world every culture is the result of encounters, for good or ill, that humans have made since they first walked and talked. We’re all the same, but we’re also all Wallawalla, Nambikwara, Breton, Basque, Tutsi, Chechen, Samoyed, Ainu, Berber. Humanity is nourished on diversity.”
While the labour issues that are keeping us from our daily drollery of "The Voice" deal with business (and livelihood) pragmatics, there are larger issues to be considered, so that Canada can recover its reputation as a leader in truly public broadcasting.
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15 August 2005

Clueless in BusinessLand

BusinessWeek had a story last week (which is in the issue dated this week... go figure!) that takes on the aura of a junior journalist "Sun Rises in the East - Film at 11" style of coverage.

Here's the essence of the story: Man, who "boasted that he was a "solid C- student" in the 6 1/2 years it took him to get through Eastern Michigan University," and readily admits that "I'm a terrible businessman... I have an inability to manage people," starts an online shipping fulfilment business and runs it into the ground within a very short time. The man can't manage people, technology, finances or operations. Screws up orders. Makes customers and suppliers angry. Goes bankrupt. Nothing new here, right? Then why does one of the major business rags pick up the story? Well, let's see what they say:
While the crash of privately owned iFulfill represents the merest blip in the vast global mail-order business, Purdue's misadventures cast new light on blogs as corporate communications tools. In recent months prominent executives from General Motors Corp. (GM ) Vice-Chairman Robert A. Lutz to Sun Microsystems Inc. (SUNW ) President Jonathan I. Schwartz have earned praise for opening new channels of communication with their blogs. But blogs can also open a window onto a company's woes. They can soak up an executive's time and divert his or her attention.
Aha! The blogs did it! Clearly, Paul Purdue, the former head of the ill-fated iFulfill.com, was "distracted" by waxing philosophical on his blog, and thus, by implication the business went to that big shipping depot in the sky. The implicit message that BW hopes to convey is that, if you're a corporate blogger, you'd better watch out - your business may get away from you!

What nonsense! A poorly-run business is a poorly-run business, blog or no blog. In fact, the proper use of a corporate blog to externalize authentic voice is often an asset, even - or especially - for a business that is experiencing difficulties. What businesses need during times of difficulty or crisis is for their customers and suppliers to hear authenticity, as opposed to PR flak's fluff. And in the case of iFulfill.com, Purdue received some horrid advice from his self-styled web-PR-blog-marketing consultant, one B.L Ochman (to whose site I will not link, given my previous musings on the semantics of linking). Her advice (as reported on the BW website) was to "Do something controversial." Interestingly, that same quote in the print edition of BW was "Create a scandal." Purdue sure followed that advice!

McLuhan for Managers book coverHere's some free advice for would-be, or current, corporate bloggers. Blogging is not public relations in the conventional, broadcast-media-dominant sense. Blogging is a way to speak authentically about your business to customers, suppliers, and the general public. But before you begin, make sure you truly understand what business you're really in. It is not about creating publicity; it is about creating publicy, that is, the outering of what goes on within the walls of your business. In this way, it is a mechanism to awareness within the business of what is actually going on in the total environment of your business. In other words, a blog can serve as a form of anti-environment, a three-way mirror in which you must catch yourself looking at yourself. But like any mirror, there is the risk of Narcissus-narcosis - the type of self-hypnosis and delusion that prevents awareness, and leads only to one's demise.

None of these aspects are as easy as they seem - from knowing what business you're really in, to maintaining an authentic and useful blog. Help is available - customized, tailored, and delivered in-house. Just ask.
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14 August 2005

And While We're Talking About Motivation

In that last post about the Starbucks employees forming a union, there is a repost of an article from 1993 on employee motivation, from a fellow who writes and lectures on education, parenting, and human resources issues. The article identifies the basic Tayloristic instinct in corporate America:
At least three of four American corporations rely on some sort of incentive program. Piecework pay for factory workers, stock options for top executives, banquets and plaques for Employees of the Month, commissions for salespeople -- the variations go on and on. The average company now resembles a television game show: "Tell our employees about the fabulous prizes we have for them if productivity improves!"
It goes on to describe why rewards and punishments are among the most ineffective ways of motivating individuals:
While rewards are effective at producing temporary compliance, they are strikingly ineffective at producing lasting changes in attitudes or behavior. The news gets worse. About two dozen studies from the field of social psychology conclusively show that people who expect to receive a reward do not perform as well as those who expect nothing. This result, which holds for all sorts of rewards, people and tasks, is most dramatic when creativity is involved...

