Archive for June, 2009

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Buddhist Economics, Cool Enough To Touch

The light and heat generated during the late 60s and early 70s was the result of challenging boundaries, and to some extent testing the possibility of actually setting up a tent and living on a boundary. Living an everyday life in that high intensity environment proved untenable, but the artifacts thrown off from those expeditions have started to cool off enough that we can finally pick them up and examine them.

McLuhan, in Understanding Media, (another artifact from that era) talks about about how high-intensity experiences initially overwhelm the senses:

Intensity or high definition engenders specialism and fragmentation in living as in entertainment, which explains why any intense experience must be “forgotten,” “censored,” and reduced to a very cool state before it can be “learned” or assimilated. The Freudian “censor” is less of a moral function than an indispensable condition of learning. Were we to accept fully and directly every shock to our various structures of awareness, we would soon be nervous wrecks, doing double-takes and pressing panic buttons every minute. The “censor” protects our central system of values, as it does our physical nervous system by simply cooling off the onset of experience a great deal. For many people, this cooling system brings on a lifelong state of psychic rigor mortis, or of somnambulism, particularly observable in periods of new technology.

In 1973, E.F. Schumacher published a collection of essays under the title: Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. In the essay Buddhist Economics, Schumacher points out that value in economics is derived from our system of values. Suppressing all systems of values in favor of the idea of economic growth has allowed capital to emerge as an other-worldly abstraction. Like any successful creature, it fights to preserve the particular state of the ecosystem that allows it to flourish. Buddhist Economics posits that other systems of value are possible.

Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from “metaphysics” or “values” as the law of gravitation. We need not, however, get involved in arguments of methodology. Instead, let us take some fundamentals and see what they look like when viewed by a modern economist and a Buddhist economist.

It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.

Recently, Umair Haque has reintroduced us to the idea that value must return to earth, must live amongst people again, must be socialized. The value system of growth has been playing a zero-sum game. The monoculture of economics must change its farming practices and think of the fields once more as a garden. I wonder whether these ideas have cooled enough to be considered possibilities. Has the ecosystem changed enough to uncover interfaces by which they could be assimilated?

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that we cannot step into the same river twice. And yet I swear I’ve seen this piece of the stream before…

TS Eliot, Burnt Norton

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden.

Shall we follow?

The End of Architecture


It was when the web site entered its Baroque era that the job description of the information architect seemed to crystallize. The ornamentation decorating the dizzying heights, the complex taxonomies of categories, and various drawers into which content was stuffed, all this required the vigilant organizational skills of the architect. The web site seemed to pattern itself on the design of the altar of a Baroque Cathedral. Information organized for the greater glory of the product. The value of the space radiating out from the home page expressing the theology of the brand. The adjoining chapels and the stories of the saints told in shards of glass extend the value proposition. User-centered design assumed the supplicant wished to have the most useful experience of prostration before the brand.

Room after room was added to the structure, each cleverly tucked into some classification that related it to the whole. Of course, while all of the rooms were smartly decorated, there was almost no foot traffic. The monitors of the brand wander the halls, peeking in to the this room and that one, checking to see whether dust is accumulating. The small portion of the structure that attracted use and generated revenue serves as a keystone to the entire surrounding architecture.

Wikipedia, for the moment, has this to say about architecture:

Architecture (from Greek word ἀ?χιτεκτονική – arkhitektonike) is the art and science of designing and constructing buildings and other physical structures for human shelter or use. A wider definition often includes the design of the total built environment, from the macro level of how a building integrates with its surrounding context (see town planning, urban design, and landscape architecture) to the micro level of architectural or construction details and, sometimes, furniture and hardware. Wider still, architecture is the activity of designing any kind of system.

The reason that the Baroque era of web design signals the end of architecture, is not that the task is complete. Nor is it that another style, Bauhaus, for example, will replace the previous style. Architecture is an art and discipline that organizes things in physical space. The Network is not a physical space. When we speak of it as a space, we project attributes on to a blank screen. Doc Searls talks about the Giant Zero, the idea that the distance between endpoints on the Network is zero. In the manifesto he wrote with David Weinberger, World of Ends, he describes the thoughts sparked by Craig Burton:

When Craig Burton describes the Net’s stupid architecture as a hollow sphere comprised entirely of ends, he’s painting a picture that gets at what’s most remarkable about the Internet’s architecture: Take the value out of the center and you enable an insane flowering of value among the connected end points. Because, of course, when every end is connected, each to each and each to all, the ends aren’t endpoints at all.

