Wednesday 26 December 2007

TV (Ancient Roman-style)

Where is the TV in your house?

Following my latest post about technology and askesis, a comment from Anirudh got me thinking about this. When it comes to giving up particular technologies or habits, will-power isn't always very helpful. For instance, having decided to reduce your TV habit, you can rely on your strength of will - or you can unplug the TV set and move it to the spare room. In my experience, the second method is more effective.

Though I can't find the reference, I'm sure Christopher Hitchens advises aspiring contrarians to give a bookshelf that pride of place in their living quarters commonly afforded to the TV. Visiting Alastair McIntosh a few years ago, I remember him referring to the wood stove in his front room as "our television".

There is certainly something mesmeric about an open fire: the way it holds the eye, becomes the focal point of a room. The word focus itself originally refers to the hearth, which held a central position in the Roman household, both physically and spiritually. (The journey from this meaning to its modern, technical usage probably deserves more thought.) The hearth was associated with the lares, the household gods, who had their own shrine, the lararium, around which the household would gather daily.

Thinking about all this, I came across the picture (below) of the lararium in the House of the Vetti at Pompey. To my eye, it does look rather like a precedent for the magic box around which families gather in the modern household - and whose observances are stepped up on high days and holy days.

On which note, Happy Christmas!

Friday 21 December 2007

Ten Steps To Giving Up Email

I mentioned the other day that, returning from Cuernavaca with the concepts of askesis and otium on my mind, I seemed to keep bumping into friends who were choosing to give things up or trying to spend less time with technology and get back to their bodies. Well, here's an example.

Saul Albert is an extremely smart guy, someone I've been crossing paths with for years, and whose understanding of computers is in a different league to mine. He's an artist and technologist, and (among much else) co-founder of The People Speak which develops 'Tools For The World To Take Over Itself'.

He's also just given up email.

In the spirit of Pick Me Up, he's written a ten step plan of how he's going about this. Here's a taste:

  1. I’m going to talk to all the people I’m collaborating and communicating with via email, and work out together how we can continue this relationship without email.

  2. I’m going to unsubscribe from all my mailing lists (while making sure I can follow them via RSS).

  3. I’m going to tell all my friends and family about this experiment, and make sure they know how to contact me...

You can read the rest over on his blog, along with his reasons for quitting. What struck me was the tenth step of his plan:

  1. Finally, I’m going to organise my time in a way that suits me. This is what I’m most excited about. The thought of time without email, or worrying about email accumulating is really enticing. This will include regularly being in places where I can meet people (by arrangement or randomly) - having certain times of the day for calls and voicemail, and having other parts of the day for work - but just work, as in doing things I need to do - rather than simply shovelling the top off the growing email pile.

This is precisely what askesis should mean: not self-denial, but a deliberate decision to make room for people and things that matter to us.

Thursday 20 December 2007

Cancel First World Debt!

UnLtdWorld is a new social networking site which aims to bring together people who want to "generate social impact" - in other words, change the world. I've met Alberto, who's running it, and I was impressed by his experience and the way he's approaching the project.

So this morning I sat down to create my profile on their Beta site, when I came to two questions which temporarily stumped me:

  • What issue most concerns you in the world?

  • What single issue would you change to make the world a better place?

They are entirely appropriate questions for the site, just not ones that I'm very good at answering.

In the end, I decided that what most concerns me is 'the loss of the sense of timeliness'. And the single change I would make would be to 'cancel first world debt'.

I didn't notice until afterwards, but these answers pinpoint two of the three things I would like to write about, at that distant period in my life when I finally have the time to write something more coherent than a blog. They are also connected: the effect of being in debt shapes your experience of and relationship to time. And, since the cultural and economic shifts of the 1960s, debt has become the primary mechanism of social control that keeps us bound to our untimely way of living. But that's a long story...

What prompted me to blog about this was that, having been thinking about the cancellation of debt, I stumbled across this article (via Ran):

Laws that periodically canceled debts, freed Israelite debt-servants, and returned lands to their traditional holders have confused Biblical students for centuries. They have long been virtually ignored by historians on the ground that, to modern eyes, they would seem to wreak economic havoc.

Recent discoveries of Bronze Age Near Eastern royal proclamations dating from 2400 to 1600 BCE leave no doubt that these edicts were implemented. During the Babylonian period they grew more elaborate and detailed, capped by Ammisaduqa’s Edict of 1646 BCE. Now that these edicts are understood, the Biblical laws no longer stand alone as utopian or other-worldly ideals; they take their place in a 2,000-year continuum of periodic and regular economic renewal based on freedom from debt-servitude and from the loss of access to self-support on the land...

Rome was the first society not to cancel its debts. And we all know what happened to it. Classical historians such as Plutarch, Livy, and Diodorus attributed Rome’s decline and fall to the fact that creditors got the entire economy in their debt, expropriated the land and public domain, and strangled the economy.