Rewards punish. Even executives who understand that coercion and threats destroy motivation may fail to recognize that the same is true of rewards. Punishments and rewards are not really opposites. They are two sides of the same coin, and the coin does not buy very much. Like punishments, rewards are manipulative. "Do this and you'll get that" is not very different from "Do this or here's what will happen to you." The reward itself - a bonus, say - may be desired, but it is contingent on satisfying terms someone has imposed. Sooner or later, this sense of being controlled feels punitive. Rewarding people is similar to punishment for another reason. When people do not get the rewards they were hoping for, they feel punished. And the more desirable the reward, the more demoralizing it is to miss out.

Rewards rupture relations. Research and experience show that excellence depends on teamwork, both because of the exchange of ideas it fosters and the climate of social support it creates. But the scramble for rewards - particularly when they are made scarce, creating competition - destroys this valuable cooperation.
The article goes on to describe what management can do to foster motivated employees: "Choice means workers should participate in making decisions about what they do. Collaboration means they should be able to work together in effective teams. Content refers to the job's tasks. To do a good job, people need a good job to do." And while these are good things as far as they go, they really miss the point of that holy grail of managers and supervisors, namely intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation, like the name suggests, comes from within each person. If we think of the (Disney treatment of the) classic story of Pinnochio, the strings attached to the wooden puppet at the beginning of the story correspond to extrinsic motivation - managers collectively playing the role of puppet master Geppetto. Regardless of whether the incentives are explicit rewards or punishments, or more subtle forms of psychological influence including participation in work assignments or pep rallies that encourage corporate mission buy-in, employees' strings are still being pulled.

Unfortunately (at least for managers), understanding the conditions by which an individual is intrinsically motivated is a one-person-at-a-time undertaking. My role* research strongly suggests that intrinsic motivation indeeds involves relationships (as alluded to by Kohn), and perhaps explains why the reward/punishment model that "ruptures relations" also ultimately destroys motivation. It also explains why people can find engagement in the context of the most difficult workplace environments, and why favourable environments can become the most off-putting and soul-destroying. Understanding your intrinsic motivators does one other thing, as well. Role* gives everyone the personal power to actualize their intrinsic motivators, in spite of the specifics of the job or circumstance. Not only does an understanding of one's role* cut the marionette strings, role* helps the individual along the path to becoming a real girl or boy.

Just call me Jiminy Cricket!

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Emergent Transparency: Starbucks vs. the Mystery Shoppers

If you work in retail, especially for a large chain, chances are that you've been "mystery shopped." A person, posing as a customer, engages an employee through the course of a typical transaction and then reports on compliance, service and training-related issues. Retailers and service companies contract with one of the many mystery shopping companies as a way of verifying the results of training programs, maintaining a constant check on (often legally-required or regulatory) compliance issues, and simply ensuring that the customer experience is consistent with the company's objectives and image.

Like many "communities of practice," the mystery shoppers - independent contractors all - come together via the online world to compare notes, share tips, gripe and complain, observe, laugh at "insider" humour (humour always being born in a grievance, as McLuhan notes), and generally commiserate with each other. But employees of chain retailers often do the same. And, despite the perception effect that an online forum is a relatively closed and (semi-)private venue, it's not. Rather, insider forums, like the one frequented by many mystery shoppers and the one occupied by those seeking to organize a union for Starbucks employees, provide an interesting and transparent window into the collective and collaborative psyche of these communities. What's even more interesting is when threads on the two intersect.

