The Ephemeral Nature of Knowledge (2017Sep09)


GiaquintoWinter

Saturday, September 09, 2017                                          11:14 PM

The Ephemeral Nature of Knowledge   (2017Sep09)

In 1975, the two parts of the Apollo-Soyuz mission took off—Soyuz 19 launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Apollo from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That’s how things were in my day—information was free, research was shared, all classes were open to audit. Oddly enough, science had to court interest back then.

Now that information has been commodified, the focus has turned to how the new data or discovery can be cashed in on for the highest price—even if it’s just a nuisance lawsuit against an actual inventor. If you want help with your computer, you have to pay for it. In the past, if something broke, you only payed for parts and labor—in our brave new world, we have to pay for explanations about products and services we bought in good faith. That may be the norm, but no way does that make it right and proper.

We see this info-hoarding effecting education, too, in scam seminar universities, scam online degrees, predatory school loans, and a general consensus among the business world that it is now okay for someone to be charged for information—and as always ‘caveat emptor’. Conversely, as Bill Maher addressed in his ‘New Rules’ last night, people can be charged for what they don’t know:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xP13QTOI9z4&list=PLAF22812129BFCD50&index=1

 

There is another side of the information situation—YouTube, Google, Wikipedia, Gutenberg.org, et. al—the Net-Neutrality crowd, so to speak—which allows anyone with computer access to self-educate, up to and including PhD-level science lectures from Ivy League professors on YouTube. The only catch is that it is all public-access, public-domain. For example, let’s look at http://www.gutenberg.org (The Gutenberg Project)—their mission was to make the text of every book available, online, for free.

When I first found this site, I was blown away. Previously, I had spent childhood in the library and adulthood in the bookstores—and neither could ever offer ‘every’ book, much less without leaving home. Gutenberg allows free text downloads of every classic in English literature—the only catch is, they can only offer what is in the public domain. Amazon started selling the for-profit books, the latest, the bestsellers, anything really—it was a bibliophile’s dream, even before they started in with e-books.

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Today, when you go to Gutenberg’s site, it has been hybridized, offering the same free downloads, but with a Kindle e-book-file download-option—so users can keep their reading material all on one device. The oddest part is that some of Gutenberg’s offerings have been re-issued as e-book classics by the publishers of the hard copy—making it possible to buy a book (say Jane Austen’s Emma) on Amazon, that is available free on Gutenberg. I know because I have done it—and keep both editions on my Kindle out of sheer cussedness.

But my point is that if you read every book they have (I’m joking—an impossible task, in one lifetime) you still would not be acknowledged academically in any way. The same is true for whatever you learn online—even the degree-issuing online institutions are condescended to by the analog schools—as if being on-site really impacts most of today’s workplaces.

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However, you can do things with knowledge—that is its ultimate purpose—so even if education can’t get you a job, it can still help you invent your own. Nevertheless, the sheepskin (as a ticket into a well-paid position) is a commodity now—and must be paid for. But all these conditions are just the extremes of greed brought out by the commodification of knowledge.

The real danger is the stagnation of research and development. Not only are the greed for profits skewing the directions of researching, but the findings themselves are kept confidential.

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The boom days of Thinking are over. In Einstein’s time, German universities were hubs of intercourse between academics and scientists, as were the great schools of Britain and the rest of Europe—and American institutions as well. Traveling to mingle with others in one’s field, holding conventions and seminars on the challenges of the day—it was as free as a bird. Nobody knew what an NDA was—hell, scientists at NASA were challenging the government’s Security strictures (mid-Cold War) because they claimed that science could only exist as a global effort, with shared information. Imagine.

And it is worth mentioning that the guy who ran IBM, who put up signs around the offices with the one word ‘THINK’—was not being cute. After two world wars, people didn’t waste time sitting around thinking—no one had had that kind of leisure in living memory. But it was exactly what IBM needed its employees to do. He had to actually encourage them to remember that thinking was their job now.

