Gutenberg printing

The Age of Information

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Will Durant became widely known for his early books, especially The Story of Philosophy.*  My copy is from 1933, the 15th printing. A yelloeing newspaper clipping is inside; it is an interview with the Durants in 1963 by Jim Bishop, and  includes a brief account of their 1913 marriage: Ariel  was 15 years old; Will, her tutor, was 25; yet they obtained approval to marry. She rollerskated to the courthouse; a ring she wore ever after was donated by an attendant; the marriage lasted 68 years until their deaths two weeks apart. Ariel was a collaborator in all of the Durant’s subsequent books, and co-authored the later ones; their commitment and devotion is palpable in the dedication of  Story of Philosoply which reads:

To My Wife

Grow strong, my comrade… that you may stand

Unshaken when I fall; that I may know

the shattered fragments of my song will come

at last to finer melody in you;

that I may tell my heart that you begin

where passing I leave off, and fathom more.

The same features of Durant’s book that made it popular were offensive to many formal historians: it is clearly written, and contains opinion, commentary, and humor. In other words, it was written to be read. understood, and enjoyed. As I open up my old copy again, the preface pages seem relevant to us in the 21st century; “Science teaches us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate retail, then kills us wholesale in war.” .They argue that only wisdom, as revealed through  “desire coordinated in the light of experience, ( philosophy)   can tell us when to heal and when to kill.” I will suggest that the world-wide chaos all around us in this new century is only another chapter in  an imagined Story of Creation: There is no author other than humanity:

Book One, The Age of Agriculture is unfinished. It begins with the creation of farming and husbandry, which promote stable communities at the expense of hunter-gathering. Stable communities lead to social order, and in time, to science, art, land ownership, geometry, mathematics, commerce, architecture, rule of law. The chapter now being written in an increasingly urban 21st century is titled,   Malthus, Speak.

Book Two, The age of Information,  is also unfinished. Its dominant theme is that to create easy access to information can lead to chaos, which in turn, creates change in human behavior. How ironic and circular it is that humankind creates that which creates change in humanity!  The chapter on the Biblical Genesis suggests that too much knowledge– information– is too much power; and power is something humans do not manage well.  When the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is eaten, God becomes enraged and expels Adam and Eve from Eden. Now  we billions of tiny fleshy gods suffer from knowledge: Infomania, or infodynia.

The chapter on the creation of the Printing Press was about  the time when printed information became available to the entire world, information  formerly accessible only to Church, Wealth and Monarchy (one and the same). The result is a still evolving revolution in various degrees, and weakening of the three-in-one powers. Only Wealth seems still healthy; yet for how long? Perhaps we shall see. Many grotesquely wealthy people are divesting through charity already, aware that their life is finite, and wealth is anathematic when hundreds of millions of people, whose voices, unheard light years distant, are now loud and clear on Social Media.

The chapter on information  is still being written but, Ready or not, Social Media is here now, vital and alive, making books, magazines, and TV Old Media;  still of interest but mainly in retrospect.  We might have noticed the change when Talk Radio heralded new media, but was  less interactive. Social Media, in countries where not suppressed, is egalitarian,  and remains in the hands of the limitless number of individuals whose collective voice is very loud even though each one by itself is– pipsqueak–  unless it goes ‘viral’. That Info-genie, is out of the bottle; it’s body is made up of various aspects of the internet, browsers, email, skype etc.;   social media is its mind and voice,  where live information is instantly available to almost anyone, anywhere. Any image, any idea,  can spread in minutes around the globe.  Any single voice can be heard. Meanwhile traditional top down sources of information shrivel , snivel, and fail: newspapers shrink to the size of circulars, sirviving  on snippets of local news, and remunerative misleading medical or  cure-all ads. Information offered on TV remains stale, dull, repetitive, and uniform; talking heads  are entertainers on the order of professional wrestlers or football players, but less entertaining; some are serial sexual predators, violent scofflaws and drug users, yet they  foppishly foist political views on viewers who turn to free media, social media.  However we  face a  tsunami of information which creates chaos, both internal and societal. We are unable to evaluate, filter and sort it all. And until we are able to live wisely, and adapt, or create new ways of dealing with all this information, we are likely to remain factionalized, frustrated, fragile, and furious.

The Durant position is that people gnerally  lack wisdom, which they see as the realm of philosophy. They decry epistemology, as an analytic approach or scientification of philosophy. The introductory paragraph  in The Story of Philosophy, titled To the Reader suggests that:

‘epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy’.

‘the knowledge-process … (is) the business of science,

‘philosophy (is) interpretation of … experience rather than (its) analytic description’

‘Analysis belongs to science, and gives us knowledge, while

‘philosophy must provide a synthesis… wisdom.’

The four and a half page extended  introduction expands on these assertions.  “… to seize the value and perspective of passing things, and …pull ourselves up out of the maelstrom of daily circumstance we need to know that …Science is analytical description, ( while) philosophy is synthetic interpretation. The philosopher ‘tries to put together that great universe-watch that science has taken apart”.  The Durants claim that if we break philosophy down like scientists, into– logic: ideal method in thought; esthetics: ideal form; ethics: ideal conduct; Politics: ideal organization; and Metaphysics: ultimate reality, “ it becomes dismembered, loses its beauty and joy. That is found by studying philosophers. We have had the same experiences they had but we did not suck those experiences dry of their secret and subtle meanings. So let us listen, ready to forgive errors, and eager to learn.” So maybe this is a good time to hear the philosophers speak to us through a book that is clear, short, enjoyable, and perhaps can make us a bit more wise.