Here are the Starbucks employees talking about mystery shoppers, while the mystery shoppers talk about the Starbucks employees talking about them. What emerges is a pattern that reflects an interesting symbiosis which only some of the members of either group understand. Additionally, the realization that each group is watching the other conducting a conversation in a perceived "private" venue is a little like watching yourself watching yourself in the mirror. The realization automatically positions you in an anti-environment, from which you have the opportunity to reflect on the true effects of your regular environment - an environment whose effects largely comprise hidden ground.
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13 August 2005

Teaching with Games

Parent: How can I get my child to stop playing video games?
Me: That's simple. Make "video games" a required subject in school. Give the kids homework, make them write essays and sit exams on video games. They'll stop in an instant!

My tongue-in-cheek advice is about to be put to the test (sort of) with a new initiative being run by NESTA Futurelab in the U.K. - Teaching with Games is set to commence with the new school year, beginning next month.
The study will look at what children can learn from computer games, how best to introduce games into the classroom and what changes might be required to make them relevant to the educational environment. Computer games are beginning to be introduced to schools but do they really work as a tool for education? The practicalities of using games in the classroom will be explored through trials in selected secondary schools in the UK.
The background research that sets the theoretic ground for this study makes for some impressive, and remarkably accessible reading. Two discussion papers caught my eye while I was browsing the equally impressive site: "Computer Games and Learning: Why do we think it's worth talking about computer games and learning in the same breath?"; and "An Anatomy of Games."

If you are at all interested in the use of Information and Computer Technology in the context of pedagogy, count on spending the better part of a day exploring NESTA Futurelab's literature reviews, project showcase, and research discussion papers. This is a treasure trove of cutting edge theory and research that queries the very nature of learning environments.

Meanwhile, in other news, a study that found most UK parents ignore game age advisories also "showed that parents were more concerned about children spending too many hours playing games, rather than about what type of title they were playing." I wonder what these parents will think when the games start showing up in the classroom!

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12 August 2005

Some Thoughts on Media Literacy

This morning I had a conversation with a visitor to the McLuhan Program Coach House who asked me about introducing the subject area of media literacy into a school curriculum in her country. The visitor noted that Canada is internationally renowned for its leadership in media literacy throughout its school system, although, she observed, it seems to have been cut back recently. (One might say we were Harris’ed by the Eves of destruction, but that’s a bit subtle, isn’t it?)

This observation is indeed telling, since the ground of media literacy involves a discourse of power, control and the ability to manipulate opinion. Governments that do not readily cede control in favour of a thoughtful public critique, tend not to favour media literacy as a subject in school. At the primary level, students are introduced to the idea of “reading” the content of television programs, advertising, and popular culture to discover the not-very-obvious (at least to young people) methods that these various vehicles use to influence behaviour and attitudes. Young students can be shown, for instance, how the funny clown might make the clown’s hamburgers more appealing than, say, other hamburgers. Once trained to make the connection between their attraction to the clown and their attraction to the clown’s burgers, children are on their way to question the nature and source of the attraction to other products and services. A television show in which the leading character is a toy can be “read” as a half-hour advertisement for the toy, breakfast cereal ads notwithstanding.

At an older age, the critically-thinking high school student can be shown how the clown with the hamburger on Saturday morning cartoons is substituted on the evening news and talk shows by the clown with the tax cuts, or the clown with the war-to-wage. Again, the skill to be developed is that of reading the sophisticated mechanisms that manipulate the emotions of the audience. Instead of the child being attracted to the clown so that she will buy the hamburger, the adult is subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) attracted to the tax cuts or war so that he will buy the clown. The key is to be able to read the techniques of manipulation over and above the supposed logic of the content itself. In the United States, an appropriate exercise might be to deconstruct some of the commentators on Fox News, or the films of Michael Moore. In Canada, deconstructing Stephen Harper and Paul Martin have almost become national pastimes.