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The reason for the change was that academics had entered the everyday—it had started with autos and radios and such—but now people had electrified homes, TVs, rocket ships—and as the IBM staff thunk, it only got more complicated and scientific. Now, I’d have to write several paragraphs to summarize all the modern stuff in our modern lives.

But the dichotomy is still there—we still believe that achievement should make you sweat. We still believe that just sitting and figuring something out is a waste of time—‘things are okay as they are’. We are wrong to believe that.

We have accepted all the gifts of technology, but pretended that it was all for free. We are close to recognizing that technology has a cost on our environment—several decades have been spent on that inconvenient truth—and there are still those who refuse to acknowledge the bill coming due.

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We haven’t even begun to address the cost to our society of technology. If we are going to have our children growing up around wireless electronic devices, we need to start calculating the parameters of how much their development will be influenced, or even damaged, by certain gadgets, apps, and games. We also need to address the asocializing effect which smartphones have on both children and adults.

Beyond that, it would be nice to have a grown-up discussion about the fact that half of society has integrated itself with the Internet, to the point of total dependency on its reliability—while the other half is finding ways to disrupt online systems for political or profitable gain, assuring us that the Internet can never be secure in the way we need it.

Yesterday’s announcement about the Equifax hack, exposing private info on millions of Americans and their finances, leaves all those people vulnerable to ID-theft and bank fraud. And this is the same system that runs our banks, our government, our phones, and damn near everything else—while totally unsecure. I’d like to talk about that—wouldn’t you?

Still, the ‘big boss’ paradigm persists—the idea that a strongman like Trump is America’s best choice for a leader, here in the twenty-first century—should be a joke. A man who can’t even use Twitter without typos is the wrong guy to be in charge of an online, subatomic, robotic world, okay? Bluster is still very effective—a lot can be done with bluster. But like many American workers today, having an old skill-set leaves one obsolete for the challenges of today.

And while all the fat cats are getting rich off of each new boner pill or wireless ear-pod, real forward movement in science is relatively crippled by the secrecy and the patent lawsuits and the proprietary research that’s kept hidden.

It’s time for one of my ‘true stories from history’. In ancient China, the emperor’s court was very exclusive—successive layers of the grounds were off-limits to the public and to lesser officials. One of the innermost places was the workshop of the Emperor’s scientists and engineers. When one emperor’s reign ended, the new emperor would appoint new scientists and engineers. In this way, many inventions and discoveries came and went.

In eighth century China, an artificer created the first escapement clockwork—but the usurping Emperor caused all record of the clock’s design (and the clock) to be destroyed. Clocks would disappear, until they were reinvented in Europe, in the fourteenth century.

People tend to focus on firsts—who gets credit for inventing a new thing—who gets credit for noticing some physical constant for the first time? But this story struck me not as a story of invention, but a cautionary tale about the ephemeral nature of knowledge. If the machines break, if the books get burnt (or locked away), if the kids don’t get educated—all technology, all knowledge—just disappears. And information is a lot easier to keep than it is to find.

The way to preserve information is to disseminate it, print it, teach it, put it online, make a movie about it. The way to lose information is to hoard it, to dole it out for a price—as we have seen, when information becomes a commodity, a lot of cheap knock-offs get sold—fake news, scam universities, corporate climate-change denial. The truth is precious is its own right—putting a price-tag on knowledge only corrupts it.

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Now The News (2015Nov21)


Saturday, November 21, 2015                                          10:28 AM

Here we are—all together for the holidays. America, Syria, France, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Israel, Jordan, Mali, Greece, Ukraine, UK, Italy, Turkey, Afghanistan, Mexico, China, Myanmar—well, ‘countries recently in the news’ is a list too long for me to type here. And in some senses, it doesn’t matter—the places unmentioned in the news are experiencing their own difficulties—there’s just no sensational story there—or it’s too hot to report from—but you can find troubles everywhere. Trouble for the holidays—just what everybody put on their Christmas lists!

