Monday, November 19, 2018

Presentation notes for a talk inspired by 1984 and Inevitable

Over the Summer, my colleague David Largent invited me to give a guest presentation in his Fall 2018 Honors Colloquium that is exploring George Orwell's 1984 and the ideas in Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable. At first, I balked at the invitation, unsure of what I could offer to such a discussion. I read 1984 in my undergraduate science fiction class, but I am not familiar with Kelly's work. I ruminated on the idea for a few days before accepting the invitation. My presentation is scheduled for this evening, so over the past two weeks or so, I've been trying to pull the pieces together. Not being a fan of single-purpose work, I decided to write up a few notes here.

The first topic that came to mind is Neil Postman's excellent Amusing Ourselves to Death, which seems situated right in the middle of the colloquium. This book was recommended to me by friend Charlie Ecenbarger when we were working together on The Bone Wars. Postman's thesis is essentially that we are at more danger of losing ourselves to entertainment as in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World than we are from the totalitarianism in 1984. I decided to make Postman's ideas a cornerstone of my presentation, briefly discussing McLuhan's "the medium is the message" is interpreted by Postman into "form excludes the content." I am hopeful that the students will have adequate grasp of history of communications to imagine a world transitioning with newspapers, telegraph, radio, television, and Internet. I am slightly fearful that they will not really understand a pre-Internet world, but I'm hoping a Socratic approach might help here.

As I was reviewing the helpful Wikipedia summary of Amusing Ourselves to Death, I was reminded of Postman's theory around "information-action ratio." This in turn reminded me of Tufte's data-ink ratio, which I find a useful heuristic for evaluating information visualizations. I decided to bring Tufte's example in to my slide deck as a way of trying to help students understand information-action ratio by metaphor. Both raise interesting qualitative questions: is one ratio better than another? If not, how are they different?

I'm currently in the middle of reading Dorothy Sayers' essay "The Lost Tools of Learning." In includes this relevant excerpt:
…The stock argument in favor of postponing the school-leaving age and prolonging the period of education generally is there is now so much more to learn than there was in the Middle Ages. This is partly true, but not wholly. The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects--but does that always mean that they actually know more? 
Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?
This struck a chord with me and resonated with my review of Postman's thesis. Reflecting on these relationships brought me back to John Taylor Gatto's essay "Against School," and so I decided to take my favorite part of that and include it in my slide deck as well: his explanation of the six functions of secondary education according to Alexander James Inglis. These are, briefly, the adjustive or adaptive function (obedience to authority), the integrating function (make people alike), the diagnostic or directive function (determine students' social roles), the differentiating function (sort and train students by their determined role), the selective function (improve the breeding stock), and the propaedeutic function (train the select few to lead the rest). I put the six principles' names onto a slide and prepared a handout with John Taylor Gatto's explanation of them.

It's possible that if this uses up my time, I will just stop here. Otherwise, I have a bit of a thematic shift in my planned remarks, which I have naturally identified in my slides with one that says, "Now, this!" I pulled some slides out from a regular guest presentation I give in my friend Dom Caristi's creativity seminar. In particular, I have a sequence wherein I introduce Subrata Dasgupta's Creativity in Invention and Design and its relationship to Margaret Boden's The Creative Mind. If there's time, I would like to have the students take Shelley Carson's Creative Achievement Questionnaire and to close with a point about the ubiquitous and scale-free nature of Price's Law. Part of my point here is not to question whether technological innovation is literally inevitable or not, but that we can see that those who drive at are those who have deep and broad technical knowledge. I wonder if there's something to tie into Douglas Rushkoff's Program or be Programmed as well, but I'm sure I'll be out of time by this point.

My 2PM appointment didn't show up today, so I was able to finish writing up these notes before my next appointment. I'll post a follow-up if there is anything surprising or unusual to report after the presentation.

EDIT: I ended up only getting up through the education slides, stopping short of the creativity discussion. Even here, I took up more time than I expected. The students were reasonably responsive, although I was challenging them pretty quickly with ideas they had never considered before. Perhaps the only story worth sharing here is that we talked about what the key cultural values are of oral culture, print culture, and television culture. They agreed that it was likely listening and interpreting for the first and close reading for the next. For television culture, a student suggested that the skill that allowed you to participate in culture was being able to distinguish good from bad information in the media. I think they were a bit surprised when I turned this on its head (as Postman does) and suggested it's the value of being entertained—the value of not carefully considering the information being presented.

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