So much of our time is spent administering. Writing letters and emails. Filing things. A person in my station a century or so ago would have had a personal secretary in many cases. Think of that. Also probably a cook and a maid and perhaps a butler or driver. And my wife would not have been as likely to work, although by 1913, it would have been possible, particularly if she were a writer. And someone could actually make a living as a writer then. Our lives have gotten so complex and so dominated by management concepts: we manage our time and productivity–how I hate that word–and we, if we are so inclined as I am, track our data. That what we eat and the how much and how much exercise, how many sets and reps. And we still are fat and tired. More tired, I am sure, than people who lived before television and computers, who read and ate and drank and read some more and then went to sleep. Which would have been a minority, because the poor and the destitute lived then much as they do now, hand to mouth, job to job, and without a great deal of time for leisure. How is it that in the century, almost a century-and-a-quarter since the nineteenth century we have managed to come exactly no further in the evolution of human society toward something more humane? Read the rest of this entry »
Here are some visualizations of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, the third in the Three Californias trilogy imagining different futures for Orange County, CA. First: a static timeline:
And, a link to an interactive, web-enabled version. Haven’t figured out how to embed it.
A Quicktime fly-through in 3-D, which you speed up or slow down to your heart’s content.
I’ve been online since 1985, when I first sent messages from the wire service bureau to headquarters in Washington, D.C., and used a terminal to write with. I bought my first CompuServe as soon as I knew what it was. I’ve been teaching in networked classrooms since 1990, first with Daedalus Interchange, and then with a variety of other products: Norton Textra Connect, Commonspace, Storyspace, MOOs of various stripes that have passed into the and writing or or whatever. You can see what I thought of some them here. I’ve taught and worked with Blackboard, D2L, and other CMS or platforms, and even rolled my own with a MOO that my university let me run for a while.that year, too, and was on
Lately, I’ve scaled back some of what I used to do–less email with students, for instance. More discussion boards, which I am very careful to let student voices dominate. Next semester I’ll be using Twitter in my classroom for the first time, following up on some very intriguing reports about Twitter for teaching, including this one. I will continue using timelines and unstructured research projects to get students engaged with history–it is very, very hard to read and understand utopian literature without understanding the historical conditions that prompt a dream of the alternative.
Why do we imagine the alternative?
There must be thousands of reasons. People might be naturally dissatisfied–there might be a biological basis for our Blochian desires. This makes some sense. If we are programmed to resist stasis we are programmed to evolve or to at least force ourselves into productive stimulation. This would the sort-of-Darwinian model of social change, arguing that we dream because it helps propagate and improve the species.
We might, too, simply wish to be in charge. For every vision of the alternative requires the seer to be also the creator of the change, and thus in charge of it. This drive is stronger in those who wish to actually be in charge: the bossy among us, we might say. But even amongst the meek, to imagine an alternative is to imagine shaping that alternative, not just have it happen, and that is an assertion of will.
I rather like the biological imperative idea. That change and shift is like sand in an oyster, forcing a pearl into being. That is too pretty an image for what really happens in the world. It is more like we are all driven to question and alter things just to see what an alternative would look like. This is the root cause of political behavior; something in us gets up in the morning and must do, must act. That acting is integral to human behavior. We don’t just want to have survived the night. We want the day to bring something different.
That is true even for what we might think of resistance to change. If human society–if human beings–is endlessly variable and always changing, shifting, moving, growing, shrinking, then the conservative desire for fixity is just another desire for change. It is a desire to stop movement and settle in a particular configuration. And it is just as coercive as any other mass effort.
This is important to understand. The conservative impulse is to slow or stop change. It is to fix society in a particular mode, one which requires the eradication or denial of many aspects of human life. In contemporary American life it requires a complete acceptance of an imaginary narrative centered on a particularly ethnocentric, religious set of beliefs that are demonstrably false. But conservatism itself does not have to be of the evangelical Christian variety we see in this country and time today. It only has to be a desire composed of nostalgia and other emotional responses to alterations in the present condition, a desire to return to something which has never been fully present in the real world.
Change is a fact. We age. We grow. At the cellular level, we are in a ferment of activity all the time. Even breathing, that act central to life, is a process of change: air taken is altered by the body and then expelled. Everything is change. There is no fixity. It is a hoary maxim that we never step into the same river twice.
But there is a qualitative difference between acknowledging the dynamism inherent to life and desiring to influence change. We can understand that the planets are in motion along with the rest of the universe, even if we do not perceive that motion for the most part. We can accept that life has a beginning and an end, and that in between living things are constantly altering. We can accept that time is marked by change.
But to imagine an alternative is to participate in, to alter, the natural process of change. It is to assert the will.
The drive to imagine alternatives might be to resist the natural laws of change: conservative is a process of change but its impulse is toward fixity. Revolution is the opposite, perhaps, a desire to create change for change’s sake. Any political philosophy is inherently an argument for change. Invariably such changes are presented as desirable improvements in the conditions in which humans live, and thus as part of the evolution of the species as social beings. Sometime such arguments are self-serving: the fascist dictator whose political philosophy ultimately serves the fascist dictator surely knows that most will live under grueling conditions if that set of conditions are to become real. Sometimes such arguments depend on other forms of mass- or self-delusion. But at their hearts, all such ideas and efforts are part of the dynamism of human culture.
I think I am arguing myself into a kind of evolutionary psychology position with which I am not entirely comfortable.
http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/simple-scheme-for-self-assembling-robots-1004.html makes me think of only about a million SF stories, pre-Singularity tales of robots with autonomy.
In this case, there is an alienness to the robots, too: the story says the shapes are random, but couldn’t it just be that we don’t see the pattern, or can’t?
“And so it seems to me that, in the final analysis of reason, the great criminals of the world are not those wild beasts, who break through all laws, whose selfishness takes the form of the bloody knife, the firebrand or the bludgeon; but those who, equally selfish, corrupt the fountains of government and create laws and conditions by which millions suffer, and out of which these murderers and robbers naturally and unavoidably arise” (Caesar’s Column 36).
I’ve tried the Academic Writing Club, the Summer Academic Working Groups, keeping a writing log in Excel with the principles outlined in Publish Don’t Perish: The Scholar’s Guide to Academic Writing and Publishing, and Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, all to good effect but difficult to sustain.
Now, in a wonderful synchronicity, I stumbled on The Graftonline Challenge, dedicated to a whimsical race toward the phenomenal daily output of Anthony Grafton, who writes more than 3,000 words daily. He’s also the author of one of my favorite scholarly books of all time: The Footnote: A Curious History, which is a marvel of lucid prose and engaging scholarship. The challenge was given a persnickety sidelong glance in The Chronicle of Higher Education, after somewhat more laudatory mentions here and there.
With 750words.com, Lift, and Graftonline, I’ve written more than 8200 words in the past ten days, ranging from freedumps on the page to lecture notes, to material I think will turn into an article. And been invited to contribute to another publication, based on little more than my sudden entrance into the community. With my administrative and other responsibilities, I’ve long struggled to put more words down and get them out my door, but September 2013 has been a revelation . . . I even got retweeted for the first time in about a year! Let’s see where this goes.