I’m tempted to stop watching the news on TV—it’s not that I don’t care—I care a lot—it’s just that I don’t approve of the way they’re telling the story. The media leaves out too much of importance and focuses too much (and for too long) on the unimportant. It’s a stupid way to tell a story—and when the story is of civilization’s progress through time, I judge it worthy of some care in the telling.

I see journalists—and whole news networks—filtering their output through self-interest and sensationalism. When the whole point of journalism is to give us ‘just the facts’, these reporters insult our intelligence and abuse our trust by reporting on a bias. News stories often focus on how the people ‘felt’—“What did it feel like to be there?”—“What are your feelings now that’s it’s over?”—that sort of thing—it’s called ‘human interest’. Human interest stories used to be what the newspapers used for filler on a slow news day, when they had no actual facts to report. But now, we’re lucky if any facts get through at all.

Do I care about how people feel? Yes, I do. In a democracy, the ‘feelings’ of the majority determine who is elected and what laws are passed (theoretically). Plus, we all want to know where we stand in relation to the views of the majority. Everyone’s feelings about everything, however, should oughta be based on what we know—and we rely on the news to inform us, not to consolidate our ‘feelings’ about our ignorance.

We have specialty news outlets that lean left or right—catering to our existing emotional biases—or confine themselves to business (the rich people channel, I call it) or confine themselves to sports (adults getting paid to play games). Here are the specialties by which I think the news should be diversified. There should be a Statistics news channel that shows graphs of data, changes over time, projections of future trends, and comparisons of one set of indices against another. There should be a Global news channel that gives the status of every country in the world, whether it’s currently a hot news spot or not—who’s in charge of each country, how their economy is doing, what their human rights status is, and what their least-represented citizens are having to endure. It should also give us a sense of which countries are cooperating with each other, which countries are opposed to each other, and whether that conflict is one of arms, jihad, genocide, economic pressure, or environmental threat.

And there should be a Political news channel—but not for a bunch of speeches and photo-ops—it should report on new legislation being passed on the federal level, the state level, and locally. The overall effect of the legislation should be examined, of good or bad potential—and it should report on which lobby pushed for the legislation and what the motives behind it are—and there should be some notice taken of the effects of any new legislation on the people who had no desire for it, but had it imposed on them. They could even have a ‘fun’ segment that listed all the lies told that day by politicians of either party—and maybe even a ‘heroes’ segment once a week that touts a politician who speaks an unpopular truth (though that may have to be just once a month, or even once a year).

I wouldn’t mind a Disenfranchised news channel, reporting on how things look from the bottom of the heap—the ad revenue for such a channel would be abysmal, but the viewership would be enormous. Science-based news would be good too—but not to report on new gadgets and spacecraft launches—it should report on the connections between scientist and funding, corporations and universities connecting, government and research being influenced by lobbyists—and all that sort of thing. You could throw in some stuff about education too—new educational methods and their implementation, or the barriers against education raised by fundamentalists, prudes, and special interests.

I could go on about all the important content that is presently ignored by the ‘news’, but you get my drift. People have been talking about the monopolization of media by the wealthy; about the surrender of journalism to capitalism, for decades—but now it’s really coming home to roost. Democracy can’t function without free speech and an informed constituency—and while free speech abides, we are no longer being properly informed. The popularity of presidential candidates with no experience in governing and no knowledge of American history gives some small indication of that.

Life on a Go Board


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I don’t like it when words are used as stones on a Go board, or statements used as chess-pieces—those are combat simulations—since when did communication become combat? For that matter, when did words become the only form of communication? Actions speak louder than words, but words, or perhaps videos’ scripts, are considered a life-connection from you or me to someone halfway round the world. Am I really connected to those people? Funny story (you know I accept friend-requests from anyone) this new Facebook-friend of mine only posts in Arabic—it’s beautiful stuff, but I don’t even know the basic phonemes of that written language—and I had to ask him to tell me his name (or equivalent sound) in Roman script.