As this skill of critical analysis develops in the young adult, s/he becomes increasingly immune to political manipulations in the first place. Society is less likely to “buy the clown” and the clown’s policies at face value, and societies need not suffer the types of disruptions, loss of life, and fiscal mismanagement that have become hallmarks of both developed and developing countries alike. Among many Western countries, there is already a place for media literacy in the curriculum – a legacy of 1960s progressivism and fascination with the television. Among countries without such a tradition, the introduction of media literacy in a school curriculum means that the political leadership must be willing to accept an electorate that will become increasingly aware over time. I daresay there are precious few countries these days that have such enlightened leadership – and I’m not only referring to non-Western and emerging nations.
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10 August 2005

The Right to Read - When Life Mirrors Art

Richard Stallman's famous parable, The Right to Read, does what all good parables do: it warns of a dystopian future based on actions in our present.
For Dan Halbert, the road to Tycho began in college--when Lissa Lenz asked to borrow his computer. Hers had broken down, and unless she could borrow another, she would fail her midterm project. There was no one she dared ask, except Dan.

This put Dan in a dilemma. He had to help her--but if he lent her his computer, she might read his books. Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong--something that only pirates would do.
We're all on that road, ironically, thanks to several institutions of so-called higher learning, including Princeton and the University of Utah. According to a report on ZDNet,
When students at Princeton University, the University of Utah and eight other colleges start combing their school bookstore shelves for fall semester textbooks, they'll find a new alternative to the hard-covered tomes they're used to buying.

Alongside the new and used versions of Dante's "Inferno" and "Essentials of Psychology" will be little cards offering 33 percent off if students decide to download a digital version of a text instead of buying a hard copy.

That's not a bad deal for a cash-strapped student facing book bills in the hundreds of dollars. But there are trade-offs. The new digital textbook program imposes strict guidelines on how the books can be used, including locking the downloaded books to a single computer and setting a five-month expiration date, after which the book can't be read.
The Slashdot crowd weighs in on this, of course, but I think there is something more significant going on.

These sorts of initiatives are changing the assumptive ground that governs the context of texts. Slowly but surely, we are being convinced that when we pay for material, we are not buying it, but renting it - or to use the jargon of the software industry, licensing it. Now, when I buy a book, I own it. I can sell it as a used book. I can copy parts of it for personal use, research, or reviews. These, according to the (Canadian) courts are user rights - my rights and your rights. In Canada, at least, they are not defences against an infringement of the rights of a copyright owner, but rights of the reader and listener. Technological implementations infringe on my lawful rights, and with such mechanisms as temporary-use textbooks, it is an easy matter for content producers to ignore and abrograte those rights, and subsequently brainwash us - and the Parliamentarians who are now reconsidering the Copyright Act - to believe that we never had the rights in the first place.

Electronic textbooks are a good idea. Locked-down electronic textbooks are a bad idea. Open access textbooks, contributed to and updated by the academic community at large are a better idea - one that is truly compatible with the right to read, and media by the masses.

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The Method of Role*

People are often surprised when I tell them that the process of a role* discovery conversation only takes about an hour-and-a-half to two hours. During that very short time, I facilitate a guided narrative using a combination of specific techniques that I developed, all based in well-grounded research that draws from approaches in heuristic inquiry, feminist theory, interpretive biography, and action research.

Using narrative – essentially telling stories from one’s life – is not unusual for those attempting to make sense of a personal history. Mary Jane Kehily [1] observes:
Narrative and self-narration, then, is more than the product of the individual writer or speakers; it is a highly constructed performance, drawing on a range of linguistic, literary and cultural repertoires, specially selected for a particular audience…

In self-narration a teller is socially displaying a language that speaks of and constructs identity and which is, simultaneously, creating and presenting a sense of self. However, the sense of self for public consumption may recreate a certain version of identity which is socially recognizable and socially validated…

Central to these constructions is the social context and, particularly, the role of audience. … In this respect, self-narration can be seen as an important activity in the process of identity construction and as a way of exploring how version and reconstructions of the past shape and construct the present in that key area of identity construction, the interrelationship of past and present…
Part of the challenge with narrative – even guided narrative – is the time it takes for an appropriate “narrator” to emerge from the complex individual that reveals the important, interesting and relevant aspects of self and identity. This usually takes time.

