Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog

October 18, 2008

Stupidity and irony

Filed under: Week 6 — Lisa M Lane @ 1:54 pm

To behave in a complex system without accounting for chaos is to exhibit a stubborn and persistent stupidity.

Driving a car is using a complex system. There are elements dependent on certain operations, in a certain order, with room for variables. Although it becomes automatic after awhile, as beginning drivers we are most aware of the complexity. Most elements (visual acuity, steering, pedal control, audio input, managing turns, noting signage) must be executed properly for the system to function at all, much less at optimal levels. When elements shift without warning (unpredictability), there can be dangerous results. A fan belt breaks, a child falls while crossing the street, a car at the intersection runs the stop sign.

The drivers in my part of the world operate as if they control the complex system, as if there are no chaotic elements. They don’t stop at stop signs if they don’t see anyone around, they cut in front and behind people in crosswalks, they weave in and out of traffic on the freeway. These drivers know they are in a complex system, and they think they control it, as if they were playing a traffic video game and will simply lose points if their car explodes. The high frequency of accidents here is the result of drivers assuming a lack of chaos, behaving as if all conditions (the placement and speed of other vehicles, for example) will remain the same.

Chaos also accounts for a great deal of irony. The fire starts in the closet where you stored the emergency supplies. Your alarm is set to wake you an hour early, but the battery dies. I don’t trim the tree outside my window to keep the shade, and a big wind sends branches flying off. Good intentions, and their accompanying predictions, are thwarted for reasons which are explainable but not controllable.

It was quite clear in this week’s material, particularly the excellent slides accompanying Seth Bullock’s video, that some chaos is simply the result of emergent behavior arising from “the uncoordinated actions of lower-level entities”. These actions, like those of people participating in a collective, are unintentional. I can crush the Butterfly in my hands because I don’t want its wings to move, but it won’t be because I’m trying to prevent a storm in Indonesia. I realize we participate without knowing it, and our intentions don’t always play out. I can pan a book at Amazon hoping to reduce sales, but inadvertently increase sales as people want to read something so awful.

Intentionality, however, is at least an effort to prevent stupidity by acknowledging the existence of chaos. If I purposefully drive slowly in a school zone, and allow children to reach the other side of the street, the chance of danger caused by chaos (or by me) may be slightly reduced. There will always be variables beyond my control, so in that sense intentionality provides an affective influence: I fear hitting the child more than I do being late to work, so I will experience more comfort by behaving this way. Same thing with storing water in a couple of different locations, or checking the alarm clock battery. We balance between the knowable and the unknowable, creating a Cynefin-based narrative to prepare for the unexpected (Kurtz and Snowden, p. 480) instead of assuming basic cause-and-effect.

It’s a less stupid way to do things.


October 16, 2008

Thoughts on Waste, Efficiency, and the Web

Filed under: Musings,Week 6 — Lisa M Lane @ 4:52 pm

We can be all connected, but do we have anything meaningful to say?

The mobile (or cell) phone works through satellites and huge towers and relay stations, and people use it to make sure hubby gets soda on the way home from work. (cartoon). The student phone conversations I hear outside my office are clearly not content-based. Most are immediate personal reporting: “yeah, I’m OK, I just got out of class, you going to the beach later?” These young people barely talk to each other on campus; all their friends are on the phone, and the people next to them are distant. Much of the technology is thus wasted in terms of creating and maintaining quality communication with others.

Television has the capability to bring extraordinary content into every home, but most of the channels on TV are dedicated to sensationalism and shopping. TV watching can be highly educational, but most of it isn’t. The popularity of reality shows is a clear indication that people are not experiencing much reality in their daily lives. Much of this fantasy world comes in through the TV itself, and through their computer screens. The television networks encourage you to go to your computer and log your opinion on the news byte, the current pitcher, the contest winner. The lure of convenient participation is more important than what is entered.

When we travelled by slower methods of transportation, everything took longer. That meant we met people along the way, ate different foods, heard different accents, and experienced different ways of life. Now we see nothing but clouds between this part of the world and the part we’re going to. We have gained convenience at the cost of beauty and diversity of personal environment. This increases productivity. Its cost is high.

The internet is addictive in its sheer convenience, but does it make for a better world? Organizations that do good can use the internet, but so can those that do evil. Much of the world does not have access to the web, and when they gain it the exposure to things they cannot have implodes communities, as television does. Yes, there is great potential for learning in the underdeveloped world using computers, but that use is only peripherally one of social networking: what the developing world needs is facts, science, specific ideas, not conversation. It can have the conversation on its own.

Our young people use the internet, as Mark Bauerlein writes, to cement themselves in a perpetual state of adolescence, keeping obsessive tabs on friends, fads and fashions instead of extending their cultural understanding or citizenship skills. A wealth of information is available via the net, and, like our libraries, few access it for the purpose of self-improvement so they can contribute to society. They access to answer their own personal needs, be they medical, sexual, or political. The interactive web lets every internet user have a voice, and many of them are loud. But very few of them are saying anything that increases the intellectual capacity of those who read or view it. At their mildest, they can amuse. At their most inflammatory, they can engender hatred. And they can do either at great speed.

Convenience, whether of communication, geography or information, leads to waste. Waste of resources, waste of time, waste of heart, waste of feelings. The articles for this week by Francis Heylighen attempt to deal with the issue of information overload in terms of efficiency and loss of control and anxiety because people cannot handle the overload. He argues that ephemeralization lubricates society’s systems by letting information flow more easily between points, but makes the results harder to predict. His solution seems to be a “global brain”, a system with no center, where intelligence is collective and flexible, and individual use patterns are transformed into massive filters. Limiting the information coming to the user is the way to deal with anxiety.

That creates convenience of output, at the cost of exploring alternative paths easily. It suggests that the way you work today is how you should work tomorrow, the way you explore and play is consistent. It seems to prevent waste, and may make sense in a macro context. But for the individual person, exploratory opportunities are wasted, though time and stress is saved. And what if the personal anxiety did not originate in the overload of information, which can be stopped by turning off your electronic devices? What if it originated in the fact that the access to everything is so very convenient, and the soul realizes that things which come too easily are worthless?

There are a number of people I know who deliberately do not get too connected, deliberately do not take the time to learn much about the web. They frustrate me because they only go online for a few things, like ordering books or looking up something specific. They don’t Twitter or blog — those are things mostly educational technologists and politicos do, and it’s time we looked at why. It’s not just a lack of understanding as to what the internet can do. It’s a desire for peace and quiet, self-reflection, avoidance of the cognitive overload that we already had before the internet. It’s handling the problem at the input end. These friends rarely use their cell phone or watch TV, but they read a lot and are culturally highly literate. They enjoy life, are conventionally educated, know how to relax, and can access what they need without losing sight of traditions, personal relationships, neighborhoods, and efforts to deal with the many problems (poverty, illiteracy, fanaticism) that Heylighen admits we have been totally unable to solve. They have something to say, and what they say is about human philosophical questions, not machines: how to be a good person, what the role of the individual is in society, how you can help the people with whom we share the planet, and how to tread lightly on the earth. Surely here the content is more important than the connections, and it isn’t wasted.

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