The author is Michael Hudson, an economist at the University of Missouri, and there's a lot more on his website. I'm very glad to have found it, because I've wondered for a long time whether the Jubilee laws of the Old Testament were more than wishful thinking, and - despite coming from a family of theologians - noone was able to tell me.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Fax Machines and the Invention of the Wheel

It's great to see Tim posting again on I Will Rush No More, one of my favourite blogs. For me, there's a definite connection between his practise of slowing down and the tradition of otium that I've been writing about. What I admire is Tim's talent for placing his reflections in medias res, reporting a conversation with a neighbour while clearing snow off his drive, or over breakfast with a friend:

I ask: "When do you think it all changed, all this speeding up stuff?"

He says: "Easy; it changed the day fax machines became available for the home-office. Then you never got away from it and it also created an expectation of urgency where you had to deal with it right away and get back to the sender."

In a comment on Tim's post, John Xenakis writes:

The fax machine? Naah. It began with the Xerox machine. No, I mean the Univac machine. Wait, no, I mean the telephone. The telegraph. The Pony Express. The carrier pigeon. The tom-tom.

Oh hell, it began when they invented the wheel.

I suppose John has a point, in that it can be worth pushing further back, recognising the extent to which the latest and most obvious source of aggravation may be less new than it seems. Often, it turns out to be an intensification of a pre-existing tendency (as I've been arguing about managerialism in the university).

One direction this can lead is to the sort of radical critique of "civilization" offered by Derrick Jensen, John Zerzan or Ran Prieur. It was Tim who first put me on to Ran's writings, while one of Ran's posts yesterday gives a nice example of how counterproductive rushing can be. He's quoting an email someone sent him about Alan G. Carter's The Programmers Stone:

"Alan Garter [sic] tried to find a reason why some programmers are 10-25 times more productive than others. He stumbled across the answer, and made a team of super-programmers. Then the rest of the organization turned on his team! His theory is that people are literally addicted to stress. Stress releases dopamine in the brain, which gives a the stressee a good buzz. When two people accustomed to different levels of stress meet, they often don't like each other because one is getting overly stressed and the other isn't getting their dopamine hit. Stress also shuts off what he calls juxtapositional thinking, a holistic, comparative mode of thinking."

Basically there are two kinds of thinking and you need both, but under stress you're limited to thinking that is narrowly focused, methodical, and not at all intuitive. And to have a productive/unstressed programming team, you first need an unstressed organization around them. Clearly this goes way beyond programming. This whole civilization is driven by stress, and has been for thousands of years.

(This reminds me, in passing, of a post a while back from JP Rangaswami, a friend of School of Everything, about the different types of laziness.)

But back to John's comment. If we have to trace the tendency to futile acceleration back from the fax machine, via the telegraph, all the way to the invention of the wheel, doesn't this just lead to paralysis? How on earth can you and me escape? ("History," Stephen said, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.")

In Illich's thinking, I can find two possible ways out from this paralysis. The first is the idea of thresholds. Particularly in his earlier work, Illich stresses the idea that technologies have a threshold beyond which they become counterproductive. So rather than the vertiginous regression that leads back from the fax machine to the wheel, we could seek to discern the point at which this happened. That's more or less what Tim and his friend seem to be doing in their conversation - though we might want to push the threshold further back.

Dean Bavington, who I met in Cuernavaca, gave an outstanding presentation on the technological threshold in the Newfoundland cod fishery. He illustrated this by passing around the audience a 'cod jigger', the fearsome piece of equipment which he believes represents the crossing of that particular threshold. Prior to the introduction of the jigger, cod could only be caught if they were hungry enough to take the bait; from that point on, fishing increasingly became the indiscriminate scooping up of biomass, until catastrophic collapse led to the closure of the fishery in 1992.

The second possible way out is by shifting attention from the technology itself to the qualities of relationships. What kinds of relationship does a particular technology tend to foster among those who use it and those around them? Does it tend to encourage instrumental attitudes, seeing other people or things as a resource, a means to an end or a source of exchange value? Does it decrease the amount of time and space the user has for those around them?

If we pay attention to questions like these, we may choose to go on using a particular technology, despite its general tendencies, because we see the possibility - with care - of using it in other ways. Or, as I suggested the other day, we may choose askesis - voluntary renunciation, temporary or permanent, of a particular technology, habit, or whatever - so as to allow room for otium, for time spent on the things that matter to us and with the people who matter to us.

This is where I see Anthony's thinking about gentleness leading - and it takes us back to where we are, clearing snow or talking over breakfast.