To accelerate the process while still being able to access “the good stuff,” I introduce the notion of figure and ground from my McLuhan analytics.
Figure-ground effects … illuminate social contexts of self-awareness. People often feel distinctive relative to their social context… Figure-ground principles thus connect self-awareness to interpersonal processes, an area in which the theory has not been widely applied. [2]
This idea of directing attention to a figure of self, cast against a ground of the social context, suggests a mechanism for guiding the conversation with role* discovery participants. In normal conversation, if one were to ask about an otherwise undistinguished incident, or to describe a typical day at the office, for instance, a person would likely relate the story as they experienced it, looking out through their own eyes, as it were. While relating the story in this way, the person would be aware of (recalling) the things, people and incidents around them, but would not usually be explicitly aware of their reactions in relation to those things, people and incidents, particularly for the mundane, banal or routine. If, however, they were asked to focus specifically on what “they are seeing,” as opposed to “what they saw”; to become aware of their feelings at the moment, and the immediate reaction of others to their actions, there is a shift in attention. It is the intensification of attention, and noticing what is usually not noticed, that are crucial to the approach.

As the participant relives the experience in the present, their experience of self is brought to figure, as Snow and Duvall suggest. It is akin to “looking at yourself, looking at yourself in the mirror” that one sometimes experiences when using a “three-way mirror” in a tailoring shop. This simple and subtle calling of the self to figure focus may intensify the awareness-making experience of self-narrative, and provide an effective and expeditious mechanism to discover insights that would reveal the person’s behaviours, and their effects on relationships, interactions and interpersonal dynamics, as perceived from the standpoint of the individual – in other words, their role*.

There is much more, of course, to the entire process of discovering one’s personal motivators, and understanding what engages each of us in what we do, irrespective of the specific job or task. By the way, that’s one thing that sets role* apart from conventional approaches to career and life counselling. I can’t necessarily help you find out what job you’re suited for. I will help you discover your role*, help you become aware of the role effects that engage you, and show you how to actualize that engagement to find passion in almost everything you do - both in the workplace and elsewhere.

Here are the sources I referenced in this post:
[1] Kehily, M.J. (1995). Self-narration, autobiography and identity construction. Gender and Education, 7(1), 23-31.
[2] Snow, C.J. & Duval, T.S (2004). When the self stands out: Figure–ground effects on self-focused attention. Self and Identity, 3(4), 355-363.

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09 August 2005

The Semantic Blogosphere

danah boyd raises some fascinating and important ideas when she queries the biases of links.
I began this investigation curious about gender differences. There are a few things that we know in social networks. First, our social networks are frequently split by gender (from childhood on). Second, men tend to have large numbers of weak ties and women tend to have fewer, but stronger ties. This means that in traditional social networks, men tend to know far more people but not nearly as intimately as those women know. (This is a huge advantage for men in professional spheres but tends to wreak havoc when social support becomes more necessary and is often attributed to depression later in life.)
Using a random sample of 500 non-group blogs obtained from Technorati, danah does some relatively simple groupings, counts and observations. The entire piece is well worth reading and pondering. However, what caught my attention were the implications of power and influence with respect to links.

In a GoogleWorld, PageRank means reputation and "authority," and PageRank is directly a function of links from pages that themselves have high PageRank. In an environment in which Technorati rating, or Daypop scores, or other methods of ranking determine one's influence in the blogosphere - that subsequently transmediates to influence and reputation in physical space and traditional mass media - matter, it is important that we critically consider the semantics of links.

danah points out that "All links are created equal. All relationships are not. Treating everything like a consistent weak tie is quantity over quality and in social networks, that means male over female." In other words, there is an implicit meaning to a link - that might otherwise be considered neutral - that is actually wrong, since the act of linking carries with it tacit meaning, governed by the hidden ground of the linker. danah suggests that male-created links have a different meaning than female-created links, and I'm inclined to agree. Additionally, many people link to web pages and blog posts with which they agree; on the other hand, many link to web pages and blog posts that they are criticizing. The act of linking carries with it a reputation and credibility endorsement that may, or may not, be the intent of the linker. Hypertext has created the syntax of linking; there needs to be a commensurate semantics.