*The Story of Philosophy, 412 pp, focuses on the West, and excludes Asia. But the first volume of their 12 volume History of Civilization is devoted to Eastern Philosophy and History. Caution: 1150 pp. Both are free PDF on-line. But not without cost: that of mostly shutting down Critter, Glitter, Fritter, and to some extent, email, Siri and Browser. Enjoy!

The End of Power, Book Review

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The End of Power

By Moisés Naím 

From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to be..

By Moisés Naím 

ISBM 978-0-465-06568-4

Perseus Books, 2013

Hardback $35, kindle $9, audio $ 35 ( + tax, & shipping)

Amazon 2015 Editors Pick

This is a book for millennials. It is an extensive and possibly seminal work, not a quick or easy read. There are eleven chapters, each consisting of about ten sections. I found it almost  impossible to summarize, so will start with some observations that may put it in context:

We live in a time of world wide societal upheaval, arguably brought about by critical developments in technology. Similar radical change has occurred in the past, as when:

  1. mobile hunter-gathering was replaced by place-bound agriculture, leading ultimately to cities, tribal warring religions, art, architecture, scientific discovery, and monarchic faith backed nation-states;
  2. The printing  press made information or knowledge,  formerly tediously recorded in  manuscripts and available only to the monastic and wealthy few, available to the many; this lead to many decades of bloody revolution- the Thirty Year War-  culminating in the overthrow of monarchic religious states, and the birth of political and individual religious freedom.
  3. A perfect storm of scientific developments like the chronograph, compass, telescope, and gunpowder, led to the ‘age of discovery’, brutal conquest, and colonial domination.
  4. A philosophic and political Enlightenment  led to the overthrow of colonial power, continuing until after WWII, and including that imposed on the British Colonies in North America. 

Today, here we go again. The limitless internet and its consequences  make accepted barriers obsolete; old lines are breached: national borders, commercial, religious and political fiefdoms  are violated.  The powerful -nations, presidents, governments, CEOs, large multinationals,  all seem weak and ineffective, causing public disillusionment, and anger. Nowhere is the old order respected, or trusted.

What are we,  Millennials who live at the beginning of this century, to do? It appears the most interesting reaction of millennial young people is to try to adapt continuously, like children of miners, diplomats, or warriors who live in alternating realities, and move over and over to into a new town, country, language, and culture.

They learn:

to adapt to new people, groups, languages, cultures,

to be astute and adept at knowing and learning about the Other,

to embrace, value, and respect one another above Self

to consider the earth, and even the universe, as home

to be family to every age, race sex or condition.

They find that:

personal liberty requires constant shedding the old and taking on the new;

nations and peoples have their own beauty, and truth, but all are transient;

each person has the right to accept, or to ignore, any religious belief or unbelief

that ‘scientific certainty’  can be useful, but is as always, suspect and transient

that doubt is the primal force of both science and religion

every age, race, sex, or condition can be both confining and liberating

Author Moisés Naím finds that those who hold power try to retain it by erecting barriers to keep challengers at bay; but now multiform insurgent forces from every remote area of the earth dismantle those barriers quickly. He calls dispersed collective power micropower. Example: personal diverse acts of both terror and commercial or scientific innovation collectively challenge civilizations.

Micropower defeats megapower in warfare because of plentiful and diverse microweapons, and the rejection of more chivalrous “rules of war” (Isis, Jihad). Yet power, once grasped, fades fast; the new power quickly becomes vulnerable and loses that edge. Maybe the process could be thought of as constructive or creative destruction.

Naím catalogs the general changes as three revolutions:

1) More: people have more and more means to overwhelm or evade control.

2) Mobility: people are not controlled by governments, borders, distance.

3) Mentality: even the most remote people are now aware of possibilities, options, needs, desires, rights.

He notes that in chaos we tend to listen to “Terrible Simplifiers”: people who offer vague, bombastic simple solutions to complex problems. He summarizes the decay of national politics (parentheses mine):

Empires to States.

Despots to Democrats.

Majorities to minorities (as the U.S.)

Parties to factions.

Capitals to regions (Pinks, Blues, rural, ranch, city )

Governments to lawyers (unjust courts, straitjacket laws/regs) Leaders to laymen (NGOs, Buffet-Slim- Gates-Bono).

Hedge funds to “hactivists” (Assange, Snowden, etc).

 

Chaos results; maybe the process could be thought of as constructive destruction.

Naím ends with suggestions to reorder the national chaos. This is the most disappointing part of the book for me, because I’d prefer a quick fix; of course. Yet that is, de facto, unlikely. The author’s suggestions are rational, but require great and gradual, likely painful, public re-orientation, and a conscious and conscientious media: No quick fix there either. He suggests:

  1. Forget about who is first or what country is up or down, who we like or fear.
  2. Reject the Terrible Simplifiers. (You know them!)
  3. Restore the power of our institutions (Well,Yeah but…)
  4. Bring back Trust ( Ditto)
  5. Strengthen political parties (?!)
  6. Increase political participation ( but maybe non voters are careless quiet patriots!)

Wow! This book is well worth some time, for at least one rational evaluation of what the next few decades could be about.*

 

In 1952 Sci Fi writer Robert Heinlein wrote a postscript to his series voluminous writing titled Stories Never Written; they were too dark. Reading those comments 62 years later  is sobering considering our in world chaos today.