Monday 17 December 2007

The Problem with the Gentlemanly University

Dan (whose relaunched blog, Covered in Bees, is worth checking out) commented on Friday's oversized post with a link to an elegantly barbed piece from the Times Higher. The author is the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, his target the much reviled Research Assessment Exercise to which academic departments in the UK are now subject. Blackburn has an angry kind of fun with the RAE, imagining how it might have processed the greats of philosophy:

In amongst the 4* management-speak encomia for team building and research environments we also find with gratitude that "the sub-panel is aware that research of high quality is very often carried out by individual scholars". Phew! A close call then for Plato, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein and all the rest! They just squeak in, although whether in their own time they would have done so at the 1*, 2*, 3*, or 4* level might puzzle us to say... Like creative art, as often as not great and even good philosophy only slowly creates the sensibilities by which it gets recognized.

The hopeful part of me wonders whether the sheer lunacy of today's managerialism could have the effect of bringing down the whole knowledge factory?

I suggested the other day that earlier models of the university were already fundamentally "business-like" - in that a turn had already taken place away from the ancient assumption that learning requires otium (leisure), towards a model of learning as the "production of knowledge". However, their gentlemanly style of business left many of their inhabitants room to pursue something closer to the style of learning for which I care.

So, what was the problem? Well, my theory (which I'm making up as I go along - bear with me!) is that these institutions also played a critical role in producing the world as we find it - including the ways of thinking which lead to managerialism. (For example, the assumption that reality can be adequately/meaningfully/usefully treated as made up of resources, whose unique and specific qualities are wholly subordinate to their mathematical representation, or exchange value.)

If managerialism is not a barbarian invader, but the absurd heir to centuries of respectable thinking, this has implications for those who would defend learning against it.

The hope I referred to is this: there are many of us who, a generation or two ago, might have holed up comfortably in academia and who are now either sitting inside the university, feeling increasing discomfort - or already outside and improvising space for learning, thinking, reading and writing as best we can. These two groups form a pool in which I think I can make out a potential for new ways of organising learning. These may have some of the qualities I celebrate, without being bound to institutions which are antithetical to those qualities. Significantly, this pool includes people who do not share the kind of critique of the university per se which I have been trying to make.

In support of all this wishful thinking, I offer a passage from the theologian Prof Richard H Roberts which has been rattling around my head for three years now:

Given present conditions, I believe that the future survival of fundamental truth-seeking, the production of knowledge and genuinely 'owned' university teaching, together understood as part and parcel of the total way of life, may well only be assured through cultural migration, and the creation of new, subversive and marginal institutional embodiments.

Religion, Theology and the Human Sciences p.xi

'Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread' and all that... I realise I may be slashing about with a broadsword where what's required is a scalpel. Please, if you know any good surgeons trying to perform such an operation, point me towards them.

Newsflash: Capitalism Defeated!

You'd think this story (from Latin American news agency, Prenza Latina) might have got more coverage, really:


It's a headline worthy of William Boot, the accidental hero of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, which is my current bedtime reading.

Friday 14 December 2007

Why the only true schooling is a vacation (or "What I didn't do in my holidays")

It has been a week already since I got back from Mexico. I returned with all kinds of things to post about and no great desire to get posting.

Among the pleasures of the Illich colloquium, one was the almost total withdrawal from electronic communication. My reluctance to begin reporting back is partly a reluctance to complete my reintegration to the technological matrix, and partly a sense that the experiences and conversations at Cuernavaca took place not only in a different time zone, but in a different sort of time. Whilst there, they made perfect sense, but a process of careful and unrushed translation is needed, or they are in danger of becoming nonsense. (Leastways, that's my excuse for having been so inarticulate when people asked me how my trip went...)

The pleasure of withdrawing from technology would have been no surprise to Illich. One of the consistent strands in his work is a call to askesis, the discipline of freely chosen renunciation. The purpose of such renunciation is not self-punishment, nor does it imply a judgement on those who don't choose to join us in renouncing a particular habit, activity or technology. Rather, it is a way of making room for the pleasures of otium (of which, more in a moment).

All this, though, is foreign to us. When 'asceticism' is referred to today, it generally signifies a (probably perverse) religious practice. It suggests masochism - or, at least, that hatred of the body which the secular often regard as an essential feature of the religious. It is worth highlighting, then, that in Illich's writing, this aspect of asceticism is not simply downplayed, but explicitly countered. In a 1989 proposal for a five year course aimed at recovering 'the perceptions of self and other which led to the formation of ascetical disciplines,' he writes:

I will place the body rather than the mind at the center of my lectures, not because I can distinguish the two, but because I need a term, the term "body" to engage the student's interest in the traditional habits that cultivate personal centers which they might never have adverted to, such as the heart, the eyes, the limbs, the stomach, the flesh, the ears and the spirit.