Many will point to the plethora of writing on the so-called semantic web, that (to be entirely dismissive by the short shrifting I'm about to do) seems to have an intent of imposing a taxonomic and ontological structure imported from the literate era. Tagging seems to be a way of associating some metadata with particular postings and pages that might result in the creation of an ad-hoc taxonomy (commonly called "folksonomy"). Still, we seem to be stuck in the mental metaphor of categorizing and classification - artefacts of the book era.

This is a roundabout way of proposing the claim that the current approach to the so-called semantic web is a Grand Waste of Time.

What might be useful instead is to think about a grammar and rhetoric of the hyperlink, developed in an environment of critical sensibility. It is clear that an explicit mechanism to contextualize the link is required, since overlapping contexts is a dominant form under conditions of pervasive proximity.

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On Consistency

Remember the fairy tales and fables of your youth? Or, perhaps you remember a more traditional storyteller who could mesmerize you with the vivid images she created in your mind. Chances are that the stories you heard time and again were never told in exactly the same way twice, that is, unless they were read. But if they were stories with a moral, stories that attempted to convey life lessons or appropriate behaviours in the context of a larger culture, it is highly likely that the message came through loud and clear each and every time.

In an oral society, consistency involves conveying the same effect every time, regardless of whether the same words are used. The concept of "verbatim" doesn't really exist in an oral society, at least in the sense that is commonly meant. Similarly, the concept of truth is different than what we're used to, since truth in this context lies in consistency of effect, not in being held to account today for a statement made earlier, where the words differ. In an oral society, context is paramount.

In a literate society, consistency involves using the same words every time, regardless of whether the words will result in the same effect. Thus, recording what was said become paramount so that the record can be checked. The change of context is completely ignored, since the act of literacy ignores context (or to be a bit more precise, can put on any context it feels like at the time - context of the author, reader, or of some third party). Since meaning is derived from the relationship between the words and their context (figure and ground), meaning is fluid. And so too, it seems, are concepts of truth and reality.

A fascinating case of pre-literate vs. literate dynamics can be observed in the United States, that regularly struggles with its religious vs. secular tensions, and a state religion that is based in a book that was originally written by a primary oral society.

The debates currently raging concerning public displays of the Ten Commandments, and the addition of so-called Intelligent Design to the science curriculum are cases in point. Their respective grounds, and the problems of trying to be consistent, are nicely revealed by two Menippean satirical groups: the Summum religion and their Seven Aphorisms, and the followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and His Noodly Appendages.
We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it. We have several lengthy volumes explaining all details of His power. ... He built the world to make us think the earth is older than it really is. For example, a scientist may perform a carbon-dating process... But what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage. We have numerous texts that describe in detail how this can be possible and the reasons why He does this. He is of course invisible and can pass through normal matter with ease.

I’m sure you now realize how important it is that your students are taught this alternate theory. It is absolutely imperative that they realize that observable evidence is at the discretion of a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Furthermore, it is disrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing His chosen outfit, which of course is full pirate regalia. I cannot stress the importance of this... The concise explanation is that He becomes angry if we don’t.

And the last thing you would want is an angry Flying Spaghetti Monster. We'd better be consistent!

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08 August 2005

A Customer Service Message

I must apologize to my regular readers for this interlude. This is a message to the Very Large Company with whom I have having a customer service conversation, and specifically to Ms. JB at said company.

Please read Listening to the Voice of the Customer, a talk I gave to the Conference Board of Canada a couple of years ago. It will provide you with some insight into how I regard company's responses to customer complaints.

Let me say that I have the utmost respect for the frontline customer service representatives who have to face irate customers day in and day out. However, those up the line - who receive well-thought-through, detailed letters, that have been printed out, signed in pen, put in an envelope and mailed with a stamp - should not respond as if they are on the frontline. They have the luxury of time, investigation, consideration and thought. A detailed letter is not appropriately answered by a telephone call, or even an email. A detailed letter is appropriately answered by a detailed, well-considered, well-researched, and well-thought-out letter that addresses all the concerns raised by the customer. On paper. With a stamp. Mailed.