I don’t want to get into a debate here about argument. Formal argument, or debate, is certainly useful and productive—as is regular old arguing, when it’s done with restraint or when its goal is an elusive solution or resolution. The Scientific Method, itself, is an implied debate—a conflict between prior theories and the new theories that overthrow them—or that are overthrown thereby—no, I’m not saying that communication isn’t rife with conflict—my purpose here is to discuss other forms of communication and sharing. So, please, let’s not argue (—jk).

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I finally realized that all these unsolicited friend requests from the Mid-East were because I was using a photo of Malala Yousafzaya as my Profile Pic! I’m glad—now I know they’re not shadowy extremists trying to cultivate an American connection—they are instead the liberals of their geographic zone.

Such international friends frustrate me—the lack of words that I don’t type could be just as offensive as any thoughtless words I post—and there are plenty of those. I wish I knew what they were. Whenever someone wants to Facebook-friend me as their American friend, I start right in on criticizing all their grammar faux pas and misunderstood colloquialisms—they love it—that’s what they want from their American friend. I’m afraid geek-dom knows no borders—only my fellow geeks from faraway lands appreciate criticism—I’m sure people with the Cool gene flock together across the datasphere as well (but then, I’ll never know—will I?)

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But communication, as a means of sharing ideas and organizing cooperative efforts, is far more than a battle of witty words. Political cartoons, cartoon cartoons, obscene gestures, and ‘making out’ come first to mind—although there are plenty more examples. The Media (a term I use to denote People magazine, other newspapers and periodicals, radio, cable-TV, VOD, cable-news, talk shows, private CC security footage, YouTube and the omnipresent Internet.) I say… the Media is looking for trouble.

They aren’t broadcasting cloudless summer skies or a happy family sitting around the dinner table or the smoothly proceeding commuter traffic a half a mile from the traffic accident. And I don’t blame them. Their job is to entertain—that’s what pays their bills. And I don’t blame us, either. We are happier watching dramatic thrills than watching paint drying. There’s no getting around that.

And I won’t play the reactionary and suggest that we go back to a time when entertainment was a brief treat enjoyed, at most, once a week. Even the idle rich (and this is where that ‘idle’ part comes from) just sat around socializing when they weren’t at a fox-hunt or a ball. To be entertained was almost scandalous—think of it—in a deeply religious society, such escapism went against the morality of the times—and even as a once-a-week diversion, it was frowned upon not only to be a stage player, but to attend the performance, as well.

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But entertainment, like a gas, expands to fit the size of its civilization—those old scruples took a few centuries to kick over, but once the digital age had dawned it seemed quite natural that everyone should have access to twenty-four-hour-a-day entertainment (call it ‘news and current events’, if it helps). And now we have people walking into walls and driving their cars into walls while they stare fixedly at their entertainment devices.

So, trite as the word may seem, Media is a mandatory entity to include in any discussion of the human condition. And more importantly, it must be a part of the Communication topic, as well—most especially with a view towards a formulation of culture that does not make conflict our primary means of sharing and informing our minds. So let’s recap—Entertainment equals drama equals conflict equals fighting (See ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’). Information equals scientific method equals discussion equals human rights (See ‘Bruce Willis’—jk).

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To begin, there is one thing that needs to be acknowledged—learning is NOT fun. I’d love it if it was—I know fun can be used to teach some things—It’s a lovely thought—but, No. Learning is a process of inserting information into the mind. People talk a lot about transcendental meditation but, for real focus, learning is the king. To learn, one must be patient enough to listen; to absorb an idea, one must be willing to admit that one doesn’t know everything; to completely grasp a new teaching, one may even have to close ones eyes and just concentrate—nothing more, no diversions, no ringtone, no chat, no TV, no nothing—just thinking about something that one is unfamiliar with—and familiarizing oneself.

