When you have a moment to spare, check out Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Life Inc. That’s what I intend to do.

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Slow Reading and the End of Print

It seems you can do all sorts of things slowly. Why weren’t we told?

Actually, Slow Reading by John Miedema is a thoughtful consideration of the enduring place of print in our culture. You’d be forgiven for assuming print was dying out under the pervasive i-influence of e-everything. Indeed, the author quotes Jeff Bezos of Amazon as saying the book is ‘the last bastion of analogue’.

Actually what I find interesting about the times we’re in is the arrival of radical new forms of physical textuality which call into question the simple story of the death of print. Two examples that keep catching my eye are the espresso book machine and the youtube graffiti wall.

The Espresso book machine is basically a photocopier that can spit out well made paperback books while you wait. This is a hi-tech mix of the digital (the back catalogue of every digitised book on the planet instantly available) and the traditionally physical (the physical paperback book to take away and enjoy). But it’s important to remember that paperbacks themselves are relatively new technology, having only achieved mass appeal in the 1930s (and the first paperback book shops were introduced to the US in the 1950s).

Where the publicity for the Espresso Book Machine goes wrong, I think, is that it tremendously underestimates the revolution that it heralds. Supposedly the new technology will make small independent book shops more competitive with the larger chains and the larger chains more competitive with supermarkets. This is exactly wrong. What it means is that notionally, every shop can and will become a book shop. And the cost of the technology is only going to come down. What will make the difference is not the ability to stock books, since there’s no more stock, nor the ability to discount them, since overheads are now minimal. The difference will be in the ability to promote them. The rise and rise of the expert bookseller has just begun.

The graffiti wall is a very weird phenomenon. This is the ability of internet video to bring to life monumental artwork inscribed on physical surfaces using stop motion filming techniques. This form of art has been feasible for a long time – since the invention of photography – but only now, with ubiquitous digitization, has it taken off. What’s interesting about this is the sense that the digital somehow requires the monumentally and immovably physical wall for its rhetorical effect as spectacle to work. It shows, I think, that the end-of-the-book anxiety is just a sub-set of a larger end-of-the-physical anxiety. It also shows that the physical doesn’t end, it just gets transformed. We are living in a time of digital-physical hybridization and we should probably get used to the feeling of not being able to get used to it.

East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet…

Fourcultures has previously expressed frustration over the ubiquity of the fiction of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ thought worlds. One antidote on offer is to read the excellent book The Shape of Ancient Thought. To get a little more up to date, another suggestion would be:

Kapil Raj. Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

This book disputes the idea that modern western knowledge originated in the West then was transmitted elsewhere (contra Basalla 1967, for instance). Instead, the author shows, fields such as botany, cartography, terrestrial surveying, linguistics, scientific education and colonial administration, all depended for their development on a good deal of intellectual coming and going between ‘East’ (with a focus here on South Asia) and ‘West’ , between colonial centres and their colonies.

Read also: How to combine Eastern and Western Philosophy

Reference: George Basalla, The Spread of Western Science.  Science 5 May 1967: Vol. 156. no. 3775, pp. 611 – 622

Good Intentions: is rational choice the only choice?

A new book called Good Intentions proposes that Christians should stop judging economic matters on the basis of pre-conceived moral positions and start judging them on the basis of what actually works. A prime example is the debate about the minimum wage… Continue reading “Good Intentions: is rational choice the only choice?”

The Four Cultures – No Way! Oh go on then…

greeneggMost of the dominant analyses of society allow for a straight choice between one of only two conditions. A clear example is political preference, the dichotomy between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ or between left and right. But the Four cultures approach explored on this website proposes that there are four, not two basic ways of organising society (but there aren’t any more than that). It claims that when we think in terms of only two ways of organising society,  we are missing out on the other two, and then our understanding as well as our freedom of action suffers for it.

Since this post is being composed on Dr Seuss’s birthday, I’ll use an appropriate example: Green Eggs and Ham. Continue reading “The Four Cultures – No Way! Oh go on then…”

The Four Cultures of Science Fiction

As a genre, sci-fi is par excellence concerned with culture. What would it be like to visit an alien world? How would its inhabitants operate, and how would they differ from us?

In a way it’s a kind of theoretical anthropology. Think of Ursula Le Guin’s inquiry into a culture of hermaphrodites in The Left Hand of Darkness, or of Iain M. Banks’s series of novels in which he explores the political permutations of a culture that has abolished scarcity – a culture provocatively named ‘the Culture’. Continue reading “The Four Cultures of Science Fiction”

The Dam Bursts

credit: mandj98Imagine a village nestled in a valley below a large dam.

One morning the villagers look up from their houses to see very clearly that the dam has suddenly burst and a huge quantity of flood water is incontrovertibly rushing down the valley towards the defenceless settlement.

It has all happened so fast there is no way of stopping it. And no-one is doubting the reality of the predicament: the village is about to be entirely consumed by the raging flood.

So far, so certain. The facts are there to be seen by all. So, given this, why doesn’t everyone do the same thing? Surely the best course of action is obvious.

The theory of Four Cultures suggests that even when the facts are clearly known, there are four main ways people interpret their environment. Continue reading “The Dam Bursts”

The Dark Side of Cultural Theory

Nick Naylor: Right there, looking into Joey’s eyes, it all came back in a rush. Why I do what I do. Defending the defenseless, protecting the disenfranchised corporations that have been abandoned by their very own consumers: the logger, the sweatshop foreman, the oil driller, the land mine developer, the baby seal poacher…
Polly Bailey: Baby seal poacher?
Bobby Jay Bliss:
Even *I* think that’s kind of cruel.

Thank You For Smoking (2005)

Grid-group cultural theory proposes that there’s a constant and endless argument going on about ‘the facts of the matter’. We look at the evidence that suits our cultural biases – moreover we create the evidence to fit our take on the world. Continue reading “The Dark Side of Cultural Theory”

Certainty: I’m fairly sure we don’t need it

Have you noticed many people tend to be pretty certain that Peak Oil either is or isn’t happening, global warming either is or isn’t happening, and so on. Guns, abortion, nanotechnology, Genetic Modification of crops, controlled burning of the Australian bush – it can be quite polarised.

The preferred strategy seems to be to get hold of all the evidence then make a decision that you can be more or less sure about. We seem to like certainty and it seems to be an aid to decision-making. Conversely, it’s hard to take F. Scott Fizgerald’s advice that

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

So Robert A. Burton’s book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not is very helpful and provocative. Basically, the story we tell ourselves about certainty and how we reach it is completely wrong. Continue reading “Certainty: I’m fairly sure we don’t need it”