This is called the principle of commensurate media. A customer expects to be answered in a fashion commensurate with the mode of the original contact or transaction. If I email someone, I generally expect an email in response, in roughly email time (i.e. within a day or so). Traditional post comes with a couple of weeks of time. A telephone call or instant message is immediate. Since the quality of the response is proportional to the time available, it is just plain rude to respond to a customer complaint using a faster medium than the medium of complaint. (Conversely, it is generally inappropriate to service a transactional request for service using a slower medium than that of the request, unless that expectation is set in advance.)

One more thing: Telling my wife that you are going to "close the file on this [written] complaint" until I telephone is rude, rude, rude. Here's a clue: Respond thoughtfully in writing. Then offer your telephone number and invite me to call to discuss. It puts me in a much better frame of mind. This has just pissed me off even more.

Fair warning: The next time I have to post on this subject, I name names.

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Sauce for the Googl-oose is Sauce for the Googl-ander; Institutional Telepathy in a GoogleWorld

The New York Times reports (registration required, or use BugMeNot) that Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, Inc., is rather upset with C|Net News for a story they ran recently that disclosed all sorts of Schmidt's personal information obtained by Googling "Eric Schmidt". In addition to web pages that explicitly "reveal" information on Schmidt's wealth, wife, and wanderings, the article points out that Google has ready access to information that is not so explicitly displayed: the workings of our minds.
Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Google is amassing data that could create some of the most detailed individual profiles ever devised. "Your search history shows your associations, beliefs, perhaps your medical problems. The things you Google for define you," Bankston said.

As is typical for search engines, Google retains log files that record search terms used, Web sites visited and the Internet Protocol address and browser type of the computer for every single search conducted through its Web site. In addition, search engines are collecting personally identifiable information in order to offer certain services. For instance, Gmail asks for name and e-mail address. By comparison, Yahoo's registration also asks for address, phone number, birth date, gender and occupation and may ask for home address and Social Security number for financial services.

If search history, e-mail and registration information were combined, a company could see intimate details about a person's health, sex life, religion, financial status and buying preferences. It's "data that's practically a printout of what's going on in your brain: What you are thinking of buying, who you talk to, what you talk about," Bankston said. "It is an unprecedented amount of personal information, and these third parties (such as Google) have carte blanche control over that information."
This is an aspect of the reversal of publicy, on which I have written on my former blog, that I describe like this:
Blogs are an instance of "publicy" - the McLuhan reversal of "privacy" - that occurs under the intense acceleration of instantaneous communications. Our notion of privacy was created as an artifact of literacy - silent reading lead to private interpretation of ideas that lead to private thoughts that lead to privacy. Blogging is an "outering" of the private mind in a public way (that in turn leads to the multi-way participation that is again characteristic of multi-way instanteous communictions.) Unlike normal conversation that is essentially private but interactive, and unlike broadcast that is inherently not interactive but public, blogging is interactive, public and, of course, networked - that is to say, interconnected.

There are many other aspects to, and instances of, publicy besides blogging, of course. But blogging is perhaps the most vivid example of publicy of mind that represents the outering of stream of consciousness or inner dialogue.
The outering of that which was formerly private, but now becomes public under our control is the extension/enhancement; the outering not under out control is the reversal that, in turn, enables a form of institutional telepathy. It is obviously clear that there would be great interest among those who are charged with securing the homeland (as it were) with such telepathic ability. It has been a key theme among almost every citizen surveillance project endorsed by the U.S. intelligence, and advanced defense research communities - how can those in authority know the minds of any arbitrary person, on demand?

While there has been outrage at proposed projects like Total Information Awareness, and the unauthorized use of commercial data for CAPPS II, the generally tacit fact that Google has far exceeded both of these initiatives in creating institutional telepathy has gone largely unnoticed.

Or, to put it another way, my blog is my conscious mind of publicy; my Google trace is my unconscious mind of publicy.