We forget all that afterward—the proof in that is that none of us graduate from an educational institution with the ability to ‘sub’ for all the teachers we’ve studied under. We have learned, but only a part of what was taught—it’s implications, ramifications, uses, and basic truths may have eluded us while we ‘learned to pass the class’. Contrariwise, our teachers may have bit their tongues—eager to share some little gem of Mother Nature’s caprice implicit in the lesson plan—and had instead put the ‘teaching of the class to pass’ before the ‘teaching of the class’.

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And that is no indictment of teaching, that’s just a fact—it doesn’t prevent me from admiring great teachers. But I couldn’t help notice that great teachers always color outside the lines in some few ways. Teaching people to learn for themselves, with that vital lesson neatly tucked into the course-plan of the material subject of a course—it takes effort, discipline, and way more patience than that possessed by most of the rest of us—but it also requires an allegiance to the Truth of Plurality, that incubator of eccentricity.

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But we forget our Learning. It becomes something we simply ‘know’, something that we just ‘know how to do’. Part of good parenting is learning to teach well—young people have the luxury of just understanding something, while parents must struggle to figure out how to explain it, or teach it, to their children. And then we forget about that learning—and must scratch our heads again, struggling to explain ‘explaining’ to our grown-up, new-parent offspring. It’s a light comedy as much as anything else.

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So learning is not fun. There is a thrill involved, however, that is almost always worth the ticket price. The internet and the TV blare words at us in their millions, info to keep us up-to-date—just a quick update—and now there’s more on that—and we’ll be hearing a statement from the chief of police….—also, we are seduced by lush orchestrations or driven musical beats, by the gloss and beauty and steel and flesh of literal eye-candy, and that dash of soft-core porn that is the engine under the hood of so many TV series.

We see breaking YouTube uploads of rioting in a faraway land—we believe that our quiet little lives are nothing, that all our sympathy and concern should be spread across the globe to billions of strangers in distress. We are flooded with information by the Media—but because it’s the Media, only conflicts and crises are shown—the peaceful, happy billions of people that pass by those crowd scenes, that seek refuge across the border, that have families and generate love to whomever gets near enough—we don’t need to see them.

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But that isn’t true—it’s true for the Media, but it isn’t true for us. The Media can’t change—but we can be aware of its bias. We can take note of the fact that the Media should not be the major part of our dialogues with one another. Best of all, we can become aware of how much the Internet can teach us—if we can stop IM-ing and web-surfing and MOMPG-ing long enough to notice that the Internet is a hell of a reference book.

No, I’m not saying we should trust the Internet. I’m saying that the real information is there, and finding it and using it will be the road into the future that our best and brightest will walk along. They will pull their eyes away from the Mario Race-Cart, the YouTube uploads of kittens and car-crashing Russians, and George Takei’s Facebook page—and they will throw off the chains of Media and make it their bitch again, back where it belongs.

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In WWII, fighter-group captains and flight-team leaders are always saying ‘Cut the chatter, guys—heads up!’ I think we need the same thing—everyone should have a little devil on their shoulder that says the same thing—“Hey! –so the Internet connects you to the entire civilized world—that doesn’t mean you have to say anything—it just means you can.”

Our high-tech communications infrastructure is no small part of the problem—the digital magic that flings words and pics and music all over the world bestows an importance and a dignity to our messages that many messages don’t deserve. Posting to the Internet is kind of like being on TV—it grants a kind of immortality to the most banal of text-exchanges—it can even be used against you in court—now, that’s very special and important—and now, so am I, just for posting!

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So, yearning for the perennial bloodlust of Law & Order: SVU, our self-importance inflated, and our eyes off the road, we speed towards tomorrow. I hate being a cynic.

[PLEASE NOTE: All graphics courtesy of the Quebec National Gallery]