Even this description relies on a spacial metaphor. If there’s no distance between the startpoint and an endpoint, why do we talk of starting and ending at all? What are these points that have no distance between them? We gut the history and most resonant qualities of a word, and then persist in using it as a tool for thought. We ask what are the qualities of the space of the Network? What’s the most user-centered approach to building out a site in that space?

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
Ludwig Wittengenstein

The end of architecture doesn’t mean the end of thinking about the Network, or standing up new nodes of connection. It’s only that we stand at the edge of our language and words come slowly. Rather than looking for an external model out in the world, perhaps we should look for an internal one. Or something that stands at the threshhold between the two: Language itself might serve as a point of departure.

Fair Use And Remixing Post-Literate Thought


There will be no laughter. No enjoyment of any kind. As Laurie Anderson once said, “sit bolt upright in your straight-backed chair, and button that top button,” the words, images and videos assembled on this page are for the purpose of either commentary, criticism or education. Please keep this in mind as you “read.”

Good evening. Welcome to Difficult Music Hour.
The spot on your dial for that relentless and
impenetrable sound of difficult music [music, music, music]
So sit bolt upright in that straight-backed chair,
button that top button
and get set for some difficult music:

Laurie Anderson
Difficult Listening Hour

Sequences of letters, especially in the form of typography, have the wonderful quality of hiding their origins. We dip our hand into the cloth bag, pull out some scrabble tiles and fashion words which we string together into original sentences. The audience’s attention is misdirected, and we magically produce language out of thin air. Images and sounds, on the other hand, betray their origins— collaged or remixed, we recognize the original context. It’s a snippet of this song, a clip from that movie, or a fragment of a rather famous photograph.

Even text has taken on the attributes of recorded media. Printed sequences of words become an image of text. An image that can be matched to other images to determine whether a particular flow of words actually manifested ex nihilo or was, in fact, a photocopy of previously recorded material. Mike Masnick asks whether King Lear could be written under current legal conditions— its sources are legendary. As the digital swallows all other media, we can see, with eventualities like Google Wave, text will be recorded as it is typed— with instant universal playback at our finger tips.

I remember you typing that letter to me. I watched as the characters filled in one by one— moving across my screen. You mispelled the word “ambidextrous” and the spell checker caught it in real time. The rhythm of the typing was hypnotic. I play it back often, just to watch the letters dance.

If images, video and sound were to be embedded in the substance of a stream of thought, could the thinker be sued for copyright infringement? And could that stream really be called thought? If there is such a thing as post-literate thought, and it has a beat you can dance to— what would distinguish it from music? But the more important question is: is it really necessary to keep music/video/images out of thought? It’s a  question first seriously addressed in the conflicts of Byzantium between the iconoclasts and the iconodules.

Kurt Weibers, in his Marshall McLuhan Remix, takes some of these issues head on. The project is presented in three parts and is well worth your time. Although please keep in mind that these videos are for your edification only, any enjoyment, finger snapping or inappropriate context switching could put Mr. Weibers in legal trouble. So, button your top button, and press to play…

An interesting coda to Mr. Weibers’s production is the revelation of his correspondence with YouTube over the use of samples from a song recorded by the Talking Heads, called “Take Me To The River.” The epilogue [3/3] of the work was blocked by YouTube, and Mr. Weibers disputed the action based on the definitions of  fair use in the copyright act. YouTube responded quickly and unblocked the video.

These questions are not simple ones. While it’s true that the remix is the medium of our time, the issues permeating the economics of the transition are very serious. When the value of music was thought to be price one could charge to see a performance, signing a recording contract that paid a small fixed fee for the session seemed to make sense. We have yet to discover the economics of the remix, but discover them we must.

Ink, Trust and the Electronic Vote


It probably passed unnoticed by most, but an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times contained this phrase:

Electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper record of every vote cast cannot be trusted.

The Times stated its support for Representative Rush Holt’s Bill which would ban paperless electronic voting in all federal elections. Of course, it’s the combination of ink and paper that supplies the level of documentation for which the congressman is looking. It is asserted that a physical manifestation of the vote is required to establish trust. A mark upon a ballot that can be plainly seen by anyone in the broad daylight of a town square.

While the documentation of voter suppression can be digitally captured and distributed via the real-time news network, the act of voting itself, apparently, cannot be trusted to the digital. The low cost of change damages the digital’s credibility here. It seems too easy to hack the vote.  And yet, we trust our finances to purely digital systems— and our medical records will soon move from ink and paper to databases.

What would electronic voting have to be in order for it to enjoy the level of trust accorded to voting through the medium of ink and paper?  And what change would that level of trust signal?

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