'Ascetical habits' once stood in balance with 'critical habits' in the western tradition of learning, but were marginalised from 'the foundation of the University in the late Middle Ages'. Though he doesn't spell it out, I suspect Illich saw a direct connection between this and the disembodiment of knowledge characteristic of modern science. (An idea which deserves fleshing out in a post of its own.)

For now, back to the pleasures of otium, for which askesis makes room. In Latin, otium is leisure, peace and quiet, freedom from responsibility: something looked forward to in retirement or time off from worldly duties. It is the term used by Augustine to describe his calling to a life of study and contemplation, and it characterises the atmosphere required for learning in the monastic tradition. The connection is ancient: the Greek for otium is schole, from which we get 'school'. (And according to Strong's Greek Dictionary, schole is 'a vacation from physical work' and scholazo is 'to take a holiday', so the truest form of schooling really is a vacation!)

The opposite of otium is negotium, literally nec-otium, 'no-leisure'. This is business, occupation or employment - but also pains, trouble and difficulty. Such affairs may not be ultimately escapable. (For Augustine, the calling to otium is in tension with the negotium of ecclesiastical responsibilities.) Yet the value of escape, temporary or permanent, is not in doubt - and it is seen as essential for the pursuit of learning.

All this is of interest to those of us who enjoy the dance of words and ideas to the rhythm of history. The more practically minded may find it 'otiose' in the modern sense: idle, useless and a waste of time. (Mind you, those changed connotations do offer a striking measure of how values have shifted.) Yet there may be meat here for those of us who would negotiate the world of education today.

Both personally and on behalf of School of Everything, I am keen to take part in conversations about the future of the university and of higher learning in general. I share the opinion of those who see in the current crisis of Higher Education, not merely a need to defend the older professional model against managerialism (or to mourn its passing), but the hopeful possibility of new, marginal spaces in which we can explore other ways of organising learning. So I was intrigued, earlier this year, when I heard about the EduFactory project to explore the 'Conflicts and transformations of the university'.

Yet, not for the first time, I found myself disappointed by the conversation that ensued (through the medium of an unfortunately unarchived email list). A great volume of words was produced, theoretically dense, often leading to bad-tempered exchanges, yet suggesting also a great deal of intelligence and good intentions. It was perplexing. My friend Anthony, who has the advantage over me of being a certified academic, lost patience, told the list what he thought and went elsewhere. Essentially, he told them they were suffering from collective verbal diaorrhea, and he wasn't wrong, but what I hadn't located until I sat down to write this was the source of their incontinence.

Bearing in mind the concepts of otium and negotium, the problem may be seen from the name of the project, or from the prospectus for its second round (which began last month):

The first round of discussion on the edu-factory list showed that, despite the many differences between universities and countries, it is possible to identify a global trend and common experiences in the world of the university. These stem from the pervasiveness of the market and the processes of corporatisation that universities in many parts of the world are undergoing. But they also involve the struggles and movements that have contested academic borders as well as wider power structures, claiming the free circulation of knowledge and practicing alternative forms of knowledge production.

For the radicals of the edu-factory list, just as much as their supposed enemies, the university is conceived of as a factory for 'knowledge production'. No wonder they are so industrious in the manufacture of neologisms, or such Stakhanovites in their output of emails!

Government ministers often see universities (or, to be more precise, Oxford and Cambridge) as feudal anachronisms, holding out against good, rational, business management. The truth is stranger. The very roots of the modern university, as early as the 13th century, are in the turn away from otium as the proper atmosphere for study, towards worldy negotium. So the contemporary crisis is rather more like that of an old family business, run for generations on gentlemanly terms, which finds itself suddenly under new ownership and having its assets stripped.

After going on for eight centuries, most inhabitants of the university can barely imagine it as anything other than a factory for the production of knowledge. Yet the grounds for such imagination are just what study-as-otium can offer. Illich, again:

I want to cultivate the capacity for second thoughts, by which I mean the stance and the competence that makes it feasible to inquire into the obvious. This is what I call learning.

And, in another essay, 'The Cultivation of Conspiracy':

Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.

Is there any hope for learning as a quest, rather than a production line? For these strange concepts of askesis and otium? 'The asceticism which can be practiced at the end of the 20th century,' Illich wrote, 'is something profoundly different from any previously known.'

I find hope in the company of those I met in Cuernavaca, but also in a series of encounters since I returned with some of the smartest, most technologically adept people I know. One is giving up sending email from his thirtieth birthday. Another will spend ten days over Christmas and New Year in a silent retreat. The third claimed to have spent the past few months 'shitting myself into a twelve inch screen' and to want reminding that she has a body. The possibilities are there.

Anyway, the great thing about otium is that you don't have to wait for the fulfilment of a grand project to enjoy it. You can start by switching off your computer, turning off your phone, stretching your work-cramped body and deciding to dedicate the weekend ahead to meditative idleness - which is just what I plan to do now.

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