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The Underpinnings of Innovation's Demise

Disruptive innovation occurs in an environment in which such disruption has not been systemically precluded, and when incumbents become complacent with their progressive growth. Take away the ability to tinker and "upset the apple cart" and you lose the means through which major technological discoveries, and the businesses that have blossomed because of them, are accomplished.

Bear this in mind as you read this comparison between the vision of the former and current chairmen of the U.S.'s Federal Communications Commission. Sounds like the incumbents are now being issued technological Barcaloungers at the FCC Club.
(Seen at JOHO the Blog)
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05 August 2005

Cogent Observations on War

Rosemary Palmer and Paul Schroeder, "parents of Lance Corporal Edward Schroeder, who was among the 14 Marines who lost their lives in yesterday's [August 3] attack in Iraq," spoke with Hardball's Chris Matthews:
MATTHEWS: Rosemary, let me ask you about the—what is your feeling about this war and the goal of trying to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people? And do you think that was a smart thing for us to try to do?

PALMER: It was a very naive thing for us to do.

You don't go to another culture and try to impose yours and expect it to work. We're not Iraqis. We don't have the same culture. And while I understand that we're a multicultural nation, we don't act like it sometimes. We act like the whole world thinks exactly the way we do...

Since it is not working, then we have to make a change, that it is not worth the sacrifice if it is just more bodies on to the heap. Like President Bush said, he wanted to stay the course and honor the memory of the ones who died by continuing to fight. If it didn't work before, why does fighting more—you know, you do the same thing over and over, that's—expecting a different result is, I think, the explanation of insanity.

MATTHEWS: Do you have a sense, because of your son's tremendous, permanent, total sacrifice of his life and his experience in these months fighting this war, that the middle-level officers, the majors, the captains, do they have a sense of a clear vision of what they're getting done over there?

SCHROEDER: I can't speak to those fellows. I have great respect for the Marine officers at that level and the sergeants who made these troops, great respect. I would tell you that they probably are frustrated, just like a lot of the ground troops, the lance corporals and the privates are. I would say that one thing that we have to make crystal clear, which is why we agreed to talk today, is that there is a—you cannot equate. There is a clear difference between supporting the troops on the ground and supporting the policies that put them there.

The president likes to make those—to equate those two things. If you don't support the war, you don't support the troops. And too many American people are buying into that. I don't buy into that. Rosemary doesn't buy into that. It is time that we say, look, we can support the troops all until the cows come home. We don't support the policies that put them there.

(Seen at Crooks and Liars)
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Ground of Appointments

One might say that senior appointments made by the head of governments reveal something about the ground, or cultural context, of the country. As the Supreme Court in either Canada or the United States does indeed provide the interpretations of laws relative to the country's constitution that shapes its culture, appointments of top court judges reflect how the head of government conceives of his nation. Likewise, the Canadian head of state - the Governor General - similarly provides a mirror in which Canadians are reflected back to themselves.

In this light, I make note of two recent nominations/appointments by respective government heads to respective, and reflective, positions: John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court bench, and Michaëlle Jean to Rideau Hall.

Prime Minister Paul Martin describes our new Governor General like this:
"Her personal story is nothing short of extraordinary," Martin said. "And extraordinary is precisely what we seek in a governor general who, after all, must represent all of Canada to all Canadians and to the rest of the world as well."

That story is one of a little girl descended from slaves whose family fled Port-au-Prince and the fearsome dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1968, destined for Quebec. There, the little girl encountered the one-time intolerance of the province's pure laine society.

But Jean moved beyond that, growing up to become an intellectual, studying Italian literature, teaching it at the Université de Montréal and mastering five languages. She landed a job as a reporter at Radio-Canada — the first black woman to do so — and catapulted herself through the ranks there."
On the other hand, President Bush's choice of a highly skilled jurist is described like this:
Roberts appears to be the kind of judge that will interpret the Constitution and not legislate from the bench. He is reportedly a solid conservative. He's white, male, conservative, Catholic, heterosexual and has a few bucks. That makes him good enough for me.
Viva la difference!
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